The Fourth Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s Book, ‘Diverging Paths’

Here is another poem by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at so many times before. This is Poem Four from Diverging Paths. As usual, I’ll be putting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine:

Disillusioned
I face my personal hell, 
I am the illusion, 
Of a man you know well,
 

Time is a distance, 
Scattered betrayers, 
Crucify me, 
With the intrepid 
Definitions of reality, 

You are the only being, 
That I could care less if I see, 
When I realize I am not me, 
But a fool looking to the sky for substance and 
meaning,

And now, for my analysis.

I don’t believe the poet is speaking in his own voice here. Instead, this is a person confronted with his own phoniness. He’s lived with a False Self for much of his life, but at some point he cannot maintain his illusions. His “personal hell” is the realization that he can no longer pretend illusion is reality.

The pain of this realization is a kind of narcissistic injury, so it’s easier to blame his woe on “scattered betrayers” who “crucify” him, rather than take the responsibility for himself. Making his pain into something as grandiose as to be compared with Christ’s Passion, he can try to hold on to some sense of illusory greatness. Try, but not succeed.

The “definitions of reality” are “intrepid” because the truth is that fearless in how it hurts us without remorse. The person to whom he speaks is someone much better; he “could care less” if he sees this person, which is better than not caring less, so this person is of at least some value to him, in his otherwise empty life.

It is the ideals that he looks up to, symbolized by a heaven that supposedly has “substance and meaning,” that are what make up his not being himself. It is the narcissist’s tendency to idealize someone else, and to want to emulate that idealization, that creates the False Self; for the idealization is a false person, too. So the person to whom he addresses his identity crisis is, presumably, that idealized person, who is now not so ideal, hence he “could care less” to see him or her.

This loss of someone to idealize is the essence of his “disillusioned” state, for the idealized other is a face mirroring back one’s own narcissistic, illusory self. Note also the continuous use of commas, especially at the end, suggesting that this is an ongoing, unending pain. For though “time is a distance,” that distance in time from the original injury to one’s ego will never erase the pain entirely.

Analysis of ‘Pierrot Lunaire’

I: Introduction

Pierrot lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot“), or Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire” (“Three times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud‘s ‘Pierrot lunaire‘”), is a 1912 composition by Arnold Schoenberg for “reciter” (actually, a soprano using Sprechstimme) and small instrumental ensemble (flute/piccolo, clarinet in A/clarinet and bass clarinet in B-flat, violin/viola, cello, and piano–the groupings of these vary from one poetic setting to another, and even within individual settings). The text is Otto Erich Hartleben‘s very liberal German translation of twenty-one poems from the cycle of French poems by the Belgian Symbolist Albert Giraud.

Schoenberg was composing in a freely atonal style at this point in his musical career, having come to the conclusion that the traditional major/minor system had been more or less exhausted. He hadn’t yet devised his 12-note system, so he was faced with the challenge of giving his “emancipation of the dissonance” a coherent melodic and harmonic structure.

Luckily for him, building music around “three times seven poems,” each of which consist of three verses of four, four, and five lines (the first two lines being repeated in the last two lines of the second verse, and the first line being repeated at the end of the final verse), meant composing a short structure for each. Added to this, he used traditional musical forms for them, such as canon, fugue, passacaglia, rondo, theme and variations, and free counterpoint.

Though the dissonance of the music and blasphemy of some of the poems surely caused at least some controversy during its early performances, Pierrot lunaire is now considered one of the most important compositions of the 20th century.

Here are links to two recordings of it, one with the score, and a live performance with English subtitles. Here is a link to the text, in German, French, and English…though I–not very happy with the English translation, will mostly use one from the notes to a Deutsche Grammophon recording.

I will be analyzing Schoenberg’s selection of poems as a totality in themselves, not in the context of Giraud’s fifty poems; and I’ll hardly be dealing with these characters in their commedia dell’arte context, either. The composer’s three-times-seven, deliberately numerological selection seems to tell a narrative of its own that I want to focus on.

II: Part One

Moondrunk

The piece begins with a dreamy motif played on the piano and violin pizzicatos in three bars of 2/4 time; the music of this first poem will, for the most part, alternate between 2/4 and 3/4 time. The expressionism of the Sprechstimme adds to this dreaminess since, being halfway between singing and speaking, the soprano’s voice won’t sustain any pitches, but will rather let her voice rise up or drop down in glissandi to give off the effect of high-pitched speaking.

The wine that, with the eyes, one drinks must be white wine, for this liquor is the very moonlight. Pierrot, drunk on the moon he gazes at with “desires terrible and sweet,” is identified with the poet who, “in an ecstasy,” is inspired by her (the cello enters at Dichter). By extension, the tragicomic buffoon Pierrot can be seen as an everyman we all can sympathize with.

Colombine

The music begins in 3/4 time with a high G-sharp dotted half-note sustained on the violin for the first bar, then going down to an E-sharp dotted quarter note, accompanied by piano notes first played cantabile, then staccato, then legato.

In the commedia dell’arte, Columbina is Pierrot’s often unfaithful wife who betrays her foolish cuckold with Harlequin. A columbine is also a flower, rather like “the pallid buds of moonlight/those pale and wondrous roses.” In this we have a three-way identification of Columbina with the flower and with the moon, establishing how Pierrot, the poet, is not only inspired by the moon, but is also in love with her.

His longing would be fulfilled if only he could besprinkle on Columbina’s dark brown hair, “the moonlight’s pallid blossoms.” The besprinkling onto her hair symbolizes the transference of the moon’s divinity onto his wayward wife.

The piano stops for the moment at the words, “Gestillt wär all mein Sehnen” (“all my longings would be satisfied”), leaving the recitation to be accompanied only by the plaintive violin. Flute and clarinet begin playing staccato notes (with a return of the piano, also with staccato notes) at “leis entblättern” (“quietly besprinkle”), musically describing the sprinkling most vividly.

The Dandy

Pierrot is “the taciturn dandy of Bergamo,” who takes “a phantasmagorical light ray” and “bedaubs all his face” with it. This taking-on of the moonlight is his introjection of the moon, an attempt to make her, whom he so loves, one with him. He rejects “the red and the green of the east,” for the white of the moon is his true colour.

I find it safe to assume that, during these first several verses, Pierrot has been contemplating a full moon. This isn’t just Pierrot lunaire, but also Pierrot the lunatic. He is going mad with love–hence the wildly dissonant, expressionistic music of this melodrama. We hear this right from the beginning, with the quick sixteenth notes in the clarinet and piccolo, and in the staccato piano backing.

Laundress Moon

Next, the moon is compared to a laundry maid, her moonlight being “nightly silk garments,” her “snow-white silvery forearms/stretching downward to the flood.” I would say that comparing the moon to a laundress suggests the qualities of a dutiful mother; recall that these poems were written back in the late 19th century, when sex roles were still rigidly defined. I’ll develop the mother theme later.

The music opens with flute, clarinet, violin, and piano, all playing a soft, slow, and languid theme, suggesting the dull drudgery of the work of the laundress.

Valse de Chopin

Though this music, played on the flute, clarinet (later bass clarinet, in the third verse), and piano, is in 3/4 time, it doesn’t sound all that waltz-like (much less anything like Chopin). Indeed, Schoenberg deliberately avoided traditionalist musical clichés or repetitions, and this seems to be the real reason most listeners find his music difficult to appreciate–not so much the harsh dissonance, but the lack of a sense of musical beginning, development, and ending; which isn’t to say his music lacks these structural elements, but that they aren’t presented in the old, familiar, and reassuring ways.

The theme of sickliness is introduced in this poem, “as a lingering drop of blood/stains the lips of a consumptive,/so this music is pervaded by a morbid deathly charm.”

I sense that the moon is waning.

Madonna

The music begins sadly with flute, bass clarinet, and cello pizzicatos. It’s in common time. The piano and violin come in, with harsh chords, only at the end, as the reciter says the final iteration of the words discussed in the following paragraph.

Madone des Hystéries!” translated into German as “Mutter aller Schmerzen” (“Mother of all Sorrows“) introduces Mary as the mater dolorosa, sorrowfully contemplating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. She is to “rise…from the altar of [the poet’s] verses.” She has the wounds described here, though, not her Son’s, blood from her “lean bosom/where the sword of frenzy pierced it.”

Her “ever gaping gashes/are like eyelids, red and open.” Her eyes bleed the pain of seeing her “Son’s holy body.” The poem immediately after this one, “The Ailing Moon,” suggests a connection with this one. Mary as the Queen of Heaven suggests a connection with the Moon Goddess through an association with the pagan Queen of Heaven. Though the ancient pagan Queens of Heaven weren’t generally lunar deities (though this research suggests it could occasionally have been otherwise), the connections between Catholic and pagan, lunar Queens of Heaven are sufficient in a symbolic sense at least.

The fact that there’s an “altar of [the poet’s] verses,” and later, in poem 14, “The Crosses,” we learn that “holy crosses are the verses,” we come to realize that the poet, already identifying with Pierrot, is also identifying with Christ, the Son of the “Mother of all Sorrows,” whom we’ve also identified with the pagan Moon Goddess. Here we find the blasphemous content of these poems.

If the poet/Pierrot/Son of God is in love with the Moon Goddess/Colombina/Mother of all Sorrows, then we have an Oedipal relationship between the two. Colombina is Pierrot’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, rooted in one’s relationship with one’s mother, but later transferred and manifested in relationships with other females, those idealized as religious figures, just as one’s mother was once idealized, in childhood.

The idealizing of one’s parents, along with the notion of the grandiose self, are the two poles of what Heinz Kohut called the bipolar self, the basis for regulating one’s narcissistic tendencies. The poet/Pierrot, by blasphemously identifying with Jesus, is displaying an inflated grandiosity, while narcissistically linking with the most idealized of parents, Mary. If this bipolar configuration breaks down, the poet/Pierrot will be in danger of psychological fragmentation.

…and recall–the moon is waning…

The Ailing Moon

The music begins with a sad flute melody, in 6/4 time, accompanying the reciter. There is no other instrumental accompaniment for this poem’s musical setting. It ends with a ritardando evocative of dying.

As I’ve already said, the moon is “ailing” and “death-awaiting” because she is waning. Pierrot, as her son/lover, is suffering in his own way because she is leaving him, abandoning him. Just as the mater dolorosa suffered to see her Son suffer, Pierrot suffers to see his Mother ailing. The two are symbiotic in their mutual empathy.

She is a mirror reflection of him; she reflects his narcissism. She is white, and Pierrot is white. She’s dying “with unrequited love,” a reflection if his own unrequited love…and a projection of it. He is a lover, “stirred by sharp desire” who “exults in [her] bright play of light,” but she is waning, so the bipolar configuration I described above is breaking down, and Pierrot is coming into a state of mental instability.

And with this breakdown ends Part One.

III: Part Two

Night

The light of the moon is gone.

All is black.

Pierrot has lost his beloved moon, and he’s descending into a state of madness. He, as the poet, is comparing the blackness of night to black moths killing the bright rays of the sun. These moths are “great hordes of monsters” coming down to earth.

The music is in the form of a passacaglia, opening and ending with a dark, brooding motif in the bass, beginning with three notes wth the melodic contour of a rising minor third, then a descending major third, played on the piano (very low register), then accompanied on the cello and bass clarinet in the form of a canon; after these three notes, there is a trail of seven mostly descending chromatic notes (the last being an ascending major 6th). This motif is heard in a number of variations throughout the poetic setting.

As the reciter speaks/sings of “Erinnerung mordend!” (“destroying memory,” that is, causing the fragmentation of the foundation of Pierrot’s sense of mental stability), we hear sul ponticello (am Steg in German) in the cello, a creepy sound that adds to the horror of Pierrot losing his mind.

Those monsters come down “on the hearts and souls of mankind,” a projection of Pierrot’s inner turmoil onto the rest of us; because madness is an intolerable agitation that must be expelled.

Prayer

With the blackness of the new moon opening Part Two, the poet/Pierrot has lost his idealized parental imago, and therefore he must rely on himself for narcissistic mirroring, the grandiose self. He doesn’t have her for a mirror anymore, so the poet must rely on the idealized version of himself, Pierrot, for that mirror.

This idealization of Pierrot, who as I mentioned above has been identified with Christ, the Son of the Queen of Heaven, is now the object of the poet’s prayer, since this idealized self in the metaphorical mirror is also alienated from the self, as Lacan explained. The poet has “unlearnt” his laughter, or hidden it between his teeth, as Giraud’s original text says. With the loss of his beloved moon, the poet, like Hamlet, has lost all his mirth. (Recall that Hamlet, in Freud‘s interpretation, has lost his unconsciously Oedipally-desired mother, Gertrude, to his uncle Claudius, leading to the Danish prince’s possible…if not probable…descent into madness.) The brightness dissolves (“Zerfloß!” as given succinctly in Hartleben’s German translation) in a Shakespearian mirage, according to Giraud’s original text.

The papillons noirs of Night are now the pavillon noir that “files…now from [the poet’s] mast.” He prays that that ideal-i of his mirror reflection, white Pierrot, the Christ-like “healer of spirits,/snowman of lyrics,/monarch of moonshine,” will give him back his mirth, his laughter, changing black back to white.

Throughout, the music has clarinet and piano accompanying the reciter, in common time.

Loot

We hear flute, clarinet, and muted violin and cello, opening in predominantly staccato notes, in common time. We hear a lot of hurried sixteenth and thirty-second notes, suggesting the rush to commit a theft. This poetic setting ends with some soft piano notes in a final bar of 4/4.

Pierrot, in his growing state of mental instability, is taking to crime to vent his frustrations. But what does he want to steal? “Ancient royalty’s red rubies,/bloody drops of antique glory.”

The rubies are symbolic of the blood of Christ, with whom Pierrot narcissistically identifies, for narcissistic identification with something grandiose is an effective defence against fragmentation. He and his criminal gang of partying drinkers would steal this blood, then he’d incorporate it to make himself more at one with Christ. Giraud’s original French uses the word ravir, which is ‘ravish’ in English, and rauben (‘rob,’ also ‘ravish’) in German. This is more than theft: it’s also a blasphemous suggestion of homosexual rape.

He and his friends would try this outrage, but fear stops them, “turns them into statues.” Pierrot still cannot be quite this wicked.

Red Mass

This music opens in 3/4 time with bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano. We hear the first note of the piccolo on the word “Kerzen,” or “candles.” We hear some ascending solo piccolo notes between the first and second verses. On the words, “Die Hand” (“the hand”), we hear loud dissonances on the piano, when Pierrot’s hand is tearing through his priestly clothes.

Pierrot continues with this blasphemous identification with Christ by approaching an altar in priestly vestments, which he tears during this “fearsome grim communion.” He shows the frightened faithful a dripping, bloody Host, identified with his heart, and which is therefore blasphemously in turn identified with the Sacred Heart.

Song of the Gallows

Continuing in his wickedness and madness, all the result of the disappearance of the moon, his mother/lover, Pierrot replaces her temporarily with “the haggard harlot.” Though he’d imagine this girl to be “his ultimate paramour,” the hastily sped-through music (sehr rasch), played on piccolo, viola, and cello in 2/4 time, suggests she’s only a passing phase for him.

The thin girl, with her long neck and pigtail being like a rope, would make his mating with her seem like him hanging himself, his sinful indulgence with her an act of self-destruction. For she, as his whore, is the opposite of his saintly moon, his life-giver.

Decapitation

The moon is waxing.

In the horned shape of a quarter moon, she is “a polished scimitar,” or a short sword with a curved blade. With all of the wicked things Pierrot has done in her absence, he is feeling guilt and fear. He has blasphemously tried to identify with Christ, and he has been unfaithful to her by fornicating with the skinny harlot. Now he feels he must be punished for his sins by feeling the “hissing vengeful steel upon his neck.”

We hear bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano playing tense, dissonant music in common time to express his inner turmoil. After the recitation of the poem, we hear a soft postlude with a bar of 3/4, then in 6/4, played on the flute, bass clarinet, viola, and cello. In the midst of this postlude, we hear a bar of 3/4 with viola pizzicatos, then a return to 6/4 time with the viola returning to arco playing, and sul ponticello on the viola and cello.

The Crosses

The music begins with the piano accompanying the reciter. After the first verse, there’s a bar of quick solo piano playing, with sixteenth and thirty-second notes, a crescendo, and trills. The flute, clarinet, violin, and cello all come in at the end of the second verse. The third verse opens with soft music, but it gets loud and tense with the final repetition of “Heilige Kreuze sind die Verse!” (“Holy Crosses are the verses!”), after which a soft, brief flurry of flute notes is heard, and finally, loud, dissonant chords on the piano, accompanied by trills on the flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.

Just as Pierrot identifies with Christ, so does the poet, having already identified with Pierrot. Just as the narcissist identifies with grandiose ideals, so does he like to see in himself a pitiful victim. Seeing oneself as Christ on the Cross is perfect for both purposes.

He “bleed[s] in silence” with similar articulate martyrs. “On their bodies swords have feasted,” reminding one of the spear in Christ’s side (John 19:34). Pierrot’s crucifixion-like suffering would thus provoke the lamentations of the Mother of all Sorrows, identified here with the waxing moon, which will appear after the sinking “sun’s red splendour.”

With this ends Part Two, and the moon is back.

IV: Part Three

Nostalgia

This one opens in 4/4 with a bright, arpeggiated piano chord, accompanied by a violin pizzicato note. The violin then switches to arco, and the clarinet comes in with staccato sixteenth-notes. The music has a soft, plaintive sound. After the second verse, we hear the clarinet, violin, and piano playing belebend (“invigorating”) music that gets loud, with trills in the piano right hand.

The third verse includes time changes to a bar of 3/4, then a bar of 2/4, then 4/4, as Pierrot forgets his old, tragic ways. The final repeat of “Lieblich klagend–ein krystallnes Seufzen!” (“Like a plaintive sigh of crystal”) is played very softly, then there’s a very fast cello part, accompanied by trills and tremolos in the clarinet, piccolo, and piano.

“Pierrot is now…sickly sentimental,” remembering his old days performing in the Italian commedia dell’arte. But now that he has his moonlight back, “the pallid fires of lunar landscape,” and “the foaming light-flood [that] mounts his longing,” he “abjures the tragic manner.” Remembering the good old days, and having his moon-lover back, Pierrot is happy again.

Atrocity

The music begins in ziemlich rasch (“quite fast”) 3/4 time, with violin pizzicatos of two and three notes at a time, the cello playing mostly sixteenth notes, and a piano chordal backing. The now-softer piano slows down at “mit Heuchlermienen” (“with hypocritical expressions”), the violin and cello no longer playing for the moment. Piccolo and clarinet come in, with the violin and cello returning, at “einen Schädelbohrer” (“a skull-drill”); the flurry of notes heard suggests the shock and surprise of hearing such a word.

At the end of the second verse, we hear a piercingly shrill note on the piccolo, like a scream in response to the tobacco shoved in the hole of the skull of Cassander, “whose screams pierce the air.” Next, a descending pair of notes from the clarinet, and a return of the tense opening violin and cello playing brings in the third verse. The music ends, Pierrot tapping ashes from the bald pate of Cassander, with five more piercingly high notes on the piccolo, a kind of pipe, if you will, suggesting the puffing of Pierrot’s ‘pipe.’

Cassander is the father of Colombina, Pierrot’s ever-unfaithful wife. Pierrot is also Cassander’s servant. Since I’ve identified her with the moon, and the moon in turn with Mary, mother to Pierrot’s Jesus, I have described his love for her as Oedipal.

Cassander, as Colombina’s father and Pierrot’s master, can also be seen as a transference of Pierrot’s Oedipally-hated father. Such a relationship would explain Pierrot’s comically violent and irreverent behaviour with regards to Cassander.

Here, Pierrot drills a hole in Cassander’s bald pate, then stuffs tobacco in the hole. Next, he sticks a pipe in and smokes the tobacco.

Pierrot may have the moon back, but the trauma he has suffered from her absence–however temporary it may have been–still lingers in his mind. The Oedipal loss of a boy’s mother to his father is best understood as a narcissistic trauma. The nom…or Non! du père forces a child out of his dyadic, one-on-one, mirror-like relationship with his mother and into a relationship with a society of many others.

Pierrot doesn’t want this forced change, so in his narcissistic fantasies, he plays out a farcical, commedia dell’arte-like skit of himself as disrespectful to this father-figure in Cassander as a kind of ‘screw you’ to him.

Parody

The music opens with clarinet, viola, and piano in 4/8 time. The piccolo comes in, with chromatic descending thirty-second notes, at the end of the first verse, with its reference to a red dress. The time changes to a bar of 7/8 at “sie liebt Pierrot mit Schmerzen” (“she loves Pierrot with aching pain,” which the Sprechstimme of the reciter delivers with melodramatic ornament), then goes back to 4/8 time. It’s as if the one bar of 7/8 is meant to give a sense of the awkward irregularity of her misplaced love. Some solo dissonant piano is heard for a few bars before the repeat of the first two lines, about knitting, when the other instruments come back with the reciter.

The music shifts from the louder, jaunty opening music and goes into a softer ritardando between the second and third verses. At this point, the Duenna can hear, in a sharp whistle in the breeze, the Moon-goddess tittering. The music speeds up and gets louder again (in the piano), as we find the Moon doing a parody of the Duenna’s knitting and desiring of Pierrot.

The knitting Duenna, in a red dress as stated above, “loves Pierrot with great passion.” Note how Duenna (used in the German translation, which being what Schoenberg set his music to, is our main concern with regard to interpretation) is practically a pun on Dirne (“harlot”) from “Song of the Gallows,” the skinny girl Pierrot has had a sexual encounter with. The Duenna can thus be seen as a double of the Dirne.

The Moon-goddess–having every confidence that she is the one whom Pierrot wants, and not the Duenna (he only had the Dirne because the Moon-goddess momentarily wasn’t there to satisfy him)–laughs at and mocks the Duenna in her knitting and hoping to have Pierrot.

A brief, dissonant segue on the piano in 3/4 time, ending with a thrice-stated motif of three notes with descending major seconds and ascending fourths (C-sharp, B-natural, E-natural; B-flat, A-flat, D-natural; and A-flat, G-flat, C-natural) in the left hand bass, leads us to the next poetic setting.

The Moon-fleck

The Moon-goddess wants Pierrot’s attention, so she shines a fleck of moonlight “on the shoulder of his black silk frock-coat,” as he strolls about at night (with a jaunty clarinet melody), looking for adventure. Normally, he wears white: why is he in black?

Could he still be feeling guilt over his actions in his Moon-lover’s absence? His search for adventure suggests a longing to sin again, while the Moon-goddess is trying to bring him back to her by putting white on his black, to remind him of his natural whiteness, a mirror of her own.

Instead of enjoying the sight of her presence on him, Pierrot sees “something wrong with his appearance.” Imagining it’s plaster, the fool tries…and fails…to rub the white off. This occurs when we hear a nervous violin part playing sixteenth and thirty-second notes as a tone painting of his nervous rubbing.

The music becomes palindromic in the piccolo, clarinet, violin, and cello parts; we hear a crab canon, in which the canon is reversed, right at the middle of the second verse (“…und findet richtig,” “and finds”), when Pierrot turns back to look at the moon-fleck. The music reverses right at his looking back, another example of Schoenberg’s tone painting. The reverse happens right at the repeat of the opening two lines.

This fleck of moonlight on him symbolizes her as his mother/lover, an internal object he has introjected. Though he feels Oedipal love for her, this kind of love is actually part of a love/hate relationship that is inevitable for a son or daughter to have for his or her parents. By troubling him thus with a guilt-inducing reminder of the allegiance he owes her, he is frustrated with her, seeing her as what Melanie Klein called the bad mother. Pierrot’s rubbing at the moon-fleck thus represents a wish to project and expel unwanted influence from his mother/lover object.

Serenade

Pierrot is scraping away discordantly on a viola, plucking a pizzicato or two…though Schoenberg oddly doesn’t score this poetic setting for viola, instead for cello and piano (his perverse sense of humour, I’m guessing). We hear the dissonant fiddle playing at the beginning, including pizzicatos, but they’re done in the high register of the cello. Even at the end, with a happy postlude for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano segueing into “Journey Home,” there is no viola part, as there are in some of the other poetic settings.

Cassander is furious (“wütend“) to hear the noise that this nighttime “Virtuosen” (note the sarcasm) is making. In another ‘screw you’ act of defiance to his master/father-figure transference, Pierrot tosses aside the viola, takes Cassander by the neck, and plays him like a newly-found fiddle.

Journey Home

This poetic setting is a barcarolle, naturally, because the poem narrates Pierrot on a boat going home. It’s in 6/8 time, typical of barcarolles. The music begins with the flute continuing from the postlude of Serenade. Soft pizzicatos are heard in the cello and violin, then the clarinet and piano softly play. These instruments, especially the piano’s ascending and descending arpeggios, play with a wavelike rhythm, suggestive of Pierrot’s oar pushing through the water.

Reunited with the Moon-goddess, whose “moonbeam is the oar” to guide him through the water on his waterlily boat, Pierrot, having satisfied his urge to spite Cassander, can now sail home contented.

He is the “snowy king” (“le neigeux roi,” in Giraud’s original), as white as his mother/lover, and no longer clad in black to reflect his guilty pleasures of before, in her absence. He is at peace as he sails in the approaching dawn.

O Ancient Scent

The soft piano and Sprechstimme open this final poetic setting (with the clarinet in the third bar playing three soft notes) with near triadic, almost tonal melody and harmony, suggestive of the sense of emotional resolution Pierrot is finally feeling. The clarinet returns and, later, the flute comes in at “Sinne” (“senses”) at the end of the second line. Violin and cello come in a few bars later.

The flute switches to piccolo in the middle of the third verse. At the end, we hear that ‘near-triadic’ harmony in the violin and cello, playing thirds. The whole piece ends shortly after, softly and at peace.

Again, Pierrot is nostalgic of old times, wishing to smell old fragrances again. With “desire finally gratified,” his…and the poet’s…”melancholy is dispelled.” He would seem to be happy with his beloved moon back, but…what of her next waning?

V: Conclusion

Schoenberg had a superstitious fondness for numerology, hence his grouping of these melodramas in three parts of seven poems each. Both numbers have a sense of completeness, of finality. Three gives us beginning, middle, and end, quite appealing to a classical musician trained to compose music with a ternary structure of A-B-A (statement, departure, and return).

We see this statement, departure, and return in the form of the moon that wanes, is temporarily absent, and waxes again, returning. Also, seven is a number of completeness in the sense that it suggests the seven Biblical days of creation. The final poem–the third seven–gives a sense of rest similar to God’s resting on the seventh day.

As we know from the Biblical story, though, right after God’s rest, the first man and woman find themselves succumbing to temptation and bringing about the Fall. I suspect that, after Pierrot’s restful moment, remembering old fragrances, he’ll be up to some more narcissistic naughtiness as soon as the moon wanes again. After all, some consider the narcissist to be something of a performing clown.

Analysis of ‘Network’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane is a 1941 film produced and directed by Orson Welles, and written by him and Herman J. Mankiewicz. It stars Welles in the title role, or Charles Foster Kane, with Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, and Agnes Moorehead.

It is regarded as not only one of the greatest films of all time, but by many as the greatest film of all time, with its distinctive cinematography, makeup, and narrative style being seen as way ahead of their time. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus and camera angles going upward to include ceilings in shots, even cutting into the floor to achieve such unusual angles. Makeup realistically conveyed aging in Kane and other characters shown over a span of decades; and the non-linear narrative showed Kane’s life in flashbacks, from multiple points of view.

Such tropes as a reporter seeking to uncover a mystery (in this case, the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”), and the retelling of the past from multiple points of view, have influenced such films as Velvet Goldmine. And like the mysterious pop star in that movie, Kane is a wealthy, powerful, and narcissistic man loved by many…and hated by many more.

While based mainly on right-wing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a composite character based also on left-leaning newspaper man Joseph Pulitzer, and businessmen Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick, whose second wife, Ganna Walska, was a failed opera singer, like Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Comingore). Since Hearst knew the movie would portray him in an unflattering light (How else would one portray a Nazi sympathizer who published such blatant falsehoods as the “Holodomor” in his newspapers?), he tried to stop the film from being made.

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

The film begins, significantly, with a shot of a sign saying “No Trespassing” (as will be the ending shot). Next, we see a shot of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, up high on a mountain in the background. The point of this beginning is to emphasize his ownership of private property, that he is a wealthy capitalist.

We see Kane in his last moments, with a closeup of his mouth as he whispers, “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe; then he dies, and we see an approaching nurse in the curved reflection of part of the shattered snow globe. To get close to Kane–something no one’s ever really done, not even his wives–is to know him, to know the connection between “Rosebud” and the winter scene of the snow globe: the sled of his childhood. The sight of the nurse in the snow globe’s reflection is symbolic of Kane’s narcissistic attitude towards other people–they are a mere reflection of himself, not independent entities unto themselves.

The narrative introduction to him and to his death is presented in an appropriate way: he was a newspaper man, so one should present his death in the form of newsreels and front-page articles. On the one hand, Kane–like Hearst–was a purveyor of sensationalistic yellow journalism; on the other hand, people today have an especial distrust of the mainstream media (90% of the American part of which is owned by six corporations, and which is internationally networked to serve the interests of the global capitalist class). These two considerations show that we should regard this media presentation of Kane’s death as a form of theatre, as artificial, as lies mixed in with truth.

For indeed, Kane’s whole life has been a cleverly sculptured lie. And since Kane is the personification of the mass media, this means that the film is, in large part, about media dishonesty. As Kane tells a reporter, “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.” Aptly ironic words from a producer of yellow journalism who then tells the reporter to read his newspaper instead.

Just as his life has been a lie, so is Xanadu. The film makes explicit the name of the mansion as a reference to Coleridge‘s “Kubla Khan” by quoting its first two lines in the newsreel. Kubla Kane, if you will, decreed a stately pleasure dome in Florida, his failed attempt at building paradise on earth, a huge mansion on a tall mountain reaching into the sky, suggestive of Babel.

He collected two of every animal on the earth to put in a zoo in Xanadu, suggestive of Noah’s ark, a symbolic attempt to bring man back from the sinful world and into Eden, part of his failed attempt at regaining paradise. Such extravagance reminds one of Michael Jackson’s animal collections, an eccentricity only the rich can afford.

Kane’s whole life has been an attempt to regain the paradise he lost as a child, that of parental love. No animals, statues, or mansion can replace such a loss, though. He has no one, nothing to look up to.

“Rosebud,” printed on his childhood sled, is an interesting choice of words. The sled glides on snow, whose coldness is suggestive of death and alienation, whereas the rosebud is suggestive of life and the warmth of human company. Therefore, a rosebud on top of death’s coldness is symbolic of his wish to maintain life and love over death and alienation, the carefree life of childhood over the dead conformity of adulthood.

In the scene of his childhood home in Colorado, young Charles is outside with his sled and throwing snowballs. Inside his home are his mother (Moorehead), his father, and Walter Parks Thatcher (Coulouris), who are discussing how the boy will inherit a huge fortune when he reaches twenty-five years of age; but he must immediately leave his parents to be taken care of by Thatcher until he comes of age and receives the money.

A good example of the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane is this scene, in which Mr. Kane is arguing with Mrs. Kane and Thatcher over the boy’s fate. All four characters, nearer and farther away on the screen, are equally in focus, suggesting what should be their equal importance. Since, however, the mining deed leading to the boy’s future fortune is in his mother’s name, the decision to give him over to Thatcher’s guardianship is hers alone, raising her importance over that of the others.

Accordingly, she and Thatcher are in the foreground in the shot, while Mr. Kane–whose wish to continue raising his son is being disregarded–is further back in the shot, and young Charles is the farthest back, behind the window and out in the snow, the one whose future and fate are being decided without his consent, the one whose emotional needs are not only being disregarded…they aren’t even being contemplated.

His well-meaning mother wants to ensure he’s financially as well-off as possible, but she’s oblivious to his emotional needs: to have the love of his mother and father at hand as he grows up. She has given no thought at all to the psychological scars she will be causing him through this unwitting emotional neglect.

Money can’t buy you love: that’s what Citizen Kane is all about.

According to Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self, healthy psychological structure is established through two poles: one of narcissistic mirroring (the grandiose self), and one of an idealized parental imago. When one pole is compromised or frustrated, the other can compensate; when both poles are compromised or frustrated, the person in question is in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which the defence of pathological narcissism may be erected. Young Charles, wrested away from his parents and thus with neither a mirror for his grandiosity nor a parental role model to idealize, will resort to narcissism to keep from falling apart…until even his own narcissism won’t save him at the end of the film.

Added to these problems is his unresolved Oedipal conflict. (This being a 1941 film, when Freudian ideas were still in vogue, it is not out of place to analyze it with those ideas.) He asks his mother if she’ll leave Colorado with him, which of course she won’t. Since having him cared for by Thatcher is her idea, this is tantamount to little Charles’s being betrayed by the object of his Oedipal desire.

His father acquiesces to the situation, and when he speaks of little Charles’s leaving with Thatcher, he tries to put on a happy face, telling the boy that he’ll be rich. Mr. Kane’s giving in to Mrs. Kane’s and Thatcher’s wishes, therefore, is another betrayal to the boy. The result is that his parents have become what Melanie Klein called the bad mother and bad father, frustrating little Charles instead of giving what he wants and needs, as the good mother and father would do.

This parental betrayal, as the boy would see it, results in splitting, which when projected out into the world, would in turn result in a perception of the world as all good or all bad…Xanadu, or Thatcher. And because Thatcher is Charles’s new guardian, and will remain so until he reaches age twenty-five and can claim his fortune, Thatcher is receiving a transference of growing Kane’s Oedipal hostility to the bad father.

Young Kane goes to study in a number of prestigious universities, where he meets Jedediah Leland (Cotten), and where he’s expelled from each of them, presumably to spite Thatcher, and because his pathological narcissism is way out of control. Again, to spite Thatcher (with the utmost success), Kane goes into the newspaper business.

He takes over the floundering Inquirer, and resorts to yellow journalism to hurt the business interests of rich landlords and businessmen like Thatcher, again to spite him. Kane rationalizes his newspaper’s dubious reporting by claiming he’s defending the interests of the common working man against bloodsuckers like Thatcher…but we shouldn’t forget that Kane, as a capitalist, and a particularly narcissistic one at that, is no better. His attacks on Thatcher and his ilk are just that: part of his personal vendetta against the symbolic bad father who took Kane away from his good father and mother. Recall that the Oedipus complex is a narcissistic trauma, a wish to hog Mommy and Daddy all to oneself; yet Kane has had them snatched away from him by nothing less than the capitalist system itself.

At a party, Kane puts on a show with pretty young women dancers and a man singing all about how great Kane is. It’s his grandiosity all put on display, a presentation of his grandeur that’s as phoney as that of his “singer” second wife, Susan Kane, née Alexander (Comingmore), on whom he’ll later project that grandiosity.

Now as with any narcissist, this grandiosity of Kane’s is really just a front to disguise how empty he feels inside. His outer grandiosity and vanity have a dialectical relationship with his inner self-hate. As Kane is seen dancing like a ladies’ man with the girls, Leland and Bernstein (Sloane)–Kane’s business associates–are discussing him, among other things.

In another example of the effectiveness of deep focus to bring about symbolism, all three men are in the shot, equally focused on to represent what should be their equal worth; but Leland and Bernstein are in the foreground, and Kane is seen further back, in the window reflection with the dancing girls…just like the shot of him as a boy out in the snow while Mr. and Mrs. Kane discuss his fate with Thatcher. His narcissism is derived from the lack of empathy and love he got from his parents, who discussed him without involving him. The shot of Leland and Bernstein, discussing Kane without including him, symbolizes this ongoing reality of Kane’s object relations.

Other examples of scenes whose visual effects symbolize Kane’s grandiosity–as a disguise for how small he feels inside–include the shot of an aging Kane giving Thatcher financial control over his paper: Kane walks away from the camera towards windows that, at first, don’t seem large, but when he reaches them, we see they’re much larger…making Kane much smaller than he seems.

Another example is in Xanadu, by a fireplace, where he is arguing with Susan; he walks away from her and towards the fireplace which, by the time he reaches it, is seen as much larger than we thought. Yet another example is when Kane is typing and finishing Leland’s negative review of one of Susan’s performances: Kane seems huge in the foreground, but when Leland approaches, he isn’t comparatively all that big anymore.

Other examples of how the clever camerawork reinforces symbolic meaning include the upward angles, symbolizing Kane’s urge to find an ideal to look up to, someone or something to replace Kane’s long-lost idealized parental imago, or to gratify his narcissism by having us look up to him. One shot, looking up at Thatcher during Christmas when Kane is a boy, represents the idealized parental imago as spoiled, ruined, turned into the banker as the symbolic bad father substitute.

Elsewhere, Xanadu, that castle up on a mountain, is the ideal transferred onto a place, a new Eden linking Kane–or so he’d have it–to God the Father. The mirror reflections–of the nurse in the broken snow globe, Kane in the window reflection while Leland and Bernstein are chatting, and old Kane walking past a multiple mirror reflection–all symbolize his need to have his grandiosity mirrored back to him, to have others mirror empathy back to him…because he sees his worth only in terms of such mirroring.

The deterioration of his first marriage, to Emily Norton (played by Ruth Warrick), niece of the American president, is given expression through clever cinematography. First, the newlyweds are shown together at a table at breakfast and very much in love…or so it would seem. Kane, in serving her breakfast and carrying on about how beautiful she is and how much he’s in love with her, is just demonstrating the first phase of the idealize, devalue, and discard cycle of narcissistically abusive relationships.

The scene switches quickly over the years, showing the changing relationship of Kane and Emily at the table, with her complaining of his constant preoccupation with his newspaper and emotional neglect of her. He’s going into the devalue phase of the relationship. They’re filmed separately now, rather than together in the same shot.

Next, he speaks derisively of her uncle, to which she reminds her husband that her uncle is the president. Kane imagines this “mistake” will be “corrected one of these days.” On another occasion, he speaks of making people think “what [he] tell[s] them to think.” His mask of modesty is slipping; his narcissism is showing.

Finally, through a shot of the two sitting at the ends of their table, we see how estranged they’ve become towards each other. In fact, instead of talking, they’re reading newspapers: his, the Inquirer, and hers, the Chronicle.

The discard stage comes around the time when Kane hopes to be elected governor of the state of New York. He has been having an affair with Susan Alexander, and boss Jim Gettys, fearful of losing to Kane and being made vulnerable to charges of corruption from Kane, blackmails him with the threat of exposing his adultery if he doesn’t back out of the race.

Kane’s campaign as a “fighting liberal” and advocate for the common working man, as against corrupt Gettys, is more fakery on Kane’s part. His public image as a “friend of the working man” is an example of his narcissistic False Self; he, the future “landlord” of Xanadu, is as much a rapacious member of the ruling class as Gettys is. Kane’s campaign occurs fairly near the time that he, in Europe, has hobnobbed with Hitler and Franco. His later denunciations of them mean nothing: a true friend of the working man would never be friendly with fascists. Here’s an example of Kane as representing Hearst.

Thatcher, in his animus towards Kane, calls him a “communist” (as many right-wingers do to anyone who is even one or two millimetres to the left of them), in spite of how fake his sympathies with the working man are. Actual labour organizers denounce Kane as a “fascist.” Yet Kane, in his false modesty, just considers himself an American–hence the ironic title of the film.

In his associating with fascists, then denouncing them (only for the sake of his public image, of course), Kane is really just showing himself as a typical example of the shady liberal, who bends to the left or right depending on which way the political wind happens to be blowing at the time. Comparable examples include LBJ and his war on poverty, along with his escalation of the Vietnam War on the mendacious Gulf of Tonkin incident. Elsewhere, there’s when Obama spoke of wanting to “spread the wealth around” while on the campaign trail; then when president, he bailed out the banks, and helped with the coup d’état that kicked out pro-Russia Yanukovych from Ukraine and replaced him with a pro-Western government and paramilitary units with neo-Nazis!

To go back to his beginning relationship with Susan, Kane meets her when a coach has splashed mud all over his suit, and she laughs at him, causing him a narcissistic injury he keeps well under control, but lets out just enough to ask her why she’s laughing. She doesn’t know he’s a big newspaper tycoon, and she’s encountered him in a vulnerable state, like a mother with her little boy.

In her apartment, he likes how she, not knowing who he is, likes him just for himself; so he opens up to her, as a little boy might divulge his vulnerabilities to his mother. Kane speaks of meaning to head over to a warehouse holding old possessions of his from his childhood (which, by the way, include his “Rosebud” sled); he also mentions the death of his mother years ago. This divulging of his personal life to a pretty young woman he hardly knows, to a woman who charms him with her giggles and her toothache, is because of a transference of his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Susan. In her, Kane has found a new ideal…

His forced defeat to Gettys (on whom, speaking of transferences, he’s shifted his hate of Thatcher), as well as the loss of his financial control over his newspaper businesses to Thatcher because of the Depression, means the pole of Kane’s grandiose self has taken a beating. As I said above about the bipolar self, though, Kane has the other pole, that of idealization, to compensate for his loss of narcissistic grandiosity.

…and this is where Susan, the would-be opera star, comes in.

Kane divorces Emily and marries Susan, planning to make her a great opera star; but in all of this, he’s just making her into an extension of himself (just as the narcissist has made “the working man” an extension of himself, people whom he’d gift with benefits, rather than people with rights they should have always had). Significantly, he says “we” will be an opera star, rather than she will be one. He thinks he owns her, just as (as Leland has observed) he thinks he owns the working man.

The particular problem here is, apart from Susan’s not really wanting to sing opera, that she simply isn’t talented enough. Still, Kane is fixated on making her a great opera singer, a fixation that begins when, on their first meeting, she mentions her mother having wanted her to sing opera; recall that here he’s just spoken of his mother’s death to her, too, and so this fixation is another of those elements that connects Susan to his Oedipal feelings for his long-lost mother, his original ideal.

Still, Susan can’t sing. Her singing teacher is frustrated with her inadequate voice to the point of throwing comical temper tantrums. She is especially incapable of the dramatic aspect of opera, for which Leland’s blunt review gets him fired by Kane. She cannot be his ideal…yet he won’t let her not be his ideal. As with Kane’s public persona and his newspaper, her ‘virtuosity’ is a lie.

Her suicide attempt forces Kane to accept her giving up on her singing. Their relationship continues to deteriorate after that. Her only way of passing the time half-way pleasurably is to do jigsaw puzzles, one of the first of which we see, significantly, is of a winter scene. Elsewhere, there’s the snow globe, which he first sees when he meets Susan.

When Jerry Thompson (played by William Alland), the reporter assigned to investigate the meaning of “Rosebud,” discusses at the film’s end how he’s never discovered that meaning (he himself is usually shrouded in shadows, implying that he’s the personification of Rosebud’s never-answered mystery), he speaks of Kane’s last word as a missing puzzle piece. Susan, the winter scene puzzle, the snow globe, the sled, and Kane’s mother back in snowy Colorado–they’re all interconnected.

When Susan finally leaves Kane, he falls apart because–having already lost the pole of grandiosity–he’s now lost the other pole, the compensating one of ideals. He, lacking psychological structure, fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle taken apart. By trashing the bedroom, he is trying to project outwards the tearing-apart of his inner world.

Kane’s loss of Susan, the ideal on whom he transferred his Oedipal feelings for his original ideal, his mother, has led him to contemplate the snow globe, whose winter scene and house remind him of his original Xanadu, his childhood home in Colorado, where he had the love of his parents, especially his mother. Losing Susan feels like losing Mother all over again; her leaving him is like Mother’s betraying signature on the dotted line and sending him away with Thatcher.

I’m guessing his mother bought him the sled. Even if not so, “Rosebud” symbolizes Kane’s objet petit a, what he chased for all his life–in the forms of the Inquirer, Emily, governor of New York, Xanadu, animals, statues, and Susan–but never got…his mother’s love.

‘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.