Analysis of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

The Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album by Pink Floyd, released in 1973, with Alan Parsons as the engineer. It is widely considered the band’s masterpiece. The album was on the Billboard charts from 1973 to 1988, and is considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

The album is not my personal favourite, as I much prefer the Syd Barrett era, but I do consider its themes of madness, greed, materialism, stressing over time, and human conflict well worth exploring. This worthiness is so especially when seen in light of Roger Waters‘s championing of PalestinianSyrian, and Brazilian civil rights. So out of respect for his principled stance on these issues, I want to honour an album that conceptually was based on his ideas (i.e., the lyrics).

Here is a link to all the lyrics (and spoken dialogue) on the album.

The cover, a black background with a line of light going through a prism to reveal a spectrum of colours, establishes–with the album’s title–one of its main motifs: light vs. dark, or how we lose the light of truth–which, when reflected on, gives us all the colours of life–and find ourselves instead shrouded in darkness. The sun gives us that light, but night after night, as the moon wanes, we get more and more of her dark side.

The recording begins with a fading-in heartbeat, the beginning of life; but even in birth, there is suffering, as the Buddha taught us: “birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

Hence, in ‘Speak to Me,’ we hear the cash register that we’ll hear again in ‘Money,’ the clock ticking in ‘Time,’ Claire Torry‘s scream from ‘The Great Gig in the Sky,’ manic laughter from ‘Brain Damage,’ and the helicopter sound from ‘On the Run,’ as well as the voices of people discussing their own madness. Speak to me, indeed, of your suffering: only by giving expression to your pain will you cure it.

Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care.” What kind of air are we breathing? The beautiful, fresh air of nature that we should care about, or the filthy air of the city, which we shouldn’t be afraid to care about cleaning up?

When you “choose your own ground,” is it yours by right to have, or do you just think it’s yours, when really you’ve just chosen it by taking it from others?

“…all you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be.” Reality is materialist. I don’t know if Waters’s socialist leanings have ever gone as far as outright Marxism, but his atheism surely leads to a materialist conception of the world. The conflict between opposites (night vs. day, sun vs. moon, light vs. dark, “Us and Them”) suggests a dialectical understanding of material contradictions.

We are like the running rabbit: we’re vulnerable creatures that “forget the sun” and the light of its wisdom as we “Dig that hole,” which leads us into darkness. And when we’re done, we don’t rest; instead, we race “to dig another one.”

“…high you fly,” riding the tide, and when you reach “the biggest wave” (getting to the top), “You race towards an early grave” (you hit rock bottom). The preoccupation of modern man is success at all costs, including life. We forget the sun, and we forget to breathe the breath of real living. We reach the highest height of the ouroboros‘s biting head of material success, then plunge down to an early death, the serpent’s bitten tail, which is the dialectical opposite of its head, as I’ve described elsewhere.

This constant racing to achieve, to succeed, like that rabbit, is the tension behind “On the Run.” We hear a flurry of notes speeding past our ears, played on a Synthi AKS, as well as the helicopter sound mentioned above, which combined with the title of the instrumental, suggests the frantic rush to work, the annoying commute. We thus have a meditation on the pressures of travel, for indeed we also hear a VCS 3 synthesizer making a Doppler effect, sounding like a vehicle passing.

We’ve gone from the beginning of life in “Speak to Me,” which can also suggest the beginning of the week (Sunday, the Lord’s Day–symbolizing the new life of the risen Christ–to which we’ll return in “The Great Gig in the Sky”), to the middle of the hectic work week.

The stress not to be late for work, to meet deadlines, and to wake up, promptly but reluctantly, to the noise of an alarm clock, is suggested, by association, with the sound of clock bells chiming at the beginning of “Time.” Next, we hear Nick Mason improvising licks on rototoms while David Gilmour is playing low single notes on his guitar and Waters is making a tick-tock sound on two muted bass strings, creating a dark musical atmosphere suggesting that irritable feeling of having to get up for work in the morning.

The singing and music played during the verses suggests the alteration between the anger felt during the working day and the sadness of it all, empathically felt by the female back-up singers. “Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain,” we avoid the wise light of the sun and waste our time ruminating in sadness; then one day we find that we’ve let ten years go by without accomplishing much.

“And you run and you run, to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking.” We chase after the light of happiness and wisdom, but it eludes us, fading into the darkness of another night. It goes round and round in a cycle of day and night, “but you’re older,” nearing death, never taking the time to enjoy what you have.

Unlike how before, when we’d wasted ten years, now we “never seem to find the time.” Suffering in silence without complaint “is the English way,” especially now, after decades of Thatcher-style neoliberalism has made life in the UK so much more intolerable. This album is prophetic.

Next, we have a reprise of “Breathe,” suggesting the end of the work week…TGIF! We rest at home after a hard, tiring day at work. Then we contemplate going to church on Sunday. Thus, we won’t be “frightened of dying.”

While Claire Torry’s high-pitched singing during “The Great Gig in the Sky” sounds soulful and cathartic (along with Rick Wright‘s beautiful piano), the snippet used in “Speak to Me” seems like the screams of pain felt at birth, or of a mother in labour, or screams of terror. This equating of spiritual joy with material suffering once again implies the dialectical identity of opposites; for, remembering Waters’s atheism, we can see this ‘joyful pain’ as an indication of the false comfort that the Church provides.

So, that was Side One, the work week and weekend, given in miniature. Side Two is about the cause of such a work week–capitalism–as well as its effects–alienation and mental illness.

Recordings of coins jingling in a cash register, to a tight rhythm in 7/4 time, suggests the rigid, mechanistic, soulless life ruled by “Money.” The three verses give us the attitudes toward money of 1) workers who lack class consciousness (“Get a good job with more pay and you’re OK.”) and “daydream” of being able to “buy…a football team,” 2) right-wing leaning capitalists who don’t want to hear “that do goody-good bullshit,” and 3) liberals, who acknowledge the evils of the profit motive, and who pay lip service that one should “Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie.” As with the working-class bootlickers who support right-wing politicians, liberals won’t challenge the establishment of class differences.

Hearing 7/4, or 7/8 time, one always gets the feeling of incompleteness, of a beat having been lopped off; one instinctively expects to hear two bars of 4/4 (common time), or an additional eighth note. This incompleteness suggests the incomplete happiness that money gives us, though one may think one’s life is complete (i.e., the 4/4 section with the guitar solo).

It’s fitting that the song is essentially in the form of the blues, for that’s exactly what money gives us.

The song fades out with the voices of people who discuss having been in a fight (a Cockney-accented voice discusses a fight, too, during the piano solo in “Us and Them”); thus we see a link between capitalism and social alienation. It’s hard for money-worshipping people to be friends.

Us and Them,” is about war and human conflict in general; the fact that the song comes immediately after “Money” should make clear the suggestion that the worship of money naturally leads to imperialism and war–Lenin made this connection easy to see.

The lyrics go over a series of oppositions: us and them, me and you, up and down, with/without. The rhyming lines following each thesis/negation suggest some kind of sublation of each pair.

Instead of seeing us and them as an opposition in the context of war, we could sublate the contradiction by seeing ourselves as “only ordinary men,” not on either side, but together. Instead of me and you as enemies, by knowing war is “not what we would choose to do,” we’d unite as friends, a synthesis of the thesis (me) and antithesis (you).

Instead of the up and down of the dawn and the dusk, the coming and going of the light of goodness and wisdom, we could see the cyclical “round and round” of good and ill fortune, the unifying movement of the waves of the ocean of life, which reconcile all up and down dichotomies.

We’re deceived into thinking that there’s some terrible enemy who must be defeated (the Viet Cong, the Soviets, Milošević, Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, etc.), when it’s really just a matter of with…without. When we understand the true meaning of this opposition, we’ll know “what the fighting’s all about,” and we can sublate the with/without contradiction by replacing it with a society in which neither side is without, and neither side is with too much. Then “the lines on the map” needn’t always move “from side to side,” nor need the front rank die.

“Black and blue” could be bruises from beatings (i.e., police brutality), or it could be blacks beaten or killed by the boys in blue…”and who knows which is which, and who is who,” that is to say, are the good guys really good, and are the bad guys really bad…or do we need to sublate that contradiction, too?

The title of the instrumental “Any Colour You Like” is ironic, for in capitalism, our sense of choice is really an illusion. Consider what George Carlin had to say on the subject.

As in the main chord sequence in “Breathe,” the one during Torry’s vocal improvisation in “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and the main ones in “Brain Damage,” and “Us and Them” (though this last one uses more sophisticated chord substitutions–such as the D minor/major seventh, a D6th with an added 9th instead of a subdominant G major, and the added ninths to the tonic D–as well as Waters’s pedal point of tonic D to dominant A), in this instrumental we hear a chord progression of tonic to a subdominant major, suggesting a departure, a leaving home (tonic) to go off somewhere (to work, to church, etc.–subdominant).

Yet, because the tonic is the dominant of the subdominant, especially if the tonic is a major chord (I, as opposed to i, thus providing a leading tone), these two-chord progressions could also symbolize a returning home, a dialectical relationship between leaving and returning (i.e., I-IV could, in this way, be heard also as V-I). The problem is that most of these progressions are i-IV rather than I-IV; that is, the tonic is usually a minor chord, lacking a leading tone to make it easier to go to IV, suggesting that it’s harder to get back home (v-I) than to leave it (I-IV). It’s certainly hard to leave home for work in the morning, hence i-IV.

So, musically there is a symbol for the drab routine of leaving and returning, again and again, in and out, back and forth, like the appearing and departing sun, the coming and going of the light.

In “Brain Damage,” first, “The lunatic is on the grass,” that is, projected onto other people, further off. Then, “The lunatic is in the hall,” then, those madmen “are in my hall.” Lunacy is acknowledged to be getting closer and closer to oneself, until finally, one confesses, “The lunatic is in my head.” Still, as one admits to one’s own mental illness, one also notes that the madness was introjected from outside, perhaps from abusers who traumatized you: “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

Note the use of the word lunatic, as opposed to madman, maniac, psychotic, etc. A lunatic is driven mad by the moon…”the dark side of the moon,” far away from the light of the sun. One needn’t worry, though (sarcasm), for the questionable institution of psychiatry, with its profit-making drugs and labels for anyone who won’t conform or be controlled, will “rearrange me ’til I’m sane.”

In “Eclipse,” “All that you touch/All that you see…,” reminding us of the lyric in “Breathe” about material reality, is a return of the ouroboros cycle to its beginning. “And everything under the sun is in tune,” that is, all is well in the light; “But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” In a solar eclipse, light and dark are united, the dialectical, yin-and-yang relationship of opposites.

Everything under the sun is a contradiction. As conflict, “It’s all dark,” as a voice says when the music fades out. Our world will continue to get darker, unless we, unafraid to care, begin at last to breathe, to feel the heartbeat of life.

Analysis of ‘L’Age d’Or’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upon these rocks, they’ve built their church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cow in the young woman’s house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bourgeois at the top ultimately destroy themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke of Jesus…er, Blangis.

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘The Warriors’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

Gang Members: Yeah.

Cyrus: Can you dig it?

Gang Members: Yeah!

Cyrus: Can you dig it!?

Gang Members: YEAH!

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

Gang Members: YEAH! [cheering]

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

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

[They stop to fight]

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

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

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

Luther: This time you got it wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Swan just flipped a switchblade into Luther’s arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ajax wants to shove that bat up the Baseball Fury’s ass and turn him into a popsicle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Warriors confront the Orphans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nasty Ajax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even nastier Luther.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you dig it?

Analysis of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

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

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

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

Here are some more quotes.

From the novel:

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

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

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

The 1956 film:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Hill: What things?

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

Dr. Hill: Where was the truck coming from?

Ambulance Driver: Santa Mira.

The 1978 film:

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

Nancy: Outer space?

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

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

Jack: I’ve NEVER expected metal ships.

Elizabeth: I hate you.

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

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

Elizabeth: Will stop you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

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

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

Here are some quotes from the film:

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

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

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

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

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

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

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

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

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

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

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

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

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning of the Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classes Unlike in Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

Classes Alike in Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

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

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

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

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

Fatal Provocations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Apocalypse Now’

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

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

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

Here are some famous quotes:

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

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

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

JerryTerminate with extreme prejudice.

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

*******

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

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

*******

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

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

*******

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

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

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

Willard: I’m a soldier.

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ouroboros of Neoliberalism

Introduction

The years between the end of World War II and the economic crises of the 1970s were, needless to say, far from ideal. The catastrophic creation of the state of Palestinian oppression and suffering (opposed by many Jews [including leftist Israelis], and supported by many non-Jews), aided in part by an otherwise normally anti-Zionist USSR that–as soon as they realized Israel wasn’t going to be socialist–quickly repented and showed firm solidarity with the Arab people, is one example of the bad things that happened then. There are, of course, many others.

Consider the many CIA-aided coups of left-leaning governments over the years, including those of Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. Consider the merciless bombing of North Korea in the early Fifties; the constant fear of nuclear war; the Gulf of Tonkin lie that gave the US the excuse needed to engage more directly in the Vietnam War; the killing of 500,000-1,000,000+ Indonesians in an anti-communist purge to replace Sukarno with Suharto; and Kissinger’s idea for the bombing of Cambodia. These are but a few examples of all the evil that occurred from 1945-1973.

Still, in spite of these many problems, it can be reasonably argued that there was much reason for hope back then, hope that the world would one day be liberated from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. The Soviet Union, though flawed in general and weakened by Khrushchev, continued to be an effective counterweight to imperialism, giving aid to national liberation movements in the Third World. The Cuban Revolution, handcuffed as the island was and has been by the US embargo, transformed a Third World dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into one of the proletariat, providing near-universal housing and generally among the lowest of unemployment rates, with free education, and the best healthcare system in the developing world.

Even in the capitalist West, left-leaning concessions were made, providing stronger unions, better wages, and higher taxes for the rich. This was done merely to appease the working class and to stave off communist revolutions in the First World, of course, but for what it was worth, it was a damn sight better than the neoliberal cesspool we’re stuck in today, ruled by narcissists and psychopaths.

Nothing ever stays in the same state. All things flow, like the waves of the ocean. Those relatively good times shifted counter-clockwise–that is, we’ve been going backwards on the counterrevolutionary clock I call the ouroboros of capital (pardon the mixed metaphor), starting in the mid-70s and continuing to the present day.

The Myth of the ‘Free Market’

Right-libertarian ideologues like to claim that unregulated capitalism, by freeing business owners of taxation, allows them to reinvest, create jobs, and grow the economy. The state, they claim, is like a ball and chain, stifling economic development with its taxes and pesky regulations.

If this is true, though, then how did China (a political system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, or one of state capitalism, a kind of arrested NEP development?) grow into one of the strongest economies in the world, with its state-planned economy? Similarly, the countries in Europe, including those of the Nordic Model, largely with social democratic market economies, showed larger growth in 2007 than did the more free-market-oriented US during that time (see Chang, pages 104-105).

Of course, the free market fundamentalists like to guffaw at the labelling of the US as capitalistic in any sense, especially “free market” capitalist, since the mere existence of a government, with its taxes and regulations, apparently precludes any possibility of there being an American free market. Supposedly, Democrats like the “socialist” Obama had something to do with this putting of capitalism into a “communist” straitjacket.

Actually, there is no one objective definition of the “free market,” Ha-Joon Chang observed. One cannot have capitalism without a centralized state to protect private property, and what does a government do, if it doesn’t make regulations and collect tax revenue to function as it needs to do?

The market fundamentalists’ notion of “free market” capitalism, as opposed to a state-planned economy, is more of an idealized abstraction than an actually existing thing. It sounds good on paper, but when it’s actually implemented, something quite different happens…

Generally, right-libertarians–as opposed to the “anarcho”-capitalists, whose brains are in outer space–acknowledge the need for at least some state involvement, to the extent that it protects private property, but they’ll allow for no more than that. If, as Chang noted, there’s no standard definition of the “free market,” then where do we draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ levels of state impingement in the market? Here we have the continuum fallacy.

Speaking of continua, I have a way of representing how the dialectical relationship between the “free market” and a state-planned economy can be understood. As I’ve written elsewhere, the ouroboros can symbolize a continuum coiled into a circle, with the serpent’s biting head (e.g., the “free market”) as one opposite meeting and phasing into the other opposite (e.g., state planning), the serpent’s bitten tail.

Going Counter-Clockwise Along the Ouroboros

What right-libertarians fail to understand is that capitalism is a process, a growing, developing, evolving entity, not some fixed, static, unmoving thing. As David Harvey observed:

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

For the past 100-130 years, capitalism has been in its highest stage, imperialism. It’s no longer just an industrial phenomenon, with Mom-and-Pop stores ‘innocently’ selling things to people. It’s called capitalism because it involves the accumulation of capital, which leads to centralization.

Industrial cartels merged with banks, resulting in finance capital and monopolistic businesses’ and the great powers’ division of the booty of the developing world. When markets dried up locally, capitalists had to go abroad to expand their businesses as a way to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF).

Capitalism is competition, but it needn’t (and generally mustn’t) be a fair fight. Capitalists’ greatest enemies aren’t necessarily socialists, but they are very often other capitalists. “One capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), so please, right-libertarians, stop all this blather about the “free market” bringing about a “level playing field.”

Back during the years of the Scramble for Africa and afterwards, the monopolistic companies found themselves competing for the largest slices of the market in the conquered countries of the world–hence the capitalist form of imperialism. This is why World War I happened, as Lenin observed. It’s also why the US and Europe have been competing against Syria, Russia, and Iran over who will profit over a gas pipeline to be built through Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Right-libertarians claim that these wars are the fault of the state, rather than capitalism’s use of the state. They are deluding themselves with their masturbatory invisible hands.

In the 1980s, Reagan spoke of “smaller government,” as did the Koch brothers (who still do, of course!). What they’ve actually wanted is more government in the service of the bourgeoisie, and less government for the people. They’ve gotten what they wanted.

Reagan busted unions, deregulated, and lowered taxes for the rich (as did Thatcher). His administration also expanded the state (i.e., the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned not to allow to grow) with the arms race and the capitalist class’s efforts to win the Cold War. The biting head of the “free market” led to the bitten tail of a stronger imperialist, bourgeois state.

George HW Bush wanted to sign NAFTA into law, but couldn’t, because of liberal misgivings about it. It took charming Bill Clinton to negotiate and persuade liberals into allowing NAFTA to be signed. The biting head of conservatism was too much for ‘left-leaning’ people of the time to accept (though ‘left-leaning’ people today would allow neocon and neoliberal legislation with barely a peep of protest, because opposing Trump is the only thing that matters to them), but a counter-clockwise revolution along the serpent’s body, from the liberal tail to the conservative head, was permissible.

Conservatives learned (but never publicly acknowledged, of course) that the Clintons, right-wing wolves in ‘left-leaning’ sheep’s clothing, were their best friends when they helped ruin Russia (by shoving capitalism down her throat), kill Welfare, and, by deregulating the converging broadcasting and telecommunications markets, allow mergers and acquisitions in the media. All “free market” stuff, courtesy of the state. More counter-clockwise counterrevolution along the body of the ouroboros.

Replacing socialist Yugoslavia with the “free market,” and done in the bloodiest way (the biting head of capitalism), led to the creation of a huge NATO base in Kosovo (the bitten tail of an expanded, imperialist state).

In today’s imperialist world, the power of the state is not a simple matter of each country being run by its own government. Transnationalism has led to multinational think tank organizations (such as the Atlantic Council, a NATO adjunct that just made a sweet deal with Facebook to monitor “disinformation campaigns” [translation: censor social media], the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO), as well as capitalist globalization, which means multinational corporations can take advantage of deregulation and free trade to have cheap labour make their products abroad.

To prevent proletarian defiance of this unaccountable corporate tyranny, military bases get set up in the exploited, poorer countries, as has recently been done in Argentina by the US. The biting serpent’s head of the globalizing free market leads to the bitten tail of ever greater state intervention, in the form of foreign armies.

The US government never blushes about building up a huge deficit with its unbridled military spending, yet also giving tax cuts to the rich, thus depriving themselves of the kind of funding that could pay off that deficit. Meanwhile, Flint, Michigan has been without clean water for ages, yet the US military, which is like a huge employment agency for people who can’t find work elsewhere, get to play with the highest-tech toys.

Consider how George W. Bush et al started the “War on Terror” to justify the plunder of Iraq for oil and Afghanistan for such things as heroin, while cutting taxes for the rich and establishing TARP; Obama continued and expanded these depredations and socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor, as has Trump. The free market and an expanded state go hand in hand.

The Freer the Markets, the Greater the Cronyism

The main thing refuting the right-libertarian notion of a dichotomy between the “free market” and “corporatism” is how lowering taxes for the rich and deregulating to allow more corporate profits actually results in the very cronyism that the “free market” is supposed to free us of.

Lowering taxes and deregulating to allow higher profits, to allow the rich to get richer, do not result in huge waves of job creation or economic growth. First of all, many jobs are outsourced to Third World countries (the Trump administration has not reversed this problem for American workers, nor does Trump hire only Americans; Ivanka’s clothes, incidentally, are also made in sweatshops in such countries as Indonesia and China), for the sake of getting cheap labour. Second, a huge portion of that extra money is put into offshore bank accounts, as the scandals of the Panama and Paradise Papers have shown. Third, and most importantly, much of that extra wealth is used to buy politicians.

As I stated above, capitalists are often the worst enemies of other capitalists; the big ones strike down the smaller ones. The state is a big help in doing this striking down, and allowing the big capitalists to get bigger, through tax cuts and deregulation, is another such great help.

Why would a big capitalist’s “rational self-interest” go along with a “level playing field” if he has the money to buy favours from the government in order to enjoy an unfair advantage over small capitalists? When capitalists lose in competition, they don’t just shrug their shoulders, chuckle, and say, “Oh, well, that’s the way the ball bounces in the good ol’ free market.” They cannot allow themselves to lose, and they’ll use every dirty trick they can to ensure they win, including getting government favouritism.

All these recent presidents–from Reagan to the Bushes, and the Clinton and Obama “New Democrats,” rivals of the right–have demonstrated how “free market” deregulation and tax cuts allowed the rich to be rich enough to buy, essentially, the entire US government, both political parties, and ensure that the military-industrial complex works only for them. American politicians hunt for funding in the millions to get Super PACs: we all know which classes they’re approaching, and which classes they’re ignoring, because only the rich can provide such gargantuan funding.

This bias in favour of the rich has always been a problem, of course, but it has gotten progressively worse over the past thirty to forty years, all thanks to the Reagan counterrevolution. The “free market” biting head leads to the bitten tail of more cronyism, which on the one hand wants regulations to benefit the rich in one set of ways, then more deregulation and tax cuts to benefit them in other ways. This means a counter-clockwise move along the ouroboros’s body back up to its head, then past the head to the tail in a repeat of the cycle…a downward cycle.

While these counter-clockwise cycles are happening again and again, the right-wing propagandists at the Cato Institute, the Mises Institute, etc., are shouting that the problem is the state, and that its dissolving, or at least its minimization, will free up the “free market,” and all will be well. Actually, all they’re promoting is an acceleration of the downward neoliberal spiral described in the preceding paragraph.

The propaganda has confused the problem. Instead of acknowledging two kinds of government, a bourgeois state and a workers’ state, the two are conflated into one. According to right-libertarian ideology, all states–fascist, social democratic, centrist mixed economies, bourgeois liberal, and of course communist–are the same, or at least variations on the same tyrannical, totalitarian model. Anti-Stalin propagandists like Orwell and Djilas have been helpful to the right, whether they’d intended to or not.

Conclusion

The right-libertarians have an absolutist, black-and-white kind of thinking because they don’t understand dialectics, how a unity of opposites shows that contradictions can be resolved and sublated to form higher levels of truth. In fact, irony of ironies, the very withering away of the state that the right-libertarians crave so much (or merely claim to crave) can be achieved only through communism. Here’s the formula, for the sake of simplification: thesis–bourgeois state, deregulated; negation–proletarian state, regulated; sublation–no class differences, no need for regulation, because the state, being no longer necessary to suppress one class for the sake of the other, has died out by itself.

Going from the thesis–as painfully apparent as it is in today’s world–to its negation, a situation comparable to the 1945-1973 period described above in the introduction, will require a ruthlessness that would make Stalin seem a softie in comparison. For recall all the horrors I described at the beginning of this essay; defence against such imperialist horrors will require a powerful workers’ state. Gorbachev’s weakening of that state lead to Yeltsin’s faux democracy, and an unleashing of the neoliberal agenda, a letting slip of the capitalist dogs of war.

I say, no war but the class war…and we socialists must fight it to end it, because the capitalist class intends to fight unendingly…

Analysis of ‘The Big Lebowski’

Introduction

The Big Lebowski is a 1998 comedy written, produced, and directed by the Coen brothers, starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Julianne Moore, and with Steve BuscemiJohn Turturro, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, and David Huddleston. The story was inspired by the complex plots of Raymond Chandler stories, especially The Big Sleep; indeed, one joke of the story is its wildly intricate plot, which ends with a conclusion of no consequence and no fundamental change in the characters.

Though the movie did poorly at the box office, it has since then grown into a cult classic, with fans of the movie dressing up as their favourite characters at Lebowski Fests; there’s even a Taoist-oriented religion based on the wisdom of the Dude (Bridges).

Quotes

“Well, sir, it’s this rug I had. It really tied the room together.” –the Dude (Jeffrey Lebowski)

“Look, let me explain something to you. I’m not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.” –the Dude

“This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Luckily I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber.” –the Dude

“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” –the Dude

“Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!” –the Dude

“Well, you know, the Dude abides.” –the Dude

Nihilists! ..Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos” –Walter Sobchak

“You see what happens, Larry?! Do you see what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?! This is what happens, Larry! This is what happens, Larry!” –Sobchak

“Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” –Sobchak

“Life does not start and stop at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit!” –Sobchak

“Shut the fuck up, Donny.” –Sobchak

“Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!” –Sobchak

“HEY! What’s this day of rest shit?! What’s this bullshit?! I don’t fuckin’ care! It don’t matter to Jesus. But you’re not foolin’ me, man. You might fool the fucks in the league office, but you don’t fool Jesus. This bush league psych out stuff. Laughable, man – HA HA! I would have fucked you in the ass Saturday. I fuck you in the ass next Wednesday instead. Wooo! You got a date Wednesday, baby!” –Jesus Quintana

“You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.” –Quintana

“What the fuck are you talking about? The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude! I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you do not… Also, Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. ‘Asian-American,’ please.” –Sobchak

Brandt: Uh, our guest needs to be going now, Mrs. Lebowski.

The Dude: (realizes) Ohh, you’re Bunny.

Bunny Lebowski: [takes off her sunglasses] I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.

Brandt: Ah-hahahahaha! Ah – Wonderful woman. We’re all, we’re all very fond of her. Very free-spirited.

Bunny Lebowski: Brandt can’t watch, though – or he has to pay a hundred.

Brandt: Ah-haha. That’s marvelous.

The Dude: [Dude turns his head back as Brandt escorts him away] ..Uh, I’m just gonna go find a cash machine.

“Fucking dog has fucking papers—OVER THE LINE!” –Sobchak

“Has the whole world gone CRAZY?! [stands up] AM I THE ONLY ONE AROUND HERE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES?! MARK IT ZERO!” –Sobchak

“Lady, I got buddies who died face-down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” –Sobchak, to waitress

“Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax…You’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!” –Sobchak

“You human … paraquat!” –the Dude, to the big Lebowski

“‘The Dude abides.’ I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.” –the Stranger

Themes

These are the themes I’ll be examining in this analysis:

  • Taoism and Dudeism
  • Pride and Shame
  • The Castration Complex
  • Male Humiliation
  • Sexual Aggression
  • Political Allegory

I) Taoism and Dudeism

The Taoist orientation of ‘Dudeism’ is more than justified, for the Dude’s whole way of life is a passive going-with-the-flow, though this passivity is carried to a comically slothful extreme. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” (Chapter 48) Now, note what the Stranger says of the Dude: “And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.”

Still, for all his faults, this White-Russian-drinking pothead represents a laid-back ideal many of the more high-strung characters would be wise to try to emulate. Indeed, between the grumpy curmudgeonliness of the big Lebowski (Huddleston), the moronic thuggery of the goons of Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), the loudmouth blustering of Jesus Quintana (Turturro) and Walter Sobchak (Goodman), and the buffoonish bullying of the German nihilists (Stormare, Flea, and Torsten Voges), the Dude finds it challenging to be his normal, easy-going self.

Other parallels with Taoism are the themes of duality, dialectics, and the unity of opposites. First, we’ll deal with duality. Characters in the movie can often be paired, based on their comparable and contrasting qualities and traits. The most obvious pairing is that of the two Jeffrey Lebowskis, the millionaire in the wheelchair and the Dude. Yet apart from their shared name, the two men are opposites in almost every way.

The Dude is laid-back, while the big Lebowski is a grouch. The Dude is lazy and unemployed, possibly, if only temporarily, living off the welfare system that would continue to exist as such for another five years (the Coens’ original idea to have the Dude live off some of the wealth from a family invention, the Rubik’s Cube, wasn’t included in the movie); the big Lebowski is an “achiever”…or is he? (More on that below.)

The next pairing is that of the Dude and Walter Sobchak. They’re both bowlers, on the same team in a competition, and they’re friends…though the friendship is rather strained over the course of the movie; for Sobchak’s bad temper and asinine impulsivity are a constant source of frustration and embarrassment to the Dude, who just wants to “take it easy,” and have Sobchak do the same.

Next, there’s the pairing of Sobchak and Jesus Quintana. Both bowl, but are on rival teams. Both talk tough and indulge in outbursts in the bowling alley. A contrast, however, is Sobchak’s adopted Judaism versus the presumably lapsed Catholicism of “the Jesus,” for there’s no reason to believe that the “pederast” ever goes to church.

More pairings: Maude and Bunny Lebowski (Moore and Tara Reid, respectively). Both women are liberated and sexually aggressive in the extreme, though only Bunny is tainted with the label of “slut” for appearing in porn. Maude, in contrast, is clearly a pro-sex feminist and “vaginal” artist, though she throws herself at the Dude as blatantly as Bunny does.

Next, we must explore the dialectical relationship between these comparable/contrasting pairs, as well as other examples of the yin/yang-like unity of opposites in the movie. Like the black dot in yang, and the white dot in yin, each opposite has a bit of the other in it.

Consider who’s upset and who’s calm. Sobchak points a gun at Smokey and yells at him for stepping over the line when bowling a strike and not accepting marking it zero for committing a foul; meanwhile the Dude keeps his cool, warns Sobchak that they’re calling the cops, and tells him calmly to put the piece away. As soon as Smokey marks it zero, Sobchak calms right down and puts the gun away.

As he and the Dude leave the bowling alley and go into the latter’s car, the Dude gets increasingly agitated trying to get Sobchak to understand how excessively he reacted. After hearing the Dude yell, “Just take it easy, man,” Sobchak says, “I’m calmer than you are,” with perfect coolness.

II) Pride and Shame

Pride and shame are intermixed, which makes perfect sense, since with Sobchak, pride goes before a fall…not that he really ever notices himself fall. Apart from his explosion with Smokey in the bowling alley, Sobchak makes an absurd, Vietnam-war-esque stealing of the big Lebowski’s ‘money’ instead of tossing it over to Bunny’s ‘kidnappers.’ He imagines his plan to be brilliant, when really he’s just being “a goddamn moron.”

Then there’s his outburst about “basic freedoms” in a diner, when all he’s been asked to do is lower his voice for the sake of the other customers. The Dude is so embarrassed, he quickly pays and leaves, while Sobchak is so oblivious to what an ass he’s being, he’s proudly “staying,” “finishing,” and “enjoying [his] coffee.”

Finally, Sobchak proudly imagines he’s clever enough to know that the big Lebowski isn’t really a cripple, then picks the old man up and out of his wheelchair, imagining Lebowski will stand when he’s let go of. Of course he falls to the floor…though I can’t help suspecting–in the scene when the Dude explains to Sobchak in his van that he’s figured out how Lebowski never put money in the briefcase–that he’s actually standing in the dark, his body physically far from the back of his wheelchair, as he’s putting a phone book, etc., in the “ringer” briefcase. (Were the Coen brothers just sneaking that into the movie, to see if anyone was really watching carefully, or am I overthinking the scene?)

This leads me to the fallen pride of the big Lebowski. He presents himself as a ‘great achiever,’ but we learn from Maude that his money is actually her mother’s, he failed at running the family business, and Maude gives him an allowance. He married Bunny for the same reason Trump married Melania…as a kind of male jewellery to boost his ego. If I’m right about him actually faking as a cripple (which, by the way, doesn’t make Sobchak any less of a jackass for pulling him out of his wheelchair), is his posing as a disabled man supposed to be idpol compensation for his failures in life, a cure for the narcissistic injury of not being the ‘achiever’ he poses as? Is his falling on the floor, after Sobchak lets him go, a kind of face-saving continuation of the pretence?

III) The Castration Complex

The theme of shame is further developed in the form of the motif of Freud’s castration complex. The German nihilists threaten to castrate the Dude after dumping a marmot between his legs in his bathtub as he’s lying naked in it; he yelps as he tries to stop the animal from scratching at his balls.

The big Lebowski gives the Dude a severed toe with green nail polish on it, the same colour Bunny had on hers when she offered to perform fellatio on him. Actually, the severed toe (symbolic castration) was that of a German girlfriend of the nihilists, the only one of them in the restaurant scene who can’t speak English. Bunny’s toes, however, are all intact, and she freely expresses herself as she sings ‘Viva Las Vegas’ while driving.

When Maude meets the Dude, she mentions how the word “vagina” bothers some men. Sometimes the vulva is perceived as a wound resulting from castration, as Freud noted; consider also Camille Paglia‘s comments on the subject of the–to men, frightening–mystery surrounding the vagina, which can also be the vagina dentata (Paglia, pages 13, 22-23, 47). Furthermore, ‘nothing‘ (what the castration-threatening nihilists believe in), ‘no thing,’ or ‘an O-thing’ was slang for a woman’s genitals back in Shakespeare’s day.

Incidentally, a large painting of scissors is hanging on a wall in Maude’s studio; after saying, “dick” and “rod,” she gives a brief, uncomfortable pause before saying “Johnson,” the very word the nihilists use when threatening to emasculate the Dude. Still, “without batting an eye,” Maude can refer to Bunny’s porno film as “the beaver picture.” Maude wants to have a child; and Freud noted, in his 1917 essay “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism,” that a girl’s penis envy would transform later in life, from das Kleine (‘little one’) for the penis, to das Kleine for a baby.

Lacan said that “women don’t exist” because in the Symbolic Order, they in a sense have no language (i.e., no symbolic phallus as signifier); for him, this was the true, phallocentric meaning of Freud’s notion of penis envy, a phallogocentrism. Remember the soft-spoken German woman without a toe, who also needed the nihilists to translate her pancake order into English. Symbolically castrated, the nine-toed woman had no English signifiers to express the meaning in her mind, to order pancakes. Stifled and silenced by the three Germans, who represent fascism (as I’ll explain below), she has been subordinated just as women in Nazi Germany were.

In contrast, Maude and Bunny are liberated, expressive women each with all ten toes; their vulvas aren’t felt to be ‘wounds’ from castration, and accordingly, they’re proud, and in full control of their lives. They speak freely, in full control of linguistic signifiers: Bunny in her jouissance has a lascivious tongue, and she doesn’t care who hears it; Maude is particularly articulate. These two women aren’t thwarted by psychoanalytic sexism.

IV) Male Humiliation

Men, however, are constantly being humiliated in this movie. Sobchak destroys a beautiful, brand new car, whose infuriated owner then smashes up the Dude’s; once again, Sobchak’s idiot impulsivity makes him lose face.

Donny, who’s constantly being told to “shut the fuck up,” dies of a heart attack, and his ashes are put in a Folger’s tin; then Sobchak, after quoting Hamlet, scatters them…all over the Dude’s face.

The threat of castration is a recurring potential humiliation for him, especially in the scissors dream sequence, reminding us of Maude’s painting.

Quintana is embarrassed at having to tell everyone in his neighbourhood that he’s “a pederast.”

A major form of this theme of male humiliation is expressed in the language of male-on-male rape, a making of the victim into a passive partner in sex, his anus made into a vagina, as it were. Quintana says he’ll beat the Dude’s team so crushingly, he’ll “fuck [them] in the ass next Wednesday.”

Elsewhere, Sobchak is so enraged with mute, uncooperative Larry, who he and the Dude believe stole the money they [thought they] stole from Lebowski, that the boy shouldn’t “fuck a stranger in the ass.”

When the nihilists fight Sobchak, the Dude, and Donny, Uli brandishing a phallic sword, the Germans shout “I fuck you!” over and over. Sobchak bites off Uli’s ear, another removing of a bodily appendage symbolic of castration; and the German played by Flea is hit by Sobchak’s bowling ball, and he buckles over as if emasculated. The nihilists are now as silent as their girlfriend in the pancake restaurant.

V) Sexual Aggression

We see that sexual aggression is a major theme in this movie, one in which the word “fuck” is used more than in most others. This isn’t mere overindulgent swearing in a Hollywood movie. “Fuck,” incidentally, comes from (among other possible etymologies) Middle Dutch fokken, meaning ‘to hit,’ or ‘to strike.’ Bowling is full of sexual symbolism in this movie, the testicle-shaped ball knocking out all the phallic, penis pins in a strike; then the ball goes into a yonic hole behind the mechanical pinsetter. Bowling is a pun on balling.

The three finger holes in a bowling ball can represent a woman’s urethra, vagina, and anus, thus making the testicular ball an androgynous sexual symbol, a union of yin and yang. Similarly, in the ‘Gutterballs‘ dream sequence, the dancing ladies–under and between whose legs the Dude enjoys floating, looking up their skirts with an ear-to-ear grin–wear hats of phallic bowling pins…more androgyny.

Then there’s Maude in her Viking outfit, with the phallic horns on her helmet and her thrice-phallic trident. Since yin and yang represent the intermixing unity of opposites, it should come as no surprise that Maude and Bunny are sexually aggressive women, coming on to a very sexually passive Dude, a stoner who doesn’t seem all that interested in “coitus.”

VI) Political Allegory

Finally, we must examine the political allegory of The Big Lebowski. Appropriately, the two Lebowskis are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Here is a list of what a number of the major characters in the movie symbolize, even if they don’t necessarily espouse the political position they represent:

  • The Dude……………………..left-libertarianism
  • The Big Lebowski……….Trump-like, narcissistic capitalism
  • Maude………………………….liberal centrism
  • Jesus Quintana…………….corrupt, abusive Catholic Church
  • Walter Sobchak……………neo-con, imperialist militarism and Zionism
  • Nihilists………………………..fascism
  • Jackie Treehorn…………..exploitative capitalism

I’ll deal with each one by one, starting with the Dude.

Lying in bed with Maude, the Dude tells her he was involved in the original drafting of the Port Huron Statement, associated with the New Left. The Dude says he was also a member of the Seattle Seven (Jeff Dowd, on whom the Dude was based as a character, was an actual member of the Seven), a radical anti-Vietnam-War movement. These two facts establish his credentials as a progressive: remember the Dude’s pro-woman, “racially…cool” attitude; it also, however, shows his disengagement from the labour movement and concern for class struggle.

Indeed, his problem is that, like most libertarian leftists (myself excepted), the Dude doesn’t put enough thought into self-protection. His home is constantly broken into–fouled and ransacked. His efforts to keep intruders out are comically pathetic; and his car is progressively damaged and degraded, until finally destroyed. Left-libertarians sneer at tankiesauthoritarian measures, all the while oblivious to the need for that authoritarianism, which is for the sake of defending their ever-so-fragile revolutions. The Dude, representing the left, sees his property destroyed, which symbolizes capitalist sabotage of socialist states; his home is his own private DPRK.

In reference to the already-suspected faking of Bunny’s kidnapping, the Dude makes a reference to Lenin, whom clueless Donny confuses with Lennon. Sobchak shuts up and corrects Donny, growling “V. I. Lenin–Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!” This suggests that, apart from being annoyed at Donny being once again “out of [his] element,” Sobchak isn’t happy talking about the man famous for decrying imperialism, which Sobchak personifies (more on that below).

The big Lebowski represents the spoiled capitalist who finds himself in the upper classes by association with them (i.e., marrying a rich woman, Maude’s mother), not by having “achieved” on his own merits, as he and other capitalists like to boast. He steals from his own charity, while hypocritically pretending it’s his generosity that helps his ‘urban achievers.’

However the Dude is able to provide for himself financially–whether it be from the Rubik’s Cube fortune of his family, as originally conceived by the Coen brothers, or if it be, as I speculate, from his receiving unemployment insurance or welfare benefits–his ability to have money while not working can be seen to symbolize the socialist ideal of a Guaranteed Basic (or Universal) Income. If the Dude, thus representing the left, is a slacker, then the big Lebowski, a millionaire capitalist married into money, is a kind of corporate welfare bum. So their yin and yang opposition is also an identification, a dialectical association.

Maude is a bourgeois liberal who judges her father for his conservative posturing, but she’s sitting on all that wealth, too, rather than pushing for revolution. She is in the political centre, in control of her parents’ money (her mother’s, actually) while doing her hipster art; she also exploits the Dude (to get her pregnant) every bit as much as her father does (to act as courier to pay off Uli et al).

Thus, Maude politically represents how liberals are no better than conservatives when it comes to preserving the class structure of society, all the while acting as though such establishment thinking is solely the fault of conservatives. If the Dude represents the besieged socialist states and vulnerable Third World, she–in her seduction of him–represents the liberals who exploit such poor countries no less than those on the right do.

The last thing that Jesus Quintana comes across as is a practicing Catholic, but that doesn’t mean he can’t symbolize the corruption of the Church. Sobchak’s “day of rest shit…don’t matter to Jesus” reminds one of Christ telling the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), in response to seeing Jews working on Saturday (i.e., “to pluck the ears of corn,” Mark 2:23, presumably because of an emergency [an urgent need to feed the hungry], the only time breaking of the Sabbath is allowed in Jewish law). This scene shows the contrast between ‘Quintana’s’ Church and ‘Sobchak’s’ synagogue.

The sex offences of “the Jesus” can be seen to represent the largely unpunished Catholic priests guilty of sexually abusing boys: one is reminded of the sex perversion and wickedness of the priests in the erotic novels of the Marquis de Sade, for he, an ardent atheist, enjoyed satirizing and shaming the Church (see Sade, pages 762-798).

Sobchak, a Vietnam vet obsessed with his years fighting “Charlie, eyeball to eyeball,” represents neo-con, US imperialism and Zionism, aggressively shoving itself into other people’s business and lives, as Sobchak does. His outbursts indicate the emotional dysregulation of PTSD sufferers. He may refer to Lenin angrily, but he’s most comfortable discussing Theodor Herzl

Though born a Polish Catholic, he’s converted to Judaism, so he’s as much a lapsed Catholic as Quintana. This conversion to Judaism, constant talking about it, and his use of a spinning Uzi when he jumps out of the car during the hand-off of the money, all suggest Christian Zionism, which really is just another form of Western imperialism, rather than an inherently Jewish issue. (Indeed, legitimate anti-Zionism and illegitimate antisemitism are often wrongly conflated by, ironically, both Zionists and antisemites.)

Furthermore, consider Sobchak’s contempt for Saddam (“…look at our current situation with that camel-fucker in Iraq.”) and the Iraqis (“…what we have here, a bunch of fig-eaters, wearing towels on their heads tryin’ to find reverse on a Soviet tank. This, this is not a worthy fucking adversary.”), and therefore, of Muslims in general, all examples of neo-con/Zionist traits.

The three nihilists aren’t Nazis, of course, but their use of violence and destruction in pursuit of their goals (as well as, unfortunately, the German stereotype) shows that they represent the fascist wing of capitalism, for they cut off the toe of their German girlfriend, in hopes of getting “ze money.” (Sobchak’s confusion of the three nihilists with Nazis, as wrong as he is about that, nonetheless strengthens this symbolic association.)

That the big Lebowski seems to have cut a deal with the nihilists to give him an excuse to move some charity funds, while hoping they’ll kill Bunny, suggests a symbolizing of capitalism’s habitual cozying up to fascism, while treating its victims as contemptible and expendable. Her owing money all over town can symbolize the economic crises of capitalism that often fan the flames of fascism, hence the involvement of the nihilists.

Jackie Treehorn, as a pornographer who “treats objects like women,” consummately personifies capitalist exploitation. Of course, he has the “reactionary” and “fascist” Malibu police on his side (two epithets the Dude has for the police chief who hits him on the head with a coffee mug), for capitalists can always rely on the cops to help them, no matter how questionable their business practices may be.

Porn’s objectification of women is so obvious and oft-discussed that my elaboration on the matter would just be redundant; the fact that the “studs” of porn are every bit as exploited and shamed is worthy of note, however, since this shaming is a further developing of the theme of male humiliation.

I suspect that Treehorn’s two goons, Wu and the blond who dunks the Dude’s head in his toilet, are porn studs who double as Treehorn’s muscle, given the two men’s muscles and good looks, not to mention their vulgarity.

More importantly, consider Uli’s humiliation as “Karl Hungus” in the video “Logjammin’.” He and the other two nihilists were musicians as “Autobahn,” a synthesizer-driven “techno-pop” group modelled on such groups as Kraftwerk; the lack of Autobahn’s success, combined with presumed financial woes, has led Uli (and possibly the other two) to have to resort to doing porn in order to survive.

The nihilists’ humiliation has driven them to “takes de money” in a desperate attempt to restore their existence to its pre-porn status, back to their former glory as musicians, hence the playing of their electronic music on a tape player during the fight scene. The nihilists’ situation reminds us of German humiliation and economic woes in the 1920s…and the desperate urge felt to restore the nation’s honour led to…you know. Hence we can see a further association of the nihilists with fascism.

The political meaning behind who is most brutally made fun of in the movie (the big Lebowski, Sobchak, the nihilists, Treehorn and his goons, Quintana, and the gnomish, dancing landlord) is that what they represent is a group of establishment ideologies that deserve our contempt and loathing. Arguably, despite her bourgeois liberalism, Maude is OK–provided she relents and lets the Dude regularly see their future child; for the Dude, for all his faults, foibles, and laughable moments, is the closest the movie comes to having a character who represents a political ideal worth striving for.

As the Stranger says, “sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”

Conclusion

Finally, the whole twisting and turning plot, which has “a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s,” ends up as, really, much ado about nothing. Instead of the conflict ending with the characters changing or growing in any significant way, everything just ends up more or less the same as it was in the beginning: the tail of the ouroboros at the end of the story finds itself in the biting mouth of the story’s beginning, with no sublation.

Bunny has come back unharmed, for she never even “kidnapped herself”; she just took off without telling anyone, in her usual carefree, irresponsible way. Though they lost Donny, the Dude and Sobchak will resume their bowling tournament. There will be “a little Lebowski on the way,” since the Dude has just passively gone along with aggressive Maude’s agenda to be a mother.

Indeed, the first Dudeist is like a Taoist, who teaches us: “Know the masculine, keep to the feminine.” (Tao Te Ching, 28…and, of course, Maude and Bunny reverse the sex roles of this wisdom.) So, the story, as needlessly and comically complicated as it was, ultimately amounted to nothing, because the Dude’s philosophy is about doing nothing to leave nothing undone. Going with the flow, and following the Tao, “the Dude abides.”

The Narcissism of Capital

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Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Grandiosity/superiority

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

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

2. Association with superiority

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

3. No Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

4. Exploitation

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

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

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

5. Fantasies of Power and Success

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

little boy carrying can
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6. Envy

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

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

7. Craving Admiration

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

8. Entitlement

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

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

9. Pomposity and Arrogance

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

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

Who are the Villains, and Who are the Victims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Analysis of ‘Taxi Driver’

Taxi Driver is a psychological thriller filmed in 1976, written by Paul Schrader, directed by Martin Scorsese (who also has a cameo or two in the film), and starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Leonard HarrisCybill Shepherd, and Peter Boyle. It is ranked #52 on the AFI’s top 100 movies of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

  1. “May 10th. Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks. I’m workin’ long hours now, six in the afternoon to six in the morning. Sometimes even eight in the morning, six days a week. Sometimes seven days a week. It’s a long hustle but it keeps me real busy. I can take in three, three fifty a week. Sometimes even more when I do it off the meter. All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.” –Travis Bickle

2. “Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.” –Bickle

3. “Twelve hours of work and I still can’t sleep. Damn. Days go on and on. They don’t end.” –Bickle

4. “All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” –Bickle

5. “I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They… cannot… touch… her.” –Bickle

6. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” –Bickle

7. “I called Betsy again at her office and she said maybe we’d go to a movie together after she gets off work tomorrow. That’s my day off. At first she hesitated but I called her again and then she agreed. Betsy, Betsy. Oh no, Betsy what? I forgot to ask her last name again. Damn. I got to remember stuff like that.” –Bickle

8. “I realize now how much she’s just like the others – cold and distant, and many people are like that. Women for sure. They’re like a union.” –Bickle

9. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” –Bickle, looking at himself in a mirror (ranked #10 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.)

10. [in an anniversary card to his parents] “Dear Father and Mother: July is the month I remember which brings not only your wedding anniversary but also Father’s Day and Mother’s birthday. I’m sorry I can’t remember the exact dates, but I hope this card will take care of them all. I’m sorry again I cannot send you my address like I promised to last year.” –Bickle

11. “When we came up with our slogan, ‘We are the People,’ when I said let the people rule, I felt that I was being somewhat overly optimistic. I must tell you that I am more optimistic now than ever before. The people are rising to the demands that I have made on them. The people are beginning to rule. I feel it is a groundswell. I know it will continue through the primary. I know it will continue in Miami. And I know it will rise to an unprecedented swell in November.” –Senator Charles Palantine

12. “Walt Whitman, that great American poet, spoke for all of us when he said: ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ Today, I say to you, We Are The People, we suffered, we were there. We the People suffered in Vietnam. We the People suffered, we still suffer from unemployment, inflation, crime and corruption.” –Palantine

13. [to Travis] “You see the woman in the window? Do you see the woman in the window?…I want you to see that woman, because that’s my wife. But that’s not my apartment. That’s not my apartment. You know who lives there? Huh? I mean, you wouldn’t know who lives there – I’m just saying, “But you know who lives there?” Huh? A nigger lives there. How do ya like that? And I’m gonna, I’m gonna kill her. There’s nothing else. I’m gonna kill her. What do you think of that? Hmm? I said ‘What do you think of that?’ Don’t answer. You don’t have to answer everything. I’m gonna kill her. I’m gonna kill her with a .44 Magnum pistol. I have a .44 Magnum pistol. I’m gonna kill her with that gun. Did you ever see what a .44 Magnum pistol can do to a woman’s face? I mean it’ll fuckin’ destroy it. Just blow her right apart. That’s what it can do to her face. Now, did you ever see what it can do to a woman’s pussy? That you should see. You should see what a .44 Magnum’s gonna do to a woman’s pussy you should see. I know, I know you must think that I’m, you know… You must think I’m pretty sick or somethin’, you know, you must think I’m pretty sick. Right? You must think I’m pretty sick? Hmm? Right? I’ll betcha, I’ll betcha you really think I’m sick right? You think I’m sick? You think I’m sick? You don’t have to answer. I’m payin’ for the ride. You don’t have to answer.” –cuckold passenger

14. “Look, look at it this way, you know uh, a man, a man takes a job, you know, and that job, I mean like that, and that it becomes what he is. You know like uh, you do a thing and that’s what you are. Like I’ve been a, I’ve been a cabbie for seventeen years, ten years at night and I still don’t own my own cab. You know why? ‘Cause I don’t want to. I must be what I, what I want. You know, to be on the night shift drivin’ somebody else’s cab. Understand? You, you, you become, you get a job, you you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn, one guy lives in Sutton Place, you get a lawyer, another guy’s a doctor, another guy dies, another guy gets well, and you know, people are born. I envy you your youth. Go out and get laid. Get drunk, you know, do anything. ‘Cause you got no choice anyway. I mean we’re all fucked, more or less you know.” –Wizard

15. “So what makes you so high and mighty. Will you tell me that? Didn’t you ever try lookin’ in your own eyeballs in the mirror?” –Iris

The main themes of Taxi Driver include false ideals, and alienation leading into fragmentation, these being social and psychological problems stemming from capitalism and imperialism. Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a Vietnam vet suffering from insomnia and loneliness, problems common to sufferers of PTSD and C-PTSD. With his feeling of being broken off from the rest of society comes the breaking up, the falling apart, of his personality.

You can see how troubled Travis is just from the first look in his eyes at the beginning of the movie. When he’s interviewed for the job, he’s asked by the interviewer (Joe Spinell) why he wants to be a cabbie; when he says he can’t sleep, the interviewer suggests going to theatres that show porno films.

Already we see an example of the social alienation between different members of the proletariat. How is it ‘treatment’ for proletarians’ insomnia to watch naked, sexualized, and exploited lumpenproletariat? Bickle was a veteran suffering from the trauma of fighting an imperialist war where soldiers like him saw (and often participated in) the raping and bombing of Southeast Asians. Recall Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the nine-year-old girl who was photographed running naked because a napalm strike was burning her clothes and her back. How could watching porn cure this, instead of aggravating it?

When the interviewer asks about Bickle’s driving record, he responds, “Clean, like my conscience.” With his record in Vietnam, this joke sounds suspiciously like reaction formation. The interviewer is offended by this remark, forcing an apology from Bickle–more alienation.

When Bickle goes into the parking lot where all the cabs are, the camera moves away from him to get a sweep of the area; not his point of view, but as if we were seeing the scene from other eyes. One would expect to see more of Bickle, who is more or less narrating the story (i.e., the story is essentially from his point of view). The camera drifting away from him suggests his distracted, dissociated mind; it also suggests his growing alienation from himself…his fragmentation.

Bickle does go to those porno theatres; what’s worse, on two occasions he tries to connect with women in that very setting! Naturally, the women in question are so offended and disgusted that they want nothing to do with him.

It’s easy to look at Bickle’s behaviour and say, “What an idiot! Taking a woman he wants to impress on a date…to a porno theatre? Asking the name of a woman selling snacks in a porno theatre? What is he thinking? Is he thinking?”

Such snap judgements, however, fail to get at the root of the problem, which is in the conflicts in his fragmented unconscious mind, in his alienation from his species-essence. Part of him wants to connect with these women (or with any woman in general), but another part of him wants to sabotage that connection by scaring them off. Bickle knows as well as any idiot (though he speaks as if he doesn’t) that no woman wants to date or get to know a pervy porn lover…but he puts women in that awkward situation anyway. In his alienation and fragmentation, he can’t make up his mind whether to be or not to be connected with a girl, so his conflict is resolved in a brutal social faux pas.

Heinz Kohut knew of a patient whose fragmentation perfectly exemplified this inability to think straight–a man who confused left and right! The patient had a dream he was “in an airplane flying from Chicago to New York. He was occupying a window seat on the left side of the plane, as he mentioned, looking out toward the south. When the analyst pointed out the inconsistency in his report of the dream: that, going from Chicago to New York, he would be looking north, not south, from the left side of the plane, the patient became utterly confused and spatially disoriented–to the point that he literally could not tell right from left for a short time.” (Kohut, pages 153-154)

The patient’s fragmentation came from his parents’ disappearance from his life for a span of more than a year, when he was three-and-a-half years old. In this connection, one wonders about the closeness of Bickle’s relationship with his parents, when he writes to them in an anniversary card (see Quote #10 above), and he doesn’t remember the exact dates of their anniversary, his mother’s birthday, or Father’s Day! He remembers only that the dates are all in July. Recall (Quote #6) that he says he’s been lonely all his life, suggesting a lack of closeness with his parents in his childhood. His trauma from his Vietnam War experiences would have multiplied his fragmentation by the thousands, hence his own inability to think straight, or to remember to do even the simplest of things, like remember to ask Betsy’s last name (Quote #7).

When Bickle becomes a taxi driver, he accepts working absurdly long hours throughout the night because he can’t sleep. He is like so many right-leaning members of the working class, who take on such long hours without ever questioning if such a working life is good for them.

He drives his cab around an especially rough area of New York City. As a conservative worker, he feels revulsion at the lumpenproletariat all around him. His prejudice against blacks is first noted when he calls them “spooks” (see Quote #1 above), then says it makes no difference to him if they ride in his cab, a denial of the racism he also manifests in the dirty looks he gives blacks later on, as well as the black man he shoots in the head for trying to rob a convenience store (instead of just making a citizen’s arrest, or, since Bickle’s at close range, maybe shooting the gun out of the black man’s hand in self-defence when he spins around to try to shoot Bickle). If only he could feel more solidarity with all the global proletariat (including not only blacks but also prostitutes, beyond the mere ‘gallantry’ of saving Iris [Foster] from her pimp, Sport [Keitel], more on that later), he just might cure his alienation.

When Bickle sees Betsy for the first time, a curvaceous blonde beauty working for the campaign of a left-leaning liberal politician named Palantine (Harris), he idealizes her in his mind, imagining that the sewer society all around them “cannot…touch…her.” When she rejects him after his foolish choice to take her to a porno movie, his ideal of her has been shattered.

This leads to a discussion of an important theme in Taxi Driver: false ideals. Apart from his temporary idealizing of Betsy, Bickle also idealizes outdated notions of manhood, a problem many right-leaning male members of the proletariat, semi-proletariat, and petite bourgeoisie have, including many in the ‘manosphere‘, for example. Bickle imagines men are supposed to protect and provide for all women, as well as ‘perform’ for them (i.e., initiate dates with them and play the role of ‘perfect gentleman’).

In his social awkwardness, though, Bickle is over-aggressive in his wish to join up through Betsy instead of Tom (Brooks), to help the Palantine campaign. His reason to prefer her over Tom, bluntly given, is that she is “the most beautiful woman [he’s] ever seen”. During their time together in the café, he’s polite and well-groomed, and in his jealousy over Tom’s attentions to her, he bad-mouths him, whom he doesn’t know at all, saying he’s “silly” and that he doesn’t respect her. That night, Bickle takes her to a porno!

The same man who has no problem with pornography does, however, have a problem with prostitution; for he sees Iris try to escape from Sport by getting into his cab. (This version of the scene doesn’t have the dialogue, but the visuals are sufficient to demonstrate my point, anyway.) We see Bickle’s piercing eyes through his rear-view mirror–an important motif representing his projections of his own, inner viciousness out into a world he perceives as vicious (more on that later)–as he sees the pimp grab the girl and toss him a crumpled twenty-dollar bill to make him forget the whole incident.

He can forget about the exploited women in porn, as well as all those other prostitutes he sees on the streets or even in his cab, but not Iris. For Bickle, she has a face: she is a real human being to him. His alienation is so bad that he can recognize humanity in such women only when up close.

Because of his having been rejected by his once-idealized Betsy, he regards her as “in a Hell,” and unkindly generalizes about all women thus, saying they’re “like a union.” He, like those in the ‘manosphere’, would do well to give up their right-leaning convictions, join unions, and end their alienation instead of aggravating it with flippant misogyny.

Note the dialectical tension, though, between this misogyny and its opposite extreme, misguided gallantry. (Remember, also, how dialectical materialism sees a unity in contradictions.) A fellow cabbie inspires Bickle to buy weapons, and after an encounter with an angry cuckold who wants to murder his unfaithful wife (possibly by firing a phallic .44 Magnum at her face and between her legs!), he buys a number of guns to kill Iris’s pimp and mafia associates, and thus free her of them.

Bickle watches that angry cuckold fearfully through his rear-view mirror, seeing a disturbing reflection…of himself, actually, when you think about it. One of the guns he buys is a .44 Magnum. He later watches porn in a theatre and mimics aiming and firing a gun, with phallic fingers, at the screen.

Part of him has wanted to stop himself. He talks to a fellow cabbie they call “the Wizard” (Boyle), who apparently gives good advice. Bickle, in his increasing alienation and fragmentation, can’t tell the Wizard what’s troubling him beyond saying, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” (Then again, how do you tell someone that you want to murder a politician, and then a pimp to free a prostitute, and maybe even kill more people in the future?)

The Wizard’s counsel is hardly helpful. He seems to be experiencing fragmentation on a certain level, too, for he speaks in a largely incoherent way. He does, however, touch on a few important points: a man identifies with his job, and by saying he doesn’t want to own his own cab, the Wizard is implying an acknowledgement of worker alienation, of his own alienation from having to drive a cab every day.

Bickle’s faux-gallant wish to be the hero who rescues the damsel in distress (Iris), yet also to assassinate a popular politician (Palantine), presumably to spite Betsy (inspiring John Hinckley Jr. to try to assassinate Reagan, to impress Jodie Foster), represents a growing problem in the self-centred, alienating modern world–masculinity in crisis.

Just as sex roles have required women to be docile, timid homemakers and beauty queens, they have also required men to be stoic providers and protectors, willing to face any terror without shedding a tear. Such would have been Travis Bickle’s experience in Vietnam, killing fellow members of the global proletariat, including innocent women and children, all to stop the spread of an ideology dedicated to ending imperialism.

The trauma of war, combined with the worker alienation felt in the modern, capitalist world, have all combined to create great social isolation in Bickle. Instead of getting organized, however, with fellow workers to end the capitalist, imperialist system that sent him to kill people in Vietnam, one that created the material conditions that alienate him from the rest of society, he’d rather “get organizized” (more fragmentation) all alone, and fight and kill the ‘scum’ he sees all around him–including his fellow proletarians.

People are way too often distracted from legitimate socialist struggle by identity politics…on both the left and the right: white nationalism and the alt-right; the extremes of men’s rights activism, incels, and others in the manosphere; the kind of CIA-influenced ‘feminism’ that wanted Hillary Clinton to be president just because she’s a woman, while ignoring her total support of imperialism and neoliberalism, etc. Instead, poor whites should be joining the proletarian struggle, and the ending of sex roles should integrate women’s and men’s issues within a socialist context. Solidarity for all the people. Our true enemy is none other than the ruling class. Alienated Bickle in many ways is like those idpol fetishists, who are too self-absorbed to channel their discontent into solving more fundamental problems.

Mirrors are a major motif in this film. I’ve mentioned the rear-view mirror of Bickle’s cab. There’s also his mirror in his apartment during his “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. Though he’s imagining himself confronting one of those “scum” he wants to ‘stand up to’, remember that he sees himself in that mirror. He’s talking to himself. The scum he’s confronting is himself, whom he’s been projecting onto the world around him. As he himself says, he’s the only one there.

Jacques Lacan wrote of the mirror stage, when an uncoordinated infant first sees him- or herself in the reflection. The emotional effects of this psychological identification with the image in the mirror are problems Lacan saw as staying with one throughout life, though. There’s a feeling of alienation from oneself: that’s me in the mirror, but the image’s totality and unity (an idealized version of myself) seem at odds with the awkward, fragmented person I feel myself to be. Bickle, on two tries, has to make three jerks of his arm to make the device under his sleeve produce the concealed pistol in his hand; this reflects that awkwardness, all in contrast with his tough talk, “You’re dead.” The gun should just slide into his hand in one quick, effortless movement.

Note that in this scene, as well as the scenes with his mohawk, he’s wearing a green jacket, part of combat fatigues. The mohawk was also adopted by some soldiers, considered to have done especially heroic missions, during such wars as in Vietnam. Bickle seems, on at least an unconscious level, to be still fighting the war in his mind. Knowing how PTSD sufferers relive their trauma through flashbacks, we shouldn’t find it difficult to imagine Bickle thinking this way.

So all of his exercising, weight-lifting, target practice, etc., is like him going through basic training again. He speaks of eating no more bad food, no more pills, “no more destroyers of [his] body” (not that he actually makes these healthy reforms): in other words, he’s trying to fight against his own fragmentation, just as his mind is falling to pieces.

Recall those breaks in camera continuity, as when he repeats the words, “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. Who would not let- Listen you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up. Here is…” And again, right after he’s shot Sport the first time, and he goes to sit on the steps before the building where Iris is with the other mafiosi, his sudden walking into the building, turning to the right from walking on the sidewalk, after his sit on the steps, seems too abrupt…it’s as if he never sat. Those continuity breaks, like the camera’s sweeping away from Bickle in the taxi parking lot at the beginning of the film, or its moving away from him when he phones Betsy to try to make up with her after their disastrous date, all symbolize his fragmentation, his alienation from himself.

The scene of his attempt to assassinate Palantine, during which he reacts to the glib, charming words of the senator’s speech with ironic clapping and a sneering smile, could be his attempt to spite Betsy as I mentioned above; or it could be a reflection of his wish to take on the capitalist political establishment that sent him out to kill Vietnamese peasants, people who’d never done him any harm; and yet, in the words of liberal Palantine, that establishment hypocritically condemns the Vietnam War.

Remember that Bickle’s trauma, as is the case with the veteran of any war, is not just about the pain he endured, but also the pain he caused the ‘enemy’: in this case, Vietnamese soldiers who were just trying to liberate their people from imperialism; also, Vietnamese women and children, including prostitutes exploited by American GIs…sometimes underage prostitutes, like Iris.

One might think that, just because nothing is said about Bickle’s experiences in Vietnam, there’s little justification for going on and on about his trauma from the war. His laconicism about Vietnam can, however, easily be attributed to repression. (Recall, also, that the trauma of the Vietnam War was fresh on people’s minds back in the mid-1970s.)

When, during his job interview at the beginning of the movie, you see and hear him talking about his honourable discharge from the marines, his pained, grimacing facial expression gives us a clue as to how “honourable” the whole thing had really been for him; contrast this with the friendly smile of the interviewer, who has also served in the marines.

Let’s come to the film’s climax. Pimps are mafia, and as I’ve discussed elsewhere, mafia are capitalists. The brutal exploitation of prostitutes, also something I’ve discussed elsewhere, is another example of capitalist cruelty, imperialist cruelty, in the case of Third World prostitutes exploited by Western tourists. So Bickle’s rescuing of Iris by going into the urban jungle and killing Sport and the other two mafia men, while he’s in his green jacket and with his mohawk, is like him going back into the jungles of Vietnam to kill the imperialists, though he–a conservative proletarian–would sense this intention only unconsciously. Since he unconsciously sees himself in these pimps (and them in him), he is killing himself in unconscious phantasy.

He uses his .44 Magnum to blow off the fingers of a mafia man, then uses a knife to stab the man in the other hand. He puts another gun to the man’s face and fires a bullet in his head, just after he’s filled the face of another mafioso with bullets–all of these acts of violence being symbols of fragmentation…Bickle’s own fragmentation, since he projects his self-hatred onto these scum. In killing them, he’s trying to kill himself.

Indeed, after killing them, he points a gun at his head and tries to kill himself, only he’s out of bullets. So, when the cops come, he just points his bloody finger at his head and mimes shooting himself. Iris, a witness to all the killing, just sits nearby and sobs.

The media portray his rescue of Iris from pimps as an act of heroism. This is more false idealizing, for what Bickle has really done, by subjecting a teenage girl to the close-up witnessing of a bloody shootout, is to traumatize her far worse than all the sexual exploitation she’s been enduring. In fact, with all those phallic guns ejaculating bullets and spraying, if you will, multiple orgasms of blood, Bickle has raped Iris far more brutally than the paid rape of prostitution ever could.

Her father writes Bickle a thank-you letter for having rescued her and having her return home to go back to school; but we never really get her side of the story. She certainly regrets having been a prostitute, but is she happy back at home again? What drove her to run away in the first place? She told Bickle, during breakfast in a diner, that her parents “hate” her. It’s easy to assume this talk is just teenage hyperbole, but the notion of ‘loving parents’ is another easy assumption, a false ideal. If her parents abused her, what kind of abuse was it? Physical? Emotional? Did her father sexually abuse her? If it’s the last of these three, an understanding of object relations theory would explain her running into Sport’s arms.

The movie ends with Bickle giving Betsy a ride home at night. On the surface, he seems to be stable again, even amiable, for he gives her a free ride. Then, just before the ending credits, as he’s driving, he sees something in his rear-view mirror that agitates him. Is it another manifestation of the filth and corruption of the city, a filth he must wash clean with more blood? Or is it his own face in the reflection that troubles him? After all, we see his eyes in the mirror just before the first of the credits; and during his moment of agitation, the soundtrack recording is briefly played in reverse, suggesting a move backwards in time, towards his moment of extreme instability and fragmentation.

He is no hero, of course. He is a ticking time bomb, ready to explode with more violence at any moment. He felt no therapeutic catharsis when he killed those mafia men. He’ll kill again, and the victims could very well be far more innocent the next time. He has by no means exorcised his Vietnamese demons, for the evil is still alive inside himself. No matter how hard he tries to project it out onto the streets of New York City, it remains inside him.

Killing is in his blood; he got it from Vietnam. The internal dialogue of violence was programmed into him from his years of seeing combat every day. The ghosts of all those Viet Cong (and, in all likelihood, innocent civilians) he killed are still haunting him, his bad object relations. Only love would replace those bad internal objects with good ones, and his perpetual objectifying of women makes getting that love an impossibility.

Recall how, before the shootout, he broods while watching TV in his apartment, holding his .44 Magnum (aiming it at the TV, too) and seeing the smiling dancing couples on American Bandstand, a staged love, to be sure (as the media is almost universally phoney); but also one that he, in his isolation, can’t have, much less a real love. Oh, the pain you see in his eyes as that bittersweet song is playing! He can’t even have a love that leads to marriage, then divorce, as he sees in the soap opera just before he knocks over and destroys his TV set.

A man-woman relationship is only a sexual one for him; hence his viewing of pornography. But could it be that, as he says, such a relationship “is not so bad”? After all, he saw far worse treatment of women, sexual and violent, in Vietnam. The escape from reality into a world of pornographic fantasy would seem less harsh. Bickle’s pathological failure to achieve loving relationships leads to his empty pleasure-seeking, as WRD Fairbairn noted (see my third quoting of Fairbairn in this blog post). However Bickle may try to rationalize his pathologies, though, his reality is that he’s in a Hell, the Hell of his war trauma, a Hell of loneliness…and he’s gonna die in a Hell like the rest of ’em.