Analysis of ‘Le Amiche’

Le Amiche (“The Girlfriends”) is a 1955 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and Alba De Cespedes, and adapted from Tra donne sole (1949), a novel by Cesare Pavese. The film stars Eleonora Rossi DragoGabriele FerzettiFranco Fabrizi, and Valentina Cortese, with Yvonne Furneaux (who was also in Repulsion), Ettore Manni, and Madeleine Fischer. It was shot on location in Turin, Piemonte, Italy.

Le Amiche received the Silver Lion award in 1955 from the Venice Film Festival; it also won the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon Award for Best Director (Antonioni) and Best Supporting Actress (Cortese).

The name of the film is ironic and somewhat deceptive, since Nene (Cortese), Momina De Stefani (Furneaux), Rosetta Savoni (Fischer), and Mariella (played by Anna Maria Pancani) are girlfriends in little more than a superficial sense. There’s actually a considerable amount of conflict between them, at varying levels of intensity, due to jealousies over their rivalries over men, as well as their varying degrees of vanity and narcissism.

Indeed, jealousy, envy, vanity, and pride are major themes in Le Amiche. A few minor comparisons between this film and Othello can be made, as far as the themes of jealousy and envy are concerned. Rosetta can be seen as the Othello of the film (Nene, too, in an opposing way); her doomed, jealous love of Lorenzo (Ferzetti) leads to a failed suicide attempt at the beginning of the film, and a successful suicide towards the end, just as the Moor kills himself at the end of Othello. Momina, cynical and envious of others’ happiness in love, is the scheming Iago: she encourages Rosetta’s pursuit of Lorenzo, leading to a conflict she finds most amusing to watch, just as Iago enjoys watching the Moor go insane with jealousy.

In a way, a vague comparison can be made also between Le Amiche and Romeo and Juliet, since the film involves pairs of lovers from incompatible worlds. The pairings of Clelia (Drago) and Carlo (Manni), and of Rosetta and Lorenzo, are incompatible not because of feuding families, though, but because of conflicting class relations and sex roles.

Clelia, as the manager of a new fashion salon opening in Turin, is–like her boss (played by Maria Gambarelli)–as an Italian woman in the conservative 1950s, a career woman ‘before it was cool.’ Thus, Clelia is a bourgeois. Carlo, her love interest, on the other hand, is a worker. The sex-role assumption of the time was that, were they to marry, he’d be supporting her financially, not vice versa…a rather hard thing for him to do, with the lower amount of money he’s making than she is. She’d also suffer an unacceptable lowering of social rank in such a marriage.

Similarly, Rosetta is from a well-to-do family, while the man she’s in love with is a struggling artist, one struggling so much that Nene, his fiancée, is actually more successful as an artist than he. Again, the sex-role assumption is that Lorenzo is supposed to be the more successful of the couple, and therefore the more monied one, not Nene or Rosetta. Neither of these women care that he is of modest means (nor should they, of course), but his pride and male chauvinism make him envy Nene’s success, just as she and Rosetta are jealous of each other with regards to him.

Though Clelia is as bourgeois as Momina, both women are on the opposite ends of the narcissism spectrum. We can see this contrast early on in the film, when we are introduced first to Clelia, who is unassuming and, with a smile, tells the hotel maid either “signora” or “signorina” is an acceptable way to address her; then later on, we’re introduced to Momina at the front desk of the hotel, where she treats the man working there contemptuously, saying he’s “ridiculous” to think her friend, Rosetta, has already left the hotel, then orders him to call her room. We see the contrast in their attitudes towards workers, and towards class differences.

Clelia may walk around in a beautiful fur coat, but she does so not out of narcissistic ostentation; as the manager of the new fashion salon, she has an image to maintain, hence the nice clothes. Similarly, her annoyance with the workers’ slow progress in getting the salon ready isn’t out of a condescending attitude to them, but from the pressure she feels from her boss to have everything ready on time.

In Clelia and Momina we can see the Venn diagram, as it were, where narcissism and capitalism overlap. In Momina, both are apparent, since she uses the class hierarchy of capitalism as one of a number of rationalizations to demonstrate her ‘superiority’ to others. In Clelia, we just see the pressures of capitalism making her dress and act with an air of superiority, but narcissistic tendencies are minimal in her: her looking at herself in mirrors, for example, is brief. Momina, in contrast, will look idolatrously at her reflection with that of Cesare Pedone (Fabrizi) in a window in her home, idealizing the image as one of a ‘perfect couple,’ when actually, she’s married–though temporarily separated from her husband–using Cesare as one of many lovers.

A recurring issue in this film is various characters’ preoccupations with such superficialities as what dress to wear, what facial lotion to use, how is one’s reputation or social status, etc. Note again that this preoccupation with one’s public image is directly related to one’s social class, where narcissism and capitalism meet.

The big mystery early on in the film is why Rosetta has tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. On the train ride back from the girlfriends’ disastrous get-together at the beach, Rosetta confides in Clelia about her reasons for her suicide attempt: namely, she speaks of the emptiness of, for example, wondering what dress she’ll wear; soon after, she confesses the more central reason–she can’t have Nene’s Lorenzo. Still, that earlier reason carries considerable weight, and in fact it bears a relationship with the second reason.

She loves Lorenzo because she sees in him a gruff honesty that doesn’t exist in such superficial friends as Momina and the pretty, but air-headed Mariella, the latter’s preoccupations being little more than how beautiful others see her, and who will be her man. Rosetta doesn’t care whether Lorenzo is successful or not: she loves him for how he’s made her feel, in the portrait he’s painted of her.

Though Momina predictably doesn’t think much of the picture, Rosetta is touched by Lorenzo’s efforts. It felt to her as if, with his brush painting her face, he was caressing her. To look at her portrait is, for her, to look in a metaphorical mirror: in painting her, he’s created an idealized version of her to which she cannot measure up if she can’t have him. Hence, when she tries phoning him prior to taking the overdose of sleeping pills, she wishes he’d destroy the painting, as she’s destroyed all her photographs, other metaphorical mirrors of herself. She’d wipe out all traces of herself prior to her suicide.

Of course, Lorenzo being by his own admission much too vain to destroy his painting, also sees it as a kind of metaphorical mirror (i.e., of his painting ability), since apart from having painted it, he sees, in her face, her love reflected back on him, titillating his vanity. Indeed, he looks at her smiling at him, and he feels she has ‘the most beautiful smile in the world.’ His narcissism isn’t of Momina’s malignant kind (i.e., he doesn’t consciously intend to hurt Rosetta or Nene, whereas Momina finds it amusing to stir up drama in this love triangle), but it is sufficient to make him enjoy an affair with Rosetta, enjoying her charms and flattery while leading her on and causing Nene to suffer.

Now, Momina is eager to find any insights related to Rosetta’s suicide attempt, including whom she tried to phone prior to taking the pills. Momina acts as though she only wants to help, but her real agenda is to find out the truth about Rosetta and Lorenzo, in order to exploit it.

Other examples of Momina’s superficiality, narcissism, and general meanness are seen in the early scene when she asks Clelia, in her hotel room, about whom Rosetta phoned. Momina gives Clelia a backhanded compliment about how well she dresses, as good publicity for her salon, when also pointing out how, apparently, ‘fashion designers usually dress like tramps.’ She then asks about Clelia’s facial cream, Clelia getting the hint that Momina is implying how cheap it is. Clelia, lacking Momina’s narcissism, doesn’t judge a product’s worth by its price.

Now, Clelia’s unassuming, but her sense of social class nonetheless must exclude Carlo, as much as she likes him. Workers are typically talked down to by not only Momina, but also Cesare, who is condescending to Carlo in the diner scene when he’s with Clelia; though Mariella acknowledges Carlo is a ‘hunk.’ Clelia tries to be kinder to workers, as I pointed out with her interaction with the hotel maid, as well as with her accommodation of the vagabond in the trattoria scene, when Lorenzo fights with Cesare.

Clelia, therefore, represents the liberal capitalist, who would like to be kinder to the poor, but the pressures of her social class won’t allow her to go beyond a few token gestures of generosity. Hence, she enjoys Carlo’s company in the diner, as well as during their walk to look at furniture for the fashion salon…but marriage with him is out of the question. Just compare her coat with his to see why.

During their walk, she shows him the poor area of Turin where she lived as a little girl. Yes, she was once poor, and was able to rise out of it, so she lacks the snobbishness of Momina and Cesare. Carlo, nonetheless, can feel her airs of superiority, however much Clelia tries to minimize them, and he cannot hide his annoyance with her.

At the end of the film, when Clelia is to leave Turin by train and return to Rome, Carlo wants to be there when she leaves, but he is too ashamed of his lower social class to show himself to her. As he follows her to the train she gets on, he hides behind a vendor’s tall cart. Note how this carrier of things to sell, a symbol of capitalism, is a barrier separating Carlo from Clelia.

Rosetta similarly would love Lorenzo with all her heart, and not care that he has less money than the wealth of the snobbish family she feels little affection for. (Indeed, when her mother visits her in the hospital and is scandalized by her suicide attempt, instead of focusing on her daughter’s pain, she steps aside and looks at herself in her compact. Her narcissistic preoccupation with her own looks, her image, is a more pressing concern than Rosetta’s health and happiness.) She sees herself and Lorenzo in a large mirror while he’s lying on a bed; seeing their reflection together is her idealizing of their relationship, but for the opposite reason of Momina’s idealizing of her time together with Cesare, seeing their reflection in the window in her home. Momina loves the status of having a man like Cesare; Rosetta sincerely loves Lorenzo for himself.

It isn’t Rosetta who sees the class divide between herself and Lorenzo as a problem, though: it is he who does. His masculine pride won’t allow him to marry up, as Clelia’s pressure from the capitalist world won’t allow her to marry down (she wouldn’t want to give up her career and be a housewife/mother for a wealthy husband, but she especially won’t do so for a working-class husband–Carlo…Couldn’t she continue to work, and he be a househusband?).

In these contradictions, we see how career women rising in the context of capitalism will never assure equality of the sexes. A wiping out of sex roles–including the assumption that men are supposed to be more successful (recall Momina’s comment in this connection, during the scene in her home, something with which Rosetta vehemently disagrees), more monied, and generally ‘superior’ to women–is indispensable to such an attainment of equality…and it must be achieved in a socialist context, with a wiping-out of class differences, since sex roles, along with such things as racism, are among the many things the ruling class uses to keep the working class divided among each other.

Lorenzo, however, has internalized the social expectation of masculine preeminence, and his pride won’t let him let go of it. Hence, his fight with Cesare, whose taunts about Nene’s artistic success over Lorenzo’s failures push him beyond endurance in the trattoria scene. Cesare, of course, pretends he’s just joking around, an obvious falsehood, but one of the main themes of Le Amiche is the keeping up of appearances.

As I mentioned above, “The Girlfriends” is an ironic, deceptive name for this film. These women (and their men) largely go about keeping up the appearance of friendship, all for the bourgeois sake of saving face. Actually, all manner of animosity and hostility abound, coming to a head in the three fight scenes–first, at the beach with Momina slapping Mariella, then in the trattoria, with Lorenzo and Cesare trading punches, and finally, between Clelia and Momina in the fashion salon.

Mariella, always opening her mouth without thinking, speaks of how only Rosetta doesn’t have a man, and not noticing that Rosetta has just walked by and heard her. Wishing to avoid losing face and to keep up the appearance of them all bearing no gossipy ill will toward Rosetta, Momina scolds Mariella for speaking so foolishly. When Mariella tries to defend her choice of words and repeats the tactless remark, Momina slaps her. Rosetta, however, prefers Mariella’s tactlessness to Momina’s hypocrisy. As another manifestation of animosity thinly veiled with phoney friendship, Mariella gets even with Momina for the slap by hugging and kissing Cesare in the sand, he being Momina’s boyfriend of the moment, then confessing her motive of revenge before hugging Momina in a pretence of reconciliation with her.

Clelia’s job as manager of a fashion salon is her participating in the business of keeping up appearances, producing glamorous clothes that allow their women wearers to maintain the illusion of exquisite beauty. Capitalism is compelling Clelia to reinforce women’s socially-induced need to hide behind the illusion of beauty, reinforcing this insecurity for the sake of making a profit. Her relationship with Carlo cannot last, him wearing that dull, scruffy coat as against her fur coat, because her association with him would tarnish her glamorous image–it’s bad for business. She even has to hide a love note between the two of them from her models, one of them finding it and laughing at her boss’s expense.

The two women among the girlfriends whom one would assume to be the most mutually rancorous are actually mutually empathic–Rosetta and Nene. The former has stolen the latter’s man; Nene has seen the proof from a sketch she knows Lorenzo did of Rosetta on a matchbox, then given to Rosetta. But instead of privately fighting with her while publicly smiling with her, to keep up appearances among their girlfriends, Nene has a sad, candid conversation with Rosetta about him in private. Rosetta can’t deny being in love with Nene’s man, yet she’s also remorseful about causing Nene’s suffering.

These two, ironically, are the most like friends of all the women.

The final moment of animosity that comes to a head is between Clelia and Momina after Rosetta’s successful suicide. Weeping, Clelia calls Momina a murderess for having goaded on Rosetta to continue her doomed relationship with Lorenzo, all for Momina’s narcissistic, cynical entertainment. That Clelia has blown up at Momina right in front of her boss, a scandalous loss of face in the salon, means Clelia assumes she will lose her job. Fortunately, her boss forgives her and offers her a job in a salon back in Rome, which Clelia accepts.

The boss actually envies Clelia for having been able to get her pain off her chest. The boss, always pressured to keep up appearances, has had to bottle up all of her feelings, a suppression she jokingly claims must be causing her some kind of gastrointestinal problem.

Le Amiche is a movie all about social hypocrisy, narcissism, pressure to keep up appearances, and punishment for those who dare to break society’s rules. It’s also about how class and sex roles divide us all. One hopes that those who watch this film will learn, by example, how not to be friends.

Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

A Tale of Two Cities is an 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, set just before and during the French Revolution, the two cities being London and Paris. The story is about the intersecting lives of Doctor Alexandre Manette, his daughter Lucie, and Charles Darnay in France, and Sydney Carton in England.

A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’s most famous work of historical fiction, and it’s one of the best-selling novels of all time. It has been adapted for film, TV, radio, and the stage, and it continues to influence popular culture.

Here is a link to famous quotes from the novel.

Of all the themes in this novel, the dominant one seems to be duality, expressed in many forms: London/Paris, feudalism/capitalism, light/darkness, Darnay/Carton (two men so fortuitously similar in appearance as to seem twins), Lucie Manette/Madame Defarge (personifications of light and darkness, respectively), and life/death…or death/life, as manifested in symbolic resurrections in the story.

The famous beginning of the novel establishes this theme of duality: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…” The dualistic paradoxes continue with this famous long opening sentence: wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, Light/Darkness, hope/despair, everything/nothing, Heaven/”the other way,” and good/evil.

These juxtaposed opposites represent their dialectical unity, the clash of contradictions. Though the above opposites are of the Hegelian dialectic of ideas, they refer to an epoch famously discussed by Marx as of the historical, materialist dialectic. The novel begins in 1775, just fourteen years before the French Revolution, when the old feudal system would be violently replaced by the capitalist mode of production.

Another duality is seen when Dickens compares the French Revolution to politically radical activity going on in England around the time of the novel’s publication. He fears that a similar bloodbath to that of the Reign of Terror may occur in England, though by the end of the novel, things seem more hopeful for England, even to the point of a tinge of nationalistic pride (recall patriotic Miss Pross‘s defiant words to Madame Defarge: “I am a Briton”–Book Three, Chapter 14, page 407).

The duality of death/life becomes apparent in Book One, Chapter 2, when it is learned that someone has been “RECALLED TO LIFE.” This enigmatic phrase, we later learn, refers to Doctor Manette, who in his 18-year incarceration in the Bastille–a kind of death–has been freed, a kind of resurrection. Other symbolic resurrections, two of them, will occur for Darnay, thanks to his look-alike, Carton.

The trauma of Doctor Manette’s incarceration stays with him after his release, when we find him still making shoes, his work in the Bastille, in the darkness, something he no longer needs to do, but a task he feels psychologically compelled to continue doing. His union with Lucie, the daughter he’s never known and who until now has thought him dead, will bring him back into the light. ‘Lucie‘ literally means ‘light.’

She is so shocked to learn that her father is actually alive that she faints. Symbolically, father and daughter have exchanged the states of life and death, unified opposites like so many others in this story.

Another example of duality is that of two spilled reds: wine, and blood. In Chapter 5 of Book One, a large cask of wine is dropped on the ground by the wine shop of M. Ernest and Mme. Thérese Defarge, in the Faubourg Sainte-Antoine, a suburb of Paris. The poor people of the area rush over to have as much of a drink of the spilled wine as they can. One of them smears BLOOD on a wall with the muddy wine (page 32).

This eagerness of the poor to drink wine off the filthy ground is a reflection of their desperation, want, and hunger. “Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.” (page 33)

Soon after, Dickens relates Want to violent imagery: “The trade signs (and they were almost as many as the shops) were, all, grim illustrations of Want. The butcher and the porkman painted up only the leanest scrags of meat; the baker, the coarsest of meagre loaves. The people rudely pictured as drinking in the wine-shops, croaked over their scanty measures of thin wine and beer, and were gloweringly confidential together. Nothing was represented in a flourishing condition, save tools and weapons; but, the cutler’s knives and axes were sharp and bright, the smith’s hammers were heavy, and the gun-maker’s stock was murderous.” (Dickens, page 34)

This juxtaposition of red wine and blood with hunger and want, and with references to “sharp and bright” knives and axes, heavy hammers, and with the “murderous” gun-maker’s stock, is altogether a foreshadowing of the violence in the impending revolution, when the poor and hungry will finally have their revenge on the rich.

Later in this chapter, we meet not only the Defarges, but also the three “Jacques.” These revolutionaries name themselves after the Jacquerie, a popular peasant revolt in northern France back in the 14th century. The nobles of the time derided these peasants as “Jacques” for the padded surplice, called “jacques” that they wore. The term jacquerie became synonymous with peasant uprisings in both France and England thereafter.

I don’t know if there’s a direct connection in meaning between the kind of Jacques the French nobility were scorning in the 14th century and the “sly, insinuating Jacks” (I, iii, 53) that Richard III was railing against in Shakespeare’s play, but there’s an interesting association that can be made in the “Jacques” of Dickens’s novel trading positions of power with the 18th century French nobility and the Duke of Gloucester’s contempt for such people of low birth when he famously says, “The world is grown so bad/That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch./Since every Jack became a gentleman/There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.” (I, iii, 70-73).

Meanwhile, Madame Defarge is typically seen knitting (see Book Two, Chapters 15 and 16 in particular). She will be a tricoteuse during the guillotine executions, doing her knitting there. This knitting symbolically suggests an association with the Fates, who in their spinning determined everyone’s life and death. Since Defarge is also seen knitting long before the revolution and its Reign of Terror, this early knitting is a foreshadowing of the violence to come.

She encrypts the names of those to be executed into her knitting, again connecting her with the Fates, but also, in a way, with Penelope, who wove a shroud while waiting ever so patiently for her husband, Odysseus, to come home and kill all of her suitors, who were eating her out of house and home. Madame Defarge, as she knits, is also waiting ever so patiently for the violent overthrow of those who, like Penelope’s suitors, have done violence of one form or another to her home (more on that later).

To jump ahead in Dickens’s story, we encounter the first time Carton saves Darnay, who is on trial for treason against the British Crown, by simply demonstrating to the court his uncanny physical resemblance to the accused. The witnesses, two spies, claim that they could pick Darnay out from any man; but their testimony is undermined by Carton’s likeness to him.

The doubles share more in common than just their looks. They share some sense of shame, Darnay’s by his association with his uncle, the wicked Marquis St. Evrémonde, and Carton by his life as a drunken wastrel. Both men redeem themselves: Darnay, by renouncing his uncle’s family and changing his name from Evrémonde to an Anglicizing of D’Aulnais (his mother’s maiden name); and Carton, by taking Darnay’s name and place in La Force Prison, from which he’s to be taken and guillotined, the former thus sacrificing his life to save that of the latter.

Yet another duality is to be found in the two systems of class oppression portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities–namely, the outgoing feudalist one and the incoming capitalist one. Though the revolutionaries, the left-wingers, were hoping for a genuinely new society based on the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité, this was a bourgeois, not a socialist, revolution. It was good that feudal France was no more, but a new form of class struggle was about to be born.

The despicable decadence of feudal times is personified in the unnamed aristocrat known as “Monseigneur.” In Chapter 7 of Book Two, we learn that he needs no less than four men, in “gorgeous decoration,” to get his morning’s chocolate into his mouth (Dickens, page 114)

The cruelties of feudalism, however, are personified in the marquis, whose carriage runs over a little boy, killing him. The marquis’s reaction to the death he’s caused is beyond insensitive: to compensate Gaspard, the dead boy’s grieving father, the marquis tosses him a gold coin and drives on. Gaspard will kill him in revenge, hide out for a year, then be hanged for murder.

The chateau of the marquis is vividly described in terms of the wickedness of the man who lives in it. The first paragraph of Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Gorgon‘s Head,” repeatedly uses the word “stone” or “stony” to describe so much of the marquis’s property as to suggest that Medusa‘s head had turned everything to stone two hundred years prior. This emphasis on stoniness, of course, reflects the marquis’s stony heart, just as the petrifying ugliness of the Gorgon’s head is a mirror to his moral ugliness.

It is this ugliness of feudal France that is the context in which the ugliness of revolutionary violence must be understood. Dickens’s tone, during his narration of all of the events from the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, gives the clear impression that he considered the actions of the revolutionaries to be no less evil than those of their former feudal oppressors.

As with A Christmas Carol, the Dickens who was otherwise thoroughly sympathetic to the poor is in this novel showing what we today would call peak liberalism.

For my part, I’m ambivalent about the wrongs the revolutionaries committed. Their main fault resides in ultimately leaving France with a new system of economic exploitation–capitalism–to replace the old system. The Defarges, after all, are the petite bourgeois owners of a wine shop. As for the violence of the revolutionaries, what can I say? Recall Mao’s words: “A revolution is not a dinner party.”

Were there excesses of violence? Undoubtedly. But revolutions are by definition chaotic, bloody, and messy. The oppressing class can’t be voted or legislated away…they can only be violently overthrown, for they will undermine every attempt to tax them or rein in their power over us. French revolutionary violence was, properly understood, a reaction to centuries of violence done to a starving, wretched populace of peasants.

As for Madame Defarge, her violent excesses may be wrong, but they’re perfectly explicable. Her sister was raped by Darnay’s uncle; her brother confronted the uncle about the rape and was run through with the uncle’s sword. Both her brother and sister died after the best, though failed, efforts of Dr. Manette, who was imprisoned for attempting to report the crimes, and who wrote of them in a manuscript in his cell. Having found the manuscript, which denounces the whole Evrémonde family, Madame Defarge uses it to avenge her dead siblings by trying to destroy not only Darnay, but his whole family, too.

She was “imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.

“It was nothing to her that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them.” (Book Three, Chapter 14, page 402)

One set of excesses tends to lead to an opposing set of excesses, like the teeth of the ouroboros biting into its tail, a symbol of the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve used many times. Since we don’t like riots, we should recall MLK’s words: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Similarly, if you don’t like revolutionary bloodshed, you should bear in mind that such bloody excesses are the words of those who have hitherto been silenced by their oppressors, often spoken in gory fashion.

Madame Defarge is motivated by revenge, personified in one of the other revolutionary women, known literally as The Vengeance. She is the “shadow” of Madame Defarge, a darkness within darkness. All of those who have suffered under feudal rule have been in darkness, such as Doctor Manette in his shadowy prison cell, and in the garret of the Defarges’ wine shop where he is found obsessively making shoes (Chapter 5, The Wine Shop). So when the revolutionaries have their revenge, they put men like Darnay in the darkness of cells in La Force, too. Indeed, his second arrest occurs at night.

Lucie’s light is in dialectical contrast to Madame Defarge’s darkness. The former says of the latter, “that dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me and on all my hopes.” (Book Three, Chapter 3, The Shadow, page 298) Her light, symbolized by each golden thread of her hair, pulls her father out of the dark. (Book One, Chapter 6, The Shoemaker, pages 47-49)

Elsewhere, we have Jerry Cruncher, the “resurrection man” who raids graves in the darkness, and is thus a dark parody of the real resurrection man, Carton, who by taking on Darnay’s identity recalls him to life, bringing him out of that dark cell and into the light, to be reunited with the light of his life, Lucie.

Thus Jerry, a nasty fellow who abuses his wife early on in the story, is the darkness to Carton’s light. Before he is to be guillotined, Carton compares his fate to that of Christ. He quotes the Gospel according to John: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” (John 11:25) Carton, as a Christ-figure, dies so Darnay can live. In this we see the dialectical relationship between life and death in Dickens’s novel. Recall in this connection another important quote from John: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Though Carton loves Lucie, he knows he can never have her. After all, light doesn’t sit with light, but rather with its dialectical opposite: darkness. Carton will go into the darkness of Darnay’s cell so the latter can go out into Lucie’s light.

And while darkness and light are intertwined, so are life and death. Having approached the guillotine, Carton imagines a future world, one long after his death, in which Darnay and Lucie will name a son after Carton. He can “see the lives for which [he] lay[s] down [his] life,” (Dickens, page 417) and in his prophetic visions, as well as the son, Carton has his own resurrection, his own recalling to life after death.

Speaking of ‘resurrections,’ though, another resurrection can be seen today as compared with what was going on back in Dickens’s day and before: the exacerbated immiseration of the poor. A Tale of Two Shitties: the shittiness of Dickens’s time, and the shittiness of our world ever since the dissolution of the socialist states. In this, we see yet another duality: class conflict then, and class conflict now.

Dickens, sympathetic to the plight of the poor but horrified at revolutionary violence, was using this novel to warn the rich of the danger of aggravating class conflict to the point of provoking such violence. When one considers the extremes of income inequality today, as well as all these unending imperialist wars, climate change, and how fear of disease is a distraction from the contemplation of revolution, one would think the ruling class would be heeding Dickens’s warning.

Instead, would-be leftists virtue signal in such ways as AOC wearing a dress with the message “TAX THE RICH” (of which Dickens would have approved) while ignoring protestors outside the Met Gala. In some photos of that dress, the T in TAX isn’t really showing, a kind of fortuitous prophecy. Then there was that small guillotine set by the front door of Bezos’s mansion.

May the Evrémondes everywhere in the world watch out.

The modern-day Madame Defarge is doing her knitting.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Collins Classics, London, 1859

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman

Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

‘The Last Breath,’ a Poem by Rusty Rebar

‘The Last Breath’ is a poem by Rusty Rebar, a Facebook friend of mine. I gave it a quick read the day before and found it full of meaning, which I’d like to examine below. First, here’s his poem (I’m setting it in italics to distinguish his writing from mine, as always):

the last breath

1.
the way a door slammed
rattles the whole house
or how the wrong word
scorches an open heart
shoes without soles
a torn pair of pants


a moment that breaks
every second after
& you seemingly unable
to put it back together
the terror hidden in
a corner of your fears

like a shy thief lurking
afraid to risk capture
but happy to hurt you
wounds inflicted on
you powerless to stop
what keeps happening

2.
pain an offering then
a solace for all that is
no surprise whatsoever
you sit with your demons
in front of the television
mesmerized by action

quick millionaires running
around in their underwear
tights or pajamas depending
joyful endorphins popping
fulfilling safe anticipations
same play — played night

& day — over & over
spinning endless tomorrows
out of imaginary yesterdays
& what is wrong with that
a world of wonderful rules
& magically infinite chances

bread & circus the holy
flesh of brainwash — firm
faith in the glory of private
property & money as the
measure of all things held
tighter when you have neither

3.
with drugs — the effect
wears off — larger doses
needed to deaden nerves
& block the bad feelings
get back to work before
the rent check comes due

escape from a prison
inside the mind impossible
the illusion of freedom ends
& you find yourself back
in your dark lonely cell
more trapped than ever

luckily — your story also
ends — there is no such thing
as forever & no problem
death cannot solve — best
treasure what you do remember
the last breath of a lost friend

And now, for my analysis.

We have three sets of verses, the first set of which centres around pain, broken or torn things, things with holes in them. The second set centres around forms of escape from the pain: television, the American Dream, bread and circuses, distractions. The third set centres around how the forms of escape, including drugs, don’t work–one cannot escape from one’s prison, since one has to go back to work before the rent is due. Still, there is one last escape…death.

So the three verse sets can be seen as the thesis (pain), negation (escape from the pain), and sublation (return to, and ultimate escape from, the pain). It’s the dialectic, but a very physical one, a materialistic one. Marx is turning Hegel right-side up.

The first set of verses is full of the imagery of violence: slammed doors, verbal abuse, the torn pants and the soleless shoes of a soulless world that doesn’t care for the poor. Moments that break, and you can’t put them back together. Thieves are afraid to get caught, but happy to hurt you: this is a world of alienation. We feel powerless to stop the pain.

The second set of verses deals with what Klein and Winnicott called the manic defence, or any attempt to avoid dealing with the painful, depressive sides of life, and to plunge instead into the manic, or exciting, sides of life (drugs, porn, etc.). One sits a mesmerized zombie in front of the idiot box, following the latest media nonsense, or one tries to identify with the rich, fantasizing that one day, the American Dream will come true for oneself…when of course there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening.

One sees millionaires in the media dancing around in their underwear, because only they have the financial freedom to act as inanely as they like. Perhaps they’re wandering about in their pyjamas, like Hef. This empty worship of wealth goes on day after day, a hiding away from one’s secret sorrows. Those sorrows, however unacknowledged, go on “spinning endless tomorrows…”–reminding us of Macbeth‘s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech (Act V, Scene v)–“…out of imaginary yesterdays,” reminding us in turn of Macbeth’s words “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.”

Life is as meaningless for us today, with our “faith in the glory of private/property” (note the enjambment between the two words, indicating how split a concept that one is, as is so much of our psychological fragmentation, symbolized by all the other examples of enjambment in this poem), as it was for the Scottish tyrant of Shakespeare’s play. One believes in such empty capitalistic concepts especially when one doesn’t benefit from the wealth of the 1%.

The third set of verses deals with the coming down, as it were, from the high one felt in the escape of the second set. One now feels even worse than before, unable to escape the reality one keeps coming back to. Still, there’s one last escape…death. “To die, to sleep,/No more…” (Act III, Scene i) Unlike the Dane, though, we in today’s secular world don’t generally worry about “the dread of something after death, —/The undiscovered country,” so “the last breath of a lost friend,” death, is a soft breeze on our faces, and gives us hope in our despair…the hope of despair.

Rights

The right,
left, and the centre are defined
in terms of their relations to each other.

The right,
were left and shifty centre moved
(along the spectrum, from their proper places)

rightwards,
wouldn’t seem extreme, like its sworn foe,
the oft-forgotten left. The centre, thus

more right,
would seem a milder kind of right,
while what to us seems left is centre. Our rights

fade right
into oblivion. Fascism
is normalized. The left and centre die.

The right
is all there is, and human rights
are all left in the centre of a dungheap.

We’re right
back where we started, when Hitler
was snuffing leftists, making centrists right.

Analysis of ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’

The Little Shop of Horrors is a black-and-white 1960 horror/comedy film directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. The story may have been inspired by “Green Thoughts,” a 1932 story by John Collier; it may have been influenced by “The Reluctant Orchid,” a 1956 sci-fi story by Arthur C. Clarke, which in turn was inspired by “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” a 1905 HG Wells story.

The film stars Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked with Corman on previous films. The Little Shop of Horrors uses a whimsical, idiosyncratic sense of humour, combining black comedy, farce, Jewish humour, and bits of spoof. It was shot on a budget of $28,000 ($240,000 in 2019), with interiors shot in two days.

It gained a cult following after being distributed as a B-movie in a double feature with Mario Bava‘s Black Sunday. A small, early role for Jack Nicholson retrospectively helped the film’s popularity when promoted on home video releases. It became the basis for an off-Broadway musical, which in turn was made into a film adaptation in 1986, starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Ellen Greene.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Since Corman never bothered to copyright the film (thinking it had little in financial prospects), it has entered the public domain. A link to the entire film can be found here.

Seymour Krelboined (Haze) is a clumsy, socially awkward florist’s assistant working on skid row in California. His boss is Gravis Mushnick (Welles), a bad-tempered, penny-pinching stereotype of Jewish humour who speaks ungrammatical English, laden with malapropisms, in a thick Yiddish accent. Seymour will be fired for his ineptitude unless he can impress Mushnick with his new plant.

Seymour, Mushnick, and Audrey admiring Audrey Jr.

All the characters in this film are comically idiosyncratic in one form or another: Seymour’s love interest, Audrey Fulquard (Joseph), the sweet–if rather ditzy (her dialogue, too, abounds in malapropisms)–girl next door; Burson Fouch (Miller), an eccentric eater of flowers who gives Mushnick the idea to save Seymour’s job by using his unusual new plant to attract customers; Seymour’s hypochondriac mother Winifred (played by Myrtle Vail), who considers medication synonymous with food; ever-mourning Mrs. Shiva (aptly surnamed), who always needs flowers for funerals (hoping for cut-rate prices) for the latest death in the family; Sergeant Joe Fink, the narrator, and Officer Frank Stoolie, two Dragnet-style detectives; Dr. Phoebus Farb, a fittingly sadistic dentist; and Wilbur Force (Nicholson), a masochist who loves going to the dentist.

It’s interesting how Fouch, an eater of flowers, encourages the public display of a plant that, as it turns out, eats human flesh. Flowers are the commodity sold in Mushnick’s shop, of course, and Fouch is a consumer (in more ways than one) of them. The addition of ‘Audrey Jr.’, the giant man-eating variant of a Venus flytrap, to the store will cause business to boom in a way all storeowners dream of, but not even Mushnick will want to pay the gory price that Audrey Jr. demands.

The rapid growth of Audrey Jr., coupled with its appetite for human flesh, can be seen to symbolize the predatory nature of capitalism, which must continue growing, being fed on profits (i.e., the improved business of Mushnick’s flower shop), with no regard for the needs of human life.

So, consumption–in its various meanings–is the dominant theme of the movie: the plant’s consumption of human flesh, Fouch’s consumption of flowers, Mushnick’s customers’ consumption (buying) of his flowers, little Audrey Jr.’s consumption (using up) of Seymour’s blood, his mother’s consumption of medicines as if they were food, and the public’s consumption (i.e., reception of information/entertainment) of the display of Audrey Jr. in the flower shop.

Since the setting of the film is skid row, a part of town where the poor try to escape their troubles in such forms as alcohol and drugs, Winifred’s consumption of medicines can easily be seen as symbolic of drug addiction, especially since the tonic Seymour buys for her is 98% alcohol. She has a few sips and is already tipsy by the time he leaves their house with his then-little plant.

Winifred Krelboined

The symbolic relationship between Fouch’s eating of flowers and Audrey Jr.’s eating of people should be seen as a karmic one. Fouch’s eating of flowers symbolizes man’s destruction of nature by commodifying it; the plant’s man-eating is thus nature’s revenge on man, the destruction of the environment being also our destruction, our collective suicide.

Commodification, the making of exchange-values to generate profits, is the basis of capitalism; small wonder Marx began Capital, vol 1 with a discussion of the commodity. Flowers are Mushnick’s commodities, so Seymour’s plant and its growth represent how the profit made from commodities result in another kind of growth: the accumulation of capital. Audrey Jr.’s bloodlust represents the pain and suffering that inevitably result from all this capital accumulation.

Seymour’s social awkwardness reflects the aggravated kind of alienation one would encounter in the poverty of skid row. He loves raising plants, but he is only of any worth to Mushnick if he can nurse Audrey Jr. to health and present it appealingly to his boss’s customers, getting them to want to buy flowers in the shop. Once the plant’s health has revived, and it has grown thanks to its drinking of drops of Seymour’s blood, his boss no longer loathes him, and even starts calling him ‘Son.’

Two pretty girls, who enter the shop out of curiosity about Audrey Jr., and who wish to decorate a float with flowers, treat Seymour like a pop star upon learning that it is his horticultural skills that have brought the plant to life. After Mushnick, dreaming of wealth and moving his flower shop to Beverly Hills, gives ever-grieving Mrs. Shiva flowers for free, he notices Audrey Jr. sick again, regrets his generosity to her, and instantly reverts to his contempt for Seymour. The boy’s alienation arises from only being of value if he can help his boss make money.

His alienation grows worse when he realizes that the only way he can keep Audrey Jr. alive is by murdering people and feeding it the corpses. Since murder is repellant to his nature, his bloody work is now alienating him from what Marx called one’s species-essence.

Seymour Krelboined

One is alienated from one’s work, from oneself, and of course from other people. Seymour alienates himself from others, though he “didn’t mean it,” but he isn’t the only one. Dr. Farb, the dentist who loves drilling holes in people’s teeth, also alienates people with his sadism. There are the teeth that hack up a man, and there’s a man who hacks up teeth, another reversal comparable to that of Fouch vs Audrey Jr.

There’s karmic retribution in Audrey Jr. eating human flesh, in response to what Fouch’s flower-eating represents (destruction of the environment). Then there’s karmic retribution in Seymour’s killing of Dr. Farb, in response to the dentist’s gleeful torturing of his patients; recall how, in the 1986 film musical, Steve Martin’s dentist sings of people paying him “to be inhumane.” Many high-paid professionals–doctors, lawyers, politicians–do awful things on a scale comparable to those of the greedy capitalist.

The suffering of the poor in such places as skid row, people ever held down under the boot of the capitalist, often leads to varying forms of mental illness, as in Winifred’s hypochondria and the sexual masochism disorder of Wilber Force (Nicholson). While most masochists in the BDSM community engage in their kink in a way that doesn’t cause them psychosocial difficulties, Force’s eager willingness to have (imagined dentist) Seymour pull out several–it is safe to presume–perfectly healthy teeth is clearly an impairment of Force’s functioning in social situations.

Added to all of this, the farcical humour we see in Seymour’s clumsiness, the eccentricities of his mother and Fouch, Farb’s sadism, Force’s masochism, etc., should be seen as representative of the absurdist futility of their existence in an alienating, capitalist society that keeps them in poverty and misery. Even Fink and Stoolie, the police investigating the disappearances of Farb and the railroad detective (whom Seymour accidentally hit with a large rock and made fall on the tracks to be run over by a train), react to the death of Stoolie’s son–who was playing with matches–by nonchalantly saying, “Those are the breaks.”

Audrey Jr.’s chewing of human bodies into pieces, Dr. Farb’s drilling and pulling of teeth, and Force’s delight at getting his teeth drilled and pulled, all represent the psychological fragmentation that results from an alienating capitalist society that privileges the few and impoverishes most of the rest of humanity. Even the budding relationship between Seymour and Audrey doesn’t last long; predictably, the talking plant’s incessant demand, “Feed me!”, is what gets in the way of their love. The growing monster of capitalism eats up everything.

Audrey Fulquard

The two girls who want to feature Audrey Jr. on their float fittingly say that their spectators will “eat it up.” The literal or figurative consumption of commodities leads to the consumers being karmically consumed by their own materialism and commodity fetishism. People see only the growing plant; they know nothing of what it is actually fed to make it grow.

The reversals of Fouch’s flower-eating vs a man-eating plant, and of teeth that mutilate vs Farb’s mutilating of teeth, are a fusion of dialectical contradiction with karma.

Though Mushnick is horrified to find out that Seymour is feeding the plant human flesh, he is conflicted about whether to inform the authorities or to keep quiet and enjoy the new success of his business. It is common for business owners to be conflicted over the need to maximize profit vs the need to be humane towards their employees, to care about the environment, etc. We’ll notice however that, no matter how strongly…and sincerely…the capitalist feels about humanitarian concerns, the profit motive will take priority, because the capitalist is compelled to prioritize profit. Hence, Mushnick’s procrastination with telling the police.

Mrs. Hortense Feuchtwanger, a lady from the “Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California,” enters the flower shop and is fascinated with Audrey Jr. If the plant’s buds open on the evening she returns to the shop, and if she likes what she sees, she’ll give Seymour a trophy for his plant.

This trophy would represent the kind of recognition that Seymour, a misfit and ‘loser’ that no one has ever appreciated or liked, so desperately craves. Only recently have any women (Audrey, the two girls with the float, Mrs. Feuchtwanger) ever shown him any liking, and if there’s one thing we all desire, it’s that of the Other, to be desired of the Other, to get the Other’s recognition.

As with his romance with Audrey, though, Seymour’s appreciation from Mrs. Feuchtwanger will be short-lived, too. The lady returns to the flower shop to see the budding, and she is horrified–as are Audrey, Mushnick, Fouch, Winifred, and Fink and Stoolie, who are also there at the time–to see the faces of all those eaten by the plant in its opened flowers.

Oddly, the two girls with the float still like Audrey Jr., looking gleefully at the faces in the budded flowers. They represent the extreme of commodity fetishism: so entranced are they by the plant as a finished product that they show no regard for the victims that helped it grow.

Gravis Mushnick

Recall, also, that as horrified as Mushnick is at Audrey Jr., especially to learn that it is a talking plant, he, too, is willing to have it eat up someone–in this case, an armed robber (played by scriptwriter Griffith, who also did the voice of the plant). Guarding his money is more important to capitalist Mushnick than preventing yet another victim of Audrey Jr.

The robber isn’t the only member of the Lumpenproletariat to be fed to the plant: so is an aggressive prostitute who tries to get Seymour to be her next client. For indeed, with Audrey Jr. as symbolic of the ever-growing, ever-devouring monster that is capitalism, such Lumpenproletariat as criminals and streetwalkers are every bit as much victims of the bourgeoisie as are the strata of the working class just above them.

Capital seems to develop a mind of its own, in how it subjugates us all to the will of the profit motive, even when we try to resist it on moral grounds, as Mushnick and Seymour try to do. This ‘mind of its own’ would seem to explain, in symbolic terms, why the plant can talk, and why it can hypnotize Seymour into doing its will, right when he tries so vehemently to defy it.

So many of us on the left try to defy the system around us that we hate so much, but through the mesmerizing bourgeois media (part of the system’s superstructure), now including Facebook, the narcissistic exhibitionism of Instagram, etc., we all get pulled back into complying. Hence, Seymour wanders the streets of skid row, in such a trance as to ignore the charms of the streetwalker, and takes her back and feeds her to Audrey Jr.

When Fink and Stoolie learn that Seymour is responsible for all the killings, they and Mushnick chase him on the streets of skid row in the night. The two cops represent the feeble attempts that an otherwise bourgeois state makes to curb the excesses of capitalism. That feeble effort is demonstrated in their failure to apprehend ineffectual, spastic Seymour, who should be easy to catch.

Wilbur Force

They chase him into some bizarre, even surreal-looking, parts of town, but they are places nonetheless indicative of the capitalist preoccupation with commodities–rather unclean ones, actually. Seymour is chased into the private property of a tire and rubber company, when he runs and hides in a labyrinth of giant tires. One of the few times he doesn’t trip is over resting Mushnick’s leg, though Fink and Stoolie do trip over it!

Then Seymour hides in, of all things, a toilet among a maze of bathroom fixtures (sinks, bathtubs, etc). Mushnick tells the cops that they won’t find Seymour there, though he is most obviously there. In all of this not only do we see the symbolism of a bourgeois government failing to punish the excesses of capitalism, but we also see a capitalist helping in achieving that failure.

Seymour returns to the flower shop a broken man. Racked with guilt over his murders, he’s lost the woman he loves, he’s a wanted man, and it’s all because of that bloody, gluttonous plant that has repaid his services by ruining his life. In despair, he decides to sate Audrey Jr.’s hunger one last time with his own body…and a knife to kill it with.

A karmic reversal has finally happened to the plant, instead of it being an agent of karma; for such is the reality of the dialectical crests and troughs of theses phasing into negations and sublations that become new theses to be negated and sublated. Now Seymour’s face appears in the latest budding flower, to add to all the other faces. The plant dies, too, and just as capitalism kills, so will it destroy itself in the end.

Analysis of ‘Sink the Bismarck!’

I: Introduction

Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white British war film directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Edmund H North, based on The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck (alternatively titled Hunting the Bismarck), a 1959 fictionalized account of the actual WWII naval battles of the German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen vs. the British Royal Navy, written by CS Forester.

The film stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter, with Carl Möhner, Laurence Naismith, Karel Stepánek, Esmond Knight, John Stride, Jack Gwillim, and Michael Hordern. The film was praised for its historical accuracy in spite of a number of inconsistencies. It’s to date the only war film to deal with the Bismarck naval battles, and it’s an anomaly in how it focuses much film time on the back-room strategists, as opposed to devoting the film to the combatants themselves.

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

The film simplifies and distorts aspects of the battles, particularly those involving HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. Though the actual man who oversaw the operation to sink the Bismarck was Sir Ralph Edwards (and the film acknowledges him in the ending credits), the film replaces him with the fictional Captain Shepard (More). Another character, WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Wynter), was invented with Shepard, their fictional interplay and chemistry adding human depth and emotional interest to the story, as did the fictional characters Forester added to his account (e.g., Dusty and Nobby).

This fictionalized history, in its book and film versions, is meant of course to dramatize the greatness of the British navy in their heroic struggle against Nazi Germany; but speaking of historical inaccuracies here, there is a context that has to be examined in order to understand the true nature of the conflict between England and the Nazis. The film and book would have us believe that Britain and Nazi Germany were on practically opposite ends of the political spectrum, with the UK’s liberal democracy on one side and German fascism on the other; but the political reality of the time revealed them to be not so far apart as it seemed.

II: Some Much-Needed Historical Context

Contrary to the heroic portrayal of him in the media, including this film, Churchill was a dreadful, even despicable, human being. Being a highly-placed man in the British Empire, he was as preoccupied with maintaining and protecting England’s imperialist interests as Hitler was in establishing Lebensraum for Germany. Such preoccupations included a gleeful, even fanatical, support for violence against the Japanese, Indians, Sudanese, Cubans, etc. He was easily as racist, if not more so, than Hitler, looking down on Native Americans, Australian aborigines, etc., as inferior.

Churchill also opposed women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, busting unions and violently suppressing strikes in a way that Hitler would have admired. He only supported Zionism for the sake of Western imperialist interests; like Hitler, he also spoke of the dangers of the “International Jews.”

Apart from the Churchill/Hitler comparison, the crimes of British imperialism are also comparable to those of the Nazis in terms of how horrific they were. Here are just a few examples: Boer War concentration camps, the transatlantic slave trade, the Opium Wars, the Bengal famine (Churchill diverted Indian food to European troops when a bad harvest had already made such food scarce, causing the deaths of millions of Indians), and the brutal repression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

Given this bloody context, we are now ready to see the fighting between England and Germany the right way: it wasn’t ‘democracy vs tyranny,’ it was simply inter-imperialist conflict. And just as the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany (which also had a wider context not so well-known, and one which makes nonsense out of the notion of moral equivalency between fascists and communists), so did the capitalist West have such a pact with the Nazis: Munich, at which appeaser Neville Chamberlain claimed he’d achieved “peace in our time.”

Indeed, not only Churchill but many British conservatives (including the aristocracy) expressed support for fascism, for they knew it was an effective weapon against the rise of socialism. People like Churchill and Chamberlain were hoping, by ceding the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Nazi Germany, Hitler would be encouraged to go further East, invade the USSR, and crush communism.

Hitler, however, started presenting himself as a threat to Western imperial hegemony, and this caused Churchill et al to change their attitude toward this new imperialist challenger, and to regard him as just as much of an enemy as did Stalin, who’d been desperately trying to get the, till then, deaf Western powers to join him in an alliance against Hitler.

So inter-imperialist conflict is the basis of the fighting between Britain and the Nazis. In the particular instance of this movie and Forester’s book, the Nazis started the failed Operation Rheinübung in an attempt to block supplies from reaching England.

III: Pride

The notion of the British as the heroes and the Nazis as the (only) villains is, as I’ve stated above, a liberal bourgeois perspective, given that in actual fact both sides were imperialists vying for a bigger slice of the pie. This notion of one side as good, more civilized, more advanced, and therefore superior to the other is actually an attitude held on both sides of the conflict, and is thus an expression of national pride.

That ‘pride goeth…before a fall‘ is a recurring theme in this film, and it is noted on both sides of the conflict. While the tone of the film would have us believe that the irrational emotion of pride is far more a pronounced fault of the Nazis than of the British, there are a number of indications, including some Freudian slips, if you will, in the writing, that suggest that the chasm separating Nazi pride from that of the British isn’t as far apart as is assumed.

The film begins with a newsreel showing the 1939 launch of the Bismarck, with Hitler among the attendees. This is a moment of Nazi pride, assuming their new battleship has a Titanic-like invincibility.

Then we have a shot of the approaching Captain John Shepard in May 1941, walking in the direction of the Admiralty in London where he is to be the new overseer of strategizing in the War Room underground. As Shepard approaches, we see a statue of a lion to his left, a symbol of the strength of Britain. A huge flock of birds flies off the ground where he is walking, just before we see the film title flash on the screen; it is as if the birds deliberately make way for our great hero. In these visuals we see manifestations of British pride to parallel that shown in the Nazi newsreel.

We next see Edward R Murrow playing himself, CBS London radio correspondent. As an American broadcast journalist discussing the threat the Bismarck presents to England, his sympathy to Britain represents the solidarity felt between those countries that were and are part of Anglo-American imperialism. He says Britain is fighting alone, a claim easily proven false given the aid England got from her dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, all before the US would enter WWII by the end of the year. This ‘Britain fighting alone’ is just another example of the country’s excessive pride.

IV: Stereotypes

Shepard is in many ways as much the ‘stiff upper lip‘ stereotype of the British as the film’s portrayal of Fleet Admiral Günther Lütjens (Stepánek) is of the Nazis. Within a minute of having entered the War Room, Shepard is quick to find annoyance with the informal work atmosphere he sees: a young man isn’t properly wearing his uniform (no jumper); the charms of the beautiful Davis are jocularly overestimated, by Shepard’s predecessor, as crucial to winning the war; Commander Richards (played by Maurice Denham) is eating a sandwich on duty; and a man addresses Davis as ‘Anne,’ which especially irks Shepard.

This stiff upper lip of Shepard’s extends, predictably, to his refusal to show or talk about his emotions. While part of his reason for this refusal is the pain he felt over the death of his wife during an air raid and the sinking of his ship by a German cruiser commanded by Lütjens, another part of the reason, surely, is his pride, especially seen in his stubborn insistence on the virtue of stoicism as against Davis’s argument for the healthy expression of feelings.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (Naismith) says he’s been told that Shepard is “as cold as a witch’s heart.” Pound approves of this characterization of Shepard, as much of an exaggeration as it is; he wants a man with no heart or soul, but “just an enormous brain.” Fighting the Nazis in the North Atlantic will be “a grim business,” not to be won with “charm and personality.”

The fact is that inter-imperialist conflict is a grim business, making the British as grim in their dealings as the Nazis are. Hence, Pound wants an agent in southern Norway to make direct contact with the Admiralty, as dangerous as making such a contact will be for the agent. The Norway man will be shot by the Nazis in the middle of sending a message about where the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are sailing, but Pound considers the sacrifice worth it.

V: A Naval Chess Game

Pound and Shepard learn that the German ships are coming out of the Baltic. The two men are looking at a large map on a table with small models of ships that are moved around like chess pieces. Indeed, the conflict turns out to be a “chess game” of sorts between Shepard and Lütjens: who will outsmart whom?

Pound notes the British ships available at Scapa Flow that could engage the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen : HMS King George V, HMS Prince of Wales, and HMS Hood. Pound contacts Admiral Sir John Tovey (Hordern, who actually served as a lieutenant commander in HMS Illustrious during the war) of King George V about the incomplete message from the agent in Norway who was killed: Prinz Eugen was spotted, and one must assume the worst, that the Bismarck is sailing with her.

As other players of this “chess game,” the men on King George V have to anticipate which way the German ships are going in order to intercept them: will they go through the Denmark Strait, will they sail south of Iceland, or through the Faeroes/Shetland passage?

Shepard wants to reinforce the Home Fleet, taking ships away from other duty. He considers taking HMS Victorious and HMS Repulse off escort duty, which would give the commander-in-chief an aircraft carrier and another battle cruiser. 20,000 men’s lives would be risked; Shepard doesn’t consider their lives a gamble, but a calculated risk. Pound approves of his decision.

Defending empire is, indeed, a grim business.

Now that King George V has Victorious and Repulse, Tovey wants the Hood and Prince of Wales in the Greenland area, while the Home Fleet sail from the Scapa Flow area, then south of the Faeroes and Iceland, to be ready to engage the Bismarck south of Greenland if the Hood and Prince of Wales fail…

…which, of course, they will.

Bad weather reinforces the British Navy’s difficulties, making the German ships virtually invisible. Lütjens speaks of the “chess game” he is playing with the British, and he proudly imagines himself able to win. Note the comparison between the stereotypical British vs German forms of pride, the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the former, and the boastful, ‘superior Aryan pride’ of the latter.

VI: Lütjens

Lütjens is, of course, portrayed as a stereotypical Nazi. The historical Lütjens, however, was nothing like this film portrayal, which should help us see that British and German pride aren’t as far apart from each other as is assumed.

The Lütjens of Forester’s book is somewhat prouder, but not as much as he is in the film. The film Lütjens complains of not receiving the recognition due to him in WWI; he is also fanatical in his belief that the Bismarck is unsinkable.

The Lütjens of history, however, was a very different man. He did not agree with Nazi policies: he was one of only a few navy commanders who publicly protested against the brutal mistreatment of the Jews during Kristallnacht. Also, he was one of the few officers to refuse to give Hitler the Nazi salute when the Führer visited the Bismarck on its first and final mission. Such rebellious actions would have taken uncommon courage; it was also in marked contrast to the film’s portrayal of a committed Nazi who’d have us never forget he is a Nazi and a German, and who passionately shouts, “Heil Hitler!

So, this contrast between the stoic Shepard and the crazed Nazi Lütjens is meant to make the former look like the more reasonable man by far. In effect, it’s to make the British seem superior to the Nazis, when as I indicated above, the crimes of British imperialism make England no more guiltless than Germany. Indeed, it is the role of fascism to be the ‘bad cop’ to the ‘good cop’ of the liberal bourgeoisie, when in reality, all cops are bastards.

VII: Shepard’s Mask of Ice

Shepard’s outer shell of stoicism is shown again when he’s asked about his son, Tom (Stride), an air gunner in Ark Royal‘s Swordfish squadron. One assumes the boy’s father would be glad to know he’s (for the moment, actually) far away from the danger of facing the Bismarck, but Shepard says his son must take his chances like everyone else. This would seem a brave, self-sacrificing attitude, but some might think it callous. In any case, the attitude Shepard presents here is fake; he’s just being too proud to admit to his feelings and emotional vulnerability. We’ll know his real feelings for Tom soon enough.

Shepard is again cold to his staff when he learns a young officer named Dexter is late for duty, though only a little. Commander Richards, the man to be relieved by Dexter, doesn’t mind the lateness, but Shepard does. He punishes the boy by requiring him for duty the next three nights. Richards pleads for Dexter, saying the boy wishes to have some time to spend with his girl, an army nurse, before she’s sent off from Portsmouth to go overseas; but Shepard won’t make an exception.

Shepard’s insistence on this punishment happens during a scene when Davis has discussed with him the loss of the man she loved, a “wonderful man” who was missing in action at Dunkirk the previous year. She has argued how good it is to talk about one’s feelings, while Shepard of course doesn’t think so. He similarly shows no warmth or pity to Dexter’s now being unable to be with his girl.

The reality of imperialism, as a modern extension of capitalism, is that it causes alienation to metastasize. We see this intensified alienation in Shepard, as the Director of Operations for the imperialist British fleet, in his callous attitude toward such young people in love as Dexter. While he shows a modicum of sympathy for Davis (presumably because of her elegant beauty), he still won’t concede any validity to her belief in the goodness of showing feelings.

Another provocation, happening by the end of that same scene, challenges an uncovering of Shepard’s outer mask of stoicism: he learns that Lütjens, who sank his ship, is commanding the Bismarck. Since he’s dealt with Lüjens before, though, Shepard will be able to get good hunches about what his nemesis plans to do.

VIII: Bismarck vs Hood

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are spotted sailing in the Denmark Strait, so the Hood and Prince of Wales (the latter of which has civilian workers aboard) will have to confront them the next morning. Captain Leach (Knight, who actually served as a gunnery officer on board the Prince of Wales, where he was seriously injured and blinded during the battle with the Bismarck) tells his men to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the coming battle.

To get back to the theme of pride before a fall, the Hood is the pride of the British navy. When the men in the War Room know the Hood is about to face the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (played by Geoffrey Keen) proudly says, “Good old Hood; she’ll get them.”

The problem is, of course, that she won’t get them. Instead, the Bismarck first hits the Hood, only slightly damaging her, then after another salvo, the first three shells of which hit the water near the Hood, the fourth hits just below its main mast, penetrating the deck armour, and the Hood‘s deck explodes. Both the British and German sides are shocked at the destruction of this once great ship. What’s left of it is covered in smoke. The destruction of the Hood is thus a parallel of the upcoming destruction of the Bismarck, indicating a parallel of British imperialist pride with that of the Nazis.

IX: Parallels

There are enough parallels, or doublings, of so many aspects of the British and German sides in this film, revealed in a more or less Freudian slip-like fashion (i.e., not consciously expressed as doubles or parallels), as to justify–along with the British imperialist crimes mentioned above–the near moral equivalency of the British and the Nazis.

As noted above, the Hood and Bismarck are parallels, the pride of their respective countries’ navies, and they will both meet their demises. Shepard and Lütjens are doubles. Both are embittered from misfortunes of one kind or another from their pasts. The pride of Shepard and Lütjens will, in one sense or another, fall: the former will have to own up to his emotions, and the latter will face the consequences of his overconfidence.

Recall the difference, however, between the film’s portrayal of Lütjens and the historical man, who far from being overconfident, was actually pessimistic about the Bismarck‘s chances of a successful mission. In the film, Captain Ernst Lindemann (Möhner)–who is a parallel to Shepard’s Davis in being a soft-spoken voice of reason trying to temper the stubborn pride of his superior–is ordered by Lütjens to fire on the Hood; while the Lütjens of history ordered Lindemann not to engage the Hood, with Lindemann attacking despite his superior’s orders. And if the Lütjens of the film takes reckless chances, so does Shepard in his giving the Home Fleet Victorious and Repulse, risking the lives of 20,000 men.

The only reason we in the Anglo-American world consider the British in the film to be bold and daring in their risks, while considering the Nazis to be reckless in theirs, is because we have been culturally conditioned to sympathize with the former imperialists and not with the latter. In reality, neither side should have been sympathized with.

Another parallel, or doubling, in the film is the phone call from Churchill to the Admiralty and the telegram from Hitler to the Bismarck. We all know Hitler was a warmonger, but in Forester’s account (page 77 of this pdf), Hitler calls Churchill a warmonger (which he was, technically).

X: Damaging the Prince of Wales

To get back to the story, though, with the Hood gone, it’s up to the Prince of Wales to fight the Bismarck. The British ship hits the Bismarck on the bow, then the latter hits the former on the bridge, killing all but two men there. Hit several more times, the Prince of Wales has to retreat.

Directly below the flaming wreckage of what once was the bridge is the chart room, where the navigating officer sees blood dripping from the voice pipe onto his chart. This scene is in Forester’s account (page 55 of the pdf), and it is reproduced in the film.

Proud of his victory over the Hood and the Prince of Wales, Lütjens wants to continue sailing in the Atlantic in search of more opportunities of Nazi glory. (His pride is shown in both the book [pdf pages 61-64] and the film.) Damage to the Bismarck, however, has caused an oil leak, and Lindemann wants to return to Germany for refuelling and repairs. Proud Lütjens won’t have it, though, and he’ll have news of his victory sent to Berlin; repairs and refuelling can be done in Nazi-occupied Brest instead.

Sad news of the destruction of the Hood is disseminated throughout the Allied press, including Murrow’s sombre report, contrasting with the proud, jubilant news of the same thing in the Nazi reporting. The film and book–the latter dramatizing the loss through the grieving mother of a seaman named Nobby (pdf page 59)–would have us commiserating with the British, and looking with sober eyes at the Nazi gloating; but since, as I’ve said above, it’s just one criminal empire fighting a criminal would-be empire, the opposition between both sides should be seen as a dialectical sublation, not a Manichaean dualism.

XI: Airplanes

Prinz Eugen breaks away, heading to Brest. Shepard is aware that his son, Tom, is going to be exposed to the danger because Force H, the Ark Royal and its Swordfish planes are being deployed to hunt the Bismarck. Shepard’s efforts to contain his emotions are being tested once again.

After evading the radar of the Suffolk and Norfolk, the Bismarck (located by Catalina flying boats) is to be slowed down by an air strike from the Swordfish torpedo bombers. Another fall of British pride comes when, not only do the airplanes mistakenly attack the Sheffield, thinking she’s the Bismarck, but also the torpedoes used have an unreliable magnetic detonator that tends to cause them to explode just after being dropped in the water (pdf page 107). If my lip-reading is at all reliable, the captain of the Sheffield (played by John Horsley), in annoyance with the friendly fire incident, seems to be saying, “Stupid fucking bastards,” the audio being out for obvious reasons.

Later, the Swordfish return with conventional contact exploders, and one of their torpedoes detonates near the stern, jamming the Bismarck‘s rudder, slowing her down, and making manoeuvring impossible. Undaunted in his stubborn pride, Lütjens tells his men (who in Forester’s book haven’t properly slept in days…no rest for the wicked!) not to lose heart, for U-boats will be coming to help soon (the Luftwaffe will come, too), and of course the Bismarck is, apparently, unsinkable. His pride is about to come crashing down with his ship.

Tom Shepard participates in the earlier airstrikes, and with them comes news of his momentary disappearance. Naturally, the boy’s father is shaken upon hearing the news, desperately trying to contain himself with that mask of stoicism. Shepard has been warming up to Davis, though, little by little; and he follows her advice about talking about his feelings.

XII: Feelings

He tells her his reason for refusing to acknowledge them: the death of his wife has made him believe the disavowal of his feelings will shield him from future hurt. But he forgot about his strong love for his son. Another strong feeling of his, pride, has been thwarted in his forced confrontation with that love.

When he finally learns that his son is alive and well from a phone call, he freezes and cannot answer. He is suspended between the stoic front he always puts on and the awesome wave of relief that has washed all over him. He steps out back to shed a few embarrassing tears, and Davis has noticed; but she’s too elegant a lady to let him know she’s seen him in such a vulnerable state. The film’s sympathy to Britain softens this fall of pride.

XIII: Sinking the Bismarck

The most brutal fall of pride, of course, is reserved for the men of the Bismarck, since it is the filmmaker’s (and Forester’s) intent to maximize the contrast between the UK and the Nazis, and therefore their respective falls of pride. Lütjens has received a telegram from Hitler saying that all of Germany is waiting to welcome him as their great hero. They, of course, will never receive him, since he will die, ironically, with the telegram on him.

The destruction and sinking of the Bismarck (finished off by Dorsetshire) is shown in all its brutality, with salvo after salvo hitting her and penetrating that thick armour, a man from King Charles V saying, “Shoot!” over and over again. We see Germans trying to rescue their wounded on a stretcher, then a shell hits the ship, throwing the men and making them drop the wounded. Men down below race in the rising, flooding water, trying to escape a drowning. Men open a top hatch only to find flames preventing their escape.

Now, Admiral Tovey is gracious enough to have the Dorsetshire rescue the German survivors, but one controversial historical detail left out of the film is how this ship quickly left after rescuing only 110 Germans, because a U-boat was suspected to have been in the area. The film must do all in its power to portray the British as well as possible, while doing a caricature of Nazi evil.

XIV: Shepard and Davis

The potential for a romance between widowed Shepard and Davis has been kindled in her preference to work for him over a job offer in the US. He asks her out to dinner, thinking it’s evening, when in fact it’s the morning, so they leave the Admiralty to have breakfast together instead. This minimizing of any romantic chemistry between them seems another example of stereotypical British stoicism, the affectation of virtuous self-control.

Shepard and Davis walk away in that same shot that introduced him, with the lion statue on the left and the flock of birds flying off to make way again for the hero who now gets the girl. It’s pride in would-be British superiority on display once again, in contrast to the Nazi pride that the imperialist British navy felt they had a right to judge.

XV: Conclusion

My point is that while Nazi Germany’s racism, brutality, and imperialism were blatant and obvious, the British version of these vices has been obscured in a cloak of ‘civilization.’ The conventional capitalism of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. is perceived by many as innocuous (thanks in large part to the propaganda of films like Sink the Bismarck!, which aim to glorify these countries), while only the authoritarianism of fascism is seen as cruel and barbaric.

Mainstream Western capitalism is, however, on a continuum with fascism, the latter not emerging until the hegemony of the former is threatened by socialism, the true opposite of both ideologies. The bourgeois liberal would have you believe that not only is his ideology opposed to Naziism, but that…an obscene comparison!…fascism and communism are somehow sister ideologies. The fighting between the British and Nazi navies in this film is supposed to represent the opposition between mainstream capitalism and fascism, when really the fighting only represents a competition between the imperialism of two countries. After all, competition is part of the core of capitalism, so inter-imperialist conflict is to be expected.

As for the absurd comparison of fascism and communism, a study of the far more significant fighting of WWII–that on the Eastern front, between the Nazis and Soviets, a bitter struggle that dwarfs that of the Western front–should clear up any confusion about where those two ideologies truly stand in relation to each other.

And as for the actual comparability of bourgeois liberal ‘democracy’ and fascism, consider a few quotes from the ever-maligned Stalin: “Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” (And social democracy is the most leftward-leaning of bourgeois liberalism; consider, therefore, how much closer to fascism the ‘centrism’ of the Clintons, Blair, Obama, Biden, and Macron are!)

To clarify the meaning of the above Stalin quote, consider this other one of his: “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.” The depredations of thirty years of post-Soviet neoliberalism have proven Stalin to have been prescient.

In sum, England’s defeat of the Nazi threat to her shipping routes was heroic and salvific only to her, not to the preservation of ‘democracy.’ It’s only natural that, when two empires collide, they fight. The British saw themselves as trying to better the lives of their own people; so did the Nazis with respect to Germany. None of this, however, is to the betterment of humanity in a global sense.

Indeed, the oppressed peoples outside of the Anglo-American world see the political situation quite differently. One doesn’t fight empire with empire (consider Operation Paperclip and the tensions that led to the building of the Berlin Wall to see how ex-Nazis continued to collude with the capitalist West); one fights–and defeats–it with anti-imperialism.

Analysis of ‘Marathon Man’

Marathon Man is a 1976 thriller film directed by John Schlesinger and written by William Goldman, an adaptation of his 1974 novel. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and costars Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, and Marthe Keller.

Olivier was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the antagonist, Dr. Christian Szell, who was ranked #34 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list. The line “Is it safe?” ranked #70 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. The film was a critical and commercial success, though a number of changes from Goldman’s original intentions–the removal of scenes deemed excessively violent, and how Szell dies at the end of the film–brought the film down a few notches…in Goldman’s own assessment, too.

Still, I consider the story worth analyzing because of its depiction of the relationship between German Naziism (as personified by Szell and his older brother) and American capitalism (as personified by Szell’s American associates and couriers)–that is, the love/hate relationship between the US and fascism.

Here is a link to famous quotes from the film and novel, and here’s a link to a BBC radio play of it.

Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Hoffman) is a history PhD student in New York writing a dissertation on tyranny in American politics. He’s named after Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British Whig historian deemed progressive by 19th century standards, but who by today’s standards would be deemed insufferably elitist. Macaulay was known for writing a dramatized version of history, celebrating those he agreed with and vilifying those he disagreed with; similarly, Professor Biesenthal (played by Fritz Weaver) warns Babe not to get too emotional when researching the McCarthyism that destroyed his father. His doctoral thesis “mustn’t be turned into a hysterical crusade.”

Marx deemed Macaulay a “systematic falsifier of history.” By deeming his father innocent of the accusation of communist sympathies–rather than doing the brave thing and saying it shouldn’t matter whether his father was or wasn’t a ‘commie’ (i.e., there’s nothing to be ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ of), Babe is showing his reactionary, liberal tendencies (in a way, rather like those of Macaulay). This babyish political naïveté of Babe’s is something he’ll have to outgrow if he’s going to confront the fascists in his midst.

Apart from his historical/political leanings, Babe is also an aspiring marathon runner, hence the story’s name, and hence his nickname, after Babe Ruth, who we can visualize running past the three bases to home plate after hitting his many home runs. How should we interpret the meaning of Babe’s running? Firstly, he is accepting his place in the competitive world of capitalism, running with the others in an attempt to win the (rat) race, or World Series, of life. Second, as his successful running away from his captors, those working for Szell, indicates, Babe’s running represents his lifelong attempt to run away from his problems, instead of confronting them, as he finally does at the end.

Babe’s older brother is Henry David Levy (Scheider), known as “Hank,” or as “Doc” by Babe, or by his Division code name, “Scylla.” He is named after Henry David Thoreau, for reasons that, frankly, don’t make any sense to me at all, given Doc’s total conformity to the social and political establishment, the diametric opposite of Thoreau’s proto-environmentalist, anti-government stances. (Was the Levy brothers’ father hoping for Doc to have such a personality, or was this naming irony on Goldman’s part? Anybody who has read the novel, please inform me in the comments; I’ll be extremely grateful, and I’ll make the appropriate changes to this analysis then.)

Doc’s other name, Scylla, is more explicable. As a spy secretly working for the American government, and as a courier for Szell’s diamonds (in exchange for Szell’s betraying of his fellow Nazis), Doc is, symbolically speaking, vying for a Scylla and Charybdis kind of lesser evil status, rather like the US vis-à-vis Naziism. Though he’s a Jew (and a closeted gay), Doc has an American-style conservatism and violent manner (cut out of the film) that shows him to have a much more flawed character than meets the eye, an unpleasantness almost comparable to that of Szell.

Christian Szell’s older brother, Klaus, has been watching over Szell’s diamonds (which he’d extorted from prisoners in Auschwitz) in a New York bank while Szell hides away in Uruguay (Paraguay in the novel). If Szell needs money, Klaus takes out some diamonds and has these converted into cash. But one unlucky day, Klaus gets mixed up in a road rage incident that gets him and the other driver killed.

The other driver is a hot-tempered, middle-aged Jew, and Klaus is as much a Nazi sympathizer as Christian is. The mutual hate that both drivers feel, knowing each other’s ethnicity (Klaus: “You are a Jude!…[in German>>] Lick my arse!”//The Jewish driver: “You antisemitic bastard, you!”), causes their road rage to spiral out of control, leading to them crashing into an oil truck, killing both of them.

It’s easy to see the destructiveness of racial hatred in this scene, and to focus on the evil of antisemitism. But to get at the root of fascism, we have to look at its economic foundations. Szell, having lost his brother in the accident, no longer has anyone he can trust to watch over his diamonds, so he must come out of hiding and (or so he believes) kill the couriers before they have a chance to rob him of his diamonds.

This fear of losing one’s wealth is what drives the violence of fascism. When communist revolutions shook up Europe in the late 1910s, the beginning of the 1920s, and in the mid-1930s, regardless of whether they succeeded or failed, the capitalist class was scared, and the fascism of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al was used either to beat down the working class or to lead them astray, making them think that foreigners were their enemy, rather than the rich. Szell’s paranoia and violence are symbolic of this reactionary use of fascism; note how, early in the film, there are numerous references to strikes and environmental protests.

Recall what Henry A. Wallace had to say about fascism: “A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” Here’s another quote: “If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States.” And yet another: “Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.” Note Wallace’s recurring theme of the fascist’s lust for money.

While the racism, xenophobia, and national chauvinism of fascism are problems not to be trivialized, fascists at their core are capitalists, and their function is ultimately to preserve and protect the class structure of society. This is why we see Szell’s constant preoccupation with his diamonds. Though he’s surely no Jew-lover, we never hear him utter an antisemitic slur against Doc or Babe.

We mustn’t let ourselves be confused whenever people, conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg in particular, claim that men like Mussolini or Hitler were a ‘different kind’ of leftist. To say that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was a socialist one is like saying the Democratic Party is democratic. The names of the parties mean nothing if their actions don’t replicate them. To reassure his big business donors, Hitler purged the Nazi party of all left-leaning members (Röhm, the Strassers, etc.) as soon as he came to power.

The point is that we don’t solve the problem of Nazi sympathizers by merely calling out people who make racist comments on social media, etc. We must get to the bottom of the fascist problem by dealing with its roots in class conflict. Hitler’s dream of lebensraum was inspired by the American takeover of land from the aboriginals. Imperialism in its modern form grew out of capitalism, a reaction to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Markets must expand to other countries to keep the profits flowing.

Similarly, Szell must leave South America and go to the Jewish-dominated diamond district of New York to retrieve the diamonds he stole from Jews in Auschwitz. He is the personification of an imperialist going into another country to plunder it, provoking the ire of those who live there.

Szell’s original hiding away in Uruguay/Paraguay, him a wealthy bourgeois with South American servants, reminds us of Dr. Josef Mengele (Todesengel, “Angel of Death”), of whom Szell (der weiße Engel, “the White Angel”) is the protégé and his double for the purposes of this story. Recall that Mengele–played by Gregory Peck–is the antagonist in The Boys From Brazil, in which Olivier also starred, playing a Jewish Nazi-hunter. Both of these films share as subject matter the fear of a resurgence of fascism.

Indeed, Marathon Man can be seen as a kind of allegory of the revival of fascism, in that Szell’s paranoia about being robbed of his diamonds (like Nazi paranoia of ‘Jewish world domination’) symbolizes the ruling class’s fear of losing their wealth and power from socialist revolution, as symbolized by the leftist references to such strikes as one of bakery workers and one of airport baggage handlers, as well as anti-pollution protests in Paris during Doc’s visit there.

Christian Szell–whose…Christian…name distinguishes him as a Gentile bourgeois from such Jewish bourgeois as Doc and all the New York diamond-dealers whose appraisals of Szell’s diamonds he needs, and whose surname (apart from its having been inspired by, oddly, George Szell) can be seen as a pun on sell, that is, to sell his diamonds for cash–must infiltrate another country, like an imperialist, and do violence against anyone who stands in his way, like a Nazi.

Szell’s American counterparts, Doc (or Scylla, recall) and Peter “Janey” Janeway (Devane), represent the Nazis’ American imperialist frienemies. They have to do business with Szell, for the sake of–in my allegory–maintaining the capitalist status quo, but Scylla, as a gay Jew, and Janey as his closet gay lover, certainly don’t like doing business with him.

The gay relationship between Scylla and Janey is only slightly hinted at in the film, in a scene in Scylla’s Paris hotel room, when he phones Janey, tells him he misses him, and wants him to “get [his] ass over [t]here.” Janey has worries about “appearances” (i.e., two men sharing a hotel room), but Scylla doesn’t care if their being together looks indiscreet. In the BBC radio drama (just after 38:00), Janey tells Babe there’s nothing he can say about Doc that won’t shock him, including his homosexuality (which would surely shock Babe to know). Goldman’s novel is even more open about Scylla’s and Janey’s gay relationship.

Now, these two men may be gay, but they’re also very much part of the conservative American political establishment. Doc is unsympathetic to Babe’s research on their father, a liberal who committed suicide because McCarthyist smears destroyed his reputation. Doc, as Scylla, may despise Szell, but he still chooses to work as a courier for him. Janey is a double agent pretending to oppose Szell by temporarily rescuing Babe from the dentist torture, but he wants the diamonds, too, and he gives Babe back to Szell when he realizes he can’t get any information from him.

What we see in these scenes between Szell, Scylla, and Janey is an allegorizing of the two-faced relationship that the US has always had with fascists. On the surface, the US appears to be opposed to Nazis (as we see dramatized in films like Saving Private Ryan), but secretly…or, not-so-secretly…American businessmen worked with Nazis, then after WWII, ex-Nazis were given jobs in the US government.

A thin veneer of liberalism and progressivism (as personified in Doc and Janey, in their gay relationship) hides American fascist sympathies. Recall how New Dealer FDR put Japanese Americans in internment camps. And during the 1950s, when there were higher taxes on the rich (high enough, in fact, to preclude the very existence of the kind of super-rich we see today), strong unions, and the welfare state, McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers was in full swing.

This last issue is of great concern to Babe, since it destroyed his and Doc’s father. Their father was a left-leaning liberal, left-leaning enough to make him want to ‘disown’ Doc, in Babe’s estimation, had their father lived long enough to see Doc become what Babe is led into believing is a successful oil businessman…and had their father known Doc is Scylla, a US government spy, he’d have disowned Doc all the more.

Still, this left-leaning doesn’t lean anywhere near Marxism-Leninism, which is what is truly threatening to American capitalism, the danger of a theft of the diamonds, so to speak, of the bourgeoisie. All the same, McCarthyism had that Szell-like paranoia of anyone even remotely connected to communist ideology; hence, such people, like the Levy brothers’ father, were destroyed.

This overwrought paranoia is emblematic of what links the American right with fascism. To those on the far right, anyone even a few millimetres to their left is by that fact alone a communist. Members of the Democratic Party are communists, apparently, even people like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden, who either enacted or endorsed very right-wing legislation. I know an American supporter of Trump who thinks this of the Democrats, and who holds the delusion that Justin Trudeau and hippies are communists. These far right-wing types actually reach that level of paranoid absurdity.

Similarly, Szell doesn’t trust any of his couriers with his diamonds, hence he has Chen, an Asian assassin, make several attempts on Scylla’s life. Scylla is plenty conservative as noted above, despite his closeted homosexuality; in fact, Doc’s code name is practically a pun on Szell. Still, none of this is good enough for the ex-Nazi dentist, so he kills Scylla with the blade hidden in his sleeve…just as Nazi Germany would eventually fight the US, the very country that inspired their imperialist lebensraum, in WWII.

Babe is smitten with a “Swiss” woman named Elsa Opel (Keller), though she is actually working with the same people associated with Szell. Small wonder Doc is quickly able to figure out that she is a phoney during lunch with her and Babe in a fancy restaurant. The two lovers have been mugged in Central Park by two men hired by Szell, the same two men who later abduct Babe in his apartment so Szell can do his sadistic dentistry on him. The two men’s German names are Erhardt (played by Marc Lawrence) and Karl (played by Richard Bright, who would have been easily remembered by mid-70s moviegoers as Al Neri in the two Godfather movies released just a few years before Marathon Man, thus making the link between Nazi Germany and mafia-like America all the surer).

So, Szell’s paranoia about having his diamonds stolen leads to his violence against his couriers, especially Scylla, then to Elsa and Babe…just as the capitalist class’s fear of losing their financial power led to the rise of fascism and its inherently violent nature. There is violence against Jews (in the film and in history, of course), let there be no trivializing of that fact; but at its core, the scourge of fascism is financial in nature.

So after Karl and Erhardt abduct Babe and tie him to a chair for Szell, we see an allegory of how fascist violence is provoked by a fear of the capitalist class losing its money. Though Babe is a Jew, and one would imagine ex-Nazi Szell hurling one antisemitic slur after another at him, instead, his one concern remains simply, “Is it safe?”

He won’t tell Babe what the “it” specifically refers to, so Babe has no way of being able to answer the question. Of course, what Szell means is to say, ‘Is it safe for me to go to the bank and retrieve my diamonds?’ Are his diamonds safe, or will he be robbed of them and killed? That this is a mystery to Babe is allegorical of how the common man is ignorant of the machinations of the ruling class.

Babe is terrorized and tortured by Szell and his tools of dentistry, just as the victims of fascism are terrorized and tortured; and just as Babe has no idea what Szell wants, those victimized by fascism usually don’t know what their far right-wing agenda is fuelled by. The common people assume that that agenda is limited to racial hatred, xenophobia, and extreme nationalism, when these three evils are just by-products of the agenda, which is to divert the working class from revolutionary intent, and to use violence to suppress socialist revolution during a time of capitalist crisis…to ensure that capitalism is safe.

Now, Babe is generally a rather weak, ineffectual man…a true Babe, hence Doc’s many taunts of him. The brothers’ reaction to the trauma of their father’s suicide has been to go in opposing directions, Doc a conservative, Babe a liberal. Doc’s trauma response is fight; Babe’s is flight. Babe screams for help like a damsel in distress when Karl and Erhardt break into his apartment. Symbolic of this weakness is a cavity he’s had throughout the story. Szell attacks the cavity with his dental tools, getting screams out of Babe. Then Szell finds a healthy tooth, honing in on a nerve, the pulp, the contacting of which is even more agonizing for Babe.

I have argued in other film analyses that the loss, or mutilation, of teeth (be they literal teeth or symbolic ones) is symbolic castration, in the Lacanian sense that any bodily mutilation represents a castration-like lack that gives rise to desire. The cutting-away at Babe’s healthy tooth is a trauma that, combined with those of the mugging and the witnessing of his brother’s bloody death, will push him over the edge and transform him from a meek man to a strong, revengeful man. His desire will be to have Szell recognize him and the hurt he’s caused, then to receive a return of that hurt.

After the mugging, Babe has admitted to a desire to use his pistol (which had been his father’s, used in his suicide) to shoot the muggers. Now he’ll want to use it all the more.

He manages to get away from his captors (when Szell finally acknowledges that Babe really doesn’t know anything about the diamonds), and he uses his running skills to evade them even while chasing him in a car. When he finally gets his hands on that gun from his apartment, that phallic gun, he finds his strength. Fear has been replaced with rage, just like that of the Jewish road rager at the beginning of the film…though Babe isn’t going to be rash and impulsive with his revenge on Nazis.

Elsa takes Babe to the house of Szell’s brother Klaus, and by now Babe is on to her. A final confrontation with her, Karl, Erhardt, and Janey ensues after finding out where Szell is going to be (his New York bank), and everyone except Babe is killed. Now Babe can go after Szell.

Szell has already been feeling the effects of his bad karma on the streets of the diamond district of New York. In spite of his having shaved himself to imitate male pattern baldness, so he wouldn’t be recognized by his weiße Engel mane of snowy hair, two middle-aged Jewish Holocaust survivors know who he is.

Pauline Kael called Marathon Man a “Jewish revenge fantasy,” but I’d like to extend that idea to a film about karmic retribution on fascists in general, in which Jews can be seen as a metonym for the working class. What we must remember is that while the Nazis murdered six million Jews, they also murdered five million non-Jews, including leftists, who represent the working class, and who were the first to be put in concentration camps. Jews and communists were the two main scapegoats on whom Nazis blamed the problems of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, Hitler conceived of communism as a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

So the two middle-aged Jews who recognize Szell, and later, Babe getting his revenge on Szell, can be seen to represent a leftist retaliation against fascism. After all, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, and while the Wehrmacht was succeeding at first at doing violence against the Soviets (just as Szell has terrorized Babe with his dental instruments), eventually the Red Army turned things around and, surrounding the Nazis in Russian territory as Szell is surrounded in the Jewish diamond district, the Nazis retreated like Szell. Finally, when all was lost, Hitler killed himself, as Szell stabs himself with the blade in his sleeve.

Now, at this point, we must discuss the difference between the ending of the film and that of the novel, the latter of which I consider much better. The BBC radio drama (link above) dramatizes the novel’s ending, and the Goodreads quotes of the novel (again, link above) give lengthy sections of Babe’s lecturing words as he fills Szell with bullets.

The film’s ending–in which Babe doesn’t kill Szell, but merely points his gun at him, tells him to swallow his diamonds, and throws the case of them into the water of a water-treatment facility, making Szell race down stairs after the case, fall, and stab himself with his sleeve-blade–comes across as liberal soft-heartedness. Punish fascists, have them destroy themselves, but dear God, for the sake of humanity, don’t kill the poor little Nazis.

Say whatever you want about the morality of Babe shooting Szell in cold blood; he has every motive in the world not only to settle the score for all the torture he’s suffered from Szell, but also to avenge his brother’s murder. Similarly, we leftists have every motive in the world to meet fascist violence with violence of our own.

Babe once “was a scholar and a marathon man, but that fella’s gone now.” Recall how I said above that Babe’s marathon running is symbolic of his running away from his problems. He’s acknowledged, after the mugging, that Doc would say Babe’s never confronts anything. Well, “that fella’s gone now”: Babe doesn’t run away anymore. He faces his problems now. He fights back.

Babe says, “if you don’t learn the mistakes of the past, you’ll be doomed to repeat them.” We leftists must learn from the mistakes of the past, too. We can’t afford to be soft on fascists, because they’ll never show us that courtesy if they rise to power again…and recently, there have been many examples of resurgences of fascism, in their traditional, national chauvinist forms, and in other authoritarian forms.

Babe says to Szell, “we’d have a nice peaceful place here if all you warmakers knew you better not start something because if you lost, agony was just around the bed.” We won’t have peace in the world by strumming guitars, smoking pot, and naïvely wishing for an end to war. Warmongers will be stopped only through revolutionary action: power must be seized by force; the imperialist bourgeoisie must be violently overthrown, and this is what Babe’s bullet-ridden revenge on Szell represents.

We, the proletariat, cannot solve our problems by running away from them. We must arm ourselves and fight back; for if we don’t, the far greater, gun-laden violence will continue in the forms of war and police shootings, income inequality will continue, our civil rights will continue to erode, and our ability to live on this earth will be gone forever.

Only when the Szells of the world are removed, will it be safe.