Thrones

She
had
the
big
chair, just
as so many
before her

used
that
seat
with
the intent to
take over and
plunder worlds.

One
may
sit
and
rest, while
many more
must fight

to
be
in
an
adequate
state of
existence.

One
can
sit
and
take it easy
on a throne
without gems,

and
the
men
and
women of the
world can be
seated as well.

So
we
in
an
abased state
must rise up
so all may sit.

Tightrope

If
I
lean
too much the one way, or too much the other, I will fall.

If
the
rope
went in a straight line, I could keep my balance well enough,

but
the
rope
keeps veering to the right, making me counterbalance left.

How
far
is
too far left, or not left enough? Is moderate “too balanced”?

One
has
to
walk it slowly, yet the human race’s time is running out.

We
can
not
stay on one side; we must go, yet to fall is certain death.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter One

My name is Sid, I’m forty years old, and…we’re all going to die.

Now, I’m not talking about plain, old, ordinary mortality here. I mean that all of us on this planet are going to die, and quite soon.

I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment late tonight, and I can hear the sounds of machine gun fire and far-off explosions from outside my window. I’m watching the news on my TV as I roll a joint, my right hand an inch or two away from my half-drunk glass of Jim Beam and Coke.

While all of this is happening, the last thing I want to be is sober.

President Harris is giving a press conference on the progress that the US and NATO have made in engaging the ‘enemy’: the alliance led by Russia, China, and Iran. She keeps ruling out the use of nuclear weapons, but why should we believe a word from that cackling bitch?

For almost fifteen years, I’ve been teaching English as a second language here in China…though we shouldn’t expect the Western world ever to admit that this small island is a part of China. Many, if not most, of the locals here insist it’s a country rather than a Chinese province.

Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I, a Western expat, simply leave when I had the chance, before this island became a war zone? There are several reasons: one, this is my home, of which I have no other, me being estranged from my ‘family,’ the Gordimer family, owners of Sakia, a weapons manufacturing company. As a pacifist, I have no need of any other reason to disown that family, though I have many others, as I will go into later on.

Two, my skill set as an English teacher is very limited. What am I going to do for work in my predominantly English-speaking country, where so many others are snapping up almost all of the job opportunities, as scant as they already are? I’ll doubtless be a derelict back there.

Three, and most important of all, World War Three has been going on for the past several days. This island isn’t the only place being hit, as I can hear from outside my window. Russia is counter-attacking Europe and the UK. China is hitting not only us here, but also Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada with its long-range missiles. Iran is hitting the American military bases surrounding it. North Korea has its nuclear weapons ready to fire.

Nowhere is it safe; it especially won’t be when the nukes start flying…when they start flying.

So, you see, we’re all going to die, and quite soon.

Nothing is going to save me or anyone else. Not getting off the island, not praying to a God that so obviously doesn’t exist, and not any of the wisdom contained in all the books on the bookshelves I have surrounding my TV.

No, none of my translations of Buddhist scriptures, nor the inspiration of Gautama’s mythical biography, nor my three volumes of Das Kapital, my Communist Manifesto, my Grundrisse, my Lenin anthology, my essential works of Mao Zedong, my Dialectical and Historical Materialism, nor any of my books by Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, Wilfred R Bion, Heinz Kohut, or Jacques Lacan will help me.

My only escape will be a mental one, a manic defence, assisted by booze, marijuana, ecstasy pills, and a line or two of ketamine.

Yes, we, the lowly, wretched people of the Earth, are the targeted. It’s as though each of us has had a bullseye painted on his or her chest. If the bullets and conventional bombs don’t hit us, the nukes will. And even if, by some miracle, we manage to survive all of that, then the destruction of the Earth through climate change will kill us all.

If only we the people could target all the evils of the world, hit them like marksmen, and save humanity from itself. If only we ‘targeters,’ if you will, could have gone thus and stopped the warmongers from instigating what’s now the irreversible: the destruction of all life on this planet.

The targeter, having thus gone to his target, not missing the mark, would replace the error of the warmongers’ ways with the truth: namely, that those who are able should give to those in need; that ego is an illusion and we all are one; and that to harm others is to harm ourselves.

I can only dream of such a cure for the world, though. It’s already too late for us all. I hear the noisy proof of our doom from outside my window, and from the quacking of the American president on my TV.

So, in my despair, I’m using alcohol and drugs to numb my pain. If I can’t escape in body, I’ll do so in mind. May I, being a target, be too stoned to feel the incineration of my body when the time comes. May the drug trip I’m about to go on take me on a surreal journey somewhere far away, somewhere peaceful, so I won’t care when I finally die.

Wine

In vino veritas,
but wine can
also be
a way
out
of
the
sad truth trapping us.

Dipsomania
craves a
high to
fend
off
the
low of
depression.

There is the high of
drink and drugs,
and there’s the
opium
of
the
toiling masses,

the wine that one imagines
to be transubstantiated
into the blood of Him
who had blue water
turn into a
red
and
tasty wedding beverage.

We cannot change
our blue to red
by wine gods
or
by
the
Word of God’s red blood.

Changing blue to red is not a
matter of Spirit or spirits.
Red bourgeois blood
must be spilled
so
we
can
have a red state for all the people.

Analysis of ‘Spartacus’

Spartacus is a 1960 epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick (replacing original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting; therefore this is the only film over which Kubrick didn’t have complete artistic control) and written by Dalton Trumbo (who also wrote the novel, and the screenplay for, Johnny Got His Gun), based on Howard Fast‘s 1951 historical novel of the same name. The story is inspired by that of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient, republican Rome, resulting in the Third Servile War.

The film stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, with Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, and John Gavin. Both Fast and Trumbo, being avowed leftists, were blacklisted, the former having to self-publish his book, and the latter being one of the Hollywood Ten.

Spartacus won four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Ustinov, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It had been the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history until Airport surpassed it in 1970.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to a PDF of Fast’s novel.

Spartacus is a hero to communists and leftists in general, for how his slave uprising against the Roman ruling class has inspired the socialists of today to foment revolution against the capitalist class of the modern world. Karl Marx praised him, his namesake was given to the German Spartacus League of 1915-1918, and the failed German communist revolution of January 1919 was called the Spartacist uprising.

Other examples of art and popular culture inspired by Spartacus include a 2004 miniseries starring Goran Višnjić in the title role, and a ballet of the same name, composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1954 and first staged in 1956; some of the music of this ballet was used in the soundtrack to the Penthouse production of Caligula in 1979.

To get back to Fast’s novel and the 1960 film, we immediately notice how differently both treat the subject matter of the story. The characters of Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier), Lentulus Batiatus (Ustinov), Varinia (Simmons), and Gracchus (Laughton) are all shared in both the book and the film, and apart from the basic history of the slaves’ failed uprising against Rome, the telling of the story differs wildly between book and movie.

The novel tells the story of Spartacus in a piecemeal fashion, given from the points of view of the various characters after Spartacus’ death, while the film tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way. The gladiatorial fight between Spartacus and Draba (played by Woody Strode) is generally similar, and the scenes of Crassus and Varinia, him frustrated in his efforts to win her love, and of Gracchus’ plan to steal her and her baby from Crassus and to give them their freedom, are essentially the same, though they differ greatly in the details.

A crucial difference between novel and movie is in the presentation of Spartacus’ death: in the book, he dies in battle (as affirmed by Plutarch, Appian, and Florus, though Appian also reports that Spartacus’ body was not found), whereas in the film, Spartacus is crucified.

Indeed, the sight of Spartacus chained to a rock to starve at the beginning of the film, his punishment for having bitten the leg of a Roman soldier, hamstringing him, is a parallel of his crucifixion at the end of the film. This parallel gives the story a sense that it has come full circle: his suffering is at its greatest at the beginning, with him as a slave lugging heavy rocks on his back from the mines in Libya; just as his suffering is at its greatest also at the end, with him hanging in excruciating pain.

In the novel, in chapter three of Part Two, is a vivid description of hell on Earth, a hell for slaves mining for gold in the unbearably hot desert of Nubia. To make matters worse, children are needed when the veins narrow “deep inside the black rock escarpment.” (One is reminded of Congolese children today, mining for the cobalt we use in our cellphones.) Spartacus is among “one hundred and twenty-two Thracians chained neck to neck, carrying their burning hot chains across the desert…” (PDF, page 55)

The film’s beginning is the equivalent to this chapter, the opening scene only briefly depicting the suffering of Spartacus and his fellow slaves in Libya, rather than Nubia. The chapter captures, with great intensity, the misery and despair of the slaves as they work, virtually without rest, from early in the dawn ’til the dusk. “Their skins are patchworks of black dust and brown dirt…” (PDF, page 57). Many slaves die from these back-breaking work conditions.

There’s a brief moment in the early morning, before the sun is fully risen to beat its oppressive heat on the slaves as they go to work. “In this single hour of the day, the desert is a friend.” (PDF, page 61). But only for that cool hour.

In the film, Batiatus arrives, discovers Spartacus, and saves him from his chaining to the rock to have him trained as a gladiator. Batiatus is a lanista, the owner of a school for gladiators. Spartacus is about to be pampered, a whole new experience for him that includes baths and massages, and a girl for a mate (in the novel, he’s mated to Varinia, rather than merely teased with her and denied her, as in the film; PDF, pages 78-81, 83).

Still, there is no happiness in being trained to kill or be killed for the entertainment of the ruling class. The fighting of gladiators to the death is perfectly symbolic of how the ruling class has always divided the people from each other, making them fight each other instead of fighting their oppressors. Their sense of alienation is well displayed in the scene when Spartacus asks Draba his name, the latter telling the former it isn’t wise to know the names of, or to become friends with, those they will have to kill, or be killed by, in the arena.

Though Draba has said this, he still doesn’t want to kill a fellow gladiator for the sport of rich Romans (who in the film are Crassus, Marcus Glabrus [played by John Dall, who incidentally also played chief psychopathic killer Brandon Shaw, in Hitchcock’s Rope], Helena Glabrus [played by Nina Foch], and Claudia Marius [played by Joanna Barnes]; but who in the novel are two men named Caius Crassus and Marius Bracus). So at the end of his fight with Spartacus, having won, Draba refuses to kill him, to the annoyance of their Roman audience, and instead he hurls his trident at them, only to be speared in the back himself. Nonetheless, Draba’s solidarity with Spartacus has inspired the surviving gladiator.

Added to this sense of solidarity, as a cure for alienation, is Spartacus and Varinia falling in love. She gets naked for him when he first meets her. He doesn’t think of her as a mere sex object, though: “Spartacus saw her and loved her, not for her nakedness, but because without clothes she was not naked at all and did not cringe or attempt to cover herself with her arms, but stood simply and proudly, showing no pain nor hurt, not looking at him or at Batiatus, but contained within herself, contained with her eyesight and her soul and her dreams, and containing all those things because she had decided to surrender life which was worth nothing any more. His heart went out to her.” (PDF, page 80)

In the film, Batiatus and Marcellus, the gladiators’ trainer (played by Charles McGraw) lecherously watch the couple, hoping to enjoy seeing them have sex; but Spartacus, furious at their lack of respect for his and her privacy, shouts at the men that he is not an animal. She, still naked, says she isn’t an animal, either. He naturally agrees with her, unlike the two voyeurs.

The love he feels for her, especially when he learns she has been sold to Crassus and therefore he’ll never see her again, is the final straw that drives him, followed by the other gladiators/slaves, to bring about a spontaneous rebellion. (The sight of Draba’s hanging body is also a major provocation for them.)

In the novel, this rebellion isn’t quite so spontaneous. There is discussion among Spartacus, Crixus the Gaul (played by John Ireland in the film), and Gannicus (played by Paul Lambert in the film) about whether they, as gladiators, should consider themselves friends (PDF, page 111). Thus the seeds of solidarity among slaves have been sown. They know that the Thracians call Spartacus “father” for all the love he’s shown his fellow slaves. He hints at a plotting of a rebellion when he says he’ll fight no more gladiators, and that he, Gannicus, and Crixus “will know what to do when the time comes to do it” (PDF, page 115).

In the film, Spartacus just spontaneously kills Marcellus by dunking his head in a pot of soup and drowning him in it. After having had to endure his trainer’s taunts for so long, he surely relishes killing the man. As we know in the modern world, though, revolutions cannot be so spontaneous: meticulous planning, theory, and organization are indispensable, as is the ability to intuit a revolutionary situation.

To get back to the story, though, more and more slaves join the gladiators’ rebellion, and Spartacus’ plan is for them all to go south to Brundusium and pay to have pirates’ ships take them out of Italy and to their home countries. Along the way, he is reunited with Varinia.

The Roman Senate is growing alarmed at the escalation of events, and Glabrus is to lead his cohorts to fight and subdue the slaves. Meanwhile, Crassus has found himself a handsome boy slave named Antoninus (Curtis), who is gifted at singing and reciting poetry.

In a scene originally censored by the prudish Production Code, Crassus is given a bath by Antoninus. The former asks the latter (with the voice of Anthony Hopkins in the restored version) of his sexual preferences, using indirect, symbolic language. Crassus asks the youth if he eats oysters, symbolic of female genitals; then he asks if Antoninus eats snails, symbolic of male genitals. Crassus considers these preferences a matter of taste rather than of morality; he then confesses his own eating of both oysters and snails, indicating his bisexuality.

The point to be made here is that Crassus is obviously trying to seduce the boy; how many slaves, male and female, were forced to perform sexual favours for their masters? In the scene previous to this one, Gracchus and Batiatus have a discussion alluding to the enjoyment of female slaves, in Gracchus’ case, to the point of him not even wanting to get married.

After Crassus’ bath with Antoninus, the former walks out, followed by the latter, to an adjoining room looking out across the river to the city of Rome. There, Crassus tells Antoninus of the greatness of Rome, and of how how one’s attitude towards her should be.

Crassus, in describing Rome’s greatness, is given a line that is an allusion to Julius Caesar, in which Cassius, complaining to Brutus about Caesar, says, “…he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus…” (I, ii, lines 135-136). In Spartacus, however, Crassus says this to Antoninus of Rome: “There is the power that bestrides the known world like a Colossus.”

What’s interesting in these two variations on the quote is that the first refers to Caesar, while the second refers to Rome, personified as a beloved woman, a man’s mistress. Young Julius Caesar, recall, is in Spartacus, played by John Gavin (who incidentally, in the same year, played Marion Crane‘s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in Psycho). Later in the film, Crassus tells Caesar of his fear of him, an allusion to how Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey would form the First Triumvirate, and Crassus and Pompey would lose to Caesar’s rising power.

Indeed, the fear of republican Rome becoming a dictatorship, something Gracchus will fear of Crassus’ rising power towards the end of Spartacus, is a fear Brutus and Cassius would have of Caesar, which they would use to justify assassinating him. Crassus’ name fortuitously sounds like a pun on Cassius, hence what’s so intriguing about the allusion to Shakespeare’s play as put on Crassus’ lips. He fears Caesar’s rise as Cassius would decades later.

That Crassus’ absolute rule over Rome would come in association with the defeat of Spartacus’ army is also worthy of comment. In the modern world, many right-wing, authoritarian dictatorships came into being after the crushing of proletarian attempts at gaining power: fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, etc. The ruling class makes a masquerade of democracy when times are good; but if threatened, that same ruling class ends the masquerade and rules with an iron fist, as Crassus does.

In his speech on Rome to Antoninus, Crassus speaks as if everyone, including such members of the ruling class as himself, must make himself a slave to his beautiful mistress and goddess, Roma. In implying that he, too, is a slave in this larger sense, Crassus is rationalizing the whole slave system to the youth. He’s also implying that, in serving Rome, Antoninus must serve Crassus all the more faithfully and devotedly.

It is at this point that the boy sneaks away without Crassus knowing. Antoninus, of course, will join Spartacus’ army, eager to learn how to fight. The youth will endure the indignities of slavery no more: Crassus’ designs to enjoy Antoninus for his sexual sport, combined with this mad notion of enslaving oneself to a lofty abstract ideal such as Rome, are too much for him.

In today’s world, the global proletariat has its own political ideals to which it is expected to enslave itself: the “rules based international order,” the “free market,” or simply neoliberalism, are all ideals that we wage slaves are expected to grovel before, never questioning the source of our oppression.

On their way to Brundusium, the slaves enlist the help of a Cilician pirate envoy named Tigranes Levantus (played by Herbert Lom). Gracchus bribes the pirates to get them to take the slaves out of Italy, so that, fearing Crassus’ rise to power, he needn’t fear the slave crisis being exploited by Crassus to justify his making a dictatorship of Rome.

Still, Crassus bribes the pirates better, and they end up betraying Spartacus et al. When Tigranes returns to tell Spartacus the evil tidings, then offers him and the other slave leaders a chance to escape and live like kings in other countries, Spartacus tells him to go away. Opportunism has no place in a sincere struggle to be free.

At an earlier point on the way to Brundusium, Glabrus’ cohorts camp one night and, contemptuously underestimating the slaves, see no need to set up a proper perimeter of fortification around the camp, so the slaves can easily infiltrate it and massacre most of the men in the cohorts. This incident is based on the disastrous military leadership of Gaius Claudius Glaber against Spartacus on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

In Fast’s novel, Varinius Glabrus, as he’s called, is “vain, rather stupid, and politically dependable.” He’s killed with all the other men, all except one frightened, shamefaced soldier, who tells Gracchus and the rest of the Senate about the massacre (PDF, Part Five, chapters iv-vi). In the film, Marcus Glabrus is the one to explain his incompetence to the Senate, and he is sent out, disgraced. Crassus, his friend, leaves with him, pretending to share in his disgrace, but as Gracchus knows, Crassus will return, stronger than ever.

To get back to the part when Spartacus knows that he and his comrades cannot escape by sea, he knows their only way forward is to confront Crassus and his army, and thus to head back to Rome. His army is an impressive one, by the way, including women fighters, as we can see in the movie, extraordinary for one made back in 1960.

Here’s the thing: to be truly free, one cannot just run away from one’s oppressor–one must confront him and fight him. At the end of Fast’s novel, Varinia and her baby escape to live in a village near the Alps; but Roman soldiers go up there to enslave those villagers who can’t pay the high taxes, and her son, after she’s dead, has to fight these Romans just as his father, of the same name, did. (PDF, page 272)

In the film, the final confrontation happens, and it’s a nasty fight, with Spartacus’ army sending out rollers of flames to attack the Roman soldiers with. Much of the violence of this scene, with bloody stabbings and Spartacus’ hacking off of a Roman soldier’s arm, was originally censored out of the film, as with the ‘oysters and snails’ scene, because of the negative reaction of the preview audience.

By the time all of this has happened, Spartacus has already gotten Varinia with child, and when the slaves have been defeated, she has given birth to it. Crassus and Batiatus find her among the bodies of the fallen slaves, and Crassus wants her and the baby to be taken to his home. He especially wants to find Spartacus, to destroy the legend of the slave.

Why is it so important to Crassus to destroy the legend of Spartacus? Because, though the slave leader and his army have been defeated, their brave example will inspire thousands of future slaves to revolt one day. And where Spartacus has failed, any of the subsequent attempts may prove successful. That’s what Crassus is afraid of.

The Romans offer to spare the lives of the defeated slaves if they identify which man among them, living or dead, is Spartacus. They all respond with the famous repeated shout of “I’m Spartacus!” (a quote referenced and parodied in many films, including That Thing You Do!, and even Kubrick’s next film, Lolita), starting with Antoninus, who has prevented the real Spartacus from identifying himself, then dozens of men in his army shout it, in loving solidarity with their leader, who is moved to tears by their love.

This surviving love and solidarity is what is so threatening to Crassus, then the richest man in Rome. The slaves know they have lost…for now, but the hope of future success still burns like a flame in their hearts, and Crassus will have to find a way to extinguish that flame.

In our modern world, the Crassuses of today have been hard at work trying to extinguish the flame of hope that a socialist revolution will replace the capitalist hell we live in now. This story, as written by leftists Fast and Trumbo, was meant as an allegory for our times today; the master vs. slave contradiction of Spartacus is meant to represent the bourgeois vs. proletarian contradiction. And just as Crassus wants to destroy the legend of Spartacus, so do the bourgeoisie want to destroy the legend of Marxism-Leninism.

Imagine if, after the crushing of the Communards and the Paris Commune, that socialists had just given up! Of course they weren’t going to do that: instead, they worked hard to understand and learn from the errors that the Communards made.

Similarly, though a ruthless campaign of anti-communist propaganda (which I refute here, as in other posts) was doused here, there, and everywhere to extinguish the fire of socialism in the twentieth century, and that propaganda was a huge factor in the defeat of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc, we today shouldn’t listen to the capitalist lies that “socialism doesn’t work” and “TINA.” Instead, we must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century and revive the hope that yes, another world is possible, that there is an alternative to neoliberalism.

To give a sense of how Crassus can be seen as an ancient version of a capitalist, in Fast’s novel, there’s a scene with him giving some women a tour of a perfume factory he owns. The scene at first hardly seems relevant to the life of Spartacus, but at the end of it, we can see Fast’s intentions (PDF, Part Six, chapter x).

Crassus speaks of how he makes much more of a profit with such businesses as his perfume factory than he could ever make in such wars as the Servile War. Furthermore, his workers in the factories aren’t slaves, so he needn’t feed or house them. Since they are free, he imagines he needn’t fear an uprising among them (PDF, page 221).

The bourgeoisie today, right-wing libertarians in particular, are fond of saying that if workers don’t like their jobs, they are free to quit, leaving their ‘poor, suffering’ bosses to have to find replacements. It may be relatively easy to quit when the economy is good, but not so when the economy is bad, as it is now, the worst it’s been since…forever, it seems.

Fast often refers to Romans as being on the dole, but this doesn’t change the fact that Rome was as brutal an empire as any. As an allegory of today’s world, his novel depicts Roman imperialism as paralleled (though assuredly not equal) with British and American imperialism. Romans being on the dole is to be paralleled with the welfare capitalism of the UK and US of the prosperous postwar years when the novel was written and the film was made. Welfare capitalism–at a time when the US and UK overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, to stop him from nationalizing Iranian oil, or when the US overthrew the government of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 for the sake of the United Fruit Company–is still capitalism…it’s still imperialism.

To get back to the story, though, Crassus has Varinia and her baby live with him. He’s captivated by her beauty, as well as puzzled with why such a beauty would remain in love with a lowly slave like Spartacus. None of Crassus’ wealth can lure her heart away from the father of her child and over to the man who has defeated him. But of course, Crassus’ defeat of the man she’s loved will ensure that she’ll never love Crassus…except that narcissistic Crassus will never accept her attitude.

What’s significant about the scene with him and her at dinner at night, in his attempt to woo her (recall that this scene is in Fast’s novel, too–Part Seven, chapter v), is that we see a kind of reversal of the roles of slave and master. He serves her food: squab and honey, a piece of melon, and a cup of wine, He has her wear a heavy necklace, once owned by a Persian queen. He doesn’t command her to eat–he invites her.

This reversal of roles suggests Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic, in which each tries to achieve self-recognition through the other. We’ve already seen the death struggle in the form of the battle in which Crassus’ army has defeated that of Spartacus.

Now, if all of the slaves are killed, then self-recognition through the other cannot be. The “I’m Spartacus!” shout of so many of the slaves, ensuring their collective crucifixion to a man, is nonetheless troubling for Crassus, not only because their defiant spirit will inspire other slaves, but also because their collective death means none will be left to give him and their other Roman masters the recognition they crave.

Crassus tries to get that recognition through Varinia, who coldly refuses to give it to him. Lacan said that man’s desire is the desire of the Other: to have the Other desire him, and to be recognized and acknowledged by the Other. Crassus’ desire is Varinia’s recognition, which she will never give him.

In Hegel’s myth, after the master has achieved dominance over the slave, a contradiction arises in how all of the slave’s work, producing so many things, gives their creator the recognition he craves, meaning he no longer needs it from his master; on the other hand, the master, having grown dependent on all of the slave’s productions, becomes subordinate. In Varinia’s case, her baby can be seen to symbolize the slave’s creations; similarly, her insistence that she nurse her own baby without the need of a slave-nurse to do it for her shows her self-emancipating agency.

Crassus’ frustration grows when he brings up Spartacus, who she insists was just a simple man, not a god. That she can love such a humble man is wounding to Crassus’ pride in the extreme. His implied threats to her baby’s life show, ironically, how defeated he really is. Since he owns her, he could simply rape her; but he wants her to love him, and he can never make her do that.

Another fascinating paradox occurs later, when Spartacus and Antoninus are made to fight each other to the death, the victor to be subsequently crucified. Since crucifixion is one of the worst, most painful ways to die, a death by stabbing is far preferred. So both men would kill each other…out of love…to spare the loser of the fight from suffering the agony of the cross.

Spartacus wins, and though neither history nor Fast’s novel have him die by crucifixion, the film has him die this way. Such an alteration naturally makes him into a Christ-figure, one who dies so future generations may live, that is, his sacrificial death will make of him a martyr who will inspire future slaves–including present-day wage slaves–to continue the struggle and, we hope, liberate us all for good.

Now, Fast’s novel gives extensive discussion of all those slaves crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, where Batiatus has trained the gladiators. One gladiator/slave rebel whose crucifixion is given especial focus is a Jew named David. As he hangs in agony and despair on his cross, he ruminates over his mostly unfortunate life. (PDF, Part Six)

Fast divides David’s life into four parts: first, “a happy time of not knowing,” then, a time “full of knowledge and sorrow and hatred,” next came a “time of hope…when he fought with Spartacus,” and finally, a “time of despair,” when “their cause was lost” (PDF, page 212).

The difference between the times of not knowing and of knowing weren’t really those of happiness vs. unhappiness, but rather those of naïvely not knowing of the evils already present in the world, back when David was a child, and of when he became a man, had his eyes opened, saw the difference between the rich and the poor, and finally realized the world’s evil (PDF, page 190). Such a realization would have been especially poignant for David when he saw his father crucified for his involvement with the Maccabean rebellion (PDF, page 192).

Though Fast, having published Spartacus in 1951, wouldn’t have known at the time of the growing despair of socialists since the dissolution of the USSR (in fact, sadly, he came to believe the lies Khrushchev spoke about Stalin in his “secret speech,” and broke away from communism), still, David’s despair on the cross, and the length of his unhappy life, can be seen to allegorize the despair of any leftist revolutionary whose cause has failed, including the fall of the Soviet system.

We leftists in today’s world were once wide-eyed and naïve, like David as a boy, blissfully ignorant of the evils of the world. Then we grew up, put away childish things, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, and underwent our Fall into a knowledge of those evils; and accordingly, we felt the pain, the sorrow, and the hatred of those evils. Then there were those of us who were old enough to remember the era of the Soviets, and how their influence even softened the blow of capitalism with the welfare state; we experienced a time of revolutionary hope, like David’s hope as he insists on standing beside Spartacus in battle (PDF, page 200). And finally, our time of despair has been from the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, and the ensuing rise of neoliberal capitalism from then to the present day.

The suffering of David on that cross, one of the longest and most painful ways anyone can die, is a perfect metaphor for the long, drawn-out pain we on the left have felt as we watched Clinton gut welfare, Dubya start the “War on Terror,” Obama continue and expand Dubya’s policies, Trump lower the already-low corporate tax rate even further, and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices so Roe vs. Wade could be overturned, and Biden provoke Russia and intensify nuclear brinksmanship.

We’ve watched this slide into imperial tyranny (as did Cicero of republican Rome degenerating into the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus; Cicero, who appears in Fast’s novel as an ambitious, upwardly-mobile writer of a monograph on the Servile Wars [PDF, Part Four, chapter i], but not as a critic of the power structure that would eventually have him killed), and we see no way out of the present situation. But recall the end of the movie, when liberated Varinia shows crucified Spartacus their now-freed baby. This child personifies our hopes of a revived revolution, which just might happen as the Western empire is crumbling.

We hang on the cross in agony, like Spartacus, but that baby of hope is alive and free. Instead of letting our heads droop down in despair, let’s keep our eyes on that baby.

Boats

The
small
boats
exclude, give
salvation
to few.

The
large
boats
are much more inclusive.
They will eventually
provide room for
all the world.

We
can
not
save only the
few, the rest
drowning.

We
can
not
rescue everyone, all
at one time, either,
with not enough
room onboard.

So
all
our
boat can do for
now is start
smaller,

and
grow
into
a bigger boat. One big
country of permanent
evolution, until the
whole world

is
one
all-
inclusive ark of dry
salvation for us all,
shielding us from
the big Flood.

Taiwan

Photo by Alan Wang on Pexels.com

As a resident of this island for, as of the end of the month of this article’s publication, what will be twenty-six years, I feel I must voice my opinions of the locals, especially as regards the attitude of many of them to China. What I’m about to say here is not a scientifically authoritative set of observations; it’s just the idiosyncratic opinions of a Canadian expatriate who has lived here and informally watched the locals for over two and a half decades.

Take these opinions with a grain of salt; I’m about to say some things many of the locals won’t like to read, but things I feel must be said. Be prepared, for much of what I’ll say will be critical, but with compassion: my intent is to help Taiwan save herself, not to be malicious. Furthermore, the criticisms are not meant to be sweeping generalizations of all of the locals, or even necessarily a comment on most of them, but rather a comment on as many of them as would be enough to prod Taiwan in the direction of provoking a war with China. More on that later.

I find the Taiwanese attitude to outsiders to be a curious one, full of contradictions. While some of them like China, from whence they came in waves over the years (mostly from Fujian province in particular, then with Chiang Kai-shek when Mao’s communists took over the mainland), many others detest the country of their ethnic origin. It’s a classic case of what Freud once called “the narcissism of small differences.”

On the other hand, the one country for which one would think the Taiwanese would have an abiding hatred, Japan, which had occupied the island from 1895 to the end of the Second World War, actually is a country the locals like so much that they visit it constantly, perhaps more than any other country, to my knowledge. My beloved Taiwanese wife, with whom I’ve vacationed in Japan many times, speaks Japanese very well. Just so we’re clear, though, Japanese rule here could be brutally repressive, as with their response to the Wushe Incident, which was dramatized in the Taiwanese film, Seediq Bale.

The locals’ attitude towards Westerners, whom they typically call waiguoren (“foreigners”) or meiguoren (“Americans”), is a mixture of contradictory feelings. Sometimes, they’re fascinated with us, reacting as if we were movie stars, or something. Little kids (and, occasionally, even adults) stare at us as if in a trance, as if there’s something shocking about how different we as non-Asians look from them.

At other times, a minority of locals, those with a more xenophobic attitude (sadly, a reaction any foreigner or racial minority will have to face from time to time in any country) will regard us as comical-looking; these ones may use the racial slur a-do-ah (“big nose”), or mock us by saying “Hello!” and “How do you do?” in an exaggerated tone, equivalent to white racists mocking Asians by bowing, squinting their eyes, sticking out their upper-front teeth and saying something ignorant like “Ah-so!” (which, incidentally, is Japanese, not Chinese, whitey.)

What all these contradictory attitudes have in common is the preoccupation with how ‘different’ we are from them. Such a preoccupation seems to stem, at least in part, from how the locals’ society conditions them, from early childhood, to be remarkably conformist. Social conformity, of course, exists in all countries and all cultures; but some places are more obviously conformist than others. A common way to reprimand bad behaviour among the locals is to call the offender qiguai (“strange”); one is bad because one is different from everyone else.

The real enforcing of conformity happens during elementary, junior, and senior high school…naturally. Kids here are bombarded with piles of homework not only from these schools, but also from their cram schools (buxiban) of many subjects (English, math, science, etc.), home tutors, and music lessons. In all of this intense study, we see how these kids are being prepared for the long working day–as of 2019, the fourth longest hours in the world.

Unlike in the West, the Taiwanese didn’t experience a radical 1960s countercultural rebellion against “The Man.” They’re essentially as we Westerners were back in the 1950s. To be sure, there are a number of individual cases of Taiwanese who go against the grain: I had the pleasure here of teaching a young woman, a violinist, who is now in the US studying the arts and is in a happy relationship with her female partner. I’m delighted every time I encounter such an exception; I’d encourage much more of it if I had the opportunity. But when I speak of conformity, I’m describing the large majority of the locals I’ve encountered, a largeness that I hope, for their sake, will soon shrink…if it hasn’t already, without my noticing.

Now, of course, East Asians have no monopoly on conservatism and conformity. Consider the recent, outrageous overturning of Roe vs. Wade by those Americans far too influenced by religious authoritarianism. But at least there’s a significant number of left-leaning Westerners trying to resist such reactionary behaviour. Sadly, I see far too little of such resistance here; by this, I’m referring to the Western pockets of resistance to such things as the mask and vaccine mandates. I know of no such questioning of authority here; anyone who does, please enlighten me–I’d be so happy to see examples of it here.

Alongside the locals’ non-questioning of authority, their homogeneity, which leads to their frequent over-reactions to foreigners as described above, their self-absorption (brought on, I believe, by their media’s constant focus on Taiwan, with scant exposure of international news to the locals), and their fear of a Chinese invasion, comes their belief that this island is a country, rather than a breakaway province of China. The locals are, essentially, ethnic Chinese, just as a huge percentage of the Ukrainian population is made up of ethnic Russians. Constitutionally, Taiwan is the Republic of China; the ruling Democratic Progressive Party keeps selling the public the idea that Taiwan is a ‘sovereign’ country.

I’m sorry, Taiwanese readers, but I must be frank with you. Nationalism is a form of collective narcissism. One thinks one’s country is ‘great’ because one was born there.

Just so we’re clear: nationalism has a danger of degenerating into fascism. See what’s happened to Ukrainian nationalists to see what I mean. Excessive patriotism, combined with economic hard times, tends to lead to such things as Naziism. Note today’s economy, and do the math to see what I’m getting at. Now, most Taiwanese are kind, gentle people who are very unlikely to develop the violent ways of fascism, but I worry that the combination of economic hard times, this nationalistic pride among the locals, and especially, American manipulations of the people here towards Sinophobia could make some disturbing changes in my home.

Indeed, the US government in its evil machinations encourages Taiwanese ‘nationalism’ as much as it can. Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State under Trump and confessed liar for the CIA, made a visit to Taiwan to embolden the locals in an anti-China stance. At one point during his visit, he wore a mask designed with a combination of the American and Taiwanese flags. The obvious message behind this design is that an ‘independent’ Taiwan is to be inextricably linked to the American empire. Translation: Taiwan is to be subservient to American interests.

If the Taiwanese think that, with their long work days as mentioned above, a link to ultra-capitalist, imperialist America will give them freedom, they should think again.

Indeed, far too many Taiwanese naïvely think that the US is here to protect us against a Chinese invasion, so they welcome neocon assholes like Pompeo. They don’t realize that the American government has ulterior motives: namely, to Balkanize China (and Russia, by the way), thereby weakening her. Call Taiwan a country, break Hong Kong off from China, use the unsubstantiated hoax of the Uyghur ‘genocide’ to justify breaking Xinjiang off from China, etc.

Though only fairly recently did Taiwanese news media start to show a substantial amount of international news, when they (and Western media) discuss such important stories as the Russian/Ukraine war, it’s to see how the conflict is to be paralleled with the danger of such a war happening here with China. Sadly, their coverage of Ukraine largely parrots the disingenuous Western reporting of the war (e.g., Taiwanese news reports of international news all too often show CNN reports with Chinese subtitles).

Accordingly, the average Taiwanese, if not the great majority of them, accept uncritically the MSM narrative that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an “unprovoked” act of aggression by the villainous Putin. I suspect that a precious few Taiwanese (if any–indeed, my “precious few” is me being generous and hopeful that more locals are properly informed of what’s really going on in eastern Europe than I think) are aware that the Russian intervention is actually a reaction to eight years of Ukrainian neo-Nazi provocations.

It started with the broken promise not to push NATO “one inch” eastward beyond reunified Germany. Never a friend to Russia, NATO has absorbed many of the former SSRs, to the uncomfortable point of touching Russia’s borders at Latvia and Estonia. Belarus has held out, but the push to make Ukraine and Georgia join NATO means, if one day achieved, nuclear missiles can be placed in those countries and pointed at Russia, something this nuclear-armed country can never be expected to tolerate.

(It’s useful to compare such a predicament to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USSR tried to give missiles to Cuba to point at the US. The Taiwanese might also want to consider how the people of China feel about the Trump administration’s sale of a billion dollars of weapons to Taiwan to be used one day on China. The Taiwanese see it as defence; China sees a threat.)

Tensions escalated in 2014 when the CIA helped to orchestrate a violent coup d’état in Ukraine, ousting the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych and replacing his government with one that includes neo-Nazis, as their military also includes. The eight years since that coup, leading to the war starting in late February of this year, have involved the neo-Nazis, in their bigoted hatred of the ethnic Russians of the Donbass regions, not only to pass legislation denying those Russians the right to use their language (naturally leading to Russian separatism in those regions), but also to violent attacks on those Russians, causing thousands of deaths.

Furthermore, in the few months leading up to the Russian invasion, the US was sending hoards of weapons to Ukraine, provoking Russia all the more. Attempts to negotiate peace (i.e., the Minsk Accords) were disregarded by the Ukrainian government. True, Zelenskyy campaigned and was elected on a platform of peace, but the neo-Nazis threatened to kill him if he tried to sue for peace with Russia. Also, the ‘democratic’ Ukrainian government has banned eleven opposition parties.

Finally, contrary to the nonsense and propaganda of the Western mainstream media, Ukraine is losing the warbadly. They haven’t the necessary equipment or organization, and Ukrainian soldiers are refusing to fight, knowing they face certain death if they try. The purpose of the MSM lies that Ukraine is ‘winning’ is to promote the US/NATO agenda of protracting the war, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder, in order to bleed Russia slowly, and thus weaken her, as the mujahideen in Afghanistan was successfully used in the 1980s to weaken the Soviet Union.

I bring up all of this in keeping with the paralleling of the Russia/Ukraine war with a possible China/Taiwan war, so the locals here can understand how the US plans to use Taiwan as cannon fodder to provoke such a war here, while lying in the media that a Chinese invasion will be ‘unprovoked.’ The Taiwanese typically think that China is going to invade Taiwan just because the CPC ‘wants to,’ or something (actually, China wants to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, and will use military force only if they have to). Similarly, the locals here usually buy into the Western media narrative that Russia invaded Ukraine just because Putin ‘wanted to.’

Since the Taiwanese are naturally terrified (as I, a resident here, am) of this island becoming a war zone, the first step toward preventing such a calamity is to see what’s happening in Russia/Ukraine and China/Taiwan in its proper geopolitical context, something the MSM (and therefore also the Taiwanese news media, part of the TV version of which, by the way, is aptly called TVBS!) will never allow us to see: that these conflicts are actually US/NATO moves on a global chessboard, if you will, to prevent the replacement of US unipolar hegemony with a much more sensible multipolar world, including Russia and China as emerging powers, which could create a balance of power that in turn could conceivably promote peace and end our decades-long plague of American imperialism.

It would be laughable (if it weren’t so infuriating) that the American government–whose Attila-the-Hun-conservative, Bible-thumping Supreme Court just overturned its women’s right to abortion–goes around judging Russia and China as ‘autocratic’ and ‘authoritarian.’ The government of the same country that spies on its citizens and censors its media left, right, and centre has the gall to judge Russia and China as infringing on human rights. The country’s government that has been invading and bombing countries all over the Middle East and occupying countries all over the world with its military bases, has the audacity to judge Russian and Chinese “aggression.” The government of the country that has, over and over again, interfered with the democratic and electoral processes in many countries has the cheek to accuse Russia, baselessly, with interfering in the 2016 US election to give it to Trump, who ended up putting sanctions on Russia anyway!

Still, the average Taiwanese knows little of these issues, since the local media largely doesn’t discuss them, and any time I discuss them with my adult English students here, they never mention any prior knowledge of the issues. They just parrot the mainstream opinions heard on the TV.

Granted, many–if not most–people in Western countries also parrot those mainstream opinions, but we also have access to alternative forms of media that can give us the news from different perspectives. To my knowledge, there isn’t any such alternative media here in Taiwan, and if there is, it must be extremely scant. If, on the other hand, anyone out there reading this knows of such alternatives, please give me some links in the comments; I’d really like to be proven wrong about this, though I don’t think I will be.

My theory for why such alternative media here is generally lacking ties in with what I was saying above about how most Taiwanese are conservative and conformist. Apart from accepting uncritically far too much of the American spin on world affairs, the locals here simply don’t have sufficient time to examine world events from different angles. This is not their fault.

Starting in childhood, they get up early and go to school or work, where they slave away all day until they finally get home, too exhausted for any deep thinking. To be sure, they’re just as capable of deep thinking as we are in the West, but their version of the capitalist system brainwashes them, from childhood, into being little more than obedient workers whose whole life objective is making as much money for the family as possible.

Of course, the notion of TINA has been spread around the world, not just here, thanks to the hateful neoliberal agenda; but at least there are significant pockets of leftist resistance to it in most of the rest of the world, to varying degrees. I’m aware of no such resistance here, to any significant degree. Again, this is not the fault of the locals. As I said above, their time is so consumed with work and the need to make money that they simply can’t make the needed level of commitment to doing such things as promoting workers’ rights, or opposing imperialism.

Indeed, I remember back in the 2010s when an attempt was made to set up an IWW union here, and it barely materialized beyond one meeting of us in Taipei on a Sunday afternoon. The leader, an American with, I’m sorry to say, an attitude far too abrasive for his own good, got frustrated with our inability to commit to regular union meetings. Two Taiwanese members emailed him a long message explaining, among other issues, how difficult and unpleasant it was for them (as it also was for me, by the way) to wipe out their one day off to go from their city of residence to Taipei for these monthly Sunday meetings (we often work on Saturdays here: that’s how bad capitalism can get in Taiwan).

People here are so tired from their long workweeks that long sleeps over the weekend are, for them, the highest bliss. There is simply far too little time for most locals to spend questioning the system that wears them out so much. That little bit of weekend free time is for family, exercise (often in the form of hiking in the hills), online games, or watching the latest, mindless Hollywood action or superhero movie. Free time is usually about escape, not fighting the Man.

And along with far too little time for political protest is far too little time for questioning mainstream media narratives, learning the historical background to things like the Ukrainian conflict, the real reason for NATO‘s existence, and US imperialism. Yet without this learning, how will the Taiwanese be prepared when the American empire starts increasing its provocations on China as they’ve done on Russia?

The locals naïvely think that the American weapons sold to Taiwan and the US military training given to the Taiwanese army are to protect them from a Chinese invasion, rather than part of a provocation of such an invasion. The CIA has been working with Ukraine in its war with Russia, and all those weapons were sent there. Far from being ‘protected,’ Ukraine is being crushed. The same will happen here if the Taiwanese continue to trust the perfidious American government.

I think many Taiwanese already realize, from NATO’s non-intervention in Ukraine to stop Russia (which otherwise would escalate into WWIII and could go nuclear), that the American army won’t intervene to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (to avoid the same cataclysmic escalation). The locals are not that politically naïve.

Still, they must understand that the American government is a false friend; they’ll come to this understanding by studying the history of American interference in other countries’ affairs, the American ruling class’s contempt for the rights of American women, people of colour (including Asians!), the working class, etc. If the American capitalist class doesn’t care about the people of their own country, why would they care about the people of Taiwan?

Understanding these sobering realities will result from the Taiwanese coming out of their shell–not thinking of the rest of the world as some strange, far-away place that has no relevance to the locals’ lives–and learning about the rest of the world in depth. I’m not saying that the Taiwanese know nothing, or next to nothing, about the rest of the world, but to survive the danger of the American government luring them into becoming cannon fodder against China, they’ll need to do much more learning about the world than they’ve done so far.

Let’s all hope that, unless many of them have already done this kind of comprehensive study of these issues, and I’m therefore wrong in my assessment of what they know, they will do this thorough study, and do it soon. Our lives will depend on it.

What Might Save Us

Back in the 1980s, Sting wrote a song called “Russians.” Though powerful artistically and melodically (even incorporating a theme from Prokofiev‘s Lieutenant Kijé), the song was a typical liberal perspective on the Cold War of the time, taking a ‘neutral’ stance as far as political left and right are concerned, the kind of stance that only helped ensure that the right won by the 1990s.

The song ends with the line “what might save us, me and you/is if the Russians love their children too.” What might save us from MAD is something one would naturally assume that we all do, but do ‘them Russkies’ also do it? I’m not sure if Sting meant his words to be taken at face value, or if he was being ironic; but with all the Russophobia and anti-Putin hysteria going on since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many in the West seem to be doubting that the Russians love their children, among other things deemed natural for most of humanity.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these Russophobes that it’s actually the Western ruling classes that don’t seem to love their children…not those beyond their own immediate families, anyway. Consider all the billions that have gone into military spending and into prolonging the Ukrainian war with Russia, billions that could end homelessness in the US and feed American schoolchildren at lunchtime.

Sanctions against Russia largely haven’t harmed the country, which is now trading in rubles, as China is slowly trading in the yuan in foreign markets. The sanctions have backfired on the West, raising gas prices, causing food shortages, and hurting low-income families who were already struggling before the global economic meltdown of 2020, which was of course exacerbated by the pandemic.

Trading in other currencies is causing the petrodollar to go down in value. If this continues much more, it could crush the already-ailing American economy beyond repair. What we’re witnessing could be that final collapse of capitalism.

Now, in my post, The End of the World?, I was being extremely pessimistic, as the title indicates. I’m a little less pessimistic now, though, provided things continue on the trajectory on which I see them going; it’ll still be terribly painful, and there may still be no good end to the world’s troubles, but there is a faint hope that a nuclear WWIII between the West on the one side, and Russia and China on the other, could at least be prevented.

What might save us is the complete self-destruction of the United States and its war machine.

Allow me to clarify what I mean by the above, provocative statement. No, I’m not advocating a genocide of the American people. I’m referring rather to the ending of the warmongering, imperialist, white settler colonial state, replacing it with a federation of socialist entities, allowing full civil rights for people of all colours, but also owned and governed by the aboriginals, as I discussed here. Such a transformation of American society would be excruciating, a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes kind of thing, but it would be a necessary, growing pain, a death/rebirth. Recall what Gramsci once said: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Granted, I would hate to imagine the suffering of ordinary Americans from such an economic and civilizational collapse, but the reduction of the petrodollar to next to nothing could be the one thing that just might also cripple the ruling class and its ability to continue promoting wars for the defence contractors. Will the collapse of the petrodollar be extreme enough to reduce the value of the capitalist class’s billions to insignificance, an insignificance sufficient to nullify their ability to buy their way out of their problems, to pay for their protection?

I have no way of being able to answer my question with an assured affirmative, but if the masses of poor Americans suffer (and they already are, and will doubtless continue to for far too long a time), I hope the ruling class gets a good scathing, too. Another thing the aggravated suffering of the poor could (and should) provoke is revolution.

Rainer Shea has written a number of articles on how American leftists can organize, train, and protect their groups against infiltration by opportunists, wreckers, agent provocateurs, and anyone with an adventurist, gang mentality, as an anticipation of the civilizational collapse. Shea also wrote an article that made a reference to a rich man’s worries about not being able to pay his security men when, because of the anticipated economic and civilizational collapse, money will no longer have value. Hence, my speculation that the collapse of the petrodollar could wipe out the spending power of even the ruling class.

This collapse of the American economy, if it’s as extreme as I imagine it could be, would have a ripple effect on all the other countries of the world. Canada, with the US as our number one trading partner, will suffer. Europe is already suffering, not being able, due to the sanctions on Russia, to buy their ever-so-needed Russian oil, unless in rubles. The desperation all of this will cause could very well trigger revolutions in these areas and elsewhere, too.

Russia, in contrast, is doing well, at least for now. The ruble has gone up in value. In response to all of the Western businesses that have left the country, Russia has, for example, simply replaced McDonald’s with “Vkusno i tochka.” Elsewhere, China is considering buying Saudi oil in the yuan, which would be more bad news for the US dollar.

Far from slowly bleeding Russia dry, as had happened to the Soviet Union during the American proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, this new US/NATO proxy war in Ukraine is losing badly to the Russians (despite all the propaganda that Ukraine is winning), to the point of Ukrainians no longer being willing to fight. China is watching this debacle, not needing to do a thing: they’re calmly waiting for the self-destruction of the US to unfold.

If this American collapse happens, the failed Ukrainian proxy war just might deter the US from provoking a similarly disastrous Taiwanese proxy war with China. Taiwan could then peacefully rejoin China and benefit from the latter’s socialism. As a resident of the island, I’d no longer worry about my home being torn apart as a war zone; sensible Taiwanese would accept joining with China, as war is hardly a reasonable alternative. Xi Jinping could move China further leftward, eliminating the billionaire status of the country’s wealthiest and reduce its income inequality, a process that newly-joined Taiwan could enjoy, too.

A US as economically, and thus politically, crippled as I’m imagining it could become might have an even farther-reaching ripple effect. Latin American countries might be able to elect left-wing governments without fear of the kind of CIA coups of the Operation Condor years. US war criminals might no longer have the wealth to avoid being tried in the International Criminal Court. Without the wealth and influence of his persecutors, Assange might get freed. Leftists worldwide would be encouraged to pursue revolutionary change.

Now, I’m probably dreaming just a little too much here, and my predictions of the collapse of the petrodollar are probably wildly exaggerated, based on my own wish-fulfillment for the capitalist system to lose. After all, the economic experts are assuring everyone in the West that the petrodollar won’t be all that badly affected by all these recent upsets. I suspect, however, that these experts are reassuring everyone less because of what they objectively know than out of a wish-fulfillment of their own. They don’t want to see the West lose.

We must remember what a huge deficit the US has already had for many years: it’s a ticking time bomb that’s only grown larger and larger. Sooner or later, that debt–now in the trillions!–is going to have to be paid, and it will be a lot harder to pay if the value of the petrodollar plummets. Add to this all the grievances of an impoverished American people, many of whom have no jobs, who have crumbling infrastructure and increasingly trigger-happy desperation.

A major thing that will stop a communist revolution in the US is a probable takeover by fascists and their sympathizers–socialism, or barbarism. This is why American leftists must train hard when everything comes to a head…which will be sooner than we think.

To get back to Sting’s song, though, he recently re-recorded it with a cellist as a comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, he meant it as a liberal defence of Ukraine and a judgement on Putin, sympathizing with the “peaceful, unthreatening” Ukrainians.

It saddens me that a man as erudite, intelligent, and talented as Sting is could be so horribly wrong about a conflict that actually started in 2014, when a violent coup d’état replaced the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military including neo-Nazis, who had been killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for the eight years between the coup and the current war. This is a problem that the mainstream media acknowledged before the war, but is now either denying, downplaying, or rationalizing. (I go into these issues much more in these articles, so you can read about them there, as I don’t feel like going into it in detail here.)

I’m sure there’s a large peaceful, unthreatening portion of the Ukrainian population that opposes these neo-Nazis, but it’s apparent that far too many of another portion of Ukrainians do support them. In any case, Sting’s well-intended, but misguided support for them (his area of expertise is music, not politics) reminds me of what Stalin once said of similarly liberal-minded people: “Social-democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.”

To conclude, I’ll tie in Sting’s song with what I’ve been saying in the middle of this post, ending it by altering the last line of his song: What might save us, me and you, is if the richest lose their money, too.

Analysis of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

I: Introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the story is a critique of psychiatry and, in a larger context, of all tendencies to impose social control.

It was adapted into a Broadway and off-Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy, with Gene Wilder playing Billy Bibbit. Danny DeVito, who played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway play, would reprise his role for the 1975 film, which starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

I’ll be focusing on the novel and the film, which–though following the novel fairly closely–was actually based on the play. The supporting cast of the film, which was co-produced by Douglas’s son Michael and directed by Miloš Forman, includes Louise Fletcher as the manipulative and subtly domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, named the fifth greatest villain in movie history according to the AFI), Will Sampson, William Redfield, DeVito as mentioned above, Sydney Lassick, and Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their film debuts.

The film won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), the second film to achieve this (after It Happened One Night in 1934), and the third to do so not until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and in 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress. AFI lists it #20 on its list of the greatest films of all time in 1998, demoted to #33 in 2007.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here are some quotes from the novel, and here is a link to a performance of the play.

II: Background to the Novel

To get back to the novel, it’s useful to know some of the historical context and background to its creation. It was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was already a growing sense of antiestablishment thinking in the collective consciousness of the US at the time. There was also a controversial move towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, something that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel.

Kesey worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California, an experience that, through his interactions with the patients and the staff there, obviously inspired his novel. He also experimented with such psychoactive drugs as LSD and mescaline there, as part of Project MKUltra. These mind-expanding experiences led not only to his advocacy of using the drugs recreationally, but also freed his mind in a way that influenced the antiestablishment attitude championed in his novel.

III: A ‘Mute’ Narrator

The arrangement of the main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is strikingly contrary to what one would assume them to be normally, in terms of who wields authority and who cows under it, and who is central versus who is marginalized. Almost all of the patients–except for “Chief” Bromden (Sampson in the film), a half-Native American–are white men who are dominated, bullied, and controlled by, most of the time, women and blacks: Ratched and Nurse Pilbow, and the “black boys,” aides Washington (played by Nathan George), Williams (Miller in the film), and Warren. Though McMurphy’s the protagonist, Bromden narrates.

Bromden fakes being deaf and dumb in the hospital, which allows him to be privy to many of the machinations of the staff, who chat around him while assuming he can’t hear what they’re saying. His muteness is also symbolic of how the aboriginals of North America have been silenced by the establishment, the white settler colonial state that is embodied in, for example, the US and Canada.

…and yet, ironically, this ‘mute’ is the narrator of the novel.

His narrative style is noteworthy in itself, often switching back and forth between present and past tenses, as well as expressing himself ungrammatically in such ways as saying, “They should of knew better’n to…” (Kesey, page 4). This informal, non-standard English gives us a vivid sense of how Bromden is, in spite of having been a college student, just an ordinary, common man, as opposed to being a higher-ranking member of society. This proletarian-like commonness will be important in how he will eventually rise up and free himself, in a quasi-revolutionary way, from the societal prison that the mental hospital represents.

IV: An Upside-down World

That the white men are bullied by “the Big Nurse” (Ratched, of course) and the other nurses reflects another issue Kesey was concerned with: the emasculation of modern men in society. I see something broader than that in this, if you will, ‘matriarchal’ hospital with its “black boys” also pushing around the white male patients: as a reversal of the normal social hierarchy, life in the mental hospital, the ‘loony bin,’ “the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a fittingly upside-down world, comparable in a sense to that of King Lear, in which a king is reduced to a mad beggar. Such an inversion of the normal…and equally deplorable…state of affairs in our society can be seen as a way to let our white male rulers know how it feels to be ruled by others. Both the normal and inverted worlds are mad worlds.

The nature of the hospital’s ‘matriarchal’ rule is aptly given in the maternal form of nurses telling the male patients what to do (Dale Harding–played by Redfield in the film–literally calls it a matriarchy–page 63). These men, in their afflicted mental states that are even further afflicted by the nurses’ manipulations, are thus reduced to the role of children. This is best seen in the whining and temper tantrums of Charlie Cheswick (Lassick), in his noisy demands for his precious cigarettes.

V: When ‘Helping’ is Harming

Psychiatry and psychotherapy are supposed to serve in healing patients so they can return to society in a healthy state and become happy, productive contributors to that society. The critique of this novel, however, is that far too often, the psychiatric profession is used rather to control the patients. Far too often, confronting the mentally ill is about treating them with contempt and condescension instead of with empathy and compassion.

I know from personal experience in my life how people in the role of ‘nurse’ can speak of one as ‘ill,’ pretending to be concerned about that person’s well-being, but really using the label of ‘ill’ to justify treating the person as an inferior to be controlled. Instead of giving the person the help he or she needs, as is the stated intention of the ‘nurse,’ this ‘nurse’ causes the patient’s sense of worth and autonomy to be gradually eroded.

Now, the bogus treatment of illness as a guise for social control can be of mental illness, as dealt with in this story, or it can be of physical illness, as many have suspected of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s social control, disguised as ‘treatment,’ on the individual or local level, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there’s such social control on the national and even international, imperialist level, of which the novel and film can be seen to be an allegory.

Having Bromden as the novel’s narrator is thus useful for the purpose of such an allegory. In some ways, such an allegory works in the film, too, even without Bromden as a voiceover narrator (an omission Kesey was most unhappy about in the film adaptation), as I’ll try to show.

VI: Beginning of the Film

The film begins with a shot of a scene in nature, with mountains, grass, and a car going down the road (presumably McMurphy being taken to the mental hospital) during a sunrise. The film will end with Bromden having escaped the hospital and going off into a similar natural background–with trees, mountains, and the sunset.

Throughout the middle, of course, has been life in the prison of the hospital, a metaphor for our sick civilization. We start out in the beauty of nature, whose life is interrupted by our oppressive, man-made civilization, and we’ll ultimately liberate ourselves and return to the beauty of nature.

That Bromden, our half-Native American, half-white narrator, is doing the liberating from that civilization is significant; for that very civilization is the white settler colonial state that robbed the North American aboriginals of their natural home, and it must be returned to them if full liberation for all–white, black, Latino, Asian, and aboriginal–is to be achieved.

VII: McMurphy, the Bad-but-good Guy

To achieve that liberation, though, a revolutionary agent needs to be introduced…and this is where McMurphy comes in. He may be a criminal, someone who “fights too much and fucks too much” (page 14), but it’s his gregarious, free-spirited, and rebellious nature that is just what the intimidated other men need to inspire them to fight for their own freedom.

The fact that our hero is deemed a psychopath and a statutory rapist, one who’s faking insanity to escape the prison work farm and, as he hopes, coast his way through his sentence in the mental hospital, is yet another example of the upside-down world of this story. A violent bad guy is actually the good guy.

One manifestation of this bad-but-good guy is when he meets Bromden. In the film, McMurphy mocks Bromden with an aping of the stereotypical greeting of “How,” then with the hand-over-mouth war cry stereotype. On the surface, McMurphy is indulging in childish, tasteless racist ‘humour,’ but he and Bromden will soon develop a close friendship.

Similarly, there’s ambivalence in calling Bromden “Chief.” On the one hand, it’s a racial slur; on the other, his father was the leader of his tribe, so handing down the title of “Chief” is perfectly legitimate (page 24), as explained by Harding. Yet another upside-down ambivalence is in how Bromden, weeping over McMurphy’s lobotomy at the end, lovingly smothers him to death with a pillow to free him from his wretched fate.

Now, in the novel, it’s towards the “black boys” that McMurphy at one moment shows a racist attitude, calling one of them a “goddamned coon” and a “motherfucking nigger.” He’s mad at them for forcibly delousing George Sorensen, one of the “acute” patients who has mysophobia and is visibly upset over the forced delousing (page 273). Even in this scene, McMurphy’s surface nastiness is obscuring a deeper compassion for the disadvantaged.

So, with every bad thing about McMurphy, there’s also something good; and the good things about him are far more noteworthy. As I said above, he is the one who will inspire the others, waking them all up from their psychological torpor–even Bromden–with his defiant, oppositional example.

VIII: The Combine

To repeat another point I made above, the mental hospital is a metaphor for the whole sick society we all have to live in. In the novel, Bromden has a special name for this repressive world exemplified by the hospital: he calls it the Combine. “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nationwide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.” (page 192)

Yet another example of the upside-down world of the novel is how Bromden is in full realization of the evil of “the Combine”–which combines capitalism, white-settler colonialism, imperialism, and social repression–yet he has been diagnosed with clinical depression and schizophrenia, this latter involving psychotic breaks from reality. As with King Lear‘s “poor Tom” o’Bedlam, a homeless madman (as Edgar pretends to be) whom Lear, in the depths of his own madness, regards as a “Noble philosopher.” It’s the mad who are truly wise in this kind of world.

IX: McMurphy vs the Nurse

McMurphy takes an immediate disliking to “the Big Nurse” and her subtly domineering ways. He bets with the other patients that in a week, he “can get the best of that woman…without her getting the best of [him]” (page 73).

Getting the best of her won’t be easy, for part of how she maintains control over the ward is by exercising her authority through a near-perfect control of her own emotions, which we see fully in Fletcher’s brilliantly understated performance in the film. She rarely loses her temper, and in her self-control we see her confidence, a narcissistic False Self which in turn commands respect. With this command of respect for her as “the Big Nurse,” Ratched is able to effect a mother transference on all the male patients (on Bibbit in particular), which infantilizes them, ensuring her control over them.

Her power over them is so complete that McMurphy can’t even get the obnoxiously ‘peaceful’ music on the record player turned down a little bit, so he and the others can hear each other talking as they play cards. When he tries to get a majority vote so they can watch the World Series on the ward TV, she manipulates matters to include all the ward patients who know nothing of the vote; and by the time he gets Bromden to raise his hand and secure a ten-to-eighteen majority, Ratched has already adjourned the meeting and invalidated the majority. Ratched thus personifies the fake democracy of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

One of McMurphy’s more successful ways of getting to her is by taking note of her figure and large breasts. He is thus defying that maternal transference that she uses to subordinate the other men, defying the Non! du père that reconciles most boys with society’s rules.

Now, this defiance of le Non! du père is also understood, through Lacan‘s pun, as les non-dupes errent. That is, those people who are non-dupes err because, paradoxically, by not being duped by society’s phoney rules (represented by Ratched’s rules of the ward), the non-dupes go astray and mess things up (as McMurphy will for everyone during the drunken party at the story’s climax).

X: The Tub Room Scene

McMurphy’s determination to watch the baseball game is seen in the tub room scene, with the control panel that he foolishly imagines he’ll lift up and throw crashing through the window, then he’ll leave the hospital with Cheswick and watch the game on a TV in “any bar downtown.”

Significantly, during the tub room scene, we see Harding playing, of all games, Monopoly with some of the others (in the novel, the game is mentioned on page 114). Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, and both games essentially teach the players, if they’re paying attention, about the evils of private property, of capitalism, and of the suffering involved in paying up every time you land on someone else’s property. So symbolically, we see the connection of the hospital and capitalism with Bromden’s idea of the Combine.

…and if the hospital, capitalism, and the Combine are the prisons from which these men (and, by extension, all of us) need to be freed, then McMurphy’s attempt, however doomed to failure, to lift the control panel and bash it through the window, to liberate everyone, is representative of socialist revolution. This brief and failed attempt is thus like that of, say, the Paris Commune. Well, McMurphy tried, didn’t he? As with the Communards, at least he did that. Of course, at the end of the story, Bromden tries and succeeds, as the Soviets would succeed…for at least several decades, anyway, before the post-Stalin revisionists began the USSR’s decline.

XI: McMurphy, Therapist

Now, I’ve described McMurphy as liberator on the socialist revolutionary level of symbolic interpretation. There’s also him as liberator in terms of, if you will, psychotherapy. He inspires the others to defy Nurse Ratched’s authority, and he helps them to be more social, through card games, basketball, the push to watch the World Series on TV, the fishing trip, and getting timid Billy Bibbit (Dourif) laid with the help of Candy (played by Marya Small), one of McMurphy’s prostitute friends.

Getting Bromden to speak, to ditch his deaf-and-mute act, is perhaps McMurphy’s greatest therapeutic achievement, one that makes his racist mocking of Bromden, near the beginning of the film, fade into insignificance. As I said above, Bromden’s deaf/mute act symbolizes the silencing of the aboriginals by the white settler colonial state, which for him would be the most significant aspect of “the Combine.” McMurphy’s goading him to speak is thus a revolutionary helping of Bromden to regain his voice and his sense of self, a therapeutic cure as well as a remedy for anti-aboriginal racism. McMurphy is, in effect, achieving the ‘talking cure.’

XII: Bromden’s Silencing

From pages 210 to 215 of the novel, Bromden explains how he came into his habit of acting like a deaf mute: “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (page 210)

His act, this silencing of him, began long before the hospital. It was already happening when he was in the Army. It happened in grade school. It happened when he, ten years old, saw a car with white people arrive at his home, then inform his family of the government’s plan to put up a hydroelectric dam there, putting an end to their fishing. The white people would force it on the aboriginals one way or another. The Combine would force it.

My connection of the Combine with capitalism may seen tenuous or even made up to some readers, but what must be understood is that there’s a lot more to capitalism than just markets, as right-wing libertarians ingenuously (or rather disingenuously) try to reduce it to. As Marx explained, the social relations between the owners of the means of production, of capital, or private property, and the workers, who have only their labour as a commodity to sell, these relations are but the base. On top of this base is the superstructure: the capitalist state, the arts, the media, science (of which psychiatry can be seen as a part), religion, culture, the law, and education. The mental hospital can be seen as a part of, or as symbolic of, that superstructure. The Combine combines both the base and the superstructure.

An essential part of maintaining this Combine, the ideology of the base and superstructure, is racism, which keeps the proletariat divided and hating each other instead of working together in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class. Presenting “the black boys” and the nurses as bullying the mostly white male patients (granted, there are also the male psychiatrists, like Dr. Spivey [played by Dean Brooks], and the white male attendants, but these men intervene more occasionally in the story; in fact, Spivey seems to be ruled over by Ratched, too) is an ironic twist that nonetheless maintains the divide-and-rule aspect of the Combine.

Capitalism also expresses itself in the form of white settler-colonialism, an internal form of imperialism (i.e., within the territorial limits of the United States) that has affected Bromden his whole life, as mentioned above. Colonialism and imperialism, like religion, media manipulation, the law, the state, and education, are all forms of social control. The worst aspects of psychiatry, such as its use of drugs, are also forms of social control rather than of therapy. Anyone who tries to defy authoritarian psychiatry is looked down on as “ill” in order to deny him a voice, to deny him power.

XIII: Ratched’s Gaslighting

Hence, when Taber (Lloyd) doubts the validity of the medication he’s given by the nurses, Ratched says he’s chosen “to act like a child” (page 34) rather than listen to him, show him empathy, or validate his legitimate concerns (the film’s approximate equivalent of this scene substitutes McMurphy for Taber). Accordingly, Miss Ratched is “just like a mother,” according to a Public Relations man (page 37). Small wonder, as Bromden observes, “The ward is a factory for the Combine.” (page 40)

Part of Nurse Ratched’s way of dealing with rebellious McMurphy is to call him “McMurry,” something she does a number of times early on in the novel, and as I suspect, this isn’t a mistake. Her changing of his name sounds like a manipulative form of control, a gaslighting comparable to Petruchio‘s renaming of Katherina as “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew. Ratched would tame McMurphy in a similar way.

XIV: Alienation

Since capitalism breeds alienation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the ward, as symbolic of the superstructure, the Combine, also breeding alienation. We can see it in Taber’s taunting and antagonizing of Harding. Indeed, the discussion of Harding’s sexual problems with his beautiful wife, implying his repressed homosexuality, is more of a ganging-up on him and a bullying of him than any kind of therapy (page 56). Taber’s bullying of Harding, significantly, is resumed in the tub room scene, during the Monopoly game.

There’s alienation between people, and there’s also alienation within, the psychological fragmentation of people with psychotic mental states, people like Martini and Bromden, with their many hallucinations. During the basketball game, for example, when Martini has the ball, he tosses it to nobody, thinking he sees a teammate receiving it. Then there’s Bromden with his notion of the fog machine.

XV: Fog

He imagines that the fog machine, “bought from Army Surplus and hid in the vents” (page 131), is controlled by the hospital staff. Sometimes Bromden finds the fog to be frightening: “I’d wander for days in the fog, scared I’d never see another thing” (page 131). Such a fear sounds like an extension of his faked deaf/muteness, since this fog-induced blindness is something he’s mentally imposed on himself.

Actually, this fog is just a symbol of the bullying authority of the nurses and “black boys.” Just as his deaf/mute act is a result of the Combine silencing him, so is the fog machine a result of the Combine blinding him to his own worth, size, and strength.

The fog, like the deaf/mute act, isn’t a completely bad thing, though. Just as the deaf/mute act allows him to hide and listen to the staff’s secret schemes, so does the fog give him a safe place to hide from painful reality. And just as one might dismiss his fog machine and the Combine as loony conspiracy theories, they actually represent how perceptive he is of the power structures all around him.

XVI: Unity of Opposites

Remember that in the upside-down world of the mental hospital, opposites are united, so loony conspiracy theories are actually perceptive assessments of reality. Bromden is muted, weakened, and shrunken to insignificance, yet he’s also the narrator, a towering giant, and strong enough to lift that control panel in the tub room.

Similar paradoxes, as noted above, include bad boy McMurphy, who is ultimately the story’s hero, even Christ-like (more on that below). White male patients are dominated primarily by nurses and “the black boys,” when we know how things really are outside the mental hospital. And of course the hospital itself, though ostensibly a place to be cured of one’s mental demons, is actually a kind of prison–a worse one, in fact, than the work farm McMurphy came here to escape, for as he’ll find out, far from being released at the end of his original sentence, he’ll be kept here for as long as Ratched deems fit.

He is truly trapped in the mental hospital…potentially for the rest of his life, while he’s mentally the freest of everyone here. Most of the other patients–except for Bromden, Taber, and some of the Chronics–are voluntary, free to leave the hospital whenever they wish…yet mentally, they’re all too afraid to leave and face the real world outside, since Ratched is manipulating that fear.

XVII: Jesus McMurphy!

McMurphy therefore is, in many ways, a Christ figure in spite of his sinfulness. Just as Christ was crucified when he, as Pilate observed (Luke 23), had done nothing wrong, so is McMurphy trapped in this hell of a mental hospital when he’s the only healthy, if badly-behaved, one here.

In keeping with the theme of the unity of opposites in this story, we’ll explore other ways in which McMurphy is a bad-boy Christ. One obvious way is in his blatant, open sexuality, as contrasted with Christ’s saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 27-28)

Now, McMurphy looks on women lustfully all the time…including at Ratched, whose breasts he appraises by wondering, “did she wear a B cup…or a C cup, or any ol’ cup at all?” (page 208) In fact, his very effective therapy for Bibbit, in curing the boy–if only temporarily–of his mother-induced gynophobia, is to have him lose his virginity with Candy.

And just as Jesus suffered, so does McMurphy, first with the electroshock therapy, which he endures (lying on a “table shaped like a cross”–pages 131-132) as bravely as Christ endures the flagellation and the crown of thorns. And though McMurphy, in attacking Ratched in revenge for her having driven Bibbet to suicide, is doing the opposite of Christ’s loving His enemies and turning the other cheek, his ‘death,’ as it were, by lobotomy ends up being a sacrificial death that drives Bromden to pick up the control panel, smash it through the window, and show the way to freedom for all the patients.

McMurphy has the patients go fishing with him, an event that happens far later in the novel than in the film (Part 3, pages 208-256). This event, too, has far greater therapeutic value for the patients than all of Ratched’s manipulative efforts. In keeping with the Christ analogy, recall Matthew 4:18-20. ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him.’ Remember also the ichthys, the fish symbol of Christ.

Just as the historical Jesus, as a number of modern scholars have argued, was a political revolutionary trying to free the Jews of Roman imperialism (not the watered-down peace-lover meant to appease the Romans), so is McMurphy a revolutionary trying to free Bromden et al of the Combine. Furthermore, some Christian leftists believe “Jesus was a socialist”: I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly there are passages in the New Testament that are anti-rich. Consider Mark 10:25, Matthew 25:41-46, and 1 Timothy 6:10. So if McMurphy is like Jesus, his anti-establishment antics can be, in these ways, likened to socialist agitation.

XVIII: White Whale Underpants

McMurphy’s Moby-Dick shorts (page 84), a literary friend’s gift that he displays after undressing, are full of symbolism related to all I’ve said above about him as a sexual, bad-boy Christ. As I (and others) have pointed out, the white whale is a huge phallic symbol, a fact emphasized by its appearance on McMurphy’s underwear.

McMurphy’s link with Moby-Dick manifests itself in other ways. The whale represents wild, untamed nature, as McMurphy does. Indeed, as one uncorrupted by the mind-numbing social conformity that Ratched is imposing on the other patients, white McMurphy is more of a noble savage than Bromden could ever be stereotyped as–another example of the subverting of expectations of the novel’s upside-down world.

As a result of McMurphy’s unwillingness to be tamed, Ratched’s Ahab-like attempts to catch him ultimately bring violence on herself, as Ahab’s quest brings on his own self-destruction. In my Moby-Dick analysis (link above), I wrote of Ahab’s narcissism, his overweening pride and its mad refusal to accept how unconquerable the whale is; Ratched’s wish to control the patients and turn them against each other is similarly narcissistic in nature…malignantly so.

McMurphy is also like the whale in that he represents, as I argued in my analysis of Melville‘s book, the beyond-good-and-evil nature of ultimate reality, an ever-elusive, deep knowledge one can never decisively grasp. As such a personification of this ultimate reality, McMurphy is, like the white whale, God-like, and therefore Christ-like. Now, this God-like whale embodies evil as well as divinity, just like McMurphy as a bad-boy Christ. In these ways, we see again the unity of opposites in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

XIX: McMurphy–Socialist or Capitalist?

Now, when I associate McMurphy with socialist revolution, I’m sure I’ll get objections from readers who will cite the passage when Harding defends McMurphy’s “capitalistic talent” (page 266) at “making a little profit” from his gambling and the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched brings up McMurphy’s profiting as one of her many schemes to divide the patients and thus control them better.

It’s best to understand Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ by emphasizing that it’s only the former’s interpretation of the latter’s intentions. In that passage, Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American” capitalism is based on his not yet having been fully liberated psychologically from the prison of the hospital; he is still experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as a result of the ongoing influence of, as he (ironically?) describes her, their “Miss Angel of Mercy Ratched”, who “is absolutely correct in every assumption she made…about McMurphy.” (page 266)

Furthermore, to use McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ to debunk his socialism fails to think dialectically about the two opposing economic systems, as such assumptions mean forgetting about the upside-down nature of this story. McMurphy, recall, does bad things to promote good. He’s a bad-boy Christ figure, so it should be predictable that he’d promote socialist liberation through capitalism. As Harding notes, “We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we?” (page 266) Recall that McMurphy’s efforts have all been far more therapeutic than anything Ratched has done for the patients, regardless of the money he’s made off of it.

The promotion of socialism through capitalism is far from unheard of: the USSR did it through the NEP in the 1920s, and China and Vietnam brought back the market in the 1980s; indeed, China’s state-regulated use of capitalism, intended to boost the productive forces of the country, has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, a feat achieved far quicker than the economic development of the “free market” has done for the global poor elsewhere. And the only meaningful liberation is the kind that ensures people are all fed, sheltered, employed, educated, and given healthcare.

XX: Menial Work

Remember that the mental hospital, with its staff’s subtle manipulations, bullying, and enforced conformity, is a metaphor for society in general. A part of this prison of a society is the menial jobs given to the patients, a proletarianizing of them, such as Bromden with his mopping of the floors (page 3), and McMurphy’s cleaning of the toilets (pages 159-160). He’s escaped the work farm only to end up doing latrine duty.

As a punishment for McMurphy’s gambling and ‘profiteering’ as discussed above, Ratched rations the patients’ cigarettes, which can be seen to symbolize low wages. So Cheswick’s protests about his cigarettes, escalating to McMurphy breaking the glass to the nurses’ station, taking a box of them, and giving it to Cheswick, is like a workers’ strike. The “black boys” taking the two men and Bromden to get electroshock therapy is thus like the police rounding up the strikers.

XXI: A Fog of Words

When Bromden hears, during a therapeutic meeting, talk “about Bibbit’s stutter and how it came about” (page 133), the words come out like a fog as thick as water. Normally, therapy is supposed to heal a psychiatric patient through the talking cure, as noted above; and Bibbit’s stutter is a symptom of his psychiatric problems, his inability to talk, with its origins in his relationship with his mother. As Bibbit tells Ratched, “The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mamma.”

Ratched’s therapy, of course, is the opposite of a talking cure; instead, it’s a talking infection. Small wonder Bromden experiences the discussion as a fog. It’s just another manipulation of the Combine.

XXII: The Oedipal Basis of Ratched’s Matriarchal Rule

Within all patriarchy, including the patriarchal family, there’s a small nucleus of matriarchy. I don’t mean to promote MRA thinking here; I’m just discussing the dialectical nature of sex roles and the power systems revolving around them. The father bosses around the family, while the mother more directly bosses around the kids. A transference of such a relationship has occurred between the nurses and the patients.

Such a transference has been most potently achieved in Billy Bibbit, a thirty-something with the psychological development of a little boy. As part of McMurphy’s therapy for the young man, it’s been arranged for him, during their naughty party at the story’s climax, to lose his virginity with Candy and thus ‘make a man of him.’

When he’s been discovered in bed with Candy and he has to explain himself to Ratched, he briefly loses his stutter: a temporary cure of his gynophobia–brought on by his domineering mother, who’s presumably as narcissistic as Ratched–has become his talking cure.

…but that fog of words comes back as soon as Ratched brings up how much the boy’s mother will disapprove of his little sexual indiscretion, which the Big Nurse, his mother’s close friend, will assuredly tell her about.

The power Bibbit’s mother has over him–extended by transference over to Ratched–is based on his Oedipal need for her to love him back. Normally, a mother’s authority over her children is expressed in a benign, loving way…not so if she has pathologically narcissistic traits.

The boy, already prone to suicide and hence his being in the hospital, is so fearful of losing his mother’s love that, knowing Ratched will never refrain from telling her of what he’s done with Candy, he slits his throat in Dr. Spivey’s office.

XXIII: Conclusion–Big vs Small

In the upside-down world of this story, physically big people are often psychologically small, and vice versa. Bromden is, of course, the primary example of this paradox. As he explains to McMurphy, whom he regards as psychologically huge despite his smaller physical size, Bromden speaks of his physically big father who was shrunken down to size by Bromden’s white mother and the Combine. They worked on his father, they’ve worked on him…and now they’re working on McMurphy (page 220).

Why do some people have confidence (i.e., are big), and others lack it (are small)? Not so much because of innate abilities, or lack of them, but because as I argued here, there are people (emotional abusers, white supremacists, the bourgeoisie, colonialists, imperialists, etc.) who work on the small. Such working on is what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about.

Sometimes we fight back, as when McMurphy chokes Ratched for driving small Bibbit to suicide. McMurphy’s violent act is a revolutionary one, since revolution is of necessity a violent act. When revolutions fail, though, the insurrectionists are sternly punished, as is McMurphy.

Ratched isn’t left unscathed: her injury from the choking leaves her unable to speak; instead, she communicates by writing on a pad, which of course is far less effective for manipulating the patients (page 321). Most of the voluntary patients have left the hospital; of those who went on the fishing trip, only Martini, Scanlon (played by Delos V Smith Jr in the film), and Bromden remain. The others left because Ratched no longer has power over them. She has been silenced, as Bromden was; she has shrunken from big to small.

As I said above, though, her reduction to smallness hasn’t been left unpunished. For his scurrilous behaviour, McMurphy has been lobotomized, a punishment compared by Harding to castration: “Frontal lobe castration.” (page 191)

Since the Lacanian phallus is a signifier, McMurphy’s symbolic castration is a silencing of him, too. As a new ‘vegetable,’ he no longer speaks. He’s forever in the fog.

He’s been made small, but Bromden, touched by his Christ-like sacrificial act, is inspired to “feel big as a damn mountain.” Bromden can’t bear to see his friend in a state of living death, so he smothers McMurphy to death with his pillow. McMurphy must come with him out to freedom, if not in body, then in spirit.

Bromden’s picking up of the control panel and smashing it through the window is his revolutionary act of liberation. He’s breaking free not just of the hospital, this metaphor for conformist society, but also of the Combine. At the end of the film, we see him going off into a background of nature. He’s freed himself of the white settler colonial state, and so the world around him looks as it did when the aboriginals were the only ones living there.

Now, this symbolic liberation is not just for the Native Americans, but for all of us together. Recall that McMurphy is coming with Bromden in spirit; also, Bromden is white on his mother’s side. The true liberation of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc., is a liberation from capitalism, imperialism, and white settler colonialism…the Combine, the combination of all of these. To fly over the cuckoo’s nest, we must replace the Combine with federations of post-colonial states that, while allowing equal civil rights for people of all colours, are also acknowledged as belonging to the indigenous peoples of those places.

To be big, we must sometimes let others be big, and let ourselves be smaller.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New York, Berkley, 1962

Beds

I
fear
the end of the world.
We are on our death
beds, gasping for air.

A
dying
world is lying ill in her bed,
her nurses her murderers,
hastening her end with war.

A
ball
that is burning: her fever’s been
ignored by all of those who are
responsible, who made her bed.

I
will
die, as you will die, as will
everyone else, in our beds
beside our ailing Mother.

O,
break
in, you red revolutionaries!
Save us from these doctors
of death! Make the ill well.

O,
make
us rise up from our beds!
We’d swap the hospitals
for hope and happiness.