Analysis of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

I: Introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the story is a critique of psychiatry and, in a larger context, of all tendencies to impose social control.

It was adapted into a Broadway and off-Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy, with Gene Wilder playing Billy Bibbit. Danny DeVito, who played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway play, would reprise his role for the 1975 film, which starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

I’ll be focusing on the novel and the film, which–though following the novel fairly closely–was actually based on the play. The supporting cast of the film, which was co-produced by Douglas’s son Michael and directed by Miloš Forman, includes Louise Fletcher as the manipulative and subtly domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, named the fifth greatest villain in movie history according to the AFI), Will Sampson, William Redfield, DeVito as mentioned above, Sydney Lassick, and Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their film debuts.

The film won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), the second film to achieve this (after It Happened One Night in 1934), and the third to do so not until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and in 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress. AFI lists it #20 on its list of the greatest films of all time in 1998, demoted to #33 in 2007.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here are some quotes from the novel, and here is a link to a performance of the play.

II: Background to the Novel

To get back to the novel, it’s useful to know some of the historical context and background to its creation. It was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was already a growing sense of antiestablishment thinking in the collective consciousness of the US at the time. There was also a controversial move towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, something that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel.

Kesey worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California, an experience that, through his interactions with the patients and the staff there, obviously inspired his novel. He also experimented with such psychoactive drugs as LSD and mescaline there, as part of Project MKUltra. These mind-expanding experiences led not only to his advocacy of using the drugs recreationally, but also freed his mind in a way that influenced the antiestablishment attitude championed in his novel.

III: A ‘Mute’ Narrator

The arrangement of the main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is strikingly contrary to what one would assume them to be normally, in terms of who wields authority and who cows under it, and who is central versus who is marginalized. Almost all of the patients–except for “Chief” Bromden (Sampson in the film), a half-Native American–are white men who are dominated, bullied, and controlled by, most of the time, women and blacks: Ratched and Nurse Pilbow, and the “black boys,” aides Washington (played by Nathan George), Williams (Miller in the film), and Warren. Though McMurphy’s the protagonist, Bromden narrates.

Bromden fakes being deaf and dumb in the hospital, which allows him to be privy to many of the machinations of the staff, who chat around him while assuming he can’t hear what they’re saying. His muteness is also symbolic of how the aboriginals of North America have been silenced by the establishment, the white settler colonial state that is embodied in, for example, the US and Canada.

…and yet, ironically, this ‘mute’ is the narrator of the novel.

His narrative style is noteworthy in itself, often switching back and forth between present and past tenses, as well as expressing himself ungrammatically in such ways as saying, “They should of knew better’n to…” (Kesey, page 4). This informal, non-standard English gives us a vivid sense of how Bromden is, in spite of having been a college student, just an ordinary, common man, as opposed to being a higher-ranking member of society. This proletarian-like commonness will be important in how he will eventually rise up and free himself, in a quasi-revolutionary way, from the societal prison that the mental hospital represents.

IV: An Upside-down World

That the white men are bullied by “the Big Nurse” (Ratched, of course) and the other nurses reflects another issue Kesey was concerned with: the emasculation of modern men in society. I see something broader than that in this, if you will, ‘matriarchal’ hospital with its “black boys” also pushing around the white male patients: as a reversal of the normal social hierarchy, life in the mental hospital, the ‘loony bin,’ “the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a fittingly upside-down world, comparable in a sense to that of King Lear, in which a king is reduced to a mad beggar. Such an inversion of the normal…and equally deplorable…state of affairs in our society can be seen as a way to let our white male rulers know how it feels to be ruled by others. Both the normal and inverted worlds are mad worlds.

The nature of the hospital’s ‘matriarchal’ rule is aptly given in the maternal form of nurses telling the male patients what to do (Dale Harding–played by Redfield in the film–literally calls it a matriarchy–page 63). These men, in their afflicted mental states that are even further afflicted by the nurses’ manipulations, are thus reduced to the role of children. This is best seen in the whining and temper tantrums of Charlie Cheswick (Lassick), in his noisy demands for his precious cigarettes.

V: When ‘Helping’ is Harming

Psychiatry and psychotherapy are supposed to serve in healing patients so they can return to society in a healthy state and become happy, productive contributors to that society. The critique of this novel, however, is that far too often, the psychiatric profession is used rather to control the patients. Far too often, confronting the mentally ill is about treating them with contempt and condescension instead of with empathy and compassion.

I know from personal experience in my life how people in the role of ‘nurse’ can speak of one as ‘ill,’ pretending to be concerned about that person’s well-being, but really using the label of ‘ill’ to justify treating the person as an inferior to be controlled. Instead of giving the person the help he or she needs, as is the stated intention of the ‘nurse,’ this ‘nurse’ causes the patient’s sense of worth and autonomy to be gradually eroded.

Now, the bogus treatment of illness as a guise for social control can be of mental illness, as dealt with in this story, or it can be of physical illness, as many have suspected of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s social control, disguised as ‘treatment,’ on the individual or local level, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there’s such social control on the national and even international, imperialist level, of which the novel and film can be seen to be an allegory.

Having Bromden as the novel’s narrator is thus useful for the purpose of such an allegory. In some ways, such an allegory works in the film, too, even without Bromden as a voiceover narrator (an omission Kesey was most unhappy about in the film adaptation), as I’ll try to show.

VI: Beginning of the Film

The film begins with a shot of a scene in nature, with mountains, grass, and a car going down the road (presumably McMurphy being taken to the mental hospital) during a sunrise. The film will end with Bromden having escaped the hospital and going off into a similar natural background–with trees, mountains, and the sunset.

Throughout the middle, of course, has been life in the prison of the hospital, a metaphor for our sick civilization. We start out in the beauty of nature, whose life is interrupted by our oppressive, man-made civilization, and we’ll ultimately liberate ourselves and return to the beauty of nature.

That Bromden, our half-Native American, half-white narrator, is doing the liberating from that civilization is significant; for that very civilization is the white settler colonial state that robbed the North American aboriginals of their natural home, and it must be returned to them if full liberation for all–white, black, Latino, Asian, and aboriginal–is to be achieved.

VII: McMurphy, the Bad-but-good Guy

To achieve that liberation, though, a revolutionary agent needs to be introduced…and this is where McMurphy comes in. He may be a criminal, someone who “fights too much and fucks too much” (page 14), but it’s his gregarious, free-spirited, and rebellious nature that is just what the intimidated other men need to inspire them to fight for their own freedom.

The fact that our hero is deemed a psychopath and a statutory rapist, one who’s faking insanity to escape the prison work farm and, as he hopes, coast his way through his sentence in the mental hospital, is yet another example of the upside-down world of this story. A violent bad guy is actually the good guy.

One manifestation of this bad-but-good guy is when he meets Bromden. In the film, McMurphy mocks Bromden with an aping of the stereotypical greeting of “How,” then with the hand-over-mouth war cry stereotype. On the surface, McMurphy is indulging in childish, tasteless racist ‘humour,’ but he and Bromden will soon develop a close friendship.

Similarly, there’s ambivalence in calling Bromden “Chief.” On the one hand, it’s a racial slur; on the other, his father was the leader of his tribe, so handing down the title of “Chief” is perfectly legitimate (page 24), as explained by Harding. Yet another upside-down ambivalence is in how Bromden, weeping over McMurphy’s lobotomy at the end, lovingly smothers him to death with a pillow to free him from his wretched fate.

Now, in the novel, it’s towards the “black boys” that McMurphy at one moment shows a racist attitude, calling one of them a “goddamned coon” and a “motherfucking nigger.” He’s mad at them for forcibly delousing George Sorensen, one of the “acute” patients who has mysophobia and is visibly upset over the forced delousing (page 273). Even in this scene, McMurphy’s surface nastiness is obscuring a deeper compassion for the disadvantaged.

So, with every bad thing about McMurphy, there’s also something good; and the good things about him are far more noteworthy. As I said above, he is the one who will inspire the others, waking them all up from their psychological torpor–even Bromden–with his defiant, oppositional example.

VIII: The Combine

To repeat another point I made above, the mental hospital is a metaphor for the whole sick society we all have to live in. In the novel, Bromden has a special name for this repressive world exemplified by the hospital: he calls it the Combine. “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nationwide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.” (page 192)

Yet another example of the upside-down world of the novel is how Bromden is in full realization of the evil of “the Combine”–which combines capitalism, white-settler colonialism, imperialism, and social repression–yet he has been diagnosed with clinical depression and schizophrenia, this latter involving psychotic breaks from reality. As with King Lear‘s “poor Tom” o’Bedlam, a homeless madman (as Edgar pretends to be) whom Lear, in the depths of his own madness, regards as a “Noble philosopher.” It’s the mad who are truly wise in this kind of world.

IX: McMurphy vs the Nurse

McMurphy takes an immediate disliking to “the Big Nurse” and her subtly domineering ways. He bets with the other patients that in a week, he “can get the best of that woman…without her getting the best of [him]” (page 73).

Getting the best of her won’t be easy, for part of how she maintains control over the ward is by exercising her authority through a near-perfect control of her own emotions, which we see fully in Fletcher’s brilliantly understated performance in the film. She rarely loses her temper, and in her self-control we see her confidence, a narcissistic False Self which in turn commands respect. With this command of respect for her as “the Big Nurse,” Ratched is able to effect a mother transference on all the male patients (on Bibbit in particular), which infantilizes them, ensuring her control over them.

Her power over them is so complete that McMurphy can’t even get the obnoxiously ‘peaceful’ music on the record player turned down a little bit, so he and the others can hear each other talking as they play cards. When he tries to get a majority vote so they can watch the World Series on the ward TV, she manipulates matters to include all the ward patients who know nothing of the vote; and by the time he gets Bromden to raise his hand and secure a ten-to-eighteen majority, Ratched has already adjourned the meeting and invalidated the majority. Ratched thus personifies the fake democracy of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

One of McMurphy’s more successful ways of getting to her is by taking note of her figure and large breasts. He is thus defying that maternal transference that she uses to subordinate the other men, defying the Non! du père that reconciles most boys with society’s rules.

Now, this defiance of le Non! du père is also understood, through Lacan‘s pun, as les non-dupes errent. That is, those people who are non-dupes err because, paradoxically, by not being duped by society’s phoney rules (represented by Ratched’s rules of the ward), the non-dupes go astray and mess things up (as McMurphy will for everyone during the drunken party at the story’s climax).

X: The Tub Room Scene

McMurphy’s determination to watch the baseball game is seen in the tub room scene, with the control panel that he foolishly imagines he’ll lift up and throw crashing through the window, then he’ll leave the hospital with Cheswick and watch the game on a TV in “any bar downtown.”

Significantly, during the tub room scene, we see Harding playing, of all games, Monopoly with some of the others (in the novel, the game is mentioned on page 114). Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, and both games essentially teach the players, if they’re paying attention, about the evils of private property, of capitalism, and of the suffering involved in paying up every time you land on someone else’s property. So symbolically, we see the connection of the hospital and capitalism with Bromden’s idea of the Combine.

…and if the hospital, capitalism, and the Combine are the prisons from which these men (and, by extension, all of us) need to be freed, then McMurphy’s attempt, however doomed to failure, to lift the control panel and bash it through the window, to liberate everyone, is representative of socialist revolution. This brief and failed attempt is thus like that of, say, the Paris Commune. Well, McMurphy tried, didn’t he? As with the Communards, at least he did that. Of course, at the end of the story, Bromden tries and succeeds, as the Soviets would succeed…for at least several decades, anyway, before the post-Stalin revisionists began the USSR’s decline.

XI: McMurphy, Therapist

Now, I’ve described McMurphy as liberator on the socialist revolutionary level of symbolic interpretation. There’s also him as liberator in terms of, if you will, psychotherapy. He inspires the others to defy Nurse Ratched’s authority, and he helps them to be more social, through card games, basketball, the push to watch the World Series on TV, the fishing trip, and getting timid Billy Bibbit (Dourif) laid with the help of Candy (played by Marya Small), one of McMurphy’s prostitute friends.

Getting Bromden to speak, to ditch his deaf-and-mute act, is perhaps McMurphy’s greatest therapeutic achievement, one that makes his racist mocking of Bromden, near the beginning of the film, fade into insignificance. As I said above, Bromden’s deaf/mute act symbolizes the silencing of the aboriginals by the white settler colonial state, which for him would be the most significant aspect of “the Combine.” McMurphy’s goading him to speak is thus a revolutionary helping of Bromden to regain his voice and his sense of self, a therapeutic cure as well as a remedy for anti-aboriginal racism. McMurphy is, in effect, achieving the ‘talking cure.’

XII: Bromden’s Silencing

From pages 210 to 215 of the novel, Bromden explains how he came into his habit of acting like a deaf mute: “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (page 210)

His act, this silencing of him, began long before the hospital. It was already happening when he was in the Army. It happened in grade school. It happened when he, ten years old, saw a car with white people arrive at his home, then inform his family of the government’s plan to put up a hydroelectric dam there, putting an end to their fishing. The white people would force it on the aboriginals one way or another. The Combine would force it.

My connection of the Combine with capitalism may seen tenuous or even made up to some readers, but what must be understood is that there’s a lot more to capitalism than just markets, as right-wing libertarians ingenuously (or rather disingenuously) try to reduce it to. As Marx explained, the social relations between the owners of the means of production, of capital, or private property, and the workers, who have only their labour as a commodity to sell, these relations are but the base. On top of this base is the superstructure: the capitalist state, the arts, the media, science (of which psychiatry can be seen as a part), religion, culture, the law, and education. The mental hospital can be seen as a part of, or as symbolic of, that superstructure. The Combine combines both the base and the superstructure.

An essential part of maintaining this Combine, the ideology of the base and superstructure, is racism, which keeps the proletariat divided and hating each other instead of working together in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class. Presenting “the black boys” and the nurses as bullying the mostly white male patients (granted, there are also the male psychiatrists, like Dr. Spivey [played by Dean Brooks], and the white male attendants, but these men intervene more occasionally in the story; in fact, Spivey seems to be ruled over by Ratched, too) is an ironic twist that nonetheless maintains the divide-and-rule aspect of the Combine.

Capitalism also expresses itself in the form of white settler-colonialism, an internal form of imperialism (i.e., within the territorial limits of the United States) that has affected Bromden his whole life, as mentioned above. Colonialism and imperialism, like religion, media manipulation, the law, the state, and education, are all forms of social control. The worst aspects of psychiatry, such as its use of drugs, are also forms of social control rather than of therapy. Anyone who tries to defy authoritarian psychiatry is looked down on as “ill” in order to deny him a voice, to deny him power.

XIII: Ratched’s Gaslighting

Hence, when Taber (Lloyd) doubts the validity of the medication he’s given by the nurses, Ratched says he’s chosen “to act like a child” (page 34) rather than listen to him, show him empathy, or validate his legitimate concerns (the film’s approximate equivalent of this scene substitutes McMurphy for Taber). Accordingly, Miss Ratched is “just like a mother,” according to a Public Relations man (page 37). Small wonder, as Bromden observes, “The ward is a factory for the Combine.” (page 40)

Part of Nurse Ratched’s way of dealing with rebellious McMurphy is to call him “McMurry,” something she does a number of times early on in the novel, and as I suspect, this isn’t a mistake. Her changing of his name sounds like a manipulative form of control, a gaslighting comparable to Petruchio‘s renaming of Katherina as “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew. Ratched would tame McMurphy in a similar way.

XIV: Alienation

Since capitalism breeds alienation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the ward, as symbolic of the superstructure, the Combine, also breeding alienation. We can see it in Taber’s taunting and antagonizing of Harding. Indeed, the discussion of Harding’s sexual problems with his beautiful wife, implying his repressed homosexuality, is more of a ganging-up on him and a bullying of him than any kind of therapy (page 56). Taber’s bullying of Harding, significantly, is resumed in the tub room scene, during the Monopoly game.

There’s alienation between people, and there’s also alienation within, the psychological fragmentation of people with psychotic mental states, people like Martini and Bromden, with their many hallucinations. During the basketball game, for example, when Martini has the ball, he tosses it to nobody, thinking he sees a teammate receiving it. Then there’s Bromden with his notion of the fog machine.

XV: Fog

He imagines that the fog machine, “bought from Army Surplus and hid in the vents” (page 131), is controlled by the hospital staff. Sometimes Bromden finds the fog to be frightening: “I’d wander for days in the fog, scared I’d never see another thing” (page 131). Such a fear sounds like an extension of his faked deaf/muteness, since this fog-induced blindness is something he’s mentally imposed on himself.

Actually, this fog is just a symbol of the bullying authority of the nurses and “black boys.” Just as his deaf/mute act is a result of the Combine silencing him, so is the fog machine a result of the Combine blinding him to his own worth, size, and strength.

The fog, like the deaf/mute act, isn’t a completely bad thing, though. Just as the deaf/mute act allows him to hide and listen to the staff’s secret schemes, so does the fog give him a safe place to hide from painful reality. And just as one might dismiss his fog machine and the Combine as loony conspiracy theories, they actually represent how perceptive he is of the power structures all around him.

XVI: Unity of Opposites

Remember that in the upside-down world of the mental hospital, opposites are united, so loony conspiracy theories are actually perceptive assessments of reality. Bromden is muted, weakened, and shrunken to insignificance, yet he’s also the narrator, a towering giant, and strong enough to lift that control panel in the tub room.

Similar paradoxes, as noted above, include bad boy McMurphy, who is ultimately the story’s hero, even Christ-like (more on that below). White male patients are dominated primarily by nurses and “the black boys,” when we know how things really are outside the mental hospital. And of course the hospital itself, though ostensibly a place to be cured of one’s mental demons, is actually a kind of prison–a worse one, in fact, than the work farm McMurphy came here to escape, for as he’ll find out, far from being released at the end of his original sentence, he’ll be kept here for as long as Ratched deems fit.

He is truly trapped in the mental hospital…potentially for the rest of his life, while he’s mentally the freest of everyone here. Most of the other patients–except for Bromden, Taber, and some of the Chronics–are voluntary, free to leave the hospital whenever they wish…yet mentally, they’re all too afraid to leave and face the real world outside, since Ratched is manipulating that fear.

XVII: Jesus McMurphy!

McMurphy therefore is, in many ways, a Christ figure in spite of his sinfulness. Just as Christ was crucified when he, as Pilate observed (Luke 23), had done nothing wrong, so is McMurphy trapped in this hell of a mental hospital when he’s the only healthy, if badly-behaved, one here.

In keeping with the theme of the unity of opposites in this story, we’ll explore other ways in which McMurphy is a bad-boy Christ. One obvious way is in his blatant, open sexuality, as contrasted with Christ’s saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 27-28)

Now, McMurphy looks on women lustfully all the time…including at Ratched, whose breasts he appraises by wondering, “did she wear a B cup…or a C cup, or any ol’ cup at all?” (page 208) In fact, his very effective therapy for Bibbit, in curing the boy–if only temporarily–of his mother-induced gynophobia, is to have him lose his virginity with Candy.

And just as Jesus suffered, so does McMurphy, first with the electroshock therapy, which he endures (lying on a “table shaped like a cross”–pages 131-132) as bravely as Christ endures the flagellation and the crown of thorns. And though McMurphy, in attacking Ratched in revenge for her having driven Bibbet to suicide, is doing the opposite of Christ’s loving His enemies and turning the other cheek, his ‘death,’ as it were, by lobotomy ends up being a sacrificial death that drives Bromden to pick up the control panel, smash it through the window, and show the way to freedom for all the patients.

McMurphy has the patients go fishing with him, an event that happens far later in the novel than in the film (Part 3, pages 208-256). This event, too, has far greater therapeutic value for the patients than all of Ratched’s manipulative efforts. In keeping with the Christ analogy, recall Matthew 4:18-20. ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him.’ Remember also the ichthys, the fish symbol of Christ.

Just as the historical Jesus, as a number of modern scholars have argued, was a political revolutionary trying to free the Jews of Roman imperialism (not the watered-down peace-lover meant to appease the Romans), so is McMurphy a revolutionary trying to free Bromden et al of the Combine. Furthermore, some Christian leftists believe “Jesus was a socialist”: I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly there are passages in the New Testament that are anti-rich. Consider Mark 10:25, Matthew 25:41-46, and 1 Timothy 6:10. So if McMurphy is like Jesus, his anti-establishment antics can be, in these ways, likened to socialist agitation.

XVIII: White Whale Underpants

McMurphy’s Moby-Dick shorts (page 84), a literary friend’s gift that he displays after undressing, are full of symbolism related to all I’ve said above about him as a sexual, bad-boy Christ. As I (and others) have pointed out, the white whale is a huge phallic symbol, a fact emphasized by its appearance on McMurphy’s underwear.

McMurphy’s link with Moby-Dick manifests itself in other ways. The whale represents wild, untamed nature, as McMurphy does. Indeed, as one uncorrupted by the mind-numbing social conformity that Ratched is imposing on the other patients, white McMurphy is more of a noble savage than Bromden could ever be stereotyped as–another example of the subverting of expectations of the novel’s upside-down world.

As a result of McMurphy’s unwillingness to be tamed, Ratched’s Ahab-like attempts to catch him ultimately bring violence on herself, as Ahab’s quest brings on his own self-destruction. In my Moby-Dick analysis (link above), I wrote of Ahab’s narcissism, his overweening pride and its mad refusal to accept how unconquerable the whale is; Ratched’s wish to control the patients and turn them against each other is similarly narcissistic in nature…malignantly so.

McMurphy is also like the whale in that he represents, as I argued in my analysis of Melville‘s book, the beyond-good-and-evil nature of ultimate reality, an ever-elusive, deep knowledge one can never decisively grasp. As such a personification of this ultimate reality, McMurphy is, like the white whale, God-like, and therefore Christ-like. Now, this God-like whale embodies evil as well as divinity, just like McMurphy as a bad-boy Christ. In these ways, we see again the unity of opposites in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

XIX: McMurphy–Socialist or Capitalist?

Now, when I associate McMurphy with socialist revolution, I’m sure I’ll get objections from readers who will cite the passage when Harding defends McMurphy’s “capitalistic talent” (page 266) at “making a little profit” from his gambling and the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched brings up McMurphy’s profiting as one of her many schemes to divide the patients and thus control them better.

It’s best to understand Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ by emphasizing that it’s only the former’s interpretation of the latter’s intentions. In that passage, Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American” capitalism is based on his not yet having been fully liberated psychologically from the prison of the hospital; he is still experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as a result of the ongoing influence of, as he (ironically?) describes her, their “Miss Angel of Mercy Ratched”, who “is absolutely correct in every assumption she made…about McMurphy.” (page 266)

Furthermore, to use McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ to debunk his socialism fails to think dialectically about the two opposing economic systems, as such assumptions mean forgetting about the upside-down nature of this story. McMurphy, recall, does bad things to promote good. He’s a bad-boy Christ figure, so it should be predictable that he’d promote socialist liberation through capitalism. As Harding notes, “We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we?” (page 266) Recall that McMurphy’s efforts have all been far more therapeutic than anything Ratched has done for the patients, regardless of the money he’s made off of it.

The promotion of socialism through capitalism is far from unheard of: the USSR did it through the NEP in the 1920s, and China and Vietnam brought back the market in the 1980s; indeed, China’s state-regulated use of capitalism, intended to boost the productive forces of the country, has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, a feat achieved far quicker than the economic development of the “free market” has done for the global poor elsewhere. And the only meaningful liberation is the kind that ensures people are all fed, sheltered, employed, educated, and given healthcare.

XX: Menial Work

Remember that the mental hospital, with its staff’s subtle manipulations, bullying, and enforced conformity, is a metaphor for society in general. A part of this prison of a society is the menial jobs given to the patients, a proletarianizing of them, such as Bromden with his mopping of the floors (page 3), and McMurphy’s cleaning of the toilets (pages 159-160). He’s escaped the work farm only to end up doing latrine duty.

As a punishment for McMurphy’s gambling and ‘profiteering’ as discussed above, Ratched rations the patients’ cigarettes, which can be seen to symbolize low wages. So Cheswick’s protests about his cigarettes, escalating to McMurphy breaking the glass to the nurses’ station, taking a box of them, and giving it to Cheswick, is like a workers’ strike. The “black boys” taking the two men and Bromden to get electroshock therapy is thus like the police rounding up the strikers.

XXI: A Fog of Words

When Bromden hears, during a therapeutic meeting, talk “about Bibbit’s stutter and how it came about” (page 133), the words come out like a fog as thick as water. Normally, therapy is supposed to heal a psychiatric patient through the talking cure, as noted above; and Bibbit’s stutter is a symptom of his psychiatric problems, his inability to talk, with its origins in his relationship with his mother. As Bibbit tells Ratched, “The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mamma.”

Ratched’s therapy, of course, is the opposite of a talking cure; instead, it’s a talking infection. Small wonder Bromden experiences the discussion as a fog. It’s just another manipulation of the Combine.

XXII: The Oedipal Basis of Ratched’s Matriarchal Rule

Within all patriarchy, including the patriarchal family, there’s a small nucleus of matriarchy. I don’t mean to promote MRA thinking here; I’m just discussing the dialectical nature of sex roles and the power systems revolving around them. The father bosses around the family, while the mother more directly bosses around the kids. A transference of such a relationship has occurred between the nurses and the patients.

Such a transference has been most potently achieved in Billy Bibbit, a thirty-something with the psychological development of a little boy. As part of McMurphy’s therapy for the young man, it’s been arranged for him, during their naughty party at the story’s climax, to lose his virginity with Candy and thus ‘make a man of him.’

When he’s been discovered in bed with Candy and he has to explain himself to Ratched, he briefly loses his stutter: a temporary cure of his gynophobia–brought on by his domineering mother, who’s presumably as narcissistic as Ratched–has become his talking cure.

…but that fog of words comes back as soon as Ratched brings up how much the boy’s mother will disapprove of his little sexual indiscretion, which the Big Nurse, his mother’s close friend, will assuredly tell her about.

The power Bibbit’s mother has over him–extended by transference over to Ratched–is based on his Oedipal need for her to love him back. Normally, a mother’s authority over her children is expressed in a benign, loving way…not so if she has pathologically narcissistic traits.

The boy, already prone to suicide and hence his being in the hospital, is so fearful of losing his mother’s love that, knowing Ratched will never refrain from telling her of what he’s done with Candy, he slits his throat in Dr. Spivey’s office.

XXIII: Conclusion–Big vs Small

In the upside-down world of this story, physically big people are often psychologically small, and vice versa. Bromden is, of course, the primary example of this paradox. As he explains to McMurphy, whom he regards as psychologically huge despite his smaller physical size, Bromden speaks of his physically big father who was shrunken down to size by Bromden’s white mother and the Combine. They worked on his father, they’ve worked on him…and now they’re working on McMurphy (page 220).

Why do some people have confidence (i.e., are big), and others lack it (are small)? Not so much because of innate abilities, or lack of them, but because as I argued here, there are people (emotional abusers, white supremacists, the bourgeoisie, colonialists, imperialists, etc.) who work on the small. Such working on is what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about.

Sometimes we fight back, as when McMurphy chokes Ratched for driving small Bibbit to suicide. McMurphy’s violent act is a revolutionary one, since revolution is of necessity a violent act. When revolutions fail, though, the insurrectionists are sternly punished, as is McMurphy.

Ratched isn’t left unscathed: her injury from the choking leaves her unable to speak; instead, she communicates by writing on a pad, which of course is far less effective for manipulating the patients (page 321). Most of the voluntary patients have left the hospital; of those who went on the fishing trip, only Martini, Scanlon (played by Delos V Smith Jr in the film), and Bromden remain. The others left because Ratched no longer has power over them. She has been silenced, as Bromden was; she has shrunken from big to small.

As I said above, though, her reduction to smallness hasn’t been left unpunished. For his scurrilous behaviour, McMurphy has been lobotomized, a punishment compared by Harding to castration: “Frontal lobe castration.” (page 191)

Since the Lacanian phallus is a signifier, McMurphy’s symbolic castration is a silencing of him, too. As a new ‘vegetable,’ he no longer speaks. He’s forever in the fog.

He’s been made small, but Bromden, touched by his Christ-like sacrificial act, is inspired to “feel big as a damn mountain.” Bromden can’t bear to see his friend in a state of living death, so he smothers McMurphy to death with his pillow. McMurphy must come with him out to freedom, if not in body, then in spirit.

Bromden’s picking up of the control panel and smashing it through the window is his revolutionary act of liberation. He’s breaking free not just of the hospital, this metaphor for conformist society, but also of the Combine. At the end of the film, we see him going off into a background of nature. He’s freed himself of the white settler colonial state, and so the world around him looks as it did when the aboriginals were the only ones living there.

Now, this symbolic liberation is not just for the Native Americans, but for all of us together. Recall that McMurphy is coming with Bromden in spirit; also, Bromden is white on his mother’s side. The true liberation of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc., is a liberation from capitalism, imperialism, and white settler colonialism…the Combine, the combination of all of these. To fly over the cuckoo’s nest, we must replace the Combine with federations of post-colonial states that, while allowing equal civil rights for people of all colours, are also acknowledged as belonging to the indigenous peoples of those places.

To be big, we must sometimes let others be big, and let ourselves be smaller.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New York, Berkley, 1962

Analysis of ‘Memento’

Memento is a 2000 thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a pitch by his brother, Jonathan, who wrote the 2001 short story, “Memento Mori.” The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano.

The film’s non-linear storyline presents one set of events backwards and in colour, giving the audience a sense of the anterograde amnesia of its protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Pearce; in the short story, the character’s name is Earl). A black-and-white sequence of events in chronological order is presented in scenes that alternate with the reverse-order, colour scenes. The reverse scenes and chronological ones meet at the climax of the film, with the black and white switching to colour.

Memento was critically acclaimed for its non-linear structure and themes of memory, perception, and self-deception. It received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It’s widely considered one of Nolan’s best films and one of the best films of the 2000s.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here is a link to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, published in Esquire, and here‘s a link to him reading his story.

“Memento Mori” gives the reader the sense of Earl’s inability to form new memories differently from the film’s back-and-forth, reverse vs chronological order: the short story instead presents scenes with large gaps of time between them to disrupt continuity. And instead of the film’s use of “Teddy” (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), who both help and manipulate Leonard, in the short story, the narration shifts back and forth from first to second to third person, leaving the reader to wonder if all three are the same person (my guess), or if someone else is actually helping Earl.

There’s a sense of depersonalization, of derealization, in Earl’s switching from I to you to he to us within the space, often, of just a few paragraphs. Given the extreme disorientation he feels from his condition, such a confusion of identity is perfectly plausible.

The short story directly and indirectly references Hamlet. Given the dominant theme of revenge for the murder of a loved one, such allusions are fitting. Apart from the “to be or not to be” quote, Earl also discusses how the passage of time can weaken one’s resolve for revenge, something Claudius discusses with Laertes in Act IV, Scene vii, lines 108-123:

I know love is begun by time,
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.
And nothing is at a like goodness still.
For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
Dies in his own too-much. That we would do,
We should do when we would, for this “would” changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents.
And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh
That hurts by easing.—But to the quick of th’ ulcer:
Hamlet comes back. What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your father’s son
More than in words?

After the contemplation of this need to act on revenge, Earl finds the motivation to do it. In the film, however, Leonard is, if anything, much too motivated for revenge, since he kills again, and again, and again. Leonard’s revenge truly “dies in his own too much.”

The short story begins with Earl waking up, looking up at a ceiling in an all-white room–a colour suggestive of innocence–in a mental institution. His innocence is that of one, in his oblivion, not knowing what’s happened to him. As his lacunae of lost memories are filled in through his notes and photos, the surroundings get darker: first, yellow, from having almost knocked over a lamp of incandescent light that floods the room with yellow, a symbol of jaundice, his bitterness over his predicament; then, he’s in a dark room where a tattoo artist is inking a message on his arm: I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE.

In contrast to the ‘innocent’ beginning of the short story, the film begins with Leonard already demonstrating his vengeful nastiness, shooting “Teddy” from the (as we later learn, mistaken) belief that he is his wife’s rapist and killer. A clue to who the real culprit is, however, can be gleaned from that tattoo just mentioned on Earl’s arm. Of course, Leonard’s changing of “I” to “John G.” simply demonstrates Leonard’s propensity for projection.

The movie’s beginning of the story with the film going backwards establishes the idea that the coloured parts are presented backwards, to help with audience comprehension. This retrograde motion also represents how what we perceive in the film is the other way around from what’s really happening.

Indeed, those characters we find trustworthy turn out to be untrustworthy, and–even more significantly–those we assume are bad turn out to be largely good. In this connection, the casting of Pantoliano–an actor we tend to see playing villains–is important in how this casting reinforces those prejudices in the audience, for later, we learn that he isn’t so bad after all.

Knowing that Leonard has written “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on the photo for “Teddy,” combined with his toothy grin (which hardly establishes trust), blinds us to the fact that “Teddy” is largely the only real friend Leonard has in the movie. He even openly admits that his real name isn’t “Teddy” but John G., for Gammell. His only dishonest moments are getting Leonard to kill some criminals for him, such as Jimmy Grantz (another “John” or “James G.”, played by Larry Holden), making Leonard think these guys are each the “John G.” he wants to get revenge on. “Teddy” just wants to get his hands on the money in the trunk of Jimmy’s car.

The fact is, undercover cop “Teddy” acts as a kind of psychoanalyst for Leonard, trying to get this forgetful fellow to engage in a bit of ‘know thyself.’ As we learn by the end of the movie, all of Leonard’s distrust of “Teddy” and “his lies” is really just an analysand‘s resistance.

Leonard’s search for his wife’s killer and rapist centres around finding a man named “John G.” or “James G.”, a name so ridiculously common that, convenient for forgetful Leonard, the anterograde amnesiac can keep searching for, killing, then searching for and killing again, and again, and again. One of my brothers is named John G. (in my posts about my family, I refer to him by the initial letter of his middle name, as I do for many of my family members): that’s just how common the name is, that my brother will remain essentially anonymous.

It isn’t just that Leonard forgets having gotten his revenge; it’s the very seeking of it, forever and ever, that satisfies him. The seeking is what gives his life meaning and purpose. Seeking revenge is Leonard’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, only this is not a desire of the sex drive of Eros, but one of Thanatos, the death drive.

The non-linear narrative, splitting up the continuity of the film into alternating colour scenes in reverse order and black-and-white scenes in chronological order, is symbolic of Leonard’s psychologically fragmented perception of the world and of himself. An investigation of what’s really happened to him, leading to the unified narrative at the end, puts the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal Leonard’s real problem.

The crucial element, in working out exactly what Leonard’s problem is, is in another man assumed to have anterograde amnesia: Samuel R. “Sammy” Jankis (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Leonard’s job, originally, was investigating insurance claims, and Sammy, after being tested, is believed to have a psychological, rather than physical, reason not to be able to make new memories, according to Leonard.

As it turns out, though, “Teddy” in his all-too-blunt honesty tells Leonard that Sammy was simply a faker. Leonard’s ‘memories’ of Sammy repeatedly giving his wife insulin shots, one immediately after the other because she wants to test his memory, and leading to her death by overdose, are really projections of Leonard, after his diabetic wife’s rape and his knock on the head, giving her such a series of insulin shots, killing her.

This raises an important question: is Leonard the one whose inability to make new memories is for psychological, rather than physical, reasons? Has he, inspired by Sammy’s fakery, deluded himself into thinking that the knock he got on the head gave him anterograde amnesia? If so, why?

I’m guessing that he couldn’t bear to see his wife’s suffering, the pain on her face, after the rape. He couldn’t bear to remember her post-rape life, so Sammy inspired him to use his knock on the head, actually not strong enough to have caused brain damage, to give him an excuse to believe he can’t make new memories.

Added to this, his wife’s despair over what’s happened to both of them–from the intruders in their home–has made her suicidal. There’s the trauma of her rape, compounded by the fact that her husband is no longer the man he used to be. He, deep down in his unconscious, wants to put her out of her misery, too…and conveniently for him, he’ll ‘forget’ it. Of course, his repressed guilt that he’s his wife’s real killer drives his delusion of having anterograde amnesia even further.

For if his inability to make new memories is physical, we are left with a number of unanswered questions. He should remember nothing from when he got the hit on the head knocking him unconscious. How does he even know he has his “condition”? Every time a set of memories goes, he should feel as if he’s just woken up, with no idea of how he got from being knocked out in his bathroom after trying to stop his wife’s rapist, to wherever he is at the moment. He has no memory of anyone telling him he has anterograde amnesia.

Another thing: he speaks of how “everything fades” when the memory of a new moment vanishes from his mind. If he doesn’t remember any of these new memories, how does he know that they fade?

To go back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, it also makes little sense how Earl, forgetting everything approximately every ten minutes, could ever get his revenge off the ground. Even with help, he’d have to spend every one of those ten minutes or so reviewing everything, and then how would he be able to use his, presumably, ever-so-few remaining seconds to advance his plot of revenge…only to have to write the new things all down, then have to spend more of that ever-so-little time reviewing more and more notes? Leonard would have comparable difficulties with his short periods of consciousness.

So, anterograde amnesia in this film should be understood as a metaphor for repression. Leonard isn’t really forgetting all these post-rape experiences: he’s simply pushing them deep down into his unconscious mind. As with all repressed material, though, the new experiences resurface in forms that are unrecognizable to him.

He speaks of a condition that he can’t possibly remember being told he has. He speaks of all new memories fading, when he shouldn’t even be able to remember the fading. What he calls ‘fading’ is really just the process of repression.

The unrecognizable form of his memory of giving his wife the all-too-quickly repeated insulin shots is his projection of that memory onto Sammy, when he has no way of knowing anything about Sammy supposedly giving the excessive shots to his wife.

Other little slips come out, suggesting that deep down, Leonard is remembering more than he lets on to. His angered, paranoid reaction to finding “Teddy” hanging out in the passenger’s seat of his car (Jimmy Grantz’s, actually) suggests that Leonard remembers how “Teddy” has reminded him of the uncomfortable truth that he killed his wife with the insulin, not her rapist, and that it wasn’t Sammy who overdosed his wife.

Leonard appears at Natalie’s house with a photo of Dodd. His asking her, angrily and full of suspicion, about who Dodd is suggests that he has a trace of the memory of her taunting him about how she’ll manipulate his inability to form new memories, of how she spoke abusively about what a “retard” he is, and about his “whore” of a wife, provoking him to hit her and put that cut on her lip.

In fact, when Natalie taunts him by saying his “whore” wife must have gotten a venereal disease from sexual contact with so many men behind his back, and that his getting the disease from her could have caused his anterograde amnesia, he finds this especially triggering. We can connect this trigger with his sticking of a phallic needle into his wife’s thigh, close to her own genitals; his giving her the excessive shots in this way, leading to her death, can be seen as a symbolic rape. This fact dovetails with that tattoo on Earl’s arm: he reads those words himself–I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE. Remember that Earl is both I and YOU.

Indeed, it’s interesting how, after Leonard kills Jimmy Grantz, he puts the body in the basement of the abandoned building, this basement being symbolic of Leonard’s unconscious; this placing the body there is symbolic of repression. Leonard also puts on Jimmy’s suit and takes his car, symbolically identifying himself with the man he imagines is his wife’s rapist and murderer. We see Leonard in that suit for the vast majority of the coloured sequences in the film, implying that he has been the real killer all along.

Leonard gets triggered when he hears dying Jimmy whisper Sammy’s name; it shouldn’t otherwise matter, since as “Teddy” points out, Leonard tells everybody about Sammy. The implication behind him telling everybody about Sammy is that it is a circuitous kind of confession of his own guilt in killing his wife.

There’s no reason to believe “Teddy” is lying about everything he reveals to Leonard about what really happened to him and his wife, she who survived the attack and therefore wasn’t killed by the intruder in their home. “Teddy” has nothing to gain by lying about any of that; in fact, the ugly truths he reveals, too painful for Leonard to face, ironically cause Leonard to write “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on his photo for “Teddy,” which in turn ultimately leads to Leonard killing “Teddy.” The fact is, Leonard is the real liar, and he’s projecting his mendacity onto “Teddy.”

The real reason none of his photos or notes can adequately replace his memory is that they’re static: they don’t flow with time, since reality is fluid, not static, so they lack the crucial context needed for their meaning to be correctly interpreted. This lack of context, nonetheless, is convenient for Leonard, since he doesn’t really want to remember, anyway. His notes and photos fool him into thinking he’s remembering what’s essential, but this of course is nonsense. He talks about “facts” being better than memory, but static facts without context are useless.

That ending of the film, when he consciously decides to forget the ugly truth that “Teddy” has told him, is representative of what his unconscious mind does after every so many minutes of each new, post-rape experience. He forgets new things not because he can’t remember them, but because he doesn’t want to. This last scene simply presents that unwillingness to remember–an unwillingness that pervades the whole film–in its most blatant, naked form.

To get back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story again, the narrator, just before the end, says something significant: “Time is an absurdity. an abstraction. The only thing that matters is this moment. This moment a million times over.” In the paragraph before this quote, he says, “Time is three things for most people [i.e., past, present, and future], but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment.”

These passages remind me of how Buddhists speak of the eternal NOW as the only one time that has any real meaning or existence. The past and future are just mental constructs with no material validity. If we could just ground ourselves in the NOW, and not ruminate over our unhappy pasts or worry about our futures, we’d be happy–we’d have peace.

That Earl would speak of having only the present to live in, with no sense of moving time, always forgetting the (recent) past, he seems to be living a perverse version of this Buddhist wisdom. Of course, neither he nor Leonard will ever, or can ever, attain peace of mind.

Now, his past isn’t completely in a state of oblivion–he still remembers everything up until his wife’s rape, and as I’ve explained, it’s not that he’s forgetting everything after her rape, but rather he’s repressing the post-rape memories–and this lack of complete oblivion makes all the difference. These voids in his mind, from her rape onwards, are repressed traumas that make up the undifferentiated, inexpressible psychic world of what Lacan called the Real.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Real–or Bion‘s O–can be traumatic or blissful, depending on one’s attitude towards it. The Buddhist experiences the oblivion of past and future, focusing on the present, as blissful because he lets of of his ego. Earl/Leonard, on the other hand, experiences this oblivion of the Real as traumatic because, apart from not completely forgetting the past, he’s still attached to his egoistic experience of the world.

After all, the whole point of attaining bliss, peace of mind, is to extinguish desire, craving, attachment; but Earl/Leonard is doing the opposite. Our forgetful protagonist not only desires revenge, but is perpetuating the seeking of that revenge by creating an unsolvable mystery… the ever-elusive identity of “John G.” His murderous objet petit a can never be extinguished, because it can never be attained.

In fact, the key to ending his trauma is precisely to remember it, to recall it in all of its excruciating brutality. Yet Earl/Leonard is really just an extreme version of all of us. None of us wants to remember what has hurt us, so we conveniently try to forget our traumas, or we only selectively remember them, cherry-picking what’s comfortable for us and discarding what isn’t.

Our therapists tell us we’ve got to feel the pain in order to heal it…but who wants to do that? Leonard certainly doesn’t want to; that’s why he burns those photos of himself (smiling upon achieving his revenge…or so he thought) and Jimmy. He burns them in the fire of a desire he never wishes to blow out, because Thanatos is his new life.

Not to be, that is his answer.

Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.

II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites

The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.

What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.

Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.

III: Catholic Mysticism

Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.

Original text in German: 

Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn—
lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.

Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond—
preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau—
preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.

Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut—
preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.

Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall—
preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.

Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee—
preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.

Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel—
preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English: 

O all ye works of the Lord—
praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.

O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord—
O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.

O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.

O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord—
O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.

O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.

O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord—
O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.

O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord—
O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.

O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord—
O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.

O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord—
O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.

IV: Garbled Words

Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.

His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.

V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story

To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.

What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:1415, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.

Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.

It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.

VI: Resolving the Paradoxes

We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.

They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.

This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.

VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering

Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.

WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!

Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.

VIII: Heaven in Hell

To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.

This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.

Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.

IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music

Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.

These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.

At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.

Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.

Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.

X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text

Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]

These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.

These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.

XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire

Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.

These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.

Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.

To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.

XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again

The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).

We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.

Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”

Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.

In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?

The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.

Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.

If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.

Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.

Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”

So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.

Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.

Analysis of ‘The Fly’

I: Introduction

The Fly is a 1958 horror/science fiction film produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. It stars Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, David Hedison, and Herbert Marshall. The screenplay was written by James Clavell, based on the 1957 George Langelaan short story of the same name.

The Fly had a mixed-to-positive critical reception on release, and it was a commercial success, boosting Price into a major star of horror films. Now, criticism of the movie is more uniformly positive. Two black-and-white sequels followed: Return of the Fly (1959), and Curse of the Fly (1965). A superb remake, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, was directed by David Cronenberg in 1986, with its own sequel in 1989.

Here is a link to quotes from the 1958 film, here’s a link to the complete script, and here is a link to the short story.

II: My Radical Reinterpretation

What ought to be emphasized about the story isn’t the notion of scientist André Delambre (Hedison) bring transformed into a fly-human hybrid, the result of a freak accident in his attempt to teleport himself (and, without his knowing, a housefly that got into his “disintegration-reintegration” machine), but rather what such a notion could be seen to symbolize.

What is far more apparent in the short story, if its contents are not naïvely taken at face value, is that its narration–by André’s brother François (played by Price in the film) in the outer frame, then in the middle by André’s wife Hélène (played by Owens in the film) as she tells it in a handwritten manuscript–is given by traumatized people whose reliability is in question.

The film relates the story in a manner implying that everything happened just as told, though, by the end, no proof survives of the more fantastic elements of the story. Still, there are subtle indicators, in the behaviour of François and Hélène, that suggest that affairs aren’t as they look on the screen, implying that the narrative unreliability of the short story has been translated to the cinematic medium.

In the film, François admits to having romantic feelings for beautiful Hélène; though she denies ever having paramours (or André having had them) to Inspector Charas (Marshall), we can easily regard her words as dishonest. Could there have been an affair between her and François, a result of workaholic André’s neglect of his family? Claims of a husband and wife being perfectly happy together can easily be dismissed as a façade.

III: Unconscious Guilt

It is insisted throughout the story that Hélène could have killed André only out of madness. Where could such a madness have originated? Guilt feelings over an affair? Families in France (where the short story is set), or in Montréal (where the film is set), in the 1950s would have been Roman Catholic ones, in which adultery would have been regarded as a serious sin (a sin compounded by a man betraying his brother and, as her son’s uncle, committing incest of a Hamlet-like sort). The mind tries to repress guilt as best it can, but the repressed returns to consciousness in unrecognizable forms.

In the case of this story, the return of the repressed has come in the form of imagining André as having his head and arm traded with the head and leg of a housefly. Such a hybrid symbolizes the bestial side of human nature. His experiments are done in the basement, symbol of the unconscious. In contrast, the ground floor of the house, the upstairs, and outside can be seen to correspond to the conscious mind and the world of superficiality, appearance, what only seems to be true.

IV: Appearance vs Reality

There is much to note in the contrast between the illusory surface and hidden reality in The Fly. The marriage of the Delambres only seems perfectly happy. Similarly, André seems to be the kind, gentle husband who’d never hurt an animal. Yet his workaholic obsession with his basement experiments means neglecting his wife and son, Henri in the short story, or Philippe (played by Charles Herbert) in the film. Furthermore, this supposed animal lover overconfidently and recklessly puts the family cat, Dandelo, in the teleportation machine and disintegrates it.

Hélène, after killing her husband, confesses to the killing with perfect calmness, though François and Charas conclude that she must be mad; indeed, in the short story, she even kills herself in despair. And when François answers the phone at the beginning of the film to learn that she has just killed his brother, he’s quite calm; whereas at the beginning of the short story, he speaks of being “uneasy” from telephones, having to restrain his agitation when answering them.

In fact, in Cronenberg’s remake, this theme of appearance versus reality is revisited in how Seth Brundle (Goldblum), upon emerging from the teleportation machine as “Brundle-fly”–far from being the shocking monstrosity André is with his fly’s head and leg for an arm–looks exactly the same as before on the outside–in fact, he’s also physically superior. It’s only later that we realize that Seth is a monster hiding inside, that inside showing itself more and more to the end of the remake.

V: Implausible Science

Now, this difference between the 1958 and 1986 movies brings me to a point that I hope will help explain the particular angle at which I’m interpreting the original movie and the short story. I don’t believe André has actually had his head and arm swapped with the head and leg of a housefly–I believe this transformation really is a fabrication of his wife’s mad imagination, just as Charas does. The reason for my disbelief should be obvious: the science behind the transformation is preposterous. Hardly anyone apart from Hélène even believes it!

How do a fly’s head and leg grow to the comparable sizes of a man’s head and arm, while the latter two shrink to the sizes of a fly’s equivalent body parts? How is the man’s intelligence maintained in the giant fly’s head, even if only temporarily? And how is there a comparable intelligence, enough to squeak “Help me!” because of an approaching spider, in the miniature head of the fly caught in the web?

Small wonder that in the 1986 remake, the writers wisely spread the fly’s DNA equally throughout Brundle’s body. Surely even Langelaan and Clavell realized that the swapping of heads and limbs, as given in their respective versions of the story, is unbelievable scientifically. Hence my contention that Hélène is genuinely insane, an insanity brought on by the trauma of her husband’s violent death, a suicide with her assistance (as she describes it). François is similarly addled by this trauma. I believe his confession of love for her provides the vital clue to the reason for their narratives’ unreliability, something easily maintained in prose writing, but not so easily translated onto the big screen, since we, the watchers of the movie, tend to have credulous eyes.

VI: Unreliable Narration, in the Text, and Onscreen

Though his confession of love for Hélène isn’t found in the short story, I believe there are plenty of subtle hints of an affair between him and her in Langelaan’s words, however carefully the two guilty ones try to tiptoe around any mention of their guilt. Such tiptoeing is also evident in the film, in their innocent conversations throughout.

I see the visuals of the film as representing their unreliable narrations, and since the film is largely faithful to the short story (except for such–mostly minor–changes as the setting, Henri’s name becoming Philippe, which of André’s arms is switched with the fly’s leg, his head being revealed as all housefly or as a mix of fly and the cat, whether or not Hélène kills herself, and whether it’s François or Charas who kills the fly in the spider web), I feel it isn’t too far out of place to assume that François is (unreliably) telling the outer frame of the story through visuals, and her telling of the inner narration, instead of writing it in a manuscript, is unreliable.

VII: The Telephone

I’ll come to those subtle hints of an affair later, as they arrive in the sequence of the plot. For now, I’ll start with François’s answering of the phone. In the film, he’s calm enough, though in the short story, this calmness disguises a terrible agitation from hearing the phone ring, especially in the middle of the night, as happens at the beginning.

The reason for his unease comes from a feeling that the caller is coming into the room, intruding on his private space, breaking into his home to talk right into his ear. It seems odd that the short story should begin this way, yet if one compares this transmission of a voice–instantaneously from one place, far away, to another–to the teleportation of whatever (or whoever) is in André’s “disintegration-reintegration” machine, such a beginning of the story, along with François’s agitation, becomes explicable. The one instantaneous transmission is associated in his mind with the other.

Recall that I don’t take the human/fly hybrid story literally; also, François is beginning a narration–one after the events of Hélène’s story have been made known to him–with a discussion of the, if you will, ‘teleportation’ of the human voice. This aural teleportation feels like a frightening intruder to him, like the intrusive fly in André’s machine, and like the human/fly monster he becomes, which is an intrusion into the lives of François and Hélène.

VIII: Nothingness

The pertinent thing about teleportation, like the instant movement of the human voice from here to far away, or vice versa, is the sense of no intermediate area for teleportation to move through. The displaced entity–be it a voice on the phone, or a plate, a newspaper, a cat, a guinea pig, or a man (mixed with a fly)–disappears, vanishes in the place of origin and reappears in the destination. That lack of an in-between route to travel through, that gap, feels uncanny, a land of nothingness. This gap, I believe, is what frightens François so much.

Similarly, when André’s body is discovered in the Delambre brothers’ factory, his head and arm crushed under the steam hammer, it isn’t so much the blood that is horrifying, but how the head and arm are so thoroughly flattened as to have been reduced to nothing. The hammer’s impact has been set at zero, a setting the drop is never given. François notes in the film that zero “means level with the bed”; such a setting “would squeeze the metal to nothing,” as has been done to André’s head and arm.

The purpose of this extreme setting is ostensibly to annihilate even the slightest hint of a fly’s head and leg, instead of André’s head and arm; I’d say, though, that it’s that very nothingness, revealed when the hammer is raised, in “the ghastly mess bared by the hammer,” that causes François (in the short story) to be “violently sick.”

IX: Resistance

When Charas questions Hélène about the killing of André, she is fully cooperative about explaining what she did, and in detail (except for her odd forgetting about having dropped the steam hammer twice, to crush his fly-leg/arm). She adamantly refuses, however, to explain why she killed him.

In the short story, François describes Charas as being “more than just an intelligent police official. He was a keen psychologist and had an amazing way of smelling out a fib or an erroneous statement even before it was uttered.” So his questioning of her puts him in the role of psychoanalyst, and her in the role of analysand. Her insistence that she cannot explain why she killed André can be seen as a form of resistance.

Of course, she eventually does explain why, but in the form of a bizarre monster story that hardly anyone can believe; certainly the science behind the story is so ludicrous that even Langelaan and Clavell must have had their own doubts about it, as I’ve explained above. This fly-human hybrid story must be a case of the return of the repressed in an unrecognizable form…but what could the fly-hybrid monster symbolize for mad Hélène? I’ll come to this soon enough.

X: The Gap In-between

It is insisted that her marriage with André was a perfectly happy one…but we are suddenly ‘teleported,’ if you will, from perfect marital bliss to her killing of him, and with the refusal of a proper explanation, except for this bizarre fly-monster story. Just as there’s a gap between the caller’s voice at one end of a phone call, and his voice heard by the receiver on the other end; and just as there’s the gap of the disintegration of what’s teleported at one end, and its reintegration at the other end; so is there a gap between the couple’s marital bliss and the killing…that dreaded, uncanny nothingness in the middle.

Above, I wrote of André’s basement laboratory as symbolic of the unconscious, where the “disintegration/reintegration” machine causes that in-between gap of nothingness. In the short story, the laboratory isn’t in his basement, but in a separate building right by the factory with the steam hammer. Now, the laboratory doesn’t have to be underground to represent the unconscious…or the “subconscious,” where Charas imagines the fly to have meaning for Hélène. Psychoanalysts don’t speak of the repressed as being ‘beneath’ consciousness, but as being unknown to consciousness, for the repressed comes right back to the surface and hides in plain sight, as it were. A fly is buzzing around, in the air, much of the time in the movie.

XI: The Lacanian Unconscious, and the Gap as Lack

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan speaks of how “the Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real–a real that may well not be determined…and what does [Freud] find in the hole, the split, in the gap so characteristic of cause? Something of the order of the non-realized.” (Lacan, page 22)

This gap is between cause and effect, like the gap between disintegration and reintegration, the empty space replacing a path on which something, otherwise not disintegrated and reintegrated, would travel, rather than be teleported, from A to B. This gap is also the Lacanian lack that gives rise to desire, and discovering what the desire is in this story is key to understanding the symbolic meaning of the fly.

XII: Freudian Slips

We must fill in this gap to determine what is being repressed, what is not being said or shown in the short story or the film, but what is rather hinted at through the occasional Freudian slip, or symbolic interpretation of whatever in the story is described as something otherwise mundane or in a matter-of-fact physical way.

One such a slip, as I see it, occurs when Henri/Philippe is not regarded by Hélène as her son. In the short story, François in his narration calls the six-year-old boy, his nephew, “the very image of his father”; but as I’ve said above, this narration is unreliable. Because of André’s death and Hélène’s declared madness, François has been made the boy’s guardian, in effect, his new father; yet any suggestion that he really is the boy’s father will be guiltily denied.

In the film, François even says to Charas, “She acts as if the boy were mine and not hers.” Charas speculates that Hélène is trying to protect her son, or that perhaps she fears or hates him, something François dismisses as an insane idea, and it is at this point in the film that Charas asks if François is in love with her, to which he immediately replies, “Yes.”

Why would a scriptwriter of Clavell’s obvious ability add this element to the story without developing it, if it didn’t serve much of any purpose? Note that François’s declaration of love comes immediately after a claim that Philippe is supposedly his son and not hers. Could he be her love-child by François in a love affair, one she feels so guilty about that, in her mad guilt, she denies her own maternity? The way the film ends–with François, in effect, as the boy’s new father, and Hélène having not committed suicide but being, also in effect, his new wife–looks suspiciously like wish-fulfillment. Such wish-fulfillment reinforces the visual presentation of the film as really being François’s unreliable narration.

XIII: Forbidden Desires and the Fly

Naturally, François rules out even the possibility of an affair with her by saying, “I don’t think she ever noticed me,” though a close look at Charles Herbert, the child actor chosen to play Philippe, looks more like he could be a son of Vincent Price than of David Hedison. Finally, during the scene when Philippe has caught the fly with the white head, and he sees his mother with his uncle, he is annoyed to be told by her to let the fly go; but as he is going outside and closing the front door, he looks back at her and his uncle with a split-second look of suspicion in his eyes, as if he sees the two adults acting a little too familiar at that particular moment.

That this suspicious moment happens on the very day when the heads and limbs of André and the fly are switched is significant. Here we come to the very symbolism of the fly. Male houseflies, during their short lives, have a voracious sexual appetite and are constantly on the lookout for females to mate with. In this we can see a symbolic link with my suspicions of a guilty sexual tryst between François and Hélène.

This guilt results in feelings of shame, disgust, and worthlessness, which can all be associated with houseflies. André’s constant preoccupation with his work, even to the point of writing out a new formula for teleportation on the program pamphlet to a ballet he’s supposed to be watching with his wife, means he’s emotionally neglecting her, which not only can drive her into the arms of his brother (who we already know is amorously infatuated with her), but which also makes André as worthless to her as a fly. So the exchanging of his head and arm with the head and leg of a fly is symbolic of this depreciation of his worth to her.

XIV: The Buzzing

With the guilt and shame that an adulteress feels, especially as one who, according to the short story, “had ever been a true Catholic, who believed in God and another, better life hereafter,” Hélène would have been desperately afraid of anyone finding out about her extramarital affair. Hence, her agitation whenever hearing the buzzing of a nearby fly.

Let’s recall the multiple meanings of the word buzz. Apart from the insect noise, buzz has been used to refer to the sound of telephones (remember in this connection the irritation François feels at the sound of a phone ringing), and also to refer to rumours. These additional meanings had existed long before the writing of the short story and the making of the movie. So her agitation at the sound of buzzing symbolically suggests her fear of gossip, or rumours from people knowing about her affair.

XV: Obsessions with Flies

Also, her nervous breakdown at the asylum after seeing a nurse swatting flies can be attributed to a triggering of her guilt over an affair that, in betraying André, reduced him to the worth of a fly, and so killing flies feels like a killing of him again. She also speaks of wanting François to destroy the white-headed fly if she tells him why she killed André; this contradiction suggests an emotional conflict in her–killing it kills evidence of her guilty affair, yet it also represents killing André again.

Now, she is not the only one to raise her eyebrows at the idea of houseflies. François, after hearing about her obsession with them, is curious to hear Henri/Philippe bring up the fly with the white head during lunch with the boy. Previously, Charas brought up her fly obsession immediately before he and François discuss her denial that the boy is her son, and François’s admitting he loves her. So we see here a significant juxtaposition of houseflies with the boy’s parentage and François’s love for Hélène: I don’t think this juxtaposition is coincidental.

XVI: Love Triangles, and the Remake

My speculation of a hidden, repressed love triangle between André, Hélène, and François can be seen overtly in the equivalent three main characters in the 1986 remake–respectively, Seth Brundle, Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (played by Davis), and Stathis Borans (played by John Getz). Brundle, knowing Ronnie has had a relationship with Stathis prior to her current relationship with him, gets jealous when he suspects that her reason for leaving him early to meet Stathis, when she’s supposed to be celebrating the recent success of his teleportation pods, is to get back together with Stathis. (Actually, she’s meeting Stathis to confront him over a veiled threat he’s made out of a jealousy of his own, over her new relationship with Brundle.)

And right when all of this jealousy is building, Brundle gets drunk, a fly is buzzing around, and both of them go into one of the pods to be teleported…and fused. Again, we have the juxtaposition of a buzzing fly with a love triangle; it’s as if the scriptwriting of the remake subliminally picked up on the veiled rivalry between the Delambre brothers and Hélène.

Another theme picked up from the 1958 movie and put into the remake is the relationship between external, illusory appearance and inner, hidden reality. When Brundle first comes out of the second pod, we of course don’t see a fly’s head and leg replacing his head and arm, but he looks as perfectly human as before. It’s only later, as his body parts start corrupting and falling off, leading climactically to the outer human shell all coming off and he’s revealed to be a giant bug, that we see he isn’t human anymore.

When Hélène begins telling François and Charas her story, in the film we see a scene of what appears to be the perfectly happy family. André is seen tickling Philippe, playing like a loving father, and all seems well. The shot is so ideal that it looks a bit too perfect. A hint already as to how things are actually not so good is in how André tells the boy he can’t play with him at the moment. It will become increasingly apparent that he is so obsessed with his work that he’s spending more time in that basement laboratory than with his family.

Yet another element shared between the 1958 and 1986 movies is the narcissistic grandiosity the inventor feels on seeing the amazing success of his teleporting machine. André boasts of having made the greatest invention since the wheel; he imagines that his “disintegration-reintegration” machine will allow food to be sent anywhere immediately, at minimal cost, thus ending world hunger.

Brundle’s narcissism is a bit different. On having unwittingly fused himself with the fly, he mistakenly imagines his pods have given him superhuman abilities: increased strength, agility, stamina, and sexual potency (recall what I said above about the sexual symbolism of the eager-to-mate housefly). Yet both André and Brundle are about to see their pride fall and crash.

With André, this fall is immediate upon his reintegration: we see no intermediate, transitional process–only the gap in between is understood to be there. With Brundle, however, the transitional process is slowly, agonizingly shown to us, inch by inch. We see his physical fragmentation, as well as his corresponding psychological fragmentation (against which he had only his initial narcissism as a defence), a fragmentation that’s a direct result of jealousy–a result I also see in André.

XVII: Fall of Pride

Now, André’s fall of pride upon reintegration as a fly/human hybrid should be seen as symbolic of his pride as an obsessive scientist and neglectful husband/father, which has led to Hélène’s affair with François (the shame of which, being too intense to bear, causes it to be erased from memory, repressed, and therefore never shown on screen or in the pages of the short story), and which has in turn led to André (as I imagine it) finding out about the affair, making him feel humiliated, cuckolded, and reduced to feeling the worthlessness of a fly. He kills himself.

Recall my association of Hélène’s incestuous affair with her brother-in-law with that of Hamlet’s mother and uncle. The notion of a fly’s worthlessness can also be associated with Hamlet in how the Danish prince derisively refers to foppish, buffoonish Osric as a “water-fly” (V, ii, 83).

The trading of André’s head and arm with the head and leg of a housefly reinforces this sense of worthlessness in how the head houses the brain, and either of the hands (the switched arms, remember, are different from short story to film) represents the skillful manipulation of scientific instruments and equipment with the hands, thus making his wife’s devaluation of him based on her dislike of his obsessive work, which has left her feeling so neglected.

XVIII: Nothingness and the Real

The nothingness of the gap between disintegration and reintegration represents more than just the repression of the unconscious. That void also represents Lacan’s Real Order, a traumatic realm where experience cannot be symbolized or expressed in language, because the differentials of the Symbolic Order (the realm of language, society, culture, etc.) no longer exist. Lacan called the Realimpossible,” just as Hélène calls André’s disintegration and reintegration “impossible.” Disintegration leads to a world of undifferentiated atoms, the Real (as experienced psychologically), Bion‘s O, Milton‘s “void and formless infinite,” or the Brahman of the Hindus. It’s nothing, yet everything; it’s heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara… ineffable.

XIX: Monstrosity

The hellish aspect of the gap manifests itself especially for André, in the short story, when he goes through the teleportation device again and reappears not only with the fly’s head, but with a mix of fly and the head of their cat, Dandelo! He’s now more bestial than ever, an aggravating of monstrosity that is paralleled in the 1986 remake when Brundle reappears as part man, part fly, and part teleportation pod.

This sense of the fly as representing self-hating monstrosity and worthlessness is intensified in Brundle’s “Insect Politics” speech, as well as in André’s sense of his brain deteriorating towards the end of the story. Ultimately, André’s self-hate, as symbolized in his monstrous transformation, drives him to commit suicide–as I reimagine it, by putting a pistol to his head and blowing his brains out, right in front of Hélène who, his laboratory being near the factory in the short story, has only to move the body a short distance to the steam hammer.

XX: Destroying Evidence of Suicide

As I see it, she needs to crush his head and arm (i.e., with the pistol in his hand, in order to destroy it, too) to destroy all evidence of a suicide that, if investigated, will lead to a revelation of her affair with François. Since her guilt has driven her mad, her faulty reasoning will lead her to believe that it’s better to be thought mad from delusions of a human/fly monster than to be known an adulteress with her husband’s brother (adultery and incest), driving André to suicide.

Her needing to use the steam hammer twice, because she forgot to put the arm (in my interpretation, holding the pistol) under with André’s head, represents her psychological conflict: part of her wants to be punished for her guilt in the affair by being found out, while the other part of her wants still to conceal that guilt. Later, she forgets the second use of the steam hammer out of a Freudian parapraxis, again, an expression of her conflict between wanting to be found out and wanting to conceal the guilt.

François’s own guilt over the same sin would have driven him over the edge, too, to the point of entertaining her fly delusion as true, to assuage his guilt. In this connection, it’s important to consider the ending of the story, especially in terms of how Clavell changed it from Langelaan’s short story. (Ironically, in the film François and Charas rationalize a conclusion to the case as, indeed, André’s suicide, freeing Hélène from guilt or commitment to an insane asylum. The reason for the suicide remains a mystery; she and François, thus, can privately entertain the fly-human hybrid story to help them forget the guilt of their affair.)

XXI: The Ending

The fly that is understood to be the one that got André’s head and arm is referred to as a fly with a white head. By “white head,” it’s assumed to be André’s head, though it’s never explicitly called such. In the film, we see a fly with a white spot on its head, and only in the scene with the spider’s web do we see a tiny human head and arm poking out of the web trapping the fly’s body, with the hybrid’s faint squeals for help.

Part of the reason for these differences, of course, is the limitations of the technology of the time; but I believe something else is going on. First, when François is sitting on the bench by the spider’s web, he doesn’t notice the squeals of the fly-human, begging anyone nearby to save it. They should be audible enough: after all, Charas later can hear them. François thus seems to be willingly deaf to its cries, part of his wish, symbolically speaking, to avoid responsibility for the consequences of his affair (in my speculation), and how it’s led to his brother’s suicide.

Later, when he and Charas see the fly about to be eaten by the spider, François can’t pretend it isn’t there. As a symbol of his guilt, the fly is something he cannot bear.

Now, an important distinction must be made: in the short story, it’s François who kills the fly, not Charas. As I’ve said above, I consider François’s narration to be as unreliable as Hélène’s, and that the film is their narration given in visuals. Having Charas kill the fly is thus, in my interpretation, François projecting his guilt onto Charas. Clavell’s changes to the presentation of the story are to give us an ambiguous way of thinking about it: is it an unreliable narration, or did the fly-human hybrid story really happen?

I believe François has hallucinated the fly with his brother’s head and arm, due to the stress of his guilt and what his beloved Hélène has gone through (and in his unreliable narration in movie visuals, Charas has shared his hallucination). Philippe/Henri, in this interpretation, has really only found a fly with a white head and leg, an ‘albino-like’ one, if you will, which his mother’s and uncle’s imaginations have turned into a fly/André hybrid.

Clavell’s changes to the short story included removing François’s opening narrative frame (and his dislike of ringing telephones); such an omission doesn’t prove he hasn’t been narrating, but only that we don’t see explicit proof of him telling the story. I believe that having Charas see the fly/André hybrid, thus opening up the possibility that outsiders have seen the proof of Hélène’s story–that what she has narrated is reliable after all–was Clavell’s way of making the story more intriguing: could this otherwise scientifically implausible story have happened, and should the audience just willingly suspend their disbelief?

I don’t think we should, or need to. The ending of the film, with François as Philippe’s new guardian, and with living Hélène present, comes off as wish-fulfillment for François. As with Claudius vis-à-vis King Hamlet and Gertrude, he got his brother’s wife, he can directly be a father to Philippe, and in his and her shared delusion, their folie-à-deux of the disastrous teleportation/fusion of André and the housefly, François can tell the boy that the lesson to be learned from his father’s death is how dangerous scientific experimentation, coupled with overweening pride, can be, rather than how dangerous incestuous adultery can be.

Analysis of ‘Rhinoceros’

Rhinoceros is a 1959 play by Eugène Ionesco, associated by Martin Esslin with the theatre of the absurd in his book on that topic. There is, however, much more to this play than just an exploration of absurdism. Other important themes in Rhinoceros include antifascism, conformity vs. individuality, mob mentality, culture and civilization vs. barbarism, logic (treated satirically), and morality.

As a young man in Romania, Ionesco found himself surrounded by people who were being seduced by fascist ideas. Though raised as an Orthodox Christian, Ionesco was part Jewish ethnically (on his mother’s side), and he was troubled by the growing antisemitism he saw everywhere leading up to WWII. Everyone in the play transforming into rhinoceroses except the protagonist, Bérenger (representing Ionesco), personifies this seductive fascist danger.

The original Broadway production in 1961 won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, for Zero Mostel (as Jean). Joseph Anthony was nominated for Best Production of a Play, and Rhinoceros won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The play was adapted into a film in 1973, directed by Tom O’Horgan and starring Mostel as John (Jean in the play), Gene Wilder as Stanley (Bérenger), and Karen Black as Daisy. The film was poorly received, faulted by film critic Jay Cocks in Time magazine for having an “upbeat, frantic vulgarization” of Ionesco’s text; he also complained of O’Horgan having “removed not only the politics but the resonance as well.”

Here are links to the text in English translation, an English performance of the play, and the 1973 film.

Bérenger is an everyman, yet also a bit of a social misfit, among those of whom Lacan described in his dictum, “les non-dupes errent.” Bérenger, not duped into believing in illusory social convention, nonetheless errs throughout his life: he’s late for work and get-togethers with his friend, Jean; he’s slovenly, and he drinks.

Jean, on the other hand, is quite the opposite: he’s punctual–only late for his get-together with Bérenger because he knows his friend will be late, so he adjusts his time of arrival to be just before he correctly predicts Bérenger’s tardy arrival–well-dressed to the point of foppishness, and temperate with drinking. Jean is well-schooled in Lacan’s notion of le Non! du père.

Their characters thus can be seen as dialectical opposites of each other. Their doubles can be seen in the Logician and the Old Gentleman, whose dialogue often parallels that of Jean and Bérenger, respectively (PDF, page 10–see link above). Similarly, the Housewife (with her cat) can be seen to parallel pretty, desirable Daisy (with her…I beg your pardon). Just as Bérenger has a romantic interest in Daisy, so does the Old Gentleman try to be gallant with the Housewife at every opportunity.

And just as Jean’s attempts to teach Bérenger the ‘rules’ of how to behave socially–le nom du père–attempts that fail miserably to edify his uncouth friend, so do the Logician’s attempts at giving examples of syllogisms come off as laughable (PDF, page 9). Here we see Rhinoceros demonstrating the absurdity of the human condition.

What must be emphasized here is that in all of this seemingly conventional social intercourse, we have what would appear to be the sanest moment of the play. Only one rhino has appeared as of this point in the story, and so ‘rhinoceritis’ hasn’t yet taken over society. Yet the irrational conformity that the rhino takeover to come symbolizes is already apparent in these absurd discussions.

The doubling of characters suggests this conformity, as does the frequent repetition of cliché lines by different characters (“Oh, a rhinoceros!”, “Well, of all things!”, etc.–PDF pages 4-5). The integration into society, a sharing of cultural mores, customs, laws, and language, is the essence of what Lacan called the Symbolic Order, a sharing of signifiers, of what can be symbolized in language.

The Symbolic is, mentally, the healthiest order to dwell in, for it is here that one leaves the narcissistic, mirroring dyad of the Oedipal mother/son relationship of the Imaginary, leaving the one-on-one other for the Other of many people. Also, in the Symbolic one can give verbal expression to experiences, and one can differentiate aspects of the world; but because one cannot do such things in the undifferentiated chasm of the Real, this third order is so traumatizing.

So, the socially conventional world of the Symbolic is healthy, as things are, relatively speaking, at the beginning of the play. The sighting of the one rampaging rhinoceros is seen as a mere freak occurrence. The absurd discourses of the Logician and the Old Gentleman, and the repetition of dialogue already heard, are a foreshadowing of the far more absurd expression (unintelligible, trumpet-like grunts) and conformist uniformity of the rhino epidemic to come.

One of the defining features of fascism is the use of violence to achieve its ideological ends, as I’ve described elsewhere. Since the rhinos represent the growing fascist menace that Ionesco saw all around him in Romania, the killing of the Housewife’s cat by the second rhino represents, on one level, that fascist violence.

An absurd debate ensues about whether this was the same rhino as before, or if they were two rhinos, did one of them have only one horn, and the other, two horns, and was one an Asiatic rhino, and the other an African one (actually, a satire on racism)…as if such quibbling over minutiae were even relevant. Such debating is an example of the inanities of social discourse, indicating that even the Symbolic Order isn’t all that healthy.

So the not-so-healthy realm of social convention is where the rhinos have sprung from, just as the scourge of fascism grew from the more mundane class contradictions of capitalism. The rhino, with its phallic horn (or horns), kills the Housewife’s cat (symbolically, her pussy), suggesting the toxic masculinity of fascism, a connection I made elsewhere. The phallic rhino’s killing of her cat can thus be seen as a symbolic rape.

Bérenger and Jean argue about which rhino, the Asiatic or African, has one horn or two. Their arguing escalates into them angering each other and using racial slurs (i.e., Jean saying of Asians, “They’re yellow!” –PDF, page 15). Jean thus leaves his friend in a huff, not wishing to be his friend anymore. In this exchange, we see symbolically the beginning of the breaking down of social relations, a descent from the not-so-healthy to the even-less-healthy of Act Two.

With this breakdown of social relations, we see the shrinking of that Other of many people to the dyad of other, a move from the primacy of the Symbolic to that of the Imaginary. As of Act Two, Scene One, Bérenger still cares about Daisy (though I suspect it’s mostly lust), and he wants to apologize to Jean for having angered him earlier (though instead of getting a proper reconciliation between the two friends in Scene Two, Bérenger watches in horror as Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before his very eyes). Mrs. Boeuf still loves her husband, in spite of his having transformed into a rhino, though her jumping on his back and riding off with him highly presumes that she is soon to become a rhino, too.

These are the only instances of love as manifested among the characters in the play, and even these instances are dubious, as I explained above. Instead, the pervading feeling is one of alienation, a fertile breeding ground for the hatred of fascism. Much of this alienation is worker alienation, as is felt in the office scene of Act Two, Scene One. Bérenger is late for work and drinks because his job is boring and meaningless; only the sight of Daisy cheers him up. One can hardly find such a job as anything other than boring, with its drudgery and repetition.

Just as Bérenger has his way of dealing with the dullness of bourgeois life, so does Botard, a left-leaning, unionized coworker in the office. Botard refuses to believe in the existence of the rhinos until their attack on the office staircase makes disbelief no longer possible. He argues with Daisy, who has seen the rhinos, and with coworker Dudard, who cites the newspaper as evidence, something Botard dismisses with a “Pfff!” (PDF, page 19). His distrust of the media, though wrongheaded here, would be far more justified today.

What’s interesting is how leftist Botard–as much a buffoon as all of the other characters in Ionesco’s play–upon realizing the reality of the rhinos, comes to think of their presence as a plot, an act of treason (PDF, page 27). Though liberal Ionesco had as much contempt for “Stalinism” as he had horror of Nazism, and accordingly he put comically Marxian slogans into Botard’s mouth (“Just like religion–the opiate of the people!”–PDF, page 22) to express this contempt, nonetheless, fascism was…and still is…a tactic used by the capitalist class against the gains of the working class.

There were traitors in the Soviet Union in the 1930s allying with the Nazis to undermine and overthrow the first workers’ state, which necessitated Stalin’s purge. What most people don’t want to admit is that it was Stalin who wasn’t “capitulating,” and the sacrifice of 27 million Soviet Russians is what saved Europe from the fascist rhinos, not some liberal centrism. The appeasers of Hitler in Munich, encouraging him to go East to invade the USSR, were all turning rhino, and they would only oppose him when he was threatening their own imperialist interests.

The rhino’s smashing of the office staircase symbolizes more fascist violence; one might think of Krystallnacht. The office workers’ boss, Mr. Papillon, insists that they resume work as soon as possible after being taken out of the building with the help of the firemen and their ladders (PDF, page 27). To the bourgeois mind, work and the making of profits must never stop. Not even fascism, growing out of capitalism, can stop it.

In Scene Two, Bérenger goes to Jean’s apartment to apologize for having upset him. It is during this scene that Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before Bérenger. What is interesting about this scene is how Jean presented himself to be so much more the cultured, thinking man than Bérenger, yet now we see Jean retreating into barbaric animalism, and Bérenger defending human civilization.

Jean, the one who knows far better than Bérenger how to fit in with society, is now showing how his fitting in is little more than mere conformity, by going along with the current trend of joining the rhinos. Since rhinos represent fascists, Jean is demonstrating how any normal member of society can be susceptible to extremist, even despicable, attitudes merely because this is what most other people are doing.

The society of the Symbolic Other is degraded into the collective narcissism of the Imaginary other: instead of seeing Other people as entities unto themselves, one sees a collective other as an extension of one’s own ego, and oneself as an extension of that collective other. The narcissistic mirror reflects both ways.

Jean’s turning green, and his ranting about “natural laws,” reflect the ideology of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard, who upheld “natural laws” as a bulwark against what they saw as the “Jewish inventions” of the modern West’s humanist values. Similarly, the Iron Guard wore a green uniform, hence Jean’s skin turning green.

Since he and Jean are switching roles, Bérenger, as the new defender of culture, civilization, and humanistic values, is trying to discipline himself to drink less, while Jean is making more and more of those trumpet-like rhino grunts. What’s more, Bérenger tries to convince Jean to see a doctor, yet Jean muses, “Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist.” (PDF, page 31)

The breakdown of relationships continues when Jean says, “There’s no such thing as friendship. I don’t believe in friendship,” which Bérenger finds “very hurtful” (PDF, page 31). Indeed, Jean speaks of being “misanthropic,” and liking it (PDF, page 32).

What we see here is the seductive threat of fascism, something not only small-c conservatives and right-wing libertarians can succumb to, but even liberals can. Consider the backing that such liberals as those in the Canadian government, the Democratic Party, and Hollywood liberals have given to a Ukrainian government littered with fascists, just because they don’t like Putin.

Surely this sort of thing is what Stalin meant when he said, “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Modern liberal democracy, more accurately called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, puts on an affable, smiling face when all runs smoothly for the ruling class; but when the capitalists feel in any way threatened, that smile quickly turns into a fascist scowl. Put another way, people transform into rhinoceroses.

This is how we should think of Jean, who normally holds it all together so well, but who now turns into a rhino. At first, he’s against the transformations into rhinoceroses, as everyone else is at the beginning of the play. Then he grows more lenient to the idea, more ‘open-minded’ in his attitude. Finally, he transforms into one.

A similar mentality can be seen towards fascism ever since the end of WWII. First, we were horrified by Nazi victimization of the Jews (even though a considerable number of ex-Nazis were given prominent government jobs in the US and West Germany). Then, demonization of the Soviet Union during the Cold War allowed us to regard such people as right-wing nationalist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as ‘champions of freedom.’ Then, Ukrainian neo-Nazi propaganda like the Holodomor hoax was uncritically accepted as ‘truth’; and now, NATO is backing up those very neo-Nazis in a dangerous escalation with Russia that could lead not only to WWIII, but also nuclear war. Rhinos, rhinos everywhere.

Lenience and open-mindedness can lead to one’s brain falling out.

In Act Three, Dudard visits a very distraught Bérenger in his apartment. He’s had a nightmare, and he is terrified of turning into a rhino. According to the stage directions, his apartment bears a striking resemblance to Jean’s (PDF, page 35), suggesting more doubling of characters, another variation on the play’s theme of conformity.

Yet again we have this character doubling in the form of Bérenger debating about the validity of the rhino transformations, but with Dudard this time, him now taking on Jean’s lenient and open-minded attitude. More doubling still is in Dudard’s fancying of Daisy, as Bérenger does. We sense the rivalry between the two men over her when she arrives with a basket of food, though Dudard pretends that he doesn’t wish to intrude on her get-together with Bérenger. And like Jean, Dudard will eventually become a rhino, too.

We learn over the course of the three characters’ discussions that Botard, Papillon, and the Logician have all become rhinos (PDF, page 44). It’s easy to see how their boss would transform: after all, fascism grows out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Left-leaning Botard’s change is a bit more puzzling, though far from inexplicable or impossible; opportunism can spread like a pestilence throughout the left (consider Trotsky‘s flirtation with Nazis in a hope to oust Stalin from power). The verbal absurdities of the Logician seem to anticipate the obscurantist, reactionary post-modernist French intellectuals, used by the CIA to lead leftists astray.

When only Bérenger and Daisy are left, and he is growing desperate, she starts showing signs that eerily remind us of the path that Jean and Dudard have just taken. She says that everyone has the right to change his mind about whether or not to turn into rhinos, even Botard (PDF, page 44). Rhinos’ grunts are heard on the telephone and on the radio (PDF, pages 49 and 50).

Bérenger wants her to help him repopulate the Earth (PDF, page 51), rather like Noah’s sons and their wives after the Flood wiped out all of humanity, but she is cool to the idea. She eventually comes to find the rhinos to be passionate; she imagines they have a language, something Bérenger scoffs at. Could the rhinos have entered the Symbolic, while he and she have left it? Indeed, she imagines it could be the remaining humans who now need saving. She imagines the rhinos to be singing. When he slaps her for sympathizing with them, it would seem that he is the barbaric one, and not the rhinos.

In her disillusionment with Bérenger and growing sympathy with the rhinoceroses, Daisy leaves him to join them, leaving him the sole remaining human. Being all alone with neither the Other of society (as radical alterity) nor the dyadic other of one person to mirror and be mirrored against (i.e., Daisy could be seen as a transference of Bérenger’s Oedipal feelings towards his mother), he has left the Symbolic and is in danger of being trapped in the traumatic, undifferentiated world of the Real (traumatic, because being surrounded by horned representations of fascism can only be thus; undifferentiated, because there’s no differentiation between all those who used to be human).

Significantly, Bérenger looks at himself in a mirror, the only place he’ll ever see a human face again. He acknowledges that he’s “not a particularly handsome specimen” (PDF, page 52). In near despair, he calls out to Daisy, begging her to come back to him. Like the crushed cat, he’s a “poor little thing,” being “left all alone in this world of monsters” (PDF, pages 52-53).

He can feel himself coming apart, in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which his only defence is the narcissistic illusion of the egoistic Imaginary. Hence, he continues to look at himself in the mirror as he talks to himself. He sees himself in the reflection, but he talks to the reflection as if it were another person. He’s lost everyone else who could act as a metaphorical mirror to himself, including Daisy, his love, his ‘other self,’ as it were, so all he has left for this mirroring purpose is himself. He’s like an infant seeing itself in a mirror for the first time, paradoxically recognizing itself and establishing its sense of self, yet also, in seeing itself ‘over there,’ sees itself as other, and is therefore alienated from itself…fragmented.

His defiance of the rhinos should be understood in this context. As representations of fascism, they are a real evil to be opposed to, but one must also consider Bérenger’s fragile mental state as one alone against the world. He would try to communicate with them, but he can’t speak their language (PDF, page 53)…he has left the Symbolic and its linguistic connection with society, culture, customs, laws, etc. He’s so confused, he’s not even sure if he’s speaking French (or English, as far as the play’s translation is concerned). Does his language even exist anymore, if he’s its only speaker, and no one else can understand him? Are the trumpeting sounds of the rhinos, the only shared form of communication left in the world, the only true language? And by extension, has fascism become no longer just an extremist ideology, but the truth?

His defiance, his “not capitulating,” is for obvious reasons noble on one level, but it’s also proud, narcissistic, on the other. He has gone full circle, from the slovenly drunkard who didn’t fit into society to the sole human who still doesn’t fit in. He wouldn’t capitulate to the lifestyle of a sober, well-groomed, and punctual contributor to society then, and he won’t conform now.

Like a narcissist, he goes from hating himself for being an ugly human (since being a rhinoceros has become the new aesthetic ideal) to being a proud defender of his difference from the rhinos. His honest humanity is, paradoxically, his False Self. He regrets being unable to change into a rhinoceros; then he puts on a false front of pride for not being one of them.

As Esslin comments: “His final defiant profession of faith in humanity is merely the expression of the fox’s contempt for the grapes he could not have. Far from being a heroic last stand, Bérenger’s defiance is farcical and tragicomic, and the final meaning of the play is by no means as simple as some critics made it appear. What the play conveys is the absurdity of defiance as much as the absurdity of conformism, the tragedy of the individualist who cannot join the happy throng of less sensitive people, the artist’s feelings as an outcast…” (Esslin, page 183)

Esslin continues: “If Rhinoceros is a tract against conformism and insensitivity (which is certainly is), it also mocks the individualist who merely makes a virtue of necessity in insisting on his superiority as a sensitive, artistic being. That is where the play transcends the oversimplification of propaganda and becomes a valid statement of the fatal entanglement, the basic inescapability and absurdity of the human condition. Only a performance that brings out this ambivalence in Bérenger’s final stand can do justice to the play’s full flavour.” (ibid, p. 183)

So, the absurdity of the human condition is universal in Rhinoceros. Every character without exception is flawed in one way or another. The human rhinos are absurd in their extreme conformism, and Bérenger is absurd in the narcissistic extreme of his individualism.

The paradox of the Symbolic is in how, though it represents the healthiest of mental states, it is also rife with social hypocrisy, hence “les non-dupes errent,” as exemplified in Bérenger and his gaffes. This paradoxical sane phoniness of society is extended into the illusion of freedom in modern-day liberal democracy, or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, as, as I said above, it should be called; this ‘freedom,’ it should be noted, extends only as far as the border of the nation-state. Thus, it should be no surprise that ‘democracy’ degenerates into fascism, or some other form of authoritarian rule, whenever society feels itself to be endangered.

Slavoj Zižek elaborates: ‘This leftover to which formal democracy clings, that which renders possible the subtraction of all positive contents, is of course the ethnic moment conceived as “nation”: democracy is always tied to the “pathological” fact of a nation-state. Every attempt to inaugurate a “planetary” democracy based upon the community of all people as “citizens of the world” soon attests its own impotence, fails to arouse political enthusiasm.’ […] ‘What is at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing: the “other” wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our “way of life”) and/or it has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the “other,” is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment (the smell of his food, his “noisy” songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work–in the racist perspective, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor).’ (Zižek, page 165)

Now, how can Rhinoceros be relevant to today’s world?

Well, apart from the recent resurgence of fascist tendencies around the world (Golden Dawn and their ilk in Greece, Svoboda and the Azov Battalion in the Ukraine…and its backing by the US/NATO, Marine Le Pen‘s near-win in the French elections, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and “MAGA,” among many others), we can also see rhino conformity as a symbol for all the mask-wearers of today, as well as the authoritarian measures of governments all over the world to mandate universal vaccination.

The absurdity of the extremes of both conformity and of individualism as seen in Rhinoceros, to be fair, can be seen in the whole ‘rona debate, too. I oppose the vax mandates and the capitalist media manipulation and scare-mongering, to be sure; but I do so not from the excessive ‘individualism’ of the right-wing libertarians, who simple-mindedly call all these anti-covid authoritarian measures a form of “communism.” Similarly, one can receive the vaccines–either through personal choice or coercion…”no jab, no job”–and still be opposed to the mandates.

The absurdity of Bérenger’s “not capitulating” can be seen in anyone stubbornly refusing to wear masks and having to pay fine after fine, or refusing the jab and remaining unemployed, then evicted. In some countries, such as Canada with its defiant truckers, a real effort is being made to undo the mandates; but in such places as the small East Asian island I live on, the locals are so uncritically compliant with the government that it doesn’t even occur to them that resistance exists as a possibility. Here, I am a Bérenger among mask-wearing rhinos; my resistance is futile because it’s meaningless.

The lesson to be learned from Rhinoceros is to find a comfortable middle ground between conformism and individualism; les non-dupes errent, but they must still hang onto some sense of society to maintain their sanity. Remember how the individualism of ‘anti-state’ right-wing libertarianism often leads, ironically, to fascism. What many today call the “communism” of the emerging NWO is really the capitalism of Bill Gates and his flying monkeys in the media he pays to control the narrative about the pandemic.

By all means, don’t capitulate; but don’t stare at the mirror for too long, either.

Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, London, Penguin Books, 1961

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1992

Analysis of ‘The 39 Steps’

I: Introduction

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

II: Context

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

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

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

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

III: Beginnings

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

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

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

IV: Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

V: Smith > Scudder

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

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

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

VI: Disguise

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

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

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

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

VII: Imperialism

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

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

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

VIII: On the Train, On the Run

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

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

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

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

IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away

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

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

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

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

X: Colonizer as Victim?

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

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

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

XI: The Manhunt Continues

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

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

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

XII: Speeches

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

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

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

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

XIII: The House of the Spies

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

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

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

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

XIV: Friends of Spies

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

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

XV: A Fine Romance

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

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

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

XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?

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

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

XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships

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

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

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

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

XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A

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

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

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

XIX: Conclusion

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

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

‘Between the Divide,’ a Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

Here’s a new poem by my Facebook friend, poet Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. As usual, I’ll put his writing in italics, to distinguish his words from mine. Here’s the poem:

frenzied and lost
a shadow of what i was
lost in a second
fulfilled at any cost

the parallel lines
turn to parallel lies
I keep seeking the divine
but fall between the
divide

answers hurt to
questions unasked
i bathe in the glory
of a chemical axe
waging war within

that is a sin
as it goes beneath the
skin
to drown me deep within
and without
just another day that
passes far too quick

leaving me trembling
shaky and sick
what was a vision of
mortality
is now a passage of
doubt
and i’m lost again

too many yesterdays
still portraits
crawl with the rotten
stage
falling through my anger

and i just want to turn
the page
to burn the magazine
tie up all my aspirations
and burn the stage

winter is here and it is clear
i am not wanted here
too many disharmonies
to ever sleep without
fear

i close my eyes
and say goodbye
no more goodnights
no more lullabies

only the rage
the justifications
an empty gun
and a permanent
vacation

And now, for my analysis.

Jason is speaking of the struggle to find happiness, including spiritual enlightenment. We sense his frustration with the difficulty of attaining this in the first verse.

The “parallel lines” seem to represent, on top, the spiritual path of God above, and on the bottom, Jason’s attempt to emulate that path below, on the Earth. The problem is that parallel lines never meet, so try as he might, Jason cannot reach God, no matter how hard he may try to conform to the Christian way.

He learns soon enough, though, that those parallel lines are lies, an effective pun. The lie is the failure to attain spiritual enlightenment without “Christ,” which translates actually to not attaining it without first conforming to the catechism of the Church; hence his “seeking the divine,” and falling “between the divide,” another effective pun. The “questions unasked” of the Church, that is, the taboos of questioning and doubting Church authority, lead to “answers hurt.”

Other attempts to heal pain, the alternative of the “chemical axe/waging war within,” sound like the illusory euphoria of psychiatric drugs, with their chemical compounds: this medication never cures mental illness–it only keeps it under control. It “is a sin/as it goes beneath the skin/to drown [him] deep within.” The pills are “invisible handcuffs,” as Charles “Haywire” Patoshik (played by Silas Weir Michell) calls them in season one of Prison Break.

Realizing the hard truth of these false paths to happiness leaves Jason “trembling/shaky and sick,” “a passage of doubt/and [he’s] lost again.” Then there are his painful memories: “too many yesterdays/still portraits.” He just wants “to turn/the page/to burn the magazine,” to get rid of the past, to destroy all of it.

He feels the “winter” coldness of alienation and loneliness; he is “not wanted here/too many disharmonies.” He’d go to sleep and escape the cruel realities of daily, waking life; he’d “close [his] eyes/and say goodbye/no more goodnights/no more lullabies.” He feels “only the rage”…a rage brought on by “the justifications” of the Church that once betrayed him? He has “an empty gun” from having already fired out all of that rage.

His “permanent vacation” could be anything from indefinite disability leave to the dream of an eternal state of nirvana…or maybe even enjoying listening to Aerosmith!

Analysis of the Medea Myth

In Greek myth, Medea is something of a paradox: on the one hand, we sympathize with her for her suffering at the hands of her disloyal husband, Jason, who abandons her for Corinthian King Creon‘s daughter, the beautiful young princess Creusa (or Glauce), and for the abusive treatment she suffers as a foreigner, a ‘barbarian,’ and an exile. On the other hand, we are horrified at the wickedness she is capable of: fratricide, treason against her father, King Aeëtes (out of a capricious falling-in-love with Jason), and–as if immolating Creon and Creusa with a cursed, poisoned robe weren’t cruel enough–Medea, by Euripides‘ innovation, commits a double filicide on her and Jason’s sons (although some scholars believe Neophron was the one who added this horror to her list of sins).

This paradox of Medea, arousing extremes of sympathy and antipathy, are representative of contradictory feelings many have towards foreigners: sympathy for their plight as second-class citizens, and the antipathy of xenophobia. Medea as the representative of all foreigners living in a land hostile to them, whose suffering can sometimes drive them to commit criminal, even atrocious acts, is therefore a story most relevant to our times, as I plan to demonstrate.

I will be examining her story primarily from three sources: the Medea of Seneca and of Euripides, and the 1969 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which is based on Euripides’ Medea. What is only incidentally examined in the two classical tragedies–that is, not only the plight of the foreigner, but also the relationship between imperialist plunderers and the countries they plunder–is developed more in Pasolini’s film (in his demythologizing of the source material), as I will also try to demonstrate.

A major contrast between what Euripides and Seneca wrote, and what Pasolini presents on the screen, is precisely that. In the former two, we have excesses of words–long, poetic speeches that are the hallmark of ancient Greek and Roman drama. In Pasolini, we have a relative dearth of dialogue; he is more interested in presenting vivid spectacle (rather like Michelangelo Antonioni, as we see in Blowup, La Notte, and The Passenger) than in providing plot and dialogue.

Medea is, as the daughter of Aeëtes, also the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. It can be said that she derives her ardour from the heat of the sun. She is also a sorceress, her magical abilities therefore making her an object of fear, exacerbating the xenophobia she already has to suffer, and, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, providing her with the power to do the very kind of evil that people are afraid she’ll do.

Jason as a child has been raised by the wise centaur Chiron, to keep the boy safe from his uncle Pelias, the usurping king of Iolcus who otherwise might want to kill Jason out of a fear he’ll be a threat to his power. Pasolini’s film begins with Chiron educating the boy; first we see him as a centaur, then, when Jason (played by Giuseppe Gentile) has come of age, Chiron is seen as fully human. (Such a representation of Chiron isn’t completely without precedent, for there are traditional Greek representations of him with human front legs, demonstrating his unique status as a centaur.) In the context of Pasolini’s atheistic demythologizing of the narrative, then, Chiron as a centaur represents the fanciful imagination of Jason as a child, while human Chiron as seen in Jason’s adulthood represents his loss of that childhood imagination. Put another way, the half-human, half-bestial Chiron represents the not-yet-developed reason of Jason’s childhood; the fully-human Chiron represents adult Jason’s fully developed reason.

Pasolini’s Chiron (played by Laurent Terzieff) admits to having lied to young Jason, who isn’t his son, as he’s previously said. He emphasizes to the boy that everything is sacred, that nothing in nature is ‘natural,’ that gods inhabit everything in nature. The sacred, however, is a mix of good and bad, that the gods love and hate. Again, Chiron admits to being a liar and to being too poetic. He predicts that, when fully-grown Jason goes to Pelias to demand his right to the kingdom, that the usurper will demand that he first fetch him the Golden Fleece. Finally, we see fully-human Chiron admit to adult Jason that there are no gods: his talk of gods inhabiting everything in nature has been another lie. Myths are essentially lies, in the opinion of atheistic Pasolini.

That we see centaur Chiron with Jason the child, and later, human Chiron with adult Jason, a mentor who admits to having told the boy poetic lies, represents the shift from an earlier, poetic, metaphorical use of language (as Northrop Frye discussed in The Great Code) to the later prosaic, descriptive kind of language (Frye, pages 24-28, 31-32). Analogous to this shift in language is also what his change from half-human, half-horse to fully human represents: a shift from animalistic primitivism–and its belief in myths, gods, magic, etc.–to a more advanced civilization lacking in gods. This contrast between god-fearing and godless, between the mythically and non-mythically oriented, between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilization,’ will be especially apparent in the Corinthian attitude towards Medea as seen especially in the film.

Since Pelias assumes Jason will never succeed in getting the Golden Fleece, he shrewdly claims he’ll give his kingdom to Jason if he gives Pelias the Fleece. Pelias doesn’t realize, however, that Jason will get crucial help from a woman whom Eros (according to Apollonius of Rhodes) will hit with one of his love-arrows…Medea.

One interesting point to mine for meaning in is how some writers, such as Apollonius of Rhodes and Seneca, regarded the Argo as having been the first ship (in Greek mythical history). The implication of this first boat, as regards sailing off to a distant land to steal the Golden Fleece, is that Jason’s mission can be seen to represent the beginnings of imperialist plunder.

The choral ode at the end of Act Two of Seneca’s play deals with this mythologizing of the dawn of imperialism:

Glorious were the ages our forefathers saw
when deception was far distant.
Each person lived an unambitious life, at home,
then growing old on ancestral farmland,
rich with a little, they knew no wealth
except what their native soil brought forth.
The world was once divided into strict partitions,
but those were broken by the pinewood ship,
which ordered the ocean to suffer a beating
and the sea, once inviolate, to turn into
one of our reasons to fear. […]
What was the prize for this journey?
The Golden Fleece,
and Medea, greater evil than all the sea,
a worthy cargo for the world’s first boat.
Now at last the sea has yielded and obeys all laws.
Now there is no need of a ship made by Pallas’ hand,
rowed back by kings, a well-renowned vessel–an Argo.
Any old skiff can wander the deep.
All boundaries are gone and the cities
have set up their walls in new lands;
the world is a thoroughfare, nothing remains
where it was. [Seneca, Act II, lines 329-339, 361-372]

In fact, the ending of this choral ode was famously quoted by none other than that exemplar of colonialism, Christopher Columbus, in his Book of Prophecies:

The ages will come, in faraway years
when Ocean will set free the links of Nature
and the great earth lie open, and Tethys will open,
new worlds, and Thule will be no longer
the end of the earth. [Seneca, Act II, lines 373-379; the original Latin can be found here]

So Medea and the society of Colchis can be seen, in relating Euripides’ and Seneca’s plays to our world, as representative of the Third World of today; for though imperialism in its capitalist form of course didn’t exist in the ancient world, class conflict did, in the analogous form of the master vs. slave contradiction. Recall Marx’s words: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The Corinthians’ regarding of Medea and the Colchians as barbarian has its parallel in the modern world, with Western imperialists’ racist labelling of those in developing countries as ‘uncivilized,’ or not considered “decent,” and using such labelling to justify taking over their land and stealing their resources for the imperialists’ enrichment. Pasolini’s film, in its vivid, graphic depiction of the Colchians performing a human sacrifice, with an exotic soundtrack of music from such places as Tibet and other parts of the Orient, emphasizes the foreign contrast between mythically-oriented, ritualistic Colchis and ‘civilized’ Corinth. The ‘civilized’ countries could cite this human sacrifice as proof of the lack of civilization in Colchis while turning around and stealing from the Colchians, or exiling Medea, and not considering their own behaviour as, in its own way, equally cruel.

In his atheistic treatment of the Jason and Medea myth, Pasolini largely removes the supernatural elements, replacing them with characters’ perception of, and belief in, a divinity that isn’t physically there. So instead of seeing Eros shoot a love arrow into the heart of Medea (played by Maria Callas in her only film role, also in which she doesn’t sing), she sees Jason’s arrival, and it’s love at first sight, expressed through her falling on the floor on her back.

Similarly, in Pasolini’s film, we don’t see her use her magic to help Jason plough the field with the fire-breathing bulls; nor do we see her use her magic to help him defeat the army of warriors that grew from a dragon’s teeth sown in the ploughed field; nor do we see her use her magic to put to sleep the dragon that guarded the Fleece. Instead, she simply has her brother, Absyrtus (Apsirto, played by Sergio Tramonti), steal the Fleece and take it with her by chariot to Jason and the Argonauts.

The film portrays Apsirto as rather weak-willed and dim-witted, for he shows no resistance to Medea’s wish for him to help her commit what his family and all of Colchian society would deem an act of the most abominable impiety. He just smiles like a fool and does her bidding without question. Indeed, when Aëetes and his men chase her and her brother to retrieve their prized Fleece, she raises an axe to kill Apsirto, but he shows not the slightest ability to defend himself.

Her helping Jason to steal the Fleece, a coveted possession that can be seen to represent the natural resources of a developing country, can in turn be seen to represent the puppet leader of said developing country collaborating with its imperialist oppressor.

In the film, when Medea finds herself outside of Colchis with Jason and the Argonauts, and therefore in a land foreign to her own, she feels alienated from it. The men all set up tents, but do not pray to the gods to bless them. Such irreligiousness is inexplicable to her.

She thus goes through a spiritual crisis. She runs about the land, which is barely covered in any vegetation, and calls out to her gods of the sun and earth; they do not seem to hear her in this strange, foreign land.

Jason returns to Iolcus and gives Pelias the Fleece, but the king feels no obligation to keep his promise and give Jason his rightful place on the throne. Unlike in the original myth, in which Medea schemes to have Pelias’ own daughters kill him, the Jason of Pasolini’s film simply accepts not regaining the throne, telling his uncle that the Fleece is of no use, value, or meaning outside of Colchis. Of course not: its meaning exists only for those who believe in it; in Pasolini’s godless world, the Fleece cannot mean anything outside of the Colchian culture that reveres it.

Pelias’ wives strip Medea of her black priestess robes and jewellery, replacing them with humble clothing similar to their own, the clothing of a wife. Medea has lost her gods, the Fleece’s value is no more, and she is now a mere housewife. Still, she’ll bear these losses, as long as Jason remains true to her…

She and Jason live in Corinth for ten years. Various sources say the couple have had anywhere from one to fourteen children. In the plays by Euripides and Seneca, and in Pasolini’s film, they have two sons.

Now, with this family living in Corinth, Medea is not the only foreigner–all of them are. In fact, Jason finds himself and his whole family in danger of Acastus, son of Pelias, who wants revenge for the killing of his father (for which, recall, Medea is responsible), and who has driven all of them out of Iolcus.

Jason can find only one practical solution to his predicament as an exile: marry Creusa, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, and thus abandon Medea. This new marriage should at least give protection to him and their two boys…and with this scorning and rejection of Medea, the tragedies of Euripides and Seneca begin.

Pasolini’s film only subtly shows Medea’s realization that her husband is abandoning her for another woman, a disloyalty grown out of his fickle nature rather than a need to protect himself and their sons from Acastus, who doesn’t figure in the film. She goes to Corinth with her nurse (played by Annamaria Chio), who is reluctant to go because she knows what Jason is about to do; Medea sees a kind of dancing competition among suitors as to who will win the princess’s hand. Jason is participating in the dance with the other men, and Medea takes the shocking hint.

Euripides’ play opens with a long speech by the nurse, who describes Medea’s anguish on learning of her husband’s betrayal. Seneca’s begins with Medea herself giving the long, anguished speech.

Comparisons and contrasts can be made between the Medea plays and a couple by Shakespeare with regard to the theme of revenge, namely, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Medea is disenfranchised both as a foreign “barbarian” and as a woman; Shylock, in TMOV, is disenfranchised for being a foreigner and a Jew in Venice. Because of their ill-treatment, both Medea and Shylock are pushed over the edge and driven to commit violent, horrible acts. As a result, both characters are sympathized with and abominated for what they do (Medea) or at least intend to do (Shylock). Shylock is allowed, at the end of TMOV, to live, but he has been financially and spiritually destroyed. In the end, though Medea physically gets away scot-free to Athens on her grandfather’s solar chariot, she can be said to have destroyed her own soul by her double filicide. Shylock is punished for his sins; Medea is punished by her sins.

As far as comparisons, or really, contrasts with Hamlet are concerned, Medea clearly shows its protagonist (if such a violent woman can be called such–i.e., a sympathetic character) to be firmly resolved in her wish not only to get revenge on and kill Creusa and Creon, but also to kill her two boys. In contemplating the double filicide, she wavers somewhat in her guilt, as can be seen in the Seneca, but she goes through with it all the same. She’s firmly resolved to commit all the killings in Pasolini’s film, too.

But in Hamlet, as we all know, the Danish prince delays his revenge all the way to the bitter end, when he’s been pricked by “the point envenom’d,” and only when he knows he’s going to die does he finally get his revenge on his uncle Claudius. A number of characters either in Hamlet or referred to in the play take (or want to take) their revenge more decisively than the Dane does: namely, they are Laertes (Act IV, Scene v, from line 109), Fortinbras, who is slowed down in his revenge only by a vast stretch of land to traverse, and Pyrrhus, who hesitates only briefly before killing Priam to avenge his father, Achilles (Act II, Scene ii, lines 444-491). And certainly, Medea is much quicker to revenge than Hamlet is.

Now, Colchis, Iolcus, and Corinth can be contrasted in terms of how “barbaric” vs ‘enlightened/’progressive’ they are. Colchis, as we already know, represents ‘primitive’ society, that of the developing world. Iolcus, with its usurping, double-crossing King Pelias, represents the unapologetically imperialistic part of the world, that which takes from other countries (i.e., the Golden Fleece), that which enriches itself at the expense of others, and feels no remorse for that foreign policy. In our modern world, Pelias is the conservative.

Corinth, however, is more like today’s liberal world. Creon would take in Jason and his sons; taking in Medea, however, would be crossing over the line for him. As we on the left know, liberal generosity has its limits, to put it mildly. As a manifestation of modern liberal thinking, social democracy would improve the lives of those within one’s own country, and has no qualms about taking from the Third World to enrich itself. Creon’s treatment of Medea, and of Jason and their sons, can be seen as symbolic of this liberal double standard. We’ll take care of the needy among us, and a select number of foreign refugees, but anyone outside of these must fend for themselves.

In Euripides’ play, Medea laments the miserable existence of women. She says,

Of all the sentient creatures of the earth, we women are
the most unfortunate. First there is the dowry: at such
exorbitant expense we have to buy a husband–pay
to take a master for our bodies. And as the seasons pass,
if he prove false, then are we twice abused…
…All our hopes and striving lean
on this one thing: whether the husband that we take
turns out good or ill. For marriage is the only choice
we have, and divorce discredits women utterly.
We leave the house we knew, the dear comfort of familiar
ways. We must enter the husband’s world, accommodate
strange practices, the habits of his house, and figure out–
oh, hardest yet–how best to deal with his whims, for little
in our past prepares us for this task of satisfying him. […]

A man when he is bored at home, or irritated by
the burdens of domestic life, goes out into the streets,
or to the baths, debates philosophy for sport, diverts
himself with games and friends, and does what pleases him.
Our lives are monotone: for on one man we’re forced
to fix our gaze. Men say we lead an easy life,
safe at home while they risk all at the point of a spear.
What do they know? I would rather stand three times
in battle with shield and spear than give birth once. (Euripides, lines 252-256, 259-267, and 273-281)

Medea might want to pause before preferring to fight three battles, and risk a violent death on the battlefield, to giving birth to a child; then again, I as a man should pause before presuming that risking one’s life to give birth, especially without modern medicine, as would have been the case with women in Medea’s time, would be preferable to going to war. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I suppose.

While the patriarchal aspects of the sources of Medea’s suffering are so obvious as not to need much further comment (beyond how her leaving of Colchis and her family, to be with her new husband, Jason, is symbolic of patrilocal culture), I suspect we could be dealing at least in part with matrilineal customs, too. After all, though Jason is working to secure the safety of his and Medea’s sons in Corinth, threats of exiling the boys as well as Medea also loom over the course of the play. See, for example, in Euripides’ play, lines 976-977, where Medea says, “Do I not have the children? And aren’t we–they and I–/now exiles in need of friends?”

If descent in their world were patrilineal, the boys’ association with their father would ensure their safety without question; after all, only Medea, with her magic, is a threat to Creon and his daughter. The boys’ matrilineal association with Medea would make them as much foreigners as she is, and this association would threaten them with exile as well as her. Finally, Jason is marrying into Creon’s family, not Creusa into his family; his entrance into Creon’s family is thus matrilocal.

In Act Four of Seneca’s play, the nurse and Medea give detailed descriptions of the scorned wife preparing her “uncanny rites” (Seneca, line 680) and magic spells. In Pasolini’s film, we see Medea looking out of a window at the sun, her grandfather (as she, in this atheistic production, imagines it to be: she can easily be understood to be imagining the sound of Helios’ voice), and does something rarely seen in the film…she smiles. Then she assembles her ladies-in-waiting, including her nurse, who is ever-reluctant to participate in Medea’s violent plans, and chants with them, pacing back and forth ritualistically, to prepare the spell to make lethal her gift of a gown, necklaces, and a tiara for Creusa.

The film shows Medea’s revenge on Creusa (played by Margareth Clémenti) and Creon (played by Massimo Girotti, who incidentally was also in Last Tango in Paris) twice: first, as a vision Medea has of the gown literally burning the princess and king; then, as the actual revenge carried out, with Creusa looking at herself in the mirror fearfully while wearing the gown, identifying with Medea and her suffering, and then killing herself in remorse, with Creon following after and imitating her suicide.

Pasolini’s atheistic, demythologized representation of Creusa’s demise can be interpreted along Lacanian lines. Her beholding of herself in the mirror while wearing Medea’s gown, necklaces, and tiara can be seen as her looking at her ideal-I in the specular image. The ideal wife for Jason isn’t Creusa, but Medea. Creusa sees herself dressed like Medea and knows she cannot measure up to Medea’s ideal, because she cannot replace the woman who ought still to be Jason’s wife. Therefore, Creusa cannot marry him. The pain she feels from having caused Medea such pain, a pain Medea has projected onto Creusa in the form of the gift of clothes, is a metaphorical burning of her entire body, her entire self. That metaphorical fire is the fire of suffering caused by desire, the desire to have a man who isn’t hers for the taking.

After the killing of Creusa and Creon comes the atrocity of Medea’s killing of her two sons. Seneca has them killed onstage. Pasolini doesn’t show the killings, but he slowly builds up the suspense leading up to the implied act; this leading-up includes Medea’s last moments as a mother with the boys, bathing them and holding them lovingly. Seeing the boys naked as she bathes them reinforces our sense of their vulnerability and helplessness; seeing her cuddle with each of them after their baths is a touching moment that reinforces how heartbreaking it is to know she is also planning to kill them, given that we watchers of the film know the original myth.

Euripides shows Medea, having already killed them, on Helios’ sun-chariot, a subversion of the notion of the deus ex machina, which is normally used to resolve a difficulty in the plot, in a contrived manner, through divine intervention. To use this plot device is actually rather lazy writing, as having a god resolve a problem is conveniently far easier than doing so through human effort, which requires the writer to devise a thoroughly thought-out solution him- or herself.

The deus ex machina appearance of Medea resolves her problem of where she, as an exile and a murderess, is to go to escape punishment. Earlier in Euripides’ play, Aegeus, king of Athens, has promised her he’ll let her live in Athens if she uses her herbs to cure his infertility. So she will go there and be safe, never punished for her crimes, since Aegeus knows nothing of them. He will also marry her.

Using the deus ex machina for her, however, is a perversion of the purpose of the plot device, since it’s meant to resolve difficulties and thus prevent tragedy. In Medea’s case, she uses it just after aggravating the tragedy, not preventing it, and ensuring that her victims won’t receive justice. After all, the chthonic religion that she adheres to resorts to revenge, not to justice, to settle grievances (the Furies, for example, were chthonic deities of vengeance). Recall that Hecate, one of the prominent chthonic gods, is one to whom Medea prays to aid her in her revenge in, for example, Seneca’s play (Act IV, lines 833-842).

In killing their boys, Medea has done to Jason what he’d initially planned to do to her: deprive a spouse of a family, a country, and a future. She kills the boys not to hurt them, but to hurt him. Now Jason has lost not only a family to marry into and thus to protect him from the dangers of exile and avenging Acastus, but he’s also lost the future of his family line through the boys’ deaths. In destroying Jason’s hopes of patrilineal descent, Medea’s revenge can be seen as a proto-feminist act.

The ambiguity over whether we’re dealing with a matrilineal or patrilineal society could be resolved by imagining that Medea, like Aeschylus‘ trilogy, the Oresteia, represents a transition from lineal descent by the female to that by the male, and therefore also represents a conflict between the two. Just as we see in Medea a mythologized beginning of imperialist plunder, so do we see in the play a mythologized beginning of the patriarchal family’s oppression of women.

That we see the mythological origins of the imperialist plunder of ‘primitive’ societies coinciding with the origins of the oppression of women is significant, for Friedrich Engels, in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, also noted the coinciding of the end of matrilineal society with the end of primitive communism…and therefore the beginning of not only patrilineal society, but also societies based on class conflict.

Now, one cannot go on plundering, oppressing, and mistreating the poor, women, the landless, and developing societies indefinitely without expecting some eventual form of horrifying karmic retribution. For we should see the excesses of Medea’s revenge as just such a retribution, a dialectical shift from the oppressor hurting the oppressed to vice versa.

In our modern world, we shouldn’t be too surprised at this or that terrorist attack in, say, New York City, London, Madrid, Paris, or in Israel. We may lament the deaths of these victims (as we do Medea’s sons), but when we allow the existence of governments that cause mayhem in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World, and when we as First Worlders benefit from such oppression (as Jason, Creon, and Creusa were meant to benefit from a marriage that would undo Medea; or as Pelias planned to benefit from the theft of the Golden Fleece), when karma gets back at us, we shouldn’t pretend to be shocked by such violence.

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

Euripides, Euripides, 1 (Medea, Hecuba, Andromache, The Bacchae), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998

Seneca, Six Tragedies, New York, Oxford University Press, 2010

The Sixth Poem from ‘Diverging Paths’

Here I’ll be looking at Poem #6 from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection, Diverging Paths. Recall that I’ve looked at many of his poems in previous posts, if you’re interested in looking at some of those. As usual, I’m setting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

This isn’t real this is a dream, 
When I wake I swear I will 
Never sleep again, 
Every waking moment a sin, 
God knows I’ve tried, 
But I’m lost in this, 
Magick and emotion, 
Turning down the podium, 
To stare into the heresy, 
Spiral unreality, 
Shadowing in moments lost, 
A vision of Holocaust, 
Sadly no divine intervention, 
Only death, 
And God a blemish,

And now, for my analysis.

The speaker, I suspect, is someone other than the poet, since, though I know the poet to be someone going through some difficult times emotionally, I don’t think he’s experienced a psychotic break with reality, as seems to be the case with the speaker here.

The speaker seems to be rejecting both dream and reality as too painful to bear. By a rejection of all, I mean a refusal to take in and accept any forms of stimulation from the outside world, Wilfred Bion‘s beta elements. In Bion’s theory of thinking, raw sensory data from outside, initially irritating, has to be processed (through what Bion called alpha function) into detoxified material acceptable for thought (alpha elements). In layman’s terms, this means that emotional experiences have to be processed in order for the brain to cope with them. (Click here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

If external stimuli aren’t processed and made into thoughts, one cannot sleep, dream, or even experience waking thought. Without this ability to process thought, one becomes psychotic.

Bion explained it thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

I discussed this issue in my analysis of The Machinist, in which the main character, Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale), goes through a psychotic break with reality when he refuses to process his own emotional experiences, namely, his guilt over having hit and killed a child in a car accident, then driving away without taking responsibility. As a result, he doesn’t sleep for a whole year, descending into madness.

To get back to Jason’s poem, the speaker rejects what he’s experiencing, calling it a dream. He says he’ll never sleep again upon waking, since what he’s experienced is so intolerable, so impossible to process and turn into detoxified thought. Yet, “every waking moment [is] a sin,” so waking moments are as impossible to process as unconscious ones.

He’d rather be in a world respecting old ways and old gods, one represented by such archaic spellings as “magick.” Such an idealized world is one the speaker feels lost in, since it’s so much better than the painful one of today. He finds himself “turning down the podium” (i.e., not wanting to go up, be seen by an audience, and communicate with them). He’d rather “stare into the heresy” of an alternate reality not accepted by mainstream society (i.e., the Church), which is seen as “spiritual unreality,” but also the unreality of not wanting to face the painful, but real, world. “Moments lost” are shadowed-in traumas, that is, erased from memory, hidden in the darkness of the mind, repressed.

The pain of a trauma so severe that it must be rejected is seen as a “vision of Holocaust.” There’s “no divine intervention,” either of the Judeo-Christian or pagan kind, when psychosis has replaced coping with reality. So one experiences “only death,” and God seems to be only “a blemish.”

Note that “God” can represent an authority figure, like a stern father. So as a blemish, this harsh authority figure could be the root of the trauma that has caused the speaker to want to run away from painful reality, and to reject all stimuli and all thinking that makes a connection with the world possible.

That way madness lies.

‘The Day that We…’, a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

I have a new poem here by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at so many times before. As usual, his words will be in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Here’s the poem:

The day that we fell
Fell so far
Shooting stars
Dividing worlds
Becoming God’s
A future law of three
A past shone in the trees
A photograph that changes
The malice and the rage
The quest for poetry that speaks till it’s raw
By word of mouth
Sometimes stars
One in five none get out alive
But the words
The words
Whisper of forever
And forever we’re denied
Living on in nothing
Just a star fell from the sky
The night that we
Became reality.

And now, for my analysis.

I suspect that the speaker is one of the fallen rebel angels, who “fell so far.” They’re “shooting stars” nonetheless in their rebellious glory, “dividing worlds” into the heavenly and the hellish, as we know them in Milton‘s Paradise Lost.

He and the others are “becoming God’s” in the sense that He will use them to test mankind. “A future law of three” sounds like Adam, Eve, and the serpent being tempted to sin through the commandment not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. One is reminded of Romans 7:8, “sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.” This is “a past shone in the trees” of the Garden of Eden.

“A photograph that changes” reminds me of my connecting of the Garden of Eden myth with the park scene in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s film, Blowup. In the film, Thomas has taken photos in an Edenic park of a young woman and her elderly lover, photos she wants back because they make her feel shamed, as Adam and Eve felt shamed in their nakedness. His taking the photos makes him into either the Yahweh or the serpent figure for interfering with the two. The photograph changes because it, among many others taken in the park, go from being relatively innocent to implying that a murder has been committed there, rather like the shift from innocent to sinful Adam and Eve, a shift caused by the serpent, or by Thomas’s changing photographs. (See my analysis, link above, for more details on that.)

Imagine “the malice and the rage” of the fallen angels, who search “for poetry that speaks till it’s raw.” One wishes to speak one’s own poetry, one’s own language, not that of those who impose their will on us, as God did on His angels and on Adam and Eve. These are words spoken “by word of mouth,” naturally, not edited on the page.

The mortality imposed on us all for defying God’s authority, on man as well as on the rebel angels, means that, to paraphrase what Jim Morrison once sang, “One in five none get out alive.” “The words,” however, presumably those of Scripture, “whisper of forever/And forever we’re denied,” because we disobeyed God.

We’re “living on in” a hell of “nothing.” We, in our defiant glory, are “just a star” that “fell from the sky.” But in our damnation, we were true to ourselves, not mere compliant, willing slaves, for this was “the night that we/Became reality.”