Analysis of ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’

I: Introduction

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (or to the Victims…whichever–in Polish, it’s Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy) is an avant-garde composition for 52 string instruments by Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced  [ˈkʂɨʂtɔf pɛndɛˈrɛt͡skʲi], the Polish c in his surname, like that of hanyu pinyin, being pronounced ‘ts’).

Composed and premiered in 1961, the piece was originally to be called 8’37”, after its length of performance, since the durations of the sound events of the piece are given in seconds, rather than through the use of, for example, the quarter and eighth notes of conventional notation. Indeed, Penderecki’s score is as experimental as is the music, using a variety of unorthodox ways to indicate how the music is to be played.

The piece was originally meant to be just an experiment with new musical ideas, as Penderecki said, to “develop a new musical language,” hence the original absolute music title. It was meant as an example of sonorism, focusing on timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, counterpoint, and motion to create a form free of traditional ideas of “expressivity” in the playing of instruments. “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way,” he later said.

When he heard it performed, though, he was struck by the emotive power of what he had written. It was no longer just an abstract experiment with sounds. With what could he associate the feelings of terror evoked in the music?…the victims of Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped on them at the end of WWII. Hence, the piece’s new name, a threnody, or wailing ode of mourning for the victims’ suffering and deaths.

So though the piece was composed throughout with just the intention of experimenting with new ways to organize musical sound, its new name and dedication have given the piece a whole new dimension of meaning, a meaning that not only inspires compassion for the victims to whom it’s dedicated, but one that also makes the piece especially relevant for our troubled times today, with all the reckless nuclear brinksmanship of the US and NATO against Russia and China.

The 52 string instruments used in the piece are grouped into 24 violins, ten violas, ten cellos, and eight double basses. The unconventional sounds they are manipulated to make include tone clusters, faster and slower vibratos, slapping, and playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge. While the sound durations are, as noted above, given precisely in seconds, other aspects of the music are aleatoric, allowing the players a choice of techniques. Nonetheless, specific note clusters are used, as well as quarter tones.

Such unorthodox techniques give the music its terrifying character, which is why the Threnody, as well as other avant-garde works by Penderecki–such as his Utrenja, The Awakening of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris, Kanon, and Polymorphia–have been used in such horror films and thrillers as The Shining, The Exorcist, and Children of Men. Purists in the world of avant-garde music may not like the, to them, excessive associations of experimental soundscapes with the horror genre, but Penderecki’s association of 8’37” with the suffering of the Japanese at the end of WWII was more than justified, as I will argue below.

II: The Historical Background of the Nuking

It is still believed by many that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 people, was regrettable but necessary, so that a long, protracted ground assault, risking the lives of many American soldiers, could be avoided. A closer look, however, at the actual, historical circumstances surrounding the bombings will indicate how wrong this rationalization is.

At the time, Japan’s leaders were ready to surrender, though hoping for at least a conditional surrender, to save their emperor, Hirohito, from being harmed or removed, as a handful of high-ranking Nazis would be tried for war crimes. The US, however, still seething with virulent racial hatred for the Japanese over the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanted nothing less than an unconditional surrender.

Pretty much the whole of the Japanese islands were being pummelled with conventional American bombs. The Japanese knew they’d lost. In fact, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese at first couldn’t tell the difference between the effect of the older and new kinds of bombs. The use of these two new bombs did not end the war, as many assume; therefore, where was the justification to use them?

A number of American generals dissented over the use of those awful bombs. So what was the real reason they were dropped on those two unfortunate cities? They were a demonstration of a new, deadly toy of the American military…not to intimidate Japan, but to frighten that nation that was already understood to be the new enemy of the US: the Soviet Union!

…and what really made Japan surrender, if it wasn’t the bomb? A convincing explanation comes from what the USSR did, not the US. Up until their surrender, the Japanese were holding out on the small hope that the USSR would mediate negotiations with the US and influence a conditional surrender, one that wouldn’t favour the US too much, to give Japan better terms for their surrender. The USSR, however, invaded Manchuria, clearly indicating no interest in siding with Japan in any way, meaning Japan would be forced to surrender unconditionally. In short, it was the Soviet Union, not the American nuking, that decisively stopped Japan.

Therefore, the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no redeeming moral justification of any kind. They were acts of mass murder on a mostly civilian population (the military portion of which was admittedly significant, but still a minority); in spite of the heinous war crimes of the Japanese military on Korea, China, the Philippines, etc., these victims had done no direct harm to Americans.

Granted, all Japanese were part of the war effort in some sense, as is the case with the people of other countries involved in WWII. Civilian Japanese helped in industry, making weapons, giving material support to the military, etc.; but to a great extent, this civilian support was for defence as well as offence–these particular people weren’t themselves raping and beheading their Asian neighbours, so the way they were killed was way out of proportion to their crime of equipping their soldiers to commit their ugly deeds. Japan’s loss of the war, with the conventional bombings that more accurately targeted military areas, should have been punishment enough for them.

As much as I abhor Nazi Germany, and I would never consider defensible the average “Aryan” civilian supporting Nazi ideology and helping out in their war effort, I would also never consider nuking any German city to be an acceptable way of forcing the fascists and fascist sympathizers to surrender. Similarly, though I detest the US military-industrial complex and wish wholeheartedly for its imminent defeat, I would never dream of such a defeat coming from nukes.

III: The Composition

Here is a link to a video of the Threnody, with footage of the aftermath of the bombing, with images of the destruction and the suffering of the surviving victims of radiation poisoning, and the doctors trying to help them.

And here is a link to a video of the piece with an animated score, so you can follow what is happening in the music, and you can see it broken down into its many parts.

The piece opens with fortissimo tone clusters played first on the first five of the ten violas, next on the first six of the twenty-four violins, then on the first four of the eight double basses, etc., until all of the subdivided groups of strings are playing their own set of clusters. This piling on of tone clusters lasts for fifteen seconds.

The cacophony of all of these clusters suggests the screaming of the residents of Hiroshima as they look up into the sky and see the Enola Gay flying over their city, knowing they’d be bombed, but not knowing the brand new nature of the horror they were about to experience.

After the first fifteen seconds, the music immediately comes down from fortissimo to forte (sub. f), and a slow vibrato is heard on the first six violins, and soon after on the third six, the second six, and the fourth six. This all goes on for the next eleven seconds.

The following four seconds has the first five of the celli doing the slow vibrato; and the last six of the violins switch from a slow vibrato to a fast one, as the two groups of violas have been doing from the previous eleven seconds until now. These vibratos, slow and fast, add an eeriness to the dark, terrifying atmosphere so unmistakably established.

Those violas will, during the next six seconds, immediately come down to pianissimissimo (sub. ppp), as will all the other strings at the beginning of the next thirty seconds. During the six-second section, the last five of the celli will play the slow vibratos as the strings hitherto playing slow vibratos are, group by group, replacing slow vibratos with fast ones.

The switch to ppp sounds especially scary, like a suspenseful scene in a horror movie right after an initial shock of terror. Small wonder Penderecki’s music is, rightly or wrongly, so associated with horror films. One senses, at this moment in the music, the trembling people of Hiroshima looking up at the bomber plane in all helplessness, waiting for “Little Boy” to be dropped.

Next come the experimental sound effects to be made on the strings. In the score, an arrow pointing up indicates the playing of a note of the highest, though indefinite, pitch (recall the aleatoric aspects of this music). An icon of four vertical lines with a horizontal arc crossing them represents, respectively, the instrument’s four strings and its bridge; the straight line under the arc indicates a four-note arpeggio to be played under the bridge.

Some notes are to be plucked (pizzicatopizz.), others bowed (arco). Again, if the straight line is below an arc, one is to play between the bridge and the tailpiece. Vertical lines intersected with short, upwardly diagonal lines indicate a percussion effect: striking the upper sounding board of the instrument with the nut or fingertips.

The symbol of a short, vertical line with a cone shape pointing to the right tells the last five cellists to bow the tailpiece. An umbrella-like symbol tells the first five cellists to play on the bridge.

These string effects are not required to be played at exact speeds. Only the order in which they are to be played matters. As Angus Lee explains in his video analysis of the Threnody, different performers will have varying levels of difficulty or ease in executing each different technique; so there will be considerable freedom in playing these parts, another example of the aleatoric aspects of Penderecki’s piece.

The result, when one hears the differing timing of each player, bowing, plucking, or tapping his or her instrument, is a rather chaotic flurry of sounds. Controlled chaos, yet chaos all the same. When we hear this chaotic texture of sounds, it suggests to us the frenzied panic of the people of Hiroshima, them all frenetically scrambling to run for cover and escape their doom.

Next, a pianissimo note in F is heard on the ten celli, which is briefly sustained, but soon after, some celli slide down to lower notes, others to higher ones (indeterminate pitches here, graphically presented in the score with a thick black line), while the remaining celli stay on the F. This results in another tone cluster; then those upwardly and downwardly straying notes return to the F. This goes on for fifteen seconds. It’s a moment of relative calm, as if some of the people of Hiroshima have found a place to protect themselves from the bomb, and are trying to reassure themselves that they are safe…at least for the moment.

Other strings do the same effect, with the first twelve violins sustaining a note on E and branching out upwards and downwards into a larger tone cluster, this time ppp. Then, the eight double basses, also ppp, do this on an E-flat, then bloat out into a huge dissonant chord before returning to that E-flat.

The ten violas, playing mezzo-forte, give out a huge cluster chord that decrescendos and slides into an A. The last twelve violins then play a sustained high B-flat in ppp, which fans out into a large tone cluster, which is accompanied by another mf cluster chord on the ten violas, which in turn decrescendos and slides into an A.

This shifting back and forth, from single notes to tone clusters and back again, on different groups of strings and at softer and louder dynamics, continues for some time. One senses during this moment that those people are trembling in suspense, waiting for the bombing to be over with.

There’s a brief silence, then groups of ppp tone clusters from all the strings are heard, the notation indicating all the pitches to be played. We’re almost halfway into the piece by now. The feeling one gets from all of these creepy dissonances is a sense of nausea from all those terrified Japanese, nausea from their despair.

Next, a fortissimo cluster chord is heard on the ten violas, notes ranging from about an F (above middle C) to about a c′′. This is soon followed by a similar tone cluster, also ff, on the last twelve of the violins, playing a range of notes from about c′′ to about f′′-sharp. Other groups of strings come in with their own loud cluster chords. It’s as though the bomb has now been released, and the people of Hiroshima are all screaming together as they watch it fall from the bomber and come closer and closer to the ground.

Eventually, all these cluster chords played on all the groups of strings decrescendo and do upward or downward glissandi. It’s as though terror among the people has been replaced with resignation to their fate, just as the bomb is about to hit the ground.

Next, we hear individual notes of distinct pitches played by each cello, notes that are sustained and that fan out upwards and downwards. These are played softly, and are followed by the same fanning out of individual notes played piano on the last twelve of the violins, then on the ten violas, and ultimately on all the strings, ending with each group playing loud tone clusters.

This fanning out of notes suggests the impact of the bomb on the ground, each individual note representing each piece of rock, concrete, brick, etc., that has been shattered from the blast. Again, the clusters represent the screams of those people not yet killed.

We then hear creepy glissandi in the cluster chords of the celli and double basses, suggesting the moaning and groaning of the traumatized survivors, many of whom won’t be survivors for very long. These clusters thin out into single tones and go from fff to f, then decrescendo from f to silence in the double basses, and to p in the celli, and to pp with slow vibrato, ending off with a ten-second decrescendo to pppp.

This slow fading to another brief silence suggests the dying-off of many hitherto survivors, leaving those still living to be doubly traumatized, from their own suffering and from the deaths of loved ones they’ve witnessed dying.

The string effects come back, including the one with the upward arrow symbol mentioned above, as well as certain pizzicato and arco notes of definite pitch. These are played by individual strings from all the groups. The tension in this section suggests the traumatic reaction of the survivors to the horrors just experienced.

The percussive effects remind us of those heard earlier, as if they are PTSD-like flashbacks of the panic felt before the bomb dropped. Sometimes we have individual players making the bowed, plucked, or percussive effects, as if we’re hearing the pain of lonely survivors with no living family or friends to mourn with. Sometimes we have players in groups, suggesting the mourning of living family and friends who are weeping and wailing together, trying to comfort each other in all futility.

A little later on, we get the string effects notated with the umbrella-like symbols mentioned earlier, as well as those with the vertical line going through a cone pointing to the right. These are played on the celli and the double basses. Other string effects are heard on groups of three or four violins, violas, and celli, accompanied by a sustained cluster chord on the violins. The ten violas will join in with a cluster chord of their own as those violins, having done a crescendo from mf to fortissimo, play another slow vibrato.

As the above continues, other strings come in with their own tone clusters. The dissonances pile up, with slow vibratos played on some groups. The dynamics go down to piano and pianissimo, but soon crescendo and abruptly stop, leaving a brief silence.

Next, a climactic cluster chord is played on all the groups of strings, a huge dissonance with notes ranging all the way from about a c to a c′′. The totality of it is like a culmination of all the preceding horrors, as well as of the suffering they caused. The slow decrescendo, fading to silence, suggests again the slow, painful dying-off of many more victims.

IV: Conclusion–What Can the Threnody Mean for Us Today?

Needless to say, this music is disturbing to listen to, especially on the YouTube video (link above) that combines the music with the footage of the aftermath of the bombing. It’s disturbing because it should be. Nuclear war is nothing other than disturbing, though some nut-jobs think it can be used to defeat Russia today.

Another one of the reasons that those two bombs should never have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it ushered in the nuclear age. Faced with the threat of such bombs being dropped on the USSR and, later, China and the DPRK, these socialist states were compelled to make their own nuclear arsenals.

…and look at where we are today.

Threatened with the loss of their unipolar global hegemony, the US and the extension of its imperialism, NATO, have been provoking Russia ever since the counterrevolutionary dissolution of the USSR, with the aid of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (and no, you don’t stop them from being fascists by a mere change of logo), culminating in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Even cold-blooded war criminal Henry Kissinger has enough sense to know that the only way out of this war is to give Putin what he wants: Ukrainian neutrality, no NATO membership for the country, and a reasonable amount of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics…perfectly acceptable requests for the sake of Russian security, except that the US and NATO refuse to grant them.

That this war, if not ended, could escalate into a very nuclear WWIII (as could also happen when the US–via Taiwanprovokes China into a similar war), should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Still, the US and NATO keep pressing their–and everyone else’s–luck…all because they don’t want to accept the emerging multipolar world with rising Russia and China, a world which, if handled well, could lead to a balance of power that could facilitate world peace.

(I go into more detail about these issues in these posts, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.)

The current-day threat of nuclear annihilation is what makes Penderecki’s Threnody not only relevant, but outright urgent to listen to. Let this terrifying music stir up your survival instinct and inspire you to do whatever we can do to stop the psychopaths in power from killing everyone and everything on our fragile planet.

The End of the World?

I: Introduction

As the above title implies, I’m afraid that this isn’t going to be a very rosy, positive post, Dear Reader.

Some readers who have read my posts about my family, and who know about my C-PTSD, might think that what I’m about to describe is just a reflection of my tendency to catastrophize the problems of the world, and I’d really like to think that that’s all that is going on here in my reaction to current events.

But I don’t think it’s my attitude to the problems.

I think it’s the problems themselves.

Now, before you think I’m just putting you on a real downer here, Dear Reader, consider that the first step in dealing with problems is acknowledging that they exist, rather than denying and running away from them. So let’s acknowledge these problems, where they began, how they’ve progressed, and what they’re escalating into now.

II: Background

First, with the ending of the great majority of the socialist states of the world, the capitalist class no longer felt the need to soften the plight of the working class with such things as welfare; for without any significant existing Marxist alternative to capitalism, the ruling class needn’t fear revolution if things grow intolerable for the poor. Hence, the rise of neoliberalism.

(For those of you who don’t think of the demise of 20th century Marxism-Leninism as a bad thing, please read this to understand why I think its demise was bad.)

That problem, however, was only the beginning.

With contemporary capitalism always comes imperialism, and with the end of the anti-imperialist bloc of Soviet states came, from the point of view of the imperialists, the gleeful realization that they could do anything they wanted, to any country, with impunity. The September 11th attacks, regardless of whether you choose to believe they were caused by radical Muslim terrorists or were an inside job, gave the American imperialists the perfect pretext to start carving up the Middle East any way they liked, as a general explained was the plan in this video.

With the “War on Terror” came the Patriot Act and the beginning of the decline in civil liberties. The state of permanent war has also meant a rise in the profits of the likes of Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, etc., profits that must be kept up to counteract the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, so the perpetuation of war has made it into a kind of addiction.

With war always comes war crimes, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were of course no exceptions. Chelsea Manning sent classified government documents of such crimes to Wikileaks, exposing the murderous American military and arousing its wrath. The persecution of her and Julian Assange has been the first major recent example of a threat to the freedom of the press, something that has gotten much worse in the 2020s.

Similarly, when Edward Snowden publicized the NSA’s plan to monitor the cellphone conversations of ordinary Americans, an Orwellian act rationalized as a form of counterterrorism, he was forced to leave the US for ‘treason,’ really a defence of freedom.

I’ve made this summary to set the stage, as it were, for what’s been coming since. The rise of neoliberal capitalism, an unfettered “free market” version that allows the rich to get richer and to exploit and immiserate the poor, has resulted–far from the right-wing libertarians’ fantasy of “small government”–in the wealthy being so rich that they can buy the government and make it do their bidding. The imperialist drive to find new markets in, and export capital to, other countries results in a further bloating of the military-industrial complex…big government, capitalist government.

The current-day depredations of imperialism aren’t limited to the countries of the Middle East. Any country that runs foul of the globe-spanning hegemony of the US and NATO is a target. Such targets have included the DPRK, Venezuela (with her vast oil reserves), Bolivia (with her lithium, so coveted by Elon Musk), and…of course, Russia and China.

And here is where things start to get especially scary.

III: The Threat of World War III

Not only has NATO, an extension of US imperialism, inched further and further eastward towards the Russian border over the past three decades, making Vladimir Putin more and more nervous, so has China been surrounded by American military bases in places like Australia, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea in what John Pilger has quoted a US strategist as calling “the perfect noose.” There is also the US navy in the South China Sea, and there are the over-a-billion-dollars worth in weapons the Trump administration sold to Taiwan to point at China.

A reminder: the US and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons, and China has hundreds.

So, we have all this dangerous and totally unnecessary nuclear brinksmanship going on with these three countries, which instead of competing with each other could be working together for the greater global good, a potential multipolarity whose balance of power could, if developed properly, actually improve our chances for world peace. Instead, the US is jealously fighting to preserve its unipolar hegemony, and would rather risk the annihilation of all life in a nuclear WWIII than share global power.

IV: Media Censorship

To make matters worse, as the Russian/Ukraine war rages on, one that even the Pope has acknowledged was NATO’s fault, the culmination of a thirty-year (and especially an eight-year) provocation of Russia from that eastward expansion I mentioned above, the mainstream Western media is censoring any dissident voices questioning the narrative that the war is ‘all Putin’s fault.’ Putin is no saint, to be sure, but the Russian intervention was far from unprovoked.

You know the old cliché: in war, the first casualty is the truth, and such a casualty is certainly here with Ukraine. Though the mainstream news media admitted to the presence and influence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and military before the Russian intervention, since then their presence is either denied, downplayed, or outright ignored. Yet it is precisely this neo-Nazi presence that provoked the Russian response by killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region in the eight years between the 2014 coup that ousted Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian military operation beginning this February to protect that Russian community.

One can claim the pro-Russian side is biased if one wants to, but so is the anti-Russian side. The point of having a free press is to allow publication of both sides of the story, for the sake of balance. Justifying censorship of “Russian propaganda” has only reduced the Russophobic coverage of CNN, the BBC, MSNBC, etc., to nothing more than Western propaganda…and hypocrisy.

The censorship of the pro-Russian side–properly understood, the actual anti-war side, since the only real end to this war will be granting Russia’s security requests, i.e., giving the Donbass region its independence, as well as ensuring a neutral Ukraine (no NATO membership)–has gotten so bad that the US set up a Disinformation Governance Board, in effect, a Ministry of Truth directed by a self-styled Mary Poppins. Added to this, many dissident voices, including those of Caleb Maupin, Mint Press News, etc., are no longer being given access to PayPal; so in not getting paid for their journalism (something that had precedent with Wikileaks about twelve years ago), these people are in effect being silenced, for one can’t be expected to focus properly on one’s journalism if one has to use up one’s necessary time making money doing another job.

And if we aren’t given access to dissenting voices that might otherwise dissuade us from going along with the manufactured consent for more and more war, we’ll find ourselves inching all that much closer to a nuclear WWIII.

V: A Love of Death

So what is the mindset behind all this pushing for more and more war? Obviously, part of it is the profit motive, as I mentioned above (i.e., Boeing et al), since war is a business and a racket. But with the ever-growing dangers of nuclear annihilation, which will also halt the growth of those profits, we must look for an additional motive behind all this warmongering: what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character.

By “necrophilous,” Fromm wasn’t referring to the sexual perversion, but rather to a pathological preoccupation with death, with the non-living: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. [Fromm, page 369, his emphasis]

Fromm’s idea of the necrophilous character orientation is an elaboration on and a refining of Freud‘s notion of the death drive, which with Eros, the life instinct, is conceived as one of “the two most fundamental forces within man” [Fromm, page 369]. The death drive, just like the drive to achieve pleasure, involves a removal of tension to achieve a state of rest. As Hamlet said, “To die, to sleep, no more…”

It shouldn’t be hard to see how endless wars, leading to the risk of nuclear annihilation, as well as capitalism’s immiseration of the poor leading to their deaths through suicide, drug abuse and other addictions, the epidemic of homelessness, and the yearly starvation of millions in the Third World, are all manifestations of the necrophilous orientation in the ruling class, who adamantly refuse to do anything about these problems. This orientation, however, has manifested itself in other ways, too, which I’ll describe now.

VI: Economic Collapse and the Oligarchs

At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic blew up into what it’s been since, there were already predictions of a global economic meltdown, which the pandemic, of course, has only exacerbated (and served as a political distraction). Masses of people have lost work, have been threatened with (if not already subjected to) homelessness, and/or have developed serious mental health problems; the horrors of Third World poverty have gotten much worse, and the gig economy has found new, particularly heinous, ways of exploiting workers desperate for money.

Such Western oligarchs as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk have all, in their own ways, exploited the covid pandemic to get even more obscenely wealthy as all this global suffering continues. Their combined wealth, as well as that of the other multi-billionaire oligarchs of the world, could end world hunger, end homelessness, and be used to build schools and hospitals, among other benefits; but they always seem to have excuses for why doing such good for the world ‘won’t work.’ Instead, they fly off in rockets or buy social media platforms.

These men know they could help the world. People have nagged them to do it. Still, they won’t: this isn’t merely because of greed and selfishness, as I see it; I think they have at least an unconscious urge to kill off masses of the poor. Recall Bezos‘s connections with the CIA, as well as his ownership of the Washington Post; he is one of many examples of oligarchs who have undue influence over the government and the media. Gates, with not only all the money he’s given to control the WHO, but also the money he’s given to many, many media sources, is another “philanthropist” who has similarly excessive influence.

Recall how Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to allow mergers and acquisitions in the American media, resulting in about 90% of that media being controlled by six corporations. Hollywood is essentially required to make the CIA, an evil organization dedicated for decades to bringing about regime change after regime change, look good in films. See how the government, media, and oligarchs are working hand in hand to deceive and screw us all.

VII: The Oligarchs’ Love of Death

Let’s connect the dots: wealthy oligarchs control government organizations and the media, the latter of which is now silencing dissident voices, first about covid, then immediately after about the Russian/Ukraine war, which as I said above, could go nuclear. (People denigrate ‘authoritarian’ countries like Russia, China, the DPRK, Venezuela, Cuba, etc., for having state-controlled media; yet with Western oligarchs controlling the American government and media, both of which, through organizations like NATO, control other countries’ governments and media, do these Western “democracies” really have anything other than state-controlled media, if only indirectly so?) Manufactured consent for war, with no dissident media voices allowed to reverse the influence of this evil: the necrophilous orientation, on full display…if only people could see it.

Elsewhere, we see the number of covid deaths in the US has recently reached around one million (this assuming that they, as the ever-so-dubious mainstream media maintains, have all died of covid as opposed to having died with covid, especially since the omicron variant, though spreading faster, is less deadly than the previous variants, of which the survival rate has always been the great majority of those who have caught it). A single-payer, universal health-care system would suit these patients, in the richest country in the world. Yet the American government still prefers to spend billions of dollars on the military (while having upwards of a thirty-trillion-dollar deficit), and to send over a billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine, to make Ukrainians cannon fodder in the US/NATO proxy war against Russia. There’s money for war, but not for health: this is the necrophilous character, in a nutshell.

VIII: Roe vs. Wade

Now, one thing has happened recently in the US that, on the surface, doesn’t seem all that necrophilous: the Supreme Court’s leaked majority vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. If we examine this right-wing outrage more thoroughly, though, we’ll see that it’s hardly life-affirming at all: the compassion that the anti-abortionists have for the unborn ends when the unborn are born. These right-wingers are adamantly opposed to providing any kind of childcare, maternity leave, or any other form of financial relief to struggling single mothers (or fathers now obligated to help raise babies both parents would otherwise not have had). Life may “begin at conception,” but compassion ends at birth, apparently.

And in a world with not only the pandemic forcing children to wear masks and therefore get very little chance to learn how to read facial expressions (as older generations have taken for granted), with not only the looming threat of a nuclear WWIII, and with not only an economic meltdown so bad that it could be the end of capitalism (replaced not with socialism, but either barbarism or some kind of neo-feudal totalitarianism), but also skyrocketing inflation (made worse by rising gas prices in a bid ‘to stick it to Putin,’ a cutting-off of one’s nose to spite one’s face if ever there was one), bringing excessive life into such a shitty world is anything but “pro-life.” Birthing unwanted babies in the worst of economies, with very possible food scarcities (conveniently blamed on Russia, mind you, while the West is completely unwilling to grant Russia’s most straightforward requests to end the war that’s exacerbating this food crisis) on the way: what could go wrong?

IX: Compassion

Bible-thumpers call life (before birth, mind you) “sacred.” Buddhists, however, say, “Birth is Ill, decay is Ill, sickness is Ill, death is Ill: likewise sorrow and grief, woe, lamentation and despair. To be conjoined with things which we dislike: to be separated from things which we like–that also is Ill. Not to get what one wants–that also is Ill. In a word, this body, this fivefold mass which is based on grasping–that is Ill.” [Smart and Hecht, page 236]

Small wonder Schopenhauer, greatly influenced by Buddhism, had a pessimism regarding non-life as preferable to life; but being far removed from those of the necrophilous orientation, he confronted human suffering with an attitude head and shoulders above that of these Bible-thumping anti-abortionists–he espoused compassion for sufferers.

We socialists also have compassion for those who suffer; this is why we advocate universal healthcare, housing, education, and employment for all, and a society that produces things not for profit, but to provide for everyone. Such a beneficial transformation of society would reduce suffering to a far more tolerable level than we have in the current neoliberal nightmare. Such vast improvements are far more pro-life than the Bible-thumpers could ever offer.

X: Climate Change

Now, if we don’t end all life on this Earth through nuclear war, there’s another, equally sure way that will do it: through climate change. The warnings have been given for decades, and while conservatives outright deny the existence of this danger, liberals offer woefully inadequate solutions to the problem. All of the efforts of ordinary people to mitigate the problem–e.g., recycling, plastic straws replaced with paper ones, cleaning up pollution on the beaches, etc.–fade into insignificance when compared to the gargantuan contributor, which if anything is only getting worse: the US military as the greatest polluter in the world.

The climate change issue is not only very real, it’s an urgent problem that must be reversed, and soon, before its devastating effects can no longer be rectified. Sea levels are rising now. Wildfires have been raging in countries all over the world. This issue cannot wait, yet as I said above, the efforts to deal with it so far have been nothing more than puny compared to what must be done.

As for those right-wing libertarians who deny climate change, and who are no doubt informed by the greedy heads of corporations who put profit before human life, those right-wingers should consider the implications behind the underground bunkers that the super-rich will have when a world-ending disaster like the ultimate effects of climate change happen, or when there’s a nuclear war, or when the civilizational collapse brought on by the self-destruction of capitalism renders money useless. Will the boot-licking, climate-change-denying conservatives ever admit to themselves what the super-rich have known all along–that climate change is real, and that the super-rich thus have been lying to the conservatives?

Indeed, a number of blog posts by Rainer Shea discuss how the oligarchs plan to deal with the very civilizational collapse they themselves have been responsible for bringing on. In one such post, a CEO euphemistically referred to “the Event” (i.e., the end of the world via climate change or nuclear war), worrying about the loyalty of the armed guards of his bunker when money has become useless. As always, these necrophilous types care only about themselves, and they plan to hide out in their bunkers while the rest of the world burns.

XI: Conclusion–Revolution is the Solution

To make matters worse, the return of fascism, as a way of tightening the elites’ grip of power on us, is but one of many examples of how ‘democracy’ has revealed itself to be an illusion. The rich have militarized police, robotic dogs, and fascistic-minded bootlickers among the working class and petite bourgeoisie, all ready and willing to protect them. Liberals, though pretending to be progressive, are in their very defence of Ukraine revealing fascist sympathies. Though the sanctions on Russia have resulted in many countries, such as China and India, dropping the US dollar, which will help bring about the end of the Anglo/American empire, such a Western decline won’t come without a fight.

Chelsea Manning sent out an interesting tweet recently, about the need not only to be armed, but also for the armed to come into communities to train together. People, time is running out. Voting out the bad guys won’t work. There is no kind and gentle way to end the corruption in politics. We will have to fight our way out of this.

We can no longer just sit around and share memes on Facebook about revolution. We have to do it, and soon. Right-wingers among the masses, convinced by bourgeois propaganda that socialism is “Satanic,” will fight us tooth and nail, as will the police and standing armies of the ruling class. A revolution is not a dinner party.

In my heart, I don’t like violence; but it isn’t a matter of liking it. We have no other choice. If we on the left don’t organize, train, and act now, the end of the world will come, in the form of nuclear war, climate change, or neo-feudalism brought on by civilizational collapse, with that of capitalism. And with the media as censored as it is now, many won’t even see it coming.

Let’s get our act together, people.

Analysis of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

I: Introduction

Charlie Wilson’s War is a 2007 film directed by Mike Nichols (his last film) and written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from George Crile III‘s 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. The film stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with Amy Adams and Ned Beatty.

This is the story of US Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) and Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), who helped bring about Operation Cyclone, the organizing and supporting of the mujahideen against the USSR in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 to 1989.

The film was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy, but it did not win in any category. Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. After all, the real architect of Operation Cyclone wasn’t Wilson, but Zbigniew Brzezinski. Wilson’s charms and the analytical skills of Avrakotos’s team, as well as their planning, were crucial contributions, but it was a big team of people, not just Wilson, that made Operation Cyclone succeed.

Now, I’m less interested in the film’s faithful, or not so faithful, presentation of historical details than I am in the fact that Charlie Wilson’s War is blatant, shameless pro-American/anti-Russian propaganda coming from bourgeois liberal Hollywood. Casting Hanks, with his charisma and star power, as womanizing Wilson is just the icing on the cake to sell the idea that this war led to a “glorious” victory for ‘freedom and democracy.’

II: Needed Historical Context

A huge amount of missing context must be provided so one can truly understand how the war began, who the heroes and villains really were (and are), and how the success of Operation Cyclone has encouraged the American government to attempt repeats of its success in the current Russian/Ukrainian War, as well as a potential one between China and Taiwan…truly disturbing developments.

So before I go into an analysis of Charlie Wilson’s War, I must give a summary of the events in Afghanistan that led up to the war. Contrary to mainstream accounts that the Soviet Union was trying to force its ideology on the Afghans, and therefore invaded the country as an act of imperialism, the Afghan people of the 1970s were moving in a modern, progressive direction, in the direction of socialism (something far removed from the ways of the Taliban today), and they wanted help from the USSR to achieve this modernity.

Now, one can’t expect every Afghan without exception to have been modern and progressive-thinking. It was inevitable that some of them would have been reactionaries, conservatives, and even religious fundamentalists, hell-bent on reversing such progressive gains as improving women’s rights. (I’m curious: should we in the West be sympathetic to such reversals?)

Added to this opposition, naturally, was that of the US and other capitalist countries in NATO fighting the Cold War. Brzezinski, as National Security Advisor during the Carter administration, was a rabid anticommunist eager to bring down the Soviet Union, not caring at all what the political, social, and economic repercussions of such counterrevolution would eventually be. To get an idea of just how ruthless and determined Brzezinski was in getting the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union, just watch the pep talk he gave some of them in this video.

Charlie Wilson’s War portrays the mujahideen fighters as largely sympathetic underdogs, with only a few, slight hints at what they would evolve into by the 1990s and 2000s; but anybody who has done a little cursory reading of who they were and are knows not only that they morphed into the Taliban, but also that Osama bin Laden was one of them, as a photo from a newspaper article from 1993 revealed.

The original draft of the screenplay was meant to end the film with the September 11th attacks, clearly linking these with American government support for the mujahideen. Uncomfortable with this ending, Hanks had the filmmakers replace it with a happier one, where Wilson is awarded as an “honoured colleague” of the CIA. Here we see how liberal Hollywood willingly colludes with the CIA to spread propaganda to glorify the American government and vilify anyone opposed to it.

Now, as for the defeating of the Soviet Union, of which its loss in Afghanistan was one significant factor of many leading to its dissolution, one must carefully study the history of 1990s Russia before glibly assuming that the restoration of capitalism was a ‘triumph of freedom and democracy’ over ‘totalitarianism.’ Contrary to popular belief in the West, most Russians wanted to preserve the socialist system, and poll after poll has consistently shown that majorities of Russians have regretted replacing the Soviet system with capitalism. Similar results have been found when asking the people of other former Soviet Bloc countries about the restoration of capitalism.

So, who really benefitted from the defeat of the Soviet Union? Not ordinary Afghans, who found their hopes for modern and progressive change crushed, only to be oppressed by the fanatical, fundamentalist Taliban. Not ordinary Americans, who would be collectively traumatized by 9/11, and then manipulated into supporting the imperialist plunder of the Middle East in the ongoing quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.

No, the real beneficiaries were and are the neocon, neoliberal, imperialist ruling classes of the West, and liberal Hollywood junk history like that of Charlie Wilson’s War gives Westerners a false narrative that glorifies the shameful reduction of Russia to the impoverished mess it became under Yeltsin in the 1990s, while downplaying the ill effects of arming the mujahideen.

III: Recent and Current Repeats of “Charlie Wilson’s War”

To make matters worse, the US is currently attempting a repeat of “Charlie Wilson’s war” in Ukraine, where instead of arming Muslims to drain Russia of her strength in an agonizing war of attrition, the American government is arming neo-Nazis. Similar extremist mentality, different nationality.

An attempt at this kind of radicalizing also happened in Hong Kong back around 2019, when protestors led by Joshua Wong, who is friends with such neocons as Marco Rubio, were violently attacking anyone deemed Chinese (as opposed to being of Hong Kong) to provoke an invasion from China.

Luckily, and contrary to Western media propaganda, Chinese police showed great restraint in putting down the Hong Kong violence; but will similar provocations be stirred up in Taiwan in the next five to ten years? I hope not, but the Trump administration’s having sold over a billion US dollars in weapons to Taiwan to be pointed at China, as well as the banging of the war drums in Western, especially Australian, media, about ‘protecting Taiwan’ against a Chinese invasion, worries me, a resident of the island.

So, to get back to the movie, all of the above is the historical context one needs to know to have a proper perspective on Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s a liberal fantasy glorifying the US in its defeat of socialism, thus proving to all of us on the left, without a shred of doubt, that liberals are no more our friends than conservatives are. That liberals often posture as progressives should make us especially wary. At least with right-wingers, we know where we stand.

IV: The Film’s Beginning

So the film begins with Wilson getting his recognition from the CIA, that evil organization responsible for coup after coup of leftist governments trying to combat US imperialism, as an “honoured colleague.” This is the kind of feel-good scene meant to move patriotic Americans, liberal and conservative alike, since those two political persuasions–let’s face it–have much more in common (i.e., the motive to protect their imperialist class interests) than they have in contrast to each other.

After this scene, which was around the end of the 1980s, we go back in time to 1980, with Wilson in a hot tub with strippers. Though, as I’ve said, this film is blatant Hollywood liberal propaganda aimed at portraying the American government as the ‘good guys,’ liberating Afghanistan from Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ it also lets out a few, so to speak, Freudian slips that reveal the not-so-noble aspects of the American government. The hedonism and womanizing of Wilson is a key example of that.

In The Liberal Mindset, I discussed the psychological conflict liberals have between their id impulses towards achieving pleasure (Wilson’s chasing of women, cocaine, etc.), their ego‘s wish to stay safe (Wilson trying to steer clear of being charged with drug use), and their superego‘s need to have a clear conscience by doing what’s morally right (fighting for social justice–as Wilson would see it here, that would be helping the mujahideen underdog against the perceived juggernaut of the USSR).

The juxtaposition of Wilson in the hot tub with his seeing the mujahideen on the TV, giving him an urge to help them, perfectly exemplifies this liberal conflict between the pleasure principle and the ego ideal. The juxtaposition also demonstrates the position of privilege an American Congressman has and his ability to influence politics in an imperialistic way, all while keeping alive the illusion in his mind that in arming the mujahideen, he’s doing the right thing.

V: Wilson, a Modern-day Sade

Of course, in ruining the hopes of the Afghans to bring about modernity, socialism, and equality for women, all in the name of protecting ‘American interests,’ as the rationalization is so typically given, Wilson is actually being cruel to the Afghan people, whether he’s consciously aware of it or not. This cruelty, coupled with the transgressive pleasures he’s indulging in with those naked strippers, invites comparison with the wickedness of the libertines in the pornographic novels of the Marquis de Sade.

The subtle reader, looking beyond the scurrilous violence of Sade’s books, will see a political commentary on the privilege and corruption of the rich and powerful, who routinely get away with their crimes because their victims are typically poor. Similarly, Wilson not only manages to evade getting prosecuted for the presence of that cocaine at the hot tub party, but also, even though he and the American government by his admission “fucked up the endgame” in Afghanistan (i.e., the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the explosion of terrorism in the 2000s), none of those responsible for that endgame were punished.

It’s interesting also to compare and contrast Wilson’s attitude toward women with the Taliban’s attitude. Both are sexist, if in opposing ways. The latter would control women by covering their bodies from head to toe to prevent temptations to lewdness; Wilson would control women by objectifying them, having them either relatively or totally undressed, or at least dressed provocatively, thus subjecting them to the pressures of a daily beauty contest. This is what we see later in Wilson’s office, with his bevy of beautiful “Charlie’s angels,” in whom their competence as his assistants (though undeniable) is at best secondary to their physical attractiveness (“Jailbait!”). Again, pleasure is coupled with at least a kind of nastiness.

Now, to be fair to the Charlie Wilson of history, his hiring of his “angels,” as opposed to the hiring of male office assistants, was meant as a feminist promoting of women workers–feminist, that is, by liberal standards, of course. I, however, am little concerned with the Wilson of history; I’m concerned with the Wilson of this bourgeois liberal propaganda effort, something even Hanks in an interview promoting the film acknowledged was often not the real Wilson. The Wilson of the film, the womanizing sexist, is to be examined less as history and more for his contribution to the film’s theme of pleasure-seeking coupled with cruelty.

VI: A Liberal Courting Conservatives

To go into that theme in its other manifestations, let’s consider Wilson’s relationship with socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts). Though he’s a liberal, she’s a conservative born-again Christian. His flirting with her in the movie, regardless of whether or not it has any historical basis, is symbolic of how conservatives and liberals have often worked together to bring down the left. Again, his wish to get her out of her clothes is coupled with their collaboration to defeat the Soviet Union, resulting in all the horrors I mentioned above, regardless of whether they were intended or not. Pleasure is wedded to cruelty once more.

Another juxtaposing of feminine sexuality and its pleasures with capitalist machinations to undermine the USSR is when Wilson and Avrakotos meet with Israeli arms merchant Zvi Rafiah (played by Ken Stott), Hasan (played by Shaun Toub), and the Egyptian Defence Minister (played by Aharon Ipalé) to discuss a better arming of the mujahideen, all while the last of these men is enjoying a belly dance from a personal friend of Wilson’s, Carol Shannon (played by Tracy Phillips).

VII: Gust Avrakotos

I’ve said much of the pleasure-seeking, sexual aspect of this movie. More needs to be said of the nasty aspects, much of which can be seen as personified in the rather uncouth Avratokos, a CIA man. There is much humour to be found in the confrontational scene between him and his superior, Henry Cravely (played by John Slattery), the CIA director of European operations, in Cravely’s office…an incident that really happened, though the superior whom Avratokos told to ‘go and fuck himself,’ twice, was named William Graver.

Avrakotos smashing Cravely’s office window…twice…is a nice touch in how it reinforces for us, viscerally, just how abrasive the man is, an abrasiveness and irascibility brought out so well in Hoffman’s performance. I see this gruffness as another Freudian slip in the film, in that Avrakotos, as a CIA man, is the perfect personification of an American government organization cruelly determined to undermine any attempt by any country to shake off American imperialist influence. Though the CIA is generally portrayed positively in this and pretty much all other Hollywood films, this bit of nastiness from Avrakotos can be seen as a parapraxis of this film.

The conflict between Avrakotos and Cravely exemplifies all so well the alienation felt between workers in the capitalist system, a system aggravated by its ascent to its highest stage, imperialism. Hence, it’s fitting to see that alienation aggravated so proportionately in the heated argument between the two men.

VIII: Criticism of the US vs That of the USSR

Wilson’s first visit to Pakistan to meet President Zia-ul-Haq (played by Om Puri), confronting him and Brigadier Rashid (played by Faran Tahir), and dealing with their annoyance at getting so little money from the US to fight the USSR, is a moment for this liberal film to pretend to engage in a criticism of otherwise heroic America. After all, it would be far too crass to portray the US government as utterly faultless. Allow the Pakistanis to have their legitimate gripes about the scant military funding as “a joke,” as long as both countries are on the same team fighting those commie Reds.

…and what about the Russian Soviets? Make no mistake, the film vilifies them to the hilt, and shamelessly so. We see footage of a parade in Red Square, complete with Red Army soldiers marching, tanks, and an image of Lenin in the background. We hear the soundtrack play, of all songs, “Farewell of Slavianka,” one which certainly had patriotic Soviet lyrics written for it, but which was also used as an unofficial anthem of Admiral Kolchak‘s White Army during the Russian Civil War, the attempt to restore capitalism to Russia just after the November Revolution. Such a choice of song seems to be yet another Freudian slip.

When we see this parade, we’re meant to feel intimidated and threatened by the mighty Soviet ’empire,’ when actually the point of these Soviet displays of military strength was to reassure the Russian people that they were well protected from the far more intimidating and threatening imperialists of the West, who since the dissolution of the USSR have done plenty of the kinds of airstrikes and other atrocities…on Muslims, no less!…that we see this film show the Soviets doing immediately after the parade scene. Remember what Manning and Assange revealed.

The film would have us believe that the Russians went around wantonly firing on innocent, ordinary Afghans out of sheer sadism and malice, which is a hard portrayal to reconcile with the historical reality of the Soviets trying to help the Afghans build a modern, progressive society. The Soviets were fighting the mujahideen, a backward, reactionary people who wanted to reverse any progressive gains for the Afghans, people whose fundamentalist mentality would lead eventually to the repressive Taliban.

Yet Charlie Wilson’s War would have us believe that the mujahideen were sympathetic underdogs desperately in need of American military assistance. A similar portrayal is now being made of the Ukrainian military, laden with neo-Nazis and far-right nationalist, Banderite fascist sympathizers, people whose extremism and viciousness are being downplayed and ignored, if not outright denied, in the Western media. One is reminded of what Malcolm X once said: “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The US and NATO-allied countries liked Russia when Yeltsin was running the country…into the ground…in the 1990s; as unpopular as Yeltsin was, they even helped him get reelected in 1996 when the Communist Party was close to electoral victory. When Putin began to revive the economy of the country in the 2000s, however, the West didn’t like Russia anymore, and its rise–with that of China–threatens the unipolar hegemony of the US and NATO. Though Gorbachev had been promised that, on the reunification of Germany, NATO would move “not one inch eastward,” it most certainly had by the making of this movie. Since NATO has never been Russia’s friend, it’s easy to see why its eastward enlargement has made Russia nervous.

Just a year after Charlie Wilson’s War came out, the Russo-Georgian diplomatic crisis came to a head, resulting in war between the two countries; a big factor in this crisis was the campaigning of George W. Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili for NATO membership for Georgia. Putin’s vehement opposition to such membership, as well as the plan to have Ukraine join, is part of what has made the West so antagonistic to Russia, even as early as the mid-to-late 2000s, and so we see this Russophobic attitude in the film.

This Russophobia is made clear in the scene when, after his meeting with the Pakistani president, Wilson goes to Peshawar and sees the Afghan refugee camp. He sees children whose arms have been blown off by landmines after the kids thought they’d found toys or candy. He hears of raped women, bayonetted pregnant women, and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Soviet troops.

Though admittedly atrocities are committed by soldiers of all armies in all wars to at least some extent, including even Soviet troops (for it is the hellish nature of war that it brings out the brutish in even the best of men sometimes), the extreme nature of what is described here in the film can, to at least a considerable extent, easily be attributed more to anti-Soviet propaganda than to historical fact. So the film’s depiction of Soviet brutality should be taken with a generous grain of salt. Besides, before Americans judge the brutishness of soldiers of other countries (those they’re hostile to in particular), they should first take a look at the crimes the soldiers of their own country are guilty of.

IX: Wilson Meets Avrakotos

Wilson returns to the US, to his office, and meets Avrakotos there. The two men discuss the antiaircraft guns the mujahideen need to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Wilson understands that the plan, so far, has been to drain the USSR of military power ever so slowly in a war of attrition, while of course he wants the mujahideen to be much better equipped, with anti-aircraft guns to shoot down those Soviet helicopters.

Their discussion is interrupted several times by “Charlie’s angels,” who tell Wilson about the danger he’s in of being charged with drug use at that hot tub party with the strippers. To save his hide, he of course must deny any knowledge of or connection with the cocaine that was being snorted at that party.

In this scene, we see the psychological conflict of the liberal on full display. There’s his id‘s indulgence in the pleasures of the party, in conflict with his ego‘s defence against being charged, and his superego‘s moral urging to arm the mujahideen and help the underdog (as he sees it) against the bullying Soviets.

Since Wilson will eventually be cleared of any charges of drug use (though he was most probably guilty of it), we see here the privileges of the well-connected politician, which keep him safe from the kind of prosecution the average person wouldn’t have a prayer of being safe from. And the juxtaposition of his “angels” and their tireless work to help him, with his discussion with Avrakotos about arming the mujahideen, once again reflects the film’s theme of the Sadean coupling of the ruling class’s indulgence in pleasure with its enjoyment of crime with impunity.

There’s Wilson’s impunity from being charged with drug use, and there’s the impunity anyone in the ruling class enjoys after all the ill effects of imperialism have been realized: the destruction of the socialist systems of Russia and the Eastern Bloc, which as I said above were preferred by large percentages of those living there to the predatory capitalism that replaced them. Then there’s the impunity, even forgiveness and rehabilitation, of–for example–the imperialist Bush, simply because he isn’t Trump.

X: Enemies Are Always Friends Against Commies

During the belly-dancing scene, it’s interesting to observe the mutual antagonism between Israeli Zvi and the Muslims he has to cooperate with. He complains of how upsetting it is that the Muslim majority nations don’t acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist,” of the “oppression” of his people, while no mention is made of the Zionist state’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians.

Still, Israel, the US, Egypt, and Pakistan will work together to arm the mujahideen, however secretive they will all insist this collaboration must be. In spite of all their religious, political, and cultural differences and hostile feelings, they’ll all unite against the spread of socialism, ensuring the security of their nations’ class interests. When it comes to money, politicians in the nations of the Abrahamic faiths worship the same God. Indeed, we see Christian Clarence Long (Beatty) saying “God is great!” (Allahu akbar!) to the Afghan refugees in a pep talk that looks like the film’s replacing of Brzezinski with a more likeable face.

Now that Wilson and Avrakotos have assembled their team–including Michael Vickers (played by Christopher Denham)–and they can equip the mujahideen with FIM-92 Stinger missile launchers to bring down the Soviets’ Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, they can turn the Soviet military campaign into a deadly quagmire. As Brzezinski had wanted, the US has given the Soviets their unwinnable Vietnam War. The CIA’s anticommunism budget has risen from $5 million to over $500 million. In keeping with the Russophobic agenda of this film, when the team is all set to strike, we hear Vickers gleefully say, “Let’s kill some Russians!”

XI: The Outcome

Of course, we all know the basic history. The USSR eventually withdrew from Afghanistan and acknowledged defeat. As far as the film is concerned, the US has saved the day by helping the mujahideen, though the Afghans who were hoping for Soviet help in modernizing their country and improving such things as women’s rights could say to Uncle Sam, “Thanks for nothing.”

Indeed, we finally come to a contemplation of the unpleasant repercussions that even the film acknowledges. Avrakotos warns Wilson to take seriously the “crazies” among those they armed in Afghanistan. The American government must look into rehabilitating schools in this post-Soviet era.

Avrakotos illustrates his meaning to Wilson by telling him a Zen master story, that of the lost horse. A boy is given a horse for a gift, but when riding it one day, he falls off and breaks his leg. The town where he lives is invaded, and all the men living there must fight off the invaders, though he can’t because of his leg; most of those men get killed, yet he lives.

As a Zen master is hearing the switches of fortune from good to bad to good again, with each switch of fortune, he just says, “We’ll see,” indicating his awareness of how impermanent good and bad fortune are. Avrakotos is trying to get Wilson to understand how the ‘good’ fortune of the mujahideen defeating the Soviets will become the bad fortune of the rise of the Taliban.

Wilson’s attempt to persuade his colleagues in the government to provide money to rebuild a school in Afghanistan falls on deaf ears. Even this most modest of requests to mitigate a rise in Muslim fundamentalist extremism through education isn’t considered.

Nonetheless, the film ends as it begins, with a happy, feel-good ending (Wilson’s recognition as an “honoured colleague”) meant to warm the hearts of patriotic Americans with Hanks’s charisma, instead of with the more explicit original ending intended, linking the outcome of the war with 9/11.

XII: Conclusion

Still, the film ends with a quote from Wilson: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…and then we fucked up the endgame.” Not quite, Charlie, in spite of even your ideological leanings. These things happened, and they changed the world, but they were anything but glorious. You didn’t just fuck up the endgame: you fucked up everything. The provoking of terrorism was just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Putin is a bourgeois reactionary with no intention whatsoever of re-establishing the USSR (contrary to what some propagandists say), he was right to say that its dissolution was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The demise of the USSR plunged 1990s Russia into poverty and encouraged right-wing, reactionary thinking worldwide. Without a swathe of socialist states to inspire revolution, to deter capitalists from aggravating their war on the poor, Clinton gutted American welfare and signed the Telecommunications Act to allow mergers and acquisitions in the American media, so that now a mere six corporations own and control most of the country’s access to information, freely allowing them to propagandize and manufacture consent for more imperialist wars, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now, Ukraine.

Back in the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union gave Francis Fukuyama the goofy idea that history had ended, leaving capitalism and liberal democracy at the ultimate zenith of human progress and civilization. “We’ll see,” the Zen master would say…and indeed, the extremes of wealth inequality today, with (as of 2017) eight mega-billionaires sharing the same wealth as that of the millions of the poor half of the whole world’s population, have caused many to reconsider socialism, including the Marxist-Leninist variety espoused in the Soviet Union.

The rapaciousness of capitalism, with its preference of maximizing profit over leaving a healthy Earth for future generations, is accelerating climate change, with rising sea levels, melting Arctic ice (making the polar bear an endangered species), and causing wildfires in many parts of the world right now! Musk‘s ‘green capitalism,’ with his electric cars, is nowhere near a solution, since–apart from its not doing anything about the number one polluter in the world…the American military–it is responsible for the brazenly imperialist outrage of having brought on the short-lived coup d’état in Bolivia, with the intent to steal the country’s lithium reserves.

Worst of all, unchecked US imperialism has reached such extremes that it is currently tempting fate by risking a nuclear WWIII with Russia and China over Western provocations in Ukraine, an attempt to redo what it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Ukrainian neo-Nazis are now among the sympathetic underdogs as far as the mainstream media is concerned, as were the mujahideen. And thus everything has come full circle, with no attempt to learn from the mistakes of the ‘fucked-up endgame.’

But with liberals’ interpretation of these mistakes, it’s hard for them to see how they’re going to fuck up the endgame. After all, just as the American government had been fucking everything up since day one of “Charlie Wilson’s war,” so have they been fucking everything up since day one of the current neoliberal, post-Soviet era.

The fucking-up began with the eastward European expansion of NATO, thus antagonizing Russia. It continued with Bush’s attempts to have Georgia and Ukraine join NATO (around the time this movie was made). Problems escalated when the US and NATO helped oust Yanukovych, replacing him with a NATO-friendly Ukrainian government including neo-Nazis who have been killing ethnic Russians for the past eight years in the Donbass region, thus provoking a Russian intervention as had happened in Afghanistan in 1979.

Still, the liberals kid themselves that the first part of “Charlie Wilson’s war” (actually, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s war) was “glorious,” because…communist totalitarianism, or something (read this for a debunking of that right-wing nonsense, as I don’t feel like repeating my arguments in this post). Now, to be sure, the Soviet Union had more than its share of flaws, especially from the Krushchev era onward, but in spite of these, it was an effective counterweight against Western imperialism, having aided in national liberation movements around the world. In any case, anyone who’s been paying attention for the past thirty years knows that life has been getting shittier and shittier…and what “glorious” thing happened thirty years ago, folks?

Recall a relevant quote from Stalin: “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.”

Like him or loathe him, Stalin was prophetic on this point.

Satanist?

I’ve been getting a fair amount of trolling lately for my more overtly political articles.

First, I got called an “extremist” Marxist, and this comment was on an article in which my criticism of capitalism was quite mild. Then, in response to the article (first link above) in which I defended my “extremist” leftism, I got a particularly grumpy comment.

He called my article a bunch of “garbage,” and repeated the usual propaganda (which my article had already explained away) about the suffering of those in the socialist states whom the bourgeoisie usually weep for (all the while ignoring, as usual, the many millions more who have suffered and died under capitalism). He was particularly irked by my comment that included Solzhenitsyn among writers of “fiction,” a generalization I’d qualified as both literal and figurative, directly and indirectly so, though my qualifications seemed to have been ignored.

He then went on about me being “delusional” for having my political views (he, of course, is utterly free of delusion of any kind), and he ended off his mini-rant by saying…get this…I’m “probably also a Satanist.”

The melodrama of this new label makes “extremist” sound…well…moderate.

To any right-wingers out there who happen to be reading this at the moment: calling me a “Satanist” is not going to hurt my feelings, let alone discourage me from having the left-wing beliefs I have, or from promoting them. What the commenter had said prior to this new label might be hurtful on some level (my considering the source easily mitigating such hurt), but using such a ridiculous word quickly deflated what little force his counterargument originally had. Really–I chuckled at having been called a “Satanist.” Who was he, some Bible-thumper?

More importantly, what was meant by “Satanist”? Does he literally believe every commie out there worships the Devil just because we don’t buy into all that neoliberal crap about the “free market,” TINA, and anti-communist propaganda?

(Incidentally, actual Satanism is nowhere near as shocking as most of us have been led to believe.)

Or by “Satanist,” did he have a more metaphorical meaning? Was he just saying that I, as a communist, am espousing some kind of heinous, inhuman evil? Did he, so typical of Christian fundamentalists, imagine that people of my political persuasion are unwittingly worshipping the Devil in the form of idols of “the god that failed”? Am I unwittingly helping bring about the Satanic NWO?

Egad.

Let’s just go through all the ‘evils’ that I espouse.

According to this troll (my deleting of whose comment can be seen as a compassionate preserving of him from having embarrassed himself):

If you advocate lifting the Third World out of poverty, you’re a Satanist.

If you advocate free housing, education, and healthcare for all, you’re a Satanist.

If you advocate ending world hunger, you worship the Devil.

If you advocate ending all wars and imperialism, you’re evil incarnate.

If you advocate equal rights for women, people of colour, LGBT people, etc., you love Satan.

If you advocate employment for all, but wage slavery for none, you have horns and hooves.

By the same logic, the following result from Christian virtue: leaving the Third World in poverty and despair, allowing homelessness to continue existing, and keeping education and healthcare too expensive for the poor. Other Christian virtues, apparently, include allowing people around the world to die by the millions of malnutrition, when we produce enough food to feed them all, and have been able to do so for a long time (in this connection, recall Matthew 25:31-46).

Also, it’s apparently Christian to allow all the imperialist wars to continue (remember Matthew 5:9). It’s also Christian to oppose equality for women, people of colour, and LGBT people (no irony this time). And finally, one is a good, God-fearing citizen if one advocates for a reserve army of labour to keep wages down.

Now, as for the more metaphorical meaning of “Satanist,” we must look into the psychology of those paranoiacs who imagine that communism is part of a grand scheme to bring about a “one-world government,” deemed to be the greatest evil and tyranny possible (as if it were even possible to establish one, or that many governments in the world were less evil and tyrannical, or that they couldn’t actually be worse).

These people, especially if they’re Christian fundamentalists, tend to deflect blame for the world’s problems from capitalist imperialism onto such scapegoats as Jews, Freemasons, and communists (and in doing so, they tend to show a thinly veiled sympathy for Naziism). In denying the fault of the world’s problems as that of the economic system they defend, and in putting the blame on the shoulders of these scapegoats, these paranoiacs are engaging in projection, just as I observed in my article about the “extremist” communist as a projection of the capitalist extremist.

Another defence mechanism to be noted in the thinking of these paranoiacs is splitting. Just as with the Christian dualism of God vs Satan, these people have a black-and-white, dichotomous view of anyone who thinks differently from them. So if you espouse socialism, you’re an “extremist” and a “Satanist,” rather than simply someone who opposes capitalism. (For a more thorough examination of the psychology of the capitalist, go here. And for a more thorough defence of Marxism-Leninism, go here, here, and here.)

As for my branding of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn‘s writing as “fiction,” a number of things must be kept in mind. First of all, he did write fiction: here‘s a list of his novels. True, he also wrote ‘non-fiction,’ though I’d take his biases as a historian with a generous grain of salt.

The Gulag Archipelago, among his most famous writing, though understood to be non-fiction, was described by no less than his ex-wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya, as “folkloric and frequently…mythical.” She implied that he exaggerated the hellish existence in Russian prison camps (which even the CIA secretly acknowledged as not being anywhere near as bad as the media has portrayed them); she also said that he was “an egomaniac who brought government censorship upon himself with his searing criticism of the Soviet system.” The book’s very subtitle, An Experiment in Literary Investigation, sounds suspiciously like an admission to its (at least partial) fictionality.

During WWII, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag for having written a letter criticizing Stalin. On the surface, this naturally would sound like an excessive punishment for mere political dissidence. One must, however, see his offence in its proper historical context. At that time, the Soviet Union was in an existential, life-and-death war with the Nazis, and Stalin’s government had not too many years before dealt with traitors who were trying to tear apart the first workers’ state from the inside.

Solzhenitsyn, an avowed Russian nationalist, surely should have supported the Great Patriotic War with all his heart, and even if he had a few points of ideological disagreement with Stalin, her surely should have been prudent enough to refrain from discussing such points for the time being, in favour of supporting the military campaign against the invading Nazis. Surely this would have been so…unless at least a part of him, consciously or unconsciously, supported that invasion. Because of this suspicion, some of us on the left feel it’s at least understandable to imagine Solzhenitsyn as having had fascist leanings.

And though he was anti-Soviet, even he was irked to see how the neoliberal capitalist West had weakened his beloved Mother Russia in the 1990s. And from what had been done then to what is happening there now, as well as between Nazi threats to Russia then and Nazi threats there now, we must move on to the next topic of discussion.

The historic relationship between Ukraine and Russia is complicated. Parts of Ukraine, originally Russian–including Crimea and the Donbas region–were added to Ukraine when it was an SSR. Some Ukrainians, going back to WWII, have had nationalistic feelings approaching, bordering on, or lapsing into fascist sympathies.

Their hero is Stepan Bandera, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator back in WWII. The extremists among these Ukrainian nationalists, while also hating the usual groups–Jews, the Roma, LGBT people, and feminists–have an especial hate for Russians. Such is the historical context in which such far-right Ukrainian groups as the Azov Battalion and Svoboda should be understood today.

NATO, never a friend to Russia, is an extension of US imperialism. Even anti-communists should be able to acknowledge that this Western pact hasn’t needed to exist since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet here it is, NATO, stronger than ever, and right on Russia’s north-western border, with troops doing military exercises there.

Though on the reunification of East and West Germany, Gorbachev was promised that NATO wouldn’t move “an inch” to the East, it has most certainly moved much more than that. Democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych, leaning towards Russia (unacceptably so, in the opinion of the West), was ousted in a violent coup d’état in 2014, replacing his government with a pro-US/NATO one including the above-mentioned neo-Nazis.

These neo-Nazis, given generous amounts of weapons from the West, have been killing ethnic Russians in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine for the past eight years; the death toll is up to 14,000 Russians. The Nazi-influenced Ukrainian government has banned the Russian language, taken down statues of Soviet heroes, banned communism and glorified fascist leaders. The Nazis have attacked the Roma, LGBT people, and feminists as well as the ethnic Russians.

The biased Western media denies the significance of neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine based on their relatively small percentage (though their influence has been huge) and the fact that Zelenskyy is a Jew (incidentally, if he does anything against the wishes of the neo-Nazis [i.e., make peace with Russia], they’ll kill him). That a Jew would never collaborate with Nazis is refuted by the fact that, among other unsettling facts, Trotsky was willing to do so to oust Stalin.

The dishonest liberal Western media, in its disingenuous denial of Nazi influence in Ukraine–implicitly supporting them–reminds us of what Stalin once said: “Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Now, social democracy is the left wing of liberalism; so if social democracy is moderate with respect to fascism, liberalism, right-wing libertarianism, and conservatism in general are all that much closer to fascism.

Putin tried everything to deescalate the tense situation in Ukraine, in which the totally disregarded Minsk accords were meant to end the violence. The US/NATO and Ukraine government wouldn’t budge when he reasonably insisted on such security assurances as Ukraine not joining the inimical NATO, which would point weapons at Russia. All of the above provides the context needed for understanding why Putin intervened in Ukraine.

For my part, I hate all war, I wish this intervention (tankies‘ sheepish euphemism for invasion) could have been prevented, and I feel bad for all the innocent, ordinary Ukrainian civilians caught in the middle of this conflict. That said, though, it’s the fault of the US and NATO that the war has happened, not the fault of “Russian aggression.” When the Western media claims Putin was “unprovoked,” they’re lying.

As for Putin, he’s far from representing my political ideal. He’s the leader of a reactionary bourgeois government; today’s Russia is nothing like the Soviet Union, and he doesn’t want to bring it back. Still, he’s nowhere near the imperialistic “Hitler” the Western media is calling him, a truly silly claim (Russia as a whole is by no means imperialist, in the Leninist sense, either); and sanctioning all things Russian, and all this censorship and banning of all Russian media, is showing how increasingly undemocratic the West has become.

Now, since it’s no use crying over spilt milk, we should instead hope for the best possible outcome of this conflict: may it end as quickly as possible (not likely, given the insistence of the US, NATO, and the Ukrainian neo-Nazis wanting it to continue), may the US and NATO back off (again unlikely, for obvious reasons), and most important of all, wipe out those neo-Nazis!

No reasonable person wants war of any kind, but to resolve this issue, we must think dialectically. Any ratcheting up of hostilities against Russia (and, by extension, against China) could easily escalate into WWIII, which in turn could go nuclear. In smearing Putin for his intervention, the Western corporate media is trying to manufacture consent for a bigger war against Russia and her ally, China. This is dangerous, and it must be avoided at all costs. To stop the big war, we’ll have to let the little war run its course, and hope for the best.

The US and NATO don’t care about the suffering of Ukrainians any more than they care about the suffering of those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, or Yemen. Ukraine, for the imperialists, is just another pawn on the chessboard for their scheme to prevent the emergence of a much-desired multipolar world, one that would deny American global hegemony.

All of this leads me back to my point about ‘Satanist’ politics. Those who believe in an emerging “new world order,” that is, those on the political right, tend to believe it’s a secret, Satanic cabal that is orchestrating the whole thing, step by step. They imagine that a confederacy of Jews, Freemasons, and communists (note the implied bigotry) are conspiring to rule the world with the establishment of one, global government. What they fail to understand is that the real new world order has existed ever since the fall of global communism thirty years ago.

So if one wishes to know who the real ‘Satanists’ are (I refer to that metaphorical meaning given above), one need look no further than the neoliberal capitalists in the American government and NATO. We communists are bitterly opposed to these ‘Satanists,’ whose love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). All capitalist bootlickers who, however unwittingly, are supporting an economic system that unswervingly leads to imperialism, should realize that, in calling us leftists ‘Satanists,’ they are engaging in the same projection I said previously of those who call us “extremists.”

The unipolar world is run by the US and NATO. Their economic system isn’t socialism, it’s “free market” neoliberal capitalism. Allowing for the emergence of Russia and China will replace unipolarity with multipolarity, something the American empire will never tolerate.

These people who see people like me as ‘Satanists’ don’t want to look inside themselves, see what is psychologically broken in themselves (i.e., their alienation), and understand that supporting–directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly–fascism and nuclear brinksmanship is about as Satanic as Satanic gets. Because supporting these evils in our already tense world is going to get everybody…EVERYBODY…killed.

As for us commies, who want to end the wars, end corporate greed, feed the world, provide housing, education, and healthcare for all, and–far from establishing a one-world government–hope for the eventual withering away of the state…if wanting these things makes us ‘Satanists,’ then I don’t want to be ‘Godly.’

And to you right-wing trolls, by all means, keep your snarky comments coming. Far from discouraging me, you’re actually inspiring me to write up new blog posts. It really helps me.

Hail Satan!

Analysis of ‘Anastasia’

Anastasia is a 1956 film directed by Anatole Litvak and written by Arthur Laurents, based on the 1952 play by Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton. It stars Ingrid Bergman (in the title role), Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes.

The story is inspired by that of Anna Anderson, the best known of the Anastasia imposters who emerged after the execution of the Romanov family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918.

Bergman won her second Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film (her first being for Gaslight). Anastasia was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Alfred Newman. Bergman also won a David di Donatello Award (Best Foreign Actress), as well as a New York Film Critics Circle Award (Best Actress) and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture–Drama (Hayes was nominated for this last one, too). Brynner won Best Actor for the National Board of Review Awards, which also ranked Anastasia in eighth place for its Top Ten Films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Here is the complete script.

The film begins with narrative text about the execution of the Russian Imperial family in 1918. In the ten years following the executions, rumours that some of the family survived floated about, rumours fuelled in part by Soviet cover-ups of the killings. There is no conclusive evidence that Lenin gave the order to kill the family, though he certainly had nothing but disgust for them. There is also no doubt that claims of survivors are all false.

A few things need to be taken into consideration regarding the making of this film, and how much sympathy should be felt for the Romanov family. First of all, the play and the film were produced in the 1950s, when Cold War propagandistic vilifying of “commies” was at its height. A film generating sympathy for the Tsar’s family would have been of immense appeal to the Western ruling classes, especially in the US, “the only country left with a proper respect for wealth,” as is observed among the con men in the film.

Second, sympathy for the Russian Imperial family hardly deserves validation, given all the suffering of the poor Russian working class and peasants, all while under the thumb of the wealthy, privileged, and incompetent Tsar, who was hugely unpopular. As biased against the Soviets as Orwell‘s polemical allegory, Animal Farm, is, his representation of Nicholas II in the mean, insensitive, and alcoholic farmer Mr. Jones, is at least reasonably accurate.

Third, given the tensions of the Russian Civil War, it’s easy to see how many among the Soviets, if not all of them, would have considered the Romanov family too dangerous to be left alive. Had the White Army been successful, with the aid of other countries in their attempt to force bourgeois/semi-feudal rule back on Russia, the Romanovs could have had their rule restored, the Bolsheviks and other left revolutionaries would have all been executed in a bloodbath, and the vast majority of the Russian people would have been relegated to poverty and despair.

The bourgeoisie can always find room in their hearts to pity the suffering of a few of their fellow rich, even when those sufferers are of the feudal world the capitalists have supplanted; but they feel minute compassion, at best, for the impoverished and starving millions of the world. It is in the above historical context that we should understand Anastasia, a bourgeois film with all the relevant symbolism.

The film begins during Easter celebrations in Paris in 1928, ten years after the executions, and right when Stalin has established himself as Lenin’s successor and is about to begin building socialism in the USSR…not that Anastasia wants to deal with any of that, of course.

Anna Koreff (Bergman) has been found by some associates of General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Brynner) near a church among the exiled Russian community in Paris, where participants of the Orthodox Church are celebrating Easter. Such a juxtaposition of elements–the supposed survivor of the Tsar’s family, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Easter–is symbolically significant when one considers the film’s class agenda.

The Tsar and the Orthodox Church worked hand in hand to maintain power and authority over the Russian people. The Tsar was said to have been appointed by God, and he gave the Church financial rewards for spreading such propaganda among the poor peasants, who were led to believe that Russia, God’s land, was intended to be just as the peasants found it. So, since the peasants were piss poor, they were supposed to be content with their lot, and neither to complain about it nor wish for more.

If Anna really is the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, then if she’s reinstated, she can gain followers who might help her oust the communists and restore the tsarist autocracy. That she’s been found on Easter symbolically suggests a resurrection, the brining back to life of the executed duchess, making “Anastasia” a kind of Christ figure. Notions of an evil empire–like that of the Rome that crucified Christ, as well as the imperialism that the communists strove to defeat–can thus be projected onto the USSR.

Such bourgeois propaganda is as perfect as a dream for a ruling class so threatened by Marxism-Leninism.

Now, Anna is a deeply troubled, destitute, and traumatized woman. She suffers from amnesia…to what extent we don’t know for sure…and she is frightened of everyone. She has been from asylum to asylum; we don’t know who she really is for sure–not even she knows. We do know, however, that in her last asylum, she told a nun there that she is Anastasia. She presumably said it in a fit of madness; but “she has certain surprising features,” as Bounine says, that strongly suggest she could really be Anastasia, or that at least can be used to con people into believing she is the duchess, so that the con men can get at a large sum of money.

…and this is where Bounine and his associates, Boris Andreivich Chernov (played by Akim Tamiroff) and Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin (played by Sacha Pitoëff) come in. That Chernov is a banker, Petrovin is a former student of the theological seminary, and Bounine was a general in the White Army who fought in the Russian Civil War is all significant, since these three are the con men itching to get their filthy hands on that money. They all represent different facets of the ruling class (banker, theologian, and military man) working to deceive the public, promote tsarism, and get wealthy.

…and who is this Anna woman, really?

The ambiguity in the film, as to whether or not she really is Anastasia, reflects the conflict between the reality that she couldn’t possibly be her, or that it’s at least extremely unlikely that she is the Grand Duchess, and the microscopic hope that she is her, which is bourgeois wish-fulfillment.

Her seeming to know personal details of Anastasia’s life could be the result of a fixation on her, motivating her to study these details from various biographers in, say, newspaper articles. Putting these details in her mind, when she can’t possibly have known them, is in all likelihood part of that wish-fulfillment in the film’s producers.

The real Anna Koreff, though, is a woman whose tragic life has been so full of “disappointment, anger, dismissal; out in the street, failure, fake, nobody!” that she has been on the verge of falling apart, of experiencing a psychotic break from reality, of experiencing psychological fragmentation. Narcissism, as has been observed by Otto Kernberg, can be used as a defence against said fragmentation; and Anna’s claim to be Anastasia–to the nun in the asylum–could have been such a delusion of grandeur, however brief, meant to protect her from totally falling to pieces at the time.

After she runs away from Bounine at the church, she walks by two homeless men (seen with bottles of alcohol, in order, no doubt, to minimize any sympathy for such ‘dissolute louts’). the placing of her near them, if she really is Anastasia, is meant to intensify our sympathy for her, this female Lear who has gone from riches to rags (though, she shows no pity for the derelicts, as Lear does to the “poor, naked wretches…” when he has “ta’en/Too little care of this!” Act III, scene iv). The bourgeoisie will pity her as a royal wretch, for they like to see themselves and their ilk as victims, as I’ve observed elsewhere.

If she really is, however, as destitute by birth as those two winos, then the capitalist class won’t care at all about her. We, however, should care, in such a case, for then she would be one of the true wretched of the Earth, not of those victimized by nothing more than their own bad karma.

Before her attempt to drown herself in the Seine is stopped by Bounine, she looks at her reflection in the water. Is she seeing the Grand Duchess as an ideal-I she can no longer live up to, causing her a narcissistic injury that only suicide can cure? Or, rather than contemplating the narcissistic metaphorical mirror of Lacan‘s Imaginary, is she seeing the dark, formless waves of the traumatic, undifferentiated Real? Or is it both the Imaginary and the Real, phasing back and forth with each up-and-down movement of the waves?

She doesn’t know at all who she is: the trauma of her whole life has placed her at the borderline between a hazy sense of a lack of self (the Real) and narcissistic delusions of grandeur, Anastasia as False Self (Imaginary), an ego-defence against psychotic breakdowns. The bourgeois wish-fulfillment that she is Anastasia is their sharing of those delusions of grandeur, a collective narcissism one can easily associate with the capitalist class.

So when she says, with a laugh, that she’s “the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna” to Bounine, and that maniacal laugh switches to hysterical bawling, we see a manifestation of that cusp between Imaginary and Real, or between the dialectically paradoxical extreme merriment and traumatic despair of the laugh of the Joker.

Her switch from laughing to bawling, as interpreted by the bourgeoisie in their wish-fulfillment and narcissistic identification with her, would be because of her modest doubts of her royal lineage switching to a confrontation of her traumatic experience in the cellar, watching her family get killed before her miraculous escape. A more realistic interpretation, however, would be that she laughs at how absurdly untrue it is that she’s Anastasia, switching to crying over how, deep down, she wants to believe she is the Grand Duchess, knowing also that that way, madness lies.

In any case, had Anastasia survived, she would have been 26 going on 27 as of Easter of 1928; whereas in the film, she is being played by an actress who was 40-41 years old at the time. Thus, the age difference between Anna and Anastasia already causes us to doubt that she’s the Grand Duchess.

Who she is is an empty void, the kind of emptiness a narcissist might fill up with a false, grandiose self. The emptiness, in her case, is the result of amnesia. This amnesia seems to have been caused by an injury to the head, “a narrow depression, extending almost to the forehead,” as Bounine points out to Chernov and Petrovin.

When the three men ask her where she got her scars on her hands and head, she says they are “a gift from an unknown admirer.” Where? She doesn’t remember. It’s easy to imagine this admirer to have been one of Lenin’s men, as the bourgeois hearers of her story would like to believe. For all we know, though, this “unknown admirer” could have been a rapist beating her into submission, and her amnesia may not be from a physical injury so much as from repressed traumas returning to consciousness in the disguised form of an Anastasia fixation.

In any case, Bounine finds her amnesia “most convenient,” so he can exploit her to get at that £10 million belonging to Anastasia held by an English bank. It is fitting that he is also the owner of a nightclub in which Russian performances are enjoyed by his bourgeois clientele, where he’ll make Anna another of his cigarette girls if she doesn’t cooperate with his Anastasia scheme. Bounine, as general of the White Army, businessman, and swindler, is the consummate capitalist exploiter of labour.

Bounine has only eight days to get “Anastasia” ready to be presented before stockholders and convince the world that she is the Grand Duchess, so she is put to work immediately, being taught to memorize various details of Anastasia’s life, to dance, to play the piano, and to walk with a book on her head. Just like those musicians and dancers who are employees in Bounine’s nightclub, she is being made to put on a performance. She is just another of his exploited workers.

Though he has introduced himself, Chernov, and Petrovin as her “friends,” they are actually hard taskmasters who are overworking her and bossing her around. She shows a defiant individualism that annoys Bounine and brings out his stern, authoritarian, and paternalistic nature; but over time, he begins to have feelings for her…and she for him.

Now, a combination of her beauty with a budding sense of compassion for her, and how she has suffered, can easily explain why Bounine would start to fall for her; but why would she come to love such a peremptory, domineering man as he? His playing the guitar and humming to her is charming, but not enough in itself, nor is his dancing the waltz with her that she likes so much. Could his very strictness be the decisive factor in her loving him?

In bed one night, she has a nightmare and wakes up screaming with, in Newman’s film-score, tense, descending arpeggios in the high register of the piano. Bounine finds her in their apartment in a state of hysteria, her crying of how she wishes to be the real her, and not some faker of nobility. (This wish of hers, incidentally, could be seen to symbolize the worker’s alienation from his or her species-essence.)

When he can’t calm her down, Bounine shouts at her to “go to bed at once!” This reminds her of her “very strict” father (recall earlier when he ordered her to eat the borscht she doesn’t like), which she tells him with an almost Oedipal smile. Her growing love for him, therefore, could be the result of a father transference; it could also be trauma-related, that “unknown admirer” rapist I speculated of above. She may feel compelled thus to love dominant men, for it seems that Bounine is her new “ringmaster in a circus,” a scam circus he’s running in an attempt to get his hands on that £10 million.

Now, she is beginning to have feelings for him, but only beginning to. She also hates being exploited and bossed around by him, and in her frequent moments of defiance, she tells him so.

There is a paradox in his using her and telling her what to do, while at the same time entertaining in her mind the idea that she is of a social rank far higher than he. He is indulging her grandiose self, being a mirror of it for her, and she reacts accordingly by, for example, scolding Chernov for smoking in her presence without her permission, a sudden outburst that impresses the otherwise skeptical, gout-afflicted Chamberlain (played by Felix Aylmer).

The essence of Anna’s pathology can be traced to her lack of a stable psychological structure, described by Heinz Kohut as the bipolar self, the two poles of which are grounded in, on the one side, the mirroring of the grandiose self, as Bounine is providing for her, and on the other side, an idealized parental imago, which will be provided for her if her trip to Copenhagen with Bounine is successful.

What she needs is to have her identity and existence validated. Desire is the desire of the Other, as Lacan observed, and Anna’s desire is the empress’s desire, to be given recognition from her, she who deep down desires to have her long-lost family back. As much as Bounine tells the public she is Anastasia, it will never be good enough for her, since so many people doubt her authenticity as the Grand Duchess…devastatingly for her, Bounine himself doesn’t believe in it. They know, however, that there is one person by whom, if she accepts this troubled woman as her granddaughter, the whole world will have to accept her as Anastasia Nikolaevna.

The old woman in question is the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Hayes), and she lives a bitter life in Copenhagen, presented over and over again with fake family members. She has been shown two Tatianas, an Alexei, a Maria, and an Anastasia; she is so jaded with frustrated hopes of seeing long-dead family members that she must use an icy exterior to shield herself emotionally from further disappointment. For Anna to get validation from “Grandmama” will be a formidable enterprise, indeed.

Still, Anna must do it, for the Dowager Empress, being genuine Russo-Danish royalty, is just that idealized parental imago, transferred from parent to grandparent. Anna’s meeting of the empress, cutting her way through all that thick ice, will be so frightening for her that she will express her fear in an idiosyncratic manner that we viewers of the film have by now found familiar–through coughing.

This nervous reaction of hers represents her wish to eject painful parts of herself: bad memories, traumas, and bad internal objects. Ironically, and what seems a most fortuitous windfall, the Dowager Empress recalls Anastasia having coughed whenever frightened, and this memory convinces her that this young woman really must be her granddaughter.

In holding weeping Anna close, “Grandmama” is doing what Bion called a containment of the troubled girl’s agitations, detoxifying them for her and thus healing her. Old and young women here have healed each other. “Anastasia” has rebuilt her bipolar self, and finally has stable psychological structure.

In all well-written stories, we observe that the main characters go through growth, development, personal changes. We’ve seen how this happens to Anna, who begins as a traumatized, suicidal amnesiac with fantasies of what Freud called the “family romance” (i.e., her fantasy of having been born into nobility, which actually disguises a traumatic disappointment in her real parents); and through the rebuilding of her bipolar self with the mirroring of Bounine and the idealizing of the empress, she’s found stability and thus no longer needs such fantasies to keep her from psychologically falling apart.

Anna, however, isn’t the only character to have undergone important changes. Apart from the obvious thawing of the icy heart of the empress, Bounine has finally seen, though the hurt he’s caused the woman he’s exploiting and falling in love with, the error of his money-loving ways. Another source of the opening of his eyes is Prince Paul von Haraldberg (a fictional character played by Ivan Desny), another fortune-hunter who’s trying to win the charms of “Anastasia” and who is therefore enflaming Bounine’s jealousy, since the prince is to be engaged to her.

Prince Paul’s gold-digging is assuredly a mirror being held up to Bounine’s face, and therefore piquing his conscience, since his growing love for Anna is in large part due to his compassion for her suffering. Not only does Bounine want her for himself, but he also realizes that he cannot go on exploiting her for that money.

Now, Anna no longer needs the royal fantasies to help her hold herself together, but this doesn’t mean she no longer gets pleasure from indulging in such fantasies. Jealous Bounine points this out to her before the empress is to make her announcement that this young woman is Anastasia.

He no longer cares about the money…as amazing as such a development is. He hates how she has changed: her pain aroused his compassion. Now that she’s comfortable with who she is, in what feels like a phoney persona, she no longer inspires his compassion, but his contempt. Still, he wants to love the troubled woman he treated precisely with the therapy of that persona–he wants her back.

With this therapy, if you will, that he gave her, he has also treated his own faults. For in helping her establish an identity and social acceptance, he has learned the value of human relationships over money. This is why, at the end of the movie, he runs away with her, she doesn’t get engaged with Prince Paul, and neither she nor Bounine bother with the £10 million.

The empress, though wary of Bounine’s schemes, is so content in her belief that she has really been reunited with her granddaughter that she will let him run off with her. For the empress, too, appreciates the value of human relationships, and she’d rather see ‘her granddaughter’ happy with Bounine than in an emotionally sterile relationship with the prince.

Thus, there is, on at least some level, a shared understanding among all three of them that the Romanovs are “dead and buried and should be.” What we’re seeing at the end of the film is, of course, far from an advocacy of a triumph of communism (hence, the blacklisting of Laurents, Anastasia‘s screenwriter, was totally unjustified Cold War paranoia at the time), but rather a bourgeois liberal concession, a consigning of tsarism to the cobwebs of history.

Indeed, it is painful for the empress to let her granddaughter (as she still believes Anna to be, despite the allegations of Mikhail Vlados [played by Karel Stepánek]) go free and be happy with Bounine, who loves her for her, rather than be with the prince, who wants that money. This ability to make selfless sacrifices for the happiness of others can be seen, despite the film’s ruling class agenda, as the beginning of a series of steps from aristocracy and oligarchy to bourgeois liberal democracy, then–one hopes–finally to a classless, stateless society.

When I first watched Anastasia as a teenager (at the height of my crush on Ingrid Bergman), I was impressed at the graceful display of etiquette that the characters usually show each other. There are also, of course, brusque moments of ill temper here and there. The contrast between the two emphasizes the phoniness of the former and the blunt honesty of the latter. That we call the former ‘high class’ behaviour and the latter ‘low class’ behaviour is instructive.

To be ‘high class’ is to put on a performance of a supposed superiority worthy of wealth. Anna’s presenting of herself as the Grand Duchess is such a performance. We need to end such performances and help the wretched of the Earth to be just who they are, as she ends up doing. Then, we can see the empress smile and say, “The play is over. Go home.”

Extremist?

I: Introduction

A week or two before I began writing out the first draft of this blog post, I received a snarky comment from an obvious right-winger who described me as an “extremist” Marxist. The comment, since deleted (apart from its snark, it doesn’t deserve to be dignified by being allowed to continue existing, for reasons I’ll go into soon enough), was on my analysis of The Last of Sheila, in which my criticisms of capitalism are far from extremist; though to many right-wingers (the extremists of their camp in particular), any criticisms, even the mildest, are deemed “extremist.”

Granted, he may have also read other blog posts of mine, such as my analysis of Conan the Barbarian, in which I go further in my capitalist critique, and take the obviously controversial position of defending such communist leaders as Stalin and Mao. Now, if my right-wing friend–‘right-wing,’ because only someone of that political persuasion would think that calling me a “commie” is an insult–had made his comment on the Conan post rather than the Sheila one, his labelling of me as an “extremist” might, from a politically mainstream point of view, have at least some validity. Instead, he chose to make his comment on a post with only moderately anti-capitalist remarks.

I must ask: why call me on “extremist” on the Sheila post–if that’s all he’d read of me–and not the Conan one, or any of the many others where I present my admittedly hard-left stance? Since my political position is controversial, I am compelled to back up my arguments with a flood of links. A clue to his choice to be snarky on the Sheila post could be found in a careless error I made in the opening paragraphs (since corrected, naturally, and so for that, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him): I misspelled Raquel Welch’s surname as “Welsh”…twice! (Oops! I actually made a similar mistake, in my analysis of Tommy, in misspelling Ann-Margret [again, corrected]; I’m going to have to be more careful with future posts!)

Could it be that the only way he could confidently point out a “Gotcha!” was to hit me with a petty spelling mistake? After all, the realm of politics is a nebulous one, in which pointing out the errors of one’s ideological foes isn’t so clear-cut. An appeal to popular opinion, one based on decades of anti-communist propaganda (which, if you’ve read enough of my writing, Dear Reader, you’ll know doesn’t impress me at all), combined with a spelling “Gotcha!”, is apparently the best my butt-hurt commenter could do.

Nonetheless, it seems that it’s time for me once again to defend my political stance, since people like him never stop coming out of the woodwork. So in the following paragraphs, I will attempt not only to justify my defence of Stalin, Mao, and the other socialist leaders, but also to prove that, on the contrary, it is the right-wingers who are the extremists. In fact, given the aggravation of the neoliberal agenda over the past few decades, even defenders of the mainstream liberal status quo can be legitimately called extremist, as I will also try to prove.

II: A General Defence of Socialism

Let’s start by asking and answering a simple question: what does a socialist want? We can then look at the following list of answers and determine whether or not it’s “extremist.”

–the means of production are controlled by the workers
private property is abolished
–commodities are produced to provide for everyone
elimination of class differences, leading to
–…no more centralized state monopoly on power, and…
–…no more money (i.e., replaced with a gift economy)
–an end to imperialism and all the wars it causes
–an end to the huge gap between the rich and the poor
–an end to global hunger in the Third World
–free universal health care
–free education for all, up to university, ending illiteracy
–housing for all
–equal rights for women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people
–employment for all, with decent remuneration and hours
–a social safety net in case of job loss

The capitalist is the only one who will find this list of goals objectionable, since implementing it will cut into, if not totally obliterate, his profits. He’ll also rationalize his objection to it by claiming its implementation to be impractical and unrealistic.

Actually, a study of the achievements of the USSR, China under Mao, Cuba, and the other socialist states of the 20th century will show that many, if not most or even all, of these goals were either fully achieved, or at least great progress was made towards achieving them, though you wouldn’t know that to read the lies of the right-wing propagandists who endlessly quack about how “socialism doesn’t work.”

Many workers’ co-ops have been achieved in otherwise capitalist societies, and they have not only survived, but they have often thrived. Private property (factories, farms, office buildings, stores, apartment buildings, real estate, etc.) already isn’t owned by the vast majority of the population; we just want to bump that small percentage down to 0%, so everyone can share all of it. (And no, your toothbrush, cellphone, TV, car, and underwear are not private property–they’re personal possessions. You don’t profit off of them, and you don’t exploit workers with them, so we “commies” don’t want to force you to share them. Please don’t hand me that idiotic argument!)

Capitalism arranges the production of commodities to make profits; communists want them to be made to provide everyone with what he or she needshow is this a bad thing? Right-wingers claim that we can’t afford to make this change, yet billion-dollar spending in the US military, causing a sky-high deficit, is somehow workable. Our billionaire and centi-billionaire class could use their combined money to feed the world, build schools and hospitals–all well-equipped and with well-trained staff–provide affordable, if not outright free, housing, clean up the Earth, and provide well-paying jobs…but they don’t. They’d rather fly rockets out into space. Small wonder so many of us on the left dream of sticking the heads of the superrich in the guillotine (Egad!…how extremist of me!).

Right-wing libertarians fetishize the elimination of the ever-intrusive state, yet they fail to understand that the whole purpose of government is, as Lenin observed in The State and Revolution, to protect the interests of one class at the expense of the other. Usually, it’s the bourgeoisie whose interests are protected by the state, while the proletariat is held down; only in the socialist states established in the 20th century, the workers’ states, were the classes’ positions reversed. Because such a protection of class interests is the raison d’être of the state, its elimination will be possible only with the elimination of those class differences, which must remain as long as capitalism exists to preserve them. The socialist state exists only as a transitional phase, causing the class differences to fade away, before the state can totally wither away…the libertarian dream, in all irony!

The socialist states of the 20th century were working hard to bring about that withering away of the state; Stalin as a committed Marxist-Leninist wanted to move ahead with that after the end of WWII, except that the reactionary traitors hiding in his government were at work thwarting his plans. These fifth columns within had their equivalents from without: the imperialists, who were doing all in their power to reverse the gains of the socialists and bring back capitalism to the entire world. It wasn’t that Stalin didn’t want the state to wither away, it’s just that internal and external factors made that withering away unattainable in his lifetime.

The evils of modern empire are a particular bane to socialists; for this reason, it isn’t enough just to be a Marxist–one must be a Marxist-Leninist and oppose imperialism, in its US/NATO incarnation ever since 1949 and metastasizing especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. How is opposing the depredations of empire “extremist”? Was the rebel alliance of Star Wars “extremist”?

III: Aggravation of Class Struggle

We Marxist-Leninists hear this tiresome series of accusations over and over again: the socialist states of the 20th century were tyrannical, totalitarian nightmares to live in; their leaders were psychopathic, genocidal maniacs who lusted after power; and they tried to ram an unattainable, utopian fantasy world down the throats of an unwilling public. Yawn.

When we try to defend our ideology, we are dismissed for spewing “tankie” propaganda against the ‘moderate’ and ‘objective’ historical analysis of mainstream liberals and conservatives. We, apparently, are the biased ones, who can’t accept that ours was ‘the god that failed,’ not them. We, apparently, have an ideological axe to grind, not them. Yawn.

First of all, let’s be fair here: there’s no such thing as objectivity in politics. Those mainstream political analysts very much have an ideological axe of their own to grind, namely, the defence of the class system that privileges them at the expense of the working class and the global poor (the only substantive difference between the liberal and conservative camps of this mainstream is that the former will tolerate more taxes on the rich, while the latter won’t, because the former are more willing to spend on social programs, while the latter are less so).

Second, the neoconservatism/neoliberalism they have been defending (to varying degrees) for the past forty years is also a god that has failed; it is, in fact, a much more failed god than communism could ever have been. Capitalism, particularly in its present form, has been nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. It’s so bad that its defenders insist that it isn’t ‘true capitalism,’ but ‘corporatism,’ for the only true capitalism is the ‘free market.’

Third, anti-communist critics are way too overconfident in the sources they rely on. These sources were the propagandistic product of the Cold War. It’s often said that in any war, hot or cold, the first casualty is the truth. This is especially true of anti-communist Cold War propaganda. History is written by the winners; in fact, in the early 1990s, history was even ‘ended’ by the winners.

Though it isn’t well-known by the general public, most of the sources of anti-communist propaganda are laughably inadequate in terms of facts. I refer to such dubious sources as Robert Conquest, The Black Book of Communism, Mao: The Untold Story, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Leon Trotsky, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Djilas, and Nazi propaganda. You can click on the links for criticisms of these various writers, but to put it briefly, they essentially wrote fiction, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically.

My fourth and final, but by far most important, point is that none of the above writers’ critiques adequately, if at all, take into consideration the enormous pressures put on the socialist states to restore capitalism, making revolution to have been all in vain. Capitalists disingenuously claim that their economic system involves no coercion: if you don’t like your job, you can quit and find another (no thought is given to the fact that for most workers, almost every other job they’re qualified for, if it’s even available, is hardly any better, and often worse…some choice!). Socialism, apparently, has a monopoly on state coercion.

Such an obtuse generalization ignores the history of 20th century socialism right from its inception in the Russian Revolution, almost immediately after which came the Russian Civil War, during which armies from all over invaded Russia in an abortive attempt to force capitalism back on the Russian workers and peasants.

Now, Russia won that war, but at great cost. Not only did many on their side die from the war, but also of starvation resulting from the war’s privation and from another of pre-industrial Russia’s many bad harvests. These are the kinds of difficulties that force many communist parties to become authoritarian: with the threat of future invasions or other forms of counterrevolutionary subterfuge, leaders like the Bolsheviks found it necessary to end all sectarian bickering to ensure the steady sailing of the Soviet ship through treacherous waters.

An article on Stalin I found in the bourgeois media, which is of course heavily biased against him (and against Putin, by the way), nonetheless has the surprising decency to acknowledge how misunderstood he’s always been. It admits that, contrary to popular belief, Stalin wasn’t motivated by a mad lust for power (he incidentally tried to resign as General Secretary four times), but was genuinely committed to implementing Marxism-Leninism. (It also acknowledges that the death count of the Great Purge of the mid-to-late 1930s was far lower than the right-wing propagandists would have us believe.)

The article acknowledges the genuine fear that Stalin and the Soviets had of more attempts by the international bourgeoisie to restore capitalism, either by force or by cunning, but what the article gets wrong (or…what it fabricates?) is that these fears were largely unfounded. Just because the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union wouldn’t happen until 1941 doesn’t mean the Russian communists had little, if anything, to fear during the intervening years. The failure of European socialist revolutions in the late 1910s and early 1920s was the tip of the iceberg.

Socialism in One Country, an idea that started not with Stalin but had precedence in Lenin, meant focusing, for the time being, on a defence of the USSR against the very real possibility of future invasions. For fascism, a true form of violent political extremism and an outgrowth of capitalism, was emerging not only in Italy and Germany but also in a number of other European countries in the 1920s and 1930s.

Fascism, properly understood, is the ugly face of capitalism, once the liberal veil of politeness has been removed. Capitalists only pretend to care about freedom and democracy; as long as their class interests are secure, they wear the liberal smile. Threaten the security of their class privileges, though, as the Soviet Union had done in the early 1920s, and the capitalists get tough–hence, fascism.

Such contradictions as that between communism and fascism necessitate the aggravation of class struggle. This inevitably leads to communist leaders having to make harsh decisions. These harsh decisions, in turn, have a distorting effect on socialism.

If we had our way, unimpeded, we communists would just have focused on realizing that list of goals I outlined above at the beginning of Part II. The global bourgeoisie, however, has to this day been so relentless in forcing the imperialist agenda on everyone, thwarting almost all attempts at socialist gains, that we’re forced to react to their extreme. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: capitalist harshness results in communist harshness. In my heart, I don’t like violence; but it isn’t a question of liking it–we simply have no choice in the matter.

It is naïvely assumed that the unjust executions of the Great Purge were the responsibility of Stalin, whose ‘stubborn’ devotion to ‘utopia’ wouldn’t tolerate mere ‘political dissent.’ Speaking of traitors and conspiracies conjures up images of a paranoid Soviet government. It’s paranoia, however, only if the suspicions are ill-founded.

First of all, the bulk of the unjust imprisonments and executions of the Great Purge were not Stalin’s fault, but were rather the fault of the likes of Nikolai Yezhov, the quisling head of the NKVD whose treasonous persecution of innocent Soviets and pardoning of genuine traitors wasn’t even realized by Stalin (who as leader of the gigantic USSR couldn’t be expected to have omniscience over the goings-on of every department to which he’d delegated authority) until much later.

Capitalists narcissistically assume most people agree with them, and so the ‘victims of communism’ are supposedly just regular people. Of those punished legitimately for counterrevolution, these capitalist sympathizers–kulaks, Trotskyists, crypto-Nazis, etc.–were actually a small percentage of the Soviet population, and they were genuine traitors and enemies not just of the Soviet leadership, but also of the working class and peasants of the entire USSR.

Kulaks, resisting the necessary collectivization of agriculture, were hoarding grain and killing livestock during the famine of the early 30s. In other words, they were assholes who deserved punishment. Trotsky was such a power-hungry, narcissistic piece of shit that he actually wanted to enlist the aid of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan just to oust Stalin. As a Jew, Trotsky should have been purple-faced with shame; don’t expect me to feel sorry for him for getting that blow to the head with Mercader‘s ice-axe.

Could you even begin to imagine what would have happened if the fifth column sneaking around in the USSR, pretending to be good communists, had succeeded in their conspiracy? Something far worse than the injustices of the Yezhovshchina would have happened: a successful Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would have dwarfed the 27 million Soviet deaths that actually occurred in WWII.

Nazis would have carried out an ongoing enslavement, brutalizing, and genocide of Slavs, an ethnic group Nazis hated on a level comparable with their hatred of Jews. Stalin’s unflinching leadership, indefatigably pushing for industrialization to build and prepare the Red Army for the upcoming Nazi menace, not only prevented such a horrifying alternative, but also saved Europe from fascism.

Normally, people get called heroes for doing things like that.

The justification for the aggravation of class struggle doesn’t end with the Soviet Union, though. North Korea got bombed to the Stone Age in the early 1950s, giving the Kims more than legitimate reason to begin a nuclear weapons program to prevent the US from ever mass murdering them again. Cuba has suffered an economic embargo ever since the 1960s. China has endured a similar embargo and military threats from the West, justifying their nuclear arms program begun by the beginning of the 1960s. Just after having repelled the French colonialists, Vietnam had to endure such horrors of American imperialism as napalm. The CIA helped the right-wing dictator Suharto murder up to a million Indonesians, regardless of whether they were actual communists or just suspected ones. These are just a few examples of imperialist atrocities that get far too little mention in the bourgeois media.

IV: Voting Doesn’t Work

Many will wonder, given the violent, forcible nature of revolution, why people like me won’t simply opt for voting for a leftist political party. After all, isn’t revolution by its very nature extremist, and voting the moderate, reasonable solution to today’s political ills?

Please refer back to the title of this section for an answer.

Bourgeois democracy is nothing more than an illusion that voters have a choice in who will lead the country. Even if the most radical of candidates is voted in, he or she will never challenge the essential class structure of society. This illusion of democracy is one of a myriad of techniques that the ruling class will use to keep the masses at bay. The face of capitalism has a liberal smile, a libertarian sneer, and a fascist scowl. When the people finally see past the illusion and fight in the streets for change, that smile turns upside-down and we see the ruling class in all their repressive ugliness.

The death-grip that the American ruling class has on their country is so tight that a mere social democrat like Bernie Sanders hasn’t a prayer of winning the Democratic candidacy, let alone getting elected so he can have a chance at enacting his only modestly progressive reforms. He is, however, useful to the ruling class as a kind of liberal lasso to throw around the necks of the more gullible of the progressive camp; when he loses to the likes of Hillary or Biden, enough of these gullible types will be expected to vote for such hucksters, leading often enough to a victory for the DNC.

On the right side of the aisle, someone like Trump can pretend to campaign for change, not being part of the Republican political establishment. Still, he’s a member of the billionaire class, and anyone with a modicum of understanding of class analysis will know that, even though Trump opened his big mouth a lot and blurted out comments to embarrass the American political establishment (the real reason they hate him), he could still be counted on to keep the political status quo essentially the same (e.g., bipartisan, billion-dollar military spending, corporate tax cuts, pro-Zionism, anti-immigrant policies, etc.).

In Canada, Justin Trudeau speaks with all the usual politically correct liberal verbiage, but commits the usual imperialist and neoliberal crimes, too (e.g., giving haven to Ukrainian fascists, putting a gas pipeline through aboriginal land, selling weapons to Israel to kill Palestinians, and to Saudi Arabia so they can kill more Yemenis, etc.). I call my country’s prime minister “Turdeau” for a reason.

No, voting won’t make the necessary political changes; recall how the Russian people’s attempt to vote back in the communist party was thwarted by the American ruling class in 1996. Mao meant it when he said “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “revolution is not a dinner party.” We cannot expect the capitalist class to allow us to legislate them out of their wealth.

Class war is not a mere excuse for communists to engage in “extremist” acts; class war is a reality. The capitalist class has been winning this war over the past forty years, and they’re continuing to win this war as we speak. In fact, they started the whole class war by taking over from where our feudal lords had left off: it is now up to us “extremist” communists to end this war.

V: Utopians?

Right-wing propagandists often say that we socialists are dreaming of an impossible-to-attain utopia, rather than the truth, which is that we’re trying to make life better for everyone, as good as is humanly possible. In this way of presenting a straw-man argument, right wingers are, however unwittingly, exposing their own black-and-white thinking: either we accept the total shit, TINA world of capitalism, or we fantasize of a perfect world…what utter nonsense.

Marx had already made it clear in The Communist Manifesto that there is a difference between utopian and scientific socialism, of which we communists espouse the latter. Marx says, ‘The significance of Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism bears an inverse relation to historical development. In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, this fantastic standing apart from the contest, these fantastic attacks on it lose all practical value and all theoretical justification. Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavour and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias, of founding isolated “phalanstères,” of establishing “Home Colonies,” of setting up a “Little Icaria“—duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem, and to realize all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees they sink into the category of the reactionary conservative Socialists depicted above, differing from these only by more systematic pedantry, and by their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.

‘They, therefore, violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel.’ (Marx, III: Socialist and Communist Literature, 3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism)

We don’t merely dream of a perfect world, violently take over countries, then ‘force’ our unattainable ideals on a largely unwilling public. Like scientists, we thoroughly scrutinize the inner workings of capitalism (as Marx did in his three volumes of Capital), we examine the dialectical shifts in history (as Marx did, and as Stalin did), and we analyze how the drive to seek out new markets in foreign countries leads to imperialist competition and war (as Lenin did in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism).

After communist revolution, state-planned economies are set up to replace the profit motive with a system that benefits everyone. Some changes in the way of doing things succeed, while others fail; when failure occurs, we adjust our methods to see if things go better; if not, we adjust them again and again until we succeed. This is the scientific method applied to socialism, hence “scientific socialism.” We’re not dreaming, we’re doing. The black-and-white capitalist mentality imagines that “socialism doesn’t work”; the nuanced, dialectically-minded socialist admits, “Socialism has had problems, but it has also had many successes.”

Let’s look at some of those successes, starting with the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks started with a huge area of land that was, by modern standards, backward: mostly agrarian, with peasants living off the land, without electricity or modern farming technology. Thanks to such efforts as Stalin‘s three Five-Year Plans, the Soviets industrialized and transformed that backward part of the world into a modern, nuclear-armed superpower by the time of his death…a time period of about two and a half decades!

Such an achievement is nothing short of impressive, yet when you come to think about it, it makes perfect sense: people can do amazing things when they all help each other, which is a lot more than when they slavishly work for one egomaniac at the top who overworks and underpays them, then takes almost all of the credit for the success of that work.

Elsewhere, we can find the achievements of Cuba, which took an island controlled by a right-wing dictator, infested with prostitution, illiteracy, and poverty, and transformed it into one with the best health care in the Third World (even sending doctors to people in need in countries around the world), with housing and education for everyone. This has all been achieved in spite of the strangling economic embargo imposed on Cuba since the 1960s.

China’s transformation from the ‘sick man of Asia’ to the second-largest economy in the world has been a rocky one, but ultimately just as sure a one as the two others just mentioned. Though things started out badly with the Great Leap Forward (the wildly exaggerated death toll of which was mainly the fault of a bad harvest; and if the right-wing propagandists want to emphasize bad policy decisions of the CPC as having exacerbated the problem, we can respond by saying the American economic blockade against China, hoping to help bring about the Sino-Soviet split, was also a factor), eventually the industrialization and modernization of China has worked out beautifully.

The CPC has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, and regardless of how leftists choose to think of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ one cannot deny that the country’s transformation over the past forty years is yet another impressive example of the superiority of state planning over the anarchy and chaos of the “free market.”

Finally, though the Nordic Model of the Scandinavian countries, and the social democracy of Venezuela and Bolivia, are not socialism as it’s properly understood in the Marxist-Leninist sense, the success of their free healthcare, free education, and other social programs is proof that the achievement of these progressive ideas is far from being a pipe dream. The capitalists are just too greedy and selfish to be willing to let them succeed, hence all the imperialist attempts to sabotage the efforts of the left-wing governments in places like Latin America.

VI: Fascism

In the previous sections, I went over the contrast between the good intentions, the goals, of socialism, and the pressures placed on socialist governments that had a distorting effect on them, forcing them to take on authoritarian measures they’d never have wanted to take on had the imperialists left them alone. Let us now contrast left-wing intentions with right-wing ones.

What do fascists want? Let’s list their goals:
–strengthening one’s nation against foreign influence
–imperial conquest of foreign nations to achieve the above end
class collaboration
–use of violence to achieve the above ends
–national chauvinism, bigotry, and xenophobia
–a strong, authoritarian state to achieve these ends
–achievement of all the above ends to safeguard capitalism from socialist revolution

Put another way, fascism is capitalism, nationalism, and authoritarianism gone mad. Fascism is extremist…and it never really went away at the end of WWII.

Though some Nazis were punished during the Nuremberg trials (really, little more than just a show to placate the many victims of Nazi murder), many more Nazis were not only left unpunished, but were actually given prominent jobs in the American and West German governments to help the capitalists fight the Cold War.

Matters got so tense between East and West Germany during the 1950s and early 60s that, to avoid war, the Berlin Wall was erected. The East German name of the wall gives a hint as to its real intention: The Antifascist Protection Wall. It wasn’t so much about ‘trapping’ anticommunists and preventing them from defecting, as the right-wing propagandists would have you believe (although a legitimate wish to prevent brain-drain was part of the reason); it was about keeping fascist spies out of the GDR.

Fascism has continued to pop up in various forms over the years. I mentioned above the Canadian accommodation of Ukrainian fascists, who have revived such ahistorical forms of Nazi propaganda as the Holodomor hoax, a canard spread through Hearst‘s fake news, and later spread by that liar, Robert Conquest.

My analysis of Conan the Barbarian (link above) highlighted the fascist/right-wing libertarian agenda of the film-makers, who even did Nazi salutes on the set; and incidentally, my aim in writing up that analysis was not ‘to prove’ a right-wing agenda so obvious to any film analyst, and subtle only to those moviegoers who pay no attention to themes and symbolism, watching it for mere entertainment; my intention was to demonstrate the film’s social effects, the dangerous allure of subliminal fascist symbolism.

Indeed, many of the slanders directed against socialism have Nazi origins. Consider the ridiculous conspiracy theories of Wall Street and Jacob Schiff supposedly supporting the Bolsheviks, of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” and the like. Why would a capitalist bastion like Wall Street support anticapitalist revolutionaries, just because of some bigoted nonsense about “the Jews”? Schiff was an anti-tsarist and Zionist, not a communist.

Another slander thrown on communists was the Katyn massacre, which when disregarding the ‘official’ narrative, and being researched thoroughly, leads to who I’d say were the real perpetrators: though Soviets did execute some Polish soldiers (no women or children!), presumably for having committed certain crimes, the killers at Katyn were in all probability the very Nazis who slandered the Soviets. (People have, at least, shown the decency to admit that the similar massacre in Volodymyr-Volynskyi was indeed perpetrated by the Nazis, and not by the NKVD).

To be fair, it’s hard to take a firm line on what happened when the evidence is so foggy and often contradictory. Still, we need at the very least to consider the political agenda of the ‘official’ version every bit as much as that of the Soviet self-defence. It’s interesting how those who found the bodies were Nazi murderers who (reliable of sources!) blamed it on the Soviets, then the Soviets said it was the Nazis who did it, and now, in our neoliberal, increasingly fascist-sympathizing era…apparently, it was the Soviets after all! (When Gorbachev, of all people, is corroborating a Nazi accusation, we shouldn’t be too trusting of the sources.)

Yet another attempt at moral equivalency between fascism and communism is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact over Poland in 1939. I’ll let the links give you the details, but to make a long story short, many non-aggression pacts were made between the capitalist West and the fascists (i.e., Munich), Stalin never got chummy with Hitler (the epic fighting between their two armies that ensued soon after should be enough to prove the point), and their pact bought Stalin some needed time to get ready for the inevitable Nazi invasion of the USSR.

VII: Who Are the Real Extremists?

You might have noticed, Dear Reader, a recurring theme in this blog post: the creeping emergence of fascism, a true form of extremism. As I said above, it never went away; the loss of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was a mere setback.

Such things as Operation Paperclip, anticommunist propaganda disseminated throughout the Cold War era, Operation Gladio, Canadian accommodation of Ukrainian fascists, White Nationalism, and “MAGA” are all manifestations of one form or another, be they more subtle or more blatant, of a resurgence of fascism, the kind of thing I saw an allegory of in my analysis of The Boys from Brazil.

Fascism, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Other reactionary elements in the politics of the past forty years, generally deemed more ‘moderate,’ are also helping to push our world in an extremist direction.

In my Conan analysis, I discussed how right-wing libertarianism, though not identical with fascism, is on a continuum that inevitably leads to it. Indeed, it is common for libertarians to slide over to fascism, or to at least a sympathy for it. Now, who are the extremists?

The past forty years has been a shift rightwards from libertarian origins (i.e., Reagan and Thatcher) to at least fascist tendencies (e.g., Trump, Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen‘s near-win, etc.). The DNC, having always been bourgeois in spite of the right’s idiotic characterization of it as “socialist,” moved particularly to the right during the Clinton years, a move continued by Obama and Biden.

Indeed, liberalsnever a group to be trusted by us on the left–have moved dangerously to the right in recent years. They’ve supported Democratic politicians who have been banging the war drums against nuclear-armed Russia and China, against the former because they were sore losers over Hillary’s loss to Trump in 2016, spreading a spurious accusation of Russian meddling in the election.

It should be common sense that we don’t want to start WWIII, which could easily turn nuclear and wipe out all life on the planet. We communists, in direct contrast to the liberals and conservatives, want peace with Russia and China. We’ve always wanted peace: the first thing the Bolsheviks did on seizing power in the November revolution was to get out of WWI. We’ve generally fought wars only because we had to, as the Soviet Union did when the US was helping the fundamentalist mujahideen thwart attempts to make Afghanistan socialist. Look at the mess that country is in now.

I ask again: who are the extremists now?

People need to be reminded that reality isn’t fixed in a state of rigid stasis: reality is fluid, ever-changing from one state of being to another; this is why we Marxists are dialecticians. What seems moderate now can become extreme later, and vice versa. Thirty to forty years ago, communism was almost universally regarded (by me, too, back then!) as extreme; now, more and more people are reconsidering socialism. Libertarianism was seen as moderate back then; now that we’re in the death-grip of neoliberal privatization, austerity, and extreme wealth inequality, the so-called “free market” is clearly understood to be not all that free. History is repeating itself.

Unlike the paranoid Nazi notion of “the Jews” being the root of all evil, the communist notion of imperialism is a very real evil, one especially evident over the past thirty years, since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, something most Russians never wanted.

Without the USSR to demonstrate a real alternative to capitalism, not only could neoliberalism thrive unchecked, but the US/NATO imperialists could do anything they wanted with impunity. Despite promises made to Gorbachev that a reunified Germany would not result in a NATO move eastward, such a move very much resulted, starting quite soon.

In the nineties, they took Yugoslavia. The demonizing of Milošević was used to justify regime change there, which would become a major foreign policy tactic of the US and/or NATO. 9/11 gave a perfect rationalization to start carving up the Middle East and thereabouts, hence, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and all the US military activity in Africa. Killing, killing, killing.

Who are the extremists? I ask again.

Added to the extremism of imperialist war is the lukewarm effort to deal with climate change. The US military is the worst polluter of them all, the “free market” allows deregulation so corporations can pollute the earth, the sky, and the water with impunity, while we the common people are expected to reverse the problem with such puny measures as using paper straws. On top of this, our anti-covid masks are littering the earth everywhere.

The best that bourgeois liberals can do to warn us of the dangers of climate change is to film a tepid and occasionally-funny satire, Don’t Look Up, in which the metaphor for the ecological disaster is a comet hitting the Earth. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio may have ditched his private jet to fly to COP26, but why does the pro-environmentalist have a private jet in the first place?

So, we have endless imperialist wars escalating to a very possible nuclear WWIII, and foot-dragging responses to climate change…hmm. Note also how the green capitalism of Musk’s Tesla had the motive for the Bolivian couplithium. What are the roots of these extremist problems?…capitalism. The endless search for profit causing not only so much suffering, but also threatening our planet’s very survival.

But apparently, Marxists are the extremists…I see.

VIII: Conclusion

In previous posts, I made the analogy of a runaway train racing to a cliff where the bridge is out; I used this analogy to describe our current political dangers. For the sake of argument, I’ll say that we see the train shooting from left to right. After all, this train represents capitalism.

Of all the passengers on the train, the right-wingers are walking or running to the front. The liberals are staying in their seats. Moderate progressives are walking to the back. Anarchists are walking faster to the back. We Marxist-Leninists, however, are running as fast as we can to the back, then jumping off the last car.

We aren’t extremists. We’re reacting to today’s extremism in the only appropriate way.

Analysis of ‘The 39 Steps’

I: Introduction

The 39 Steps is a 1935 thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though the plot differs considerably from that of John Buchan‘s 1915 novel, it is considered by many critics to be the best adaptation of his novel, the other versions having been made in 1959, 1978, and 2008.

Hitchcock’s adaptation stars Robert Donat as Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, with Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, and Wylie Watson. It’s widely been acknowledged as a classic; Orson Welles called it a “masterpiece”; it came in 4th in a 1999 BFI poll of British films; and in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Since there are many plot points in Buchan’s novel that are as relevant to my interpretation as are those of the film, I’ll be doing a comparison and contrast of both plots. It would also be helpful to go through a bit of Hannay’s character history, as well as a bit of the history of the British Empire, to be able to put the novel and film in their proper political context.

II: Context

From a bourgeois perspective, Hannay is a dashing hero with a stiff upper lip, who is trying both to clear his name of a false accusation of murder and to stop foreign spies from taking crucial military information out of Britain and giving it to her enemies. I, however, will be viewing the film and novel from an internationalist, Marxist perspective; so if such a reading is not your cup of tea, Dear Reader, I suggest you stop here and read a different analysis of this film.

Though the Hannay of Hitchcock’s film is Canadian (with no attempt made by British Donat to imitate a rhotic North American accent, I’ll add), the Hannay of Buchan’s novels is Scottish, as was the author, hence his extensive descriptions of the Scottish countryside in The Thirty-Nine Steps, no doubt.

Hannay went with his father to South Africa in the late 1880s. As a mining engineer many years later, he made a small fortune in Bulawayo. After that, he fought in the two Matabele Wars; he also fought, as a member of the Johannesburg Light Horse Regiment, in the Second Boer War. One would be well-advised to know how the British Empire waged these wars to get a sense of the character of our dashing hero, who so willingly participated in the waging of those wars.

The novel takes place just before the outbreak of WWI. The film takes place in the mid-1930s, and though the historical events of the time aren’t mentioned, if we know our history reasonably well, we’ll know that a fear of enemy countries gaining military intelligence of Britain could have resulted in circumstances far direr than those that would happen to Britain a mere half-decade after the end of the events of the film.

III: Beginnings

So Hannay is a bourgeois with imperialistic military experience as of the beginning of our story, either bored out of his mind, as we read in chapter one of Buchan’s novel, or relieving that boredom in a London music hall theatre at the film’s beginning. The Hannay of the film establishes his nationality as Canadian by asking the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal of “Mr. Memory” (Watson), a man whose eidetic powers of recall are such that he remembers the many details he reads every day and thus boasts that he can answer any question. (In this connection, it’s interesting to point out that Buchan was Governor General of Canada from 1935, the year the film was made, until his death in 1940.)

In the novel, Hannay briefly attends a London music hall, but gets bored of it and leaves. He gives half a crown to a yawning beggar, sympathizing only with his apparent boredom, an attitude that shouldn’t be surprising in a bourgeois (page 5 of the PDF–link above). When Hannay returns to his flat, he meets Franklin Scudder, a nervous freelance spy who tells him about the plot to take military information out of the country.

In the film, the spy is a female not willing to reveal her nationality and calling herself Annabella Smith (Mannheim), though judging by her accent, one might think her surname is Schmidt. In the novel, the German agents call themselves “The Black Stone,” whereas Smith alludes to “The 39 Steps,” which is revealed by the end of the film to be the name of the foreign spy organization. (In the novel, there are an actual set of thirty-nine steps leading to the location of the escape point for the conspirators.)

IV: Conspiracies

In the film, the information to be taken out of England is for the design of a silent aircraft engine. In the novel, the stolen information is British plans related to the outbreak of what will be WWI. Scudder tells Hannay of an apparently anarchist plot to destabilize Europe with this war, including a conspiracy to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during his visit to London. This assassination seems to be a fictionalizing of that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the straw (of accumulated European grievances) that broke the camel’s back and led to the July Crisis and the beginning of WWI.

Scudder’s description of this plot includes, among all these “very dangerous people,” (page 8) “financiers who were playing for money” (page 9) Apparently, “the aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.” (page 9)

Scudder goes a little bit into capitalist involvement in the conspiracy, but he gets antisemitic when he claims that “the capitalists would rake in the shekels,” and “the Jew was behind it.” He raves on: “The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.” (page 9)

Buchan’s writing has been criticized for its colonialism, racism, and antisemitism. One suspects that the passages quoted in the previous paragraph reflect his sympathy for Scudder’s prejudices, and his use of a colonialist for a hero in his novels suggests not only his imperialist sympathies, but also–given the British Empire’s treatment of black Africans back then–his racism. Certainly, Buchan’s wearing of a Native headdress as Governor General in 1937 would be considered racist by today’s standards.

V: Smith > Scudder

Smith’s description of the conspiracy is far briefer, leaving its mystery to be revealed by the end of the film. Leaving out Scudder’s offensive conspiracy theories makes her much more likeable, too.

Making the freelance spy of the film a female is intriguing in how she asks Hannay to let her go home with him that night, after the music hall show. Though he acknowledges her as beautiful, he makes not even the slightest sexual advance on her. Granted, our hero is a gentleman, and the prevailing morals of the time would not have tolerated the depiction of a one-night stand in the movie; but not even the subtlest of sexual innuendo between Hannay and Smith anticipates the rather subdued sexual chemistry to be seen later between him and Pamela (Carroll), which in turn suggests Lacan‘s notion that there’s no sexual relationship between men and women (more on that later).

Our instinctive sense of gallantry causes us to be more shocked by the knife in her back than in the knife in Scudder’s heart (page 22). Unlike in the novel, Smith dies with a map in her hand, allowing Hannay to search for and find the house of the spies, rather than him stumbling upon it by chance, as he does in the novel, a most implausible thing to be able to do in such a vast area of land as in the Scottish countryside. Hannay looks at the map and determines where the head of the spy organization is, in a house named Alt-na-Shellach, in Killin, in the Scottish Highlands. The head of the spies, Professor Jordan (Tearle), is a master of disguise, but as Smith has told Hannay, Jordan is missing the top joint of his left hand’s little finger, a symbolic castration. This lack will give the villain away.

VI: Disguise

Disguise is a recurring motif in this story, especially in the novel. Scudder, having figured out the whole conspiracy, fakes his death and disguises himself several times as he moves from Paris to Hamburg, then to Bergen, Norway, then to Leith, then to London (pages 13-14). When Hannay has to escape his flat and evade Smith’s/Scudder’s killers, who are waiting for him outside his apartment building, he borrows a milkman’s uniform (chapter two; also in the film). Later, in the Scottish countryside, he swaps places with a road mender, this disguise also fooling his pursuers there (chapter five).

Towards the end of the novel, when Hannay is back in London and has cleared his name of Scudder’s murder with Scotland Yard, he is at a meeting in Sir Walter’s home, where he learns the “First Sea Lord” is really one of his pursuers in disguise (pages 144-145). Finally, Hannay finds his three pursuers in such brilliant disguises, and so convincingly acted, that he doubts his own senses when confronting them (pages 165-174).

What does all of this disguising mean, especially in the case of Hannay pretending to be a worker? I’d say Buchan’s novel includes a number of what I, in other posts, have called Freudian slips, some of which are preserved in the film, which unconsciously go against the bourgeois bias of his narrative. Capitalists and imperialists often like to project their guilt onto others and portray themselves as victims, as when Nazis, for example, blame the Jews for the exploitive depredations of capitalism, something we’ve already seen Scudder do. Elsewhere, capitalists blame intrusive government of sullying the ‘purity’ of their idolized economic system; they also claim that anything even slightly socially liberal is ‘communist’ or ‘socialist,’ and is therefore ubiquitous in the political world, schools, and media, ‘oppressing’ the conservatives.

Hannay disguising himself as a milkman, then as a road mender, symbolizes the bourgeois dreaming of himself as a humble, common worker, fighting against the odds and prevailing against difficulties (the ‘self-made man’), rather than admitting to himself that his social class has already given him a leg-up against everyone else.

VII: Imperialism

As for the disguises of the spies, foreigners pretending to be Englishmen just show, in symbolic fashion, how the imperialist is as internationalist as is the communist. I’ll give a few examples. Consider those, of not only British nationality, who would work together to establish the settler colonial state of Israel through the Balfour Declaration (decades later, even the USSR would help in that establishment, though the Soviets would repent of their involvement soon enough). Consider the many American companies that would do business with the Nazis. Consider the European countries that would allow the Nazis not only to take the Sudetenland, but eventually work their way over to invade the Soviet Union.

My point in bringing up the above is that, contrary to Scudder’s notion that “anarchists” (i.e., leftists) are conspiring to destabilize Europe, the descent into WWI was due to various players among the European ruling classes. The war was an inter-imperialist competition over who would control the largest piece of the pie, as Lenin observed in his analysis of the situation.

Talk of ‘this nation vs. that nation’ is how the ruling classes of the world divide the people and make them kill each other, while the rich of all these countries get richer through the racket of war and through imperialist plunder of other countries’ resources. It doesn’t actually matter, therefore, if the conspirators are from ‘this country’ or ‘that country.’ The spies aren’t “anarchists,” or necessarily Jews: they’re working for just plain capitalists, so if they’re, say, Germans brilliantly disguised as Englishmen, it’s all the same to me.

VIII: On the Train, On the Run

Back to the story. Hannay gets on the express train, the Flying Scotsman, to get to Scotland, and evades his pursuers for the time being. In the film, he sits in a cabin with two businessmen discussing their product: ladies’ undergarments. (When this British film was to be shown in American theatres in the mid-thirties, did the Production Code approve of this scene? I have my doubts.) One of the businessmen is disappointed to read in the newspaper of the ladies’ undergarments of a rival company doing better business than his own.

There is a paradox in showing the underclothes without a woman in them, these exchange-value commodities, as there is later in Hannay’s unwelcome kissing of Pamela to evade the police he knows (from the same newspaper) have fingered him for Smith’s murder. Here we see again, in symbolic form, Lacan’s notion that there’s no relation between the sexes, an alienation brought on by the capitalist system.

Hannay’s having to get off the train to get away from the police, and to go on foot through the Scottish countryside, symbolically suggests that bourgeois fantasy of imagining oneself to be a victim hounded by the authorities, as if Hannay were one of the poor residents of this rural area, a simple place cut off from the industrialized, modern world, symbolic of the Third World. (It’s useful to mention in this connection how the movement for Scottish independence had already existed for quite some time by the writing of Scottish Buchan’s novel.) Remember that Hannay’s underdog running from the law should be seen in context of his having fought wars for the British Empire in southern Africa, him having pointed a gun at and having shot blacks.

In the novel, Hannay is chased even more extensively through the Scottish countryside than he is in the film. In the novel, he’s given accommodations several times, but in the film, there’s only one significant accommodation before he finds Professor Jordan’s house. In this one accommodation, he meets a middle-aged crofter (Laurie) and his pretty young wife (Ashcroft). The crofter is easily jealous and suspicious of the dealings of handsome young Hannay with his wife, of which nothing sexual results beyond a quick kiss. There’s no relation between the sexes even in the rural part of our alienated, capitalist world.

IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away

We can find a thematic unity in these varying manifestations of what we could call, ‘so close, yet so far away.’ Hannay is so physically close to Annabella, then Pamela, then the crofter’s wife (then Pamela again), and yet so far away in how so little, if anything, in the form of a romantic bond develops between him and each of these women (except, maybe, the potential of hand-holding Hannay and Pamela at the end of the film). This thematic unity is shared in both the film and the novel.

The spy organization (“The 39 Steps,” or “The Black Stone,” whichever name you prefer) is in the UK, yet inimical to her interests. Hannay would help the UK, that is, he’s close to her heart, yet he’s perceived as a violent threat, and so he’s pursued by the police. The presumption of his guilt in Smith’s/Scudder’s murder might suggest a sympathy with, a closeness to, the spy organization, yet his wish to expose them shows his distance from them, therefore he’s pursued by the spy organization as well as by the UK police.

This thematic unity is thus a dialectical one. As Slavoj Zižek points out in Looking Awry (pages 100-101), Hannay is both the persecuted (by the UK police and foreign agents) and the persecutor (a threat to the spies, in wishing to expose them). Note that Buchan, prior to being the Canadian Governor General, worked for the British Empire in South Africa and based Hannay on a friend and colleague there, Edmond Ironside, a spy during the Second Boer War.

Ironside unsuccessfully disguised himself as an Afrikaans-speaking Boer after the war. It’s easy to see a link between not only Ironside’s impersonation and those of Hannay, but also those of the spy organization as depicted in both the novel and the film. As I’ve said above, Ironside’s and Buchan’s imperialist work and that of Hannay (a fictional idealization of both Buchan and Ironside) provide the necessary context for understanding Hannay as both the persecuted and the persecutor.

X: Colonizer as Victim?

The imperialist feels no sensitivity whatsoever for the suffering he causes the colonized. In fact, as I mentioned above, he fancies himself to be the victim, of competitive foreign imperialism or of those he victimizes. Recall how in Kipling‘s poem, the “half-devil and half-child” peoples that the ‘burdened’ white man colonizes are resentful of his efforts ‘to civilize’ them. (Note also how Hannay in the film refers to his awkward, hand-cuffed relationship with Pamela as “the white man’s burden.”)

Hitler and the Nazis rationalized their lebensraum imperialism on a belief that the Jews and communists, millions of whom they murdered, were economically oppressing Germany. Capitalists bemoan the wildly exaggerated number of ‘victims’ of communism, who were mostly other capitalists who, had they been given their way, would have resumed their immiseration of the erstwhile liberated working class. (Don’t believe me? Check out what happened to Russia in the 1990s.) Hannay may not have killed Smith/Scudder, but as a participant in the Matabele and Second Boer Wars, he would have been at least partly responsible for many deaths then.

Such is the historical context for sublating the dialectical contradiction of Hannay as persecutor and persecuted. Like any capitalist or imperialist, he would project imperialist guilt on foreign imperialist spies while conveniently forgetting the British imperialist espionage of men like Ironside, Hannay’s very inspiration. ‘So close, yet so far away’: foreign imperialist crimes are so identical in terms of the bourgeoisie’s class motives that they’d might as well have been committed by the imperialists in one’s own country.

XI: The Manhunt Continues

The crofter’s wife has given Hannay her husband’s coat, which has the crofter’s hymn book in it. Her ever-jealous husband is so angered, having already been suspicious of her having adulterous designs with Hannay, that he hits her offscreen (I can’t imagine the Hays Office not insisting that this scene be cut out for the American release of the film). She’s helped Hannay sneak out of their house before the police can get him, so he continues through the countryside in the direction of Alt-na-Shellach.

The manhunt continues, with not only police chasing Hannay on foot, but also using an autogyro. This parallels passages in the novel with not only the police but also the spies chasing him, the latter using an aeroplane. This aeroplane chasing him reminds me of that famous scene in North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film of an innocent man on the run, pursued by spies. I wonder if the scene could have been inspired by the passages in Buchan’s novel, if Hitchcock hadn’t been able, due to budget constraints, to include them in The 39 Steps, then (unconsciously?) decided to do a similar scene with Cary Grant.

At one point in the countryside chase, Hannay meets with a man, Sir Harry, who has to give a political speech he feels himself ill-prepared for, and being impressed with Hannay’s experience in South Africa, he would have Hannay give such a speech at an election meeting that afternoon. (This passage, in chapter four, has its equivalent in the film much later in the story.)

XII: Speeches

In the novel, Hannay’s speech includes talk of “the kind of glorious business [he thinks can] be made out of the Empire if [they] really put [their] backs into it.” Such talk surely reflected Buchan’s imperialist ideology. In contrast, Hannay describes the “appalling rot” of Sir Harry’s poorly-prepared speech: talk about “the ‘German menace,’…[meant] to cheat the poor of their rights and keep back the great flood of social reform, but that ‘organized labour’ realized this…” (pages 67-68). One wouldn’t expect bourgeois imperialists like Hannay or Buchan to sympathize with ideas like the rights of the poor, social reform, and organized labour.

Another contrast with these speeches can be seen in Hannay’s speech in the film, which transforms him from a flaming right-winger into a liberal. Though Buchan and the script-writers (Charles Bennett and Ian Hay) were unlikely to have had political opinions that were even approximate to each other, it’s worthy to note what such political agendas have in common, in spite of their obvious differences, as seen in the novel and the film. Hannay’s speech in the film could be seen as a sublation of his and Sir Harry’s speeches in the novel.

Hannay’s speech in the film, a response to questions about the “idle rich”–given as he sees his pursuers at a political meeting, them waiting to arrest him–is all about the hope of changing society and political life into one in which every man and woman has an equal chance in life, in which people are no longer hunted, hounded, persecuted, and without a friend in the world to help them. If one didn’t know any better, one would think he was speaking of the true wretched of the Earth: the poor, those discriminated against, victims of bigotry and prejudice, etc.

He, of course, is really thinking about himself, a bourgeois who sees himself as the victim, but who’s really, in one form or another, a part of the British Empire/Commonwealth. He’s such a member regardless of whether he’s the Scottish Hannay of Buchan’s novels, or the Canadian of Hitchcock’s film. As a colonialist or as a member of a white settler colonial state, Hannay is a man of an imperialist world order whose claims of victimhood would sound strange in the ears of those truly victimized by colonialism. Since liberals talk the progressive talk, but would also preserve their imperialist and class privileges, Hannay’s speech in the film thus sublates this speech with those of the novel perfectly.

XIII: The House of the Spies

Eventually, Hannay in his travels in the countryside finally reaches the house of the spies. In the novel, this occurs in chapter six, when he meets a “bald archaeologist” who welcomes him in his home, pretends to be a friend warding off the police, yet who also knows he is Hannay. Hannay’s only escape from the storage room he’s been locked into is to use the explosives stored inside to blow his way out, risking injury or death.

After blowing his way out, and luckily experiencing only minimal injury, he gets outside and has to hide on the roof of a neighbouring building until nightfall. It’s like being a homeless man: Buchan is thus once again presenting the bourgeois fantasy of a colonialist as a victim.

In the film, Hannay meets Professor Jordan, who similarly lets him in his house with all cordiality, gets rid of the police, then in a private conversation with Hannay, reveals himself to be the man missing the joint on his left hand’s little finger.

As I mentioned above, this lack of that joint is a symbolic castration, a lack that gives rise to desire, the sinful desire of a villain. Accordingly, Jordan pulls out a phallic pistol from his pocket, the weapon compensating for his lost joint. He shoots Hannay, knowing he can’t let the fugitive jeopardize his mission as a spy; but that hymn book in the crofter’s coat has absorbed the bullet and saved Hannay’s life.

XIV: Friends of Spies

Hannay escapes Jordan’s home and goes to the police station of Sheriff Watson (played by Frank Cellier), who was at Jordan’s get-together when Hannay fled from the police to his home. Watson, just like Jordan, pretends to be friendly and sympathetic with Hannay, but has policemen arrive to arrest him. Hannay jumps out of a window and escapes.

Since Watson is friends with Jordan, the leader of the foreign spy ring, we can see this friendship as symbolic of how different imperialist countries often collaborate with each other for mutual advantage. So far away, yet so close: national differences mean little when it comes to imperialism, making Hannay’s pro-British heroics dubious at best.

XV: A Fine Romance

The relationship between him and Pamela resumes when she finds him doing his impromptu speech about the rights of man (little that he cares about them, of course). Recall the forced kiss he gave her on the train, followed by her giving him over to the police. Here at the political meeting, she betrays him to the police again. After their ride in the police car, interrupted by a flock of sheep on the road, a cop handcuffs the man and woman together, since they need her to corroborate that he’s Hannay. They’re stuck together again, in spite of their mutual dislike. So close, yet so far away: there is no sexual relation, symbolized in the pair’s predicament.

Actually, these arresting officers are only posing as cops: they’re part of the espionage conspiracy, something Hannay’s realized from noting that the car is going in the wrong direction. So close, yet so far away: all the foreign spies’ pretending to be the British authorities is symbolic of the blurry distinction between the powers-that-be among locals and foreigners.

Hannay and Pamela are stuck together because of the handcuffs, meant to keep them together in the car while the agents clear the sheep off the road; but Hannay demonstrates his iron will by escaping and making Pamela go with him. This disparity, between him getting his way and her not getting hers, is symbolically another manifestation of the impossibility of the sexual relationship.

XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?

Lacan’s meaning is that there’s an asymmetry between the male and female sexual position (I’m not talking about those of the bedroom!), through the phallus as signifier, giving one entry into the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and social custom, while not providing a corresponding signifier for women. Rather than interpreting this asymmetry as sexist, since it’s about disparities in language qua social organization (Zižek, page 136…as opposed to Freud‘s preoccupation with the psychological consequences of the literal genital difference between the sexes), we should rather see the asymmetry as a comment, a social critique, of sexism.

Hannay takes charge and forces Pamela to go along because society has given him, not her, a voice. His imperious attitude to her fittingly dovetails with his experience (in the novels, anyway) as a colonialist in South Africa. Only through equality of the sexes can there be a sexual relationship; similarly, alienation will end only with the end of capitalism.

XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships

Another scene that symbolically expresses the impossibility of the relation between the sexes is when Hannay and Pamela have to share a room at a Scottish inn for the night, pretending to be a married couple. Such a scene would have run afoul of the censors as surely as, among the other scenes mentioned above, Hannay’s saying the word damn several times.

It didn’t matter that the couple is never indecent (Pamela removes only her wet stockings–surely this won’t enflame our passions too much!), nor do they ever engage in any heavy petting, or any touching, while lying side by side, fully clothed, on the bed. The only reason they’re together is the handcuffs, from which she later frees her hand while he’s sleeping. Still, the prudish Production Code wanted the scene deleted.

An alternate final scene was filmed, to placate the censors (but never used in the film’s final cut), of the couple in a taxi–in which Hannay says that, under Scottish law, their having registered as man and wife at the inn was a public declaration of marriage and therefore their night on that bed together was not immoral.

All of these evasions of sex, whether due to the pressures from the censors, or because Hannay and Pamela still don’t like each other, reinforce in a symbolic fashion how there is no rapport between the sexes. So close (together on a bed), yet so far away (fully clothed).

XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A

Indeed, the objet petit a, or unattainable object-cause of desire, is not a sexual object at all in The 39 Steps. Rather, the objet petit a is the MacGuffin of the film: the information the spies want to sneak out of the country.

This leads us to the final scene of the film, which is the same setting as the opening scene, the London music hall, giving the film a nice ABA structure with another demonstration of the talents of Mr. Memory. The addition of this character to the story, we learn, is crucial to the plot, for the plan is to use his memory skills to help the spies export the detailed knowledge he’s obtained of a silent aircraft engine’s design.

So the objet petit a isn’t for carnal knowledge, but just plain knowledge–there’s no sexual relationship. Now, when Hannay, still trying to clear his name, importunes Mr. Memory to disclose the meaning of “The 39 Steps,” our formidable brain is briefly in conflict over his id‘s desire to display his knowledge and be admired by the crowd, his ego‘s need to be safe against being shot by Professor Jordan (present at the music hall, on a balcony seat with his pistol), and his superego‘s obligation to honour his publicly-stated commitment to answer any question correctly. He honours this commitment and gets his admiration, but it costs him his life.

XIX: Conclusion

Jordan’s objet petit a, that very MacGuffin, is the coveted spy information, which isn’t expressed as a sexual desire except in a symbolic sense: the symbolic castration of his finger joint, a lack giving rise to his desire and compensated for with the phallic pistol, which ejaculates a bullet into his desired male Mnemosyne, but not a bullet of Eros…one of Thanatos.

In a world of capitalist, inter-imperialist competition, the resulting alienation is the non-existent sexual relationship (note that Hannay will join up to fight in WWI soon after the novel’s end). All Hannay, still with the handcuff around his wrist, and Pamela can muster in the way of affection is a holding of hands…and how many steps will go by before those hands come apart?

Analysis of ‘The Rite of Spring’

I: Introduction

The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) is a 1913 ballet and orchestral piece composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography originally by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage designs and costuming by Nicholas Roerich. This was the third of Stravinsky’s three great ballets (the other two being The Firebird and Petrushka) commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris.

The ballet is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” When Stravinsky was finishing work on The Firebird, he claimed he had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.” I assume that by “the god of Spring,” he was referring to a Russian variant of Yarilo, a Slavic pagan god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime.

The brutality of human sacrifice, meant to appease the gods and avert such disasters as a bad harvest, is well-linked to the revolutionary aspects of Stravinsky’s music here: namely, his use of polytonality, polyrhythms, asymmetric and constantly changing meters, irregular accents, and harsh dissonance. These controversial departures from the more traditional, post-Romantic style of The Firebird and Petrushka (though these two also have their share of musical innovations–in the latter, the use of bitonality is especially to be noted), along with Nijinsky’s stomping choreography, resulted in an infamous riot at the ballet’s premiere on May 29th, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

The riot, to paraphrase Cocteau, centred around two warring groups in the audience: the wealthy conservatives, who hated the ballet, and the “Bohemians,” who were thrilled at this new provocation of the stuffy cultural establishment. The controversy began early, with the dissonant winds of the Introduction; but the disturbances got worse when the curtain rose and Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography began. The uproar got so bad, the shouting of the audience drowning out the music, that Nijinsky had to shout the step numbers to his confused dancers.

I was introduced to the piece as a child through the truncated version of it heard in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which replaced the pagan rites with cartoon sequences of the formation of the Earth and fighting dinosaurs struggling…and failing…to survive. The brutality of life was thus preserved in the adaptation; and The Rite of Spring has been my all-time favourite piece of music ever since my teens, this being the CD I enjoyed listening to.

Verses, set to music by Henry Cowell (another musical innovator who must have found the verses amusing), express the displeasure conservative ears have to Stravinsky’s ballet. Nonetheless, over the years, public opinion has changed, and now The Rite of Spring, whether performed as a ballet (with notable later choreographies, for example, by Léonide Massine in the 1920s–which revived performances of the ballet–and by Maurice Béjart) or as a concert suite, is acknowledged not only as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century classical music, influencing many modernist composers–such as Varèse, with his Amériques, and Messiaen, who constantly analyzed it–but also as one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Here is a performance of the ballet with Nijinsky’s choreography (the music starts at 4:38). [Please bear in mind that when I refer to ‘Nijinsky’s choreography,’ I really mean the reconstruction of it performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which is probably as close as we can get to an accurate version of Nijinsky’s intentions.] Here‘s one with Béjart’s choreography. Here‘s the Fantasia cartoon sequence. And here‘s a version with the orchestral score. Please refer back to the links of this paragraph for the sources to my commentary.

II: Adoration of the Earth

The “Introduction” of Part One of the ballet begins with a bassoon playing in a register so unusually high for the instrument that it sounds like anything but a bassoon: indeed, the beginning high C sounds like that of a flute to my ears. Other woodwinds join in, with strings later. Stravinsky said it was meant to sound like “a swarm of spring pipes,” or dudki. Peter Hill, in his book, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, wrote of the build-up of tension–before a sudden return to silence–saying, “it is bursting ecstatically into bloom.”

The Fantasia sequence shows the beginning formation of the universe, a darkness suggesting that of the Greek creation myth, then the fire of desire lights everything up, and we see the fiery, volcanic Earth by the beginning of “Augurs of Spring,” just before which the bassoon theme returns, but a semitone lower.

The curtain comes up, and we see the dancers stamping to the strong rhythms of “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls.” An E-flat dominant seventh chord, played over a triad of E, G-sharp, and B (or F-flat, A-flat, and C-flat, as seen in the strings in the score), is heard on the horns and strings. This polychord is one of many instances of polytonality in the ballet, or of bitonality in this particular instance. Just as the bitonality of Petrushka was meant to represent the half-human, half-puppet nature of the titular character of that ballet, so can the bitonality of The Rite be heard to represent, among other conflicts, a duality in the adored Mother Earth.

The Earth mother goddess of Slavic pagan myth, Mat Zemlya, would have been both adored and feared, depending on whether she provided a bountiful harvest in the fall (i.e., the flourishing of Yarilo) or a bad one. The plenty or dearth that she provided would have been the salvation of the pagan tribe, or its doom…hence the tension in the music.

Recall what Camille Paglia had to say about the use of society and culture as an illusory shield against nature, and we can begin to understand the pagan tribe’s need for these ritual dances: “Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements…Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake–anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.” (Paglia, page 1)

Recall how, in the Fantasia sequence during this section of the music, we see erupting volcanoes, with bursts of lava synchronized at each of Stravinsky’s irregular accents that are played on the horns over the scraping strings. Consider the contrast of these visuals with those of the ballet, with the girls dancing a ritual to appease Mother Nature.

The Earth mother goddess, therefore, can be understood to be like the dual mother of Kleinian psychoanalysis: she is the good mother and the bad mother, the good breast that provides milk for her baby, and the bad breast that won’t provide. Sometimes Mat Zemlya provides a plentiful harvest; sometimes she doesn’t.

The people of the pagan tribe are like helpless babies, all dependent on their Earth mother goddess. They’re in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, knowing that the good and bad breasts belong to the same good and bad mother. In their helplessness, the tribe must accept her as she is, in her capricious state, for they lack the scientific knowledge we today take for granted.

Utterly bereft of modern knowledge, the pagans have to believe in something to give them comfort and hope, so they have their ritual dances. Otherwise, the turbulent, chaotic, and unpredictable ways of nature–symbolized in the music by Stravinsky’s use of irregular accents, as we hear from the beginning of this section, with the dissonant E-flat major seventh chord on the E-major triad–would be unbearable for these people.

The pagans’ adoration of Mother Earth, thus, is them currying her favour. When Mommy is angry, her child blames him- or herself; for to contemplate the possibility of Mommy being the guilty one is far too frightening for the helpless child…or in this case, the helpless pagan tribe.

Since gods and goddesses are modelled on male and female authority figures respectively (e.g., mothers and fathers, as noted above), we can link the authority of Mother Earth with that of the old matriarch of the tribe who, during this section of the piece, comes out, prophesies the future of the tribe, and teaches rituals to the girls. One can imagine her prophesies to include a future doom to the tribe if one of the girls isn’t sacrificed.

“The Ritual of Abduction” gets even more violent and dissonant, with pounding tympani and frenzied instrumentation beginning in 9/8 time. French horns, playing an up-and-down tune of perfect fifths, contrast polytonally with shrill flutes and piccolos playing a frantic tune in eighth notes that repeats the same theme just heard by them, but in a lower key, two pages earlier in the score, with the trumpet in D and woodwinds.

Men appear and join the dancing girls. Each man grabs a girl, and they all dance: the men’s seizing of the girls is presumably what is meant by “abduction,” a word with far more forceful, violent connotations. Since the music is getting more and more intense, with growing dissonance and changing meters, I sense that each “abduction” of each girl is meant to be an omen for the girl among them to be chosen as the sacrificial victim, forced by the men surrounding her to dance herself to death, as happens at the end of the ballet.

The tension ceases with a soft passage of woodwinds. Flute trills are heard in the background, while clarinets in E-flat and B-flat play a tune octaves apart from each other in a bar of 5/4, then 7/4, then three bars of 6/4, and a bar of 5/4 again, before getting into the main theme of “Spring Rounds.”

This main theme was taken from a brief passage in “Augurs of Spring,” a hymn-like theme played in seventh chords, but now played more slowly, and with a mournful quality. The girls dance a Khorovod to it. Though all of Part One of this ballet, as an “adoration of the Earth,” is ostensibly about a celebration of the beginning of spring, with rituals meant to honour Mat Zemlya, the deep sadness felt in this section suggests one’s sense of resignation to one’s fate: one of these girls must die for her tribe. The depressive position, recognizing that Mat Zemlya is both a loving and cruel mother, is keenly felt.

Such a sad resignation isn’t without a sense of horror at the cruelty of the imminent sacrifice, though, for the sad theme suddenly transforms into an explosion of dissonant violence, punctuated by the tympani and the crashing of the tam-tam. After that, a frenzied passage precedes a repeat of that soft woodwind passage, ending this section.

“Ritual of the Rival Tribes” puts the men of the tribe in war games. Two groups compete: like the ritual preparations for human sacrifice to ensure the survival of the tribe in an unpredictable, treacherous world, so must there be preparations for the possible danger of invading tribes. The music is fittingly dissonant, violent, and metrically irregular, with lots of banging of the tympani.

A soft, rising and falling melody is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the brass, then in the violins and clarinets, with polytonal counterpoint in the pizzicato cellos and contrabasses. After that, a loud, martial theme is heard in the horns, suggesting those war games. The rising and falling theme returns and segues into the “Procession of the Sage,” but it’s even more dissonant and foreboding, with the brass in the background.

A wise tribal elder is brought onstage; from the Nijinsky choreography as seen in the performance in the video provided (link above), the old man appears to be blind, his disability allowing him to have a closer link to the spirit world, not distracted by the sights around him.

The violence of the music abruptly comes to a halt. Very soft, tentative music is heard as “The Sage” kneels down and kisses the Earth, blessing Her. Again, this sanctifying of the mother goddess, as an act of love, is actually performed out of fear of Her. Will the sacrifice be pleasing to Her and to Yarilo, or will there be a bad harvest after all, the victim having died in vain?

This question should be kept in mind with the explosive crescendo of the bass drum, tam-tam, and tympani leading to the “Dance of the Earth,” meant by the tribe to be a sanctifying and becoming one with the mother goddess. The tribe would express their love for Her, but the dissonance and irregular, stabbing rhythms suggest fear.

The Disney cartoon sequence puts this section at the very end, after the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” (which shows the dinosaurs dying off from a heatwave and drought). Significantly, we see an extreme earthquake tearing up the land, a furious mother goddess to contrast with the passionate, celebratory dance seen onstage with Nijinsky’s choreography. The dancing is meant to prevent the wrath of the goddess. Stravinsky once described the dancers as “stomping like Indians trying to put out a prairie fire”: how aptly put.

The pagan tribe’s senses are assailed by the sundry irritants of a hostile world that they, in their pre-scientific mindset, haven’t a prayer of understanding. Their only way of expelling the pain heaped upon them is to project it all onto a chosen sacrificial victim.

III: The Sacrifice

The “Introduction” to Part Two of this ballet, as its title implies, leads us directly to which girl will be the chosen sacrificial victim. That is, we’re moving straight to the heart of the matter…the sacrificial death.

The Disney cartoon sequence, however, begins with the origin of life on Earth at this point in the music–a kind of dialectical irony…the end of life, and its beginning. It has often been said that we begin dying as soon as we’re born, so beginning Part Two of the cartoon in this way is fitting.

The music begins with a soft but eerie, wavelike theme of up-and-down eighth notes played on flutes and clarinets, the rising and falling possibly a symbolic suggestion of that relationship between the rising of birth and the falling of death. Adding to this eeriness is a melody, introduced with violin harmonics, in a bar of 4/4, then one of 2/4: A-G-A-E-D-G-E. This seven-note theme will be developed, with other instrumentation and transposed, throughout this introduction and in the following section.

A soft theme shared by two trumpets in C in 5/4, with a slight variation in 6/4, is another to be developed; a creepy background is heard in the violas and cellos for two bars of 5/4, then two bars later, an upward splashing of sextuplet 32nd notes is heard in the E-flat clarinet, backed by a similar upward splashing of notes in the violins and with viola harmonics. All of these sound effects create a portentous atmosphere.

“Mystical Circles of the Young Girls,” paralleling the “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls,” sees the curtain rise to show a group of female dancers moving in a circle, as the title implies. (Interestingly, in the Béjart choreography [link above], we first see the female dancers only in the ‘Introduction’ of Part Two, for Part One is all male dancers; both sexes will dance together from the third section of Part Two.) Musically, this section begins with that theme first heard in violin harmonics from the “Introduction,” but now played by a sextet of three violins and three violas, not in harmonics, with the six of them playing in the key of B.

The girl to fall from the circle will be the chosen victim. According to Nijinsky’s choreography (see link above), the chosen one will fall twice, to music of a paralleled arrangement, heard on trumpets in C and on French horns. This horn arrangement gives us a feeling of surprise, and the second time we hear it, with the confirmation of the chosen victim, the horns repeat the motif, little by little getting louder and faster, and climaxing in a dissonant shriek, bringing us to the violent next section with a barbaric pounding in a bar of 11/4.

“Glorification of the Chosen One” opens with brutal, pounding rhythms in 5/8, 9/8, 5/8, 7/8, 3/8, and 4/8. All the girls dance in a circle around the chosen victim, who stands still and looks up with a frozen gaze, accepting her fate and repressing her fear, for even the slightest flinching on her part may displease the gods and jeopardize the tribe’s hopes for a good harvest.

It’s interesting to contrast Nijinsky’s choreography with the Disney cartoon sequence, which at this point in the music shows a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or some similar such predatory carnivore) appearing among a group of other dinosaurs, and fighting (and killing) a Stegosaurus. The dancing girls may be ‘glorifying’ and honouring the heroine who will lovingly give her life ostensibly to save her tribe, but she is an ill-fated Stegosaur in her own right (and rite), facing a T-Rex of superstitious tradition that is demanding her life.

In what way could her predicament be a metaphor for social phenomena in our lives today? I ask this question in the hopes of finding a way to make The Rite of Spring relatable to our modern world. Just as she, the chosen victim, is being made to die in a rite of human sacrifice, in the hopes that her death will improve the lives of the tribe, so do we, as a society in today’s alienated world, choose people to victimize in the hopes of making our own lives more bearable, to take our pain out on them.

I’m not speaking of human sacrifice, of course, nor am I even speaking necessarily of having someone die for us. I speak of bullies choosing a victim, picking on someone, to bear the brunt of all our pain, a victim to be bullied so we can hate ourselves a bit less, to release some of our own pent-up frustrations.

This maltreatment of others is so commonplace in our world–at school, in the family, in the workplace, and online–as to be a universal experience. Such universality of pain can symbolically give the pagan story of The Rite of Spring an unexpected relevance in a world far removed from that of superstitious people terrified of the wrath of the gods.

After all, the tribe bullies the girl, essentially, into dancing herself to death, because the tribe, in turn, feels bullied by the parent-like gods, who threaten such things as droughts or bad harvests if a sacrificial victim isn’t offered to them. Similarly, people who bully others tend to have been bullied themselves, so bullying others is a quick and easy, but cowardly way of ridding themselves of their pain.

The gods thus are like bullying parents, for example, the Kleinian bad mother I described above; and the children the parental gods bully–the tribe–are like elder siblings who pass the abuse down to younger siblings, like the tribe’s chosen victim. Remember that her “glorification” is just a bribe to motivate her to cooperate in doing something–dancing herself to death–that no one in his or her right mind would otherwise ever agree to doing.

“Evocation of the Ancestors” is brief, with fanfare-like brass and woodwinds, and pounding drum rolls. As the title of this section implies, the girls dance to invoke the tribal ancestors. We see, in Nijinsky’s choreography, the girls in a circle around the chosen one, falling towards her or away from her, with every drum roll. It’s as if they were falling to their deaths, yet ritualistically projecting the fall to death onto her.

Male dancers, representing the old men of the tribe, appear for the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” The music starts off very softly, with pizzicatos in the strings playing quarter notes with the French horns and the soft tapping of the bass drum, and a kettledrum and tambourine are hit during the offbeats. The cor anglais repeatedly plays a chromatic ascension of four 32nd notes (encased in a triplet), each phrase ending with a tied whole note (the first time), then with a tied, dotted half note.

At this point in the ballet, the victim is given to the care of these old men. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the men make sure that she goes through with her ritualistic suicide, and is never able to back down. It’s implied bullying, and the creepy, building tension of the music attests to this implication.

After a brief, pianissimo moment with the kettledrum and pizzicato strings, this ominous feeling heightens when we hear an undulating flute melody in the octatonic scale; soon after, a melody in the trumpets is also octatonic. The Disney cartoon sequence at this point in the music shows the dinosaurs plodding in a desert during a heatwave that has dried up everything. They’re doomed to an imminent death, as is the chosen one, surrounded by old men of the tribe.

Suddenly, the music gets loud, with French horns blasting that octatonic trumpet theme. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see the male dancers going in circles around the victim, who still stands frozen in her spot in the centre, trembling and breathing heavily, as trapped and helpless as those dying dinosaurs in the cartoon.

The music gets softer, yet intensely suspenseful, for a brief moment. Female dancers join the males in the circles around the victim, and the loud octatonic French horn theme returns. A tense, rising four-note tremolo theme is played repeatedly in the first violins during this loud reprise of the French horn theme. In the Disney film, we see a Tyrannosaur fall on a sand dune, dying from dehydration and exhaustion. The chosen victim, too, will die of exhaustion from her endless dancing.

The music gets soft again, rather like the beginning of this section, but with a bass trumpet in E-flat playing the repeated, ascending chromatic line of 32nd notes played previously on the cor anglais. Flurries of notes are heard on the clarinets and bass clarinets. A bar of 2/4, with a quick descending of sixteenth notes in a septuplet on the bass clarinet, segues this section into the climactic last one.

The “Sacrificial Dance” (of “The Chosen One”) begins with particularly harsh dissonances in the strings, immediately followed by the oboes, cor anglais, and horns, with changes of time signature at almost every bar. The discords are so harsh, they almost sound like tone clusters.

The time has come: the victim begins her dance to the death. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see her jumping, flailing her arms, and kicking her feet backward in frantic desperation.

What is interesting about this particular rite of human sacrifice is that we don’t see her ceremonially killed by someone else: no decapitation, no knife cutting her heart out. She must do the dirty work all by herself.

This is a forced suicide. This is the ultimate abuse, forcing her to destroy herself while all the others watch, her knowing no one will save her, which would shame her before the whole tribe.

The use of extreme dissonance and constantly irregular meters is fitting, for such music aptly expresses the Chaos-like, disorderly sense of what Lacan called The Real, an undifferentiated, and therefore traumatizing, world that cannot be symbolized or verbalized. This sense of the undifferentiated comes from the fact that the sacrificial victim, in giving her life for the tribe, is renouncing her sense of individuation to be submerged in the Dionysian unity of all things.

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, described this Dionysian oneness as the opposite of Apollonian individuation: ‘Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. Freely, earth proffers her gifts, and peacefully the beasts of prey of the rocks and desert approach…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbour, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.” (Nietzsche, page 37)

Now, one’s individuality being absorbed into the unifying All, like Atman into Brahman, can be a blissful experience, nirvana, if one voluntarily goes into it. This girl, however, has no choice but to be thus absorbed; and as I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s a dialectical unity between what we typically call Heaven and Hell, so her absorption into that unity under duress means she’ll be experiencing the hellish aspect of The Real, Bion‘s O, “the void and formless infinite” of Milton.

We see the men circling around the chosen victim as she stands trembling in the centre. The music has softened, yet is full of suspense and dread of the worst to come. Staccato sixteenth notes are played on bassoons, contrabassoon, and strings, with staccato 32nd notes on French horns. A threatening chromatic descent of sixteenth notes in a quintuplet is heard twice in the trombones, then in the trumpets. She briefly resumes her dancing with the sound of these brass instruments, as if their threatening notes were coming from the men.

She freezes for a moment again, as if her resolve to go through with her dance of death were faltering. Those staccato 32nd notes, once softly played on the French horns, are now loudly and aggressively bowed on the strings, and she is nervously moving again. The threatening chromatic descent is now heard in a different key in the trumpets in D and in the piccolos and piccolo clarinet in E-flat, raising the tension to an agonizingly dissonant climax in the brass and woodwinds, in a bar of 3/8, then of 4/8.

The soft staccato notes in the strings and French horns return. She is still and trembling again. She’s afraid to carry on with the dance…but she knows she must. Tense, chromatic waves of 32nd notes in quintuplets in the first violins, aided by similar playing in the piccolos, seem to restore her resolve (at least for the moment), and she’s moving about again.

The dissonant, metrically irregular beginning theme of the sacrificial dance returns, with added, extra pounding of the tympani. She’s doing the same jumping as before. She’s getting exhausted…but she cannot stop dancing. The men are sitting around her, not allowing her to rest.

The music explodes into a barbaric and chaotic sea-storm of sound, with sustained bursts of energy that sadistically pressure her to go to the polar opposite of her exhaustion. The tympani are pounding away, the horns are blaring, and she falls…but she must get up and continue!

She hits her fist on the ground in frustration, then gets up to dance again. She falls again, hits her fist on the ground again, gets up, falls…

Her leg is in pain. She mustn’t stop! More men in the circle surrounding her approach her, their dancing meant to inspire her…or threaten her, more likely…to continue. She’s twirling and flailing her arms about in a desperate attempt to give the best dance she can to the gods.

Any sacrificial victim would far prefer a quick death, the pain only brief before passing out. She cannot hope for such a happy death. As with crucifixion, hers will be a long, drawn-out, agonizing death in which one must keep moving long after total exhaustion makes even the slightest budge pure torture.

Though the “Sacrificial Dance” is only about four or five minutes long, we can assume that the girl’s dance to the death would be much longer. In a state of total exhaustion, yet still being required to dance, our poor victim will be moving around with every inch of her body in excruciating pain.

She is suffering the trauma of the undifferentiated state of The Real; life and death are one to her. Accordingly, the music ends with pounding rhythms of metric irregularity and dissonance after dissonance. After a brief, soft moment, the music gets loud and pounding, and it climaxes with her finally collapsing. The men pick up her dead body as an offering to the gods. The music ends with a final pounding of the bass and kettledrums.

IV: Conclusion

As I said above, we can find this music relatable to our world by seeing the human sacrifice, to appease the gods, as a metaphor for how we scapegoat people in our society as a cheap and easy way to rid ourselves of our pain. This is why the music is so dissonant: it’s a cathartic release of that pain.

Modern systems of farming, however, have ended the famines that plagued peasants living off the land throughout history, making such pain no longer an inevitability. The collectivization of agriculture in the USSR of the 1930s, contrary to popular belief and to Nazi propaganda about the “Holodomor,” actually ended the famines of that part of the world. The same is true of Maoist China, in spite of the bad start with the Great Leap Forward.

We now have the potential to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medically treat the people of the entire world…provided we use the world’s wealth properly. So why aren’t we doing this? Instead, some of our centi-billionaires are needlessly flying rockets into space while millions die each year of hunger. Aren’t these oligarchs, in a way, like the men in the circle, while the Earth’s wretches are like the girl dancing herself to death in the centre?

My point is that in today’s world, with the build-up of the productive forces, we have the potential for spreading love everywhere instead of dumping pain on the weak from a fear of scarcity that need no longer exist.

Forgive me, Dear Reader, if I’m getting too preachy here, but if our current world–with its ongoing ecocide, economic collapse, and threat of nuclear WWIII–continues down its present course, we’ll end up like those Disney dinosaurs.

Instead of destroying the Earth, let’s be in true adoration of Her. Let’s stop the dance to the death, and instead have a dance of life.

Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

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

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

Here is a link to famous quotes from the novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the Evrémondes everywhere in the world watch out.

The modern-day Madame Defarge is doing her knitting.

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

Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”