Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

‘Sirens,’ a Horror Novella, Chapter Five

[WARNING: sexual and violent content]

The electronic beat was pounding in their ears, and pink, green, and white lights were flashing in their eyes. Eddie was making progress with a pretty, curvaceous blonde that he was dirty dancing with; then he noticed one of his friends, Virgil, was dancing off on his own. Virgil was acting as if he were dancing with several girls.

Eddie tapped on the shoulder of one of his friends dancing nearby. “Hey, what the fuck is Virgil doing over there?” he asked, gesturing over to Virgil’s loneliness at the side of the dance floor.

All of Eddie’s friends looked over at Virgil and laughed.

“Hey, Virgil!” Eddie shouted. “What the fuck, man?!”

Virgil seemed deaf to him. He also seemed to be talking to himself.

Eddie’s friend tapped him on the shoulder. “Did Virgil take a half-pill of powerful ecstasy, or something? He must be too high to know what he’s doing.”

“I’d say he took a whole pill,” Eddie said. “He must be hallucinating. He’s acting like he’s with a bunch of hot chicks.”

“It looks that way,” the friend said.

A few seconds later, it looked as though some invisible person were holding Virgil by the hands and leading him off the dance floor. The boys saw an ear-to-ear grin on his face, as well as sparkling, hypnotized eyes. As he walked towards the door out of the dance bar, he had both arms around invisible waists.

“Holy shit,” Eddie said, wide-eyed. “He must be really, really wasted.”

************

Virgil was driving his car, feeling the redhead blowing him. (His hard-on was poking out of his open fly, doing nothing but getting harder.)

“So, where…are we going, girls?” he panted. “Oh!

“Just keep going straight,” the brunette said. “We’re almost there.”

He kept driving for several more minutes, hypnotized by the three girls’ singing and the lips and tongue he felt going up and down on his cock. Oddly, he heard three-part, not two-part, vocal harmony.

“Oh, you girls…are talented,” he moaned. “You suck…while singing, but don’t…suck at singing. Oh!

He looked all around his surroundings, seeing flat fields of grass, airstrips, and parked airplanes.

“You wanna screw…in an airfield?” he grunted.

“Yes,” the brunette said, then resumed singing with the other two.

“Why here?” he panted.

“It’s sexy,” the blonde said. “In a public place, we might get caught.” She resumed singing.

“Don’t you think that’s exciting?” the brunette asked, then sang again.

“Yeah, I guess,” he sighed. “Unh!

They approached a big plane, one with a huge propellor.

“Stop here,” the brunette said.

“OK,” he sighed, then parked his car by the plane.

He got out, hearing the girls’ singing as his full erection was still pointing out of his zipper. The redhead took him by the hands and led him just in front of the propellor, a few steps to the left of the centre. Then she knelt before him and resumed her sucking…or so he imagined.

At the same time, he imagined the brunette behind him, kissing him on the neck and fingering his nipples. The blonde was facing him, her legs spread out and on either side of the squatting redhead. He was French-kissing the blonde while her hands were on his buttocks, squeezing them and pressing them with her fingers.

The girls were singing the whole time, even while French-kissing and blowing him, and while the brunette nibbled on his neck. They didn’t need their mouths to be free, since they weren’t physical. Virgil heard what sounded like the words of a foreign language in their singing; he couldn’t recognize what language it was, let alone understand its meaning…not that he cared.

He was in sensual heaven.

Then, the engine of the airplane started, though no one was in the cockpit. The wind blowing on him, the rumbling of the engine–he barely noticed them. It was as if the mild breeze and hum of a large fan were cooling him. He was too busy screwing his illusions.

The wheels of the plane were moving it slowly forward.

He, still with his hard-on pointing towards the propellor, was still standing a few feet to the left of its centre. All he saw, though, were the mesmerizing eyes of the blonde he seemed to be kissing.

“Hey!” called out a female voice he didn’t notice at all. “What are you doing here? Who is in that plane…? Oh!” She was now close enough to him to notice his dick was out; she quickly looked away. “What are you, some kind of pervert? All alone with your…?”

Since her head was still turned away, it was his blood spraying all over her that made her realize the propellor had already begun slicing him up.

She looked back at him and screamed from all the red she saw splashing everywhere. She quickly backed away.

Oddly, he didn’t seem to notice what was happening to him. No pain at all.

Armless, with only half of his dick left at the moment, and thoroughly bloody, he just kept French-kissing that invisible blonde.

Analysis of ‘Lolita’

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was made into two movie adaptations, the first one (1962) directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a screenplay by Nabokov (of which “only ragged odds and ends” were used in the film [Nabokov, page xii]; in spite of his having been credited with writing the screenplay, it was actually rewritten by Kubrick and James B. Harris). The second adaptation (1997) was directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Stephen Schiff. There have also been stage and musical adaptations of the novel, as well as an opera.

I’ll be basing this analysis on the novel, Nabokov’s screenplay (his “vivacious variant” of the book [Nabokov, page xxiii]), and the two movies. Though the story is controversial for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl, “not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov, page 4).

Here are some quotes:

Lolita

I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, 
Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Foreword, by Dr. John Ray, Jr., PhD.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –Part One, Chapter 1, opening lines

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the deadly little demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. –Part One, Chapter 5

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set… –Part One, Chapter 2

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other… –Part One, Chapter 3, of Humbert and Annabel

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” –Part One, Chapter 5

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time… –Part One, Chapter 5

Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! –Part One, Chapter 8

Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had. –Part Two, Chapter 1

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. –Part Two, Chapter 36

Lolita: a Screenplay

The CAMERA also locates the drug addict’s implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws. –Prologue, page 1, in Quilty’s home

“My mother was an Englishwoman. Her death preceded that of my father by two decades: she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.” –Humbert’s voice, Prologue, page 4

“I loved her more tenderly than Tristan adored Isolde, more hotly than Petrarca desired his Laura, more romantically than Poe loved little Virginia.” –Humbert’s voice, speaking of Annabel, Prologue, page 6

QUILTY: Say, didn’t you have a little girl? Let me see. With a lovely name. A lovely lilting lyrical name–
CHARLOTTE: Lolita. Diminutive of Dolores.
QUILTY: Ah, of course: Dolores. The tears and the roses.
CHARLOTTE: She’s dancing down there. And tomorrow she’ll be having a cavity filled by your uncle.
QUILTY: I know; he’s a wicked old man.
MISS ADAMS: Mr. Quilty, I’m afraid I must tear you away. There’s somebody come from Parkington to fetch you.
QUILTY: They can wait. I want to watch Dolores dance. –Act One, pages 57-58

CHARLOTTE: Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the piazza? Or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?
HUMBERT: Tooth. –Act One, page 69

HUMBERT: Other commentators, commentators of the Freudian school of thought. No. Commentators of the Freudian prison of thought. Hm. Commentators of the Freudian nursery-school of thought, have maintained that Edgar Poe married the child Virginia Clemm merely to keep her mother near him. He–I quote–had found in his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm the maternal image he had been seeking all his life. What piffle! Listen now to the passion and despair breathing in the letter he addresses to Virginia’s mother on August 29, 1835, when he feared that his thirteen-year-old little sweetheart would be taken away to be educated in another home. “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter….My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away….My agony is more than I can bear….for love like mine can never be gotten over….It is useless to disguise the truth….that I shall never behold her again….” –Act One, pages 70-71

HUMBERT: Where exactly did he take you when you gave me the slip?
LOLITA: Yes, that was awfully mean, I must admit that. He took me to a dude ranch near Elphinstone. Duk-Duk Ranch. Silly name.
HUMBERT: Where exactly? What highway?
LOLITA: No highway–a dirt road up a small mountain. Anyway–that ranch does not exist any more. Pity, because it was really something. I mean you can’t imagine how utterly lush it was, that ranch, I mean it had everything, but everything, even an indoor waterfall. You know when Cue and I first came the others had us actually go through a coronation ceremony.
HUMBERT: The others? Who were they?
LOLITA: Oh, just a bunch of wild kids, and a couple of fat old nudists. And at first everything was just perfect. I was there like a princess, and Cue was to take me to Hollywood, and make a big star of me, and all that. But somehow nothing came of it. And, instead, I was supposed to cooperate with the others in making filthy movies while Cue was gadding about the Lord knows where. Well, when he came back I told him I wanted him and not that crowd of perverts, and we had a fight, and he kicked me out, and that’s all.
HUMBERT: You could have come back to me. –Act Three, pages 207-208

Lolita (1962)

Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?

Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn’t have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He’s…
Humbert[Bangs on the table loudly with the paddle] Lolita?!
Quilty: Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares? [Humbert draws a gun] Hey, you’re a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don’t think I want to play anymore. Gee, I’m just dyin’ for a drink. I’m just dyin’ to have a drinkie.
Humbert: You’re dying anyway, Quilty. Quilty, I want you to concentrate – you’re going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.

Charlotte: My yellow roses. My – daughter….I could offer you a comfortable home, a sunny garden, a congenial atmosphere, my cherry pies.
[Humbert decides to rent the room]
Charlotte: What was the decisive factor? Uh, my garden?
Humbert: I think it was your cherry pies!

“Mind if I dance with your girl? We could, um, sort of swap partners.” –John Farlow, to Humbert, about Charlotte, with whom he leaves to dance

“Did you know that you’ve had the most remarkable effect on her. Did you know that?…she’s begun to radiate a certain glow. When you get to know me better, you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded…In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded.” –Jean Farlow, to Humbert

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. –Humbert, voiceover

Lolita: Hi!
Charlotte: Darling, did you come back for something?
Lolita: Mona’s party turned out to be sorta a drag. So I thought I’d come back and see what you two were doing.
Humbert: We had a wonderful evening. Your mother created a magnificent spread.

The wedding was a quiet affair. And when called upon to enjoy my promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity, to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse, daintily running along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. –Humbert, voiceover

Charlotte: Oh Hum, hum-baby, you know, I love the way you smell. You do arouse the pagan in me. Hum, you just touch me, and I-I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

You must now forget Ramsdale and push our lot and poor Lolita and poor Humbert, and accompany us to Beardsley College where my lectureship in French poetry is in its second semester. Six months have passed and Lolita is attending an excellent school where it is my hope that she will be persuaded to read other things than comic books and movie romances. –Humbert, voiceover

I cannot tell you the exact day when I first knew with utter certainty that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. –Humbert, voiceover

Humbert: What happened to this Oriental-minded genius?
Lolita: Look, don’t make fun of me. I don’t have to tell you a blasted thing.
Humbert: I am not making fun of you. I am merely trying to find out what happened. When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita: To New Mexico…to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was, he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there…painters, nudists, writers, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him and he was on his way to Hollywood to write one of those spectaculars, and he promised to get me a studio contract. But it never turned out that way and instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others making some kind of a, you know, an art movie.
Humbert: An art movie?…And you did it?
Lolita: No, I didn’t do it. And so he kicked me out.
Humbert: You could have come back to me.

Lolita (1997)

I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face. –Humbert, voiceover

What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus. –Humbert, voiceover, last lines

Since “Humbert Humbert” (James Mason in Kubrick’s film, and Jeremy Irons in Lyne’s film) is the guilty narrator of Nabokov’s novel, we should be careful with all the information he provides. As an unreliable narrator, he will try to present himself in as sympathetic a light as possible. We should always bear in mind the assessment of him given by his psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray Jr.: “he is a shining example of moral leprosy.” (Nabokov, page 5)

This making of Humbert as a sympathetic character is extended into the two movies, which have the suave, urbane, and debonair Mason and Irons portraying him. What’s more, the films tone down his hebephilia, making only occasional references to his taste for “nymphets” in general, contrasting with his ogling of girls other than Dolores Haze, and his propositioning of an underage prostitute, as given in Nabokov’s novel and screenplay (Nabokov, pages 16-17, 21-23; screenplay, pages 8-9).

He tries to charm us with his “fancy prose style,” showing false modesty when asking if we “can still stand [his] style,” with its puns, French passages, excessive assonance, and its mellifluous, poetic rhapsodizing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by his erudition: this man is a creep.

He tells us of a childhood romance he had with “Annabel Leigh,” whose name is almost identical to that of the girl (and I do mean girl!) in Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem, a girl believed by many scholars to have been Poe’s 13-year-old bride. This love of Humbert’s youth is meant to make his obsession with 9- to 14-year-old girls seem almost legitimate, the tragic result of a childhood trauma (Annabel died of typhus); but her seeming derivation from Poe’s poem gives us the impression that Humbert has made her up.

He’s a child molester. Period.

He murders Clare Quilty (portrayed by Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s film, and by Frank Langella in Lyne’s) for having taken Dolores away from him. Humbert claims, in his narrative, that Quilty (a pun on guilty) is every bit the pedophile pervert he is, even given to enjoying and producing pornography (as well as doing drugs); but since Humbert is the narrator, should we believe his vilifying of the playwright? Is Humbert not just projecting his own sinfulness onto Quilty?

For all we know, Quilty may have innocently worked to rescue Dolores (played by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film, and by Dominique Swain in Lyne’s) from her sexual abuser, and Humbert the madman simply murdered his would-be doppelgänger out of a wish to get revenge. Then he tried to justify his murder by blackening the name of his victim. This speculation is a distinct possibility.

Nabokov leaves the murder of Quilty to the climactic near-end of the novel (Part Two, Chapter 35), while mentioning only that Humbert is a murderer…of whom?…at the beginning. Nabokov’s screenplay begins with Humbert confronting Quilty in his home, and neither man says a word, then Humbert shoots Quilty (page 2). At the beginning of Kubrick’s film, we see the confrontation with dialogue (though censored–i.e., no reference to “erector sets” is heard [note the pun]) taken from the novel’s climax; then we see an abbreviated repeat of the scene at the end. Lyne’s film begins with Humbert having already killed Quilty: he’s driving his car, swaying left and right, with despair on his face while the police are pursuing him; and this scene is an abbreviation of the pursuit at the end.

I’d say, ironically, that Nabokov’s screenplay version of the killing is the weakest one (because, without the dialogue, what’s the point?), while Kubrick’s rewritten version is the strongest, because emotionally it’s the most powerful: for the rest of the film, we slowly discover why Humbert has killed Quilty. It gives Humbert all that undeserved sympathy, since his narration is so unreliable; but as I observed in my analyses of Falling Down and Reservoir Dogs, this provoking of false sympathy in us, the audience/readers, is a moral test of our ability to know with whom we should sympathize.

At the beginning of Nabokov’s novel, a detail is put in, as if in passing: Humbert’s “very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)” [Nabokov, page 10] back when he was three. In the screenplay, her death occurs on the boy’s fourth birthday, with a dramatic screen direction depicting her death, including this sight: “Her graceful specter floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.” (Nabokov, page 4)

Apart from the low likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year, or in one’s whole life, as well as our being given Humbert’s unreliable narration, this death is too absurd to be taken seriously. I do suspect, however, that his beautiful mother did die when he was a child, and when the boy was going through an unresolved Oedipal fixation (Freudians often consider such perversions as pedophilia to have their root in an unresolved Oedipus complex). I also suspect that it was she, and not his likely-fictional Annabel, who died of typhus in Corfu.

This unresolved Oedipal trauma would have been repressed to the point of his mother being the vaguest of memory traces in his mind (“save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory” —page 10). His subsequent desires for nymphets–so young, and therefore with their whole lives ahead of them, far less likely to die on him–can be seen as a reaction formation–a dialectical shift from the far older to the far younger–against his unconscious wish to possess his mother, or any possible adult transference of her. Hence, his revulsion to any “dull adult woman” (Nabokov, page 10). His predictable disparaging of psychoanalysis can also be easily explained away as a form of resistance.

None of this is to deny that Humbert has tried to have normal sexual relations with women, assuming he isn’t lying about his ex-wife, Valeria [pages 25-29], or Rita, the alcoholic he’s involved with after Dolores runs off with Quilty [pages 258-263]. Even if these attempts at having a normal sex life are true, though, they don’t last long. Humbert is a perv.

Nabokov’s Humbert is more honest about his perviness (though dishonest about so many other things) than that of Kubrick or Lyne. When Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, he originally tries to get a lodging in the McCoos’ house, where he’d be teaching French to the family nymphet…as well as indulging in all things “Humbertish” (Chapter 10, page 35). But the house burns down, so he goes to the Haze home instead.

He predictably finds Charlotte Haze repulsive, but when he sees her 12-year-old daughter sunbathing in the backyard (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” —page 40), he claims that he’s seen his Annabel reincarnated (page 15)…though I’d say he’s incarnated his mother in her.

The fact that Humbert would rather refer to Dolores as “Lolita” than by her real name is significant. In changing her name, in characterizing her as the giggling, sexually precocious child that the name “Lolita” is now associated with, as opposed to acknowledging her real name, Dolores (meaning “dolorous,” or sorrowful, as one would expect a traumatized victim of child sexual abuse to be), he is creating a false image of her, an idealized one to contrast with who she really is.

What must be emphasized here is that, from Humbert’s narration, we know virtually nothing about Dolores Haze; “Lolita” is a fantasy concocted in his mind. The novel’s first and last word is “Lolita” (and that includes even the Foreword by Dr. John Ray). The real girl is virtually nowhere to be found in the story.

The giggling, sassy little sex kitten, his fantasized version of her, with her “lovely lyrical lilting name,” (so expressive of the gleeful naughtiness he imagines her to have) is really just a projection of his own wickedness. Humbert writes of a boy at camp, Charlie, having already “debauched” her (Chapters 31 and 32, page 135; also, page 133), of how she tempts Humbert to kiss her in the car on the ride from camp to The Enchanted Hunters hotel (pages 112-113, Chapter 27), and of her having seduced him in the hotel (pages 132-134, Chapter 29). All of these are attempts by him to mitigate his guilt. She ‘wanted it,’ so he wasn’t all that much of a rapist/child molester. The actual, weeping Dolores is nowhere in these pages.

As his fantasized image of the perfect “nymphet,” she, as “Lolita,” is what WRD Fairbairn would have called the Exciting Object of Humbert’s Libidinal Ego (part of Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, which he used to replace Freud’s id). She mirrors back to Humbert what he projects out to her of his own sinfulness.

Normal, mentally healthy people have predominantly what Fairbairn called the Ideal Object interacting with the Central Ego (replacing Freud’s ego); this object is “ideal” because it’s made up of real relationships that one should have with other people, as opposed to the fantasized object relations we all too often have in our minds. Dolores Haze would be an Ideal Object for Humbert’s Central Ego, were he to be a normal stepfather who had no sexual interest in her at all, but only healthy, paternal affection. Instead, there’s only her as a Dolores of the mind: “Lolita.”

As I’ve argued above, “Lolita” and all other “nymphets” are just transferences of his long-lost mother, transformed by reaction formation from that older object to the younger ones that he wishes to possess. Now understood as a kind of inverse Oedipal fixation, or of a mother/son relationship metamorphosed into a daughter/father one, we can see not only his obsession with “Lolita” as his ultimately unattainable objet petit a (i.e., a sought-out replacement for his Oedipally-desired mother), but we can also see why he has such a servile attitude towards her. He’s a slave to her power the way a little boy is because he fears losing Mommy’s love.

There is a third part to Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, and Clare Quilty embodies this part: it is the Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly called the Internal Saboteur), which links with the Rejecting Object. It corresponds only roughly with Freud’s superego, but Quilty can be seen to represent both Freud’s and Fairbairn’s corresponding concepts.

Since Humbert’s narration is unreliable, his depiction of Quilty is as dubious as is his of Dolores. We know little of Quilty, except that he is a playwright and that Humbert has murdered him. Just as “Lolita” represents everything fun, sassy, and sexy in Humbert’s lewd imagination (the Exciting Object), so does “Cue” represent everything repellent in Humbert, everything he hates about himself (the Rejecting Object).

At the same time, though Humbert projects all of his hebephile perversions onto Quilty, his nemesis also embodies his guilty conscience, his superego. His conversation with then-unknown Quilty, with the latter’s taunts (“Where the devil did you get her?” and “You lie–she’s not.”–Chapter 28, page 127; and, of course, Quilty later following Humbert’s car) shows the inner critic of Humbert’s superego plainly personified. The same goes for Peter Sellers’s nerdy cop improvisation with James Mason in the corresponding scene in Kubrick’s movie.

So, both “Lolita” and “Cue” represent opposing tendencies in Humbert’s mind. In turn, these two opposing tendencies have their representations in the novel (and therefore in Lyne’s film too, since it’s far more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s is) and in Kubrick’s film respectively. Consider how Kubrick’s version greatly expands Quilty’s role; and where, as film critic Greg Jenkins noted, the film begins and ends with the word “Quilty,” just as the novel begins and ends with “Lolita.”

Humbert, at his core, is narcissistic, as is clear in his ostentatious writing style. Since, as I’ve speculated above, his hebephilia can be seen as a dialectical turning upside-down of his unconscious, unresolved Oedipus complex, which in turn is a universal narcissistic trauma (i.e., one wishes to hog Mother all to oneself), one can see how sassy “Lolita” is a mirror reflection of his narcissism.

Similarly, Quilty, being overtly narcissistic himself, is a mirror reflection of those dark qualities that Humbert wishes to disavow and project onto others. Recall how, in Lyne’s film, we see Humbert who, having confronted Quilty at gunpoint in his home, is weeping in horror at the plainly confessed lasciviousness of his would-be doppelgänger. But Quilty’s sin is Humbert’s own.

The whole novel is a journey through Humbert’s mind, with “Lolita” and “Cue” as opposing, yet dialectically akin, internal objects floating around in his head like ghosts haunting a house. The naughtiness of the spouse-swapping Farlows and Mr. Swine in Kubrick’s film are just more of such projections of Humbert’s filthy mind.

Now, Nabokov was known for disavowing any allegorical intent with Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita,” page 314), but I’ll give two reasons why I doubt that we should take his words at face value. First of all, he could have made such disavowals in order to prevent any one scholar’s interpretation, however convincing it may be, to be deemed the ‘definitive’ interpretation; in other words, Nabokov’s denial may have been meant to encourage a maximum of possible interpretations.

Second, even if he really meant that he hated allegorizing, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have unconsciously intended one. Certainly, Martin Amis saw in Lolita an allegory of a ‘Soviet rape,’ if you will, of Russia; and Nabokov, a classical liberal, hated communism. (For my part, I find Amis’s use of Robert Conquest‘s work in his research to be dubious in itself, to put it mildly, but I digress…) So anyway, I’d like to try a few allegories of my own.

One allegory we can see in Humbert’s seduction of Dolores (as opposed to his projection of “Lolita” supposedly seducing him; or, a reversal from Freud’s female Oedipus complex back to his seduction theory) is that of the European colonizing North and South America, with the colonizers rationalizing their conquest by claiming an intent ‘to civilize’ the natives. I’m reminded of John Donne‘s poem, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d.” (lines 25-28)

The innocent natives being plundered is symbolized by Humbert’s sexual abuse of Dolores; the converting of those natives to Christianity can be seen as symbolized by Humbert’s attempts to introduce her to culture (e.g., his buying her such books as Browning‘s Dramatic Works, The History of Dancing, The Russian Ballet, and The Theatre Guild Anthology so she’ll have something to read while in hospital [page 242]). Similarly, the white man (Humbert, the “white widowed male”) taking possession of and enslaving black Americans (represented here by Dolores) is another reasonable allegory, since Nabokov was vocal in his opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans.

Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, as symbolic of that of the European and American, is also seen in his comments on American pop culture, as opposed to European high culture. As heard in Kubrick’s film, Humbert speaks disapprovingly of Dolores’s taste for “comic books and movie romances.” He complains of her “eerie vulgarity,” a reflection of the stereotypically cultured European as against the equally stereotypical philistine American, and which can in turn be seen as symbolic of the ‘civilized’ white attitude to the ‘uncivilized’ ways of the natives.

Another allegory of Humbert’s desire for nymphets, especially evident in Kubrick’s film, is the yearning of the older characters (Humbert and Quilty) for a return to youth, as personified in “Lolita.” We see this in Kubrick’s film whenever Charlotte, the Farlows, etc., refer to each other as “kids” or “other young marrieds.” Then there’s that elderly spectator or two, envious of the smooth style of dancing Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom (later, Charlotte), trying to bop along to the music and appear as hip as they can.

But to return to one of my earlier speculations, towards the end of the novel, we find Humbert looking at pregnant Mrs. Dolores Schiller, and finding himself all the more in love with her. At seventeen years old, she’s too old to be a nymphet! As a mother-to-be, she is triggering his repressed Oedipal fixation.

“…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past…but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshiped…I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” (Part Two, Chapter 29, pages 277-278)

His loving of her, older and with another man’s baby, reminds one of a little boy’s Oedipal jealousy over his father’s having of his love-object, jealous of how she will be preoccupied with taking care of his younger sibling-to-be; because the Oedipus complex is a selfish, narcissistic trauma, and his seeing his “Lolita” in this way is bringing back those feelings that have been buried deep down in his psyche. This element, hidden among all the lies of this unreliable narrator, is the core truth of his whole narrative.

Finally, we must confront the “dangerous trends,” the “potent evils,” that Dr. John Ray warns us about in the Foreword. There have been attempts by some in the media recently to normalize pedophile desires; there has also been the growing problem of sexualizing little girls. These are, needless to say, dangerous encouragements to more child sexual abuse. Then there were Epstein‘s escapades, most of the perpetrators of which still seem largely unpunished. For these reasons, we shouldn’t let Humbert’s honeyed words charm us. We should heed Ray’s words instead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1955

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: a Screenplay, Vintage International, New York, 1961

‘Sirens,’ A Horror Novella, Chapter One

The three beauties just appeared out of nowhere. Ari couldn’t believe his luck. He was standing at the bar of the dance club, waiting for the bartender to give him his beer, when the three young women walked up to him, all three of them grinning. Then they asked his name.

And now he had all three of them on his motorcycle. He was taking them on a highway towards his apartment. His bike was big enough to fit all three of them on it.

Ari couldn’t believe his luck.

All three women had wavy, shoulder-length hair: a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. All three wore tight, sleeveless dresses that showed plenty of cleavage and went only half-way down their upper legs. The blonde wore black, the brunette wore red, and the redhead wore gold. Their high heels matched the colour of their dresses. The brunette wore black fishnet stockings.

And now they were all on his bike. Unbelievable luck.

They hadn’t said much to each other in the dance club. Though he’d drunk only the one beer, he was feeling a kind of intoxication the whole time he was with the girls.

It was strange, but why would he have cared? He was about to get the most amazing lay of his life. As he looked up at the starry, moonlit night, he imagined how the reverse gang-bang was going to be: him fucking one pussy, licking the second pussy, and fingering the third? Or would he fuck one of them while watching the other two do each other, then they’d all switch positions?

He felt a strange, buzzing, tingling vibration with those girls all around him. It felt amazingly good, too good to be suspicious about. It was like swimming in a sea of pleasure, the wavy ‘water’ soothing his whole body.

And those girls, with their curves, round asses, and huge tits! Their faces brightly painted to perfection! And they wanted him! He didn’t even have to do much work to take them home with him. It was more like them pursuing him than the traditional vice versa.

As he’d danced with them on the crowded dance floor, their hips grinding together, he could hear them singing in his ears, a beautiful, perfect three-part vocal harmony with the techno music and its pounding rhythms surrounding him. The other people dancing around him were looking at him strangely, as if he were making a fool of himself.

What’s their problem? he wondered as he felt the blonde’s ass rubbing against his pointy crotch. Haven’t they ever seen a guy dirty dancing with three hot chicks before? I’ll bet they’re just envious.

Now, all three of them were with him on his bike, the blonde in front, her ass grinding on his hard lap again. The brunette was immediately behind him, her arms around his chest, her fingers tickling his nipples. The redhead was behind her, of course, and as he could see from his rear-view mirrors, she had her arms around the brunette, her hands cupping her tits.

As he raced down the highway, on a lonely, open road, he could hear them singing again. It was odd that they would sing like that, but it was such pretty, seductive music. Hearing it made him feel as if he were high on ecstasy.

I’m still driving OK, he reassured himself.

He felt those intoxicating, wave-like vibes going around and through his body, undulating to the cadence of the three women’s singing. Sometimes the bike veered a little to the left–to the lane for oncoming traffic–or to the right shoulder of the road, near a ditch, but he generally kept control.

“What’s with all the singing, girls?” he shouted out.

“Don’t you like it?” the brunette asked.

“Well, yeah, but…” he began.

“Go faster!” the blonde shouted. “It gets me hot! Faster!

“OK.” He sped up.

“How much longer till we get to your place?” the redhead shouted.

“Oh, about another twenty minutes or so,” he said.

Faster!” the blonde shouted again. He went faster.

“You sure live far away from the city,” the redhead said.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.

Faster!” the blonde shouted. He sped up again, and the girls resumed their singing.

There’s that beautiful singing again, he thought, not noticing the huge truck that was approaching in the opposing lane. Oh, those good vibrations…

He veered into the truck’s lane, so charmed was he by the singing that he was oblivious to what he had done. Those undulating, blurry vibes moving before his eyes and massaging every muscle in his body made him forget everything that was actually happening around him.

The singing continued.

That truck was getting closer.

The driver gave several urgent honks of his horn, but Ari didn’t hear them at all. The girls’ singing was drowning out every other sound in the area.

He was grinning to the beautiful harmony of their singing, as were the girls. His eyes were closed…as were the girls’.

“What the fuck is wrong with that guy?” the truck driver said, still honking his horn. “He must be stoned!”

He tried to slow the truck down and swerve out of Ari’s way, but it was too late: the bike skidded and tipped to the right, for only at the last split-second did Ari finally see what danger he was in. The very last thing he felt was his pelvis being crushed under the wheels of the truck.

And the three beauties just disappeared into nowhere.

Analysis of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 erotic thriller produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, his last film before he died. It was also written by him and Frederic Raphael, based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. It stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (actually married at the time), who play Bill and Alice Harford, a doctor and his wife who, just before Christmas, struggle with jealousy and temptations to adultery.

The film follows Schnitzler’s novella closely, changing only the setting (from early 20th century Vienna, during the Carnival, to late 20th century New York City, pre-Christmas) and characters’ names (Fridolin to Bill Harford, Albertina/Albertine to Alice, Nachtigall to Nick Nightingale [played by Todd Field], Mizzi to Domino, etc.), and adding more erotic or quasi-erotic content (i.e., more nude scenes). A 1969 German TV movie, with English subtitles, of Traumnovelle can be found here.

Here are some quotes:

“Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” –Sandor, the Hungarian dancing with Alice

“Sex is the last thing on my mind when I’m with a patient.” –Bill, to Alice

Bill: Uh… look… women don’t… They basically, just don’t think like that.
Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!
Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.
Alice: If you men only knew.

“I first saw him that morning in the lobby. He was- he was checking into the hotel and he was following the bellboy with his luggage… to the elevator. He… he glanced at me as he walked past; just a glance. Nothing more. And I… could hardly… move. That afternoon, Helena went to the movie with her friend and… you and I made love. And we made plans about our future. And we talked about Helena. And yet, at no time, was he ever out of my mind. And I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was only… for one night… I was ready to give up everything. You. Helena. My whole fucking future. Everything. And yet it was weird because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever. And… and at that moment, my love for you was both… tender… and sad. I… I barely slept that night. And I woke up the next morning in a panic. I don’t know if I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there. But by dinner… I realized he was gone. And I was relieved.” –Alice, telling Bill about the naval officer she was tempted to have an affair with during the family vacation at Cape Cod

Mysterious Woman: [at the masked orgy] I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, but you obviously don’t belong here.
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry. I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.
Mysterious Woman: [whispering] Don’t be crazy. You are in great danger.

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, come forward. May I have the password?
Bill: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s correct, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password for the house?
Bill: The password for the house…
Red Cloak: Yes?
Bill: I’m sorry. I… seem to have… forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference whether you have forgotten it, or whether you never knew it. You will kindly remove your mask. [Bill removes mask] Now, get undressed.
Bill: [nervously] Get… undressed?
Red Cloak: [sternly] Remove your clothes.
Bill: Uh… gentlemen…
Red Cloak: Remove your clothes. Or would you like us to do it for you?

“If the good doctor himself should ever want anything again… anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.” –Mr. Milich

“Listen, Bill, I don’t think you realize what kind of trouble you were in last night. Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names… I’m not gonna tell you their names, but if I did, I don’t think you’ll sleep so well.” –Ziegler

Bill: There was a… there was a… there was, uh, a woman there. Who, uh… tried to warn me.
Ziegler: I know.
Bill: Do you know who she was?
Ziegler: Yes. She was… she was a hooker. Sorry, but… that’s what she was.
Bill: A hooker?
Ziegler: Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.
Bill: Fake?
Ziegler: Yes, fake.
Bill: Why would they do that?
Ziegler: Why? In plain words… to scare the living shit out of you. To keep you quiet about where you’d been and what you’d seen.

Bill: The woman lying dead in the morgue was the woman at the party.
Ziegler: Yes.
Bill: Well, Victor, maybe I’m missing something here. You call it fake, a charade… Do you mind telling me what kind of fucking charade ends up with somebody turning up dead!?
Ziegler: Okay, Bill, let’s cut the bullshit, alright? You’ve been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours. You want to know what kind of charade? I’ll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted “take me” sacrifice that you’ve been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. Nothing happened after you left that hadn’t happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period.

“And no dream is ever just a dream.” –Bill

Themes pervading both Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle include jealousy, temptation, and the blurry distinction between dream/fantasy and reality. Also, there’s a close relationship between sex and death, between Eros and Thanatos.

One night, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice, go to a Christmas party hosted by his wealthy friend and patient, Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). Both husband and wife are assailed with temptations almost from their arrival: a handsome Hungarian named Sandor makes moves on her, while Bill has two beautiful young models charming him. Already tipsy Alice, while dancing with Sandor, sees Bill with the two women and feels a pang of jealousy.

Soon after, Bill is to be subjected potentially to more temptation when Ziegler needs him upstairs to take care of a beautiful and naked prostitute who has overdosed on speedball. Now, Bill can easily resist thoughts of lust for her, since his love and commitment to Alice is…so far…unshaken by any fears of unfaithfulness from her.

Indeed, the whole time Bill is examining the nude prostitute, he looks only at her face, asking her to open her eyes and look at him. He never gives in to the temptation of looking down at her body. He asks what her name is (Mandy, played by Julienne Davis), showing further that he, as a responsible doctor and family man, has no interest at all in treating her like a sex object.

He tells her that she’s lucky she hasn’t died…this time, but she mustn’t do these kinds of dangerous drugs ever again. To Bill, she’s a human being, though to Ziegler, her rich client, she’s a human commodity to be enjoyed. In this scene, we see the first example of sex juxtaposed with death, or at least the danger of death.

Bill, as a middle class bourgeois, is content with what he has, since he feels no threat of losing it. But when Alice, stoned with him on marijuana the night after the party, tells him of the temptation she had of having an affair with a naval officer while she and Bill were on vacation in Cape Cod the year before, he wonders if she’s told him the whole truth, or if she’s concealing an actual affair she’s had with the man.

Bill’s fear of having been cuckolded is a symbolic castration of him, an unmanning. The resulting lack gives rise to a desire for other women he hitherto hasn’t had. A further unmanning occurs when Bill is walking the streets of New York that night, after making a sudden house call (during which a woman, the daughter of a man who has just died, declares her love to Bill…more temptation for him). A group of college-age men, one of whom bumps into Bill, taunts him with homophobic slurs. Like Fridolin in Traumnovelle, Bill feels like a coward for not challenging them to a fight.

Soon after, as he continues walking the streets, moping, and ruminating about Alice’s suspected adultery, a pretty young prostitute named Domino (played by Vinessa Shaw) comes up to him and invites him up to her apartment. Here we see how his symbolic castration, his wounded sense of manhood, his lack, gives rise to his desire.

Though he doesn’t go through with having sex with Domino (a phone call from Alice ruins the mood), the point is that he has seriously considered the sex. He even pays her the full amount.

Bourgeois, middle class Bill is liberal in his thinking: smoking pot with Alice, respectful to women when they are undressed, and therefore repressing his darker desires. But when the security of his world is threatened, those darker impulses of his start to come to the surface.

In The Liberal Mindset, I described the psychological conflict the liberal has between his id impulses towards pleasure (sex, drugs, etc.) and his superego-influenced sense of morality about responsibility to social justice issues. Since Schnitzler and Freud thought very similarly about sex and psychology (they even exchanged correspondence), it seems appropriate to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to my interpretation of this movie.

Bill, as a doctor and devoted husband (and as a bourgeois liberal), has a strong superego that normally prevents him from indulging in any temptations to adultery or to objectifying women. As long as all that is his is secure, he will be a good boy; but if the security of what is his is threatened, his superego will no longer restrain his id.

Similarly with the liberal, as long as his or her class privileges are safe, he or she will be generous and have a kind attitude towards the disadvantaged. He or she will make endless pleas for peace, and will speak out against such problems as income inequality; but elect the wrong presidential candidate, and the liberal will bang the war drums against any country accused–without a shred of evidence–of having aided said candidate to win, and he or she will have no qualms about voting in a candidate equally right-wing as this wrongfully elected incumbent, no matter how unsympathetic this new, desired candidate is to millennials or to the plight of the poor…as long as he is a Democrat.

The mask of the superego slips off, and we see the face of the id. Speaking of masks…

After the failed encounter with Domino (already proof of Bill’s willingness to exploit the poverty of prostitutes to satisfy his desires), Bill finds a night club where he knows his old friend, Nick Nightingale, is playing jazz piano. The two men chat after the end of the gig, and Bill learns of Nick’s next, far more exciting one: in the mansion of a secret society whose members are masked and cloaked, and where there will also be a bevy of beautiful, nude women!

By the end of the movie, we learn that Ziegler is one of the masked men in the mansion, as is Mandy, according to him, anyway (though she, also masked, and the one who warns Bill to leave immediately, is played by a different actress–Abigail Good). These nude, masked women are obviously prostitutes meant to satisfy the lust of the men of the secret society, men of wealth, power, and influence. By an interesting irony, the men’s masks give them their power, the power of anonymity; the prostitutes’ masks strip them of their power, by making them faceless, robbing them of their individuality, making them mere commodities instead of letting them be human beings.

Bill–the man whose superego kept him from objectifying women before, kept him from ever dreaming [!] of exploiting prostitutes, now, with his suspicions of Alice’s infidelity (and the password to the house is Fidelio!)–is letting his id run wild. He eagerly insists that Nightingale give him the password and address to the mansion.

Given the outrageous nature of the goings-on in the mansion, the pagan, seemingly near-Satanic rituals, and the orgies, as well as how unlikely the members of the secret society would just let Bill in, him having arrived in a taxi cab instead of in a limo, it seems less likely that Bill has really experienced the orgy scene than that he has just dreamed it, or at least fantasized about it.

Traumnovelle means “Dream Story”; Eyes Wide Shut seems to mean “eyes wide open while seeing a dream” (i.e., with one’s eyes shut), or it could mean refusing to see reality, preferring to see one’s fantasies. In other words, one is so preoccupied with seeing the fantasies used to gratify the pleasure principle (id), and is so preoccupied with the accompanying guilt (superego), that one’s eyes are shut to the reality principle (ego).

Along with the controversy of the sexual material in much of Schnitzler’s writing, he was also known to have been a highly sexed man, given to many a dalliance with women. Added to this was his chauvinistic attitude, most prevalent at the time, of course, that his female lovers ought to have been virgins. Only he was permitted to have a multitude of lovers.

There is much of Schnitzler in Fridolin (and therefore also in Bill, though in a more muted form, thanks to Kubrick’s and Raphael’s rewrites), and so his sexual double standards are reflected in the protagonist’s attitude; though, to be fair, Fridolin and Bill have their share of guilt over their sexual venturings. Indeed, on some level, Traumnovelle seems to have been Schnitzler’s purging of his own voracious sexual appetite.

So, has the whole, wild night really happened, is it just Bill’s imagination, or is it somewhere in between? A dream is the fulfillment of a wish, as Freud originally observed; or, as he observed two decades later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with his theories of the death drive and repetition compulsion, sometimes one engages in patterns of self-injury, or acts out unpleasant experiences over and over again. In other words, sometimes one has self-destructive urges, as Bill’s refusal to heed the Mysterious Woman’s warnings of the danger that the secret society poses to him–were it all a dream dramatized in his mind–would seem to indicate.

Recall that Bill has just smoked weed with Alice before going out for the house call. I don’t think his being stoned has detracted from the fantastic aspects of his experiences that night. He could easily have nodded off in his cab a couple of times–the ride to the house call and back–and he could thus have dreamt all, or at least part, of the more extreme experiences.

Certainly his encounter at the costume rental, with Mr. Milich (played by Rade Serbedžija) and his sex-kitten teen daughter (played by Leelee Sobieski), her being caught undressed with two Asian men in that awkward incident, seems wild enough to have been part of a dream. Then again, maybe much of it really did happen, for such is the blurred line between fantasy and reality in this film.

So, when Bill arrives at the mansion, we can interpret the meaning of the ritualistic, orgiastic goings-on inside in two ways: as having really happened, or as a dream/fantasy of his. Let’s consider the former interpretation first.

Like the authoritarian power of priests in ancient religion, we can see the ritualistic elements in the mansion as symbolic of the religious awe one might feel in the presence of such powerful people. In Traumnovelle, the masked men wear monks’ hoods and cloaks, and the masked prostitutes wear nuns’ habits.

As for the orgiastic aspect, the prostitutes’ nudity represents their powerlessness as have-nots (consider Shakespeare’s use of naked, as meaning ‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), as contrasted with the clothed men, the haves, the rich and powerful. Their threat to strip Bill of his clothes is thus to deprive him of his power, too. The women’s powerlessness is a lack of their own, giving rise to the desire for such things as drugs (i.e., Mandy’s speedball), a manic defence against the depression they must feel from always being sexually exploited.

The secret society’s exploitation of the prostitutes reminds us of Jeffrey Epstein‘s and Ghislaine Maxwell‘s prostituting of underage girls to satisfy the hebephilia and ephebophilia of all those implicated in the scandal. Their gargantuan amounts of wealth buy them the power needed to silence or kill anyone who may squeal, just as Bill is threatened by the Red Cloak (played by Leon Vitali).

So much for the interpretation that the mansion scene really happened. Now let’s interpret the scene from the point of view that Bill has imagined, or dreamed, the whole thing. Now, the goings-on in the house are a dramatization of the thought processes of Bill’s unconscious.

What we have here is a dream that is a wish-fulfillment of Bill’s desires (an orgy of anonymous sex), as well as a fulfillment, on some level at least, of his self-destructive urges (the threats). Sex meets death.

Many of the goings-on represent unconscious ego defence mechanisms: denial (Bill’s mask; his pretence that he’s a member of the secret society), projection (the members of the secret society indulging in the naughtiness instead of him), reaction formation (in Traumnovelle, the monks’ and nuns’ clothes, symbolizing the secret society’s wish to seem virtuous rather than sinful; in the original script, they were supposed to be monks’ cloaks, and actually, the cloaks and hoods we see are still rather similar to those of monks), and turning against oneself (Bill is threatened, though he hasn’t indulged in any of the sex: he’s only been watching).

Since much of the ego and superego are unconscious, the defence mechanisms tend to be activated unconsciously, too: “…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. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt in the analytic hour, 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)

The password, Fidelio, represents Bill’s wish that his wife be faithful to him, even though he, like Schnitzler, wishes he could get away with being unfaithful to her. The fact that he is tricked into thinking there’s a second password means that his id is fulfilled by being allowed in the house, while his superego‘s unconscious wish to be punished for his thoughts of infidelity is also satisfied.

If the mansion scene is all a dream, the Mysterious Woman can easily be Mandy, who can also know that he is Bill, the doctor who helped her get through her OD ordeal, which she can see as him having saved her life. (In his narcissistic imagination, Bill can then think that this nude beauty likes him.)

Her offer “to redeem him,” a perversely Christ-like moment amidst orgiastic activity that some may deem Satanic, can be seen thus as Mandy wishing to repay Bill for having helped her at Ziegler’s Christmas party. If the mansion scene has really happened, though, her willingness to take the punishment (presumably death) for a man she apparently doesn’t know could come from her hatred of her life as an exploited prostitute, a kind of suicide.

As the focal point of Bill’s dream, the secret society is, on the one hand, an intimidatingly powerful, wealthy, influential group, and on the other hand, an envied group whose indulgence in forbidden pleasures is something Bill would love to join. They could, in this sense, be seen to represent the NWO of the conspiracy theorists (many have tried unconvincingly to associate the secret society with such things as the Illuminati), that is, in his imagination, in his dreams, as opposed to reality.

The secret society could also represent–again, in Bill’s imagination only–the “corporatists” that the right-wing libertarians accuse of perverting the “free market.” The corporatist NWO is both feared and unconsciously admired and envied, since they have a power and influence that their detractors would gladly wield, were the detractors as rich and successful.

Bill is conflicted between his id wanting to join the big club we aren’t in and participating in their lewd indulgence, and his superego‘s moral condemnation of their wickedness, hence his leaving the house unscathed and sexually unfulfilled, with a prostitute dying for him. The right-wing libertarian similarly condemns the corruption of the bourgeois state and its super-rich beneficiaries, imagining that this corruption has nothing to do with “real capitalism,” when it is easy to believe that, were he to rise up to the level of the elite, he too would be defending his and their opulence, claiming they’d got there through ‘hard work, gumption, and talent,’ rather than through the merciless exploitation of the working class. Just look at the libertarian Koch brothers to see what I mean.

The liberal has similar repressed desires, including his wish to preserve his class privileges, though his loftier ego ideal would have him pretend to care for the exploited, as Bill consciously does Mandy.

So, a combination of Bill’s jealousy over Alice’s suspected infidelity, his smoking of weed intensifying that jealousy and fogging his mind, his fatigue throughout the night, his presumed napping in the cabs, and his own guilt over his near-succumbing to temptation has all blurred the boundary between fantasy and reality for him.

The stress he has felt–Was the Mysterious Woman murdered by the secret society? Was she Mandy? Did she just OD one too many times? Will the secret society have him and his family killed? Did he just dream/imagine it all?–is at least to a large extent just a dramatization of his own conflict.

Projecting onto a murderous, rich elite helps Bill to forget that he, too, has at least wanted, and has the money, to exploit prostitutes, just as Milich, the owner of the small costuming business, prostitutes his own daughter. Whether petite or grande, bourgeois are still bourgeois.

Bill has the same desires as Alice, who definitely dreams of being in an orgy with men and laughs while dreaming, then weeps about it after waking up. Here we see the difference between the indulgent unconscious and the censorious conscious mind. Bill also has the same desires as Ziegler, whose Christmas party, with the constant flirtation among the guests, is a double of the mansion orgy, as well as its inspiration for Bill’s dream. Alice’s orgy dream is also a double of the mansion orgy dream.

If the mansion orgy is a dream, so is every following scene associated with it. These scenes include Bill’s return to the house gates to receive the warning letter, his fortuitous discovery of a newspaper article about Mandy’s death by drug overdose, his seeing her body at the morgue (his id ogling her nude body like a necrophile, though his superego mourns her death and his ego fears for his and his family’s lives), and Ziegler’s explanation that her “sacrifice” was staged. All of these scenes thus are unconscious wish-fulfillments, expressions of Eros, as well as expressions of the death drive.

Finally, Bill breaks down and cries in his bedroom, waking Alice up, because he sees his mask on the pillow beside her. Is this because the secret society’s muscle have been following him everywhere, or has he, because of all the stress he’s been enduring, hallucinated it? (Alice doesn’t seem to notice it.)

After all, he returned to Domino’s apartment with a gift, hoping to finish what he started the last time; and since she wasn’t home, but her pretty roommate was there instead, he was tempted to cheat with her. The news of Domino being HIV-positive reinforces the sex/death link. Domino’s bedroom walls are also covered in masks, inspiring the mansion dream as well as linking his guilt feelings with seeing (or hallucinating) his mask lying on his pillow.

He tearfully confesses everything to Alice, and the last scene shows them Christmas shopping with their daughter in the toy section of a department store. Their discussion of the matter doesn’t seem to be so much about the threats of a secret society as about his guilt feelings. This would explain why, as a solution, their focus is on loving each other, and why Alice says that, as soon as possible, they should “Fuck.” It’s all about dealing with their temptations to adultery, not a fear of being murdered.

Meanwhile, Christmas lights and decorations have been seen throughout the movie, except for the ‘Satanic’ mansion scene, of course. Christmas in this context should not in any way be confused with the Christmas spirit. In line with the commodification of women (symbolic of the exploitation of the working class in general) seen from beginning to end, Christmas here should be understood only in terms of consumerism, the fetishization of commodities, hence the final scene of the Harfords doing their Christmas shopping.

The point is that ending the elite’s exploitation of prostitutes, and of all of the working class, must include those lower-level bourgeois, like Bill, also no longer exploiting other people. One cannot stop at overthrowing those at the very top; one must overturn the entire capitalist system, and those among the petite bourgeoisie can be a great help, provided they join the workers’ cause. As Mao once said, “Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie.” (Mao, page 7)

Consider the opening of Traumnovelle, when the daughter of Fridolin and Albertine is reading the story in which “brown slaves” row a prince’s galley to a caliph’s palace. The narration’s concern is with the prince meeting the princess once he reaches the shore; the slaves, however, are as faceless, as anonymously disposable, as the nude masked women in the mansion.

Bill has shown all that concern for Mandy, but he has done so from the hypocritical point of view of a liberal. As with his condolences for Domino over her having tested HIV-positive, his empathy for Mandy is a thin disguise–a mask–covering his desire to have both women in bed.

The proletariat is always “ready to redeem” the bourgeoisie, suffering and dying so the rich can continue to live well. “Someone died,” Ziegler says to Bill, referring to Mandy. “It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t.” The eyes of the bourgeoisie are wide open to the pleasures they can see, but shut to the suffering of those they pay to give them that pleasure. Life is a dream story for the wealthy, but a nightmare, a trauma novella, for the poor.

Analysis of ‘Last Tango in Paris’

Last Tango in Paris is a 1972 erotic film co-written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (the other writers being Franco Arcalli and dialogue writers Agnès Varda and Jean-Louis Trintignant). It stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as two lovers sharing an apartment and having an anonymous sexual relationship.

The film is controversial for its violent sexuality, in particular for a scene in which Paul (Brando) anally rapes Jeanne (Schneider). Upon release in the US, it got an X rating from the MPAA, even with the most graphic scene cut. It was, however, universally well-received in France, and was praised by Pauline Kael and Robert Altman. Brando received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Bertolucci was nominated for Best Director.

Here are some quotes:

“Fucking GOD!!!” –Paul, with his hands over his ears at the overwhelming sound of a passing train overhead (first line)

“That’s your happiness, and my hap-penis.” –Paul, when Jeanne puts her hands on his crotch

Jeanne: I fell in love with him when I heard him playing piano.
Paul: You mean when he first got into your knickers.
Jeanne: He was a child prodigy; he was playing with both hands.
Paul: I bet he was!

“Olympia is the personification of domestic virtue: faithful, economic and racist.” –Jeanne

Jeanne: Free? I’m not free. You want to know why you don’t want to know anything about me? Because you hate women.
Paul: Oh, really?
Jeanne: What have they ever done to you?
Paul: Well, either they always pretend to know who I am, or they pretend that I don’t know who they are, and that’s very boring.

“It’s beautiful without knowing anything.” –Jeanne

“Go get the butter.” –Paul

“Family secrets? I’ll tell you about family secrets.” –Paul, to Jeanne, preparing to sodomize her

“No, you’re alone. You’re all alone. And you won’t be able to be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean that sounds like bullshit. Some romantic crap. Until you go right up into the ass of death. Right up in his ass. ‘Til you find the womb of fear.” –Paul, to Jeanne

Paul: Put your fingers up my ass. Are you deaf? Go on. I’m gonna get a pig. And I’m gonna have the pig fuck you. And I want the pig to vomit in your face. Then I want you to swallow the vomit. Are you gonna do that for me?
Jeanne: Yes! Yeah!
Paul: I want the pig to die while you’re fucking him. Then you have to go behind it. I want you to smell the dying farts of the pig. Are you gonna do all of that for me?

“A little touch of Mommy in the night. Fake Ophelia drowned in a bathtub.” –Paul, to Rosa’s corpse

“Our marriage was nothing more than a foxhole for you. And all it took for you to get out was a 35-cent razor and a tub full of water. You cheap, goddamn, fucking, godforsaken whore, I hope you rot in hell. You’re worse than the dirtiest street pig that anybody could ever find anywhere, and you know why? You know why? Because you lied. You lied to me and I trusted you. You lied and you knew you were lying. Go on, tell me you didn’t lie. Haven’t you got anything to say about that? You can think up something, can’t you? Go on, tell me something! Go on, smile, you cunt!” [crying] “Go on, tell me… tell me something sweet. Smile at me and say I just misunderstood. Go on, tell me. You pig-fucker… you goddamn, fucking, pig-fucking liar.” [sobbing] “Rosa… I’m sorry, I… I just – I can’t stand it to see these goddamn things on your face!” [peels off her fake eyelashes] “You never wore make-up… this fucking shit. I’m gonna take this off your mouth, this – this lipstick… Rosa – oh GOD! I’m sorry! I – I don’t know why you did it! I’d do it too, if I knew how… I just don’t know how… I have to… have to find a way…” –Paul, to his dead wife at her wake

Paul: You ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia, and now I’ve found you… and I love you. I want to know your name.
Jeanne: Jeanne. [she shoots him]

“I don’t know his name…” –Jeanne, in French (last line of the film)

As suggested by the two Francis Bacon portraits of a man and a woman seen during the opening credits, the theme of duality is ever-present in this film: male vs female, English vs French languages, an American (Paul) vs a Frenchwoman (Jeanne), old vs young, life vs death, knowing vs unknowing (or, as Wilfred Bion would have said, K vs -K), lies vs truth, illusion vs reality, Jeanne’s cheating on her fiancé, Thomas (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), vs Paul’s wife, Rosa (Veronica Lazar), cheating on him, and Paul’s hotel vs the apartment he and Jeanne rent for their sexual relationship.

Paul is an American widower living in Paris and mourning his wife, Rosa, who has recently committed suicide after having been discovered in an affair with a man staying in Paul’s hotel, named Marcel (played by Massimo Girotti). By chance, Paul and Jeanne find themselves renting the same apartment. As the two of them converse, they both switch back and forth between French and English. The scene climaxes (pardon the expression) with them having sex.

After that, Jeanne rushes off to find her fiancé, Thomas, a young film director with exuberant feelings about his moments of artistic inspiration, to the point of looking, to put it bluntly, foolish. As such, he makes the perfect cuckold, a sharp contrast to jaded, macho, pouting Paul.

The engaged couple kiss ecstatically, and Thomas tells her about a TV project, ‘Portrait of a Girl,’ he’s filming with her. He hasn’t told her about it yet, because he wants it to be a surprise. The cameras are rolling as they speak. She is annoyed that he’d do this without asking her consent first.

This TV film they’re making is supposed to be about her life, but how much of it really is autobiographical, and how much of it is made up, is anyone’s guess. One finds it safe to assume that Jeanne doesn’t want to reveal all that much of her personal life to the general public.

Now, whatever extent this TV film is a break from reality is nothing compared to the break from the real world that Paul wants to establish with Jeanne in the private, cut-off world of their affair in the apartment. He doesn’t want them to know each other’s names, nor are they to discuss anything true about their pasts.

Their room, as he sees it, is a sanctuary from the pain and suffering of the world outside. He’d rather the two of them have animal grunts instead of names, so in one scene he grunts like a gorilla, and she makes a high-pitched, bird-like, extended rhotic trill. Theirs is an Edenic rejection of civilization. How appropriate that they’re both nude when they make these animal sounds: they’re like Adam and Eve before eating the forbidden fruit…or at least they’re trying to be like them.

Recall that Adam and Eve didn’t have their names yet. He named her Eve only after the Fall (Genesis 3:20), and he was ‘named’ Adam only insofar as, in the original Hebrew, he was ‘adam (“man”) from the ‘adamah (the dirt, or dust, of the ground–Genesis 2:7). Theirs was a world of unknowing prior to the Fall, since the forbidden fruit was from the Tree of Knowledge. Ignorance is bliss: Paul is trying to create a paradise out of unknowing. The two naked lovers are in a Garden of Eden of their own (given his dominance over Jeanne, note the irony in my allusive choice of words). This ‘paradise’ is something Paul imagines will help him get over his grief over Rosa’s suicide.

Put another way, Paul is using Jeanne to play a role in his Edenic fantasy, just as Thomas is using her for his film fantasy. Both men get irritated if she does anything to defy their wishes to carry on acting out these fantasies: at a train station, Thomas actually throws punches at her for refusing to carry on with the film. She would be free to live her own life…but they don’t want to let her do so.

In one of her attempts at defiance of Paul’s rule that he and she never learn anything about each other, she goes through his jacket pockets to find some identification on him. Nude except for a scarf wrapped around her neck, Jeanne looks like Eve picking one of the forbidden fruits off the Tree of Knowledge (i.e., his jacket, hung up by the entrance to the bathroom, as if it were a cluster of leaves).

Since Paul is making the rules, forbidding any gaining of knowledge, he represents not only Adam, but also Yahweh. On his way to the bathroom, Paul approaches her after she’s looked through his jacket pockets, and in a way he seems like Yahweh “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). Paul enjoys her, as Adam enjoyed Eve, and he rules over her, as Yahweh did…and Adam did (Genesis 3:16).

Naturally, Jeanne resents Paul’s dominance and accuses him of hating women. She complains that she is merely his whore, though she–being a non-native English speaker–mispronounces the word as “wore.” This mispronunciation can be seen as a Freudian slip, for he and she, during their sexual unions prior to this scene, “wore” each other, as it were, each other’s bodies as clothes on their own nakedness; but this ‘wearing’ of flesh as metaphorical clothing especially applies to Paul in his ‘wearing’ of her body, his using it as a kind of commodity.

Indeed, the movie itself uses Maria Schneider as a commodity: if she isn’t nude, she is in tight blue jeans spreading her legs, or topless and arching her back in them to accentuate her ass as she does a scene masturbating. She’s the one showing off her body, not Brando (except when he moons the female emcee of a tango contest towards the end of the film). Schneider complained much of how poorly she was treated during filming, especially the “butter” scene.

Though the infamous scene of Paul sodomizing Jeanne was, of course, just simulated sex, Schneider was actually traumatized during the filming; she “was crying real tears” and complained of feeling “humiliated and…a little raped.” The scene was not originally in the script, and she would have refused to do it had she known she could.

If she’d felt “a little raped” during a scene of simulated sex, that sounds suspiciously like a PTSD flashback reaction to a memory of a real rape. For Schneider’s sake, I hope I’m wrong in speculating that about her real life history.

As unpleasant as the experience of filming that scene was for her, though, in terms of adding to the plot and symbolism of the story, I see the “butter” scene as full of meaning. As I said above, Paul is using Jeanne to help him, in the form of his anonymous Edenic fantasy, to process his grieving over Rosa’s suicide. Paul has absolutely no right at all to use Jeanne in this way, but he does anyway.

He weeps like a baby over Rosa’s death. This infant-like weeping is significant, for in Rosa, her mother, and Jeanne, I suspect Paul is doing a transference onto them of his Oedipal feelings for his own mother. His macho, sexist exterior is a reaction formation, a false self hiding the dependent baby within. Normally, we think of a transference happening between a patient and his or her therapist (i.e., feelings of childhood relationships transferred onto the analyst), and Paul is, in a way, using Jeanne to be his therapist; but transference can be achieved between any two people.

He lives with Rosa’s mother (played by Maria Michi) in his “flophouse” hotel, and just as he isn’t particularly nice to Jeanne, so is he abrasive with Rosa’s mother and was, I suspect, to Rosa herself (Could his nastiness have driven her into Marcel’s arms, then to her death? It seems that way.).

His bad attitude toward women is probably rooted in his relationship with his mother; object relations theory explains how our early childhood relationships with our parents and primary caregivers are like blueprints for how our relationships with people will be later in life. When Paul speaks to Jeanne of his mother, he says that she was, on the one hand, a drunk, and he implies that she was promiscuous (implying, in turn, his own Oedipal jealousy–he remembers her having been “arrested nude”); and on the other hand, he says she was “poetic,” and she inspired a love of nature in him. Such a dual attitude suggests a psychological splitting of her into the ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad mother.’

So Paul’s frustrations with the ‘bad mother’ end up being transferred onto Jeanne, Rosa’s mother, and probably Rosa herself when she was alive. He certainly treats Rosa’s corpse like a bad mother when he tearfully rants at her, calling her every four-letter name imaginable, then sobs like a baby.

To deal with all of his frustration, Paul must project it, as a baby would onto his mother when, for example, she doesn’t provide the breast for him. A baby pushes his negative feelings onto his mother, making her contain them, then return them to him in a detoxified form. Bion‘s theory of containment uses a masculine symbol (implying a phallus) for the baby’s contained feelings of agitation, and a feminine symbol (implying a yoni) for his mother as a container. Hence, the sex act is a perfect symbol for this notion of containing and detoxifying agitating emotional experiences. (See here for a more thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Unfortunately for Jeanne, though, her anus is the symbolic container, not her vagina; so the sodomy represents negative containment. This kind of containment does not lead to the soothing, detoxifying kind that is supposed to happen for a baby whose mother has a capacity for reverie, or for a psychotic patient whose psychotherapist is playing the soothing, maternal role. Rather, it leads to a nameless dread, the trauma Jeanne is experiencing. As I said above, Paul is using Jeanne as a kind of therapist on whom he can thrust all of his pain, but she cannot be expected to play such a role.

As he is sodomizing her, he has her repeat his reflections on “family secrets,” which sound suspiciously like traumatizing experiences he had as a child because of his family, and maybe his church, too. He reflects on the social lie that the family is “a holy institution meant to breed virtue in savages,” that the “holy family” is a “church of good citizens,” but really, “the children are tortured until they tell their first lie,” ” the world is broken by repression,” and “freedom is assassinated by egotism.” So this so-called “holy family” is really just “you…fucking…family.” When he comes, he grunts, “Oh, God…Jesus,” implying the hypocrisies not only of the bourgeois, church-going family, but also the myth of the Church’s Holy Family. Outside, the phallic overhead train is seen flying by.

This linking of the hypocrisies of the family of “virtue” with those of the “church of good citizens” seems to shed light on the meaning of his condemnation of “fucking God,” both at the beginning of the film, with the thundering noise of the phallic overhead train, and in his refusal to allow Rosa’s mother to have any priests at Rosa’s funeral.

I believe we should take literally Paul’s references to “fucking God” and “you fucking family”: this isn’t just gratuitous swearing. There’s the phoney virtue of the Father-God of the sanctimonious Church, some of whose priests (“Fathers”) rape children and go unpunished (Did this happen to Paul as a boy, hence his anal rape of Jeanne to have her contain his trauma…or did one of his parents sexually abuse him?).

Then there’s the “fucking god” of Greek myth, Zeus, or Jupiter (Dieus-pater), the sky-father god who hurled thunderbolts as noisy as that overhead train that seems to fly by–in the sky, as it were. Zeus, who also ravished nymphs and pretty maidens, seems to resemble Paul’s “whore-fucker” father…and he seems to resemble Paul himself. The sky-father isn’t the God of the Church, but the rapist Zeus.

Belief in God is often seen as a transference of feelings for one’s father onto the heavenly deity. Along with the love one feels for, and the need one has for security from, the father-God, also comes the sense of the god’s authoritarian dominance, rooted in the authority of one’s father.

Recall how Paul describes his father as “tough,” a “whore-fucker,” and “super-masculine,” all of which sound like projections of his macho self, but which could also be him identifying with his father. He claims that he may not have been telling Jeanne the truth about his past, but even his lying can have included unconscious, Freudian-slip confessions of truth…if he even is lying.

Added to all of this is the surprising civility he shows to Marcel: shouldn’t he be throwing punches at the man who seduced his wife? Marcel is older than Paul, though actor Girotti was older than Brando by only six years. Brando was about 48 when making this film, but Paul–in his truthful revealing of himself to Jeanne at the end of the story–says he’s 45, allowing for a greater age difference between him and Marcel, who could be even older than Girotti, and therefore older than Paul by several more years.

My point in mentioning these age differences is that, if Paul has transferred his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Rosa, then he easily could have also done such a transference from his father onto Marcel. The fear of his “tough,” “super-masculine,” and (symbolically) castrating father (who bullied him into milking a cow and getting cow-shit on his nice shoes before taking a girl to a basketball game) has been transferred, however unconsciously, onto Marcel, thus preventing Paul from fighting the older man…and as we know, Paul is easily provoked to violence.

Paul punches a door, in what looks like a childish temper tantrum, in response to Rosa’s mother asking why Rosa killed herself (her mother didn’t know she’d had an affair with Marcel, hence Paul’s anger). He grabs, throws around, and slaps a man for not wanting to sleep with an old prostitute, one who knew Rosa and is desperate for the money; Paul shouts at the would-be john, calling him a “faggot.” But he won’t fight Marcel.

Paul is far more upset about Rosa’s suicide than her adultery. My interpretation, that he has transferred his Oedipal feelings from his parents onto Rosa and Marcel, can explain this: unconscious fear of his father, transferred onto Marcel, inhibits and restrains his anger at the adultery; unconscious fear of abandonment by his mother, transferred onto Rosa, explains how Paul not only mourns, but has fallen to pieces, over her suicide.

He enters the room where her body is being kept, and he makes two Shakespearian allusions: “a little touch of Mommy in the night,” and Rosa is a “fake Ophelia drowned in a bathtub,” surrounded in flowers. Rosa’s mother has arranged this gaudy presentation of her body, heavily made up, and Paul is disgusted at the over-the-top display. Henry V, in the Bard’s play, is a paternal figure going about the camp, concerned with the morale of his army, who are about to fight the French the next morning; Paul’s allusion, of course, is sheer sarcasm. Ophelia’s suicide, provoked by her mad boyfriend, Hamlet, is like Rosa’s suicide, provoked by her mad husband.

Paul lets out a long, four-letter rant at his wife’s corpse. He sobs like a baby frustrated with its mother for denying it what it needs (and recall that he’s transferred his feelings for his mother onto Rosa). His hostile attitude toward Rosa is like a baby going through what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, in which Mother is seen as all bad. Then, weeping even more profusely, Paul apologizes to Rosa and lets his body fall onto hers; he’s like a baby going through the depressive position and wanting reparation with the mother it has hated. This scene seems to show Paul finally processing his grief with a degree of success, unlike his attempts to have Jeanne contain his pain.

Because he feels he has largely processed his grief and exorcized his demons, Paul no longer needs his anonymous sexual Garden of Eden with Jeanne, and so he not only stops using the apartment, but he also removes all the furniture there, all without telling her. She finds the abandoned room and sobs in frustration and desolation.

There has never really been a connection between the two, outside of the sex. In an earlier scene, Paul leaves the apartment, shutting the door in her face, and not even saying goodbye to her. He hasn’t wanted to know her name, nor have her know his, because he hasn’t wanted them to know each other at all, beyond physically. This unknowing has been his definition of Eden: not eating of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, what Bion called -K. Ignorance is bliss, as I said above.

The K-link is a link between subject and object, or between the self and other; it has its origin in the mother/infant relationship, developed through the container/contained exchange of emotional experiences as described above. But Paul doesn’t want to grow in K with Jeanne; accordingly, when she describes her sexual experiences, she notices that he never listens to her. He orders her around, with never a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ when he wants her to get the butter or the manicure scissors.

There’s no mutuality in their relationship, so there’s no growth in K as shared, exchanged knowledge of emotional experiences between two people. Even though he has her stick her fingers up his ass, this is no equalizing reversal of his having sodomized her, for it is he who’s wanted it, not her. He isn’t containing her pain, as he’s had her contain his during the anal rape.

Just before she puts her fingers up his ass, we hear him rationalizing his alienating of her by saying that we’re “all alone.” Only going “right up into the ass of death,” looking death straight in the face, to “find the womb of fear” (his words sound like an expression of his facing his infantile Oedipal trauma), will we “be free of that feeling of being alone.”

Jeanne tells Thomas about the apartment and tells him on the phone there that they should consider it as their new home when they’re married. He arrives and looks around; she mentions a room too small for a bed, but one in which a baby could sleep. This leads to a discussion of baby names.

Both of them would name their future son or daughter after communist revolutionaries: Fidel or Rosa [!], the latter being not as well-known, but also “not bad,” in Thomas’s opinion. Here we see the hypocrisy of the bourgeois liberal, posing as progressives, masquerading in the trappings of radical chic. One might think, for example, of a critic of Cuba who still wears a Che Guevara T-shirt: the unsuccessful revolutionary is “not bad,” whereas the successful one is considered bad.

We can see this hypocrisy earlier in the film, in Jeanne’s judgement of her nurse Olympia as “racist,” on the one hand, but also in her love and admiration for her late father, the colonel in Algeria who died in 1958 (of whom she forbids Paul to speak disrespectfully), presumably killed in battle during the Algerian fight for independence from France (which included such Marxist revolutionaries as Frantz Fanon), ending in an Algerian victory in 1962, ten years before this story.

A true progressive leftist would condemn her father’s defence of imperialism and colonialism, but Jeanne has loved her father “like a god” (she even wears his uniform and points his phallic pistol in a scene in her home, an act of identification with him), an interesting point to be made in connection with the ‘fucking gods’ in Paul’s life, as discussed above. Her love of “the colonel,” thinking he looked handsome in his uniform, is no less an Oedipal fixation than is Paul’s towards his parents and their transferences, Rosa and Marcel, as well as Rosa’s mother and even Jeanne herself.

Jeanne’s mother is no less racist than that “personification of domestic virtue,” Olympia (who notes that their old dog, Mustapha, could recognize an Arab by his smell, as well as tell the difference between the rich and the poor): her mother calls the Berbers “a strong race, but as servants–disastrous,” a typical bourgeois imperialist attitude. Jeanne has no more words of criticism for her mother than for her father, yet she would name her son after Castro.

Ever wanting to capture Jeanne in his world of filmic fantasy, Thomas imagines getting shots of her dancing about the apartment, her arms spread out like an airplane’s wings…but the vivacity he sees in her eyes perhaps raises his suspicions that she’s been seeing another man–in this very apartment? (Recall all those times previously, when she’s had to rush off after filming.) As a result, he wants to find another apartment for them. He says goodbye and shakes her hand, as if they were mere business partners, or friends, rather than lovers.

I suspect she has seen suspicion in his eyes, raising her fears. These fears, combined with how badly Paul has treated her, strengthen her resolution: she must break it off with Paul. He, of course, won’t have that: she is a mere possession in his eyes, and she isn’t allowed to live her own life without him.

Not only does he want to start the relationship all over again, he also wants them to know each other. They’ve left the Garden of Eden that was their rented apartment, and now he’d have them eat of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. Jeanne is not impressed with what he tells her of his dull life. Paradise is lost. Paul’s quest for knowledge (K), like that of Adam and Eve, as well as of Oedipus, will destroy him.

Paul and Jeanne go into a place where a tango competition is almost finished. He says that the tango is a rite. The stylized movements of the dancers certainly give off that ceremonial effect: they are precise and graceful, but their Apollonian discipline and precision look artificial.

Paul and Jeanne, however, are Dionysian drunks at their table, drinking champagne and whiskey and making a toast to a “life in the country,” which Jeanne finds distasteful. Earlier, Thomas filmed her at her country home with Olympia, and so the idea of a life in the country with Paul suggests an intrusion by him into her world.

Paul decides they should join the dancers, and their drunken clumsiness among the tangoing couples is a scandal to see. Since the tango symbolizes the sexual union of a man and a woman (hence, the film’s title), Paul’s and Jeanne’s Dionysian tumbling exposes the artificiality of the sexual relationship as symbolized by the precise, Apollonian tango dancing. She wants to break it off with him, yet she grins as she goes piggyback on his shoulders onto the dance floor.

They sit again at a dark area on the other side of the dance floor. Paul makes another Shakespearian allusion: “If music be the food of love, play on,” originally said by Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, in his sadness over his unrequited love for the lady Olivia. In fact, the play’s central theme is unrequited love, which is exactly Paul’s predicament at the moment.

Lacan once provocatively said that there’s no relation between the sexes: love is an illusion; it doesn’t last (Will Jeanne’s and Thomas’s love last?). Indeed, for all the hype surrounding this film as an X-rated, erotic film, there isn’t all that much sex in it–how symbolic of the lack of a relationship between the sexes. There’s Paul’s and Jeanne’s first fuck when they meet in the apartment, there’s Schneider showing off her nakedness several times, there’s the profanity, the butter scene, Jeanne’s fingers up Paul’s ass after he bathes her, and there’s the hand job she gives him during the tango competition. In a film over two hours long, that’s about it: little more than morsels of porn.

She runs out onto the streets, and he chases her. At one point, just before she reaches her apartment building, he’s ahead of her, but he steps out of her way, reminding us of when Brando stepped out of Vivien Leigh‘s way towards the end of A Streetcar Named Desire (then Kowalski, it’s strongly implied in the 1951 film version, rapes Blanche). Paul races after Jeanne into her apartment, fighting his way inside as she tries to close the door on him, his forcing his way in being symbolic of raping her.

Inside her apartment, he puts on the cap that’s part of her father’s old uniform. She, standing in front of a drawer that holds her father’s old pistol, frowns at the sight of Paul in the hat. He may have transferred his Oedipal feelings onto Rosa and Jeanne, but Jeanne would never transfer her love of her father onto Paul. His mock saluting feels like more disrespect to her father.

He wants to know her name. As with Adam, the day of gaining knowledge is also the day Paul will die (Genesis 2:17). No sooner does she say, “Jeanne,” than she also pulls the trigger and puts a bullet into his gut.

This wound is his experience of negative containment. His gut is the yonic container, the bullet her ejaculated pain, now contained in him, and he’ll feel that nameless dread for these last few seconds of his life as he staggers out onto the balcony. She’s returned to him what he gave her in the anal rape.

She holds the phallic pistol dangling at waist level, just by her crotch. She is thus the phallic woman, gaining the strength and power she needs to liberate herself from this dominant man. The gun also symbolically makes her what Klein called the terrifying combined parent figure, the mother with a phallus (recall Paul’s words, “the womb of fear”).

Camille Paglia sees the mother “as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement” (Paglia, Preface, page xiii). Paul has tried, but ultimately failed, to escape the ghost of his mother through his “super-masculine” bravado. How fitting that Paul would be killed by Jeanne, on whom he’s transferred his feelings for his mother.

On the balcony, he sticks the gum he’s been chewing on the balustrade; one last projection of his. Next, we see him lying dead out there…in a fetal position. I told you that, behind his macho façade, he was a baby.

She must get her story straight for the police. Conveniently for her, he never got around to telling her his name, so that won’t slip out when she’s telling them she doesn’t know him at all.

But in a larger sense, is she really free of male dominance? Will the mostly (if not all) male police accept her story? And what of her marriage to Thomas, who never wants to stop filming her? Recall how he hit her when she refused to carry on with his filmic fantasies, a direct parallel with Paul’s Edenic use of the rented apartment to disavow all knowledge of the outside world.

“When something’s finished, it begins again”…doesn’t it?

Analysis of ‘Belle de Jour’

Belle de Jour is a 1967 French film by Luis Buñuel, based on the 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy, a young and beautiful housewife who, unable to be intimate with her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), spends her midweek afternoons as a high-class prostitute while he, unsuspecting, is at work as a doctor in a hospital.

“Belle de Jour” (“beauty of the day”), the name Séverine adopts as a prostitute, is a pun on the French expression belle de nuit (“beauty of the night”). She isn’t available at night to satisfy her erotic desires, which involve BDSM, something her mild-mannered, bourgeois husband would never approve of.

Here are some quotes in English translation:

Pierre Serizy: I’d like everything to be perfect too. If only you weren’t so cold.

Séverine Serizy: Please don’t mention that again.

Pierre Serizy: I didn’t mean to upset you. I feel a great tenderness for you.

Séverine Serizy: What good is your tenderness to me?

Pierre Serizy: You can be very cruel when you wish.

“Forgive me.” –Séverine (repeated line)

“Pierre, please, don’t let the cats out.” –Séverine

Henri Husson: You should see a specialist about your obsessions.

Renee: He’s rich and idle. Those are his two main illnesses.

Henri Husson: Don’t forget the hunt. I also have a special weakness for the poor. I think of them when it snows, with no fur coats, no hope, no nothing.

“You go in. The women are there. You pick one. You spend half an hour alone with her and after you leave, you’re depressed all day. But what can you do? Semen retentum venenum est.” –Pierre, to Séverine

Séverine Serizy: I can’t understand women like that.

Henri Husson: It’s the oldest profession in the world. It’s mostly arranged by phone now, but the women in those houses are a special breed.

Séverine Serizy: I’m sure you know them well.

Henri Husson: Yes, I used to go a lot. I enjoyed it. There’s a very special atmosphere. The women are complete slaves. I remember a few around the Opéra. Especially one run by Anaïs. 11 cité Jean de Saumur. I have marvelous memories.

*************

Madame Anais: You’re nice and fresh. Just what they like here. I know it’s hard at first, but who doesn’t need money now and then? We’ll split it fifty-fifty. I have my expenses.

Séverine Serizy: Thank you very much, but I must be going.

Madame Anais: Come on. You’re just a bit nervous. I bet it’s the first time you’ve worked. It’s not really so awful.

**************

Madame Anais: You’re doing fine. You’re a big hit already. Mr. Adolphe is a simple man, so don’t get upset. Do what he wants. That’s all he asks.

Séverine Serizy: No, I want to go.

Madame Anais: What? You about done putting on airs? Where do you think you are? Go on!

**************

Monsieur Adolphe: No, you’re not running off now! Who do you think you are, you little slut?

[slaps Belle de jour]

Monsieur Adolphe: You get me excited and then pull me up short?

[pushes Belle de jour on the bed]

Monsieur Adolphe: You can put on airs for a while, but I’ve had enough!

[Belle de jour lies calmly on the bed]

Monsieur Adolphe: There. See? That’s more like it. So, you need the rough stuff, do you?

**************

Henri Husson: [In Séverine’s dream fantasy, she is wearing a long white, sleeveless dress] How’s your wife?

Pierre Serizy: Very well, thanks.

Henri Husson: Where is she?

Pierre Serizy: Right over there. Want to say hello?

Henri Husson: I’d love to. How are you little slut?

Pierre Serizy: Everything okay, you tramp?

Henri Husson: [throwing mud on Séverine] Old whore!

Pierre Serizy: Maggot!

Henri Husson: Sodomite!

Pierre Serizy: Scum!

Henri Husson: Fellatomane! Tramp! Harlot!

**************

Prof. Henri: I love you. I love you, I tell you. Now walk on me. Spit on me. Stomp on my face.

Charlotte: Dirty old man! Pig! I’ll teach you!

Prof. Henri: But I love you! Marquise, hit me harder!

**************

Duke’s Butler: [Fantasy sequence] Monsieur Duke, shall I let the cats in?

Duke: To hell with you and your cats!

“I’d slit my father’s throat for less, but friendship comes first. We’re not gonna fight over some slut, eh?” –Hippolyte

Marcel: Leave your stockings on. A girl tried to strangle me once. Poor thing.

Séverine Serizy: If you like, I won’t charge you.

Marcel: Naturally. Plenty of girls would love to be in your place.

**************

Séverine Serizy: Don’t tell Pierre.

Henri Husson: Pierre? I admire him more and more.

Séverine Serizy: Please don’t tell him. At least try to understand. I’m lost. I can’t help it. I can’t fight it. I know I’ll have to atone for everything one day. But I couldn’t live without it. Fine! Do as you like with me!

Henri Husson: No. Not now, anyway. I guess what attracted me about you was your virtue. You were the wife of a boy scout. That’s all changed now. I have principles, unlike you.

The film begins with a scene of Séverine and Pierre riding in a coach on a country road covered in autumn leaves. The jingling of sleigh bells is heard. Husband and wife declare their growing love for each other, but she remains cool to his sexual advances. Though normally gentle and sensitive to her wish not to rush into love-making (actually, they’ve already been married for a year, with him never having her…even once!), Pierre suddenly gets angry, orders the two coachmen to stop, and he tries to pull her out of the coach.

When she demands that he let her go, he has the two men grab her and take her out to the trees, where she, resisting all she can, is tied to one. Pierre tears away her top and bra to bare her back, and he orders the men to flog her. She begs him to stop.

During the flogging, she oddly asks Pierre not to let the cats out. When the flogging is finished, he tells one of the men to enjoy her while he smokes a cigarette and watches. The coachman’s kisses, on the back of the neck as he’s about to have her, cause her to close her eyes and sigh with pleasure.

The scene suddenly switches to her in her bed, with Pierre in his pyjamas, approaching. The whole coach scene has been a sex fantasy of hers…not a sexual assault.

In this fantasy, we can glean a number of things about her character. The jingling of the bells, a motif heard many times, and in many forms, throughout the movie during her sex fantasies, symbolizes the vibrating pleasure she feels in her vagina (the ‘bell’); the clappers of the bells (or their ball-bearings inside) can be seen to represent either her hymen–as we assume that her frigidity has made her wish to return to virginity, if it hasn’t kept her a virgin the whole time–or they represent a phallus jerking away inside her.

Either way, in this symbolism we see Séverine’s central conflict: to bang, or not to bang. She is cold to her husband’s passion, yet she fantasizes of wild, transgressive sex with strangers. Her name, a feminine version of Severin, the name of the main character of Venus in Furs, suggests her masochistic tendencies. Yet her beauty, as well as her urges to cheat on her man, suggests cruel, sadistic Wanda from the same novella.

So what we have in Belle de Jour is the sublation of the contradictions of sexual purity vs. licentiousness, of sadism vs. masochism, and of woman’s sexual subservience vs. her sexual liberation. In Venus in Furs, we had Severin’s arousal fuelled by opposites that are never properly reconciled (Sacher-Masoch, page 29); in this film, we see a constant unity of opposites…or at least an attempted unity of them.

‘Not letting out the cats’ seems to be a reference to the exposure of her genitals. While she says chats (cats) instead of chatte (pussy), this seems to be a distortion in her wish-fulfillment, a censoring of her erotic desires that is comparable to Severin’s use of Katzen in Venus in Furs (see my analysis–link above). Séverine says she wouldn’t have “the cats” let out, yet her eyes wish they’d be let out.

The next day, she and Pierre meet with Renée (Macha Méril) and Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), this latter man being discomfiting to Séverine in how frankly he tells her of how “séduisante” she is. She rejects his sexual advances with a harshness she never uses on her gentle, nice-guys-finish-last husband; but over the course of the movie, we realize that Husson is involved in her dreams and repressed fantasies, too.

Recall her dream, much later on in the movie, of being with him at a table in a restaurant, the two grinning as they look in each other’s eyes: he breaks a wine bottle–symbolic of her broken hymen–and the two of them go under the table, where he gives her an envelope, symbolic of sex (i.e., a phallic letter in a yonic envelope). Pierre and Renée are at the table, too, fairly indifferent to it all, beyond his mild curiosity. Séverine wants Husson, but she’ll never admit to this.

I mentioned earlier the many sublated contradictions in this film; but there is one contradiction that cannot be reconciled, no matter how hard Séverine tries. This is the contradiction between her hypocritical bourgeois morality, her wish to retain her respectable public image, and the satisfaction of her private, transgressive desires.

Exposing bourgeois hypocrisy is a favourite theme of Luis Buñuel, and he pushes this theme to the hilt in this movie. Husson would seem to be Buñuel’s mouthpiece here, in his sardonic wish to expose Henriette’s, and later Séverine’s, wish to be prostitutes; but I suspect insincerity in him when he says he worries about the poor when left out in the cold…especially when we learn that he likes frequenting whorehouses, places where poor women are mercilessly exploited by pimps and madams.

Séverine’s wish to work for Anaïs (Geneviève Page), the madam of a high class brothel, is a strange one, apart from her already-established masochistic tendencies. These tendencies seem rooted in a childhood experience of having been touched inappropriately by a man: did the touching get carried any further…towards penetrative rape? We don’t know. In any case, it explains her frigidity (recall the repulsion towards sex that young Deneuve has acted out elsewhere in cinema).

Given that the film was made in 1967, during the rise of second-wave feminism and its drive to encourage housewives to leave the home and pursue careers, we find it curious that Séverine, a well-provided-for bourgeois housewife, should choose prostitution of all things as fulfilling work. Though she is escaping the patriarchal prison of the house and her husband as her only sexual partner, she is also willingly subjecting herself to the sexual degradation of being objectified and used by lecherous men.

In this contradiction, we see the controversy between anti- and pro-prostitution feminism. In her masochism, Séverine is subjecting herself to exploitation, as an example of the excesses of the pleasure-pain of what Jacques Lacan called jouissance; but unlike proletarian women and girls forced into such exploitation because of the poverty that capitalism creates, Séverine, as a bourgeois woman, freely chooses it.

Naturally, she is conflicted about selling herself at first. She meets Madame Anaïs, but tries to run away, making her procuress force her into yielding to such louts as the porcine Monsieur Adolphe (Francis Blanche). As a bourgeois woman, Séverine could easily leave; her masochistic jouissance, however, forces her to stay and service him. It is her need to preserve her hypocritical bourgeois public image that makes her unwilling to give her body over to male lust, not any feeling of disgust.

When she first learns, through her friend Renée, that a woman they know, Henriette, has been selling herself, Séverine says with a frown that it must be horrifying to have sex with strangers…yet the thought of becoming a prostitute herself is turning round and round in her mind. She later asks her husband about his experiences in brothels, which he says were few and ultimately unsatisfying; but when he says in Latin that semen retained is poison, she is disgusted with him.

This here is an example of the hypocritical bourgeois liberal mentality: her id has all these wild, untamed desires, in her case leading to the excesses of jouissance; but her harsh, overly-judgemental super-ego demands that she live up to the ego-ideal of a proper bourgeois lady. Small wonder her dreams and fantasies include her being either punished or degraded in some way. Her inner battleground is between her conscious and unconscious mind.

Buñuel’s critique of bourgeois moral hypocrisy is personified in Séverine, and expressed elsewhere by Marx: “But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the whole bourgeoisie in chorus.

“The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion, than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

“For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.

“Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others’ wives.

“Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident, that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” —The Communist Manifesto, II: Proletarians and Communists

When Séverine finds the address of Anaïs’ whorehouse and approaches the door, a woman coming down the stairs makes her pretend she’s waiting at the elevator instead of wanting to knock on Anaïs’ door. Immediately before this hiding of her true intentions, another childhood memory of hers runs through her mind: this time, we see little Séverine (about the same age as when that man inappropriately touched her) in church during Mass, refusing to take the Host in her mouth. We hear a man’s voice (that of Pierre?) ask, “Séverine, Séverine, what’s the matter with you?”

Reminded of the memory of the man touching her, we might wonder if there’s a connection between it and the scene during Mass. Is her refusal of the Host symbolic of childhood sexual abuse from the priesthood? Or does her guilt, including a fear of eating the body of Christ unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27), fuel her masochism?

After a few sexual encounters with men like Adolphe, she seems to have processed the childhood trauma she suffered (or, at least, gotten over her bourgeois inhibitions), and now she feels more comfortable as a prostitute. She enjoys servicing an Asian client, who rings a tiny bell as she grins lasciviously at him, standing next to him without her panties on.

A masochistic professor (François Maistre) wants her to help him act out a fantasy of himself as her grovelling servant; but her failure to act out her part as he wishes causes him to bark orders at her, then demand that Anaïs get Charlotte (Françoise Fabian) to take Séverine’s place, for she apparently is only of use in the kitchen. As we can see, masochistic submission becomes dominance: more sublation of opposites. In fact, we can hear the professor ordering Charlotte to hit him harder.

Recall how Freud once said that every sadist is always at the same time also a masochist. Séverine is disgusted to see the professor lower himself so, yet in her fantasies, she’d lower herself much further. Séverine would never have liked Severin, in spite of herself.

Her dreams, as revelatory wish-fulfillments of her desires, continue. We hear cowbells clinking in the background as Pierre and Husson discuss the names of cows: Remorse and Expiation. Here we see an explicit link between Séverine’s masochism and her guilt feelings over cheating on the husband she’s not even once had sex with. He and Husson sling mud at her, symbolic of shit, while she’s tied up, wearing an angelically white gown; they call her “little slut” and “pig.” Her saintly raiment, sullied with the mud, is the sublation of sinner and innocent.

Remember how any ringing of bells, be they cowbells or jingle bells, symbolizes her sexual arousal; so she unconsciously enjoys Husson’s presence as well as his and Pierre’s symbolic defecating on her, though in her conscious mind, bad boy Husson repels her.

Later, she hears those coach sleigh bells in her dream about the Duke (Georges Marchal), who would have her play the role of his dead love in a coffin. In his passion for her as she lies practically naked in the coffin, wearing only a black see-through garment, we see the sublation of libido (part of Eros, the will to live) and Thanatos, the death drive…or the pleasure-pain of jouissance. (We’d need only hear the Liebestod as heard in the soundtracks of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, and the scene would be perfect.) The coldness of her ‘corpse’ before the Duke suggests a displacement onto him of her frigidity towards Pierre.

Cats are heard meowing. The Duke’s servant knocks at the door, asking if his master wants him to let the cats in; again, in my interpretation, the cats are a symbolic reference to Séverine’s genitalia. The Duke curses at his servant about the cats, suggesting more of the hypocritical bourgeois reaction formation to any frank expression of sexuality.

Shortly after this cursing, the Duke slips down under the coffin with a guilty frown on his face. She feels a jiggling of the coffin, suggesting that the Duke is stimulating her genitals or buttocks in a perverse, disturbing way. After the encounter, and when she’s dressed, the servant brusquely kicks her out of the Duke’s mansion, to leave her in the rain: again, in her fantasizing, she must be punished for her jouissance; also, in the servant’s rudeness to her, we see the bourgeois hypocrisy in enjoying the services of a prostitute, but in also treating her as bestial and beneath the upper classes.

More dualities to be sublated are implied in Belle de Jour vs. belle de nuit, the opposition of day and night. Linked with this idea is the Duke’s reference, in his chat with Séverine at an outdoor café before their encounter in his mansion, to the soleil noir (“dark sun”), the sublation of jour and nuit. He also considers his sexually perverse encounter with her “a religious ceremony of some sort.” Sublation of the sacred and the profane.

Jouissance, especially the zesty, almost mystical, feminine kind that Lacan commented on, is a poetically resonant word when applied to Séverine’s sexual excesses. Apart from it meaning such things as “enjoyment” and “orgasm,” jouissance also refers to the enjoyment of property rights, which is instructive given her status as a bourgeois woman. In fact, Lacan’s notion of plus-de-jouir (“surplus enjoyment”) is inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value, which–when applied to this film–is perfectly personified in the willing bourgeois prostitute.

The surplus value of Séverine’s masochistic pleasure-pain is something she, as a bourgeois woman, can enjoy and give up whenever she wishes to; but a proletarian prostitute is unable to escape her world of exploitation and degradation…herein lies the crucial difference. Having a madam force the girls into sex work is no less oppressive in principle than when a pimp forces them. For Séverine, though, as soon as she sees the danger in Husson finding out her secret (tempting him to tell Pierre), as well as the growing jealousy of her favourite client, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), she can quit, and Madame Anaïs must accept it.

Séverine’s preference of the crude, violent bad boy Marcel as a lover, over sensitive but boring Pierre–in spite of how she must keep up appearances as his faithful wife–can be seen to symbolize how the hypocritical bourgeois liberal wants to be seen publicly as gentle and respectful of human rights; but when tensions rise in the world, even liberals will embrace violence to protect their class interests.

While Pierre, as a doctor, represents the gentle, liberal bourgeoisie, mafiosi Marcel and Hippolyte (Francisco Rabal) represent the nasty, violent, and even fascist-leaning side of capitalism (note how the mafia can be seen to represent capitalists in other movies). The two men beat up and steal from a man in an elevator, Epstein-like Hippolyte shows a sexual interest in the underage daughter of Pallas (Muni), and jealous Marcel attempts murdering his rival, Pierre, but ends up paralyzing him and putting him in a coma instead.

Séverine, in her overwhelming guilt, allows Husson to tell Pierre about her dalliances. She then sees her teary-eyed husband, emotionally destroyed and unmoving in his wheelchair (reminding us of Wanda’s wheelchair-bound husband before he died–Sacher-Masoch, page 20; recall another line from the novella: “Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?”–page 4…Severin + Wanda = Séverine). Instead of having another sexy dream, though, she reverses course and has a wholesome one of her husband smiling, getting up from his wheelchair, and embracing her.

The film ends with the sleigh bells heard outside. She looks out the window and sees the coach riding down the road strewn with autumn leaves, as in the film’s beginning; a return to the beginning of the cycle, but without the couple as passengers. The empty seat is symbolic of Lacan’s notion that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. There is sexual activity between men and women, of course (as we see constantly in this movie), but there is no rapport between the sexes, no harmony, as between her and Pierre. Their love is an illusion: at best, theirs is a Platonic friendship, and this–in combination with her superficially sexual relations with other men–indicates the general alienation felt in capitalist society.

This motif of autumn is important. It symbolizes her growing coolness towards her husband, and the fallen leaves suggest her fall from grace. Before, during the height of her jouissance at the brothel, she fantasized about Pierre and Husson shooting her in the head with phallic pistols out there in the woods, among the autumn leaves, the blood flowing from her head being symbolic, perhaps, of the pleasure-pain of getting a facial. She’s tied to a tree, her wound making her look rather like St. Sebastian: sublation of sinner and saint.

Now, however, having emotionally killed her husband, she can dream only of an unattainable return to innocence. Her shame doubtless will deter her from ever satisfying her desires chez Madame Anaïs. Will Husson finally have her? It’s doubtful, now that he knows she hasn’t the voluptuous virtue he thought she had.

There will be no more sublation of her sex fantasies with the reality of a prostitute’s life. In a futile attempt to assuage her guilt, she is compelled to escape reality and have innocent fantasies, of her restored husband, from now on. Now, she can only have pain sans pleasure. Fate has been most severe with Séverine.

Analysis of ‘Venus In Furs’

Venus In Furs is a novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and published in 1870. Because the semi-autobiographical story is about a young man, Severin von Kusiemski, who persuades a beautiful woman, Wanda von Dunajew (her real-life counterpart having been Sacher-Masoch’s mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor), to dominate, whip, humiliate, and enslave him, we derive the word masochism from its author…thanks to Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his seminal text, Psychopathia Sexualis.

Though the novella was originally meant to be part of an unfinished cycle of stories called The Testament of Cain, Venus In Furs is by far Sacher-Masoch’s most famous work, and it is one of the few of his writings to be translated into English.

Here are some quotes:

“Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?” –narrator of framing story (page 4)

‘”And as a rule it is the man who feels the woman’s foot,” cried Madam Venus with exuberant scorn…’ (page 5)

“Yes, I am cruel–since you take so much pleasure in that word–and am I not entitled to be cruel? Man desires, woman is desired. That is woman’s entire but decisive advantage.” –‘Madame Venus,’ the talking statue in the narrator’s dream (pages 5-6)

“Woman’s power lies in Man’s passion, and she knows how to make use of it if man isn’t careful. His only choice is to be woman’s tyrant or slave.” –Severin, to the narrator (page 10)

‘…my beloved was made of stone…a stone statue of Venus…This Venus was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.’ –Severin (page 12)

‘Enough: this Venus was beautiful, and I loved her as passionately, as morbidly and profoundly, as insanely as a man can love only a woman who responds to his love with an eternally consistent, eternally calm stone smile. Yes, I literally worshiped her.’ –Severin, of his Venus statue (page 12)

“Nature knows of no permanence in the male-female relationship.” –Wanda (page 19)

‘My love was like a profound, a bottomless abyss, into which I kept sinking deeper and deeper, from which nothing could save me.’ –Severin (page 27)

‘Cold shivers ran down my spine. I looked at her: she stood before me, so solid and self-assured, and her eyes had a cold glint.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 28)

“…the greatest passions…arise from opposites. We are such opposites, almost hostile to each other. That explains this love of mine, which is part hatred, part fear. In such a relationship, only one person can be the hammer, the other the anvil. I want to be the anvil. I can’t be happy if I look down on my beloved. I want to be able to worship a woman, and I can do so only if she is cruel to me.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 29)

“…sensuality now became a sort of culture in my imagination, and I swore not to squander its holy sensations on an ordinary creature but to save them for an ideal woman–if possible, the Goddess of Love herself.” –Severin (page 32)

“In my mind I always pictured a beautiful female ideal…” –Severin (page 33)

“So a woman wearing fur,” cried Wanda, “is nothing but a big cat…?” (page 35)

“I saw sensuality as sacred, indeed the only sacredness. I saw woman and her beauty as divine since her calling is the most important task of existence: the propagation of the species.” –Severin (page 36)

“Yes–you’ve aroused my most cherished fantasy.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

‘”I’m afraid I’ve already found my ideal!” I cried and pressed my hot face into her lap.’ –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

“You’ve corrupted my imagination…” –Wanda, to Severin

“Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be.” –Wanda (page 47)

‘Wanda…was so kind, so intimate, so full of grace.’ –Severin (page 48)

“A woman’s infidelity is certainly a painful stimulus, the supreme voluptuousness.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 49)

“You may always address me as ‘Mistress,’ do you understand?” –Wanda, to Severin (page 60)

‘…from time to time I heard our Mistress enjoying herself, surrounded by admirers…’ –Severin (page 77)

‘Venus in Furs was jealous of her slave. She tore the whip from its nail and struck me across the face. Next she summoned the black maidservants, and had them tie me up and drag me down to the cellar, where they threw me into a dark, dank subterranean vault–a bona fide dungeon cell.’ –Severin (page 84)

‘I felt myself starting to hate that woman.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 85)

‘…I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why–as terrified as a condemned man who knows he is heading toward the scaffold, yet starts to tremble the moment he sees it.’ –Severin, of half-naked Wanda (page 89)

‘…Wanda threw off her fur coat in a single moment and stood before me like the Goddess in the Tribuna.

‘At that instant, she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty that I knelt before her as I had knelt before the Goddess, and I pressed my lips devoutly to her foot.’ –Severin (page 90)

‘He was a handsome man, by God. No, more: he was a man such as I had never seen in the flesh. He stands in the Belvedere, hewn in marble, with the same slender and yet iron muscles, the same face, the same rippling curls.’ –Severin, of Alexis Papadopolis, his rival for Wanda’s love (page 96)

‘What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.’ –Severin (page 101)

“You know what I am,” she retorted nastily. “I’m a woman of stone, Venus in Furs, your ideal–just kneel and worship me.” –Wanda, to Severin (page 103)

“The moral is that I was an ass.” –Severin, speaking to the narrator (page 119)

“The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” –Severin (page 119)

The story begins with a framing device involving the original narrator telling Severin about a dream he’s had of conversing with a living statue of Venus, who has a huge fur wrapped around her marble body (page 3).

This notion of being infatuated with the statues of Venus is a motif recurring throughout the novella, for a man’s willful enslavement to a woman is based on his pagan worship of her (as he sees it) divine beauty.

This beauty is carved into immovable stone: cold, inflexible, hard, and therefore cruel. The immovability of the stone also suggests permanence; combine this unmoving, unchanging permanence with beauty, we have ourselves an ideal.

The notion of ideal feminine beauty is also a recurring theme in the novella. Recall Goethe‘s words: “The Eternal Feminine draws us on high.” Beauty on the outside is seen as a symbol of beauty on the inside…regardless of how unrealistic such ideals are.

Another classic work of art–a painting–has inspired Severin: Titian‘s Venus with Mirror, the goddess’s lower body wrapped in fur, apart from which she is naked. Both Severin and the narrator fetishize her in the fur.

In his paper, “Fetishism,” Freud pointed out that the fur fetish is based on desire for a woman’s pubic hair, a desire traced back to boys’ Oedipal desire for their mother, and their horror, upon seeing her genitals, at realizing she has no phallus. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, believes that Venus In Furs supports Freud’s claim (Paglia, pages 258, 436).

As Freud himself observed: “…it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish. Thus the foot or shoe owes its preference as a fetish–or a part of it–to the circumstances that the inquisitive boy peered at the woman’s genitals from below, from her legs up; fur and velvet–as has long been suspected–are a fixation of the sight of the pubic hair, which should have been followed by the longed-for sight of the female member; pieces of underclothing, which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize the moment of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic.” (Freud, pages 354-355)

If Freud’s explanation seems far-fetched, consider Jacques Lacan‘s more metaphorical version. The mother’s lack of a phallus is, for Lacan, connected with the dissolution of the Oedipus complex and the father’s prohibition against a boy’s having of his mother; the boy cannot be the phallus that his mother desires, because his father won’t allow it. Hence, his father has symbolically castrated him. From this lack–manque–comes one’s desire.

Since a boy can’t have his mother, he must look elsewhere to gratify his unfulfillable desire, the objet petit a, a substitute for the forbidden mother that, in this story, Severin and the narrator can attempt to replace with the fur fetish and the Venus ideal. [For a more thorough explanation of such psychoanalytic concepts as those of Lacan, look here.]

Freud’s thoughts on fetishism seem to anticipate Lacan’s ideas about manque and the objet petit a in this passage: “In the conflict between the weight of the unwelcome perception and the force of his counter-wish, a compromise has been reached, as is only possible under the dominance of the unconscious laws of thought–the primary processes. Yes, in his mind the woman has got a penis, in spite of everything; but this penis is no longer the same as it was before. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor…We can now see what the fetish achieves and what it is that maintains it. It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.” (Freud, page 354)

That Titian’s painting has the fur covering Venus’ lower half further supports the symbolic association of the fur with her pubic hair. Cupid, Venus’ son, holds her mirror: the Goddess of Love and Beauty is the Mother.

Now we can see the origin of Severin’s desire to be dominated by a beautiful woman: he has an unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred onto Wanda. She symbolizes his mother, who in his unconscious has been split into Melanie Klein‘s “good mother”–his idealized parental imago whose beauty he desires to enjoy (hence, the furs)–and the “bad mother” who punishes him and is cruel to him.

Freud noted how a spanking can give erotic pleasure to a child: “Ever since Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s Confessions, it has been well known to all educationists that the painful stimulation of the skin of the buttocks is one of the erotogenic roots of the passive instinct of cruelty (masochism).” (Freud, page 111)

Severin, as a boy, must have enjoyed getting swats on his little buttocks from the hand of his pretty mama. Little is said in the novella about his relationship with his mother; the lack of any mention of his (as I suspect) shameful desires for her can easily be attributed to repression. Instead, Severin freely admits to desiring his beautiful but violent aunt–a clear displacing of his Oedipal desires from his mother to his aunt! (pages 32-34)

To return to the beginning of the novella, the narrator is woken from his dream by a hand “as brown as bronze” (page 6), suggesting another hard, cold statue, this time one of a man, the narrator’s “Cossack,” who stands “at his full height of almost six feet.” (page 6)

The Cossack tells the narrator that he must hurry and meet up with Severin, and that “it’s a cryin’ shame” (page 6) that the narrator is asleep when he must be going. This scene is symbolic of the father making a boy give up on his Oedipal dream of having Mother (symbolized by the statue of Venus in the dream). The “bronze” statue of the Cossack represents the father bringing the narrator (symbolic of a boy experiencing the Oedipus complex) into the world of reality.

Severin’s story, of himself also leaving his dreams (page 117) and coming into reality, will help the narrator understand the need to wake up, too; for the narrator is an obvious double of Severin. In fact, both men can be seen to represent the universal Oedipal desirer, the common male masochist. Severin’s story is written in a manuscript called Confessions of a Suprasensual Man. (page 10)

Speaking of writing, it seems prophetic that the narrator has a book by Hegel lying next to him as he sleeps (page 7); in the explanatory notes at the end of my Penguin Classics English translation of Venus In Furs (page 125), it is justifiably assumed that the passage of Hegel that the narrator has been reading before dozing off is the master/slave dialectic section of The Phenomenology of Spirit. In this dialectic, the slave gradually comes to free himself of his master, as Severin will of Wanda, and–one hopes–the narrator will of his slavish devotion to Venus in furs, too.

Before Severin meets Wanda, he–just like the narrator–has been idolizing a stone statue of Venus; only instead of it being in his dreams, Severin’s is in a meadow, in a garden in the small wilderness where his house is. Because of this ideal, he has had very little interest in Wanda…but she will soon embody that ideal for him, in the flesh.

There are numerous passages in the novella that suggest that Severin’s love for Wanda is at least comparable to a boy’s Oedipal love for his mother. To give one example: after kissing her foot, which causes her to run away, leaving her slipper in his hand–because she feels he is “getting more and more indecent,” he returns it to her the next day and stands “in the corner like a child awaiting its punishment.” (page 24)

Another example, suggestive of his relationship with Wanda as being like that of a mother and her little boy, is on page 82: “She started caressing me, cuddling me, kissing me like a child.” Yet another example, symbolically suggestive of a boy’s Oedipal jealousy, is on page 101: “What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.”

He remembers having his idolatrous fetishes from as early as the cradle; he “can’t remember ever not having them.” His mother told him he was “suprasensual” from those earliest years, “suprasensual” being his word for describing his desires. (page 30)

I’ve already mentioned his aunt, to whom–I believe–he made his first transference of his repressed Oedipal desires for his mother. Countess Sobol “was a beautiful, majestic woman with a charming smile; but [Severin] hated her, for the family regarded her as a Messalina.” (page 32) This love/hate is the splitting of the mother into her good and bad aspects, but displaced onto Severin’s aunt.

Severin describes his aunt beating him with a switch while wearing “her fur-lined kazabaika.” After the beating, he “was forced to kneel down, thank her for the punishment, and kiss her hand.

“Now just look at the suprasensual fool! The switch held by the beautiful, voluptuous woman, who looked like an angry monarch in her fur jacket, first aroused my desire for women, and from then on my aunt seemed like the most attractive woman on God’s earth.” (page 32)

Since Severin is telling the story, and since he’s clearly addled by his strange passions, it’s easy to believe that he’s an unreliable narrator. (His having been “healed” of the sickness of his masochism at the end of the novella is also unconvincing, especially given how Sacher-Masoch himself, on whom Severin and the narrator are based, carried on with his acting-out of his female domination fantasies years after the publication of Venus In Furs, to the irritation of his wife at the time!) When he admits he incestuously desires his aunt, this could easily be a cover-up for a much more forbidden desire…to have, and be punished by, his mother!

Severin explains his fur fetish to Wanda by speaking of “the bewitching beneficial influence that cats exert on highly sensitive and intelligent people.” (page 35) Yes, Wanda, “a woman wearing fur…is nothing but a big cat.”

Sacher-Masoch uses the word Katzen, in italics in the original German. Now, Katze innocently just means cat, the -n being the plural ending. But consider the context behind the usage of the word in this “erotic” conversation. (page 35)

In English, “pussy” has been used to mean a woman’s genitals as early as the 1870s, and probably earlier. In French, chatte, the feminine for chat, has had the same meaning, so the European association between the feline and the vagina has existed for some time.

Furthermore, Katzen sounds dangerously close to tzchen, the German word for kitten, or…pussy! Given the strict censorship of any lewd ideas back in the prudish late 19th century (Recall the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which the title character would baiser John the Baptist’s mouth!), one should find it easy to believe that Sacher-Masoch was using Katzen as a euphemism for the yoni.

So, in all of this, we see further support for Freud’s idea that furs and velvet are associated with a woman’s pubic hair. If by Katze, Sacher-Masoch had innocently meant cat, what would make Severin’s conversation with Wanda such an “erotic treatise”?

Almost immediately after this discussion of furs and Katzen, Severin mentions his reason for worshipping woman’s divine beauty: “her calling is…the propagation of the species.” (page 36) Human life emerges from female genitals, our uncanny sight of origin (a seeming wound where a phallus might have been, if only in unconscious phantasy). Woman is a goddess because she is a mother, the Giver of Life. Severin’s sexual passions, and his pagan devotions, are at their unconscious root, Oedipal.

He wants to be “the slave of a woman, a beautiful woman,” one who ties him up and whips him, and who kicks him “when she belongs to another man.” (page 37) How similar such a woman is to the Oedipally desired mother who punishes her naughty son with spankings, and who belongs to another man…the boy’s father. Having found his ideal in Wanda, Severin presses his “hot face into her lap” (page 37), an area of her body where he often brings his face (pages 44, 50, 112), where–were her clothes to be removed–her pubic hair would be found.

She tells him he is “mistaken” to “believe that everything lurking in [his] imagination is in [her] nature too” (page 38), but he won’t listen. For such opposites as those of love and hate are what give us our greatest passions (page 29).

His experience of Wanda, as mentioned above, is a transferred splitting of the Oedipally desired mother into absolute good and bad. He likes these extremes because of the arrest in his childhood sexual development, as we saw with his aunt. He won’t learn or grow out of these fixations, what Wilfred Bion would have called -K, a refusal to know; and for this reason, Severin will suffer terribly as the story goes on.

Wanda herself comments on his refusal to know her, to grow in knowledge (-K): “Don’t you know me yet, don’t you even want to know me?” she asks him (page 28). For Bion, another important element in the Oedipus myth is the urge to gain knowledge (K) at all costs, as the Theban king wishes to do in learning the identity of Laius‘ killer; yet Tiresias understands the danger of revealing this identity, and so in his reluctance to tell Oedipus, represents -K.

Severin’s refusal to grow in knowledge (-K) is linked to his repressed, unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred first onto his aunt, then onto Wanda. His growth in knowledge would involve a reintegration of the split good and bad aspects of his mother, a movement from the paranoid-schizoid position (PS) to the depressive position (D).

In the fetishizing of his feminine ideal, Severin stays split: he idolizes the good mother, displaced onto Wanda’s beauty when in the furs; and he suffers the cruelty of the bad mother, displaced onto Wanda when she whips, kicks, enslaves, and–worst of all–cheats on him.

She warns him of the danger of arousing her narcissism by worshipping her and allowing himself to be unconditionally enslaved by her; but he won’t listen (-K, reversible perspective). She would have him integrate the absolute good and bad of femininity: “Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be…The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feelings, actions.” (page 47)

Still, Severin won’t listen, for he prefers those extreme opposites that arouse passion (page 29), his split state of PS, over the sane moderation of D. He wants to stay in thrall to his ideal imagining of her, which he “both reviled and worshiped.” (page 105)

Now, she agrees to his absurd fantasy of enslaving him while wearing furs, though secretly she plans to cure him of his desires by pushing his fantasy too far. In living out his fantasy of being dominated by a beautiful woman, Severin is experiencing what Lacan called jouissance, a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a surfeiting that leads to pain.

In jouissance, one willingly endures this pain as a kind of extension of the transgressive pleasure. This is a shifting past the biting head of the ouroboros (extreme pleasure) to experience the bitten tail (extreme pain). In other posts, I’ve written of the dialectical relationship between opposites as symbolized by the ouroboros’ head and tail, with the coiled length of its body representing every intermediate point on a circular continuum between those extreme opposites.

While Severin thinks Wanda is indulging his jouissance in going past the biting head over to the bitten tail, she’s actually taking him in the opposite direction. She’s taking him along the coiled length of the serpent, further and further away from the biting head of pleasure, and closer and closer to the bitten tail of pain…unbearable pain, unbearable even for him.

By being enslaved by his “Venus in furs,” with Wanda as the replacement for his mother, Severin is using Wanda as his objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of his desire. He can’t have Mother, in her desirable aspect (i.e., the good mother, who like the Virgin Mary, is “full of grace”–page 48), or in her domineering aspect (the bad mother); so he has Wanda. But Wanda as a symbolic mother introduces a torture that even masochistic Severin can’t accept: the male rival as symbolic father.

In the BDSM community, consensual limits–as to how much pain, erotic humiliation, etc., is given and received–are strictly respected (through safewords, etc.). No such restraint is seen in Sacher-Masoch’s novella or in the Marquis de Sade‘s pornographic novels, in which victims (including children!) are not only tied up and whipped, but also raped, tortured, and murdered–the wealthy, powerful criminals responsible getting away scot-free.

Severin wants to experience the jealous fear of Wanda cuckolding him, but only within a reasonable limit–just the fear of it (page 49). She carries things way beyond his masochistic fantasies, though, in particular with a Greek named Alexis Papadopolis. (page 97)

Normally, the mother/infant relationship involves the mother soothing the baby’s fears, anxieties, and frustrations by absorbing and containing them in what Bion called maternal reverie, then sending those feelings back to the child in a form tolerable to it. This exchange of energy back and forth, through projective identification, is how a baby grows in K.

What Wanda, as Severin’s symbolic mother, is doing, however, is a negative version of this container/contained relationship (the mother, as container, being a symbolic yoni, and the baby’s contained anxieties being a symbolic phallus), so that instead of soothing Severin’s anguish, she is turning it into a nameless dread, driving him mad with jealousy.

In a nightmare, he dreams she has turned into “a huge polar bear drilling her claws into [his] body.” (page 68) He awakens to “hear her diabolical laughter.” This is an example of the negative container/contained relationship: in his dream, it is he who must contain her hostility, symbolized by her phallic claws digging yonic wounds into his skin. When he wakes in terror, she won’t contain his fear; instead, she laughs at it, making him feel worse.

The persecutory anxiety of his PS continues when he dreams of being condemned to death for having “murdered Wanda in a raging fit of jealousy.” (page 80) He is about to be beheaded, but instead of feeling the blade of an ax go beyond touching the back of his neck, he feels a slap. Wanda has woken him up with the slap, and she demands her fur.

She is free to make him feel jealous all she wants, but he is forbidden to treat her the same way. When he looks too long at Haydée, one of Wanda’s African female servants, he is put in “a bona fide dungeon cell.” (page 84)

Freud’s theory about the fur fetish as a covering of the female genitals, the shocking sight of a missing phallus [Freud, page 352: “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and–for reasons familiar to us–does not want to give up.”], seems apparent when Wanda is nude before Severin, except for the fur she’s wearing (page 89). He narrates, “I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why…”

He doesn’t know why he’s afraid (one would think he’d simply be aroused) because the root of his desire is a repressed wish to have his mother; but her lack of a phallus, as Lacan observed, is associated with Severin’s having been forbidden to have her, a forbidding from the Name of the Father…and the name of Severin’s symbolic father is Papadopolis.

Severin is afraid to know Wanda’s beauty (-K), so when she throws off her fur coat and stands before him in her glorious nakedness, he doesn’t think about his “Goddess” lustfully, but instead kneels before her, for “she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty” (page 90). Like the Virgin Mary, Wanda is “so full of grace.” (page 48) He would rather have a reaction formation to her, seeing the pure, good mother, than lust after the naked, whorish, bad (symbolic) mother.

Still, she arouses his jealousy with a number of male admirers, including a poor young painter (pages 91-95), and finally, the Greek! (pages 96-97) Severin finds Papadopolis especially threatening, for he knows he cannot compete with him to win Wanda’s love.

Severin feels “seized with that dreadful mortal terror, an inkling that this man could capture her, fascinate her, subjugate her.” Severin feels “inadequate next to his savage virility…envious, jealous.” (page 99) This is the same Oedipal jealousy a little boy feels when he knows only Daddy can have Mommy.

Severin wants to run away from Wanda…but he can’t.

Ultimately, she has him tied up, but Papadopolis is to whip him! (pages 114-117) Since Wanda and the Greek are Severin’s symbolic mother and father, the whipping symbolizes a re-experiencing of the childhood, Oedipal trauma of a boy being punished by his father for wanting his mother. The pain is too much for Severin; in his indignant rage, he demands to be untied. (page 115)

This descent into greater and greater suffering is like moving along the coiled length of the ouroboros’ body to reach the bitten tail of the most excruciating pain, then to reach a state of clarity, to understand the need to give up his Oedipal jouissance, to realize his objet petit a will never be fulfilled. It’s like “awakening from a dream.” (page 117)

After escaping from this ordeal, Severin goes home to help his old and ill father. Along with an unrealized wish to join the army, we can see in this father/son reunion a symbolized identification with the father, which is precisely what happens to a boy after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex.

Wanda, one day long after, writes a letter to Severin, explaining how the excesses of her cruelty were meant to cure him of his strange passion, to send him past the bitten tail of pain and over to the biting head of self-mastery, a return to peace of mind.

Severin, however, is not truly cured; he’s just switched from masochist to sadist. Now, he dominates women instead of submitting to them (page 9). As Freud, reversing Severin’s process, once said, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist…” (Freud, page 73)

Severin’s submission to, and idolatry of, Wanda has really just been a reaction formation against his wish to rule over women. The Oedipus complex, properly understood, is a narcissistic trauma: a child’s love of his mother is a selfish wish to have her all to himself, never to share her. She, as his ideal, is a mirror reflecting his narcissism back to him as he experiences the Imaginary Order. In worshipping Wanda, Severin has merely been projecting his excessive self-love (disguised as self-abasement in his reaction formation with her) onto her.

Women are wise to resist men who want to worship them. Sacher-Masoch’s wife learned this the hard way. True equality of the sexes will come when men stop deifying women, which dialectically resolves into misogyny, a shift from the ouroboros’ biting head of worshipping women to the bitten tail of despising them. The apotheosis of Woman as Mother, as Giver of Life, easily shifts over to the notion that “a woman’s place is in the home.” Women should be seen as neither goddesses nor slaves, but as human beings.

Severin himself acknowledges that woman “will be able to become [man’s] companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” (page 119) Still, he bosses around “a pretty, buxom blonde…bringing [him and the narrator] cold meat and eggs for [their] tea.” (page 9) This is Bion’s -K and reversible perspective: Severin can understand the basic principle of supporting equality, but the specific premises–that one must do what one can to promote equality in one’s day-to-day life–are rejected.

Severin is thus still trapped in the duality of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). He can bear dialectical opposites, Hegel’s thesis and negation, but not the sublation of those opposites, the ambivalent feeling of the depressive position (D). He is by no means cured.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus In Furs, Penguin Classics, London, 1870

Sigmund Freud, 7. On Sexuality, The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, London, 1987

Wilfred Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London, 1963

Analysis of ‘Black Swan’

Black Swan is a 2010 psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz. It stars Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance as ballerina Nina Sayers, with Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder.

The story, with its overarching themes of duality, dualism, and the dialectical relationship between opposites, is strongly influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double. Nina’s double is her dialectical opposite, Lily (Kunis); and just as the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s story is paranoid about his double’s attempts to take over his life, so does Nina have persecutory anxiety about Lily supposedly scheming to take the role of Swan Queen away from her.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Nina (Portman): I came to ask for the part.

Thomas (Cassel): The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.

Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.

Thomas: Really? In four years, every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?

Nina[whispers] I just want to be perfect.

Thomas: What?

Nina: I want to be perfect.

Thomas[scoffs] Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.

Nina: I think I do have it in me.
************

Nina: Beth! I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving the company.

Beth (Ryder): What did you do to get this role? [about Thomas] He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What did you do to change his mind? Did you suck his cock?

Nina: Not all of us have to.

Beth[chuckles] You fucking whore! You’re a fucking little whore!

*************

Thomas: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.

Nina: I’m sorry.

Thomas[yelling] Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!

*************

“That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.” –Thomas, to Nina

*************


Lily (Kunis): [about Beth] I can’t believe he calls her that. It’s so gross.

Nina: I think it’s sweet.

Lily: Little princess? He probably calls every girl that.

Nina: No way! That’s just for Beth.

Lily: I bet he’ll be calling you little princess any day now.

Nina: I don’t know about that.

Lily: Sure he will. You just got to let him lick your pussy.

**************

Erica (Hershey): What happened to my sweet girl?

Nina: She’s gone!

**************

Nina: You put something in my drink.

Lily: Yeah.

Nina: And then you just took off in the morning?

Lily: In the morning?

Nina: Yeah, you slept over.

Lily: Um, no. Unless your name is Tom and you got a dick.

Nina: But we…

Lily: But we what, Nina? [pauses] Wait, did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?

Nina[whispers] Stop it.

Lily: Oh my God. Oh my God! You did! You fantasized about me!

Nina: Shut up!

Lily[gasps] Was I good?

*************

Erica: This role’s destroying you. [Nina violently pushes Erica aside]

Erica: No! Please! You’re not well!

Nina[yelling] Let go of me!

Erica: You can’t handle this!

Nina: I can’t? I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!

*************

“I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” –Nina

One visual cue to take note of throughout the film is the preponderance of blacks, whites, and greys, in clothing especially, but also in interior designs. Black and white have the traditional symbolism of, respectively, evil and good, sin and innocence, etc. Grey, as a mixture of black and white, can thus be seen as an integration, or a sublation, of the black and white thesis/antithesis.

Nina, the “sweet girl,” wears mostly white clothes, as well as her lightest of light pink coat and light-grey track pants. As she gradually loses her innocence over the course of the film, she’ll be wearing darker, greyer clothing until she’s fully transformed into the Black Swan, the evil twin, as it were, of the White Swan. Appropriately, at the beginning of the film, she dreams of dancing as the White Swan; that she’s being eyed predatorily by Rothbart, the evil owl-like sorcerer, already shows her repressed sexuality, for deep down in her unconscious, she wants to be seduced.

Nina’s mother, Erica, is always in black, except for an outfit that’s a combination of black and dark grey, worn once in the middle of the film–black enough. We’ll see the significance of these black clothes on Erica later.

Erica seems to be a generally good mother, though she is in many ways frustrating for Nina, too. Erica’s overprotectiveness and lack of respect for her daughter’s privacy force Nina to take on an exclusively “sweet girl” persona…a white swan. With Erica’s domineering overprotectiveness comes a repression and disavowal of Nina’s sexuality.

This disavowal of her sexuality comes in the form of projection. Nina tends to see people in black clothes, sometimes young women with Nina’s hallucinated face superimposed on them, as in one example in the subway station. The sexual brazenness she sees in some of these black-clothed people (Lily, and in particular, a lecherous old man on the subway making obscene gestures at her) is really a sexuality inside herself that she doesn’t want to accept. She’s the white swan “sweet girl,” so she projects that sexuality onto others through her hallucinations. An important question here is: where do we draw the line between what she actually sees and what she hallucinates? (I suspect that she hallucinates a lot more often than the times she obviously does.)

Thomas, the artistic director of her ballet company, wants to do a production of Swan Lake in which the same dancer will play both the white and black swans. This would be a challenge for any dancer, but it is especially so for Nina, who will have to integrate her white side with her disavowed, forbidden black side. She will have to discover some very dark shadows inside herself.

Naturally, as she does this uncovering, this integrating of white and black, she’ll experience conflict and resistance. Part of her must do this integrating to be worthy of dancing the part, and part of her will be terrified of discovering the dark sexuality hidden inside herself, a sexuality her mother forbids her to express, as we’ll soon see. Projecting that sexuality onto others, certain black-clothed others in particular, will achieve this purpose…for a while…

Thomas, as an agent of this integration of black and white, accordingly wears combinations of black, grey, and white. He makes demands on Nina to open up sexually, to loosen up on her meticulous, perfectionistic ballet technique in order to dance more freely as the uninhibited Black Swan. She mustn’t be all Apollonian discipline; she must also be Dionysian passion and fire. Nina can’t adjust at first, though her doppelgänger Lily, with her pornographic mouth and frank sexuality, can do it naturally, effortlessly. Lily usually wears black clothes; she even has a tattoo of black wings on her back.

Look at the two girls’ four-letter names, Nina and Lily. They have paralleled repeats of consonants, ls and ns, letters close to each other in the alphabetic sequence; both names’ second letter is an i, and both names end with an a or a y, two vowels at almost opposite ends of each other in the alphabet. Lily only seems to be Nina’s polar opposite, but she’s actually her dialectical opposite, for in the sublation of contraries, there is a unity. Nina does have Lily’s wild sexuality: it’s just repressed and disavowed, for reasons I’ll speculate about later.

Nina’s unwillingness to learn how to dance the Black Swan with the free sexuality that Thomas wants represents what Wilfred Bion called -K, a negation of the desire to gain knowledge (K) by linking between oneself and others (Bion, p. 47ff.). All those external stimuli that arouse sexual feelings are rejected by Nina, like Bion‘s beta elements: raw, external sensory data that aren’t processed in the mind or turned into thoughts.

Many consider this film an allegory of the agony one feels in the search to attain artistic perfection. Nina certainly is striving, to the point of self-destructiveness (as her predecessor, Beth, has), to be the perfect ballerina; but her quest isn’t so much about dancing perfectly as it is about becoming someone else–actually, being her True Self (in DW Winnicott‘s sense of the term).

Black Swan is Nina’s journey towards self-knowledge, and this journey is terrifying for her because it means revealing feelings she is ashamed of–her repressed sexuality, which is, to at least a great degree, lesbian.

Recall “how pink! So pretty” that grapefruit half is that Nina’s mom serves her for breakfast at the beginning of the film. At this early point in the story, only the unconscious mind of that “sweet girl” would be able to see the vulva symbolism of the pink inside of the grapefruit.

When Thomas awakens her sexuality with that hard kiss he gives her in his office (which she rejects by biting him), then later he invites her to his home at night for a drink–and he talks about sex with her–we assume he is being the stereotypical male lecher trying to take advantage of a pretty young woman, offering her career advancement in exchange for a sexual favour. Actually, though, he doesn’t take her to bed. He’d have her masturbate in her home instead.

This awakening to self-knowledge (Bion’s K) is, so to speak, the ‘Biblical kind of knowing,’ and Nina is conflicted about it. She tries masturbating the next morning, but she sees her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. This would seem to be yet another example of her mother not respecting her boundaries and invading her privacy. I suspect, however, that this is actually another of Nina’s many hallucinations, a convenient excuse to stop exploring her sexuality, for Erica would never approve of it.

It’s interesting that we never learn of Nina’s father–he’s not mentioned even once, at any time in the film. There’s a good possibility that Erica has raised Nina all the way, or almost all the way, from infancy; perhaps a man got Erica pregnant and abandoned her, forcing her to give up on her dreams of being a ballerina herself, and causing her to be overprotective of Nina for fear of her being seduced, knocked up, and thrown over in the same way. Recall Erica’s warning to Nina about Thomas and his “reputation” with women: “I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.” Whatever the cause of her repressions of Nina, Erica has been, essentially, Nina’s one conduit to knowledge of the world, having stifled the growth of Nina’s sexuality.

Bion’s theory of thinking and learning is based on developments of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, which involves projecting feelings and ideas into another to the point of making the other feel and think those feelings and thoughts. A baby isn’t able to think and process external sensory stimuli (Bion’s ‘beta elements’) for himself, so he must expel and project the distressing ones, pushing them into his mother, who as a “good enough mother” can contain them, process them in maternal reverie, and return them to her baby in a form acceptable to him, pacifying him. Erica, I suspect, didn’t sufficiently contain baby Nina’s anxieties and frustrations, which, instead of being pacified, became a “nameless dread“; hence, her current pathologies.

Object relations theorists like Klein wrote of how we all make internalized objects of our early caregivers, i.e., our parents. These internal objects reside in our minds like ghosts in, so to speak, the haunted houses of our heads; they are homunculi in us. In fatherless Nina’s case, there is only one foundational object introjected into her mind: Erica.

Sometimes, Erica is the good mother, caring for Nina and protecting her (or at least trying to) from external dangers (sexually predatory men) and internal ones (Nina’s scratching and self-injuries). Of course, Erica carries that protection way too far, and far too often, making her into the bad mother.

Since Black Swan is a movie about duality, it’s important to note this good/bad mother duality in Erica, which Nina has internalized. Erica’s repression of Nina’s sexuality, infantilizing her (Nina, on two occasions, calls Erica “Mommy”), is another big part of the bad mother that frustrates Nina.

This frustration results in the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (white swan) and absolute bad (black swan). Thomas’s insistence that Nina dance both black and white swans necessitates an integration that threatens her ego defences, causing her psychotic break with reality.

Nina would resist this knowing (-K) of the integration of white and black; she’d rather be all-white, so all impulses and excitations (beta elements) luring her towards the black (which she nonetheless must accept if she’s to succeed in Thomas’s production) are frightening things she must eject from herself and project onto others (i.e., Lily).

The problem is that if Nina keeps rejecting these beta elements over time, never processing these taboo thoughts or allowing them to settle in her mind as alpha elements, the rejected beta elements will accumulate and become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of herself (e.g., those talking pictures in Erica’s room). If Nina doesn’t accept her dark side, she’ll go mad.

I’ve mentioned Nina’s lesbian tendencies; recall the gossiping dancers who note her staring at Veronica. Then there’s Nina’s obsession with black-clothed Lily, and that notorious sex scene in which Lily performs cunnilingus on Nina. She’s not only hallucinated the entire lovemaking, but also superimposed her own face on lip-smacking Lily’s. Nina is constantly projecting her inner dark side.

According to classical psychoanalytic theory, children go through an Oedipal phase, usually loving and desiring the opposite-sex parent and hating the same-sex parent, wishing to remove this latter one out of jealousy. These children normally outgrow this phase and develop heterosexual feelings for people outside the family. Some people have a negative Oedipus complex, a homosexual version; again, in the best of circumstances, they’ll outgrow it and have gay relationships outside the family.

In Nina’s case, however, a father with whom she can pass through an Oedipal phase is out of the question. She is in no Oedipal love triangle, only a dyad. All she has is her mother–the good mother who serves her a “pink” and “pretty,” vulva-like grapefruit, and the black-clothed bad mother who disapproves of her ever being involved with boys.

Some bloggers have speculated that Erica has sexually abused Nina, thus causing her pathologies. It’s an interesting, even compelling, theory; but just as Freud downplayed and modified his seduction theory to accommodate what he considered to be the much more universal Oedipus complex, so must I respectfully disagree with those bloggers.

Though Erica’s relationship with Nina is inappropriately close, the daughter clearly being an extension of her mother’s will, I don’t see sufficient evidence of even implied sexual abuse. Furthermore, such a theory doesn’t harmonize with the symbolism of Nina as the “sweet girl,” the innocent, virginal white swan. The trauma of child sexual abuse is centred around a forceful robbing of the child’s innocence. On the contrary with Nina, it’s her innocence that Erica is so preoccupied with preserving.

I argue, instead, that Nina’s psychopathology is based on a combination of sexual repression (from Erica the bad mother) and an unresolved, repressed negative Oedipus complex (Erica the all-too-good mother). The dialectical relationship between these polar opposites is like the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros that I’ve used so many times before to represent the unity of opposites, how one phases into the other.

Bion elaborated on the Oedipus myth by focusing on how reluctant Tiresias was to tell the incestuous, patricidal Theban king that it was he who killed his father Laius (Bion, p. 45ff.). This reluctance to impart or acquire knowledge (-K) is seen in Nina’s not wanting to come to terms with her unconscious Oedipal feelings for her mother.

One way of avoiding those feelings, as we’ve seen, is through projection, that is, to project the internalized object of Nina’s mother onto Lily. In the lesbian sex scene fantasy, Nina has an acceptable sexual substitute for Erica in Lily; Nina has displaced her desire onto an object outside her family. Another way for Nina to disavow her negative Oedipus complex is through reaction formation, i.e., through being hostile to her mother (even physically hurting her), to mask her unconscious desire for her.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Nina’s barring Erica’s entry into her bedroom with her imagined lovemaking with Lily represents the basic schizoid position (p. 8ff.) that WRD Fairbairn wrote about. In Nina’s relationship with Erica on the one hand, and with Lily on the other, we see Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego (Nina) and Rejecting Object (Erica), and the Libidinal Ego (Nina) and the Exciting Object (Lily). What we don’t see is the Central Ego (Nina) with the Ideal Object (anyone), this last object being ‘ideal’ because a real person in the external world is ideally who one should have a relationship with.

Lily, the Exciting Object of Nina’s libidinal desires, isn’t in the room; she’s only an internalized object in Nina’s mind. Even her mother, as the despised, unwanted object rejected by Nina’s ‘anti-libidinal’ feelings, isn’t wholly the bad mother that Nina imagines her to be: Erica’s only partly a bad mother, but also partly a good mother. Nina must come to grips with this duality.

Nonetheless, in order to prevent herself from knowing (-K) about her Oedipal desires, Nina must imagine Erica to be all bad, and must reject her even when she’s trying to do good (i.e., help Nina when she’s obviously going mad, and stop her self-injuries). Hence, Nina’s schizoid position–or as Klein called it, the paranoid-schizoid position. In Nina’s splitting of the internal object into absolute bad (this is Lily now, for Nina imagines her to be trying to steal her role as Swan Queen) and absolute good (Erica, the good side of whom is ignored, physically attacked, and treated derisively: “I’m the Swan Queen! You’re the one who never left the corps!”), she is about to get very paranoid.

Though Nina has struggled to avoid the integration of white and black, and thus to know herself (-K), she has also, in her quest to perfect the role of Swan Queen, been forced to approach that self-knowledge (K). Nonetheless, just as Oedipus’ quest for knowledge of the truth destroyed him (as Tiresias warned him it would), so is Nina’s quest destroying her. After all, who would want to have conscious knowledge that he or she had incestuous desires for his or her mother?

In her drive to attain perfection, her ballerina ideal, Nina sees herself in the mirror and hallucinates that her reflection is moving in ways that she herself is not. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which one’s clumsy self, unable to match the perceived perfection in the reflection, is alienated from that graceful image.

On the one hand, Nina is alienated from herself when she sees her reflection, but when she faces other people–as if they were her mirror reflection–she often sees herself (as a result of projective and introjective identification). These hallucinations make this normally graceful ballerina as clumsy as those psychologically fragmented infants seeing themselves in Lacan’s mirror for the first time.

Nina thus in a larger sense has many doppelgängers: her main one is Lily, of course, but there are also the pairs of Nina/Erica, Nina/Beth, Nina/Veronica, and ultimately, Nina White/Nina Black. The film expresses the universal idea that the self, or subject, is seen in the other, or object, and vice versa. Lacan’s mirror reflects the self/other dialectic.

Though Nina’s white and black sides are integrating, she’s still conflicted about it, and she’s still resisting the integration. She projects her black onto Lily and Erica, and she projects in the forms of vomiting into toilets, self-injury, and pulling a hallucinated black feather out of her back.

Though Erica is as annoyingly overprotective as always, she–as the good mother–is justified in trying to intervene when she can see that Nina is clearly going insane. In her bedroom, after slamming the door on Erica’s fingers, Nina hallucinates that her legs have transformed into those of a swan’s, bending backwards. Though symbolically this could be seen as a positive, in that she’s transforming into the Black Swan and thus mastering the role, it also represents, apart from her obvious psychotic break with reality, a fear of never being able to dance again (i.e., broken legs).

Her suffering from the paranoid-schizoid position is at its peak when she rushes over to the ballet company to ensure that she, and not (she imagines) usurping Lily, will perform as the Swan Queen.

During her performance as the White Swan, she hallucinates seeing her own face on one of the heads of the corps de ballet, giving her a jolt and causing her male dancing partner to drop her onstage. Weeping as she returns to her dressing room, she hallucinates seeing Lily get ready to play the Black Swan, when of course she’s really seeing a projection of her black half. Thinking she’s stabbed Lily with a piece of broken glass from a mirror, she’s actually stabbed herself in the gut with it.

She goes back onstage as the Black Swan, fully transformed. No longer is she in conflict about it; she fully accepts and embraces her dark side. She even hallucinates seeing her arms turn into black wings, and she grins at the transformation. Never does she notice her stab wound; nor does the audience, who loves her performance.

She goes offstage and kisses Thomas hard on the mouth, as if she were Lily. Finally, she is seducing him, instead of the other way around. He, just old enough to be her father, provides her with a symbolic positive Oedipal object, awakening her hitherto repressed heterosexual side, which was also awakened earlier in the dance club scene, with those young men, “Tom and Jerry.”

Back in her change room, Nina must become the White Swan again; not just for the sake of the ballet, but because she can be neither only black, nor only white. Lily…dressed in an all white ballet outfit!…appears at her door to congratulate her on her superb dancing. Nina realizes she never stabbed Lily.

Pulling out a shard of mirror glass from her bleeding gut, Nina weeps. Her persecutor has never been Lily, nor has she even been Erica in her bad mother mode. Nina’s persecutor has been herself the whole time, as the bad internal object of her mother.

Fully integrated now, Nina no longer sees people in terms of all good or all bad, for she understands how illusory her projections are. Lily is in white, but still brazenly sexual and using four-letter words, for she never was “all black.” Nina has merely imagined her to be that way…as she has imagined her mother to be.

Nina weeps copious tears as she prepares to go back onstage as the White Swan (presumably having bandaged her stomach as best she can), for she has switched from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. By stabbing herself, Nina was trying to stab the bad mother object inside herself, something projected onto Lily. Now she fears having killed her internal mother object, which means also killing herself. Thus sobbing Nina feels depressive, rather than persecutory, anxiety.

Back onstage, she has a sorrowful face as she dances in the finale, as brilliantly as always. Red is visible on her belly, the blood gushing out of a vulva-like wound suggesting the symbolic breaking of her hymen, her loss of virginity and innocence.

Is her mother–the good mother–watching her in the audience, tearfully moved by her performance, or is Nina just imagining her there, as part of her depressive wish for reparation with Erica? Either way, though she needs to be rushed to hospital, she is perfect…not just from a great performance, but perfect in that she’s complete–not half a woman, but both white and black.

‘Claws,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter Eighteen

Thurston fixed his tie and looked at himself in the mirror. Aren’t we handsome in that suit? he thought.

He left his apartment and got in his car.

As he drove to the 22 Division police station, he reflected on all that had recently happened.

It’s so good to be connected with Agnes, he thought. Close to her, in body and soul. I really love her; and better yet, there’s no more conflict with the beast. That bullet I put in its head sure did the trick. No more resistance.

He parked in the police station parking lot and got out of his car. He sucked in a deep inhalation of fresh air and smiled.

It’s so good to be fully in control again, he thought.

He walked into the police station, passed a number of desks in the direction of his own. He saw Hicks standing near his desk.

Hicks turned around and saw him approaching.

“Good morning, handsome,” Hicks said with a smile.

“Good morning,” Thurston said.

“Still no sign of Surian?”

“Oh, she’s around.”

“Really? Where? I still need to talk to her about her shooting the beast. If you could tell her to come out of hiding, I’d really appreciate it.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Thurston said. “You’ll be in contact with her soon enough.”

“Very well, whatever,” Hicks said with a sneer, which then turned into a lewd smirk. “And as for us, when are you going to come over to my place?”

“How about tonight?” Thurston asked with a grin.

THE END