Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

The Persians is a historical tragedy Aeschylus wrote, and which won first prize in the dramatic competitions in 472 BCE. It is his earliest surviving play, and the only one we have of his based on historical sources, rather than on Greek myth. It tells the story of Xerxes‘ disastrous invasion of Greece, Persia’s second humiliating defeat after the failed attempt by his father, Darius I, to invade Greece.

The translation I’ll be basing this analysis on is a brand new one by Mark Will, which can be found here on Amazon. It’s a literal translation that comes as close as possible to paralleling the poetry of the original Greek. It also includes an excellent introduction that not only explains the historical background of the play, but also, in a timely way, relates imperial Persia’s losses to contemporary concerns, making it a kind of cautionary tale about what the US’s current imperialist excesses will most likely lead to.

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

“Oh, wretched me, having met/this loathsome, obscure fate/because a demon savage-mindedly trod upon/the Persian race!” –Xerxes, beginning of Episode 4, page 68, lines 909-912

“My son found sharp the vengeance/of famous Athens, for they did not suffice,/the barbarians whom Marathon destroyed before./Intending to make retribution for them, my son/has caused so great a plethora of calamities.” —Atossa, Episode 1, page 45, lines 473-477

“Groan and mourn,/cry heavy and/heavenly distress!/Strain the sadly wailing,/clamorous, wretched voice!

“Torn by the whirlpool,/they are mangled by the voiceless,/by the children of the undefiled sea!

“And the deprived house mourns/the man of the family, and childless fathers/are demonized by distress,/and old men bewailing/everything perceive pain.” –Chorus, Choral Ode 2, page 49, lines 571-583

Structurally, the play can be divided into four parts: 1) premonitions and fears for the Persian army, as felt by the Chorus of Persian Elders and by Atossa, Darius’ widow queen and King Xerxes’ mother; 2) the calamity of the Persian army’s defeat at the Battle of Salamis, as told by a messenger; 3) the Ghost of Darius’ report of further Persian woe, and counsel not to attempt an invasion of Greece again [lines 790-792]; and 4) Xerxes’ despair when he returns to Susa, his clothes in tatters.

[Bear in mind that my four-way division of the play differs from Will’s, whose Episode 1 combines my parts one and two, as described in the previous paragraph, and his Episode 2 is a speech by Atossa, just before his Episode 3 and my part three, with Darius’ ghost. Each of his Episodes is preceded by a Choral Ode, with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes; whereas I’m dividing the play in terms of thematic contrasts I’ve seen.]

The choral poetry comments on the fortunes of the Persian empire, past and present. We hear of the great glories of Persia’s imperial past, her conquest of Ionia, and the achievements of Darius the Great (Choral Ode 4, pages 66-67).

While it’s more typical in Greek tragedy to start the play with a hubristic character who experiences a sudden reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and a realization (anagnorisis) of some terrible truth, both of these elements propelling the action towards tragedy (e.g., a fall of pride); there seems to be very little of such contrast in The Persians. The flowing of the plot, from beginning to end, seems a sea of undifferentiated sorrow.

Xerxes’ hubris is felt offstage, while he’s creating the pontoon bridges for his army to cross the Hellespont (lines 65-72; also lines 743-750), and when his troops commit sacrilege (lines 809-812) by destroying the images of Greek gods at their temples. This hubris is described by the characters in Susa, where the whole play takes place. Instead of seeing a boastful king, we hear the Chorus expressing their fears, for the Persian army, who at the beginning of the play (lines 8-15, 107-139) have not sent any reports on the progress of the invasion. The Chorus’ pride is only in Persia’s past.

This fear morphs into sorrow from the messenger’s report; then further sorrow from what Darius’ ghost knows of the army’s other misfortunes, coupled with his not-so-comforting advice not to invade Greece again; and finally despairing sorrow on shamed Xerxes’ return. Fear, woe, more woe, and the worst. The whole play is a continuous descent into sadness.

As I’ve said above, Mark Will parallels this Persian woe to the predicted fate of the US’s near future, with–as I would add–the ascent of China and Russia as against American imperialist overreach, with its absurd military overspending and over trillion-dollar debt, a ticking time bomb that will destroy the US sooner than the military-industrial complex expects. Will also asks us to use this play to help us sympathize with Iran (Translator’s Preface, page 11), the modern Persia threatened with invasion from, ironically, the American Persia of today.

While I affirm Mark Will’s parallels to contemporary events as perfectly true and legitimate, I see another parallel between The Persians and the recent past: the decline in Persian might, and its military humiliations, can be compared to those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamartia in political leaders should be understood as a warning to them that “missing the mark” can lead to political catastrophes for the nation. Xerxes’ foolish overconfidence in his army and navy leads to missteps and his huge losses. This missing the mark is easily seen in the military misadventures of the US over the past twenty years, as Will observes. I’d say that a missing of the mark (quite an understatement, given the growing treason in the USSR, especially from Khrushchev onwards) is also attributable to Gorbachev‘s mismanagement of Soviet affairs.

A series of woes befell the USSR that parallel those of Xerxes and his army. The US lured the USSR into a war with Afghanistan, a war that was a major factor in the weakening of the socialist state (this is rather like Xerxes being manipulated into planning “this voyage and campaign against Hellas” by “evil men” [lines 753-758]). The USSR’s loss against the mujahideen, who were proxy warriors (including Bin Laden) for the US, was a humiliating defeat comparable to that of Xerxes.

Furthermore, Xerxes’ listening to the Greeks’ plans to flee at night, and taking them at their word (lines 355-371), is comparable to Gorbachev thinking he could negotiate with the US and NATO over whether to open up the Soviet economy to the West, and to allow the reunification of Germany, breaking down the anti-fascist protection Wall. Xerxes’ gullibility caused his humiliating loss at Salamis, as Gorbachev’s caused not only the USSR’s dissolution, but also the eastward advance of NATO.

The Persian loss is considered a momentous turn of events in Western history; for if the Persians had won, the West, some argue, would likely have been inundated with Persian, rather than Greek, culture. Their loss is assumed to have been a good thing, with Greek democracy triumphing over Persian despotism. Certainly Hegel thought so in his Philosophy of History:

“The World-Historical contact of the Greeks was with the Persians; in that, Greece exhibited itself in its most glorious aspect…In the case before us, the interest of the World’s History hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism–a world united under one lord and sovereign–on the one side, and separate states–insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality–on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in History has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk–and that of no contemptible amount–been made so gloriously manifest.” (Hegel, pages 256-258)

On closer inspection, however, it can be argued that the Persians under the Achaemenid Dynasty were closer to real democracy than the Greeks. Achaemenid-era Persians had far fewer slaves than Greeks, and Persian women enjoyed far better rights than their Greek counterparts.

This point is especially salient when we parallel it with the propagandistic portrayal of American “democracy,” with its history of racism, slavery, genocide of Native Americans, income inequality, and mass incarceration, as against the USSR‘s having considerably fewer of these evils. Certainly, Paul Robeson felt far more at home in the USSR than in his native US.

Paralleled with the end of Persian hegemony over the region, and thus the liberation of Greece, is the notion that the USSR’s dissolution meant the triumph of American capitalist democracy and “the end of history.” Consider how the rise of neoliberalism under the Clintons, coupled with the near ubiquity of American imperialist war, have shown the lie of this democracy.

With the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty came the rise of Alexander the Great, whose imperialism–justified as a spreading of Greek culture and civilization to the barbarians of the East–parallels American neoconservative arrogance.

The Ghost of Darius advising the Persians not to invade Greece again seems to me like the ghost of Stalin wishing to advise the Soviets of the 1980s to revert to Socialism in One Country, rather than attempt to bring it about in other countries like Afghanistan.

The Messenger, by his own admission, describes only a fraction of the misfortunes that have befallen the Persian army and navy. Though they outnumbered the Greeks, they’ve been mostly destroyed. Most of the survivors have perished on their journey back home, through hunger or thirst (lines 482-491).

Darius’ Ghost also informs the Chorus and Atossa of newer woes. This piling up of one misfortune after another is, on the one hand, a warning of the karmic future of US imperialist overreach, as Will maintains; but on the other hand, as I am arguing, this accumulation of woe is also something that can be paralleled with the growing suffering in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

The US and NATO were scheming at how they could bring about the USSR’s downfall. There were shortages of food, which was Gorbachev‘s responsibility. Through the establishment of “free market” economic policies, the traitors in the Russian government privatized and seized state-owned assets, and removed the Soviet social safety net, throwing millions of Russians into poverty and starvation, and allowing the ascendance of Russian oligarchs; and when the people tried to bring back socialism, not only did the US’s puppet, Yeltsin, use violence to stop them, but the US also helped Russia’s extremely unpopular leader get reelected in 1996.

Some have called the suffering of Russians in the 1990s an “economic genocide.” This woe after woe after woe is easily paralleled with Persian suffering in the play. Russians have consistently, in poll after poll, regretted the end of the Soviet system, especially recently. Apart from the lost social services, Russians are nostalgic of when their country was once a great world power; as the Chorus, in their lamentations, reminisce of Persia in Choral Ode 4. Putin is well-known for having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

So when we get to Xerxes’ return to Susa, with his clothes in tatters, we see the final amalgamation of Persian suffering and despair. Back and forth between him and the Chorus, we hear “Ototototoi!” [Philip Vellacott, page 151], “Ay, ay!” [Will, page 76], and “Woe!” during their exodos from the stage. This quick cutting back and forth of brief one-liners, as opposed to the long speeches heard before, symbolically suggests the psychological fragmentation and disintegration each Persian is experiencing.

We may wonder what the ancient Greek response was to Xerxes’ humiliation. For many, it must have been Schadenfreude to see their oppressors finally brought so low, knowing it really happened: remember Xerxes’ words, line 1034, “Distressing, but a joy to our enemies.” (page 76) Similarly, many on the left, including American socialists, are eagerly awaiting the downfall of the American empire, which some experts say may happen by the 2030s.

There’s also a sympathetic reading of the play, though, in which one pities the Persians; and after all, the whole point of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror, as well as to bring about the catharsis of those emotions. At least some Greeks in the audience must have felt that pity for Xerxes and Atossa, or else how could the play have won first prize in 472 BCE?

Certainly, we leftists can pity the Russians, who lost their great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither I nor many leftists agree with Reagan’s projection that the USSR was an “evil empire”; though Maoists, during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, thought it was an empire. I see the USSR rather as a check against imperialism, though a flawed one.

In the end, we can see my paralleling of the play with modern problems, in a dialectical sense, with Will’s paralleling. And his thesis, with my negation, can undergo a sublation to give a deeper message about US imperialism: it destroys any attempts to end its evil, causing oceans of woe; then it will destroy itself, bringing karmic woe on itself.

Evil empire, indeed.

Aeschylus, Persians, a new translation by Mark Will, Cadmus and Harmony Media, 2018

Analysis of ‘The French Connection’

The French Connection is a 1971 crime thriller directed by William Friedkin (who did The Exorcist two years later), and starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, and Tony Lo Bianco. The film is a fictionalized dramatization of The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, a 1969 book about a famous 1962 drug bust.

In fact, Eddie “Popeye” Egan (whose fictionalized counterpart was played by Hackman–Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle) plays a supporting role as Doyle’s supervisor, Walt Simonson. Egan was also a technical supervisor for the film, as was his real-life partner, Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso (the film’s counterpart for whom was played by Scheider–Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Grosso also appeared in the film, playing a federal agent named Klein.

Widely considered one of the best films ever made, The French Connection also boasts one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed, a deliberate–and successful–attempt to outdo the famous car chase scene in Bullitt. Indeed, chasing…pursuit…is a major theme in this film.

Here are some famous quotes:

“All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” –Doyle, to black perp […]

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: You dumb guinea.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: How the hell did I know he had a knife?

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust a nigger.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: He could have been white.

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust anyone! […]

“Yeah, I know Popeye. His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.” –Bill Mulderig […]

[analyzing drug shipment] “Blast off: one-eight-oh.” [as thermometer keeps rising] “200: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Two ten: U.S. Government certified. Two twenty: lunar trajectory, junk of the month club, sirloin steak. Two thirty: Grade A poison.” [when the thermometer tops at 240] “Absolute dynamite. Eighty-nine percent pure junk. Best I’ve ever seen. If the rest is like this, you’ll be dealing on this load for two years.” –Chemist

There are three distinct groups of people in this film: the wealthy French/US heroin dealers led by Alain Charnier (played by Rey, and based on Jean Jehan), whom Popeye charmingly calls “Frog One,” as well as Americans Boca and Weinstock; the New York City Police, including Popeye, “Cloudy” (Scheider), Bill Mulderig (played by Bill Hickman), and Simonson; and there are the black drug dealers and junkies who are bullied by the cops.

These three groups can be seen to symbolize the upper, middle, and lower classes of society. The wealthy French drug dealers, along with their American counterparts (such as upwardly-mobile Sal Boca [Lo Blanco], Joel Weinstock [Harold Gary], etc.) are, of course, mafia…and mafia are capitalists, as I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

The cops represent the middle class that envies the ruling class and wants to supplant them, while they also despise workers, as symbolically made clear in the cops’ racism against blacks and Latinos. The conflict between cops and mafia on the one side, and between cops and blacks on the other, thus symbolizes class conflict in general.

After a brief opening scene in Marseilles, in which an undercover French cop has been seen trailing Charnier, then is killed by Pierre Nicoli (played by Marcel Bozzuffi), Charnier’s bodyguard/hitman; we go over to Brooklyn, where Doyle is dressed as Santa, and Cloudy is pretending to be a hot dog vendor. They’re outside a bar filled with blacks, at least some of whom are drug addicts/pushers.

Doyle, as Santa, is entertaining a group of little black boys, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ with them. Given what he and Cloudy are about to do regarding the black junkies in the bar, we should note the phoniness of Doyle’s attitude towards these kids.

Blacks and other racial minorities know better than anybody about the cruelties of police brutality, rooted in racial prejudice. Although “Popeye” was originally Eddie Egan’s nickname, and it had nothing to do with the cartoon character; his counterpart in the film is fictional enough to allow the false association with the cartoon hero, a false association especially justified when seen in light of Doyle’s introduction to us dressed as another children’s hero, Santa Claus.

When we see the cops as representatives of the middle class, or the upwardly-mobile petite bourgeoisie, we can see Doyle’s avuncular phoniness in its proper light. He pretends to be kind to the black boys because it’s part of his job; later, he’ll make no secret of his racism against blacks, Italians, Jews, the French, and Latinos (listen for his racial/ethnic slurs against all of these groups throughout the film).

Bourgeois liberals pretend to be kind to the less fortunate as long as their own class status isn’t threatened; when it is, though, they show their true colours, and the hero costuming is thrown aside, as it is when Doyle and Cloudy chase the knife-swinging black junkie, who slashes at them only in self-defence.

Only people as naïve as children would be fooled by the fake kindness of a petite bourgeois who ultimately keeps the class structure of society intact through force. This Popeye, this Santa, is no hero.

Doyle and Cloudy catch the guy, a representative of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat, and they engage in a kind of word salad to disorient him and manipulate him into confessing his crimes: “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” We see and hear this manipulation of our feelings with language all the time in the media, which distracts us with nonsense, so we won’t see the true nature of class relations around us.

Don Ellis‘s dissonant music for the film perfectly captures this sense of class conflict, as well as the seedy, slimy underbelly of New York.

Let’s now consider the drugs themselves, and what they mean in the context of this movie. Whether they’re heroin, pills, or marijuana, it doesn’t matter: they’re a commodity, representative of all commodities–use-values for all of us who need them or are addicted to them (in whatever way they may be addictive–literally as drugs, or a necessity or craving of some other kind), and exchange values for those who sell them, ultimately the ruling class of capitalist mafias.

Speaking of exchanges–and remember that in our imperialist, modern world, these exchanges often happen between countries–an exchange is being planned between Charnier’s heroin dealers in France and the American dealers in New York, including Sal Boca and Joel Weinstock.

These capitalists are the middle men who produce nothing, but make a huge profit in the exchange. They make a fortune exploiting the drug addicts with their commodity, while whoever makes the commodity is, in all probability, paid little in proportion to the value of the commodity they make–in this film’s case, some of the best quality heroin of the time.

Of all the people to be judging and attacking the black junkies, Popeye Doyle and cops of his ilk are the last who should be doing it. Doyle has a drug of his own–alcohol–and on top of that, he’s a womanizer, chasing pussy as much as he chases perps. The juxtaposition of these two pursuits should help us understand his real reason for doing it…desire.

He’s hardly stopping the “bad guys,” for he’s hardly any better than they are. Apart from his addiction to alcohol and women, he’s trigger happy, his violent excesses resulting in the needless deaths of his fellow cops, and he’s willing to shoot perps in the back. Some would call that murder, save for the police’s licence to kill.

As a cop, and as a womanizer, Doyle is a predator. A deleted scene shows him in his car, going after a pretty girl riding a bicycle (about 12 minutes into this video); as part of his plan to seduce her, he accuses her of breaking the law on her bike. He also takes her bicycle to ride around backwards on it, to harass her for the fun of it, as well as to manipulate her into bed. Some would say his behaviour borders on, if not lapses into, sexual assault.

So when we see him eyeballing, following, and chasing perps, whether by foot or by car, his pursuing shouldn’t be so naïvely misconstrued as a “good guy” going after the “bad guys.” I would compare Doyle to a character in Buddhist myth, namely, Ańgulimāla.

Having already killed almost a thousand victims, Ańgulimāla wanted his thousandth kill to be either the Buddha or–egad!–his mother. He chose the former, whom he chased after. Odd thing, though: the Buddha walked slowly while his would-be murderer raced after and could never catch up to him. Instead, the Buddha got further and further away from him!

Charnier’s calm elusiveness, if not his morality, can be compared to that of the Buddha. Doyle’s rage and frustration–as well as his immorality–from racing after and never catching “Frog One” is easily comparable to that of Ańgulimāla. Doyle is the archetypal “bad cop” to Cloudy’s “good cop.” Cloudy follows the rules, Doyle disregards them. Still, Cloudy supports his partner, just as bourgeois liberals, despite their “progressive” stance, defend the capitalist system. (Consider “progressive” Elizabeth Warren’s support of Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

Since I consider the cops to be an allegorical representation of the middle class, this lawful “good cop” and lawless “bad cop” can also be seen to represent two different kinds of capitalist: respectively, the liberal who advocates a ‘kinder, gentler’ capitalism (Cloudy), and a deregulated “free market” capitalism (Doyle), the neoliberal kind that not only fails to stop the ruling, haute bourgeoisie (Charnier), but actually reinforces neoliberalism‘s brutality and cruelty (Doyle’s violence).

What is Doyle’s reason for taking Cloudy to the Copacabana, a bar with rich mafiosi at one table, beginning the chain of events that lead to the heroin bust? Doyle wants to go there because of desire, his wish to get drunk and chase skirt. Here we see, in a symbolic sense, the root cause of his hunger to catch “Frog One”: Doyle is projecting, onto Charnier et al, his own desire for power over others. There’s a fine line between cop and criminal.

To be fair, there are always some individual good cops out there who honestly, though misguidedly, wish to do their part to make the world a better place by fighting crime. Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the purpose of law enforcement (outside the militsiya of the USSR and Soviet Bloc countries) is to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Doyle’s predation on Charnier is just a symbolizing of how capitalists, big or small, sometimes step on each other as well as on the poor.

Drug addiction should be considered a health issue rather than an excuse to lock people up. Junkies should be put into rehabnot behind bars, then exploited as prison slave labour. That cops like Doyle and Cloudy go after both the sellers and the buyers of dope shows they aren’t interested in doing what’s right: they only want to have power over others, then after (hopefully) successful busts, they can climb up the ranks of the police force.

By catching Charnier, Boca, et al, Doyle hopes to mend his shattered reputation as a cop. He’s accidentally caused the death of another cop, something about which federal agent Bill Mulderig won’t stop taunting him. Doyle’s wish to improve his social status is the motivation behind any bourgeois, from petite to haute.

Many in the middle class, be they left-leaning liberals or right-wing libertarians, despise the ruling class; but they hate the elite for the wrong reasons (feeling envy and indignation that the elite got to the top unfairly, while thinking that having a top-down society is still defensible), and/or their approaches to ending the inequality are hopelessly wrongheaded.

Doyle’s and Cloudy’s failure to catch Charnier, coupled with the largely minimal punishments meted out to the other criminals, symbolizes how the middle class’s conflict with the upper classes ends in failure every time. The global proletariat, united in solidarity, is the only hope in defeating the rich.

As Doyle and Cloudy are eyeing the mafia patrons at a table in the Copacabana, The Three Degrees are singing Jimmy Webb‘s “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon.” Everybody enjoys the electric performance of this black female trio, Angie Boca–in a blonde wig–clapping and shouting, “More!” In mostly white bourgeois society, being talented performers is just about the only way blacks can be included. Everybody fantasizes that he can get up as high as the moon, a lunatic land of filthy lucre, but few really get to go there in the real world. We’re just stuck down here on the Earth.

Sal Boca is upwardly-mobile, too, and with a dirty past (like Doyle); and he hopes that with this heroin deal, he and Angie can rise up to the ranks of the ruling class. Envious Doyle will do all he can to thwart Boca’s and Charnier’s hopes; Doyle is envious Cassius, Cloudy is well-meaning Brutus, Boca is rising Mark Antony, and Charnier is all-powerful Julius Caesar.

Doyle and Cloudy go into another bar frequented by black dope addicts, whom the two men bully, then they ruin their drugs. Since, as I’ve argued above, the black junkies represent the oppressed proletariat, and their drugs represent commodities in general, the ruining of them by the cops–who represent the middle class/petite bourgeoisie–represents capitalism’s depriving of the poor of the necessities of life. Addiction in this movie symbolizes hunger.

A black informant, who pretends to be another junkie bullied by Doyle (yet receives real punches and shoves), tells the cop about a major shipment of heroin to come in a week. The informant thus represents class collaboration.

All the local addicts have been going through a relative dry spell, with very little, if any, junk to enjoy; but when this heroin arrives, their troubles will be over…or so they hope. This lack of drugs, again, represents hunger and starvation, especially the kind suffered in the Third World. So, again, the drug bust, from the point of view of the addicts, represents every thwarted attempt developing countries make to improve their lot, i.e., through electing leftist governments overthrown by the US.

Charnier and his heroin business, however, must not–through the analogy of the above three paragraphs–be confused with any kind of liberation movement. Their profiting off of the addictions of the blacks represents the capitalist system’s enslaving of all of us to the need for commodities as exchange values. The junkies’ addiction is just commodity fetishism, which is also symbolized by the chemist’s assessment of the quality of the heroin about to be sold to the American dealers. We’re in awe of the value of the final product, but we pay no attention to the process of creating that value…which has come from workers.

Allied to this fetishizing of the commodity of heroin is how it can be compared to soma in Brave New World. The high is a religious-like ecstasy, and as we know, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Charnier, the supplier, is thus like a false spiritual leader, a fake Buddha, if you will, who calmly eludes the racing, raging Ańgulimāla that is Doyle in the subway. Like the cops, Charnier only seems good, that is, from the junkies’ point of view, since they so crave his ‘soma.’ (<<Every junkie gets to go to a moon of a different kind.) People at the top of any hierarchy–political, religious, etc.–can fool the masses into thinking they make good leaders.

Note how oppressors of the lower classes can be as masochistic as they are sadistic. Doyle seduces the girl on the bike, but she uses his handcuffs to chain him to his bed. He seems rather amused when he calls her a “crazy kid.” Similarly, there’s a deleted scene (starting at about 5:40 here) in which Nicoli pays a prostitute to whip him; nonetheless, he threatens her by grabbing her at the throat when she complains that he’s fifty dollars short. The upper classes always cheat the working class, including sex workers.

Recall the corrupt ones in power in Sade‘s erotic writing, who enjoy receiving as well as giving pain. Many examples can be found in Juliette. Recall also Freud’s words, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality). Finally, recall Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, which can be symbolized by these ‘sadomasochistic’ scenes.

The sadist in Nicoli comes out again when he opts to shoot Doyle, even when it seems unnecessary and even dangerous to Charnier. After the failed attempt in a sniper shooting, which kills a mother standing near Doyle just outside his home, it’s the cop’s turn to display his sadistic tendencies in the famous car/train chase scene.

While catching the sniper before he can have a chance to strike again is understandable, the lengths Doyle is willing to go to in order to catch Nicoli are far beyond reasonable. He knows perfectly well how outrageously he’s breaking the law in his pursuit, but he does it anyway.

Beeping the car horn in an endless ostinato, he drives through red light after red light, cutting other drivers and pedestrians off, and speeding like a maniac. He’s the classic case of a driver who thinks he ‘owns the road.’ This is reckless driving in the extreme, endangering people’s lives on every inch of the road he’s going over in the car he’s commandeering.

What he’s doing isn’t about the cops catching a perp–this is a personal vendetta. The hunter and hunted have simply switched roles: it isn’t ‘the good guys’ going after ‘the bad guys.’ This chase symbolizes, as does the rest of the movie, the class conflict between the rising petite bourgeoisie (Doyle et al) and the haute bourgeoisie (Charnier et al), while the proletariat (the junkies) gain nothing in the exchange.

That Doyle is no less a criminal than Nicoli is clear when the former shoots the latter in the back. At such close range, from the bottom to the top of a staircase, Doyle could have shot Nicoli in the leg or the arm; he chooses the back because he wants to kill him, just as he wants to kill Charnier (which he does at the end of French Connection II), and just as he doesn’t care at all if he kills or injures anyone during the car/train chase.

Police advisers on the set objected to Doyle’s shooting of Nicoli precisely on the grounds that it’s murder, but Friedkin defended the shooting, knowing that such a move is exactly what the real Popeye, Egan, would have done…and this should tell you something about real cops.

Note how, throughout this movie, we never see the production of the heroin, nor the use of it by the junkies; we only see the circulation process of the commodity, an issue focused on in Capital, Vol. II, something the capitalist would prefer to get through as quickly as possible, to bring about the turnover and put his capital back into production. A speed-up of the “switch” is what Charnier wants, surely not only for his own safety from the predatory cops, but also to keep his business moving.

This circulation process of exchanging a commodity for money (C-M), or money for a commodity (M-C), is the focal point of capitalism. So we learn of the heroin smuggled into the US in the car of French TV personality Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), hidden in the rocker panels, as well as the plan to sell it to Weinstock and Boca.

When the “switch” happens, we see the full explosion of class conflict, of “one capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), as symbolized in the shootout in the abandoned factory between the cops and the American and French mafiosi. Cloudy shoots Boca, and Doyle follows Charnier into a filthy, abandoned warehouse.

Mulderig–who, recall, has been taunting Doyle about having killed a cop–is also looking around the filthy place, its filthiness symbolic of the destruction and decay caused by the ownership of private property. Trigger-happy Doyle hears Mulderig and, thinking he’s Charnier, shoots him. Feeling not even the slightest remorse, and probably glad he killed him (Was the shooting a kind of Freudian slip?), Doyle continues hunting Charnier, whom he never catches.

A gunshot is heard offscreen, presumably Doyle’s, since he so badly wants to kill Charnier. This is the way the film ends, not only with a bang, but also a whimpering horn. The French Connection is thus, in a way, like the French Revolution: the middle class (symbolized by Doyle et al) takes on the aristocracy (symbolized by Charnier et al), but the bourgeoisie (be they petite or above), by their very nature, never create the justice they claim to fight for…since they never really wanted it, anyway.

The French Revolution removed the monarchy, but ended up, after a bloodbath, in the dictatorship of Napoleon. Similarly, Charnier is never caught, and is presumed to be back in France; so he can continue running his heroin empire. And though Doyle and Cloudy are taken out of the narcotics bureau, cops will still go around busting junkies instead of helping to end the problem of addiction in general. This symbolizes how the same class structure stays intact, regardless of whether the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy is at the top.

Ask the Communards, or the gilets jaunes, what they think of the ‘liberal democracy’ that replaced the French monarchy, with Macron as the new Napoleon. The new boss is essentially the same as the old boss…because he is a boss. Violence is always there, too. Hence the bang, and the whimper.

The Psychoanalysis of Capital

In order to overcome the hegemony of the capitalist, we must cultivate an understanding of his inner mental state. I believe that psychoanalysis can help us gain insight into the mind of not only the bourgeoisie, but also all of us who are in their thrall.

I discussed much of this already in such posts as The Self/Other Dialectic, The Narcissism of Capital, and The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse; if you read those posts, this one will be easier to follow. Here, I will reorganize and add to those three posts’ ideas by directly following the course of history of psychoanalytic developments, starting with Freud (dwelling only a little on him, though, since he was wrong much more often than he was right, and since his theories are of little help in promoting socialism, for which he had little more than criticism), and ending with Lacan (again, briefly dwelling on him, since his obscurantism and verbosity are of little help to anyone, especially the working class).

Of Freud’s ideas, the superego is probably the most useful, if not the only useful one; for in the superego, we find the cruel, unforgiving inner critic, an internalized object representing our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other authority figures who berate us and chide us for failing to measure up to the unattainable ego ideal.

The shame that we feel from our failures, be they moral, financial, or career ones, drives us to over-compensate by an appeal to shame’s dialectical opposite: pride. If that pride can’t be felt through success and having power over others, which is the goal of the capitalist, it can be felt through ego defence mechanisms (fully systematized by Freud’s daughter, Anna). If these mechanisms won’t give the capitalist pride, he can at least use them to fend off feelings of shame, often by simply shaming others.

Freud and his daughter, Anna, who both elaborated on defence mechanisms.

Feelings of moral pride can be felt by the capitalist in the form of reaction formation: he won’t admit that his preferred economic system results in unaccountable private tyranny, including prison slave labour in the US; instead, he’ll prate about how capitalism promotes ‘freedom‘ (i.e., the deregulation that frees Big Business to overwork and underpay labourers, and to accumulate more and more wealth for himself, at everyone else’s expense), contrasting this ‘freedom‘ with the spurious history of ‘tyrannical’ socialist states.

The capitalist often takes pride in his identification with authority figures. The fascist–a hyper-capitalist, really–narcissistically identifies with leaders like Hitler and his in-group, a regime propped up by Big Business; as I’ve said many times before, associating the Nazis (just because of their name, ‘National Socialist’) with the left is sheer idiocy. As we can see, Anna Freud’s notion of identification with the aggressor can be seen as one of many capitalist defence mechanisms.

The capitalist may engage in fantasy, using, for example, his religious beliefs to give him a false sense of moral pride. He may imagine that all his sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ, and that his rigid faith in a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity (as opposed to those ‘wishy-washy liberal,’ or–egad!–Marxian interpretations, like liberation theology) makes his ‘moral’ position all the more justified.

The fantasy of this Christian faith could be Catholic or conservative Protestant, whose work ethic, clearly in the service of capitalism, results in a financial success strongly implying God’s favour and reward with grace. Thus, instead of helping “one of the least of these my brethren,” he can rationalize his abandoning of the poor by saying their ‘failure’ in life comes from a slothful loss of faith, and thus proves their non-elect status.

The capitalist can further rationalize his class status by giving to charity, which, apart from giving him a sweet tax break, also gives him an illusory cleaning of his conscience. Oh, he gave a little money to the poor…what a kind philanthropist! Never mind that the scraps given to charity do little of substance to pull the starving millions in the Third World out of poverty.

The capitalist routinely engages in denial about how his pet economic system leads to terrible wealth inequality, political corruption, and imperialist war. He claims that “taxation is theft” (i.e., taxing the bourgeoisie to give financial aid to the poor), but denies that overworking and underpaying labourers (which includes paying less than the minimum wage) is actual theft. Similarly, he blames political corruption and war on the state, ignoring the bourgeoisie’s role in maintaining the state apparatus.

Part of this denial expresses itself in displacement, as we could see in the above paragraph, by shifting the blame for the world’s woes from capitalism–the rightful blaming of which would cause him unbearable cognitive dissonance–onto the state alone. He could, however, displace the blame onto other scapegoats: immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, or anyone else seen as opposing his interests, or those of Church orthodoxy.

Another part of this blame-shifting is expressed in projection, a pushing out of inner guilt onto other people, other organizations, or other political institutions. The capitalist is responsible for the millions who die every year (especially children under five) of malnutrition and starvation, when the entire world could be fed, provided we disregard the profit motive and spread the food around properly while keeping it fresh; yet the capitalist blames communism for ‘creating‘ famines in the Ukraine, China, and Cambodia, without properly researching the history behind those problems, or examining how Bolshevism largely ended Russian famines.

The capitalist projects his hunger for power onto communists by falsely equating them with fascism, an ideology not only far closer to capitalism than it could ever be to the left, but also a menace defeated far more by Stalin‘s Red Army than it was by the Western Allies, who joined in the fight only at the last minute, and sacrificed far fewer lives. Communists, on the other hand, want the power to end hunger.

The fundamentalist Christian capitalist will project his hunger for global domination onto any group (not just the communists) who deny that his world vision is exclusively the correct one. A large part of the motive for European countries to colonize the world in previous centuries was to make the whole world Christian, by force if necessary. They also wanted to dominate the global market. Therefore, losing such dominance, both religious and economic, is most upsetting to them.

Groups like the Jews, Freemasons, and the Illuminati denied the ‘exclusive truth’ of the Church, whose black-and-white worldview considers such an inclusive position to be anti-Christian, therefore Satanic. It isn’t a far leap to go from these ‘Satanic’ beliefs to a paranoid fear that these groups wish to spread this ‘Satanism’ worldwide. The secrecy of the Freemasons, coupled with the spread of secularism over the past two hundred years, makes it easy for the paranoid fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorist to project his own wish for global domination onto these ‘Devil worshippers.’ Ditto for the imagined leftist global dominance.

This projection is coupled with the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (i.e., fundamentalist Christians and ‘free market’ capitalists) and absolute evil (i.e., ‘Devil worshippers’ and socialists). With their black vs. white worldview, people with right-wing thinking can’t deal with ambiguity, or the possibility of a grey area in between.

Melanie Klein, who wrote much about splitting.

This dichotomous thinking is psychologically, unconsciously rooted, according to Melanie Klein, in the baby’s relationship with its mother, when she is perceived only as a part-object, namely, the breast. When it gives milk, it’s the “good breast“; when it doesn’t, it’s the “bad breast.” This part-object is perceived to be an extension of the baby.

Later, the baby comes to realize the breast is part of a complete human being, separate from the baby–a whole object, its mother. When she satisfies the baby’s needs and desires, she’s the “good mother”; when she frustrates the baby, she’s the “bad mother.” The same applies to its father in his good and bad aspects.

The baby’s irritation with the “bad mother” causes it to use splitting as a defence mechanism, resulting in the paranoid-schizoid position. The baby’s hostility makes it want to harm its mother in unconscious phantasy. Later, if the baby doesn’t see its mother for a lengthy time, it wonders if its hostility has either killed its mother or provoked a vengeful attitude in her. Now, it’s in the depressive position, longing for reparation with her, and soon seeing the “good” and “bad mother” merged into one person.

These two positions aren’t experienced only in infancy. They reappear again and again throughout life; we feel a swinging back and forth between the two, like a pendulum, all the way to our deaths, but instead of feeling them only for our parents, we can feel them for anybody or any organization of people we encounter in life.

The paranoid-schizoid position, or splitting as a defence mechanism, is like the confrontation of the thesis with its negation, where the ouroboros bites its tail on a circular continuum at which extreme opposites meet. The depressive position, where one learns to appreciate ambivalence, is the sublation of the dialectical contradictions, the circular middle of the serpent’s body, every intermediate point on the continuum, between the extreme opposites. This middle area is where contradictions are reconciled.

With their dualistic theology, fundamentalist Christians can’t grasp any reality other than where the serpent’s teeth are biting into its tail: God vs. Satan. Consequently, any belief system other than their own is seen as being of the Devil: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) Furthermore, any capitalism (Keynesian, social democratic, New Democrat-oriented) other than that of the “free market” variety is really just a variation, it would seem, of socialism! You’re with us, or you’re the enemy.

We Marxists, on the other hand, aren’t so black and white in our thinking as the average Christian fundamentalist or neoliberal capitalist. For, as opposed to capitalism as we are, we nonetheless acknowledge its place in our materialist conception of history. The bourgeois French Revolution, for example, was a necessary development away from feudalism, though its results were far from our communist ideal.

Similarly, Lenin’s NEP was an acknowledgement of the need for a temporary “state capitalism” to resolve the problems of the USSR in the 1920s. Yugoslavia’s Titoism was also a market socialism. China‘s and Vietnam‘s bringing back of the market, albeit in a heavily state regulated form, is yet another example of the socialist’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; and while I have my doubts about the validity of the extent to which this attempted reconciliation of the market with Marxism-Leninism has gone, we must nonetheless acknowledge that many Marxist-Leninists are capable of such ambivalence about what we’re ideologically opposed to.

Capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have the same level of ambivalence towards socialism. While such social democratic systems as the Nordic Model have adapted their market economies to accommodate the needs of workers, and have free education and healthcare, they are nonetheless forms of capitalism, they have retained the class character of society, and they plunder the Third World as rapaciously, if not so much in a military sense, as the more overtly capitalist countries. Their concessions to the poor are meant to stave off communist revolution, not to encourage it.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s drive-oriented id/ego/superego personality structure with an object-seeking one.

WRD Fairbairn made a more systematic study of splitting. He replaced Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure with one in which libido is object-directed, not drive-directed. For Fairbairn, Freud’s ego became the Central Ego, linked to an Ideal Object, since having relationships with real people is the ideal for mental health. (Here, ‘object‘ = other people.)

Inevitably, though, and in varying degrees, depending on the severity of our parents’ lack of empathy for us, we feel portions of our Central Ego/Ideal Object break off and split into a Libidinal Ego, which is linked to an Exciting Object (approximately paralleling Freud’s id), and an Anti-libidinal Ego, linked to a Rejecting Object (vaguely corresponding to Freud’s superego).

With the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, we find ourselves replacing relationships with friends and family, with mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, sex, money, etc.). The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration causes us to be nasty, alienating, and rejecting of other people. The viciousness and rudeness in today’s world seems an epidemic.

Herein we can see a link with capitalist alienation. The lack of kindness and empathy in the early family situation inhibits the development of proper human relationships, the Central Ego and its Ideal Object, which are replaced by internal ego/object relations that are divorced from reality.

Fairbairn pointed out that explicit pleasure-seeking indicates a failure of object-relationships, since for him, the libido is aimed at relationships with people, not things like money [Fairbairn: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (p. 139-140)].

I’ve written in other posts about characters in fiction and film whose social alienation results, on the individual level, in either miserliness or violence…on the social level, we find it ballooning into extreme income inequality and imperialism.

Heinz Kohut, who investigated and treated narcissism.

The lack of empathic parenting can also lead to pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation. Heinz Kohut did a systematic study of narcissistic personality disorders, as well as how to treat them with empathy in the idealizing and mirror transferences. Treatment of narcissism is important for socialists, as this pathology attracts its sufferers to positions of corrupting power.

The lack of empathic parents to look up to as idealizing role models, coupled with a lack of empathic mirroring of a child’s own narcissism, causes the child to fail to develop mature, restrained narcissism, which is supposed to be let down in bearable, gradual steps. Instead, narcissism balloons into a bloated, unhealthy state, and the afflicted individual looks for others to idealize, such as political demagogues with similar narcissistic tendencies. A narcissist identifying with another of his ilk will feel narcissistic injury and rage if his idealized leader is criticized.

I’ve been subjected to such rage whenever my readers come across passages in which I point out Trump’s narcissism, a point so obvious it hardly seems controversial. Added to the narcissistic identification with, and idealization of, Trump, is the black-and-white thinking of splitting. And the Trump supporters aren’t the only ones who have that problem: he’s God-appointed (absurdly) to his supporters; and to the liberals who oppose him, he’s the Devil incarnate (also an absurd position–his faults are of the standard bourgeois type), and Hillary is idealized instead (even more absurdly).

Again, we communists have a more nuanced, ambivalent take on Trump. Yes, he’s awful, but we can give credit where credit is due: he opposes war with Russia, which should be a no-brainer for liberals. His pulling American troops out of Syria (and maybe Afghanistan) is something we see as in itself a good thing, though I question his motives for doing so (boosting his popularity, saving government revenue by having other countries–and mercenaries–do the fighting for the US…in other words, the wars are not ending!…while having kept military spending needlessly bloated [does he mean it when he calls this spending ‘crazy‘?] instead of using that money to help the American poor).

Liberals refuse to acknowledge him doing anything right for the same narcissistic reasons that Trump conservatives refuse to admit he’s ever done anything wrong. Thus, pussy-hat-wearing liberals support equally narcissistic Hillary Clinton, whom they idealize instead. It’s all splitting, and identifying with him or with his antithesis.

So, as I’ve said, the cure to all of this alienating and splitting is to cultivate more empathy in the family situation, and in our interpersonal relationships in general. That will mean focusing on what unifies us over what divides us.

Such unifying thinking is perfectly harmonious with Marxist thought, as dialectical materialism is all about reconciling contradictions. Part of reconciling the contradiction between rich and poor will involve reconciling psychological splitting, replacing the black-and-white mentality, or us vs. them thinking, with WE thinking, replacing alienation with solidarity.

D.W. Winnicott.

I believe an understanding of object relations theory can help us in this regard, for Klein, Fairbairn, and DW Winnicott–among the other theorists in this psychoanalytic school–demonstrated how our relationships with others are based on our original relationships with our early caregivers. Whatever is going wrong in our current relationships is probably based, at least to a large extent, on our faulty relationships with our parents; for the faults in those early experiences create a kind of blueprint for what ensues.

Authoritarian parents, especially religious ones, tend to cause us to choose authoritarian leaders and forms of religion, as well as authoritarian economic systems like the boss vs. wage slave hierarchical relationship in capitalism. This latter relationship causes one to have what Erich Fromm called the “having” (as opposed to “being”) way of living.

This “having” mentality causes one to base one’s happiness on how much stuff one owns, gaining narcissistic supply (and thus, a False Self, too) from conspicuous consumption; whereas a “being” way of life focuses more on how to be happy by being one’s own True Self, with a happiness coming from enjoying object relationships (family, friends, community, etc.). Togetherness with others is how we all were meant to be, not living just to help a boss make profits.

We’ll go from capitalist materialism (via dialectical materialism) to this state of community life by, as I’ve argued elsewhere, going beyond the pairs of opposites, noting the unity between self and other, and putting all the pieces together by realizing how everything flows from one dialectical opposite to the other.

Erich Fromm.

On the ‘having mode of existence,’ in Fromm’s own words: “[The] dead, sterile aspect of gold is shown in the myth of King Midas. He was so avaricious that his wish was granted that everything he touched became gold. Eventually, he had to die precisely because one cannot live from gold. In this myth is a clear vision of the sterility of gold, and it is by no means the highest value…” (Fromm, p. 61)

And, Fromm on the ‘being mode of existence’: “There is more: this being-in-the-world, this giving-oneself-to-the-world, this self-transformation in the act of life, is only possible when man loses his greediness and stinginess and abandons his self as an isolated, fixed ego that stands opposed to the world. Only when man abandons this self, when he can empty himself (to use the language of mystics), only then can he fill himself entirely. For he must be empty of his egotistical self in order to become full of what comes to him from the world.” (Fromm, p. 65)

Furthermore: “Joy, energy, happiness, all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people, and not to experience them as abstractions that we can look at like the commodities at the market. Secondly, in this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I, who is related to the world. I become one with the world in my relatedness to the world, but I also experience myself as a self, as an individuality, as something unique, because in this process of relatedness, I am at the same time the subject of this activity, of this process, of relating myself. I am I, and I am the other person, but I am I too. I become one with the object of my concern, but in this process, I experience myself also as a subject.” (Fromm, pages 66-67)

Finally: “In this state of experience, the separation of subject from object disappears, they become unified by the bond of human active relatedness to the object.” (Fromm, p. 67)

To raise children in this healthier way needn’t require anything even approaching ‘perfect’ parenting–after all, what is ‘perfect parenting‘ anyway? All that’s needed is what Winnicott called good enough parenting, to help infants make the transition from the paranoid-schizoid position, one also where the baby makes no distinction between self and other, to the capacity for concern, as Winnicott called it, where the baby recognizes both good and bad in its parents (and, by extension, both good and bad in all people), as well as acknowledging the parents (and, by extension, all other people) as not an extension of itself (realizing ‘me’ vs. ‘not-me’).

We paradoxically recognize our togetherness, yet also our individual integrity, so that we’re united enough to feel mutual empathy, yet also distinct enough from each other to realize we don’t have the right to exploit others, out of a misguided belief that others are extensions of ourselves.

So, by fixing the psychological splits, alienation, and fragmentation in ourselves, we can begin to fix what’s broken in society. By not narcissistically identifying with an idealized, but illusory and self-alienating, mirror (as Lacan observed), and replacing these false images (including idealized self-images projected onto demagogues) with the communal symbols of language (i.e., real, meaningful communication), we can cultivate mutual love.

…and from love, we can create a revolutionary situation, toppling the narcissists and psychopaths at the top of the social and economic hierarchy, and thus create a community of equals. As Che Guevara once said, ““The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Erich Fromm, The Essential Fromm: Life Between Having and Being, Continuum, New York, 1995

Analysis of ‘L’Age d’Or’

L’Age d’Or is an hour-long French surrealist film made in 1930 by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dalí. Since Buñuel had a falling out with right-wing leaning Dalí, his collaborator on Un Chien Andalou, leftist Buñuel was now free to finish this new movie by attacking the bourgeoisie and the Church as much as he liked.

The movie’s title, “The Golden Age,” is surely ironic given his attitude towards capitalism, then in a great state of crisis with the Great Depression, as well as with the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and his native Spain, where clashes between right-wing tradition and the left were soon to reach a boiling point.

Though not as famous as Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is nonetheless considered another landmark in surrealist cinema, and because of Buñuel’s liberation from the fascist-tending Dalí, this film perhaps deserves even more attention.

Here’s an interesting quote from the film, in English translation: “I have waited for a long time for him. What joy to have our children murdered!” –young girl, to her lover

As with Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is a set of vignettes that seem unrelated; if seen, however, as a series of free associations and dreams put up on the silver screen, one can play the role of psychoanalyst and link the apparently random visuals to show a coherent chain of themes, revealing the meaningful world of the unconscious.

Scorpions, crawling phalli that sting you with an ejaculation of death!

The film begins with a kind of short documentary on scorpions. These vicious, phallic, predatory arachnids–which attack with lightning speed, are unsociable, and prefer hiding in darkness to being seen in the light of day–set the tone of this film, with its themes of quick, impulsive violence and sudden deaths. Therefore, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an unintelligible opening to the film.

“Several hours later,” we see a beggar-soldier up high on the rocks of an inlet, watching some archbishops chanting among the rocks. (An instrumental rendition of Mozart‘s Ave Verum Corpus is playing; knowing Buñuel, the inclusion of this music, significantly excluding the Latin text, is ironic.) The man goes back to his hideout to tell his fellow beggar-soldiers that the Majorcans have arrived, so their leader (played by Max Ernst) tells them to get up and go fight them. Part of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is played during this scene; scherzo in Italian means, ‘joke,’ suggesting the pitiful condition of these beggar-soldiers.

Here we see a representation of the revolutionary proletariat, starving and weakened, yet ready to fight the bourgeoisie and Church authoritarianism. The archbishops are on the rocks, for the Church was built on a rock.

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [Πέτρος], and upon this rock [πέτρα] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The hardness of the inlet rocks suggest the stony rigidity of Church dogma, as opposed to the mystical peace of the sea, as I’ve described it elsewhere. Indeed, it’s easy for many to go from the heavenly bliss of having been ‘touched by God’ to the hell of being forced to obey the dictates of religious authority…a dialectical shift from freedom to slavery.

Upon these rocks, they’ve built their church.

This preoccupation with Peter, the Rock and the first Pope, is a statement on the establishment of the papacy, the head of the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church that Buñuel so despised. Hence the use of rocks and rocky ground as motifs in the film, as well as any variation on them and their hardness–mud (a mixture of water with loam, silt, or clay–tiny, granular rocks), dirt (tiny rocks and sand), statues of marble (limestone), brick buildings reduced to rubble, even the hard, rocky background of the warring scorpions. The clergy and bourgeois are our stinging human scorpions.

A fleet of boats carrying bourgeois arrives on the inlet, the people aboard disembark, and they go up and down the rocky hill (symbolically rising and descending a hierarchy) to meet with the chanting archbishops, who are now a group of skeletons. When Nietzsche’s message in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science has reached the ears of the ruling class, they carry on with their ceremonies as if God were still alive. After all, such religious authority is still politically useful.

As the bourgeois are about to begin their ceremony, they suddenly hear a woman’s scream of pleasure. They look over and see her and a man making love in the mud. They go over and separate the two lovers.

The two are fully clothed at the time, so what’s the problem? Oh, yes, we always forget: public expressions of affection aren’t to be encouraged in polite, bourgeois society, especially during a religious ceremony.

The man and woman, making love in the mud during the ceremony.

Since the man and woman aren’t married, their lovemaking is tantamount to adultery. The repeated frustrating of their attempts to be together reminds one of the myth of those fated adulterers, Tristan and Isolde: indeed, both when they’re separated, then reunited about twenty to thirty minutes later in the film, we hear Wagner‘s Liebestod

This urge to be together in love, a union constantly being thwarted in the film, represents capitalist alienation. Since Church hierarchy helps the ruling class keep the people in their place, it’s appropriate in this film to see the symbolism of the rocky Church juxtaposed with symbolism of the people’s plight.

The ceremony involves a huge brick as a symbol to commemorate the Church’s rule–that brick, a rectangular rock, essentially–a man-made rigidity. The removal of the young woman from the man’s arms is followed by a scene of her at home; then we see a toilet, we hear a flushing, then slimy mud slobbering on the ground, suggestive of diarrhea flushed away, just as his love has been flushed down the toilet by a prudish Church, an ecclesiastical excrement that projects its own filthiness onto others.

The movie narrates the establishment of the rock of the Church of “imperial Rome,” once a pagan dominion, now a Christian one. We communists know what to think about the imperial world, past and present.

The man (Gaston Modot), after his lover has been taken from him.

The present-day Rome of the movie shows us a number of odd but explicable visuals. A man walking out of a café brushes dirt off his suit jacket: as with the two muddy lovers, capitalist society and Church morality makes all ordinary people feel soiled and unclean.

“Sometimes, on Sunday,” we see the demolition of a few houses on a street. Families’ homes reduced to rubble, to a mess of rock: this is what Peter the Rock does to families and communities with his repressive religious authority, backed by the bourgeoisie. 

Recall Marx’s words: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52)

A man walks on a sidewalk, kicking a violin, then smashing it under his shoe; the profit motive commodifies, cheapens, and ultimately destroys art.

The rock of St. Peter’s Church, weighing down on the heads of the people.

Elsewhere, in a park we see a statue of a man wearing a crucifix, holding a large book (presumably the Bible), and oddly, he has a long, flat, almost rectangular block of stone balancing on his head (reminding us a bit of the rectangular clay cube we saw during the religious ceremony). A man is passing by the statue with an almost identical rock balanced on his head. The rock of the Church rules over idealized religious figures, so naturally that rock will rule over the average man, too.

On the streets of Rome, we see the man being escorted by two agents. Separated from his love, he has already demonstrated an angry, aggressive, even violent disposition (kicking a small dog, stepping on an insect). This viciousness is what we all too often resort to when we’ve been denied love. Class antagonism makes scorpions of all of us.

WRD Fairbairn described this splitting of the personality with his replacement of Freud‘s id/ego/superego structure–a structure of pleasure-seeking drives,–with an object-seeking endopsychic structure. Fairbairn’s approximate equivalent to the id is  the Libidinal Ego, linked to an Exciting Object. In the film, we see this configuration whenever the escorted man stops at the sight of advertisements of such things as silk stockings, etc., which remind him of his lover.

Fairbairn replaced Freud’s ego with the Central Ego and Ideal Object: these are respectively represented in the film by the man and his beloved whenever they are together, for they represent an ideal relationship between two people in the real world. 

Fairbairn replaced the superego with something only vaguely similar, the Anti-libidinal Ego (originally, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object. This configuration is the internalized part of us that hates and rejects others. We see this aspect of the man whenever he’s violent to others.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with an object-seeking endopsychic personality structure: the Central Ego/Ideal Object, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Lavinia Gomez, in An Introduction to Object Relations, explains that the “anti-libidinal ego is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego, as explained above] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, p. 63-64)

For Fairbairn, a healthy libido seeks objects (i.e., people other than oneself, the subject), rather than seeking mere pleasure (as Freud had maintained); pleasure-seeking becomes a main pursuit only when there’s been a failure in object relationships. In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

When one cannot enjoy loving relationships with others (i.e., the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration), one resorts either to mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, pornography), a province of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object; or one becomes hostile, rejecting, and adversarial, the domain of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Back to the movie. As the man is escorted down the street, he is confronted with, and momentarily mesmerized by, a number of advertisements: apart from their reminding him of his girl, they also represent our being manipulated by the allures of commodity fetishism and the media, a tried-and-true tactic used by the ruling classes to hypnotize us, and make us forget about taking our world back for our own rightful use.

The young woman (Lya Lys) the man yearns to be with again.

Erich Fromm once said in To Have Or to Be, “The puzzling question why contemporary human beings love to buy and to consume, and yet are so little attached to what they buy, finds its most significant answer in the marketing character phenomenon. The marketing characters’ lack of attachment also makes them indifferent to things. What matters is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable, too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.” (Fromm, page 34)

Back to the film. In the young woman’s home, she and her mother are planning a large party that evening. Some more incongruous, but explicable (in terms of Freudo-Marxism), things are seen. One of them is a cow on the young woman’s bed, which she shoos away. Apart from the cruel commodification of farm animals (especially in today’s world), we can see in the cow a representation of the Third World proletariat, always seen as animals from the bourgeois and First World perspective. We try to ignore their plight, and put them out of our sight…thus, out of mind. 

Other such odd scenes include, during the party, a large horse-drawn wagon going across a large room filled with guests in tuxedos and evening gowns. Later, a maid screams leaving a fire in the kitchen. The guests show no interest in either of these strange occurrences, which represent how the ruling class refuses to acknowledge the very existence, therefore also the suffering (for existence is suffering, according to the Buddhists), of workers and peasants. The girl’s father has flies on his face: the bourgeois pretend to be above us, but underneath it all, they are filthier than we could ever be.

Back on the streets, the man manages to get rid of the two men escorting him by showing them a document proving he’s a member of ‘the international goodwill society.’ We see a memory of his, when he has been assigned a mission from this society to protect the men, women, and children of his ‘Fatherland.’ He speaks of his mission to the two agents in a visibly insincere tone, as if making fun of the mission; this suggests that this is his False Self, a socially acceptable front he puts on so he can mix in capitalist society…however unwilling he is to do it.

The cow in the young woman’s house.

The insincerity of his commitment to this mission is evident (as it will be again, later) when he hails a taxi near a blind man, leaves the agents, and just before getting into the cab, kicks the blind man. Here we see a fusion of Freud’s moralistic superego, which inspires hypocrisy, with the antisocial nastiness of Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration.

The man arrives at the party in a clean, new suit, and he’s delighted to see his love there. The Anti-libidinal Ego in him, however, causes him to be rude to some of the other guests, him brusquely shooing them away or grudgingly tolerating them, as he does her mother, for a while. The ruling classes reject the poor, and they often reject each other, so bad is capitalist alienation in our society.

This alienation extends even to family relationships (recall the quote above, from The Communist Manifesto). Outside the house, we see an armed man and his son, a little boy. At first, they seem affectionate, but then a small prank by the boy provokes his scorpion father to shoot him, to sting him with the phallic rifle. Similarly, back inside the house, one would expect the amorous man to want to get the good graces of the mother of the woman he loves; but a mere spilling of wine on his clothes, from a glass the kind old lady gets for him, provokes his Anti-libidinal Ego to slap her. The scorpion in him strikes again!

Finally, he and the girl go outside to have some time alone together (for they are as antisocial as the scorpions), to get away from all the other pesky guests, who go elsewhere outside to hear an orchestra perform the Liebestod…appropriate music for the two lovers.

‘Tristan,’ as it were, sucking on those clitoral fingers.

Their lovemaking includes sucking on each other’s fingers, which are symbolic of genitalia. Indeed, this scene is like a non-pornographic version of the sixty-nine position. This mutual introjection/projection of digits also suggests their wish to be at one with each other, physically and spiritually. In other words, their desire for each other is much deeper than mere lust. 

Yet again, our twentieth century Tristan and Isolde are frustrated in their efforts to be together when a man comes over and tells ‘Tristan’ he has a telephone call. Annoyed, he leaves her to receive the call. 

Meanwhile, she–her Central Ego being deprived of its Ideal Object–begins fellating the phallic toes of a nearby statue, her Libidinal Ego getting off on an Exciting Object. When we lose human relationships, we’re reduced to using things, including things that have an idealized human form, like the statue, or like objectified pornographic models, who today are photoshopped so consummately, we see no bodily imperfections.

‘Tristan’ is in Anti-libidinal Ego mode again, the dialectical opposite of his lover, and on the phone, he’s being barked at by the Rejecting Object, the man from ‘the international goodwill society.’ He’s angry with ‘Tristan’ for his dereliction of duty, for having neglected his mission to protect the people.

‘Isolde,’ as it were, performing fellatio on a statue’s toes.

When the angry caller, the minister of the interior and head of “the international goodwill society,” is complaining about the deaths of the people, we see an army of people rushing in to a city area and causing the death and destruction. Should we connect this violence with the beggar-soldiers towards the beginning of the film, those weakened men who go off to fight the arriving Majorcan bourgeois? Is this violence, from which ‘Tristan’ was supposed to defend the people, actually a proletarian revolution? Were ‘the people’ actually bourgeois?

As a surrealist film, L’Age d’Or can be considered more dreams projected onto the silver screen, as Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie were. Thus, it can be seen as Freudian wish-fulfillment for Buñuel; and so this violence, which so upsets the bourgeois telephone caller, can represent the insurrection of a strengthened working class, led by a revolutionary vanguard of the kind that defeated the Nazis, rather than the weakened beggar-soldiers from earlier, men who seem more like the anarchists of Catalonia, who weren’t strong enough to fight off Franco’s fascism.

‘Tristan’ no longer wishes to listen to the caller. He yanks the telephone cord off the wall, and so leaves without letting the caller finish the conversation. The screen is black and void for a few seconds, we hear a gunshot; then we see the caller’s shoes on the floor, then his dead body (after having shot himself in the head)…on the ceiling.

As with Hitler’s suicide, this is how those at the top die: never wishing to come down to the level of the people, they destroy themselves, for all they are is a black void of nothingness without the backing of the masses.

The bourgeois at the top ultimately destroy themselves.

‘Tristan’ returns to ‘Isolde,’ and we hear more of the Liebestod. They hold each other, and we can see their love is more than merely physical. Though they’re as bourgeois as all the others at the party, they feel stifled by the capitalist system, too. They don’t want to have to keep maintaining the system; they just want to be together. He shows uncharacteristic tenderness to her, asking if she’s cold; for the moment, he isn’t a scorpion.

They’re now, if only momentarily, in a mentally healthy state. Their Central Egos are enjoying each other’s Ideal Objects, a proper relation with the external world, rather than the unhealthy, inner phantasy world of splitting, the world of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, or that of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Though Fairbairn’s reworking of Freud’s id/ego/superego structure wouldn’t come until about twenty years after L’Age d’Or was made, we can still see how Fairbairn’s theories can explain the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the man and woman.

When she speaks of the joy of having murdered their children, and when we see blood all over his face, as he says, “Mon amour,” we can interpret the ‘murdered children’ and blood as their ridding of, and projection of, their bad internal objects, those ‘children’ they created in their minds, which caused the lovers to replace each other with Exciting Objects to suck on the toes of, or Rejecting Objects to do violence to.

Finally reunited with his love, he can release his bad internal objects, symbolized by blood on his face. His wounds are thus, paradoxically, a symbol of his emotional healing.

The conductor of the Liebestod gets a headache and has to stop the performance (understandable: he’s been playing the interminable, syrupy chromaticism of Wagner). Holding his head in agony, he walks out of the performing area, leaves the audience, and finds the garden where the lovers are.

The girl sees the aching old man and feels compassion for him; but this is a misguided pity, for it’s directed at someone she doesn’t know, making her abandon her lover, who should have all of her attention at the moment. Fromm had some relevant points about this kind of situation:

“In this situation there is one other thing we do: we are sentimental. Sentimentality is feeling under the condition of complete detachment...You have feelings, but you do not refer really, concretely to something that is the reality. You are sentimental. Your feelings overflow. They appear somewhere…They are stimulation words, which make you weep, which make you howl, which make you do anything, and yet it is a performance in which the feeling is not really related to something with which you are concerned, but which is an empty thing.” (Fromm, page 31)

The young man, overcome with jealousy at seeing his lover go over to the conductor and kiss him, is furious. He gets up and hits his head on an overhanging flowerpot, making him hold his head in pain as the conductor is. We hear drums playing a military beat in triple time, suggestive of wartime aggression, and expressive of his anger. He leaves the garden, goes into the house and into a bedroom on an upper floor. He grabs random things and throws them out the window: a burning fir tree, a bishop, a plow, the bishop’s staff, a giraffe statue, and pillow feathers.

The jealous lover, his mind in the Anti-libidinal Ego mode, grabs onto a phallic plow, symbolic of the libidinal desire he’s rejecting.

This splitting of the lovers symbolizes the split in the personality when the search for healthy object relations is frustrated. The Central Ego/Ideal Object (‘Tristan’ and ‘Isolde’) configuration gives way to, on the one side, the Libidinal Ego (‘Isolde’) and the Exciting Object (the conductor), and on the other side, the Anti-libidinal Ego (‘Tristan’) and the Rejecting Object (everything he throws out the window, largely phallic symbols–a rejection of his erotic desire to be with her–and symbols of the Church that Buñuel hated so much).

Finally, the last vignette of the film takes us from Rome to Paris, on the last of the 12o Days of Sodom (of which Sade‘s novel, by the way, took place in the Black Forest). We’ve encountered the oppositions between the Libidinal and Anti-libidinal Egos, and between the life (e.g. sex) and death drives (as explored in my two previous Buñuel analyses); now we see these oppositions dialectically fused in the sexual sadism of the four libertines, as graphically depicted in Sade’s most notorious novel.

The duc de Blangis walks out of the Château de Silling (Selliny, as given in the film’s subtitles) on a snowy, wintery day at the end of February. Oddly, his long dark hair and beard, white-robed attire, and ‘pious’ manner make him look like Christ, the dialectical opposite of the sadist of the novel. This is obviously another of Buñuel’s attacks on the hypocrisy and abuses of the Church.

One of the eight female victims of the libertines also emerges from the castle, with blood on her chest (in Sade’s novel, there are eight girls and eight boys as victims, as well as the libertines’ four daughters, who are also sexually abused). Blangis goes back to her, seeming to comfort her (representing the outside display of the Church’s love for its flock), then takes her back inside the castle, the Hell of her torments. We hear her scream (representing the inside, hidden reality of historical Church abuses, including the largely unpunished sexual abuse).

The Duke of Jesus…er, Blangis.

Blangis comes back outside, but now he’s beardless. His beard was a mask of virtue; with it removed, his wickedness is revealed–he has a frown of shame on his face. The loss of his hair also reminds one of Samson‘s lost source of strength; knowledge of the Church’s crimes weakens it. All this time, we’ve heard the banging of military drums, suggestive of war and death…an appropriate juxtaposition with a corrupt Church.

The film ends with the sight of scalps of hair hanging on a cross, blasphemously transforming it into a phallus with symbolic pubic hair. The Church is a stinging, phallic scorpion. The jaunty, merry music heard during this display adds to its absurdity.

Just as Martin Luther advised us to laugh at the devil, Buñuel advises us to laugh at the absurdity of the demonic Church; for there is nothing that makes the Church so angry as when we attack it to its face, and tell it that through dialectical materialism, we are more than a match for it.

How are we more than a match for Church and capitalist authoritarianism? Those scalps, hanging on the cross and blowing in the wind, seem to be those of six of the victims. As the loss of Blangis’s beard suggests a loss of his power, the accumulation of scalp hair, that of his victims, suggests the rise of the oppressed, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but in materialist form. We suffer, we rise, then we conquer. The scorpions that stung before will now be stung. The bourgeois will lie dead on the ceiling of their arrogance.

Analysis of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie) is a 1972 French language surrealist film (with some Spanish) directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Jean-Claude Carrière. It stars Fernando Rey as Rafael Acosta, ambassador of the (fictional) Republic of Miranda. He and his upper middle class friends keep trying to have dinner together, but one form of ill fortune or another keeps thwarting their plans.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and was a hit with filmgoers in Europe and the US. As a surrealist film made by a communist director satirizing bourgeois hypocrisy, it can be seen as an example of a kind of Freudo-Marxism.

Here are some quotes in English translation:

“You’re better suited for making love than for making war.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

“Finally, if you think about it, the only solution to starvation and poverty is in the hands of the army. You’ll realize it in Miranda, when you have to open your pretty thighs to an infantry battalion.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

[the Senechals are preparing to make love. There is a knock at the door]

Henri Sénéchal: What is it?

Ines: The guests are here, sir.

Henri Sénéchal: Tell them we’ll be down. Serve them drinks.

Alice Sénéchal: They can wait five minutes. Come on.

Henri Sénéchal: No, no, not here. We can’t.

Alice Sénéchal: But why?

Henri Sénéchal: You scream too loud. You know it.

Henri Sénéchal: Any news from Miranda?

Rafael Acosta: Yes.

Henri Sénéchal: The situation?

Rafael Acosta: Quite calm.

Henri Sénéchal: And the guerrillas?

Rafael Acosta: There are a few left. They are a part of our folklore.

Alice Sénéchal: You have problems with the students?

Rafael Acosta: Students are young. They must have some fun.

Simone Thévenot: How’s your government treating them?

Rafael Acosta: We are not against the students, but what can you do with a room full of flies? You take a fly-swatter and Bang! Bang!

Colonel: Marijuana isn’t a drug. Look at what goes on in Vietnam. From the general down to the private, they all smoke.

Simone Thévenot: As a result, once a week they bomb their own troops.

Colonel: If they bomb their own troops, they must have their reasons.

Colonel: I didn’t know that chivalry still existed in your semi-savage country.

Rafael Acosta: Sir, you just insulted the Republic of Miranda!

Colonel: I don’t give a damn about the Republic of Miranda!

Rafael Acosta: And I shit on your entire army!

Peasant: Father? I want to tell you something.

Bishop Dufour: Then tell me, my child.

Peasant: I really don’t like Jesus Christ. Even as a little girl I hated him.

Bishop Dufour: Such a good, gentle God? How is it possible?

Peasant: Want to know why?

Bishop Dufour: Let me tend to this sick man first, then we’ll talk.

The opening credits are shown with a shot from the point of view of a chauffeur driving Rafael, the Thévenots, and Florence (Mme Thévenot’s younger sister) to the Sénéchals’ home at night. We see through the windshield the black of night and of the road.

They’re all going to a definite destination (though on the wrong night), driven by their chauffeur (i.e., a proletarian working for them). Contrast this with the sextet of bourgeois protagonists (three men–played by Rey, Paul Frankeur, and Jean-Pierre Cassel; and three women–played by Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran) sporadically seen walking down a lonely country road during the day, with no apparent destination. Without workers to help them, or the luxury of transportation, they seem aimless, almost helpless.

Left to right: Florence (Ogier), Mme. Thévenot (Seyrig), Rafael (Rey), M. Thévenot (Frankeur), Alice (Audran) and Henri Sénéchal (Cassel).

Twice in one night is their plan for dinner together thwarted: the first time because Rafael and his friends visit the Sénéchals on the wrong night, the night before the actual agreed dinner date (Henri is away on business); and the second, because they go to a disappointing restaurant (i.e., cheap food and void of diners, implying poor quality, which gives the five bourgeois no narcissistic supply; I’ve discussed elsewhere how close the link is between narcissism and capitalism) where they hear the moans of mourners for the recently deceased manager, whose body is in the next room. Their appetite ruined by such a disconcerting sight, the five of them immediately leave.

This recurring frustration of their plans to dine together gives them all a taste (pardon the pun) of what it is like to go without food–for the six of them, a brief inconvenience, but for the people of the Third World, this is an everyday reality.

The bourgeois sextet is confronted with the reality of human suffering (hunger, death, disease, aging); but they are never edified. Contrast this with the life story of Siddartha Gautama (how much of the traditional telling of the Buddha’s biography is myth, and how much is history, is irrelevant for our purposes; after all, this movie is fiction, too), who as a prince encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man, and thus was inspired to renounce his life of privilege and search for a way to end suffering.

Even the holy man who joins the six bourgeois is neither an inspiration nor himself inspired to righteousness. As contemptuous of the Church as Buñuel was of capitalism, here he takes every opportunity to show how hypocritical the priest is.

Suffering is seen in a variety of forms in this film, from the mildest inconvenience (as the six typically suffer) to the harshest pain (soldiers’ recounting of moments of the loss of loved ones in their lives…in dream or in reality; also, a woman leftist freedom fighter being abducted, and the six being murdered…though in Rafael’s dream). The Buddhist concept of dukkha encapsulates the whole gamut of suffering, from the mildest to the greatest. The whole problem of class is how the bourgeoisie tend to suffer far fewer of the greatest sorrows, on average, than the global proletariat do.

Buddhism links suffering with selfish desire, craving, or attachment, the fire to be blown out by nirvana. Accordingly, the third get-together to eat is thwarted by the sudden urge of Alice and Henri Sénéchal to have a quickie in their bedroom, and they’re about to get it on right when their guests have arrived. Afraid the guests will hear Alice’s squeals of pleasure, she and Henri opt for the absurd alternative of sneaking out the bedroom window, going into the bushes behind the house, and screwing there.

The two lovers have, in effect, subjected themselves–however briefly–to homelessness, rather like a comical version of what happens to King Lear in the play’s third act. Like the vain, proud king, these two bourgeois–examples of the modern version of royalty–would rather “feel what wretches feel” than be embarrassed before their peers.

They sneak back into their house, with pieces of grass in their hair and their clothes needing a few adjustments (reminding us of the untidiness of the homeless), and they’re annoyed to learn that the other four have left (out of a paranoid fear they’ve been found out by the police to be guilty of cocaine possession, as seen in a previous scene).

The priest picks a piece of grass out of Henri’s hair.

The priest appears to the Sénéchals, but dressed as a gardener, because he wishes to do this job for them. Looking like a working class type, he is thrown out of the house; then, back in his priest’s attire, he’s let back in and hypocritically apologized to. The well-off tend thus to judge people by their appearance.

The priest’s desire to be a gardener is an interesting one. He has been inspired by the gardener his late parents had when he was a boy; yet we also learn, by the end of the movie, that it was this beloved gardener who murdered the priest’s parents for having mistreated him while he was in their employ.

The priest’s wish to emulate the man who taught him gardening seems also to be a wish to be like other pious gardeners: Adam, before the Fall, and Candide, who in resisting Pangloss’s absurd attempts to rationalize the capricious ways of the world, knows that “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” We see here the hypocritical false modesty of the priest, who will kill the sick, aging, dying gardener for having killed his parents without ever having been brought to justice.

His change of attitude–from loving and identifying with the man who inspired a wish in him to be a gardener, to hating the man who killed his parents–seems too sudden. The priest must have made a vow, years ago, to kill his parents’ murderer if ever he found him. If my speculation of his commitment to revenge is correct (and this speculation is more than reasonable), it proves the priest’s hypocrisy, for his absolving the dying gardener is nothing more than an outward show of piety.

The choice of name for the fictional country of which Rafael is ambassador–Miranda–is an interesting one. It reminds me of Prospero‘s ingénue daughter, whom he–an imperialist colonizer of Caliban‘s island–jealously protects from the violation of lustful men like Caliban or (Prospero imagines) Ferdinand. Imperialist Rafael is to his country like Prospero: Miranda is like an innocent, virgin daughter being–in one scene–assailed and defiled with, to him, slanders of corruption, wealth inequality, and crime. 

Rafael thus is like any bourgeois who uses nationalism to deflect criticisms of imperialism and class conflict. At the final dinner, he even considers the epithet of ‘butcher’ given to a Nazi found in his country (one Rafael has personally met, also, and considers a gentleman) to be a tad extreme.

Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), ambassador of the Republic of Miranda.

The presentation of a number of dreams in the film means we are going down Freud‘s “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious.” Buñuel’s dream, as wish-fulfillment, is clearly to have the bourgeoisie experience, if only briefly, some of the suffering of the poor: hunger, death, wrongs uncompensated for, humiliation, unjust imprisonment, and fury driving one to violence.

Since dreams lead us into the land of the unconscious, we also see, in the dreams of this film, the inner workings of the unconscious, including unconscious ego defence. This is seen when, as stated above, Rafael is pressured into defending the honour of his country from criticism after criticism, each of which gets more and more intolerable, until Rafael curses at, then shoots, the Colonel (Claude Piéplu). 

M. Thévenot, however, wakes from the dream, not Rafael. This doesn’t matter for the purposes of my analysis, since national differences don’t so much matter to the ruling classes: only the protection of their class interests does. Nationalism, as I mentioned above, is only useful as a deflection of our attention from class war. Thus, it doesn’t matter if a bourgeois from Miranda or one from France has had the dream, and has thus been unconsciously using defence mechanisms against criticisms of Miranda. A bourgeois is a bourgeois, no matter who he is or what country he’s from, for all capitalist countries share Miranda’s vices, to at least some extent, and all bourgeois share the same class interests.

There are the dreams of the bourgeois and there are also those of the common man, the soldier, as in the case of the sergeant’s dream, which he describes when the Colonel and his army interrupt the six bourgeois’ dinner. The sergeant dreams of walking about the streets of what seems to be almost a ghost town, its emptiness (save two men and his mother, with each of whom he chats briefly) and shadows suggesting the desolation that war causes. The first man he chats with, Ramirez, leaves him to enter a store to buy something, but when the soldier goes in later, the interior looks abandoned and dilapidated, again suggesting war’s desolation. We also learn that Ramirez has been dead for the past six years, just as his mother has been long dead. War benefits the bourgeois, but it tears away, from us ordinary people, all of those we care about.

The sergeant then goes back out on the streets, searching for (and not finding) his mother. The other soldiers, Colonel, and six bourgeois listening to the narration of the dream all suggest Buñuel’s wish-fulfillment that the ruling classes would actually listen to, and empathize with, the desires and needs of the ordinary working man.

Rafael enjoys frisking a leftist from Miranda.

This fulfillment of the wish for people’s pain to be heard and cared about happens at another point, earlier in the film, when a young lieutenant joins the three bourgeois women’s table in a café (where…alas! there’s only water to be served) to tell them his tragic life story. His story involves his Oedipal longing for his mother, who appears as a ghost, and tells him (when he’s an eleven-year-old boy about to be sent to a strict military school) his severe male guardian isn’t his biological father, but actually his father’s murderer. The boy then gets his revenge by poisoning the man’s milk, which he drinks at night, then dies in bed.

Since the soldier has still gone to military school (the boy’s listing from side to side as he goes from the study of his strict guardian to his mother’s bedroom, his hands touching the furniture and walls in the hallway, suggests his dislike of any form of discipline), and since his story of seeing his mother’s ghost sounds improbable, it seems safe to assume that the poisoning is more wish-fulfillment, a variant of Freud’s family romance.

The boy’s writing “Maman, je t’…(aime) with her lipstick on the dresser mirror suggests a fusion of the Oedipus complex with Lacan‘s mirror stage: the boy’s reflected False Self in a military uniform is wished to be an illusion; and his reunion with his mother’s ghost, and his learning that his real father is a different, presumably kinder man (this would be what Melanie Klein called the ‘good father’ versus the ‘bad father’) seem to be illusions. And if the man poisoned was the boy’s real father, then we see in this murder the fulfilled Oedipal wish to remove the father, so the boy can have his mother.

On several occasions, we hear the sound of an airplane flying overhead (also, loud typing on one occasion, and on another, a siren) and drowning out the sound of people speaking. What is said is something the bourgeois don’t wish to be heard (the woman ‘terrorist’ discussing Mao, a corrupt politician explaining to the police why the six bourgeois are to be released from jail after being charged, rightly, with cocaine trafficking). The sounds of the airplane, siren, etc., are surrealistically heard at high volumes in indoor places, again suggesting the wish-fulfillment of the non-rational unconscious in dreams, all for the convenience of the bourgeoisie.

Here again, we see the conscious and unconscious manifestations of ego defence. Ego psychology shows us how defence mechanisms, like denial or splitting, sometimes have to be unconscious to avoid detection during therapy. The guilty bourgeois would especially like to keep their secrets undisclosed…including drug trafficking (of which, incidentally, another character played by Rey, only a year earlier in The French Connection, was guilty).

As explained in Freud and Beyond: a History of Psychoanalytic Thought, “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way…unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

Now, there is the life instinct, Eros, expressed by the six bourgeois’ desire to eat and drink socially (being together is an example of their object-seeking–and Fairbairn insisted we all, at our core, seek objects, that is, other people to connect with–and object-seeking is also what the lieutenant, telling the three bourgeois women in the café about his sad life, is doing), as well as in their libido (Alice and Henri screwing in the bushes; Rafael wanting to screw Mme. Thévenot behind her husband’s back). But there’s also Thanatos, the death drive.

Not all dreams are wish-fulfillments, as Freud finally admitted (Freud, page 304) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he dealt with such issues as the death drive and “the compulsion to repeat” (in the film, there’s the compulsion to repeat the futile attempt to dine together). There’s the urge to put others to death (Rafael, when he shoots the Colonel in M. Thévenot’s dream; the bishop, shooting the gardener; the boy cadet, poisoning his step-father; and Rafael, shooting at the clockwork animal toys of, as well as pointing a pistol at, the leftist woman from Miranda), and there’s also the unconscious drive to bring about one’s own death, as seen in Rafael’s dream of the gunmen shooting all six bourgeois.

Both pleasure and death bring about a relaxation of tension, or of excitation (Freud, page 276), though in opposing ways, like the ouroboros biting its tail, the head and tail symbolizing meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Death’s relaxation of that tension (“To die, to sleep,–/ No more”) is similar to nirvana, a state of bliss that negates all forms of existence, or paradoxically, of non-existence.

The social bourgeois dinner ought to be thwarted: not only so the ruling classes can begin to understand what it is to go hungry; but also because their every get-together is a façade, a performance of hypocritical, sanctimonious morality. It’s theatre, as literally displayed when the six think they’re dining chez the Colonel, but find themselves on a stage. This phoniness–as shown in them giving a glass of champagne to their chauffeur (then sneering at him, a mere uneducated commoner), disapproving of the smoking of marijuana while dealing in cocaine, asking about the maid’s ex-fiancé who dumped her for being too old (as if the six even care), discussing how Rafael’s sun sign, Pisces–Sagittarius ascendant, reveals his ‘virtues’–is the essence of, sarcastically expressed, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

I’m no Buddhist, but I think we can gain a few insights here and there from the philosophy. Instead of our endless ego defence, which tends in a narcissistic direction, we need to be selfless, abandoning the illusion of an ego. To end the suffering of humanity, we need to end the selfish lust not only for sex, but also for money, especially the money that is gained by addicting people to superficial forms of gratification, like porn, or the cocaine in the film. Giving up on the self means especially giving up on the narcissistic False Self, the person we think we see as ourselves in the mirror. 

Instead of aching and griping about our own inconveniences, we need to feel compassion for the sufferings of others, to listen when they try to tell us what’s hurting them, as the soldiers do. But we should really listen, not just pretend to, as the six bourgeois do. When we can do this, we can really break out of the chains the bourgeoisie has put us all in. For compassion, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, is what love is all about.

As Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Love will be a road that we as comrades can walk on together, leading to a definite destination, not as the bourgeois, who look foolish walking along a country road to nowhere.

Analysis of ‘The Warriors’

017697r1

The Warriors is a 1979 film based on Sol Yurick‘s 1965 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Xenophon‘s Anabasis. While the film wasn’t well received critically on its release, it has since grown into a cult classic, its critical reputation improving, too.

There are huge differences between the film and the novel, including different names for all the characters (“Warriors” refers to all the gangs in the novel, not just the the protagonist gang, who in the novel are called “The Coney Island Dominators”); though the course of events in the plot are basically the same.

The novel delves more into the (dysfunctional) family lives of the gang members. The brutality and hyper-masculinity of the gang members makes them far less sympathetic than those in the movie. In the novel, the boys test each other’s manhood by, for example, having a pissing contest (i.e., who can piss the farthest), and they engage in such brutalities as murder, gang raping women, etc. The young men in the movie, apart from Ajax (James Remar), are generally more civilized in their attitude towards women.

Here are some quotes:

Cyrus (Roger Hill): [yelling] Can you count, suckers? I say, the future is ours… if you can count!

Gang Members: Come on, Cyrus! We’re with you! Go ahead, bro!

Cyrus: Now, look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That…is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be. You’re standing right now with nine delegates from 100 gangs. And there’s over a hundred more. That’s 20,000 hardcore members. Forty-thousand, counting affiliates, and twenty-thousand more, not organized, but ready to fight: 60,000 soldiers! Now, there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town. Can you dig it?

Gang Members: Yeah.

Cyrus: Can you dig it?

Gang Members: Yeah!

Cyrus: Can you dig it!?

Gang Members: YEAH!

Cyrus: Now, here’s the sum total: One gang could run this city! One gang. Nothing would move without us allowing it to happen. We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because WE got the streets, suckers! Can you dig it?

Gang Members: YEAH! [cheering]

Cyrus: The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory… secure our turf… because it’s all our turf!

Ajax: Well, good! I’m sick of runnin’ from these wimps!

[They stop to fight]

Ajax (to one of the Baseball Furies): I’m gonna shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a Popsicle.

[banging bottles together] “Warriors, come out to play-i-ay!” –Luther (David Patrick Kelly)

Swan (Michael Beck): When we see the ocean, we figure we’re home. We’re safe.

Luther: This time you got it wrong.

Swan: Why’d you do it? Why’d you waste Cyrus?

Luther: No reason. I just like doing things like that!

017697r3
Left to right: Ajax, Vermin, Cowboy, Cochise, Rembrandt, Fox, and Swan.

One crucial image, seen at the beginning at night, and in the morning at the end of the film, is of a Ferris Wheel called the “Wonder Wheel.” It is in Coney Island, the home turf of the Warriors. I see it as a symbol of the ouroboros, a mystical symbol of eternity that I see, in turn, as a symbol of the dialectical relationship between all opposites, a circular continuum with one opposite meeting the other, where the serpent’s head bites its tail. The Wonder Wheel could also be seen to represent the Wheel of Dharma, which with the serpent biting its tail symbolize the way forward to an ideal state for the gangs to be in.

The film begins with hopes that a truce between all the gangs of New York City will last. They’ll all meet, standing side by side…and not fight!…while Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs, gives a speech encouraging the solidarity of all the gangs.

These hopes for a lasting inter-gang peace are like the head biting the tail of the ouroboros–the highest good, but also dangerously close to the worst state of inter-gang violence if matters aren’t handled carefully. Easily-provoked war and ever-so-fragile peace are in a dialectical, yin-and-yang kind of relationship.

Another important visual motif in this film is the subway system. For the unarmed Warriors, the subway is the key to their safety, for it can get them back to Coney Island fast, safe from attacks from other gangs. They, however, cannot rely on quick and easy answers: they must fight their way back home slowly (i.e., go from the bitten tail of war, along the length of the ouroboros’s body, to the biting head of peace); for their battles with rival gangs represent their own inner conflicts, a dialectic of self vs. other.

Though Cyrus (named Ismael Rivera in Yurick’s novel) is named by the screenwriter after Cyrus the Younger in the Anabasis, I see parallels between him and Lenin. The Riffs are the strongest, most influential of the New York gangs; Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the majority party, were the vanguard of Russia’s labour movement.

All the gangs, though mere lumpenproletariat, can nonetheless be seen to represent the Soviets, to whom Lenin would have given all power over Russia. Though many gangs aren’t yet organized, under Cyrus’ leadership, they can be; without a revolutionary vanguard, the Russian proletariat and peasantry had might as well have been lumpen, for without proper organization and leadership, they wouldn’t have had any more revolutionary potential than your average criminals.

017697r4
Swan just flipped a switchblade into Luther’s arm.

Charismatic Cyrus is loved by many of the gangs, as Lenin was loved by many workers and peasants in Russia. Lenin also had enemies, though, as does Cyrus, who is shot by Luther, who then frames the murder on the Warriors; an attempt was made on Lenin’s life, too, and though he didn’t immediately die, his injury is believed to have hastened his death six years later. And without his leadership, the leaders of the Russian proletarians and peasants were forced to resort to authoritarian, even violent, measures to keep the ship of the USSR afloat on treacherous waters…as the Riffs have to get tough in catching Cyrus’ killer. Luther thus represents reactionary treachery.

In Cyrus’ speech, he mentions how, if all the gangs were united, they would outnumber the police three to one. “We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because WE got the streets,” he says. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the crime syndicates, or mafia, can easily symbolize capitalists; and the police have always protected them.

Cyrus is organizing a dictatorship of the lumpenproletariat, which in this revolutionary form means the lumpen is being erased. The taxing of the mafia families and police is reminiscent of what Marx proposed at the end of the second section of the Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians and Communists,” item 2: “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” (Marx, page 56)

Cyrus points out that the “problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth…” Indeed, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie uses a variety of sophisticated methods to keep the people fighting with each other–man vs. woman, black vs. white, gay vs. straight, cis vs. trans, nation vs. nation, etc.–instead of allowing us all to unite.

We can’t see the truth because the bourgeoisie uses the media to distract and dazzle us. As Marx pointed out: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” (Marx, The German Ideology, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’)

“We take one borough at a time,” Cyrus says, reminding us of the notion of ‘socialism in one country,’ which by the way wasn’t just something Stalin invented–Lenin alluded to the idea in a speech back in 1918. The gangs can’t realistically take over all of New York City in one fell swoop: each section has to be taken carefully and secured before taking any more.

MV5BMTUxOTkwMTY0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzg4MjMyMzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1250,1000_AL_
Ajax wants to shove that bat up the Baseball Fury’s ass and turn him into a popsicle.

Cyrus’ assassination could also represent that of Kirov, which similarly set in motion a wave of upheaval, treason, and sabotage leading to the Great Purge of the late 1930s. (Errors, excesses, and cruelties of the time, incidentally, were much more the fault of the corruption of men like Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov in the NKVD than of Stalin himself.) In any case, this lack of solidarity, be it in the form of reactionary violence, or an authoritarian reaction to leftist opposition, is one of many obstacles the people have to bringing about their liberation, as symbolized in the gang violence in this movie.

When the Warriors flee for their lives from the gathering of gangs (without their presumably killed leader, Cleon) and the raid of cops, they find themselves in a graveyard, an appropriate visual representing their predicament. This is the lowest point for them, the hindmost area of the ouroboros, just ahead of the bitten tail, where Cyrus and Cleon have died, with the hope of a lasting truce.

The Riffs, believing Luther’s lie that the Warriors are responsible for the shooting of Cyrus, have–through an announcement from a female DJ, (who, in keeping with the links between this story and ancient Greece, seems to be playing a narrative/commentary role similar to that of a Chorus in Greek drama)–commanded all gangs hunt down and catch the Warriors…dead or alive. Luther’s misleading of the Riffs parallels NKVD corruption (i.e., Luther = Yezhov) in tracking down traitors in the Soviet proletarian dictatorship.

During this tense moment in the graveyard, there’s fragmentation even within the ranks of the Warriors, for after Cleon’s demise, Swan, the new war chief, is arguing with ambitious, obnoxious Ajax, over who should be the new leader. Is this not unlike such power struggles as those between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin’s death?

The Warriors get chased by the Turnbull ACs, and barely escape through the subway. Swan advises not to be too optimistic, for it’s still a long way, even by subway, to Coney Island. Indeed, they soon come to a dead end, a fire preventing the subway from continuing on its course. They’re still in the fiery Hell of the hind area of the ouroboros, and they must continue their way along the length of the coiled serpent’s body towards its head…and now they must go on foot.

Next, they come into the neighbourhood of the Orphans, a low-status gang not included in Cyrus’ park meeting (Is there, in the name of this gang, a trace of Ismael‘s name slipped into the film from the novel?). The Warriors must ask the Orphans to be allowed safe passage through their turf. The Orphans are insecure about their low status among the gangs, and so they are easily goaded into fighting the Warriors by a local neighbourhood girl named–fortuitously?–Mercy (Deborah van Valkenburgh).

MV5BOTI4NWE3YjUtNmJiYi00Y2QyLTkxNDEtYTI3MzU3ZmJiZjRkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzExMzc0MDg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,994_AL_
The Warriors confront the Orphans.

Where the Warriors are is still in the hind area of the ouroboros, a depressing neighbourhood for Mercy to live in, so she joins the unarmed Warriors as they escape a fight with the Orphans after Swan destroys a car with a tossed Molotov cocktail. As she and Swan travel, so to speak, up the length of the ouroboros towards the head, where safety and better fortune are in the Warriors’ Coney Island turf, the tension between the two of them will gradually grow into a friendship.

The police aren’t as involved as one would think they’d be amid all this gang violence (after all, this is an allegory of proletarian dictatorship, so the bourgeoisie’s muscle will be scanted here), but cops do at one point chase the Warriors, causing them to split up. Fox (Thomas G. Waites) gets killed in the chase, run over by a train. Swan, Ajax, Snow, and Cowboy end up in Riverside Park, where they have to fight the Baseball Furies.

One of the cheesier elements of this movie is also one of the more interesting, in terms of theme and symbol: the flamboyant costuming of each gang, the colourful ‘uniforms,’ so to speak, of the gangs. These suggest the divisiveness of identity politics, a plague upon the left that vitiates solidarity.

Identity politics, typically associated with the left, can obscure the more fundamental issue of class consciousness, causing legitimate leftism to degenerate into mere liberalism. What many forget, however, is the right-wing versions of idpol, including White Nationalism and similar scourges. Prior to the truce, each gang was just fighting to defend its own “little piece of turf”–nationalism…fascism. That’s crap, brothers!

Ajax, sick of “runnin’ from these wimps,” is happy to fight the Furies, beating one of them without need of a baseball bat. Later, though, he allows his lust to distract him from loyalty to the Warriors, and allows himself to be entrapped by an undercover female cop who pretends to offer him an easy lay. To make things worse for himself, he gets rough with her as they make out; then she handcuffs him to a park bench, and he’s arrested. One of the lessons men on the left need to learn is to stop thinking of a woman as only something for their sexual sport.

[His name, incidentally, is an interesting choice, again in keeping with the connection of The Warriors with ancient Greek culture: Ajax is named after the huge warrior in Greek myth who fought admirably in the Trojan War; but who also went mad killing a herd of cattle he’d been deluded into thinking were warriors, and, after coming to his senses, preferred to kill himself than live in shame over what he’d done in his brief madness.]

MV5BYTBlNTE3M2QtZmRlMi00Y2M2LWJjZjctNjNiZjRiOGFhOTgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzExMzc0MDg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,991_AL_
Nasty Ajax.

Speaking of being distracted by femmes fatales, Vermin, Cochise, and Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) arrive at Union Square and run into the Lizzies, an all-female gang who use their charms to lure them into their lair. These three Warriors foolishly think their troubles are over, and pleasure is about to begin…they think they’re closer to the ouroboros’ head than they really are. As the party goes on–with a joint being passed around, the song ‘Love Is a Fire’ (sung by Genya Ravan) playing, and two beautiful Lizzies dancing erotically (this last observation, combined with the name of a gang in Yurick’s novel, the ‘Intervale Avenue Lesbos,’ should tell us about the girl gang’s real orientation, and symbolically, their political identity)–only Rembrandt grows suspicious.

Suddenly, the Lizzies show their true intentions, shooting at them, slashing switchblades at them, and informing them of the real reason all the gangs are after them: they’ve been framed for the killing of Cyrus! The Lizzies’ Bower of Bliss isn’t the haven these credulous Warriors thought it was, it is no arrival at the ouroboros’ head: they must keep on going, non-stop, to Coney Island to be safe.

Eventually, the Riffs learn the truth of who killed Cyrus; they learn this from a member of a gang who saw Luther, leader of the Rogues (fitting name for his reactionary gang), point a pistol at Cyrus and shoot him. This revelation parallels when Stalin realized how corrupt Yezhov was; he who as leader of the NKVD had suppressed, persecuted, and killed a number of innocent Soviets during the Great Purge, just as Luther has framed the Warriors for Cyrus’ murder.

After Swan reunites with the remaining Warriors and Mercy, who then even helps them a bit in fighting off the Punks in a men’s room in Union Square, our protagonists take the train to Coney Island (sharing it with some people higher than they on the social ladder, people who clearly feel uncomfortable sitting near them) and finally reach their turf. The Wonder Wheel can be seen in the background. The gang is finally “packed.”

Luther and the Rogues are there, too, eager to fight the Warriors. Luther, we learn, killed Cyrus for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it, as he hopes to kill Swan in a one-on-one fight. Luther, as instigator of this rupture in the truce and solidarity of the gangs, is demonstrating his psychopathic addiction to excitement as a relief to boredom.

In contrast to Luther’s viciousness is the Warriors’ pleasure in seeing the peaceful ocean (a parallel to the ten thousand Greeks’ delight in seeing “the sea! The sea!” from Mount Theches at the end of their journey home, after their failed march with Cyrus the Younger against the Persian Empire in 401 BCE). The ocean, my symbol for the nirvana of Brahman, is something I use as another symbol for the gang’s final arrival at their turf, the ouroboros’ biting head, their goal of peace and security.

MV5BNTZkNDViNzQtYWRkOS00YTc2LTlhMzctZTIwODJjMzEwOWQ0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,971_AL_
Even nastier Luther.

Yet as I’ve said above, there’s the dialectical danger of peace and security shifting into their opposite, the bitten tail of another rumble. Luther, clicking bottles together and chanting his threat in that squeaky, grating voice of his, demonstrates that danger.

Swan is able to fling a switchblade into Luther’s upper arm before he can shoot his pistol. Doubly fortunate for the Warriors, the Riffs arrive to exact vengeance on the Rogues. This parallels how Stalin had Yezhov arrested and executed for his crimes.

In the Riffs’ saying, “You Warriors are good–real good,” to which Swan replies, “The best,” we see the Warriors having earned their street cred. This parallels how Stalin, knowing Yezhov had imprisoned and persecuted innocent Soviet citizens, now had Yezhov’s surviving victims all released and rehabilitated.

So, the Warriors are off the hook. The DJ acknowledges this with an apology to the hitherto-stained gang, who can now roam the beach in peace and enjoy the sight of the ocean, for they have reached the ouroboros’ head of peace and security. This story about a gang returning to their home turf represents the growth all socialists must make: learning from their mistakes, as the Warriors learn from such mistakes as gratuitous fighting and womanizing. We must stick together and go the long haul, avoiding the temptation of quick and easy solutions, such as counting on the trains always running on time…which, by the way, even the fascists never pulled off.

It is useful to see the New York gangs as a symbol for socialist revolutionaries. Both use violence to achieve their ends, which involve an upsetting of the established order. The police protect that establishment–private property, which makes communists seem criminal.

Through a unifying of the many leftist factions–historically, the anarchists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries, as represented by the many gangs in the movie–under a revolutionary vanguard (symbolized here by the Gramercy Riffs), we see the possibility of replacing the endless violence of permanent revolution with the building of socialism, for the benefit of everyone.

MV5BYTU2MWRiMTMtYzAzZi00NGYzLTlkMDEtNWQ3MzZlNTJlNzZkL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,656,1000_AL_

Taking over one borough at a time (a symbol for socialism in one country), the unified gangs–with their truce resumed–can transform society into one that provides for everyone, exposing who the real criminals are: the capitalist class and their mafia gangs of politicians and police.

Can you dig it?

Analysis of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the name of the first two of four films based on Jack Finney‘s 1955 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers. Though the writers of the novel and the first film vehemently denied any allegory or political subtext surrounding the “pod people,” one finds it irresistible to read such meaning into the story; for however one may insist that the story was just meant as an entertaining thriller, there are subtle, if unconsciously given, meanings to be gleaned from it.

According to the Wikipedia article on the novel (sadly, without a source to verify it, so I have to take it on faith), a “pod person” tells a human that the latter’s race is no less parasitic than the former, what with man’s using up of resources, wiping out indigenous populations, and destroying ecosystems in order to survive. Assuming Wikipedia is accurately referencing the novel, is this not a clear political subtext?

Then, in the 1956 movie, Dr. Miles Bennell says, “In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us — a little bit — we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” Such a line doesn’t seem necessary in a mere thriller without any sense of, at least some, social commentary.

Here are some more quotes.

From the novel:

“I saw my father’s wooden filing cabinet, his framed diplomas stacked on top of it, just as they’d been brought from his office. In that cabinet lay records of the colds, cut fingers, cancers, broken bones, mumps, diphtheria, births and deaths of a large part of Mill Valley for over two generations. Half the patients listed in those files were dead now, the wounds and tissue my father had treated only dust.”

“Why do you breathe, eat, sleep, make love, and reproduce your kind? Because it’s your function, your reason for being. There’s no other reason, and none needed.”

“If we believe that we are just animals, without immortal souls, we are already but one step removed from pod people.”

The 1956 film:

“It started — for me, it started — last Thursday, in response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a medical convention I’d been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” –Dr. Miles Bennell (voiceover)

“Sick people who couldn’t wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn’t his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn’t her uncle.” –Bennell (voiceover)

“Keep your eyes a little wide and blank. Show no interest or excitement.” –Bennell

“Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see?! They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! THEY’RE HERE, ALREADY! YOU’RE NEXT!” –Bennell

“I want to love and be loved. I want your children. I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty. I’d rather die.” –Becky Driscoll

“It’s like the first impression that’s stamped on a coin. It isn’t finished.” –Jack Belicec, describing a body he’s found.

“A strange neurosis, evidently contagious, an epidemic mass hysteria. In two weeks, it spread all over town.” –Dr. Kauffman

“You say it as if it were terrible. Believe me, it isn’t. You’ve been in love before. It didn’t last. It never does. Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me.” –Kauffman, as a pod man

Ambulance Driver: We had to dig him out from under the most peculiar things I ever saw.

Dr. Hill: What things?

Ambulance Driver: Well, I don’t know what they are, I never saw them before. They looked like great big seed pods.

Dr. Hill: Where was the truck coming from?

Ambulance Driver: Santa Mira.

The 1978 film:

Elizabeth: I have seen these flowers all over. They are growing like parasites on other plants. All of a sudden. Where are they coming from?

Nancy: Outer space?

Jack: What are you talking about? A space flower?

Nancy: Well, why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?

Jack: I’ve NEVER expected metal ships.

Elizabeth: I hate you.

Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), as a pod man: We don’t hate you – there’s no need for hate now. Or love.

Matthew: There are people who will fight you, David.

Elizabeth: Will stop you.

Dr. Kibner: In an hour you won’t want them to. Don’t be trapped by old concepts, Matthew, you’re evolving into a new life form.

“We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.” –Kibner, as a pod man

“It’s like there’s some kind of a hallucinatory flu going around. People seem to get over it in a day or two. All I can do is treat the symptoms.” –Kibner

Now, as far as political interpretations go, liberals see the 1956 film as an allegory about the excesses of McCarthyism and conformity to American values during the Cold War. Continuing with the Cold War theme, conservatives see an allegory on Stalinism.

As for the 1978 film, which I’ll be focusing on the most, I’ll examine the story from my more decidedly left-wing stance, as such a position, to my knowledge, seems lacking in any interpretation of the films.

The anti-McCarthyist and anti-communist interpretations of the 1950s were fitting, what with the realities of the Cold War and the Red Scare. It is also fitting that the novel has a happy (if unconvincing) ending, and the 1956 film has a hopeful ending, with the defeat of McCarthyism, the rise of the radical 60s as a cure for the bland conformity of the 50s, and (from the capitalist class’s perspective) the substantial end of communism by the early 1990s.

The 1978 film, however, has not only a pessimistic but outright frightening ending, which I find fitting for the political allegory I propose: the metastasizing of neoliberalism, which substantively began around the time of the film’s release, and which has continued unabated to this day.

This idea of metastasizing–of growth, spreading (as of a disease) is important when we consider an important motif, developed the most in the 1978 movie: pods–plants–flowers…Just as seeds spread out over the land, and themselves grow into plants; just as a contagion spreads and infects more and more people–so do pods replace more and more humans with unfeeling automatons, comparable to Winnicott‘s False Self.

How can this idea of a contagion be related to our world, especially since the late 1970s? I normally find little inspiration in Richard Dawkins (i.e., his anti-Muslim attitude), but he had one good idea–how ideas spread in the form of memes.

One of the memes that started spreading from around the mid-twentieth century was the ‘philosophy‘ of Ayn Rand. Government involvement in the economy should be minimized, or at any rate only used in the service of capitalism. ‘Rational’ self-interest has a way of benefitting everyone. The individual will outweighs collective needs in importance. (The individual would never, ever subordinate the needs of the many, causing them to conform to the dictates of the individuals in the ruling class! No, no!)

Rand’s ideas, combined with those of Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek, resulted in a hijacking of libertarian thinking, changing an originally left-wing ideology into a right-wing one. Pods, all four of them.

Doctors and departments of health do all they can to stop the spread of contagions, and the Doctors Bennell of both films (Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 film; and Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland in the 1978 film) do all they can to resist the pods.

One of the ill effects of ‘small government’ right-libertarian policies is cuts to healthcare coverage, with a risk of thousands of poor people acquiescing to sickness and death annually. Single-payer healthcare is just something the rich don’t want to pay for.

As a health inspector doing a thankless job searching for health violations in a fancy restaurant, Matthew finds “a rat turd” in a pot; the owner of the restaurant insists it’s just a caper. Matthew suggests he eat the “caper,” which of course, he won’t.

As a capitalist, the owner hates Matthew, a man working for the government in the Department of Health in San Francisco; the restaurant employees, dependent on the restaurant’s survival and without a sense of class consciousness, also hate the health inspector, showing their hate by smashing the windshield of his car.

Those promoting health go against capitalism, forcing regulations on bosses, which limit their ability to make profits; those supporting capitalism, including workers without class-consciousness (i.e., workers who are asleep) tolerate the spread of germs…of pods…

Recall that the pods come from a dying alien world, adapting to Earth and taking over for the sake of their survival. This, an invasion, is akin to the capitalist form of imperialism: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall endangers the survival of the capitalist, and when markets dry up in his native country (the “dying world“), he must seek out new markets in other countries, steal their resources to enrich himself, and either take over or kill off the locals, as the pods do on Earth.

The pods “adapt and [they] survive”…as does capitalism: ‘Capital is not a fixed magnitude! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.”’ –David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, page 262

A well-known ill effect of capitalism is alienation, not just that of workers, but of society and of one’s species-essence. This alienation is vivid, even literal, in this story. People are made alien: alien to each other, and alien to themselves.

The pod replicas’ creation causes the disintegration of the original humans. On the other side of the coin, Miles and Matthew destroy the pods about to replicate them. As we can see, the feeling of alienation is mutual.

Little Jimmy Grimaldi, in the 1956 film, is crying because his mother isn’t really her; in the 1978 film, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) complains that her boyfriend (Art Hindle) is no longer himself. Characters constantly complain about imposters at the beginning of both movies…then many of the original complainers stop complaining, because they’ve become pods themselves who, like capitalists, deny any evil intent.

By a strange (dialectical?) irony, it’s plants in the 1978 film that destroy humanity, instead of vice versa, as in real life; or, more accurately, the invasion of alien imperialism poisons the environment, which in turn destroys humanity–like Monsanto, Agent Orange, or land mines; then there’s what Jair Bolsonaro wants to do to the Amazon rainforest…

So with this invasion, instead of people bonding together in love, they exist merely to survive–just like the ‘sleeping’ proletariat (i.e., those without class consciousness); and as those ‘woke’ proletarians who fight to end this scourge of imperialism are hunted down and destroyed, so are Miles and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), or Matthew and Elizabeth. Furthermore, they are branded as crazy (as how left-leaning people may be labelled ‘nut-bars,’), extreme, or conspiracy theorists…how familiar. Paranoia about neoliberalism is as justified as it is about pod people.

Recall Kevin McCarthy, both as Miles and as the ‘running man’ in the 1978 movie, frantically yelling to all the drivers passing by, “They’re coming!” and “You’re next!” In the first film, drivers shout at him to “Get outta here!,” and call him “crazy,” “idiot,” and “drunk”; in the second, Matthew and Elizabeth lock their car doors. This is the average person’s response to such desperate warnings.

When the ‘running man’ is hit by a car and killed, pod people surround the body and stare at it with unfeeling faces, yet they’re satisfied that the threat to their ascending hegemony is removed. This is like the ruling class’s response to warnings about the growth of neoliberalism.

Outwardly as replicas of the humans whose bodies they’ve ‘snatched,’ the pods have all their memories, and can even mimic emotion on a superficial level, causing us often not to know for sure when the switch to pods has happened. This is the case with Nimoy’s character, Dr. David Kibner, who, a third to halfway into the movie, still shows some emotion, but has no sympathy for Matthew’s fears about the pods at all. As a celebrity pop-psychologist, pre-pod Kibner represents the capitalist tendency to exploit people’s emotional problems by selling them happiness in the form of self-help books, so the blurred line between him as human and as pod makes sense.

So many of the ‘left’ are pods, people who are publicly known as progressives, but who are actually, directly or indirectly, helping the neoliberal agenda. George Soros is one: he helped with the demise of the USSR, yet he pretends to be concerned with the excesses of contemporary capitalism. Slavoj Zižek critiques capitalism, but doesn’t offer any real solutions. I’ve written about how the Clintons, in ‘left-leaning’ guise, have caused enormous damage to the lives of ordinary people, as have Obama and Tony Blair. Justin Trudeau is doing this in Canada, though he’s seen as ‘progressive.’ Pods, all of them.

Neocons like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have pretended to be progressives, too, in their opposition to religion; yet they were and are content to let imperialism in the Middle East carry on unabated. Pods, pods, and more pods.

The memes that people such as these have spread–“socialism doesn’t work,” “communism killed 100 million people,” “the freer the markets, the freer the people,” “TINA,” ‘only the state is the enemy of the people,’ etc.–continue to infect the entire world in a pandemic. No matter how loudly we yell to warn people about neoliberalism and growing fascism, we aren’t listened to…or we’re struck down and killed, like Kevin McCarthy’s frantic runner in the street, in the 1978 film.

Matthew, Elizabeth, and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) learn that they can fool the pods by hiding their emotions whenever they have to walk among them. This is like how crypto-communists have had to hide their sympathies about the Comintern…yet it seems left-leaning George Orwell turned into a pod when he helped the IRD compile a list of those people.

Becky, or Elizabeth, can hide her humanity for only so long before something shocks her–like a dog hit by a car, or a busker sleeping too close to his dog, causing a pod to merge the man’s head with the dog’s body.

Note how the pods don’t care if an animal is killed, or if a dog-man monster is created, symbolic of the bestial nature man is reduced to by neoliberalism. Similarly, the pods don’t bat an eye, or make that ugly shriek, if a pod is walking about naked outside…but they will react if a human is still among them, as chagrined Nancy learns.

I’ve argued elsewhere that–citing Shakespeare’s use of the word in Hamletnaked can be used to mean ‘without any possessions or means.’ Pod-Elizabeth’s nakedness can thus be seen to represent those deprived of basic necessities by neoliberalism. Many of the deprived, like her, would rather rat out (or ‘squeal out’) those unlike them, as working-class supporters of fascism do, instead of banding together with other workers in solidarity against the ruling class. Neoliberal capitalists, like the pods, don’t care about the deprivation of the naked, such as those suffering in Yemen or Palestine.

The pods are spread by boat from San Francisco (or by truck from fictional Santa Mira in the 1956 movie) to the rest of the world, just as the contagion of neoliberalism spread from Austria to the US and UK, and then to the rest of the world.

And how do humans turn into pods? By falling asleep. What a powerful metaphor for how one’s liberty…one’s very humanity…dies. Only through endless vigilance–indefatigable class consciousness–can we prevent our dehumanization, our mutual alienation.

So, to recap, the contagion of the pods can be seen to represent the spread of capitalist imperialism, in its neoliberal form, through tax cuts to the rich, deregulation, and pro-capitalist/anti-socialist propaganda in the form of memes spread in a market-friendly, corporate media. We lose our humanity to wage slavery, with soulless False Selves that are alienated from each other.

We’ve allowed this to happen because we’ve lost our sense of awareness–we’ve fallen asleep. What had been a thriller with a happy ending–due to the tireless efforts of humanity to repel the pod people in Finney’s novel–grew into an increasingly pessimistic story in these two movies (even the 1956 film originally had a dark ending–that is, before the studio wanted the framing story with the psychiatrist [Dr. Hill, played by Whit Bissell] listening to Miles tell his story, to add a hopeful ending).

But such is the nature of a contagion: to cause a problem to be more and more desperate. Such has been the metastasizing of neoliberalism, to bring the problem of capitalist imperialism from a formidable struggle–in which at least there had been hope of victory–to one in which defeat seems almost a foregone conclusion.

In the 1978 movie, we go from a vigorous Department of Health, with human Elizabeth and Matthew aggressively trying to find out where the flowers and pods came from, to one with pod-Elizabeth and pod-Matthew sitting around lazily at their desks, doing nothing of importance. No one is interested in healing the sick, or stopping the spread of disease. The 1956 film would have ended with Miles shouting his hysterical warning to the drivers on the highway, and perhaps–after the film’s end–hit and killed by a car, as he is in the near-sequel 1978 movie…a dire prognosis for the world.

Can we, our bodies snatched by neoliberalism, find a way back to Finney’s ending?

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In a provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of the slaves’ oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989

Analysis of ‘Apocalypse Now’

Apocalypse Now is a Vietnam war film co-written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979. It stars Marlon BrandoRobert DuvallMartin SheenFrederic ForrestAlbert HallSam BottomsLaurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper. It is an adaptation/updating of Joseph Conrad‘s novella, Heart of Darkness, which was about the ivory trade in the Congo Free State back in the late 19th century.

Both the novella and film involve a man named Kurtz (Brando), who has carried the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples to a bloody, mad extreme; both stories also have in common the theme of the evils of imperialism.

Apocalypse Now had a mixed reception at the time of its release; now it is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

Colonel G. Lucas (Harrison Ford): Your mission is to proceed up the Nùng River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba, follow it, and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.

Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen): Terminate the Colonel?

General Corman (G.D. Spradlin): He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.

JerryTerminate with extreme prejudice.

Lucas: You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.

*******

“Charlie don’t surf!” –Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duvall)

“You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.” –Kilgore (bolded line is ranked #12 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema)

*******

Captain Benjamin L. Willard: Could we, uh, talk to Colonel Kurtz?

Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper): Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean, sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you, and he won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you’…” I mean, I’m no, I can’t – I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s, he’s a great man. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas” … (Note: The last sentences here reference first Rudyard Kipling‘s poem If— and then T.S. Eliot‘s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.)

*******

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?

Willard: I’m a soldier.

Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

*******

“This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics: one through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without like, you know, with fractions! What are you going to land on: one quarter, three eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics, okay?” –Photojournalist

“I’ve seen horrors, horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror! Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.” –Kurtz

“We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” –Kurtz

“The horror! The horror!” [These are Kurtz’s last words, and parallel those of the novella’s Mr. Kurtz character.]

What’s interesting in this story is how it’s the US army that want Captain Willard to find and kill Colonel Kurtz, calling his “methods…unsound.” Certainly, Kurtz’s setting up of a kind of Cambodian pagan death cult, worshipping him as if he were a demigod, is shocking. But were the methods of the US army, in the execution of its military campaign against the Viet Cong, in any way sound?

Throughout the movie, we see the Americans impinging on the lives of the Vietnamese in ways that regularly use needless violence, needless even by the standards of war. Aptly named Kilgore does an airstrike on “Charlie,” including using napalm on tree-lines near a lake, just so a surfer he admires (Lance B. Johnson [Sam Bottoms]) can surf there! As the attack is carried out, racist Kilgore plays Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ over the helicopter loudspeakers because it “scares the hell out of the slopes”…and recall which political ideologues had a fondness for Wagner.

As Willard says in a voice-over, “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone.”

American propaganda portrays the Vietnam War–one in which the US’s aggravated involvement was based on the Gulf of Tonkin lie–as a fight for freedom against the spread of the ‘tyranny’ of communism. Actually, Ho Chi Minh was leading his people in an effort to free themselves of the spread of the tyranny of Western imperialism and French colonialism.

So, seen in this proper historical context, the US never intended to liberate Vietnam: the war was an invasion. Vietnamese got murdered and maimed merely for defending themselves. Consider such atrocities as the My Lai Massacre (by no means an anomaly during the war) and when little Phan Thi Kim Phuc was forced to run naked in terror after a napalm attack set her clothes on fire and burned her back.

What Kurtz is doing is an extremity of what the US army had been doing the whole time…had done in the bombing and nuking of Japan…had done when they bombed North Korea…and would do (with NATO’s help) to Yugoslavia and Libya, would do to Iraq, and would have proxy armies, in the form of “moderate rebels,” do to Syria.

Still, Kurtz is portrayed as an anomaly in US imperialism…as Trump is portrayed today in the media, rather than just an extreme manifestation of what is otherwise usual in imperialism. The US army will have Willard “terminate [Kurtz] with extreme prejudice,” but they “terminate [‘gooks’ and ‘dinks’] with extreme prejudice” (literally) throughout the movie…as they did throughout the Vietnam War, and have in every war since.

As Willard says in the narration: “How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. That wasn’t supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit… charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?”

On the boat of Quartermaster George “Chief” Phillips (Albert Hall), for example, Willard and the crew meet a group of Vietnamese in a boat loaded with food. Paranoid that there could be hidden weapons on the Vietnamese boat, Chief has Engineman 3rd Class Jay “Chef” Hicks (Forrest) search the boat, then–when tempers flare–the troops shoot the innocent Vietnamese. Willard himself shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman to make sure she’s dead. He has no time to take her to get medical care: he has to find Kurtz.

As we can see, Willard himself can be needlessly violent. The beginning of the film demonstrates his pathological tendencies (as it demonstrates those of the US army and its napalming of a Vietnamese forest). The captain is in a hotel room in Saigon, musing over his obsession with returning to the jungles of Nam once he finished a previous tour of duty, went home, and ignored his wife to the point of divorcing her.

As he says in voice-over, “Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon… Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse.”[grabs at flying insect] “I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.”

Having gotten drunk in that room in Saigon, he puts his fist into a mirror, bloodying his hand. Punching his reflection: he must already have terrible guilt over what he did during that previous tour. And now, for his sins, they give him a mission: to kill a US officer possibly not all that much crazier than himself. That’s the point of Apocalypse Now–every soldier’s a Kurtz, in his own way.

Remember crazy Kilgore, who seems to think he’s Achilles, or something; for he barely stirs whenever Vietnamese ordnance fires upon the ground, mere metres from his feet. Indeed, it seems he’ll leave Vietnam without as much as a scratch. He thinks an area “hairy” with “Charlie” is “safe to surf.”

“Safe to surf”: that could sum up what imperialism is all about. The US army bombs, maims, and napalms the Vietnamese and their land so American troops can enjoy such frivolous pastimes as surfing and USO shows with Playboy Bunnies. The locals can only watch the show from behind a fence.

Willard says in voice-over, “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.”

(Walter Sobchak, who personifies neo-con imperialism in The Big Lebowski, says, “I got buddies who died face-down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” Shut the fuck up, Walter: millions of Vietnamese were maimed, or died face-down in the muck, so imperialism could enjoy exercising its dominance ever since.)

Elsewhere, as the river patrol boat is motoring on the water, Mr. Clean (Fishburne) is dancing to the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and as the boat races by some Vietnamese on the bank, it splashes water on them. Two Vietnamese men get knocked into the water. This scene, along with that of the USO show, illustrate symbolically how Western imperialism forces itself on the world through its all-too-often vulgar pop culture.

Later, the boat reaches the Do Lung Bridge (on the Nùng River, which doesn’t exist–I see a pun on ‘dung’ in the river’s name as well as that of the bridge) at night, and a soldier delivering mail tells Willard, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain.” They’re entering Cambodia, where Kurtz and his pagan death cult are…deeper into the rectum, which reeks of fetid death, where Mr. Clean and the Chief die. Where Chef will be decapitated by Kurtz. Now, they’re really in the shit.

Finally, Willard, Chef, and Lance find Kurtz and his cult. It’s a horrifying sight, with decapitated heads, and dead men hanging from trees. They’re met by a photojournalist (Hopper), who maniacally praises Kurtz with frenzied verbiage.

This photojournalist, along with a man seen earlier (played by Coppola himself) filming a battle and wanting the troops to keep from looking at the camera (i.e., spoiling the illusion), represent the kind of dishonest media we see far too often, especially these days, people who gloss over and ignore the horrors of war while celebrating the excitement and ‘glory’ of imperial conquest.

Even though the photojournalist (who parallels the Russian in Conrad’s story; both men say that the Kurtz has “enlarged [their] mind” [Conrad, p. 146]) recognizes how crazy Kurtz can be, he downplays the colonel’s extreme moments, while extolling his talents as a poet, etc. How like the mainstream media’s whitewashing of all these wars of the past few decades.

A soldier named Colby (Scott Glenn), who’d been sent earlier to find Kurtz, is now practically catatonic. How symbolic of what happens to soldiers: they’re trained to hate and kill the enemy, and they lose their souls. Like the media, they, and the civilians who worship them, tend to be silent about military excesses.

When Willard meets Kurtz, who is fittingly shrouded in darkness at first, the colonel speaks to the captain as if he were a perfectly reasonable man, all calm and in control. We learn of Kurtz’s cynicism about the US military when he calls Willard “an errand boy.”

Later, we hear Kurtz begin to recite T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” a poem about the emptiness and meaninglessness in people’s hearts. This is most easily seen in the soullessness of the soldiers. The poem was also influenced by Heart of Darkness. The photojournalist makes a reference to the end of the poem when he says, “This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, Jack.”

After Willard is tied up by Kurtz’s “children,” we get a taste of Kurtz’s madness when he drops Chef’s head in Willard’s lap. Later, Kurtz describes his admiration of the willpower of those who remorselessly hacked off the arms of south Vietnamese children inoculated against polio. Kurtz contemplates “the genius” of such an unwavering will: if only he had such men, he could win the war quickly.

Finally, Willard–camouflaged as Kurtz was when he beheaded Chef–makes his way with a machete in the darkness to Kurtz. As he prepares for the assassination, a group of Cambodian Montagnards gets ready to sacrifice a water buffalo. We see the Montagnards dancing in their ritual, and their hacking into the animal is juxtaposed with the killing of Kurtz.

What is being implied by this juxtaposition is that the killing of Kurtz is a rite of human sacrifice: Kurtz is the old god-king being killed and replaced by a new god-king–Willard, or so the locals imagine him to be when he emerges, holding the machete and a book of Kurtz’s writings (a holy book, as it were?), before the bowing Cambodians.

Willard won’t be their new god, though. He takes Lance with him back to the boat, and they leave his would-be worshippers. In Heart of Darkness, though, there are suggestions that Marlow, on whom Willard was based, has an almost god-like nature. He is said to sit in a Buddha posture when telling his story (Conrad, pages 69 and 184); and when Mr. Kurtz (who did “live his life…in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender”) dies, saying, “The horror! The horror!”, Marlow blows out a candle (Conrad, page 171), suggesting the etymology of nirvana, the blowing out of a flame–that of desire and suffering, of which the Buddha would have us all free ourselves.

Just as the suffering of the Vietnamese is vividly shown in Apocalypse Now (along with the racial slurs used against them), so is the racism against, and suffering of, the blacks in the Congo (often called “niggers”) graphically expressed in Heart of Darkness. African railroad labourers are horrifically depicted as diseased and starving (Conrad, pages 85-86). It was Belgian imperialism that caused the suffering of the Congolese during the years of the Scramble for Africa, under the cruel reign of Leopold II, responsible for the deaths of as many as fifteen million people.

Lenin noted that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, or its final stage in the pursuit of greater profits. Since the beginnings of capitalist imperialism in such examples as the Belgian oppression of the Congo (using forced labour to collect rubber), and then the imperialist atrocities in Vietnam, we’ve seen imperialism metastasize to its current Kurtz-like form, in which it’s hard to see the human race surviving for much longer, what with the combination of all the current wars as well as the ecocide we’re rushing headlong into.

“This is the end,” Jim Morrison sings at the beginning and the end of the film. The apocalypse is indeed now…or so it seems, at least. [Footage of an airstrike destroying Kurtz’s compound was shot (with full credits shown), but Coppola didn’t want it to be considered part of the story. Handouts of the credits were given to theatre-goers; this is why we never see any credits in the movie, at the beginning or at the end, for Coppola wanted us to “tour” the film as if it were a play.]

“The horror…the horror…” of the story (Conrad’s or Coppola’s) is that the worship of remorseless capitalists and military men will continue after psychopaths like the Kurtzes are killed. Death and destruction will continue in the Middle East, to the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Yemenis, and far too many others; while we in the West worship celebrities and ignore what’s going on in the Third World. We worshippers won’t die in explosions of airstrikes, we’ll slowly fade to black, as the film does, in our state of apathy.

And that’s why this is the way the movie ends–not with a bang, but a whimper.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, Pocket Books Enriched Classics, New York, 2004

On Freeing Our Identities From Labels

In our alienating world, we all tend too often to label each other, describing each other in absolute terms, or to accept such labels from others. In thus labelling others, we expect them to conform to the stereotyped behaviour associated with those labels. Also, in accepting such labelling from others, we often unconsciously adopt the stereotyped behaviour and attitudes of the labels we’ve received, thus making a self-fulfilling prophecy of this labelling.

Apart from how unhealthy all this describing of ourselves and others is, it’s also simply unrealistic. Part of the Buddhist concept of anatta (or anatman, “no self”) is the idea that we people are as changeable as everything else in the world. The personality of each and every person out there is not some block of rigid matter that stays essentially the same from birth to death; rather, it’s like the waves of the ocean, the crests and troughs tend to rise and fall to approximately the same highs and lows over a certain period of time in life, but eventually, those highs and lows will be different; in any case, the matter that is ourselves is in constant, dialectical, wavelike motion.

abstract aqua blue clean
Our personalities move like the waves.

We know the above to be true, but we forget this truth far more often than we remember it. Part of the reason we forget, I believe, is because those who drilled into our brains the ‘rigid block’ idea of the personality are people who want to control us by limiting our sense of self. I have written elsewhere of ways we can free ourselves of this dysfunctional kind of thinking.

Those up-and-down waves of water that are our personalities are interconnected with the adjacent waves of those personalities nearest to, and therefore most influential with, ourselves. Projection, introjection, identification, and projective identification are the winds that blow the waves, causing personality traits and habits to be traded around and moved from person to person. We become what other people are, and vice versa.

If other people have hurt you with negative labels, never believe for a second that you have to accept them. Even if you did conform to such a bad label at the time of your receiving it, remember that your conforming to it was only a temporary state of affairs, a momentary blowing of the wind to make the waves of your personality rise or sink to that undesirable place…then the wind blew your waves to a different place–perhaps a desirable opposite.

body of water under purple and blue sky illustration
Influences change us like the wind on the water of our personalities.

Emotionally abusive parents can force us into taking on a rigid label, or permanent role, such as the scapegoat or the golden child, if they’re not making their kids trade these roles back and forth over time. In the case of the former, unchanging version of the labelling, we can try all we want to free ourselves from the role assigned to us, but our abusers will insist on our staying put, and they’ll manipulate us, through projective identification, into acting in exact, unvarying accordance with that straitjacket of a role.

This happened to me whenever I tried to get out of the role of identified patient with regards to my (probably) narcissistic late mother. If I tried to show thoughtfulness, kindness, or generosity to anyone in the family, she would figure out a way to sabotage my good intentions and manipulate me into changing from a loving to a bitter son.

Similarly, if my golden child sister, J., stepped out of her prescribed role, she would feel the terror of Mom’s wrath so quickly and intensely that her head would spin.

men s black and white checkered shirt
Poverty is a trap the rich won’t let the poor free themselves from.

In other areas, we can see society forcing us into permanent roles. Any time people in Third World countries try to pull themselves out of poverty, as has been demonstrated many times in, for example, Latin America, imperialism puts them right back in ‘their place,’ as has been seen in the coups against such countries as Guatemala and Chile.

Also, as the sexes try to free themselves from their traditional roles, in particular, as women try to achieve political equality with men, forces in capitalist society prevent these necessary changes from being fully realized. A variety of manipulative factors are used, including the reassertion of fundamentalist religion (e.g., Pence) and its promotion of the traditional patriarchal family; but also such things as requiring men to ‘man up,’ and even more liberal ideas like divisive identity politics.

We need to be freed from the chains of ‘identity,’ not attached them all the more rigidly! Human liberation in all its forms–racial, class, sexual, etc.–will be achieved through solidarity, not through dividing the people against each other via ‘identity.’

As for my own personal ‘identity,’ it mustn’t be assumed to be an unchanging state of affairs, either. I have grown and evolved politically, in sweeping ways over the past few years, causing many of the things I’ve said in past blog posts to be no longer accurately representative of my current beliefs. (I won’t, however, update those old posts, and for two reasons: 1) there are far, far too many changes to be made, and I’d rather not hassle with such a large amount of work; and 2) I find it interesting to look back to those old posts sometimes, and see how I’ve grown and changed over the years.)

beach dawn dusk ocean
The dawn of a new day means new waves for a new personality.

So, if you read something in one of my posts that you find objectionable, check the date that it was published. The older the post is, the further away it will probably be from my current belief system. If I discuss subject matter similar to that of an older post, but demonstrate a different attitude in the more recent post, use the newer post to get a more accurate idea of how I now think on that matter, not the older one.

For example, in my earlier posts, I took on a strictly anarcho-communist position, with a stridently anti-Lenin, anti-Stalin, and anti-Mao position. After more carefully researching the history of the USSR and China under Mao, though, I now realize how much my thinking was influenced by Western capitalist and CIAoriented propaganda, the same CIA and Western capitalism that has swayed so many of us into accepting all these needless imperialist wars of the past two to three decades, since the USSR’s dissolution.

Accordingly, I’ve grown less and less libertarian in my leftism, and more and more patient in my waiting for the realization of stateless communism. With that, I recognize and accept the need for a temporary proletarian state to help facilitate the transition from today’s neoliberal nightmare to the final goal: communist society–no class differences, a withered-away state, and a gift economy to replace money.

sunset beach people sunrise
The dawn of a new day of freedom we all hope, one day, to have.

That workers’ state, needed for as long as it will take to defend itself from imperialism until capitalism is no more, will also be needed to help in the transformation of society to rid it of racism, sexism, anti-LGBT bigotry, and all the other evils capitalist society uses to divide us all.

This transformation will include, for example, social programs to provide day care, freeing women from the burden of childcare so they can focus on careers and pursue their dreams. This will help eliminate the glass ceiling. Socialist states have provided such programs, and thus done a much better job of achieving equality of the sexes than capitalist societies ever have.

Better still, a society that produces commodities as use-values to provide for everyone, rather than produce exchange-values to generate profit, will do away with landlords and provide universal housing, thus eliminating the homeless, most of whom are men. This reorienting of society can have both sexes do an equal mixture of both traditional roles (breadwinning vs. homemaking), thus achieving sexual equality.

grayscale photography of man praying on sidewalk with food in front
Having a home is a right, not a privilege.

I never thought out these ideas so thoroughly in my otherwise prolix posts, so I hope this brief revision will suffice, at least for the moment. Just know that I have changed a lot in my political views, as I have from those earlier years, when my family had far too much influence in my life.

In sum, we must always remember that who we are changes and moves like the waves of the ocean. The winds of change ensure that we never are who we were, and we won’t be who we are. Those who would have us believe otherwise do so for themselves, not for the sake of the truth.