Analysis of ‘Withnail and I’

Withnail and I is a 1987 British buddy film written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical novel, based in turn on his experiences as an actor during such incidents as the filming of Franco Zeffirelli‘s Romeo and Juliet. It stars Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths. It also features Ralph Brown and Michael Elphick.

The film had George Harrison as executive producer through his company, HandMade Films. It has become a cult classic. Withnail (Grant) “and I” (McGann–actually, the character’s name is Marwood as indicated in the script, as well as discovered, by a watchful eye, written on the cover of a telegram, though we’d never know, since he’s never referred to by name anywhere in the film) are two struggling young actors who, after an intense experience of being stoned and drunk over a period of several days and nights, decide to spend a weekend in the country to rejuvenate…only to stumble into other problems.

Here are some quotes:

Withnail[reading from the paper] “In a world exclusive interview, 33-year-old shotputter Geoff Woade, who weighs 317 pounds, admitted taking massive doses of anabolic steroids, drugs banned in sport. ‘He used to get in bad tempers and act up,’ said his wife. ‘He used to pick on me. But now he’s stopped, he’s much better in our sex life and in our general life.'” Jesus Christ, this huge, thatched head with its earlobes and cannonball is now considered sane. “Geoff Woade is feeling better and is now prepared to step back into society and start tossing his orb about.” Look at him. Look at Geoff Woade. His head must weigh fifty pounds on its own. Imagine the size of his balls. Imagine getting into a fight with the fucker!
Marwood: Please, I don’t feel good.
Withnail: That’s what you’d say, but that wouldn’t wash with Geoff. No, he’d like a bit of pleading. Add spice to it. In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. “I’m going to pull your head off.” “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off.” “I’m going to pull your head off, because I don’t like your head.”

“I demand to have some booze!” –Withnail

“Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I’m inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own futures.” –Marwood, voiceover

“Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing. Then all at once those frozen hours melt out through the nervous system and seep out the pores.” –Marwood, voiceover

“Danny’s here. Headhunter to his friends. Headhunter to everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. The only people he converses with are his clients, and occasionally the police. The purveyor of rare herbs and proscribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?” –Marwood, voiceover

“You’re looking very beautiful, man. Have you been away? Saint Peter preached the epistles to the apostles looking like that.” –Danny, to Marwood, who has come out of the bathroom wearing a towel

“I don’t advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.” –Danny

“Ponce!” –Irishman in pub, to Marwood (because he has perfume-smelling boots)

“I could hardly piss straight with fear. Here was a man with 3/4 of an inch of brain who’d taken a dislike to me. What had I done to offend him? I don’t consciously offend big men like this. And this one has a definite imbalance of hormone in him. Get any more masculine than him and you’d have to live up a tree.” –Marwood, voiceover

“‘I fuck arses’? Who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses! Maybe he’s written this in some moment of drunken sincerity! I’m in considerable danger here, I must get out of here at once.” –Marwood

“Oh! you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is a certain je ne sais quoi – oh, so very special – about a firm, young carrot…Excuse me…” –Uncle Monty

“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.'” –Uncle Monty

[They drive past some schoolgirls] Withnail: [leaning out the car window] SCRUBBERS!
Schoolgirl: Up yours, grandad!
Withnail: SCRUBBERS! SCRUBBERS!
Marwood: Shut up.
Withnail: Little tarts, they love it.

“I been watching you, especially you, prancing like a tit. You want working on, boy!” –Jake the Poacher

[Withnail and Marwood are lying in bed together, listening to a man coming inside the cottage. Withnail is cowering under the covers] Withnail: [whispering] He’s going into your room. It’s you he wants. Offer him yourself. [the bedroom door slowly opens and the intruder enters with a torchscrewing his eyes shut in terror, moaning] We mean no harm!
Monty: Oh, my boys, my boys, forgive me.
Marwood: [relieved] Monty! Monty, Monty!
Withnail: MONTY, YOU TERRIBLE CUNT!
Monty: Forgive me, it was inconsiderate of me not to have telegrammed.
Withnail: WHAT ARE YOU DOING PROWLING AROUND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUCKING NIGHT?

“The older order changeth, yielding place to new. God fulfils himself in many ways. And soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumour. Oh, my boys, my boys, we’re at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour. And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” –Uncle Monty

Monty: Now, which of you is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?
Withnail: [getting up] I will.
Marwood: [getting up at the same time] No, I’d better go. I want to see about digging the car out anyway.
Monty: But we have my car, dear boy.
Marwood: Yes, but if it rains, we’re buggered. [realises he’s used the wrong word] I mean…
Monty: Stranded!

“I can never touch meat until it’s cooked. As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.” –Uncle Monty

“If you think you’re going to have a weekend’s indulgence up here at his expense, which means him having a weekend’s indulgence up here at my expense, you got another thing coming.” –Marwood, to Withnail, about Uncle Monty

“I think you’ve been punished enough. I think we’d better release you from the légumes and transfer your talents to the meat.” –Uncle Monty, after having amorously put his hand on Marwood’s arm as he peels vegetables

Monty: Laisse-moi, respirer, longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux. Oh, Baudelaire. Brings back such memories of Oxford. Oh, Oxford…
Marwood: [voiceover] Followed by yet another anecdote about his sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap called Norman who had red hair and a book of poetry stained with the butter drips from crumpets.

Monty: There can be no true beauty without decay.
Withnail: Legium pro Britannia.
Monty: How right you are, how right you are. We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.

Monty: You mustn’t blame him. You mustn’t blame yourself. I know how you feel and how difficult it is. And that’s why you mustn’t hold back, let it ruin your youth as I nearly did over Eric. It’s like a tide. Give in to it, boy. Go with it. It’s society’s crime, not ours.
Marwood: I’m not homosexual, Monty.
Monty: Yes, you are! Of course you are! You’re simply blackmailing your emotions to avoid the realities of your relationship with him.
Marwood: What are you talking about?
Monty: You love him. And it isn’t his fault he cannot love you any more than it’s mine that I adore you.

“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!” –Uncle Monty, to Marwood

Marwood: I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering. And I’ve come in here with the express intention of wishing one on you! Having said that, I now intend to leave for London.
Withnail: Hold on, don’t let your imagination run away with you…
Marwood: Imagination! I have just finished fighting a naked man! How dare you tell him I’m a toilet trader?!
Withnail: Tactical necessity. If I hadn’t told him you were active we’d never have got the cottage.

Danny: The joint I’m about to roll requires a craftsman. It can utilise up to 12 skins. It is called a Camberwell Carrot.
Marwood: It’s impossible to use 12 papers on one joint.
Danny: It’s impossible to make a Camberwell Carrot with anything less.
Withnail: Who says it’s a Camberwell Carrot?
Danny: I do. I invented it in Camberwell, and it looks like a carrot.

“London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees.” –Danny

“I’m getting the FEAR!” –Marwood, while high

“You have done something to your brain. You have made it high. If I lay 10 mils of diazepam on you, it will do something else to your brain. You will make it low. Why trust one drug and not the other? That’s politics, innit?” –Danny, to Marwood

“If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision — let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” –Danny

“I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth… and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air — look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties! …How like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither… nor woman neither.” –Withnail, imperfectly quoting Hamlet

A recurring theme in this film is a sense of ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ This quasi-apocalyptic sense comes in many forms: it’s late 1969, so “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” Associated with the end of the 1960s is the soon-to-come end of welfare-oriented capitalism, that is, the Keynesian post-war economic era that would end with the 1973 oil crisis and be replaced with the neoliberal era inaugurated by such politicians as Thatcher and Reagan. Finally, there’s the end of Withnail’s and Marwood’s partying, boozing, and getting stoned together. England is “coming down from its trip.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the film we see Marwood coming down from a lengthy period of getting wasted with Withnail, looking exhausted. He is also a hyper-agitated sort, given to intense fears of imminent catastrophe (“My thumbs have gone weird! I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose! My heart’s beating like a fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful.”) His preoccupation with survival makes him representative of Eros, the life instinct.

Withnail, on the other hand, is self-destructive in the extreme, not only drinking like a fish and doing drugs to excess, but also drinking toxic substances like lighter fluid or possibly even antifreeze [!] when he’s desperate for more booze. He almost always seems to have a wine bottle in his hand. He’ll drive drunk, not at all caring if the cops nab him. He thus personifies Thanatos, the death instinct, and is Marwood’s opposite.

Since Marwood represents Robinson, who played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and since Robinson at the time of filming had to fight off gay Zeffirelli’s aggressive sexual advances (as represented by those of Montague Withnail against Marwood), the title Withnail and I can be seen as a parallel of Romeo and Juliet, the story of two star-cross’d lovers who tragically cannot be together.

Thus, Uncle Monty is the Romeo (or a Romeo…see below) Montague of this film, and Marwood is the would-be Juliet. In this connection, the made-up surname of Withnail (inspired by an admired childhood friend of Robinson’s, whose name was Withnall, which Robinson misspelt in–as I see it–a Freudian slip), or “with nail,” as some old friends of mine who introduced me to the film mispronounced it, can be seen as a phallic symbol.

That “nail” stabbing, or threatening to stab, into Marwood can be in the form of Monty’s attempted homosexual rape (“burglary”), or in the form of young Withnail’s exasperating personality and behaviour, ultimately making Marwood want to distance himself from the hopeless drunk. Thus young Withnail “and I” are opposites, just as there are many opposites in Romeo and Juliet, as I observed in my analysis of that play.

The two young men are fated never to be together, just as Romeo’s and Juliet’s love is tragically thwarted by fate, because of the conflict between irresponsible, Thanatos-driven Withnail and career-focused, Eros-driven Marwood. Similarly, Uncle Monty can never have Marwood because the latter isn’t gay (or at least isn’t consciously aware of having homosexual feelings…see below). The conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets ensures that Romeo’s and Juliet’s love won’t last in this world, either.

Though Marwood has been getting drunk and stoned with young Withnail, because he knows that the two of them are “drifting into the arena of the unwell,” he is losing his taste for the world of partying. He wants to ‘choose life’ and be straight in a capitalist world that is soon to phase out of its welfare life support system.

As struggling actors, they have a filthy apartment in Camden Town with little food and lots of rats and “matter” growing in the sink. They need to get away and restore their health, but the only means available to them is to take advantage of Withnail’s wealthy uncle, his overtly gay, corpulent, silver-tongued Uncle Monty…who will agree to Withnail’s mooching only if Monty can hope to take advantage of pretty-boy Marwood.

So Uncle Monty, with his cottage out in the country, his money, and all the food and wine he can provide for poor Withnail and Marwood, can be seen to personify the British welfare state, and therefore the liberal wing of the ruling class. Oh, sure, Monty will help out his two boys, but with strings attached. Similarly, the bourgeois state may be generous to the poor if it wants to, but one day it will fuck them.

Bourgeois liberal politicians may create ‘generous’ social programs for the poor (as symbolized in the film by Uncle Monty’s largesse to Withnail and Marwood that weekend), but the same class structure stays intact (wealthy Monty stays wealthy, and the two young men stay poor). That generosity doesn’t last long, either, as it hadn’t between 1945 and 1973, as symbolized by the brief, “delightful weekend in the country.”

Marwood’s only hope for survival, his major preoccupation, is to join the capitalist system, which he does at the end of the film by accepting an acting job to play the leading role in a play, cutting his hair short (i.e., betraying the hippie counterculture), and leaving London (and Withnail, of course) for Manchester. It’s fitting that Marwood is an actor, and a successful one, unlike Withnail; for in order to succeed in capitalism, one must learn how to pretend, to put on an act.

In order to escape from the miseries of the world, the two young men use drinking and drugs as a manic defence; hence their friendship with fellow stoner Danny (Brown), who comments on the “uptight” men of the capitalist system, those “bald” men. As for hair, he notes how capitalists are “selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s.” Just like the selling of Che Guevara T-shirts, capitalism can accommodate and absorb anything, even the counterculture and socialism.

The drinking and drugs seem to be an escape from not only the “hideousness” of modern life, as Withnail calls it in the car on the way to the cottage. I suspect that Withnail and Marwood are repressed homosexuals. In fact, Danny, who sees Marwood in a towel after a shower and calls him “beautiful,” could be doping to escape facing up to repressed homosexuality, too.

To understand my meaning, we have to be sure of what is meant by the ‘repressed.’ It’s not just about suppressing unacceptable feelings while being aware of them; it’s about pushing them into the unconscious, making oneself totally unaware of them. The feelings do manage to be expressed, to come out to the surface, but in ways totally unrecognizable to the person feeling them.

There are many phallic symbols in the movie, apart from the ‘nail’ in Withnail already mentioned. There is the hot dog wiener that Marwood, nude in the bathtub, offers to Withnail. Uncle Monty’s reference to the ‘mystery’ of the obviously phallic carrot (in ironic contrast to the far more mysterious yoni, our uncanny place of birth, symbolized in the film by flowers, “tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.”) should be recalled when we see Danny’s Camberwell Carrot, a huge phallic joint put in one’s mouth to give pleasure.

All those bottles of wine that Withnail puts to his mouth are more phallic symbols; and excessive drinking and pot-smoking can be seen as a fixation of the oral stage. Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot…and sometimes it’s much more than that.

Still more phallic symbols are the sword and shotgun that Withnail recklessly points at Marwood, an expression of an unconscious wish to have sex with his friend. Indeed, Withnail’s telling his uncle to feel free to enjoy Marwood sexually can be seen as a displaced wish to have Marwood himself.

(To return briefly to the Marxist interpretation, Withnail’s betrayal of his friend to his uncle–the two young men representing the proletariat, and Monty representing the bourgeoisie–can be seen to represent class collaboration, a lack of solidarity being the last straw that makes Marwood want to give up on his friendship with Withnail.)

Marwood’s fear of the homophobic Irishman in the pub is also peppered with unconscious homoerotic elements. While pissing, Marwood reads graffiti on the bathroom wall above the urinal (“I fuck arses.”), and imagines it’s the Irishman who has written it, an absurd idea that is better explained as an unconscious wish fulfillment. The Irishman recognizes Marwood’s homosexuality, and supposedly he’d rather fuck his ass than “murder the pair of [Withnail and Marwood].”

It’s quite curious how a number of characters in the film ‘mistake’ Withnail–and especially Marwood–for homosexuals. Not only does that Irishman, but also Jake the poacher (Elphick), who speaks of Marwood as “prancing like a tit,” and, of course, Uncle Monty. And just as Monty consciously makes unwanted advances on Marwood, so are there unconsciously homoerotic elements in the exchange with Jake, who has phallic eels in his pants, takes “a wheeze on [Withnail’s phallic] fag [!],” and says Marwood “want[s] working on.”

When Monty says that Marwood is “a thespian, too,” he pronounces the s and p like a zed and a b, making a word that rhymes with lesbian, another homosexual association. Marwood later makes a Freudian slip in saying he and Withnail are “buggered” if they can’t get their car out of the mud.

Marwood knows from his first meeting of Uncle Monty that “he’s a raving homosexual,” yet he is always grinning at this man who so lusts after him. He continues grinning even when it’s obvious that Monty wants to seduce him. It strains credibility to dismiss Marwood’s grinning as mere politeness: part of him wants to have a gay sexual experience (though assuredly not with roly-poly Monty), while another part wants to repress that urge.

That, in so brief a time, so many characters ‘mistake’ Withnail and Marwood for gays suggests that the former know something about the latter that the latter don’t know about themselves. Why does Marwood use perfume, of all things, to clean his boots after Withnail has puked on them? Why not use something like soap? Why is there perfume, rather than cologne, in their Camden Town flat? There aren’t any girlfriends to give it to, which is in itself a significant observation. The two young men may be poor, struggling actors, but they’re good-looking; if they’re straight, why don’t we see them even try to pick up any women?

When Uncle Monty attempts his “burglary” (interesting choice of words) on Marwood, the latter’s having “barely escaped a buggering” is achieved by having told Monty he’s in a gay relationship with Withnail. Even a non-homophobic man, one not normally given to violence, might find himself having, as a last resort, to hit a gay aggressor to stop him from succeeding in that “burglary.”

In the stress of the moment, one tends to blurt out unprepared, unrehearsed words, the first thing that comes to one’s mind, and therefore something tending to reveal unconscious wishes, like having a closeted gay relationship with one’s friend. It’s less his fear of homosexual rape than it is fear of ‘cheating’ on Withnail that’s bothering Marwood. His ‘lie’ to get Monty to stop his aggressive sexual advances is an unconscious truth, another Freudian slip. Both Withnail and Marwood have told Monty that each other is a closeted homosexual; again, I’m saying that both ‘lies’ are truths.

Still, Withnail’s betrayal makes Marwood want ‘to dump’ him, as it were. Now, Marwood’s wishing of a buggering on Withnail reflects both his conscious anger at his would-be friend’s betrayal, and his unconscious wish for sex with him, displaced onto someone like Monty, just as Withnail, in offering Marwood to his uncle, has displaced his own wish for sex with his friend, as mentioned above.

On their ride out from London to Monty’s cottage (at the beginning of which we appropriately see a wrecking ball being used to raze a building), we hear Jimi Hendrix‘s version of Bob Dylan‘s “All Along the Watchtower,” a song variously interpreted to be about such things as the Vietnam War and the Apocalypse. I tend toward the latter interpretation (though I’m sure many during the late 60s considered that war to be apocalyptic); this film presents the end of the hippie era, the near-end of the Keynesian, welfare-oriented capitalism of 1945-1973, and, most importantly, the end of the friendship of these two young men.

The song seems written for Withnail (the thief) and Marwood (the joker), or rather, the film seems made for the song. Marwood wants to find “some way out of here,” and Withnail tries to tell his friend there’s “No reason to get excited,” since all that matters to him is mooching off of his uncle and conniving at Monty’s attempted “burglary” of Marwood. To Withnail, the bourgeois “feel that life is but a joke,” he and Marwood have “been through that/And this is not [their] fate.”

“Businessmen, they drink my wine”; capitalists enjoy the luxuries of life and don’t “Know what any of it is worth.” This is prophetic of the dawn of Thatcher/Reagan neoliberalism, the effects of which were already being felt in England at the time of the filming of Withnail and I in 1987. “All along the watchtower/Princes kept the view/While all the women came and went/Barefoot servants, too.” The contrasts between these people reflect class differences felt even more sharply now, since neoliberal capitalism has grown like a cancer over the past forty years.

Just as we hear a Jimi Hendrix recording on the way out of London, so do we hear another of his recordings, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” on the way back. Instead of hearing a song about the end of the world as we know it, we hear one about how great and powerful the singer is (a feeling that often comes as a result of being drunk and/or high on drugs): “Well, I stand up next to a mountain/And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”

Since we hear this song while drunk Withnail is driving recklessly back to London, we can interpret it as expressive of his narcissistic personality, something that has been trying Marwood’s patience for the whole length of the movie. Recall Withnail’s scream out on the hills of the countryside earlier: “Bastards! You’ll all suffer! I’ll show the lot of you! I’m gonna be a sta-a-a-a-ar!

The threat of capitalism against one’s ability to survive is evident again when, on returning to their flat, Withnail and Marwood receive an eviction notice from their landlord, making Marwood spiral into another of his hysterical fears of annihilation. Ultimately, it won’t matter to him, as he’s been given the lead role in a play in Manchester. Since his acting career is taking off, he can enter the competitive world of capitalism. Since all Withnail does is get drunk, he won’t ever even enter that world, much less hope to be a star.

Not even going all the way to the train station with Marwood, Withnail knows he’s lost his friend forever. He recites Hamlet’s words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the reason for his unhappiness, not only because he knows, as his uncle did years ago, that he’ll “never play the Dane,” but because he’s lost the man he’s unconsciously in love with.

Robinson originally intended to end the story with Withnail returning to the flat, picking up the shotgun he’d found in Monty’s cottage, pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel, then drinking it and blowing his brains out. Robinson chose to omit this scene because it’s too dark an ending for the film, but I take it as still having happened, even if unseen.

Why would Withnail want to kill himself just over a friend leaving him? Yes, he is self-destructive by nature, but only in the forms of drinking, doping, and reckless driving, not all the way to suicide. He still has Danny and Presuming Ed to hang out with. Yes, he envies Marwood’s greater success as an actor, but surely he knows that his own future as an actor, though dim, isn’t completely hopeless.

As I’ve said above, I believe he has unconscious homosexual feelings for Marwood, whose departure–not even wanting Withnail to follow him all the way to the station–is tantamount to a break-up. A clue is heard in Withnail’s quoting of Hamlet, which isn’t letter-perfect (in itself symbolic of his insufficient acting talent or determination) when he says, “Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither,” he says the part about women twice, whereas in Hamlet, it’s said only once. Women don’t delight Withnail because he’s gay.

This inability to gratify homosexual desire, the inability of any of these men–except Monty, of course–even to give expression to such desires, allied with the male hostility to them (the Irishman’s bigotry, Jake’s taunting of the “tit,” Withnail’s pointing of a phallic shotgun and sword at Marwood), all can be seen as symbolic of the alienation and lack of comradely solidarity between men (I’m using this word in the old-fashioned sense of people, the male sex here being symbolic of all people) as a consequence of capitalism, even in its postwar welfare-oriented form.

The party is over, that is, the 1945-1973 party of welfare capitalism was over, because it was never a suitable substitute for socialism anyway. Life in London as seen in the film can be seen to symbolize the First World, and life in the countryside, where the commons once was, can be seen to symbolize the Third World, a place full of peasant farmers (including Isaac Parkin), poverty, and want.

So Withnail’s and Marwood’s weekend indulgence in Uncle Monty’s cottage can be seen to represent a First World colonizing of the Third World, inhabiting its space and using its resources. Monty provides for his two “boys” the way the welfare state threw the poor a few bones to placate them and stave off socialist revolution, but the stark contrast between the First and Third Worlds has remained, a contrast we see clearly between London and Crow Crag.

We don’t resolve the world’s problems with brief moments of indulgence: getting drunk and stoned, enjoying “a delightful weekend in the country,” etc., then return to squalor and self-destruction. As Uncle Monty observed, “We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.” Even the best of them, the liberals and social democrats who pushed for the welfare state, didn’t make it last long, and then the neoliberals took over, the next gang.

There can be no true (welfare capitalist) beauty without (neoliberal) decay.

‘O Heavenly Rain,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here’s a poem by another Facebook friend of mine, Amy Elizabeth Sisson Riberdy. (Here’s more of her poetry, if you like what you read below, Dear Reader.) Again, I’ll be putting the poem in italics to distinguish her writing from mine:

O dark grey heavens, give it your all
Open! – Release the iron floodgates
Of rushing rains and crashing thunders
Send those healing waters rushing down
To a parched and hungry world that thirsts
For the nourishing life only you
Can give down to him and me and them
And all who cry for the mercy of
Your rain

O shrouded heavens, cool the dry ground
With your pounding, seething cleansing rains
As we lift our pleading mouths to drink
Let the swords of angels tear and rend
The dark shrouds to free the cascading
Torrents of great black billowing clouds
That rise above our beseeching hands
We pray thee, O merciful heavens
Please let loose the soothing showers of
Your rain.


O merciful heavens, drench the dust
Of white hot desert sands and fill these
Mud – caked rivers to the very brim
With all that man desires to savour
Let me swim in your cooling blessings
Caressing your refreshing embrace
And be lost eternally down in
Swirling waters of endless oceans
Cleansed forever in the freedom of
Your rain

…and now, for my analysis.

The yearning for rain immediately made me think of King Lear in Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-9, then lines 14-24:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!…”

Then,

“Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire; spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despis’d old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho! ‘Tis foul!”

The next piece of classic writing that her poem made me think of was the Great Flood narrative in Genesis, a drowning of the Earth to wipe away all of sinful mankind and replace it with Noah’s righteous (or so they’d seem) family.

Now, the contrasts between these three literary examples of great rainfalls are themselves great. Amy is begging for rains that will restore life to the dried and dying earth. Lear is saying that the rain may be as cruel to him as it pleases. God floods the earth to cause death to all sinners.

Yet, even in these contrasts we can see points of dialectical comparison. Amy wants to “Send those healing waters rushing down/To a parched and hungry world that thirsts.” (thesis) Lear would be accepting of the cruelty of the storm (negation); for the very destructiveness of the Great Flood will rid the world of evil, purify it, and allow for new life in the end (sublation).

To enjoy “the mercy of/Your rain,” we must first accept the pain of a purge of all that is evil, “With your pounding, seething cleansing rains.” When “the swords of angels tear and rend,” we again see the juxtaposition of harshness and violence (“swords…tear and rend”) with sweetness (“angels”). We cannot have happiness without sadness.

Nobody likes going out in the rain and getting soaked, but we need rain to water our plants and give us food. So, in order to live, we must experience unpleasantness. As Robert Plant once sang, “upon us all a little rain must fall.”

Though God destroyed the world with rain, Amy calls up to the “merciful heavens” to “let loose the soothing showers of/Your rain.” Lear would have pour the “horrible pleasure” of the rain. In all three cases, one is grieved to one’s heart. Amy is grieved by the drought she sees all around her, be that a literal or metaphorical one. God is grieved and regretful of the sinful humanity He sees on the Earth. Lear is grieved by the wickedness of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and by the good daughter, Cordelia, to whom he was so wicked in disowning. All three would be relieved of their pain…through the powerful downpour of rain.

Amy would “swim in your cooling blessings/Caressing your refreshing embrace”…that is a really beautifully written line, such music in the words. She’d “be lost eternally down in/Swirling waters of endless oceans,” reminding me of my oft-used metaphor for Brahman, the title of a song I wrote years ago, and the title of my blog. She’d be “Cleansed forever in the freedom of/Your rain.”

“Your rain” is a refrain appearing three times. This trio can be symbolic of the dialectic I noted above (thesis/negation/sublation), the Trinity, the Hindu Trimurti, the triple-goddess, or any other conceivable group of three, for three is a magical, richly-symbolic number, representing beginning, middle, and end. Indeed, the three verses can be seen to symbolize three massive rainfalls, or even three huge raindrops, if you wish.

Rain’s wetness irritates, but it also cleanses.

Let it fall.

Analysis of ‘The Tempest’

The Tempest is a play Shakespeare is believed to have written around 1610 or 1611; it is therefore probably the last play he ever wrote alone. It isn’t easily categorized: it’s part comedy, part fantasy/romance, part semi-autobiographical (in a metaphorical sense), and part allegory on the European colonization that was current at the time.

A number of interesting film adaptations have been made of The Tempest, including the BBC TV adaptation with Michael Hordern as Prospero, the homoerotic 1979 Derek Jarman adaptation with Toyah Willcox as Miranda, and Julie Taymor‘s 2010 adaptation with Helen Mirren as a female Prospero…’Prospera.’ Other adaptations include the 1991 film Prospero’s Books, with John Gielgud in the title role, and Aimé Césaire‘s Une Tempête, a stage adaptation set in Haiti.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Ferdinand, 
With hair up-staring, — then like reeds, not hair, — 
was the first man that leapt; cried Hell is empty, 
And all the devils are here.
” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 212-215

“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, 
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, 
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me 
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how 
To name the bigger light, and how the less, 
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee, 
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle, 
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile. 
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms 
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! 
For I am all the subjects that you have, 
Which first was mine own king.” –Caliban, I, ii, lines 331-342

“Come unto these yellow sands, 
And then take hands; 
Curt’sied when you have and kiss’d, 
The wild waves whist, 
Foot it featly here and there, 
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 375-380

“Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes; 
Nothing of him that doth fade, 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
Ding-dong. 
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 396-404

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, 
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, 
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak’d, 
I cried to dream again.” –Caliban, III, ii, lines 130-138

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and 
Are melted into air, into thin air; 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on; and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.” –Prospero, IV, i, lines 148-158

“But this rough magic 
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d 
Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — 
To work mine end upon their senses that 
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, 
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound, 
I’ll drown my book.” –Prospero, V, i, lines 50-57

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I; 
In a cowslip’s bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry. 
On the bat’s back I do fly 
After summer merrily. 
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, 
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” –Ariel, V, i, lines 88-94

“O, wonder! 
How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!” –Miranda, V, i, lines 181-184

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown, 
And what strength I have’s mine own, 
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, 
I must be here confin’d by you, 
Or sent to Naples. Let me not, 
Since I have my dukedom got 
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell 
In this bare island by your spell; 
But release me from my bands 
With the help of your good hands. 
Gentle breath of yours my sails 
Must fill, or else my project fails, 
Which was to please. Now I want 
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; 
And my ending is despair, 
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer, 
Which pierces so that it assaults 
Mercy itself, and frees all faults. 
As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
Let your indulgence set me free.” –Prospero, Epilogue

Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was stripped of his dukedom and banished with his daughter Miranda twelve years before the play’s beginning. Gonzalo, a kind and optimistic giver of counsel, gave them provisions so they’d survive on the seas, ultimately arriving on the island where the two have been living since.

His usurping brother Antonio, along with King Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, Stephano the drunken butler, Trinculo the jester, and the king’s son, Ferdinand, have been sailing on a ship at the beginning of the play. They find themselves in the middle of a tempest that Prospero, a sorcerer, has created to cause their ship to crash-land on his island, for he wants to right the wrongs done to him.

In this wrong done to Prospero, we see the main theme of the play: disenfranchisement. Now, his disenfranchisement doesn’t give him the right to do the same to others, which indeed he does. He uses his magic to control a number of spirits, Ariel in particular, who expresses his displeasure at it and demands his freedom (I, ii, lines 242-250). Prospero offers a weak justification for making Ariel his servant by reminding him of how he freed him from a spell the witch Sycorax put on him, having caged him in a tree.

Sycorax, banished from Algiers and subsequently the first colonizer of what’s now Prospero’s island, was undoubtedly cruel in her treatment of Ariel; Prospero’s freeing of the spirit, however, in no way absolves him of similar colonizing and enslaving. Such an absolving would be like saying that the Spanish Empire’s brutal treatment of the natives (of what is now Latin America) makes US imperialism’s subsequent treatment of ‘America’s backyard’ negligibly oppressive–a truly absurd argument.

Mention of Sycorax brings us to a discussion of her son, the deformed Caliban, another native of the island forced by Prospero into servitude. Caliban is a near anagram of cannibal, and a pun on Caribbean; such associations give us a vivid sense of how he is a victim of colonialism, a native denigrated by his oppressor as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savage.’

Indeed, Prospero rationalizes his enslaving of Caliban by claiming originally to have been kind to the grotesquerie, that is, until his attempted rape of Miranda, which he gleefully admits to. Not to excuse Caliban for his scurrilous behaviour, but the degradation of slavery, often with torturous punishments for being slack or slow in service, nevertheless seems a bit much. After all, Prospero’s denigration of Caliban’s bestial nature reminds us of the racism colonialists have used to justify their dehumanizing of the natives they subjugate.

Indeed, for all his faults, Caliban has his virtues, too. He speaks poetically sometimes, as in the above quote from Act III, scene ii, lines 130-138. This quote shows how he is sensitive to the poetic, reminding us of the creativity of indigenous people; colonialists like Prospero make little of natives’ artistic gifts, but kinder souls like Gonzalo show their appreciation of what’s good in people like Caliban. Recall his words in Act III:

“If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?  
If I should say, I saw such islanders—
For, certes, these are people of the island—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note
Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of
Our human generation you shall find  
Many, nay, almost any.” –Gonzalo, III, iii, lines 26-34

Prospero, hearing Gonzalo’s words, agrees with them, but only insofar as they describe the Neapolitans present, whom he describes as “worse than devils.” (III, iii, line 36) He makes no mention of agreement that the natives have virtues. He should also consider including himself among the Neapolitan devils; recall Ferdinand saying that Prospero is “compos’d of harshness.” (III, i, line 9) What must be kept in mind is how Prospero prospers by using others. Wealth causes poverty, and this is especially true of imperialists and neocolonialists in relation to the aboriginals they exploit.

Prospero’s magic exploits nature, e.g. the tempest, to bring Alonso’s ship ashore; this symbolically can remind us of how big business today degrades nature for their gain. Prospero openly admits that he exploits Caliban: he says of his slave, “he does make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/That profit us.” (I,ii, lines 311-313)

Prospero uses his magic on Miranda, putting her asleep (I, ii, lines 184-186); in this way, he controls her sleeping and waking moments to limit her acquisition of knowledge. She and Ferdinand don’t merely fall in love; her father manipulates their meeting, for in their future marriage he hopes to consolidate his power as the restored Duke of Milan. Prospero may be giving up his magical powers, but in return he wants political power.

It can be argued, in fact, that he has never been truly worthy of being a duke; since during the time that he ruled the dukedom, prior to Antonio’s usurpation, he was so absorbed in his books (I, ii, lines 68-77, 89-93) that he cared little for his people. He admits this when he speaks in gratitude of Gonzalo’s help: “Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnished me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” (I, ii, lines 166-168) Note here that “prize” is in the present tense: Prospero admits he still loves his books more than the people of Milan; remember this Freudian slip when we consider his later promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book.”

Yes, he promises to renounce his magic (which we never see him physically do!), and so as the reinstated Duke of Milan, he’ll presumably focus on the needs of his people; but he says that in Milan, his “every third thought shall be [his] grave,” (V, i, line 311) suggesting he’ll still be too self-absorbed and retiring to think about his people.

So, Prospero enslaves and exploits the natives of the island, always promising to free them in the end (though we never see him use his magic to unbind them, so for all we know, these promises could be empty); he manipulates his way back into power, assuming he deserves this reinstatement (though the above two paragraphs put this worthiness in doubt); and he uses his daughter to make a political alliance with the king, manipulating her emotions to make her fall in love with whom he wants her to love.

Thus, in Prospero we see not only an exploitative colonialist, but also a man taking advantage of the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. His cunning is contrasted with the naïveté of his daughter, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Where Prospero is artful, these latter four are artless. Indeed, where there’s a dialectical relationship between wealth and poverty, as noted above (i.e, the one causes the other), there is also such a relationship between ability and inability, between cunning and innocence.

Consider the sweetness and innocence of Miranda. She sees the good in everyone indiscriminately. She has compassion for all the sailing sufferers of the storm; she’s oblivious to how her wicked uncle Antonio is one of the men on the boat. In her naïveté is kindness, in Prospero’s worldly-wisdom…not so much kindness.

Having seen so few people in her life, and assuming goodness in all humanity, she is delighted to see all those men before her at the end of the play (V, i, lines 181-184), rather than mindful of the possibility that a few of them (Antonio and Sebastian) aren’t so “goodly.”

Her artlessness is outdone by the outright stupidity of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. In his drunken stupor, Stephano can’t recognize supine Trinculo’s legs sticking out from underneath Caliban’s gaberdine (being the court jester, Trinculo is presumably wearing distinctive motley colours); instead, he imagines the supine monster Caliban has four legs. Trinculo, having originally assumed that Stephano died in the tempest, later looks the drunken butler in the eyes and has to ask him twice if he’s “not drown’d” (II, ii, lines 100-105). Finally, Caliban, after drinking Stephano’s supposedly divine wine, thinks the drunkard is a god!

In their foolish simple-mindedness, the trio think they can kill Prospero and rule the island. They can’t even avoid falling into a smelly pond, though, Trinculo later complaining of smelling “all horse-piss.” (IV, i, line 199)

Later, once they reach Prospero’s abode, Stephano and Trinculo can’t help but be distracted by the sorcerer’s “frippery.” (IV, i, line 226) The two fools try on Prospero’s clothes while Caliban warns them to focus instead on the plan to kill his hated master. They don’t listen, and Prospero has Ariel chase the fools away with hellhounds.

The way alcohol and fashionable clothes can make fools of people is paralleled today in how such distractions prevent revolutionary action. We today have every bit as much as, if not more than, an imperialist ruling class that mesmerizes the common people with foolish trifles. We’d all usurp the rule of our hypnotizing politicians and rich overlords…except we keep letting ourselves get hypnotized.

Along with the class conflict between rich land-owners and the poor, between the First and Third Worlds as symbolized in the Neapolitans on the one hand, and the island natives and spirits respectively, there’s also conflict between different factions of the ruling class. This latter conflict is evident when Alonso and Gonzalo are put to sleep by Ariel, then Antonio convinces Sebastian to make an attempt on the king’s life.

Later, this group experiences a sensual distraction that is comparable with the wine and finery that dazes the three drunken fools. An illusion of a table covered with a delicious feast is put before the nobles’ eyes. Sweet music is heard. The men prepare to eat, but Ariel appears in the form of a harpy and makes the feast disappear; the scene reminds us of the one in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, when King Phineus of Thrace was tormented with a feast that got ruined by attacking harpies.

This depriving the nobles of a meal reminds one of a modern equivalent in Luis Buñuel‘s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Tantalizing Alonso et al with a meal is punishment for what the king and Antonio deprived Prospero and Miranda of. The illusory meal, as a distraction from important political matters, is also–like wine and “frippery” for Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban–an example of bread and circuses.

The ‘bread’ aspect of Prospero’s distractions was noted in the mirage feast table; the ‘circuses’ aspect, if you will, can be seen in the masque with the singing goddesses (Iris, Ceres, and Juno; IV, i, lines 60-138) presented to Ferdinand and Miranda. Recall how their falling in love has been engineered by her father, who is using their marriage to solidify his power as the reinstated Duke of Milan.

He takes advantage of her scant knowledge of men to make her fall for handsome Ferdinand, “the third man that e’er [she] saw; the first/That e’er [she] sigh’d for.” (I, ii, lines 445-446) Prospero’s test of the boy’s virtue, by enslaving him and making him do essentially Caliban’s work (fetching wood), is a weak test–as if mere diligence were enough to prove Ferdinand’s worthiness of her. It’s ironic how making Ferdinand play the role of Miranda’s would-be rapist should prove him a good husband. Prospero even says to her, “Foolish wench!/To th’ most of men this is a Caliban” (I, ii, lines 479-480).

At the beginning of Act V, Prospero has his disenfranchisers brought near his abode (that is, his “cell”), and he immobilizes them so he can upbraid Antonio and Alonso for their collusion in the usurpation of the dukedom, as well as the former and Sebastian for having conspired to kill Alonso. Prospero speaks kindly of his “true preserver,” Gonzalo, of course; and he recognizes that forgiveness is “rarer” than taking vengeance, so he says he forgives his “unnatural” brother, though we can’t be sure if his heart is in his words.

This making of the nobles to “stand charm’d,” just like Prospero’s making Miranda fall asleep and his ‘bread and circuses’ distractions of everyone again shows the dialectical relationship between his power and the powerlessness of all the others. Prospero promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book” (V, lines 54 and 57), but should we believe he’ll keep his promises? As a duke, he is a kind of politician, and politicians who keep their promises are the exception rather than the rule.

If, Dear Reader, I seem to have too judgemental an attitude towards Prospero, consider the alternative: surely he is aware of the danger of giving up all his powers; one shouldn’t assume he’ll never again be the victim of a conspiracy once “what strength [he has is his] own” (Epilogue, line 2). Antonio and Sebastian are probably still plotting.

Of course, the fact that Shakespeare identified himself, the magic-making playwright, “such stuff/As dreams are made on,” with Prospero suggests that the promise to “abjure” his magic will be kept; after all, the Bard was about to retire from “the great globe itself” shortly after the first performances of The Tempest.

So my next question is: since Prospero represents, on the one hand, the colonialist/imperialist and exploitative/manipulative politician, and on the other hand, the magic-making playwright, what relationship can we see between these two otherwise contrasting representations?

Marx wrote of a base and superstructure that keep the class structure of society intact. The superstructure is composed of such things as the media, religion, and the arts. Now, Marx was describing modern capitalist society, as opposed to the feudalist one Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays in; but the seeds of modern capitalism had already been sown in his day, and feudalism was as much a form of class conflict as capitalism is.

Shakespeare’s plays tended to justify class hierarchies by glorifying kings (the deposition scene in Richard II, so offensive to Elizabeth I, being one of the noteworthy exceptions) and the imperialistic plunder of other countries (Henry V). Contrast this with his tendency to portray poor workers as not much more than buffoons (consider Falstaff, Bardolph, et al in the Henry IV plays, or the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as two sets of examples, to see my point). The tragic flaws of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, etc., ennoble them by inspiring Aristotle’s pity and terror; the faults of the poor in these plays generally inspire our contemptuous mirth.

What I’m saying here, of course, is not true in an absolute sense: there is a considerable grey area between the white of the nobility and the black of the peasantry in the Bard’s plays. Osric, who “hath much land,” is foppish in the extreme. Falstaff has much depth of character, and his passing is grieved most touchingly by his friends at the Boar’s Head Inn; still, he’s also mercilessly ridiculed in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Christopher Sly‘s transformation from drunken tinker into a lord is a mere prank. Malvolio, with his cross-gartered yellow stockings and ridiculous grinning, is the lady Olivia‘s subordinate, her steward. In The Comedy of Errors, the twin Dromio servants are constantly being abused and picked on by their twin Antipholus masters, a form of slapstick humour. The two gravediggers in Hamlet are referred to as clowns in the script.

My point here is that the grey area of relative equal worth between upper and lower classes doesn’t disprove the black and white of the hierarchy that Shakespeare affirmed as a truth in the world. His plays never fundamentally challenged class antagonisms. For all the many faults of the nobles in Shakespeare’s plays, even when they are outright wicked, they have a dignity far elevated above that of even the best of the poor.

In these ways, Shakespeare as Prospero could be seen as part of the superstructure of Elizabethan times, reinforcing notions of the ‘superiority’ of the landowning ruling classes as against the ‘inferiority’ of the poor labourers and peasants of his time. His portrayals of Caliban and Sycorax as monsters and fiends were probably inspired at least in part by the biases of the time, namely, the notion of Christian superiority over the ‘devil-worshipping’ heathens of the rest of the world (i.e., the worship of Setebos by Caliban and Sycorax).

Still, as much as I have issue with the politics of Shakespeare at times, I’ll continue to love and admire his art, as we all should. Many talented artists in remote and more recent history (Shakespeare, Dali, Frank Zappa, etc.) are people with whom we may have issues as regards their political stances. In this way, my judgement of Prospero can be seen, in a symbolic sense, as ambivalent rather than unilaterally condemning.

My leftist worldview must be more forgiving of what I see as politically lacking in the Bard. His aim as a playwright wasn’t mainly to promote a certain political agenda; it “was to please.” Therefore, let my indulgence set him free.

Nothing Either Good or Bad

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

We sufferers of C-PTSD often find ourselves overwhelmed with bad thoughts, thanks to our inner critic. It seems as though negativity is a permanent, static state to be in.

As hard as it is to believe for sufferers of complex trauma, though, neither good nor bad states exist permanently; good and bad flow back and forth between each other like the waves of the ocean. This is part of the reason I use ‘infinite ocean‘ as a metaphor for universal reality. The good moments are the crests, and the bad moments are the troughs; we must be patient in waiting for the troughs to rise into crests.

Recall Hamlet‘s line to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Only our thoughts cause this flow (of one opposite to the other) to ossify into rigid absolutes. Freed of that rigidity, we experience the flow of good to bad, to good to bad, to good, as a Unity of Action.

This Unity of Action is the unity of opposites, an idea found in philosophical traditions around the world, throughout history. It was part of Heraclitus‘s thought: “the path up and down are one and the same”; he also understood how these opposites flow into each other in a state of endless change, for “everything flows”, and “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. Dialectical monism is central to Taoist philosophy, particularly in the concept of yin and yang. Unity in duality is seen in the idealist Hegelian dialectic, which Marx turned into a materialist version, and Lenin, Stalin, and Mao in turn all expanded on Marx.

My point in bringing up these various testimonies to the validity of a universal dialectic, many from independent sources, is to show that talk of a Unity of Action is not just some New Age sentimentality. When a great thinker such as Hegel affirms the truth of dialectical monism, we know it’s not something to be airily dismissed.

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I like to use the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationships between opposites such as happiness and sadness. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, all opposites can be seen at the extreme ends of a continuum, rather than in rigid terms of black and white. This continuum can be coiled into a circle, with one extreme phasing into its opposite. The biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros can represent those meeting extremes.

I’ve demonstrated how the ouroboros, representing the Unity of Action, is manifested in class struggle, in the development of capitalism, in the relationship between oneself and other people, and in the relationship between mental health and various forms of mental illness, in the form of a general theory of the personality.

Now, I’d like to show how we can use dialectical thinking to turn negative emotions and experiences into positive ones. When we’re seriously upset about some problem, it’s often hard to imagine a solution, especially if we’re emotionally dysregulating and making a catastrophe of the problem in our minds. Good and bad are imagined in terms of black and white, with an insuperable barrier between the problem and a solution.

However, when we see the problem and possible solution dialectically, in the form of the ouroboros, we can now imagine a path from the bitten tail of the problem, passing along the length of the serpent’s body towards greater and greater hope, all the way to the biting head of a solution.

Since, as I described elsewhere, one can compare the three parts of Hegel’s dialectic (which I, admittedly, am simplifying here, for the sake of brevity) to the tail (the “thesis,” or abstract), the head (the “antithesis,” or negation, a logical challenge to the original abstract idea), and the length of the serpent’s body (the “synthesis,” the concrete, or sublation, a resolving of the contradictions between the head and tail to form a higher truth…a new abstract tail to be negated and sublated again and again in endless cycles), we can see how dialectical thinking can help us turn negative thinking into positive.

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When we have a problem, negative thought, or any reason to be depressed or anxious, we start with the “thesis,” or abstract. Next, we imagine the negation, which is the solution to our problem, or the happy state of mind we wish we were in. Since there is a unity of opposites, we know we have no reason to believe a solution to our problem is unreachable.

We must now work out the contradiction between the difficulty and the solution we wish we could find; this is the sublation we need to work out, that path along the circular serpent’s body towards the solution. How can we do this? We can start by asking what we could learn from the problem. We can always learn from past mistakes, or learn to avoid repeating past misfortunes. Second, we can acknowledge what we have to be grateful for; we can count our blessings, all those things and people (i.e., friends) we take for granted, but shouldn’t, at this moment of crisis.

I’ll now give an example of how to negate negativity, as I did with regards to my family. As I explained here, I started with my parents’ vices–my father’s bad temper, bigotry, parsimony, and closed-mindedness, as well as my mother’s lack of empathy, narcissism, and habitual gaslighting, triangulating, and smear campaigning–and I used them as the “thesis.” Since writing The Inner Critic blog post, I’ve added my siblings’ vices–their bullying and verbal abuse, as well as my sister J.‘s constant attempts to reform me into the brother she wants me to be–to the collective family “thesis,” or abstract.

Now, for the “antithesis,” or negation: in The Inner Critic, I wrote of meditating on and visualizing, in hypnotic trance, kind, loving parents who pick you up and cuddle with you. In the case of my parents, I imagine the dialectical opposites of those vices I mentioned above: I visualize a new father who is easy-going, tolerant, giving, and open-minded; I imagine a new mother who values lifting up her children’s self-esteem, as well as promoting family harmony; added to these, I meditate on a supportive, protective older brother (something my brothers, R. and F., never were), and a sister who wouldn’t change one character trait of mine, but rather considering my eccentricities as part of my charm. Instead of the old family sneering at me, I imagine the new family cheering for me. This alone, done with the right intensity and focus, makes me feel much better.

As for a “synthesis,” the concrete, or the Aufhebung, my repeated and intensive auto-hypnotic meditations on the negation should, over time, counterbalance all the negativity I suffered from my family over four decades of dealing with them. I note how the idealized family of my self-hypnosis represents who my old family should have been; also, my memories of the old family are no less ghosts in my mind, old bad object relations, than are the newly internalized objects of my idealized new family, who are there to heal me and eliminate my inner critic. Combine this visualization with my “Christopher Sly” meditation–a tossing aside of my past ghosts as having no more right to be considered reality than are the new family of my meditations–and I should balance out the negative past with my positive present, and thus have a median, realistic self-assessment.

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Remember how suggestible the mind is during hypnosis, which is just a meditation in a relaxed, yet focused mental state. Note also that the mind doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination: that’s how we can get emotionally involved in a movie, which of course is pure fiction and illusion. So we can use this suggestibility to our advantage in curing ourselves of our C-PTSD.

As I’ve said before, we sufferers of narcissistic and emotional abuse tend to imagine a fragmented world where the shattered pieces can’t be put back together. To solve this problem, I see it as imperative that we all cultivate an outlook of seeing the underlying unity in all things. This means seeing a unity between oneself and others to end C-PTSD isolation and alienation, The Unity of Space.

It also means putting the past behind us, worrying less about the future, and focusing on NOW, The Unity of Time. Finally, we also need to stop seeing an insurmountable wall existing between our sorrows and the happiness we crave, but see instead how all opposites are dialectically unified, as symbolized by yin/yang and the ouroboros, The Unity of Action.

Such unifying replaces despair with hope, alienation with belonging, and anxiety and depression with joy in the present moment–a lasting cure for complex trauma.

Putting the Painful Past Behind Us

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

To stop myself from ruminating on my painful childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood–a bad habit I picked up, thanks to the emotional abusers I had to endure during those years–I recently found inspiration in Shakespeare. Yes, the immortal Bard wrote a not-so-well-known scene in one of his otherwise most popular comedies, a scene whose meaning I interpreted in a way that I now see (in the form of a meditation/self-hypnosis) as something that may help us forget the past, and focus on the present. Allow me to explain.

In my Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew, I argued that the Induction is the main story, not the Katherina (‘Kate’) and Petruchio story, which is just a play within a play, a further remove from the audience’s sense of reality than the Induction itself is (a full synopsis of the play can be read here, if you don’t have access to it or the time to read it).

In the Induction (<<<YouTube video of Scene i), a boorish, drunken tinker named Christopher Sly is tricked (<<<video of Scene ii) into thinking he’s a lord, after waking up from a fifteen-year coma (as his pranksters tell him), during which his memory of his whole life as a tinker has been only a dream. Lying in a luxurious bed, wearing the bedclothes of a rich man, and surrounded by people pretending to be his loving friends, servants, and wife (a boy dressed in women’s clothes), Sly is incredulous at first, but soon acquiesces to the whole thing, and then watches a farcical play of the Kate and Petruchio story.

As far as pranks go, this is a rather odd one. Why go to such lengths to flatter a drunken slob? Far from making Sly look foolish, the trick dignifies and ennobles him instead. What’s more, we never even see the prank brought to its conclusion. Sly nods off to sleep during the performance of the play (Act I, Scene i, lines 242-247), which is briefly halted to wake him up, then carries on till the end of the story; no more mention of Sly is ever made. We never see the pranksters reveal themselves as such, laughing at the fool for falling for the gag. It’s as if we, the audience, are also tricked into thinking the Kate and Petruchio story, rather than that of Sly, is the real one.

What comes later (Sly as a lord; the Kate and Petruchio story) comes off as real, and what came first (Sly’s life as a tinker; the Induction, often excluded from productions of the play, or movie and TV adaptations) is forgotten about and deemed irrelevant.

To relate the Induction to our lives, we can see Christopher Sly as representing us. We were originally treated with contempt as he was, and that contempt may have caused us to have a surly manner; after all, when we believe we’re unworthy, we often behave as unworthy people…not because we really are, but because we’ve been manipulated by our abusers to think of ourselves as unworthy. We must go from believing ourselves as base to thinking of ourselves as someone much better. Thus, we must trick ourselves.

As formerly emotionally abused children (or ex-boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses), we C-PTSD sufferers must trick ourselves into deeming as irrelevant the pain that came earlier in our lives, just as Sly is tricked into thinking his earlier life, as a contemptible slob, is just a dream (and as the audience watching Shakespeare’s play is tricked into thinking the play-within-a-play, rather than the Induction, is the real story).

We must imagine ourselves as having woken up from a nightmare (I’m assuming you, Dear Reader, have distanced yourself from your abusive family or ex, and gone NO CONTACT; if you haven’t, I urge you to do so; if you can’t do it yet, make it your ambition), and see our new life, our present life, as one of glorious new possibilities.

We must remember that our NOW is the only reality we have. Our memories are just ghosts haunting our minds, old object relations we need to eject from our consciousness (see these links for meditations on how to replace old, bad internal objects with new, good ones). The past is no longer real for us, except in our ruminations. We need to stop that obsessive over-thinking…but how?

I’ve already described in other posts how we can, in auto-hypnotic trance (a restful, focused state in which one is more suggestible), imagine our oneness with everything around us by getting our bodies so relaxed that we can feel ourselves vibrating all over. Those vibrations, in and around us, can be compared to a feeling like the waves of the ocean. In our meditative state, we imagine our bodies, our cohesive, non-fragmented Self–our Atman, if you will–as part of an infinite ocean, our surroundings, the whole universe–Brahman, as it were. This meditative state, our unity with everything, can cure us of our sense of isolation, provided we practice it, in sessions of substantial duration, every day over a lengthy period of time.

Added to this contemplation of The Unity of Space, as I call it, we can also contemplate what I call The Unity of Time, the eternal NOW. As we focus on those ‘waves’ passing through our vibrating bodies, which are part of the water of the infinite ocean of Brahman, we also focus on the present moment, doing our best never to let our minds wander and daydream of other things (if we let ourselves get distracted, we should gently but firmly bring our minds back to the present moment). This discipline will gradually take our minds off the past, to focus more on NOW. We must always keep our minds on those moving waves, for every second.

Another meditation we can do to say goodbye to the past is to lie in bed with our eyes closed, and after getting ourselves perfectly relaxed in the manner I described in previous posts (breathing in and out, deeply and slowly, focusing on all the parts of our bodies, from our toes up to our heads, until they’re vibrating with calm, counting down from ten, with our bodies getting more and more relaxed with each passing number), imagine waking up as Sly does, with loving family (the new, good one we’ve imagined, of course, not the original, abusive one) and friends all around our bed, teary-eyed with joy that we’ve revived from a ‘coma’.

adult affection bed closeness
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We do not recognize these people, and are shocked to hear them say they are our family. They speak lovingly and respectfully to us, yet to be honoured in such a way feels alien to us, and we protest how odd they are behaving. Still, they insist that we are worthy of such love, and that we should cease this idle notion that we would “be infused with so foul a spirit” [Induction, Scene ii, line 15] as to deserve to be treated as we had been by our past abusers.

We feel dazed still, unable to believe what we’re hearing. We wonder, “do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now? / I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak; / I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things.” [Induction, Scene ii, lines 67-69] We come to believe that we aren’t the person we thought we were before. We’re someone new, and we have a whole new life ahead of us!

With a bright smile on our face, we accept that this present moment is, indeed, our true life, and the painful past we’d experienced before was just a bad dream, something we can now brush aside and forget. We are the lord of our new, liberated life!

Now, the people in this meditation are not pulling a prank on us: they genuinely love and care for us. Though this is a meditation, we’ll do a dialectical flip, and imagine the present visualization to be reality, and our past to have been the illusion. Yes, we’ll be playing a benevolent prank on ourselves, tricking our minds into conceiving this present moment as our true reality.

And why not? The past is just ghosts and visions; NOW is the material reality before our eyes and all around us. By sustaining this meditative state for ourselves, as truly sly Christophers (or sly Christinas, if you’re female), for as long as we can, and doing this self-hypnosis regularly, every day (just after waking up, ideally, to get the best, most realistic effect), we can, over time, truly put the painful past behind us.

Imagine those loving faces around your bed, those people telling you that your painful past was all just a long, bad dream. You’ve just woken from a long coma of many years, and NOW is your real life, surrounded by people who love you. Flood your whole body with feelings of love, acceptance, and validation, what you’ve been cruelly denied for far too long. Don’t worry about visualizing accurate physical details; focus on the good feelings.

Since there’s a dialectical unity of opposites, we can feel free to turn our bad situation into its good opposite, a negation of the thesis that was once our awful lives, and work through the contradictions of our bad past and our good present, then sublate them into the synthesis that will be the basis of our new lives.

I’m not talking about deluding yourself: I’m advocating a disciplining of your mind to focus on now and to stop obsessing about your past. When you’re no longer ‘tinkering’ with your painful memories, you’ll be lord (or lady) over your present life, you’ll be truly sly (that is, in your cunning but benevolent self-deceit), and the raging shrew inside you will be tamed. No, Christopher (or Christina), you aren’t a loser: you’re the master of your life.