Analysis of ‘Falling Down’

Falling Down is a 1993 thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Ebbe Roe Smith, and starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, and Barbara Hershey; it costars Frederick Forrest, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Lois Smith, and Raymond J. Barry.

Douglas plays Bill Foster (whose car’s personalized plate says “D-FENS,” hence the ending credits name him thus), an unemployed, divorced former weapons builder who has a mental breakdown in Los Angeles during a sweltering day in summer. He is the stereotypical “angry white male,” feeling shafted by a system that’s actually far more unfair to those other than his socioeconomic category.

I’d have to agree with Kirk Douglas and say that his son’s performance as D-FENS is his best yet. Though D-FENS represents a lot of disagreeable aspects of conservative American men, Michael Douglas humanizes the character and his many faults, making us sympathize with him, however indefensible his acts and thoughts may be.

Here are some quotes:

[Bill Foster exits his car in the middle of the highway]

Man on Freeway: Hey, where do you think you’re going?

Bill Foster: I’m going home! (his first line in the film) […]

“I’m rolling prices back to 1965!” –Bill, to Lee, the Korean store owner

“I am not a vigilante. I am just trying to get home to my little girl’s birthday. Now if everyone will just stay out of my way, then nobody will get hurt.” Bill, to Nick, the neo-Nazi surplus store owner (Forrest)

“I lost my job. Actually I didn’t lose it. It lost me. I’m overeducated, underskilled—Maybe it’s the other way around. I forget—but I’m obsolete. I’m not economically viable. I can’t even support my own kid.” –Bill

“You know what was in this? Zyklon-B! You remember? What the Nazis had! Listen! [shakes can, a slight rattle is heard] Empty! This was used, man! This was actually used! I wonder how many kikes this little can took out? Huh?! Think about it!” –Nick, to Bill

“Fuck you, Captain Yardley. Fuck you very much.” –Prendergast (Duvall)

Rick: Yes, sir?

Bill Foster: Hi. I’d like some breakfast?

Rick: We stopped serving breakfast.

Bill Foster: I know you stopped serving breakfast Rick, Sheila told me that you… why am I calling you by your first names? I don’t even know you. I still call my boss ‘Mister’ even though I’ve been working with him for seven years, but all of a sudden I walk in here and I’m calling you Rick and Sheila like we’re in some kind of AA meeting and…I don’t want to be your buddy, Rick. I just want a little breakfast?

Sheila: You can call me Miss Folsom if you want.

RickSheila. We stopped serving breakfast at 11:30.[Foster looks at his watch to find it’s 3 minutes past the deadline. He places his gym bag full of guns on the counter.]

Bill Foster: Rick, have you ever heard the expression “the customer is always right”?

Rick: (sighs) Yeah.

Bill Foster: Well, here I am. The customer.

Rick: (still smiling) That’s not our policy. You’ll have to order something from the lunch menu.

Bill Foster: I don’t want lunch. I want breakfast.

Rick: Yeah, well hey, I’m really sorry.

Bill Foster: (smiles back) Yeah, well hey, I’m real sorry too. (pulls out a TEC-9) […]

Bill Foster: You’re Korean? Do you have any idea how much money my country has given your country?

Mr. Lee: How much?

Bill Foster: I don’t know, but it’s gotta be a lot. […]

Nick: We’re the same, you and me. We’re the same, don’t you see?

Bill Foster: We are not the same. I’m an American, you’re a sick asshole. […]

“I am just disagreeing with you! In America, we have the freedom of SPEECH! The right to DISAGREE!” –Bill, to Nick

“Good! Good, freedom of religion. Now you get the swing of it. Feels good to exercise your rights, doesn’t it?” –Bill, then opening fire on Nick, shooting him through a mirror

“Beth, did you know that in some South American countries it’s legal to kill your wife if she insults you?” –Bill

Sergeant Prendergast: Let’s meet a couple of police officers. They’re all good guys.

Bill Foster: I’m the bad guy?

Prendergast: Yeah.

Bill Foster: How did that happen? I did everything they told me to. Did you know I build missiles?

Prendergast: Yeah.

Bill Foster: I help to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Then they give it to the plastic surgeon. You know, they lied to me.

Prendergast: Is that what this is about? You’re angry because you got lied to? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? Hey, they lie to everybody. They lie to the fish! But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.

D-FENS!

How D-FENS dresses and looks is significant. With a crew cut, glasses, and a white shirt and tie, he looks like a man straight out of the late Fifties, or early Sixties. In fact, he’s stuck in the Sixties, but not the way a hippie is; he is a don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty kind of man from the Sixties, having built missiles “to protect us from the communists,” as his mother tells Prendergast. D-FENS thus represents straight America.

Now, D-FENS, like straight America, has always had problems. His ex-wife, Beth (Hershey) has always sensed his potential for violence; like Travis Bickle, Bill Foster is a ticking time bomb.

Similarly, the US has, throughout her history, been a bomb waiting to explode; we know this because she has already exploded so many times before. But now that the Cold War is over, and she doesn’t have the convenient enemy of the USSR, America needs a new enemy, and has been seeking them out eagerly; so now her explosive tendencies have grown so much more dangerous…as have Bill’s. On this hot summer day, his war with LA is no cold one.

His problem–a “horrendous temper,” as Beth calls it–is on a continuum with most of the other characters, and this is significant, given his being a personification of conservative America. Indeed, a number of characters, especially Prendergast, parallel D-FENS to at least some extent, in terms of their pain, anger, alienation, and how varyingly functional or dysfunctional their ways are of coping with their problems.

When we see D-FENS in his car at the beginning of the movie, stuck in bumper-t0-bumper traffic on such a hot day, his air conditioning not working, and a fly buzzing all around him, we see him sweating, growing increasingly agitated, and finally losing it and abandoning his car. He goes from this agitation to a complete mental breakdown within the next half-hour.

He seems, on the face of it, so normal, so ‘straight,’ yet he goes crazy and violent in such short order. Seeing this, we ask ourselves, ‘Could I do that one day? What will it take to push me over the edge?’ After all, we don’t yet know much about him, until we get his ex-wife’s perspective; so Bill could be any ordinary American, for all we know.

This potential to become–this changing from one kind of man to another, two kinds so seemingly opposed, from ‘the good guy’ to the bad guy, is what makes D-FENS so scary to us. This contrast seems stronger when we learn from his mother, who’s terrified of him, that he has built weapons for American defence–“D-FENS!”–and when he’s lost his job, it’s the rest of us who need defence from D-FENS.

Loitering and trespassing on private property.

Now that he’s stopped building missiles, he’s become a kind of missile himself. As a weapons builder, Bill represents more than just straight America: he also represents the military-industrial complex (MIC). His accumulation of weapons (a bat, a switchblade, a gym bag full of guns, and a rocket launcher) thus represents the frightening growth of the MIC. The phallic nature of those amassed weapons also symbolizes Bill’s growing hyper-masculinity.

The MIC has always been in the service of imperialism, which is the extension of capitalist hegemony into other countries. The capitalist imperialist tends, however, to project his intrusiveness onto his victims (e.g., ‘the terrorists are going to get us,’ so we must bomb the Middle East, or, ‘we must stop the Red menace,’ so any killing of communists around the world is considered justified), just as Bill projects his aggression onto those he runs into. He attacks, yet he imagines it’s all…D-FENS.

So when he walks into the grocery store for change for the pay phone, and he finds Mr. Lee (Michael Paul Chan), the Korean owner, uncooperative, he busts up the place, as the US military did when the North Korean communists refused to cooperate with capitalism. Bill’s paying for a can of Coke–rolled back to 1960s prices–represents the capitalist imperialist short-changing the global proletariat. His taking of Mr. Lee’s bat represents imperialism’s attempts (if not successes) at depriving countries like the DPRK of the ability to defend themselves, a depriving that the US considers…D-FENS!

Capitalism breeds alienation, which includes the inability to communicate; therefore it’s no surprise that Bill finds it difficult to say anything when Beth answers his phone calls. He says nothing during those first few calls, but she knows it’s him on the other end.

She explains to the police that she has a restraining order against Bill–which she admits may have done more harm than good (it has!)–because she (justifiably, we learn) fears the possibility, the potential, of his rage to blow up into physical violence. She can see the psychopathy in Bill’s eyes; just as we on the left can see the potential for the moderate right to develop into outright fascism.

Still, we viewers of the film find ourselves sympathizing with D-FENS, in spite of his increasing violence and instability, since almost everyone he encounters is rude and obnoxious. Our sympathizing with him, however, is dangerous in how we make ourselves complicit, if only in thought, in his excesses.

D-FENS, in gangland.

Indeed, when we see him encounter the two Latinos in gangland, their bullying of him makes it hard to sympathize with them; but when you see this film as an allegory of US imperialism‘s dealings with Third World countries (e.g., those of Central and South America), the two Latinos’ aggression against gringo Bill becomes more than understandable.

They claim he’s “trespassing on private property,” a turning of the tables of what’s usually the white man telling the poor and people of colour to get off his property. Seen in this light, Bill’s D-FENSiveness becomes far less D-FENSible.

Now, as we ignorantly sympathize with Bill, we feel less and less sympathy for those who annoy him, including the poor. A homeless man trying to get a handout from him bumbles and stumbles over his absurdly transparent lies, making us want to laugh at his stupidity rather than pity him for his plight. Bill, of course, icily rejects him, and we find ourselves agreeing with him that the man should just “try to get a job.” (We probably forget our having agreed with him when we later realize Bill himself has no job, which has already been implied by his suitcase having only his lunch, and no business papers.)

Such an uncaring attitude toward the poor is dangerous, though, given the American gutting of welfare just a few years after this movie was made, one of many neoliberal moves resulting in, among other problems, the current epidemic of homelessness, not only in LA, but also in such places as San Francisco, Toronto, and the UK.

His confrontation with the staff in the Whammyburger is instructive of how employees are treated in capitalist society. Granted, we customers can’t help being annoyed when we enter a fast food restaurant hoping for breakfast, but we’re only a few minutes late, and they’ve switched to the lunch menu; still, it’s hard for the workers in the hot kitchen, cluttered with both breakfast and lunch cooking equipment, to prepare both kinds of meals at the same busy, hectic time. A strict ending of the one, to facilitate the switch to the other, may be inconvenient, but it’s perfectly understandable, as any past or present worker at places like McDonald’s will know.

He’d like to order some breakfast.

Bill’s brandishing of the semi-automatic weapon, firing into the ceiling, is symbolic not only of the rudeness customers show to those suffering in silence in the food service industry (and I am guilty of such rudeness, too, far more often than I care to admit), but also of the boss’s bullying of his striking workers, getting the police to fire on them. Recall in this connection that, since “the customer is always right,” he is the boss even of the boss and managers.

As our Odysseus continues on his journey home (and recall that Odysseus returned home after invading Troy with his army, as Bill’s America invades countries all the time), seeing poor people all around him and caring little about their plight, one far greater than his personal frustrations, he buys a gift for his daughter and sees a black man (short hair, white shirt and tie!) complaining outside a savings-and-loan that won’t give him a loan because he’s “not economically viable!” Bill can sympathize with this man, because he’s clearly middle class by his clothes. The man is one of several doubles of Bill seen throughout the film.

Speaking of Bill doubles, Prendergast has his own family frustrations, including a difficult wife and a daughter he can’t see…because she’s dead. Instead of losing his job, he’s about to retire; and after leaving fighting crime on the streets to work at a desk, he has to endure the taunts of the other cops for supposedly being a coward, when getting off the streets is the only way he can stop his wife from being hysterical.

Still, with all of his problems, he’s able to deal with them in a controlled, reasonable way, unlike D-FENS. The most violent he gets is punching a particularly obnoxious cop in his department for insulting his wife, and shooting D-FENS when goaded into killing him. Part of the p0int of Prendergast and the “not economically viable” man is to show that we can express our anger without making it escalate into frightening proportions.

Prendergast.

We hear so many tragic stories about unstable Americans (usually white men) with guns a-blazing. The US, as the nerve centre of global capitalism, “the belly of the beast,” as Che Guevara once called her, is also one of the worst places as far as alienation is concerned. Added to this is the toxic mixture of violent hyper-masculinity (a combination of biological factors and sex role socialization) and gun culture, including such absurdities as open carry. Then, there’s the growing problem of “white nationalism,” which leads me to Bill’s next major confrontation.

After Nick, the surplus store owner who’s been emboldened by Bill (and whom he says he’s “the same” as), taunts two gay men, he protects Bill from the “officeress” and gives him a rocket launcher. When Bill sees just how far to the right neo-Nazi Nick is, he refuses to identify with him.

Conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves about not being at least comparable to fascists. The only difference between a centre-rightist and a far-rightist is how much rage and frustration each feels with society. Both support the hierarchical, capitalist establishment; the fascist resorts to violence when that establishment is, or at least seems to be, threatened–the moderate conservative sees no threat…yet.

We must remember that the world isn’t a static, unchanging thing. All things flow dialectically, as I argued in my ouroboros posts. The social democrat shifts counterclockwise to the liberal centrist, who in turn shifts centre-right–or neoliberal/neocon–when such things as political correctness frustrate him; and this centre-rightist shifts to a pro-fascist position when the heat’s on even more.

“You missed.”

This is why, when D-FENS says to Nick, “I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole,” he’s being more than disingenuous. Conservative Americans like to rationalize their reactionary ideology by imagining they’re defending freedom, including freedom of speech and of religion…and who did many of these conservatives vote into office? Someone who cages migrants, has banned travel from six Muslim-majority countries, and dismisses criticisms of him as “fake news.” Because the DNC establishment is largely no better than he, he’ll probably get reelected in 2020, too.

When D-FENS shoots and kills the neo-Nazi, what’s interesting is how the latter is in front of a mirror. Bill is projecting his own fascistic tendencies onto Nick, pretending that his own evil potential is something alien to himself, when that Lacanian mirror shows Bill’s and Nick’s reflections together, a merging of the moderate right that is forever in danger of phasing into the extreme right. Whether Bill wants to admit it or not, Nick’s right-wing authoritarian ideal ego is Bill’s, too.

Just before D-FENS kills Nick, he falls down, which of course refers back to the film’s title (contrast this with Prendergast’s singing of “London Bridge is falling down…” to soothe and comfort his wife). Here is the point where Bill is falling down,…the point of no return. Up until this point, his aggressions have fallen short of lethal. He shot the Latino gang member in the leg, and the switchblade stab in Nick’s neck isn’t quite enough to kill him; but then Bill points Nick’s pistol at him with a shaky, spastic hand while looking at Nick and himself in Lacan’s mirror. Bill is fragmented and alienated from himself and his Nazi doppelgänger, as well as from the world. This murder is symbolic suicide (he shoots a hole in the mirror, at a point connecting with his reflection), for Bill hates what he can see himself turning into.

He’s at the point of no return; having killed the violent, fascist authoritarian, he’s become what he killed–the potential has become the reality. Accordingly, he threatens Beth on the phone. So much for the ‘American’ right to disagree: she disagrees with him, in his unstable state, when he asserts his right to see his daughter on her birthday; he implies he’ll kill Beth if she “insults” him.

Bill and Beth.

Normally, one would sympathize with divorced men who are discriminated against in child custody cases; but Bill is clearly one of those kind of men who are unfit to raise a child. His embrace of his daughter at the end of the film would begin a process of emotional healing for him, but he’s nonetheless reached the point of no return…

Now “dressed like GI Joe,” which is symbolic of his militaristic, quasi-fascist frame of mind, D-FENS leaves the surplus store with the rocket launcher in the gym bag and confronts a group of construction workers, like those whose blockage of the road set him off at the beginning of the movie. Again, as with the Whammyburger incident, we may be annoyed with government bureaucracy and all of its rules, regulations, and interference in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we can assume they’re never justified.

When Bill is told there’s “nothing” wrong with the road, this could just be the worker’s exasperated attempt to placate him, since Bill won’t accept being told there’s a legitimate reason for digging up the road. Government bureaucracy, rules, and intrusions are sometimes without justification, but sometimes they can’t be avoided. Bill, as right-libertarians all too often do, refuse to accept this reality.

The right-winger despises unionized workers, but sometimes he despises the rich, too. That’s why D-FENS gets mad at rich golfers and plastic surgeons. Right-libertarians blame the state for propping up the super-rich while they insist on preserving the class system and ‘free market’ that inevitably result in the current oligarchy. Fascists and Nazis have sometimes paid lip service to opposing capitalism, but Hitler was content to get financial aid from big business, including from foreign capitalists. Both of these kinds of right-wing thinkers are wilfully blind to their own hypocrisy. Capitalism is fine when it’s convenient for their selfish interests; if not, it’s just ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism,’ and not ‘real’ capitalism.

Still, we whites are made to sympathize with Bill. Such sympathy is dangerous, leading to such real-life violence as the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting (whose suspect was fixated on this movie). Whites often tend to lack sympathy for the justified anger of such people as the black rioters in LA in 1992, which disrupted the filming of Falling Down. When Bill breaks down and cries before the family in the backyard of the plastic surgeon, we’re touched by the expression of his pain (superbly played by Michael Douglas); but we mustn’t let that blind us to all the wrong D-FENS has been doing. Having a little residual humanity isn’t enough when the rest is all viciousness and brutality.

“London Bridge is falling down…”

Speaking of the mix of residual humanity with brutality, consider the world that D-FENS wishes would come back. As a builder of missiles “to protect us from the communists,” he had work centred around the Cold War. This means, on the one hand, he helped the American war machine undermine the efforts of the USSR, Maoist China, Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc to free the world of imperialism. To Bill, that’s “D-FENS!” To us anti-imperialists, it’s viciousness.

On the other hand, the very presence of those Red countries prodded Western countries to provide quasi-social-democratic programs to help the Western working class feel at least somewhat comfortable under capitalism, thus stemming the tide of communist revolution. This ‘pinkish capitalism,’ if you will, was at its zenith from the post-WWII era to 1973. This was that bit of ‘residual humanity’ symbolized in those sympathetic moments in Bill; to us Marxists, that ‘humanity’ did little of substance for the world.

You see, those postwar, social-democratic benefits were largely for white working class men. The story was different for women who, during WWII, had had their first taste of bringing home a good pay-check doing their husbands’ jobs, but then had to go back in the kitchen, or to traditional, lower-paying jobs, once their husbands returned; and secondly, increasing divorce, especially during the Sixties, threw many women back into the workplace, where they’d experience discrimination. I hardly need to review what blacks were going through at the time.

Still, this postwar prosperity, with the American assurance that Bill et al were on the side of freedom, was a world that gave a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. By the time of this movie, though, the USSR has already dissolved with almost all the other socialist states, and ‘freedom’ has prevailed. But as Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom observed, the experience of ‘freedom from’ tyranny leads to a vacuum that needs to be filled with a new sense of structure, since no ‘freedom to’ develop one’s human potential has been provided to fill the void.

Bill has been in this predicament ever since his divorce from Beth and the loss of his job. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, without any structure or purpose in his life. All he can do is resort to increasing violence, as did the Nazis, of whom Fromm wrote.

Similarly, the Western victory over communism left the US without an enemy, and with a NATO hungry for expansion. Terrorism satisfied that need for an enemy during the 2000s, and Russia and China have satisfied it recently. The US, like D-FENS, has been growing more and more bellicose by the year. Many foresee American self-destruction within the next ten to fifteen years, comparable to Bill’s goaded suicide at the end of the film. (Recall what I said above, that Bill is straight America personified.)

All those angry white men, by the way, who cheer on D-FENS’s aggression fail to understand the film’s real intentions. We’re not meant to condone his actions, however much we may sympathize with him for how he’s suffered. Just because he’s gone through so much hardship, “doesn’t give [him] any special right to do what [he] did,” as Prendergast–who has also suffered terribly, yet handled his problems far better–says.

Now, for those on the right side of the political spectrum who are reading this, and are shaking their heads at what I’ve written here, I’ll give you all a full confession. I too went through an ‘angry white male’ phase, from my mid-twenties up until my late thirties, from about the mid-1990s to about 2010, before coming to my senses, shifting from the centre-right–little by little–to the left where I am comfortable now. I know your anger, right-leaning readers: I’m not some latte-sipping liberal who lives in the ivory tower of a university life; I’ve known for many years how mean and nasty the real world is.

So, to all you fans of D-FENS out there: please come to your senses and realize that he isn’t meant to be emulated, as Craig Stephen Hicks emulated him. You don’t want to find yourself falling down with people like this. It’s a fall from grace you might not be able to pick yourself back up from.

Analysis of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

A Clockwork Orange is a 1962 dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess that was adapted into a film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. I’ll be discussing and comparing both. The story is narrated by its fifteen-year-old sociopathic protagonist, Alex the Large (DeLarge in the movie, played by Malcolm McDowell, who almost a decade after would play another psychopath, one from ancient Rome), a boy whose interests include drinking drug-laced milk with his “droogs” (Georgie, Dim [Warren Clarke], and Pete), beating people up (“tolchocking,” or “ultra-violence”), gang raping women (“the old in-out, in-out”), and listening to classical music, especially Beethoven.

In this futuristic world, the wayward teens speak a Russian-influenced argot called nadsat (<<If your nadsat is a little rusty, click the link provided [or this one], for I’ll be using quite a few of these words [I’ve italicized them, even in the quotes].). The central theme of the story is the dialectical tension between freedom and restriction, physical or mental, and how one may effectively–or ineffectively–resolve this tension, with or without harming society or the individual.

Here are some quotes:

From the novel: “What’s it going to be then, eh?” (Burgess, page 5)

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. (page 5)

Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name -A CLOCKWORK ORANGE- and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ (page 21)

‘ – The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen – ” (page 21)

So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?’ (page 100)

‘Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?’ –Prison Chaplain, to Alex (page 76)

From the film:

Irish Drunk: Can you spare some cutter me brothers? Go on, do me in, you bastard cowards! I don’t wanna live anyway. Not in a stinking old world like this.”

Alex: Oh? And what’s so stinking about it?

Drunk: It’s a stinking world because there is no law and order anymore. […]

“Ho, ho, ho! Well if it isn’t fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, ya eunuch jelly thou!” –Alex

[While listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

“As an unmuddied lake, sir. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.” –Alex, to Deltoid

“You needn’t take it any further, sir. You’ve proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I’ve learned me lesson, sir. I’ve seen now what I’ve never seen before. I’m cured! Praise God!” –Alex, during the application of the Ludovico technique

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” –Chaplain

In the Korova Milkbar, Alex and his droogs are drinking their “milk plus something else,” laced “with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches,” wondering what to do that night. In the novel, the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” is repeatedly asked. The crimes they commit ultimately derive from boredom and sloth, a lack of purpose or direction in life. The boys also have too much freedom in their lives.

Excessive freedom, as Erich Fromm observed in Escape From Freedom, results in a sense of instability and unsureness, causing an anxiety that authoritarian rule would relieve one of. What are you supposed to do with yourself if you can do absolutely anything? A list of dos and don’ts provides a comforting structure, hence excessively free people (or, at least, people perceiving themselves as having too much freedom) tend to run back to forms of authority like fascism.

The violence of fascism can be symbolically seen in the droogs‘ crimes, as well as in their uniform-like outfits: in the novel, back tights, waistcoats with big shoulder-pads, “flip horrorshow boots for kicking,” and white cravats (pages 5-6); in the film, the iconic white outfits, black hats, codpieces, and black boots.

The ineffectual law enforcement of the government at the beginning of the story results in the droogs’ getting away with so much violence and rape; symbolically, this lax governance corresponds to a failed attempt at a left-libertarian society (Kubrick and other critics considered the society of his film to be initially like a failed socialism–the Russian-like nadsat symbolizes this sovietism, too, as does the pro-worker art that is defaced by graffiti).

In contrast, the later government’s use of the Ludovico technique on Alex, with its strict suppression of his criminal urges, symbolically suggests the rigidity and repression of fascism. The extreme left is not similar to the extreme right (as the horseshoe theory gets so absurdly wrong), but the one extreme dialectically phases into its opposite, as I’ve explained elsewhere.

The dialectic of freedom vs. restrictions is resolved with the idea that my right to swing out my arm, with my hand balled in a fist, ends where your face begins. Alex and his droogs, of course, have no respect for this resolution. Individual freedom to do whatever he wants is all that matters to Alex, even to the point of taking pleasure in hurting others.

Sadean delight in cruelty is shown in the film, not only with Alex and his droogs, but also with Billyboy and his droogs when they strip a beautiful “weepy young devotchka” naked and get ready to gang-rape her while a merry passage from Rossini‘s “Thieving Magpie” is heard in the soundtrack. This enjoyment in causing pain is especially evident during the “surprise visit,” when Alex gets ready to rape the “subversive” writer’s wife while singing “Singin’ In the Rain,” dancing, and slapping her and kicking her husband, forcing him to watch the rape.

In spite of how dreadful a human being Alex is, we nonetheless find ourselves liking and sympathizing with him, not just because he’s our “Friend and Humble Narrator,” but because he’s cultured and witty. His clever use of nadsat incorporates the archaisms of Elizabethan-era English, giving his already silver tongue an almost Shakespearean poetry. Then, of course, there’s his love of classical music–Beethoven in particular.

Normally, we stereotype punks as, for example, punk rockers; we look down on criminals as ‘low-life scumbags’; we think of sadists as brutish, unthinking monsters. That we can’t dismiss Alex in this way makes him all the more disturbing…for psychopaths are known for their dangerous charm. The juxtaposition of sadism with high culture is symbolic of the oppression of the ruling class. Nazis were art connoisseurs…though their reasons for liking or disliking this or that artwork were contemptible ones.

The sociopathic characters in the Marquis de Sade‘s explicit novels are cultured people in the upper classes: before and after their torture-laden orgies, they dine on sumptuous feasts, drink fine wine, wear beautiful 18th-century garments, and live in ornately decorated mansions. Sade’s satirical point in presenting his wicked characters in such finery was to allegorize the ruling class’s oppression of the people.

Alex is no aristocrat, but he has the narcissism of one. It shouldn’t be hard (pardon the expression) to know what he’s referring to in calling himself “Alexander the Large” (especially in the context of his raping the drunken ten-year-old “ptitsas” in his home while listening to Beethoven–page 39). As a pun on Alexander the Great, this moniker of Alex’s also embodies his egotism by comparing his assaults and rapes to the ancient Macedonian’s conquests and massacres. Alexander, ‘defender of men,’ defends individual freedom and culture by destroying those of other people; just as imperialism rationalizes its evil by claiming ‘to civilize the world.’

Alex has no illusions that what he’s doing is in any way moral, though. He knows his criminality is wrong; he does it anyway, because he enjoys it. Sade’s libertine characters also openly admit that they commit crimes, for criminal behaviour adds to their arousal. Deep down, we all like Alex because he dares to do what we’re too chicken to do.

We also have to consider Alex’s possible unconscious motives for committing heinous crimes. He’s obviously intelligent: why is he pressing his luck with the law? Even after Deltoid warns him that he’s getting dangerously close to being arrested (page 33), he still tempts fate…even to the point of antagonizing his fellow droogs (pages 25-27; 44-45), in whom he needs to have an unshakable trust. His wild rashness can’t just be reduced to youthful impetuosity.

Part of Alex’s unconscious is in conflict with his wish to be wild and free: part of him wants to be restricted. Recall Fromm’s analysis of the fear of freedom; people want a sense of structure, of where their place is in the world. Freedom from restrictions doesn’t often lead to a freedom to grow and fulfill one’s potential, to live in love and harmony with humanity. Freedom from, without the to following soon after, leaves a void.

Fascism and repression tend to fill that void. Fromm explains “the dialectic quality in this process of growing individuation. […] one side of the growing process of individuation is the growth of self-strength […] The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. […] When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, pages 28-29, his emphasis)

“We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.” (Fromm, pages 34-35)

Alex is smart enough to know that lashing out at his droogs will give the three of them motive for revenge. He’s been punished by the law before, though he’s “been out of the rookers of the millicents for a long time now” (Burgess, page 33); he has no reason to believe he’ll never get caught again, especially when he has to rely on three frienemies.

In prison, he has his structure, but no matter how much of the Bible he reads (which is just to be entertained by the violent parts), or how much advice he receives from the chaplain (Part Two, chapter 1), he still has no inclination to be good. In fact, Alex quickly tires of the physical restrictions he has around him, and mentally, he’s as free to be as wicked as ever; for prison overcrowding drives him to beat a new cellmate to death, or so is he blamed for it, anyway (Part Two, chapter 2). This, in the novel, is what causes him to be chosen to receive the Ludovico technique.

Despite what he says about wanting to be good (page 66), I’d say he only wants to change the nature of his restricted freedoms, from physical bonds to mental ones. So all of this switching from one kind of freedom/restriction dichotomy to another is just the sublation of the dialectical unity in opposition that Alex is trying to resolve.

Part of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction is how one man’s exercise of such ‘freedom’ (licence, really) is another man’s bondage…to suffering. Alex’s freedom to beat up or rape his victims becomes their bondage to trauma. One opposite offsets the other; thus, they’re balanced in the Brahman of universal oneness.

When Alex has had the treatment turn him into “a clockwork orange,” that is, organic and natural-looking on the outside, but mechanical and inhuman on the inside, making him an automaton incapable of moral choice, he gets a karmic exchanging of the victim/victimizer roles, of enjoyer of freedom vs. victim of traumatic bondage.

From here on, we get the antithesis of all that we had from the beginning, and the opposites are paralleled especially in the movie. Instead of Alex and his droogs beating up a derelict, the derelict and his “droogs,” if you will, beat up clockwork Alex. Instead of him dumping Dim and Georgie into water, they–as corrupt cops–dump him in water (in the novel, Dim and Billyboy are the police who brutalize him–Part 3, chapter 3). Karma.

Instead of Alex terrorizing the “writer of subversive literature” (F. Alexander [another ‘defender of men’], played by Patrick Magee, who–in an interesting twist of irony–played the Marquis de Sade in the film version of Marat/Sade several years earlier) in his “HOME” and destroying his ‘Clockwork Orange’ writing, F. Alexander–Alex’s doppelgänger–sadistically terrorizes the boy by playing Beethoven’s Ninth (in the novel, it’s “the Symphony Number Three of the Danish veck Otto Skadelig”–page 130) and forcing him to hear it in a locked-up room, after the Ludovico technique has conditioned him to feel sick whenever hearing his beloved music. Karma, karma, and more cruel karma.

Instead of unconsciously trying to have himself incarcerated, Alex consciously tries to liberate himself from the hell of life, “the tortures of the damned” (in the novel, he even goes to the library to research how to kill himself painlessly–page 112).

Finally, he’s hospitalized instead of imprisoned, given “the best of treatment” instead of exposed to the tolchocking of cellmates, and had the Ludovico conditioning removed from him instead of put into his body. The self-serving government that made his body a concentration camp for his mind now gives him a job in exchange for forgiving them, so they can hope to be reelected. He’s “cured all right.”

Though the film excluded chapter 21, which the American editions of the novel had also excised until 1986; in a way, the final scene–of Alex fantasizing giving his grinning, willing bride [as I suspect she is] “the old in-out, in-out” in front of applauding onlookers (who, dressed formally, seem like wedding guests to me)–is the implied ending of the final chapter.

Eighteen years old now, and with a new trio of droogs, Alex is inspired by a conversation he has with his old droog Pete and his new wife (pages 145-146), and decides it’s time to grow up and give up on the life of crime. He ought to settle down and get married, too. Will his future son become a criminal, though?

“That’s what it’s going to be then, brothers…”

However lame this final chapter may be to readers who prefer licking their lips over dystopian writing with darker endings, it does make an important point about freedom: in choosing to give up on crime on his own initiative, Alex is demonstrating Fromm’s ideal about freedom to; Alex is going to use his freedom from restrictions, physical and mental, to be free to become a good, productive member of society.

And this is the final sublation of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction: one freely chooses to restrict oneself from doing wrong to others. When I swing my fist, I stop myself from making it meet your face. Instead of a morally lax society that is too lenient on criminals, or one that’s repressively authoritarian, we have a society that understands the need to have a mix of freedoms and restrictions.

As Fromm explains, “submission is not the only way of avoiding aloneness and anxiety [resulting from excessive freedom]. The other way, the only one which is productive and does not end in an insoluble conflict, is that of spontaneous relationship to man  and nature, a relationship that connects the individual with the world without eliminating his individuality. This kind of relationship–the foremost expressions of which are love and productive work–are rooted in the integration and strength of the total personality and are therefore subject to the very limits that exist for the growth of the self.” (Fromm, page 29, his emphasis)

So, the individual still is an individual, but one connected with the world. Limits exist, but for the growth of the self. This is that mix of freedoms and restrictions, the final synthesis of freedom vs. bondage. One isn’t merely free from evil, but free to do good. One is an orange, but sweet on the inside.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, London, 1962

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Unscrupulous Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

Sam, played by Dooley Wilson.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

Signor Ferrari, played by Sidney Greenstreet.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Casablanca is a prison.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Crime doesn’t pay, Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre)…if you’re on the wrong side.

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt).

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“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 the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

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.

‘Slutlips,’ a Surreal, Psychological Horror Story: Chapter Four

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[NOTE: this is the fourth chapter (click here for the first, here for the second, and here for the third) of a psychological horror story based on an audio film of the same name by my musician friend, Cat Corelli, something I wrote up an analysis for; you can learn more about that here. Before you begin reading, though, TRIGGER WARNING: as a horror story, this one has some graphic content of a violent and sexual nature; so if you’re one of my readers with C-PTSD or other forms of psychological trauma, you may want to skip this one. As for you braver souls, though, read on…]

As Alice drifted back into unconsciousness, she remembered a dream of Lily’s, when the girl was thirteen years old. She was in Danny’s car, going along the Oregon coast on a vacation. She looked out the car window and sighed with a smile as she watched the peaceful ocean waves flowing by her side. Some Sixties saxophone lounge music, like something from a noir film, was playing on the car radio.

Alice heard a voice say, “It’s all beneath your skin,” as she felt herself returning to Lily’s head in that dark, mental ocean. Coming back into Lily’s consciousness, Alice wondered, What is all beneath my skin?

Now as Lily, she sat in the passenger’s seat, trying to ignore Daddy’s Dan’s non-steering, right hand on her knee. The sentence repeated in her mind over and over again, like a mantra: It’s all beneath your skin.

Lily herself was drifting off to sleep, and and in Lily’s dream, that mantra grew into a song.

The Mystery Girl’s voice said, “.ecilA, pu ekaw ot emiT”

Lily got scared, and the wind blew heavier, howling against her slightly-opened car window. Her consciousness, merged with that of Alice, sank deeper into farther removed states of unconsciousness…beyond repressed memories, and into dreams within dreams.

It was like going into a dark basement cellar, then opening a secret door in the floor and entering a second basement cellar below, even darker than the first, then going down into a third, even darker cellar, and so on, and so on…

Finally, fully as Lily, she saw herself as a teen with Danny somewhere in the country, near the Alps. The June sun was shining in an ocean of blue skies, with only occasional white islands for clouds. Cows and sheep could be heard grazing on the grass.

Danny was wearing lederhosen, and she, sixteen, was in a dirndl. Her hair was in pigtails, each arching cutely over her ears.

He looked down at her, with lustful eyes thinly disguised as loving. She looked up at him and frowned.

“How lovely you are,” he said in a badly-mimicked German accent. He put his arm around her and tried to pull her up close to him. She resisted.

“Daddy, no,” she said in a trembling voice.

“I can’t let go of such a treasure,” he said, still in the faux German accent.

She avoided his eyes and looked at his legs. No longer in lederhosen, he now wore black pants and black leather shoes.

“Please, Daddy, let me go,” she said, struggling to pull free from his tight grip. She looked up and saw him in a uniform of the SS.

He looked down at her with cruel eyes. No longer in Danny Torrance’s body, her father now had the form of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda.

“You must obey your father, you little bitch!” He slapped her.

She drifted still further into a deeper, darker level of unconsciousness. Lily was swimming on waves of pitch black…or trying to swim, for she looked behind herself and saw only one leg! The bloody stump where the other leg should have been was dying the black water red.

She struggled to keep her head above water. She panted in desperation for air. She felt her face often sink below, the reddish-black water rising to her eyes.

Soon, she found herself swimming in nothing but red. Only the sky was black. She could hardly see anything.

She passed out, and fell into an even deeper level of unconsciousness.

Now she found herself in a brightly-lit hotel lobby. The elevators were directly in front of her, about ten metres away.

Blood started pouring through the side openings of the elevator doors. The red filled the lobby like the Great Flood.

What is this? Alice thought. The Overlook Hotel?

She felt that blood gushing out of her leg-stump like a cascade of red. Lily’s skin grew lighter and lighter. She looked like a living corpse.

It’s all beneath my skin, Lily thought, over and over again.

Then she heard the voice of a man by her left ear. He said, in a badly imitated southern accent, “Time to wake up, pretty girl.”

The Narcissism of Capital

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Introduction

In my analysis of the 1944 film adaptation of Gaslight, I discussed something I called ‘political gaslighting‘: in abusive interpersonal relationships, the abuser fabricates, denies, and distorts the truth to disorient the victim; I argued how the super-rich, as well as the politicians and the media who work for them, also do this lying and disorienting, but to the public. I’d like to expand on those ideas here.

We all know about how emotional abuse can happen in families, school, the workplace, and online; that’s psychological abuse on the ‘micro’ level. Now, let’s discuss it on the ‘macro’ level, how it exists on the geopolitical level, for this is, no doubt, a far greater problem.

Many parallels can be seen in the comparison of narcissistic abuse and class conflict. The fact that Donald Trump is as obvious a narcissist as he is a capitalist is the tip of the iceberg; and contrary to the cries of the pussy-hat wearing Russiagaters, it makes perfect sense, in a diabolical way, that he is the US president, for he embodies all that is crass and self-absorbed in a country laden with the alienation and contradictions inherent in capitalism.

To see all the parallels between narcissism and capitalism, though, we must look beneath the surface. The problem isn’t a simple matter of whether the ‘pussy grabber’ is president or “I’m with her”; nor is it a matter of the GOP or the Democrats being in control of the White House, for there’s a big club running things in the shadows, regardless of there being red or blue mixed in with the darkness.

The point is that Trump isn’t the only narcissist among the ruling class: they’re all narcissists, sociopaths, and/or psychopaths, in varying degrees of severity. If you’re pro-capitalist, but also a victim of narcissistic abuse, it may stick in your gut to hear me equate narcissists with people of an economic system you support. Still, reconsider your position: as you should know, one of the striking forms of narcissistic abuse is to control the victim’s finances; such economic control is, of course, the essence of capitalism, a minimizing of workers’ wages to maximize profit. If capitalism isn’t about the rich controlling who gets the money, what is capitalism?

People with Cluster B personality disorders naturally gravitate to high positions of political and financial power, because it takes an aggravated level of ruthlessness to want power badly enough to beat out the competition. This ruthlessness cancels out any moral scruples that give the rest of us pause when contemplating doing something crooked to rise up the echelons of power.

Let’s now go through those parallels. According to the DSM-5, these are the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD–one has to have at least five of these symptoms to be diagnosed with it):

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing continual admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people
  8. Intensely envious of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them
  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanour

Now, how well does the average bourgeois conform to these nine NPD traits? Let’s examine them one by one, though I don’t present them below in the exact same order as listed above. (Before I do, though, bear in mind that I’m not saying every single politician or rich person out there has full-blown NPD; I’m just saying that, on average, they’ll have tendencies in the narcissistic direction to a considerably greater degree than members of the proletariat, for the capitalist mode of production just brings ego out of people.)

1. Grandiosity/superiority

Narcissists have an unjustified belief in their superiority over others; capitalists generally believe they’re above the proletariat, too. They claim that ‘gumption and hard workput them at the top where they ‘belong’, rather than acknowledging that the advantages of being born as members of the bourgeoisie put them there. Trump’s grandfather, for example, made the family fortune, upon which the Donald and his father were able to build. The Donald once spoke of his father having lent him  a million dollars, “a small loan”, to begin his ascent in the business world. Boo-hoo, Donny: watch my rubbing fingers play a plaintive violin solo, just for you.

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On top of this, all too often, is a belief in racial superiority. Contrary to the delusions of the right-libertarians, fascism is in no way like socialism; actually, men like Hitler were inspired by the imperialist conquests of the US. Churchill was every bit a racist, in his own way, as Hitler. Accordingly, the West would have been content to let the Nazis invade and colonize the Soviet Union; it was only when Hitler’s ambitions threatened Western capitalist interests (i.e., Poland) that they finally began trying to stop him. Fascism is capitalism on steroids, so to speak; Nazis believed in a strong, centralized state, coupled with collectivism, within the context of class collaboration and protecting the nation against foreigners, not the communist goal of classlessness.

2. Association with superiority

Narcissists like to associate with ‘superior’ people; so do capitalists, hence the ruling class, which rarely allows anyone else into their ranks. This is why it’s so hard in the US to rise out of the working class and reach the middle class, or to rise from the middle to the upper classes; narcissistic capitalists cannot be superior if anyone can join them. This exclusivism, of course, is especially true of fascists, who can’t abide foreigners, Jews, and these days, Muslims or Latin Americans.

3. No Empathy

Narcissists show no empathy; neither do capitalists. Contrary to all that nonsense about ‘free market’ capitalism and free trade ‘lifting people out of poverty’ (which, at best, it does at a snail’s pace; compare that speed to the progress made in, say, the USSR, China, and Cuba…especially impressive when seen in light of having endured such obstacles as war and economic embargoes), capitalism only generates obscene wealth inequality, and imperialism robs the Third World of its resources, thus turning those countries into poor ones. Dwellers in rural areas have historically been forced by capitalists into the cities (where the cost of living is generally much higher) to become wage labourers just to survive, and their salaries only barely help them survive. Few pity them.

Added to this is the destructiveness of imperialist war. Little discussion is made in the corporate media about the seven countries bombed by the Obama administration in 2016, or the war in Yemen, in which the US and UK have been selling billions worth in weapons to Saudi Arabia to kill the already poor Yemenis, as well as deprive them of food and desperately-needed medical assistance. Far too few pity them.

The Libyan and Syrian refugees from the Western-backed wars in their besieged countries, rather than pitied, are often feared by Americans and Europeans as ‘Muslim extremists’; while the White Helmets–a Western-backed (i.e., founded by a former UK military officer) group of movie-making propagandists aiding in the US’s regime-change agenda and with genuine links to terrorist groups (I don’t buy Snopes’s ‘debunking’ of this charge, as the ‘fact-checking website’ is clearly in line with MSM anti-Assad, anti-Russia propaganda)–are being welcomed into Canada and some European countries! Why are terrorist abettors being pitied?

I’ll give more examples of a lack of empathy from people working for the capitalist class, either directly or indirectly. Remember what Madeleine Albright said about killing 500,000 Iraqi children.

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Now, my sister J. isn’t, of course, a member of the ruling class, but I have mentioned in previous posts of her narcissistic tendencies (including a lack of empathy, towards my cousins and me…and on one minor occasion [<<<scroll down to Part IX], even towards one of her sons), inherited from her status as the golden child of the family. I still remember her reaction to this video by Bruce Cockburn, when it had just come out, back in the mid-80s. She sneered in contempt at him as images of corrupt politicians went by, juxtaposed with images of the poor in the Third World (especially in Latin America), saying the singer “takes himself too seriously”; then, when he sang “…and they call it democracy”, she mocked his words. She was also fond of telling me–in her attempts to mold me into the brother she wanted me to be–that I am an “upper middle class young man” (this was back around 1990, when I was about 20-21). Yes, J., I’ll be a member of the petite bourgeoisie, just like you…not.

4. Exploitation

The kind of media manipulation we see coming from groups like the White Helmets, and on American media controlled mostly by six corporations (thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996), brings us to the next parallel with narcissism: exploitative treatment of the vulnerable via political gaslighting. American fear after 9/11 made it easy to manufacture consent for the endless wars in the Middle East. It’s so bad now that George W. Bush has been forgiven…merely because he isn’t Trump! Similarly, Obama was given one of the least deserved Nobel Peace Prizes ever…for not being Bush!

Similar emotional exploiting in the media went on over the years with the smear campaigns against Milošević and the Balkanizing of the former Yugoslavia, the demonizing of Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya, and the continuing threats against the Kims in North Korea, a country also bombed to hell in 1950-53 and therefore justifiably determined–with their own nukes–never to let that happen again. Everybody knows (or at least should know) about how Saddam was made into a scapegoat (once he was no longer useful to US interests), but how many Americans see the hypocrisy in criticizing Cuba’s human rights record while ignoring the goings-on in Guantanamo Bay?

This scapegoating and smear campaigning, a typical narc habit, is not limited to the post-Soviet era. The US government and its flying monkeys, the CIA, were manipulating the media throughout the Cold War years. The enabling Western media they controlled smeared the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, Mao’s China, and Vietnam as ‘cruel, totalitarian dictatorships’, while ignoring communist efforts to lift millions of people out of poverty, educate them, and give them housing, full employment, and health care–a truly bizarre way to oppress people. Meanwhile, ever since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Western 1% have been stripping us of our rights, one by one. As we can see, when it comes to tyranny, capitalists are as guilty of projection as narcissists are.

5. Fantasies of Power and Success

Now let’s consider the fantasies of power and success that narcissists and capitalists share. To cite just two contemporary examples, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have amassed obscene amounts of wealth (while the latter brutally exploits his underpaid workers), and how do they plan to spend it? Space exploration! Colonizing Mars! Their wealth could feed the global poor, but they’re more interested in planets other than this one. This developing of space-age technology, instead of helping people, is clearly a masturbatory extension of their already inflated egos.

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6. Envy

Capitalists certainly envy others, as narcissists do, for they envy the greater wealth and success of those higher up the echelons of the bourgeoisie. Recall how well this envy is dramatized in the name card scene in the film adaptation of American Psycho. Capitalism, like narcissism, is a vicious competition for face. Narcissists also like to project their envy onto others, imagining these others envy them. Capitalists also do this, imagining socialism is essentially a politics of envy.

We socialists ‘envy’ the rich, apparently, so we want to ‘steal’ from them (actually, they steal from us when they overwork and underpay us–recall how Bezos treats his employees) and kill them. They think communists hunger for power, when really we just hope to gain the power to end hunger, as Michael Parenti once said. We want to create a truly free society, not one that gives narcissist capitalists the ‘freedom’ (i.e., licence) to exploit the poor.

7. Craving Admiration

Narcissists crave continual admiration (in the form of narcissistic supply); so do capitalists. Why else would they so covet ever greater wealth? Consider how the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers revealed all the hoarded wealth in offshore bank accounts, free of taxation. Many members of the bourgeoisie have so much wealth, they don’t know what to do with it. Why hoard so much, except to pat themselves on the back and flash what they don’t hoard among their peers, to impress them? Yachts, jewels, private jets, mansions, chauffeurs: what other reason is there to buy such luxuries?

8. Entitlement

Narcissists have a sense of entitlement, and expect obedience from others; so do capitalists. Why else would they be so opposed to worker self-management, nations’ right to self-determination, social programs, public education, and universal healthcare? They feel entitled to enjoying privileges over the poor and conquered nations, eschewing any sense of obligation to spend an iota of their wealth to help others. They feel entitled to a government that serves and obeys them, not the people.

On a personal level, Hillary Clinton suffered intense narcissistic injury after being denied her coronation in November 2016. She expected the entire DNC to be her flying monkeys and back her, including Bernie Sanders, after she bankrolled them. Now, to save face, she pretends (without any proof) that the Russians colluded with Trump to help him win, instead of taking responsibility for running a corrupt, losing campaign.

9. Pomposity and Arrogance

Pomposity and arrogance are as obvious in capitalists as they are in narcissists: Trump’s egotism just scratches the surface. Look elsewhere, in the arrogance of the American military-industrial complex, presuming the US to be the ‘policeman of the world‘, along with the notion of ‘American exceptionalism‘. Then there was the ‘Project for the New American Century‘. What makes the neocon US power elite believe they have the right to ‘own’ the entire 21st century…along with the rest of the world?

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Capitalist pomposity isn’t limited to the US, of course. Look at England. Try reading a list of Churchill’s racist remarks without retching. After centuries of British imperialism, with their needless figurehead of a monarchy, it’s easy to see where the stereotype of the pompous Brit comes from. Then there’s the obvious racial arrogance of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

Who are the Villains, and Who are the Victims?

When we properly understand communism, having seen past all the CIA propaganda against it (the same CIA [with whom Bezos/WaPo has ties, BTW], recall, that’s propagandized and plotted against Iraq, Libya, Syria, Russia, and Iran), we know that leftists, desiring equality and liberation for everyone, are the opposite of narcissistic capitalists and fascists. Like the scapegoats of narcissistic abuse, socialist governments around the world have always been demonized and persecuted by the US and NATO.

While it is true that socialist governments have made bad mistakes over the years (indeed, a number of the links I’ve provided here give examples of those), what must be emphasized is that the validity of socialism shouldn’t be dependent on its perfection. The same goes for victims of a narcissist: their flaws don’t make it open season for a narcissist to victimize them. Now I’ll give a contemporary example of a capitalist smear campaign against a socialist government, which should give you a hint as to the real origins of the bad reputation communism has had (e.g., the wildly exaggerated communist death count).

Nicolás Maduro‘s government is being economically sabotaged by the Western-backed Venezuelan opposition in an attempt to replace it with a right-wing regime. Oil prices have been manipulated to hurt the economy; the US is funding their flying monkeys in the right-wing opposition, which is resorting to violence against the majority supporters of the Maduro government; and the enablers in the Western media deliberately misrepresent the food and economic crisis of the country by blaming all the economic problems on a socialist (actually, social democratic) government that ‘doesn’t work‘.

The same sabotage, scapegoating, threats, and smear campaigning have been used against Cuba, North Korea, and China, and was done against the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Vietnam. The capitalist narcissists want us to believe their lies that people in America are free, only capitalism works, and there are no alternatives; when a proper examination of how life was and is in the leftist countries will show not only that an alternative is possible, but that the capitalists feel threatened by that possibility.

The narcissistic capitalists engage in triangulation by making sure the Western public is exposed only to their version of what socialism is like (in such spurious publications as The Black Book of Communism, Mao: the Unknown Story, and those by Robert Conquest).

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The superficial charm (another narcissist trait) of smiling Obama and Bill Clinton tricks us into thinking that ‘free market’ capitalism can have a loving, liberal face, when the DNC version of it isn’t substantively different from the GOP version. The same goes for charming Tony Blair, as against Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher.

Obama and Trump idealized the common people in the US by promising ‘change’ and ‘draining the swamp’, then devalued and discarded them when they continued bailing out Wall Street and the banks, and not only continuing the wars, but intensifying them. The capitalist’s victims, like those of the narcissist, are so broken inside that they’ve developed a volatility and belligerence, breeding infighting instead of the needed solidarity.

Conclusion

We need to establish boundaries against these capitalistic narcissists. This means removing their influence from our lives, and keeping their poison out–i.e., a kind of ‘going NO CONTACT’. This means revolution, establishing workers’ states that will not only reclaim the land and resources stolen by the bourgeoisie so we can provide for the people, but also to protect us when the narcissistic capitalists try to ‘hoover‘ us back under their influence with counter-revolutionary propaganda, sabotage of the progress we try to make without them, and thwarting their attempts to invade us with military coups.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, one of the aims of narcissistic abuse is to control the victim’s finances; capitalism is about the rich controlling who owns and uses the money, at the expense of the poor. Let’s take that control back, and reclaim our lives.

The Self/Other Dialectic

I will try to resolve the contradiction between self and other, or subject and object, in order to help show the unity between people, and move us in the direction of a cure for the social alienation, disintegration, and fragmentation that plague our relationships. A unifying analysis of all human relationships, starting with the family and fanning outward, can, I believe, help us better understand how to deal with their ups and downs.

We start with the most basic unit, the mother and her baby. In the best of circumstances, the mother gives the most love and attention to the baby that she can, unifying them; in the worst of cases, she is terribly neglectful, even abusive to her baby, as Sandy McDougall is to her baby, Randy, in ‘Salem’s Lot, or as Margaret White is to her ‘psychological baby’ Carrie. Then, of course, there’s every intermediate circumstance between the best and worst along a continuum.

(Recall from my previous posts that I don’t conceive of a continuum as being in a straight line, with the extremes at either end, far away from each other; but as coiled in a circle, with the extremes touching and phasing into each other. I use the ouroboros to symbolize this dialectical conception of any continuum, including the self/other dialectic, with the serpent biting its tail at the extremes. We should strive towards a unity of the opposites, not an irreconcilable dichotomy.)

While allowing for various levels of parental imperfection, we can see a good enough mother (or, by extension, a good enough early caregiver of either sex) as lying anywhere along the ouroboros’s length from its head (the best mothers) to the middle of its body (average mothers); anywhere on the other half of its body, approaching the bitten tail, is where all the bad mothers, fathers, and other early caregivers lie, at every point of severity, from moderately bad to the very worst.

The dichotomy of a splitting into the ‘good mother’ and ‘bad mother’, where the head bites the tail, is the only way the baby is able to understand his or her caregiver; in fact, during the first few months, he or she is capable of conceiving only a partobject, a ‘good breast‘ that gives milk immediately on demand, and a ‘bad breast’ that frustrates the baby with its absence. Without yet a clearly-defined sense of self, the baby imagines the breast, later the whole mother, as an extension of himself, something he in his fantasied omnipotence can (or should be able to) summon at will to satisfy his needs.

Even the best of parents fail to satisfy the baby for extended periods of time. The baby, however, doesn’t understand the inevitability of at least some parental failures; it can’t differentiate between good enough parents who sometimes fail, and bad parents who fail by habit or by design.

In its frustration, the baby slides in its bad experiences along the length of the ouroboros’s body to its bitten tail, where frustrations are extreme. The baby experiences the paranoid-schizoid position as it hates, and bites the tardily provided nipple of, the ‘bad mother’; ‘schizoid’, because the baby splits the mother into absolute ‘good’ and ‘bad’, since it can’t yet conceive of a good and bad mother; ‘paranoid’, because after the baby has bitten the ‘bad’ mother’s nipple and/or attacked her in unconscious phantasy, it has persecutory anxiety from its belief of her wanting to get revenge on it.

Along with this paranoid fear of parental revenge is the baby’s fear of losing the parent (who is now understood to be separate from the baby), and her damaged internalized object, forever. Sometimes Mother leaves the baby for, in its opinion, inordinately lengthy periods of time; it has no way of knowing the real (presumably legitimate) reason for her absence, so it imagines all kinds of horrors. Is she dead and gone forever? Has she abandoned me after all my fantasized revenges on her? Have I killed her?

Now the baby goes into the depressive position, and yearns for reparation with the parent. This is represented by a move from the biting head/bitten tail of extreme conflict with Mother, to the upper-middle of the ouroboros’s body, where the baby learns to accept a good enough mother, who is a combination of good and bad qualities. This is the best we can do with regard to parent/child relationships, though we can always go down from there…and we way too often do.

The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions don’t apply only to parent/infant relationships; we all sway back and forth between the two positions throughout life, and in our relationships with all people. The same universalizing can be done with the lord/bondsman dialectic in Hegel‘s Phenomenology of Spirit, as I discussed it here. (Examples of this dialectic being applied to many other human relationships, in particular those involving power imbalances, can be found in this video.)

In healthy families, conflicts–of the sort that lead to the placement at the biting head/bitten tail (paranoid-schizoid position, or Hegel‘s metaphorical ‘death struggle’)–are usually resolved fairly quickly; for example, in tribal societies (as opposed to our much more alienated ones), crying babies are typically picked up much faster and held, whereas modern families tend to leave the distressed infants to cry themselves to sleep.

In unhealthy families, power imbalances cause emotional conflicts to be constant, with only brief resolutions. Cycles of abuse, a passing round and round the body of the ouroboros, involve brief good times (‘honeymoons’ at the serpent’s head), then small episodes of conflict that grow and grow (moving along the serpent’s body, from the head to the tail) until there’s an explosive confrontation (the bitten tail) and a phoney resolution (biting head), and the cycle begins all over again.

This kind of abusive relationship can begin in the family, then be patterned in other relationships (school bullying, workplace bullying, cyberbullying, etc.). When children experience the primarily or exclusively bad parent, they internalize the parent, creating a bad object relation, like a ghost of that parent, haunting them and inhabiting their minds, and intruding into their thoughts. The bad object is like a demon to be exorcised.

WRD Fairbairn wrote of the bad effects of non-empathic parents on children, who as a result of this problem feel their egos split three ways. The original, Central Ego, connected to its external Ideal Object (for our libido is object-seeking, that is, wanting friendships and loving relationships with people, not merely pleasure-seeking [i.e., sex, drugs, etc.], as Freud would have had it), now internalizes object relations in unconscious phantasy with two new ego-object configurations, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (e.g., idolizing of celebrities, lusting after pornographic models/actresses, etc.), and the Anti-libidinal Ego [formerly known as the Internal Saboteur]/Rejecting Object (our hostile feeling towards either real or imagined enemies).

Note how the self/other dialectic permeates Fairbairn’s total reorganizing of Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure. Unlike Freud, Fairbairn correctly saw energy and structure as inseparable. We project, or give energy to, and introject, or receive it from, other people all the time; and because of our mutual alienation and isolation, we yearn for each other’s company, deep down inside, despite our pushing of others away.

Fairbairn’s Central Ego/Ideal Object (replacing and approximating Freud’s ego) would reside along the upper body of the ouroboros, towards the biting head, where the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (replacing and approximating Freud’s id) sinks its teeth into the serpent’s tail. The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (replacing, but only marginally comparable to, Freud’s superego) configuration would be at the bitten tail. Note how these unhealthy latter two are in the same position as that of the paranoid-schizoid position, at the bitten tail/biting head, the splitting of idealized good, and hated bad, objects, the point of maximum alienation between self and other.

Everyone experiences the ‘biting/bitten’ area of human relationships to some extent, but if we have largely good internalized objects, we can shift back to the ouroboros’s upper half soon enough, and enjoy friendly relations with real, external objects for most of our lives. If those primal objects are bad, though, a child will experience the agitation of the ‘biting/bitten’ area for traumatically extended periods of time, scarring him terribly and possibly even giving him C-PTSD.

When threatened, we have four basic responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Fighting is the biting head of the ouroboros; the other three fs are responses to the bitten tail experience. Dysfunctional families may result in child bullies, the biting first of the four fs; or in the fleeing/freezing child victims of bullies, the bitten second and third of the fs…or in the last of the four fs, the fawning people-pleasers, but also (if they’re really successful at pleasing Cluster B types) sometimes narcissistic golden children, a combination of fight and fawn who tend to hover between biting and bitten (i.e., bully and victim), in my experience, at least (my sister, J.).

These object relations–whether in the good area of the upper half of the serpent’s body, or in the bad, hind area, near where the biting of the tail is experienced–are transferred from the family into the larger social sphere, a cyclical revolving around the ouroboros’s body to experience the same self/other dialectic, but in a broader social context. As the children grow older, they replay their particular versions of the self/other dialectic in school and among their friends or enemies in the neighbourhood.

So, if the child has loving parents who create a safe, soothing environment for him or her at home, subsequent social settings will tend to give off the same basic feelings for him or her, providing lots of friends and minimal enemies at school and in the neighbourhood. This is so because that soothing, loving home environment, providing positive object relations for the child, an internalized group of friendly Caspers, if you will, who make the child feel that everything is OK, gives him or her confidence and an easy-going nature that attracts mostly friendliness in other kids.

But if the child has neglectful, domineering, non-empathic, or outright abusive parents, the child will feel trapped in a hostile environment (haunted by the frightening ghosts of bad internalized objects); and his or her agitation will rub off on all the other kids at school or in the neighbourhood, attracting bullies if he or she is in flight or freeze mode (at the bitten tail), or making him or her into a bully if in fight mode (at the biting head). If he or she is in fawn mode (specifically of the golden child/flying monkey sort discussed above), this could make him or her into a socially manipulative type, or simply into a more benign people-pleaser.

Such observations should be obvious to most people, but we who were bullied by non-empathic families were typically blamed victims, told that it was our inherent nature that made us incapable of making friends; this is how abusive families avoid taking responsibility for their wickedness, and thus traumatize their victims all the worse.

Heinz Kohut observed that a lack of empathy in parenting can lead to splits in the child’s personality, a bipolar one with, in the best of cases, his grandiosity mirrored in an empathic parent self-object on one side, and an idealized parent self-object on the other side. This is the primal self/other dialectic expressed in the child/parent relationship. Normally, the child’s grandiosity and idealizing of his parents are let down in bearable steps; this letting down parallels the infant’s shift from the paranoid-schizoid to depressive position, a move from the biting head to upper middle half of the ouroboros. If the reader is unfamiliar with these concepts of self-psychology, please see these posts, scrolling down to where you see ‘Heinz Kohut’ to find the relevant explanations.

A lack of parental empathy can result in failed mirroring of grandiosity and traumatic disappointments in the idealized parent. This results in a dichotomizing of the child’s self-esteem, his narcissism hovering around the serpent’s biting head (pathological grandiosity/bullying attitude) and the bitten tail (toxic shame/victim mentality), a combination of fawning, freezing, and fighting. The child fancies himself as Superman to hide, or disavow, his self-hate, a vertical split; he grows up consciously idolizing his ideal parent (to the inordinate extent that he did in childhood), while also being unconsciously disappointed with that parent, a horizontal split, or repression of this disappointment.

If this kind of fragmented adult nonetheless has great talents in leading and manipulating others, he could become the kind of charming, smooth-talking psychopath/narcissist who sweet-talks his way into powerful positions in business, politics, or religion. Enter the capitalist, or the politician or religious leader who props up the system of class antagonisms.

The lord/bondsman dialectic can be seen most obviously in the class struggles of history (ancient masters and slaves, then feudal lords and their vassals), as well as in the authoritarian rule of the Church over its flock; but many today are still in denial over how it can be seen in the bourgeois/proletarian dialectic.

Now, according to Hegel, the bondsman should grow to see, through all of his work and his achievements, his own mastery and self-realization. This insight should inspire him to rise up against his lord and overthrow him. The problem is that, in our contemporary world, which has grown to have greater and greater pathologies of the self (as Kohut had observed back in the 1970s [pages 267-280], coinciding with the beginnings of the rise of neoliberalism, by the way), problems with increasing fragmentation and narcissism from children getting insufficient parental stimulation or empathy, people still aren’t self-aware, and therefore they don’t have it in them to rebel.

Problems of fragmentation and narcissism mean we weren’t getting our childhood grandiosity empathically mirrored, resulting in a “lack of initiative, empty depression and lethargy”, as Kohut saw it (p.284), so we, for example, just stare at our phones or play online games. On the other side of the bipolar self, the other side of the primal psychic bridge, the ‘other’ of the self/other dialectic, our traumatic disappointment in our idealized parent imago means we need a new figure to idealize. Here’s where the smooth-talking politician comes in.

That idealized father figure, who could be Trump, Hitler, Mussolini, or any of a host of other demagogues, reinvigorates our once-sluggish grandiosity, and in following our leader, we feel a phoney sense of community in wearing our MAGA caps, or our brown or black shirts. We enjoy collective narcissism, and become the flying monkeys of our new ‘parent’, smearing and scapegoating anyone who challenges the validity of our new ideal.

This is how fascism and quasi-fascism work to destroy our ability to rise up against the ruling class, by redirecting our rage away from our true masters and towards those labelled as our scapegoats: Jews, Muslims, illegal immigrants, etc. Opposition to the likes of Trump must be seen in its proper light: these narcissistic leaders aren’t in themselves the problem, but are mere symptoms of a much greater social and political pathology.

Our psychological fragmentation stems from our sustained experience, from infancy to adulthood, of the self/other dialectic in its painful biting head/bitten tail manifestation: the paranoid-schizoid position (splitting); the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (idealizing Trump, Hitler, etc.) and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (hating Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, etc.) configurations; the bipolar self’s idealized imago of the fascist/authoritarian demagogue on the one side, and the collective grandiosity of being in the fascist followers’ in-group on the other side, and repressing any self-doubt about the wisdom in choosing to follow such a leader blindly.

To go to the psychological roots of the pathology of the leader, we must go back to his childhood, and his tempestuous relationship with his parents. Let’s take Adolph Hitler as an illuminating example (Trump, by the way, is also a good example).

Adolph’s father, Alois Hitler, was a bad-tempered, domineering, authoritarian type. A civil servant (customs officer), he hoped little Adolph would follow in his footsteps; but the boy had different dreams for his future (to be a painter), so father and son fought all the time. Here we see little Adolph in a sustained ordeal of the paranoid-schizoid position, with no hope for reparation with his father.

As a child, Adolph had a beloved brother, Edmund, who died. The loss of this important good internalized object caused little Adolph to go from being a confident, happy boy to a sullen, lonely one. His family was drowning in dysfunction; Alois, a bad internalized object, used to beat him.

While his doting, indulgent mother, Klara, would have mirrored his childhood grandiosity and encouraged his dream of becoming an artist, little Adolph’s grumpy father traumatically disappointed him by failing to be an ideal parental imago for him. Alois died when Adolph was 13, and though it is said that the whole family was plunged into grief, considering the endless father/son fighting, I doubt that Adolph was really all that heartbroken; but Klara’s death in 1907 devastated him, and he felt that pain for the rest of his life. He needed new mirrors to feed his ego, and an ideal to adore.

That ideal, a looming danger for the world, would be German nationalism, which for Adolph was a gratifying contrast to the Austrian nationalism of Alois, something Adolph naturally despised. The mirrors of his pathological grandiosity would be the members of the German Workers Party, to whose name would be added “National Socialist”…to divert the German working class from real socialism.

One problem with someone whose mental state suffers sustained experiences of the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros of the self/other dialectic, as young Adolph surely did, is the constant feeling of emotional dysregulation. This means that one’s emotions go up and down like a roller coaster, affecting one’s ability to think rationally. This mood instability can lead to delusional, paranoid thinking, even to hallucinations and psychosis, because one is feeling first and thinking later, all while emotionally distraught: one’s turbulent inner world is thus projected onto the external world, where one sees threats and dangers that aren’t actually there.

It’s easy to see how a paranoid-schizoid minded Adolph–already living in a Europe that was getting increasingly, even virulently anti-Semitic, embracing Jewish conspiracy theories as if they were scientifically proven fact–could go from idealizing Germany, and enjoying the mirroring fandom of a clique of fellow German nationalists, to scapegoating Jews and Communists, whom he and his coterie blamed for putting Germany into the economic mire it had found itself in back in the early 1920s, egged on by the spurious stab-in-the-back myth of how Germany lost WWI.

The capitalist class found people like Hitler useful for turning workers away from communism. The ruling classes had encouraged Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in WWI, and later, through his fascism, to crush Italian socialism in the early 1920s; they were content to leave Spain in the fascist lurch from 1939 to 1975; and they were willing to let Nazi Germany extend its genocidal ambitions well into the USSR. It’s only when the Axis Powers were threatening the capitalist West that they finally began to fight fascism.

If you are getting dizzy from my jumping around from one idea to another, Dear Reader, I’ll try to link everything together now. My point is that we need to focus on the psychological origins of fragmentation, emotional dysregulation, and alienation to change our world from one ruled by narcissistic capitalists, including those bordering on (or lapsing into) fascism, like Trump or Hitler, to one ruled by empathic socialism. We start with the individual, grow from there to the family, then to society, and finally to business hierarchies, nations, and the whole world.

Our current world is like a storm at sea: the high crests of an economic elite come crashing down on the troughs of the poor, splashing us, the water, everywhere in fragmented drops. The contradiction of rich and poor causes this social alienation, which in turn causes our internal fragmentation. What’s true of the outside is true on the inside. We’re broken away from each other, and we’re broken inside.

Understanding the self/other dialectic–that the other is in ourselves (introjection), and what’s in the self is in other people (projection)–can help us to build mutual empathy. To understand the self/other dialectic, an opposition whose unity can and must be found, we need to understand what dialectics in general are, even before dialectical materialism. That means going back to Hegel’s philosophy.

Hegel’s dialectic, popularly described in terms of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” (though he never used those terms, nor did he present his philosophy in so formulaic a way), can be seen as beginning with the ouroboros’s bitten tail (the ‘thesis’, an abstract, untested, theoretical idea, such as ‘being’); then we shift over to the biting head of the negation of that starting idea (the ‘antithesis’, such as ‘nothing’); then we continue moving along the length of the serpent’s body (the ‘synthesis’, such as ‘becoming’–see Hegel, pages 82-83), in a process of resolving the contradiction confronted at the bitten tail/biting head area. Once the contradiction is fully resolved (and thus concretized), we have a new, refined idea to be negated again, then resolved again, in repeated revolutions around the ouroboros’s body. This is the unifying of opposites.

This, basically, is how we must resolve these emotional and social problems: not by stubbornly staying at the point of irreconcilable opposites (the head biting into the tail), two people facing each other in hatred; but by going beyond all binary thinking (moving along the middle of the serpent’s body) and turning hate into friendship. This is how we resolve the contradictions in our relationships, through a synthesis of the self and other, from conflict to harmony and solidarity.

We start this unifying by replacing the bad internal objects of our parents with good ones. This can be done through psychotherapy, through object relations therapists or self-psychology ones, or, I believe, through meditation and hypnosis, as I described it in my previous post, Beyond the Pairs of Opposites.

We can also do inner-child work, by imagining ourselves in the role of the soothing, empathic parent, consoling the wounded inner child in ourselves (since psychological pain tends to cause greater levels of self-centredness, because one is forced to be focused more on one’s own pain than on others’, then healing that pain should generate more selflessness). Self-compassion can help us to realize more fully and deeply that everyone feels the same pain, that we all deserve to hear words of kindness, and we must be mindful of our feelings, to make sure we are neither suppressing nor having negative thoughts in excess.

I’m not trying to be a sentimentalist here; this won’t be easy work. It will take a long time to master such a profound inner change as we fight against our inner critic, the collective of bad internal object relations that will try to sabotage our progress; but in the end, it will be worth it, for ourselves and for our neighbours.

(I’m not trying to say that this brotherly love will be an absolute one, felt by each and every person for each and every other. Some people simply cannot be reconciled, if only because some others won’t be reconciled with us, no matter how hard we try to merge with them. That’s certainly true of my relationship with my family, as I’ve explained so many times before; for a narcissistic parent’s flying monkeys will do all in their power to keep old power imbalances intact. This irreconcilability is especially true of the people’s relationship with the 1%, who will never be legislated out of their wealth; but such reconciliation is possible, I believe, between the common people in a general sense, and that’s the basis we all need to work on, to build up a sizeable amount of solidarity.)

From this healing basis, we can meditate on our oneness with everyone else, and project our newly-built self-love and compassion out into the world, to all the others we now identify with; and we’ll introject the love of the outside world. This projection and introjection will repeat and repeat in our meditative trance, where our suggestible unconscious will be more open to these healing feelings. Finally, we’ll come to an understanding of the dialectical monism in everything. This, in turn, will inspire solidarity in the people. No longer alienated, we’ll unite against the ruling class.

Then, instead of having the ever-stormy seas of interpersonal and class conflict, with their clashing and splashing of water that breaks and fragments us into a myriad of tiny droplets that chaotically fly out in all directions, we’ll have calm waters, with gently moving waves of slight crests (“from each according to his/her ability”) to slight troughs (“to each according to his/her need”).

This is the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we’re all one. The self/other contradiction will be a unity.

It’s time for the calm after the storm.