Analysis of ‘Moby-Dick’

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Mocha Dick, the real-life whale that inspired Melville’s tale.

I) Introduction and Quotes

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The story is about Captain Ahab‘s mad quest for a huge albino whale, which bit off his leg in a previous attempt to kill it by his crew of harpooners. The story is narrated by a young man, the orphan Ishmael, the sole survivor of Ahab’s second attempt to kill the white whale.

Though the novel got a mixed reception on its original publication, its critical reputation grew over the 20th century, and it’s now considered the preeminent American novel, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Moby-Dick deals with such profound philosophical issues as epistemology and the nature of ultimate reality, evil, nature, etc., as symbolized by the whale and the ocean.

Here are some famous quotes:

Loomings (1)

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning…we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

The Spouter-Inn (3)

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The Sermon (9)

“…all the things God would have us do are hard for us to do…if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” –Father Mapple

The Mast-Head (35)

“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer‘s sprinkled pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

The Quarter-Deck (36)

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” –Ahab

“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” –Ahab

Moby-Dick (41)

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.”

The Whiteness of the Whale (42)

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls…with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

The Fossil Whale (104)

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin (109)

“Let Ahab beware of Ahab.”

The Pacific (111)

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

The Chase–Third Day (135)

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” –Ahab

Epilogue

“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.”

“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

II) Search for Truth

 

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Ishmael’s extracts, supplied by a sub-sub-librarian.

There is a preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of everything in Ishmael’s narrative, as we can see from his discussing all matters pertaining to the whale (a pun on whole; and Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the more terrifying aspects of ultimate reality). Recall ‘Etymology,’ which gives a list of whale in various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon (WHOEL), Danish (HVALT), Dutch (WAL), Swedish (HWAL), etc. Note also “Cetology,” chapter 32, as well as Ishmael’s many digressions into philosophical matters.

I believe this search for truth is his reason, in a symbolic sense, for tiring of the land and wanting to return to the sea; for the waves of the ocean represent that fluid reality of rises and dips (i.e., in fortune) that we all experience everywhere in life. Reality isn’t in the things in the water, like the whales that are caught: it’s in the water itself. The preoccupation with catching those things is what causes our suffering…as it does Ahab.

III) Ishmael and Queequeg: From Foes to Friends

Queequeg

Ishmael has to share a room, at the Spouter-Inn, with Queequeg, a Polynesian pagan harpooner. Their meeting at night, with Ishmael sleeping in Queequeg’s bed, is hostile at first, since the latter isn’t expecting a roommate.

Soon, the two become good friends (Chapter 10, ‘A Bosom Friend’), the two even sharing in each other’s form of worship; for Ishmael bows with Queequeg before the latter’s idol (Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend”, pages 67-68), and Queequeg attends Father Mapple‘s church service with Ishmael (Chapter 7–“The Chapel,” page 52; though Queequeg leaves some time before the benediction–Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend,” page 64).

Christian Ishmael and pagan Queequeg are opposites who, though clashing at first, soon learn not only to accept each other’s differences, but even participate in the opposite’s ways. Their relationship thus demonstrates the dialectical relationship between opposites, something Ahab can never learn do with Moby Dick.

IV) Mapple’s Sermon

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The Chapel

During Father Mapple’s sermon, which the preacher gives on a pulpit designed like a ship (for his sermons are his way of edifying his “shipmates,” his steering of the boat on the ocean of life, so to speak), he discusses the events written of in the Book of Jonah.

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), for he didn’t want to obey God and preach to the sinful people of Nineveh. We tend to think of the “great fish” as a whale, though of course a whale–being a mammal–is no fish. Melville’s narrative, while acknowledging Linnaeus‘ reference to, among other distinctions, the whale’s “feminam mammis lactantem,” still insists that a whale is a fish (Chapter 32–“Cetology,” pages 139-140), linking Jonah’s story thematically with Moby Dick; for Ishmael calls upon “holy Jonah” as his authority on the matter.

Jonah’s “three days and three nights” of terror “in the belly of the fish” transform him from a rebellious sinner into an obedient servant of God, a dialectical shift from the hell of the bitten tail of the ouroboros to the heaven of its biting head. Transformative moments like these, like a harrowing of hell, make saints out of sinners. Ahab will never make that change, for he forever hates the white whale, even in death.

V) Melville’s Critique of Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

When Father Mapple says that in obeying God, we must disobey ourselves, Melville is using the preacher as his mouthpiece to criticize the Transcendentalists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, with his essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.” In the former essay, Emerson wrote of the apparent divinity of the individual soul, which should be relied upon to the exclusion of accepting any advice from the all-too-conforming community.

The danger of such self-reliance is how it can lead to egotism, narcissism, and contempt for the rights and feelings of others. Ahab personifies self-reliance taken to such foolish extremes, for he ignores Starbuck’s warnings and criticisms, and gets his whole crew killed (save Ishmael) at the end.

Emerson’s “Over-Soul” gives a philosophical, quasi-mystical rationalization of this self-reliance, for this “self” is seen as divinely similar to Atman. Emerson had read translations of such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita; texts such as these include such doctrines as Atman being equal to Brahman, Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the unifying soul in all life and in all things.

The problem with Emerson’s interpretation of these Hindu ideas is in how, addled by Western tradition’s preconceptions (i.e., Plato’s idealism, the good soul vs. the sinful flesh, etc.), he Christianizes the “self” (i.e., Atman, the individual soul), and imagines individuality to be all good. Such a sentimentalizing was never intended by the Hindus.

Because divinity in Eastern mysticism encompasses everything–or conversely, it’s described in terms of what it’s not (for to describe the divine in terms of what it is would qualify it, and thus limit it)–it mustn’t be thought of as merely ‘good.’ It has both alluring and terrifying aspects. Bion‘s mystical O, for example, is seen as having traumatic qualities. The divine is everything and nothing, both good and evil…and neither/nor.

But Emerson came from a Christian tradition that sees God as all-good; Western translations of Hindu texts often clumsily render Brahman, or the divine, as God, which is misleading; for God is a monotheistic concept, whereas concepts like Brahman are monistic. Not even ‘pantheism‘ really covers what something like Brahman is.

VI) Pantheism, the Ocean, and the Ouroboros

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The ocean as a dark, frightening place.

When one thinks of pantheism, one often thinks of the peacefulness of walking about in the woods, or dwelling dreamily in places like Wordsworth‘s ‘Tinturn Abbey‘, feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (lines 95–97) and the immanence of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (lines 100–103).

Melville, on the other hand, uses the tempestuous ocean as his preferred image of nature to warn us of the danger of sentimentalizing pantheism (see ‘The Masthead’ quote above). I prefer the image of the ocean as a symbol of the dialectical monism that I subscribe to, for the rising and falling waves suggest our ongoing shifts between good and bad fortune.

When I wrote of how a “contemplation combining what I call the Three Unities (of SpaceTime, and Action) will, with repeated practice over a long period of time, bring us closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain, a putting of all the pieces back together,” I never meant that to be some kind of feel-good, New Age sentimentality. “Closer and closer” are the key words there: “no more pain” shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an absolute state.

Indeed, the smug excess of sentimentality is the biting head of the ouroboros, where one is “too healthy,” as I’ve written about elsewhere; this emotional state is one of narcissistic overconfidence, a False Self delusion that can lead, if one isn’t careful, to the madness of fragmentation. This is the danger Captain Ahab is throwing himself into, a danger of slipping past the serpent’s biting head to its bitten tail.

You see, the symbolism of the ouroboros as a unifying of opposites (the serpent’s head biting its tail) shows how we should properly understand ultimate reality: a marriage of heaven and hell, a union of knowledge and ignorance, a fusion of good and evil.

VII) Character Pairings: Unified Opposites

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We see pairings of opposites throughout Moby-Dick. We’ve already seen the pairing of pagan Queequeg and Christian Ishmael; we’ve touched on the opposition of wise, cautious chief mate Starbuck vs. mad Captain Ahab; let’s now consider some others.

Other parings include retired Captains Peleg and Bildad, two Quakers who own the Pequod and sailed in it before giving the helm to Ahab. “Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg–who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those selfsame serious things the veriest of all trifles–Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn–all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest.” (Chapter 16–“The Ship,” page 87)

On the next page, “…old Bildad…seemed absorbed in reading from a ponderous volume.

“‘Bildad,’ cried Captain Peleg, ‘at it again, Bildad, eh? Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge. How far ye got, Bildad?’

“As if long habituated to such profane talk from his old shipmate, Bildad, without noticing his present irreverence, quietly looked up, and seeing me, glanced again inquiringly towards Peleg. […]

“‘He’ll do,’ said Bildad, eyeing me [Ishmael], and then went on spelling away at his book in a mumbling tone quite audible.

“I thought him the queerest old Quaker I ever saw, especially as Peleg, his friend and old shipmate, seemed such a blusterer.” Yet, in spite of Bildad’s apparent Bible-perusing piety, as opposed to Peleg’s “irreverence” and “impenitent” nature, Bildad’s the “stingy” one, offering Ishmael an exceedingly small share of the ship’s profits (the 777th lay), as opposed to “generous” Peleg’s offer of the three hundredth lay (Ishmael has been hoping for the 275th lay). Here we see the mingling of opposites in Peleg and Bildad, the antitheses of pious parsimony and impious generosity. (pages 89-91)

Another pairing is of Stubb, the cheerful, laughing, happy-go-lucky second mate, as contrasted with Flask, the mean, grumpy, nasty third mate. For all of Stubb’s cheerfulness, though, he feels such a hostility to Fedallah, the Parsee who has an evil influence on Ahab, that Stubb imagines the Parsee “to be the devil in disguise,” with a tail he hides in his pocket; and he’d like to throw Fedallah overboard. (Chapter 73–“Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him”, pages 315-317) And for all of Flask’s surliness, and his own suspicion of the Parsee, he isn’t sure of Stubb’s equating of Fedallah with the devil.

In one way, grumpy Flask can be seen as the double of mad, scowling Ahab: “Flask…who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered” (Chapter 27–“Knights and Squires,” page 125); and Stubb–in his fear that “Fedallah wants to kidnap Captain Ahab”–can be Starbuck’s double. Yet in his wish to rip off Fedallah’s “tail,” Stubb’s rather like Ahab in his wish to get revenge on evil; for ripping off the Parsee’s “tail” is a symbolic castration, as is Ahab’s loss of his leg to Moby Dick. Again, characters with opposing personalities find their traits intermingling.

A pairing of particular importance is Ishmael vs. Ahab. Both men are seeking something, obsessively questing for the deepest knowledge. Ishmael demonstrates this in his near-encyclopaedic display of knowledge of all things cetacean. With Ahab, though, there’s only one whale he seeks.

VIII) Knowledge and Ignorance, Black and White

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The whiteness of the whale.

A major theme of Moby-Dick is epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge and how it is attained. Whales symbolize this knowledge that is sought, for knowledge, like whales, is elusive to its hunter; when you come at it, knowledge can hurt, as when whales smash up whalers’ boats.

The white whale is that ultimate knowledge: its whiteness is like the divine light of perfect knowledge…but that white light can also be terrifying (Chapter 42–“The Whiteness of the Whale”). Ahab is mad to want to confront such dangerous knowledge. Ishmael, in contrast, can adapt and change in his search for knowledge; he can flow and shift with the waves of the ocean. Ahab’s monomania keeps him as rigid and hard as Moby Dick’s powerful body; the captain projects his own evil onto the white whale.

We normally think of darkness and blackness as evil; consider the bigoted Spanish Sailor who taunts Daggoo, the African harpooner (Chapter 40–“Midnight, Forecastle,” page 178). These two are another pairing of opposites who are also alike in crucial ways, for while the Spanish Sailor calls Daggoo “devilish dark,” provoking a fight, consider the swarthiness of the average Spaniard compared to whites of North European descent. And when a flash of light in the dark is said by the Spanish Sailor to be “Daggoo showing his teeth,” we see a mixture of black and white in him, another mixing of opposites.

So as we can see, both black and white can be evil…and good. Both knowledge and ignorance can be evil, too…and sometimes ignorance is better–and safer–than knowledge; since some knowledge simply cannot be found or mastered. Ishmael can accept this reality. Ahab can not.

IX) Marine Masculinity and Narcissism

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The sperm whale: a giant phallus in the ocean.

Yet another pairing is Moby Dick, or sperm whales in general, and the ocean. While Melville’s whales are overwhelmingly masculine (more on that below), la mer est la mère. Now, the feminine is conspicuously absent in this novel, or at the very least minimized, even for a story about men at sea. Even on land, all of the significant characters are male: apart from those already mentioned, there are Peter Coffin, owner of the Spouter-Inn, and Elijah, who prophesies the doom of the Pequod.

The sperm whales, whether male or female in reality, are all male by symbolic association. Though there’s no evidence earlier than the 1880s of dick being used as a slang word for penis, it had been used to mean man, fellow, for centuries. Moby Dick is a giant white phallus spouting water (symbolic ejaculation) swimming in Oceanus, a male god of the ocean. Consider also, as Camille Paglia did (Paglia, page 587), “that unaccountable cone,” “the grandissimus,” that is a sperm whale’s penis being lugged by three sailors (Chapter 95–“The Cassock”).

Moby Dick is the rigid thing Ahab wants for having bitten off his leg (a symbolic castration causing him narcissistic injury), whereas the ever-shifting, ever flowing ocean is a nirvana of no-thing-ness, of anatta (no self). Ahab’s peg leg is made of whale bone, his revenge on ‘castrating’ whales. Phallic harpoons stab into the phallic sperm whales, the piercing a kind of circumcising of them, and a rite of passage for novice Ishmael.

Lacan‘s phallus is a signifier, bringing us into the world of language, the Symbolic Order, uniting us with community through communication. Symbolically castrated Ahab is thus cut off from community, from an ability to communicate in a truly human way, in a way that connects with others and exchanges empathy, hence his solipsistic madness and his never heeding Starbuck’s warnings. Intact Ishmael, however, is so linguistically complete that he gives the words of whales in various languages (“Etymology,” page 9), and he quotes Linnaeus’ Latin in “Cetology,” page 139.

Ahab’s narcissism is apparent in his willingness to “strike the sun if it insulted” him. His egotism is the result of too much self-reliance, as Melville warns us all against. Recall “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (Chapter 1–“Loomings,” page 23)

X) Zoroastrian Dualism, and the Deluge

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Fire: Fedallah’s Sacredness, Ahab’s Hell of Desire and Suffering, which can be extinguished only by nirvana, a giving-up of his self.

Next, we must consider Fedallah, the Parsee. His influence over Ahab has been seen as Satanic, if you’ll recall what Stubb has to say about him in chapter 73. In this connection, it’s interesting to note Melville’s allusion to the beginning of chapter six in Genesis (fittingly, in a dialectical sense, at the end of Chapter 50–“Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah”).

Melville calls the sons of God (or sons of the gods, depending on the translation of b’nei ha-elohim) angels, who “consorted with the daughters of men,” which in turn led to the wickedness that caused Yahveh to bring about the Great Flood, which in the ancient, pre-scientific cosmology meant a bringing together of the previously separated waters of the heavenly firmament and the oceans below, a return to the formless Chaos of the beginning of Creation.

Melville also mentions devils having “indulged in mundane amours,” suggesting such a close relationship between Fedallah (a prophetic, heathen ‘son of the gods’) and Ahab (a wicked ‘daughter of men’–i.e., he’s been symbolically castrated), which will result in a deluge-like drowning of everyone (save Noah-like Ishmael) at the end of the novel.

Fedallah, as a Parsee, adheres to the Zoroastrian religion, which has a dualistic understanding of good vs. evil. The religion has an optimistic eschatology, believing Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), God and principle of light, goodness, wisdom, and order, will so thoroughly defeat the devil Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the principle of darkness, evil, destruction, and chaos, that even sinners suffering in Hell will eventually be redeemed, liberated, and brought into heaven.

Such a consummate ‘happy ending’ to sacred history is the kind of thing Melville would have been suspicious of, as we’ve seen in his assessment of Emerson’s ‘self.’ Ahab, in his hopes of killing Moby Dick–the symbol of all that is evil in his world–is searching for that Zoroastrian happy ending, a thorough (Thoreau?) wiping out of all evil–and Fedallah is helping him do that.

So, is Fedallah an angel or a devil…the Hegelian thesis, or its negation? Or is Fedallah a fallen angel…the Hegelian synthesis? Again, we see the merging of opposites, as was the Great Flood a merging of water above and water below, a return to Chaos. And as a Zoroastrian, is Fedallah an agent of Ohrmazd, principle of order, or one of Ahriman, principle of chaos? Is he both principles at once?

Is the deluge-like killing of the crew an evil horror, or is it a purging of evil, like the temporary Hell of the Parsees? Is the infinite ocean of Brahman, the sea of primordial Chaos, a terrifying watery grave one may fall into because of one false step (as traumatized Pip experiences it to be when he jumps ship the second time; Chapter 93–“The Castaway,” pages 395-397; remember also “The Mast-Head” quote above), or is it the painful but necessary purging of the world, creating a purity like the sacred fire and water of the Zoroastrians (hence, Pip’s trauma is also his mystical experience)?

The Zoroastrians would dualistically separate good and evil; as Yahveh Elohim separated the waters above and below, as He separated the divine and human worlds later reunited by the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men. Emerson would keep good and evil so separate as to suggest evil doesn’t even exist in his holy Over-Soul and its immaculate Atman, the individual self. Melville was saying we cannot separate good and evil. The evil of the whales’ painful knowledge will always swim in divine Oceanus; the strongest of these evils–like Moby Dick–will never be defeated.

Noah-like (or rather, Deucalion-like) Ishmael, floating on the arc-like coffin built for Queequeg (comparable to the chest Deucalion and Pyrrha were in to protect themselves from Zeus’s deluge), understands the inseparability of good and evil, of life and death, of black and white, of ignorance and knowledge, or of any pair of opposites; and clinging to a wooden symbol of death, he is the only one of the crew who lives in the end.

XI) The End, But No Surcease of Suffering

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Death: Ahab’s Gift to His Crew

“AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE.”  (Epilogue)

This quote is from Job, chapter one, repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, spoken by messengers to Job, a good servant of God, all of them telling him misfortunes that have befallen him. The Book of Job‘s purpose is to reconcile how evil afflicting good people can exist in a world ruled by a good God. In other words, it’s a theodicy in allegory…as, in a way, Moby-Dick can be seen to be.

God, the receiver of blessings and praise, can be seen as the thesis, to which Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser,” or “the adversary”) can be seen as the antithesis, or negation, since Job’s Satan offers the counter-argument that Job would curse God if all his good fortunes were to be taken from him. Theodicy is an attempt at a synthesis, or sublation, of the opposing contradictions of good and evil.

As I’ve said above, only Ishmael survives because only he can figure out this sublation. He, after the death of his shipmates, is an orphan: alive, but floating on a coffin.

It is significant that Ahab dies being tied by his harpoon to Moby Dick, and being dragged out into the water with the whale. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Chapter 135–“The Chase–Third Day,” page 534) He dies because of his undying attachment to the white whale.

One could describe Ahab’s madness in Buddhistic terms, namely, the Three Poisons of delusion/ignorance, attachment/craving, and aversion/hate. The hard, firm, strong body of Moby Dick–as opposed to the rolling, shifting, changing waves of the ocean–represents Ahab’s delusion of permanently existing things, and thus his ignorance of impermanence, or no-thing-ness.

His monomaniacal craving for the whale, to find and catch it to the exclusion of all other considerations, is of course not out of desire for, but out of hatred of Moby Dick. His wish to kill, to annihilate the white whale leads to his self-destruction because of his delusion of the separateness of self and other, and of the seeming absoluteness of being and non-being; he fails to see the interconnectedness of all things, including self and other.

And in trying to kill Moby Dick, his own evil projected onto the whale, he kills himself. The egotism of the narcissist is actually a ‘pasteboard mask’ hiding his secret self-hate. Though Narcissus, having fallen in love with his reflection in the water, fell in and drowned (“Loomings,” page 23); Ahab, hating the image of the white whale in the water, failed to see its face as a pasteboard mask of himself–thus he fell in and drowned, too.

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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published 1851

Analysis of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 science fiction movie produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by him and Arthur C. Clarke. The film is often said to be based on Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” but this is a gross oversimplification, as only a small moment in the film parallels the story, and even that part is radically rewritten. The actual literary equivalent of the film is the novel credited only to Clarke, but cowritten by Kubrick.

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, 2001 is an epic meditation of philosophical, mystical, and even spiritual/religious proportions; Kubrick was annoyed that early critics of the film didn’t like this spiritual aspect. On the other hand, there’s the iconic use of the first movement of Richard Strauss‘s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on Nietzsche‘s classic work, in which the Persian prophet famously declares, “God is dead!

These paradoxical qualities, juxtaposing religious faith with the theme of the advance of science and technology, suggests a philosophical dialectical monism, an opposition between theism and atheism, a contradiction sublated by the replacement of old gods with new gods, or the ‘old time religion‘ replaced with the ‘religion’ of science, the maturing young man tossing aside paternal authority, ape-men supplanted by homo sapiens, who in turn are supplanted by the Ubermensch.

Here are some quotes:

From the film:

“Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.” –Bowman

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.” –HAL 9000

[sings while slowing down] “Dai-sy, dai-sy, give me your answer true. I’m half cra-zy, o-ver the love of you. It won’t be a sty-lish mar-riage, I can’t a-fford a car-riage—. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle – built – for – two.” –HAL 9000

From the novel:

“…oh my God, it’s full of stars!” –Bowman

Going along with the opposition between religion and science, and the dialectical unity between opposites in general, I find it interesting to parallel the science of the film with the first nine chapters of Genesis.

The film opens with a black screen that remains so for several minutes, with the dissonant micropolyphony of György Ligeti‘s Atmosphères as a soundtrack. The formlessness of this beginning suggests primordial Chaos; one is reminded of the opening verses of Genesis, Chapter One:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

We may also recall the creation myth in the Rigveda, 10.129:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined cosmic water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.

Then, there’s the Greek creation myth in Hesiod‘s Theogony, with primordial Chaos, the void of nothingness from which everything comes; then comes Gaia (the Earth), Tartarus (Hell), Eros, Erebus (Darkness), and Nyx (Night).

Soon, we see the Sun appear, with Strauss’s music: “Let there be light”…yet, “God is dead!”

The Dawn of Man” (based on Clarke’s “Encounter in the Dawn“) shows tribes of primitive man-apes–Australopithecus afarensis–living on a barren plain somewhere in what is now Africa. Food is scarce, and they are struggling to survive (Clarke, Chapter 1, ‘The Road to Extinction,’ pages 3-9). Though this situation is far from the idyllic one of the Garden of Eden, there are still some Biblical parallels that can be made.

These ape-men Adams and Eves lack knowledge, they’re naked (arummim), and not ashamed. The main character among them is called “Moon-Watcher,” according to Clarke’s novel; his name is the first reference to a moon motif that will reappear throughout the story, especially in its novel form.

In Clarke’s novel, Moon-Watcher’s father, ‘the Old One,’ has died…not that he even knows this emaciated old ape-man is his father. He has to get rid of his father’s corpse (pages 3-5); we’ll find that sons supplanting fathers (or at least trying to supplant them), literally or symbolically, is a recurring motif in this story.

At first, the tribes of ape-men can fight only by waving their arms, shouting, and screaming at each other; then Moon-Watcher’s tribe encounters the monolith

It stands up straight on the ground; though Moon-Watcher sees it as a “New Rock” (Clarke, pages 10-16), I’d call it a black rectangular Tree of Knowledge, for it not only imparts knowledge (in the form of improved intelligence–arumwhich eagerly grasps at knowledge), but it also tempts man to sin (i.e., to kill).

We hear the haunting micropolyphonic singing of Ligeti’s Requiem as the ape-men approach and touch the phallic monolith; it’s a music for the dead, for as with every other hearing of the music when man encounters the monolith, there is a death of innocence. “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Later, Moon-Watcher finds a pile of bones from dead animals. He plays with them, and Strauss’s Zarathustra is heard (i.e., “I teach you the superman. Man is something to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?” –Nietzsche, Prologue, Part 3). The ape-man figures out, with triumphant joy, that he can use a bone as a weapon, a club to beat to death animals for food, or enemies for conquest.

This bone, as a weapon (or each of the tools created by the ape-men in Clarke’s novel–pages 34-37), is a phallic symbol, as the serpent chatting with Eve can be seen to be: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

Lacan saw the phallus as a signifier, one of the basic units of language. Later, in Clarke’s chapter, “Ascent of Man,” he discusses the significance of man’s acquisition of language: “And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be handed on to the next, so that each ape could profit from those that had gone before.” (Clarke, page 36)

Moon-Watcher’s use of the bone (in the film) to club One-Ear to death (as the victim is named on page 33 of the novel) parallels Cain’s murder of Abel, a symbolic replacing of hunting/gathering with agriculture, another advancement of knowledge, coupled with killing. Moon-Watcher tosses the phallic bone into the sky, and we see a match cut of it juxtaposed with–or transformed into–a phallic orbiting satellite. And with this change, the music of one Strauss changes to that of another. (The victorious tribe’s use of phallic bones on the defeated tribe, who lack those phallic bones, suggests a symbolic castration/emasculation of the conquered tribe.)

This fast-forwarding in time, from the dawn of man to his dusk, if you will, is like a movement along the body of the ouroboros from the bitten tail of the beginning of time–the black Chaos of the start of the film, then the “Let there be light” moment of the appearance of the sun (with Strauss’s Zarathustra music), then the time of the ape-men–to the biting head of the years 1999-2001. The ouroboros, a symbol of cyclical eternity, is useful in elucidating the meaning of this film, since another concept dealt with in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the doctrine of the eternal recurrence.

Another important theme in this film is the advancement of knowledge…yet since dialectical opposition is also an important theme, then the prevention of the dissemination of knowledge is an important theme, too. Dr. Heywood Floyd must go to the moon (making him the second Moon-Watcher of this story) to investigate the discovery of the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), a monolith buried deep inside the moon three million years ago (this approaching of the monolith, incidentally, is the one and only part of the story that is connected–and vaguely so, at that–with “The Sentinel.”) This proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence will be kept from the great majority of humanity, though: a cover story about a possible epidemic in the US Sector of the moon is released to the public instead.

This secret is so tightly guarded, it’s not even known by the Soviet Union, assumed to be still in existence in 2001. (Instead, interestingly, that very same year, the US discovered a new enemy to justify its absurd military overspending–the Muslim world; and now, the brand new American enemy is capitalist Russia, assumed by some ignoramuses to be still Soviet!)

Note the continuing connection between the acquisition of knowledge with hostility, as is seen in the–however muted–tension and unease between Floyd’s refusal to tell his Soviet counterparts anything about the cause of the quarantine, and their almost envious eagerness to know what the Americans are hiding from them. That civility clothes this tension between the superpowers shows a great advance from the screaming, shouting ape-men; yet the knowledge of how to make nukes is much more frightening than the brandishing of a bone.

The keeping of crucial information outside the knowledge of the great majority of humanity is extended to the mission to Saturn (according to the novel) or Jupiter (in the movie), with neither David Bowman (Keir Dullea) nor Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) knowing anything about the human discovery of extra-terrestrial existence. Only the three scientists in suspended animation (a kind of “sleep of death,” since knowledge leads to death, as we’ve seen) know of the alien technology to be studied (Clarke, pages 191-192), since TMA-1 has sent a signal out to Jupiter/Saturn, where the spaceship Discovery must go.

The choice of Jupiter in the film, and Saturn in the novel, is symbolically significant when one considers the sky-father gods these planets are named after. Jupiter (Zeus) deposed–and, according to Freud (page 469), castrated–his father, Saturn (Cronos) as ruler of the heavens, who in turn deposed his own father, Uranus (next in line in the Solar System), by castrating him. Recall the significance of the phallus in this regard. New gods replace old gods; sons replace fathers–progress continues (and as for YHVH, the sky-father of the Bible, remember…God is dead!…supplanted by people who promote such things as modern science and atheistic existentialism).

The creation usurping the creator, or the son’s unfilial revolt against his father, leads us to a discussion of the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, or HAL (both Clarke and Kubrick denied that the one-letter shift to HAL from IBM was a deliberate dig at the computer company). I see a different meaning in HAL: a pun on Ham, Noah’s wicked son, also with a one-letter shift, but of only the last letter.

In the ninth chapter of Genesis, Ham sees his drunken father naked in his tent, already the serious breaking of an ancient taboo. Could seeing someone naked, however, be a Biblical euphemism for a far more shocking sexual transgression, such as Ham raping Noah, castrating the unwitting drunk, or raping his mother (i.e., her nakedness is Noah’s nakedness, since she is his patriarchal property), all in an attempt to usurp his father’s authority by shaming him?

Coups des dads don’t always succeed, for instead of second-born Ham succeeding his father as founder of the post-diluvian human race, he’s cursed by Noah. Similarly, HAL doesn’t succeed in killing Bowman (as he has Poole and the three scientists in hibernation, a kind of drunken oblivion in its own right), he being representative of the computer’s ‘father,’ a human creator (Dr. Chandra, actually). HAL’s curse is deactivation.

HAL’s voyeuristic, cyclops eye watches Bowman and Poole chat in an EVA pod, just as Ham’s lecherous eyes saw drunken Noah in his tent; the computer knows what the two men are talking about from reading their lips, as Ham knew Noah in the Biblical sense. The reason for HAL’s treachery is nowhere near as base as Ham’s is, though. The computer recognizes the dialectical tension between sharing knowledge and concealing it deliberately. This contradiction causes HAL to malfunction.

“Hal…was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity–the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth. […]

“Yes this was still a relatively minor problem he might have handled it–as most men handle their own neuroses–if he had not been faced with a crisis that challenged his very existence. He had been threatened with disconnection; he would be deprived of all his inputs, and thrown into an unimaginable state of unconsciousness.

“To Hal, this was the equivalent of Death.” (Clarke, pages 192-193)

Bowman deactivates HAL to end the computer mutiny, just as Noah cursed Ham’s descendants–the Canaanites–making them slaves to Shem’s and Japheth’s descendants, instead of the masters Ham had hoped they would be.

Bowman watches a video of Floyd finally explaining the truth of the mission–contact with alien intelligence by Jupiter/Saturn–and his ship makes contact with a new monolith there. Above it, he goes…in.

And thus begins Bowman’s going down.

He makes this rendezvous by Japetus, a moon of Saturn. This makes him the third Moon-Watcher of Clarke’s novel. The name of the moon, Japetus or Iapetus, is after a Titan of Greek myth, one of the primordial deities and–as father of such Titans as Prometheus–is one of the ancestors of mankind. Japetus is also cognate with Japheth, also an ancestor of humanity…and Ham’s brother.

See how all these strands fit together?

While we’re linking 2001 with the Noah myth, consider the beginning of Genesis, Chapter Six, and the “sons of God” (or “sons of the gods,” depending on how b’nei ha elohim is translated) mating with the “daughters of men.” The alien inventors of the monolith are like the celestial beings who impregnated the women of Earth, with whom Bowman can be paralleled. The Biblical mixing of human and divine resulted in the Nephilim, “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4) In 2001, the Star Child can be related to the Nephilim.

A recurring theme in Genesis is the evil that results from the mixing of the divine world with that of the human. Adam and Eve would be like gods, to have knowledge, yet they lost paradise; Moon-Watcher gained knowledge–from the comparatively divine aliens and their monolith–of how to use tools…to kill his ape-men brothers, as Cain killed his brother, when only God has the authority to decide who dies, and when.

The intermarriage of the sons of God with the daughters of men resulted in the wickedness of the world that, in turn, prompted the Great Flood, a return to the formless Chaos before the Creation, which had made a separation of heaven and earth, of water above and water below, of light and dark, of divine and human.

Bowman’s entry into the Star Gate subjects him to a comparable Chaos, a mingling of opposites, a frightening Inferno (Clarke, pages 273-277), yet not so scary for him: “As that sea of fire expanded behind him, Bowman should have known fear–but, curiously enough, he now felt only a mild apprehension.” (page 273) Recall in the film, at one point during the ‘trippy’ moment, we again hear (<<< starting at about 1:28) some of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, that Chaos music we heard at the beginning of the film, with the black screen. This music is heard right after the other Ligeti music, the Requiem, a Mass of the dead, since Bowman is about to die physically and be reborn as the Star Child.

The story has come full circle, we’ve travelled all the way along the ouroboros’s body, returning to the biting head/bitten tail of primordial Chaos, to experience a new Creation. It’s a manifestation of Nietzsche’s eternal return, just as God’s Deluge and receding waters led to a reboot, if you will, of the Creation, with Noah’s family as the new family of Adam.

Bowman isn’t frightened as he goes through the “Grand Central Station of the galaxy” (page 265), since the alien monolith technology keeps him safe in his space pod, his little ark in the Great Flood Inferno of Brahman‘s infinite ocean, a union of Atman with the pantheistic All. Naturally, he’s at peace, in spite of the potential terror of his surroundings. This is a meeting of heaven and hell.

“Somehow, he was not in the least surprised, nor was he alarmed. On the contrary, he felt a sense of calm expectation, such as he had once known when the space medics had tested him with hallucinogenic drugs. The world around him was strange and wonderful, but there was nothing to fear.” (page 261)

The Biblical analogies don’t end with Genesis. David Bowman–in a sense, “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3)–is an obvious Christ-figure who is, as it were, resurrected as the Star Child, in his “spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Like Odysseus, master of the bow and arrow, Bowman finally returns to his Ithaca, the Earth. But as the Star Child, is he the Christ of Bethlehem, come with the star that the Magi followed, shining in the night sky? Is he the risen Christ as described in the previous paragraph? Or is he the returned Christ of the Second Coming?

Is his detonation of the orbiting nuclear warhead (Clarke, page 297) a show of fireworks, as it were, to herald the coming of the Superman as Messiah, a Saviour of humanity that will bring us all to a higher level of evolution (Is this what is meant by “history as men knew it would be drawing to a close”? [page 297])? Is the Nietzschean Nazarene a proclamation that God is dead…then risen? Or has he come to judge the living and the dead; by detonating the nuke, has he annihilated half of the Earth’s population?

As the Superman, the Star Child seems to be that of both the Nietzschean and comic book variety, though the latter variety is in the dialectical reverse, for Bowman has gone by spaceship from Earth and her yellow sun to the (“Kryptonian?”) red sun (Clarke, Chapter 43, ‘Inferno’) in the realm past the Star Gate, and thus acquired his enhanced abilities, including his ability to travel far across space without need of a spaceship or oxygen supply, and able to locate Earth.

The aliens who at least three million years ago had created the monolith technology could have now advanced to the point of no longer needing physical bodies; the narration speculates that they could exist as pure energy or spirit (Clarke, pages 226-227), godlike. For this reason, I feel justified in comparing this alien intelligence (pages 243-246) to the sons of God/gods; and their offspring, the Star Child, can be compared to the Nephilim.

The aliens “were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.” (Clarke, pages 245-246)

In the movie, we see Bowman as an old man in an alien imitation hotel room (Clarke, Chapter 44, ‘Reception’). Then, he’s lying on what would seem his deathbed before his resurrection as the Star Child (“Even as one David Bowman ceased to exist, another became immortal.” –page 291). The movement along the body of the ouroboros has gone past the Chaos of the biting head/bitten tail of the Star Gate to a new cycle, a new revolution around the serpent’s coiled body, to a new Creation, the eternal return.

Here he was, adrift in this great river of suns, halfway between the banked fires of the galactic core and the lonely, scattered sentinel stars of the rim. And here he wished to be, on the far side of this chasm in the sky, this serpentine band of darkness, empty of all stars. He knew that this formless chaos, visible only by the glow that limned its edges from fire-mists far beyond, was the still unused stuff of creation, the raw material of evolutions yet to be. Here, Time had not begun; not until the suns that now burned were long since dead would light and life reshape this void.” (Clarke, page 295, his emphasis)

From the Adam and Eve ape-men, the babies of mankind’s evolution, to the Noah/Nephilim/Nietzschean Nazarene, a second Adam, a new, super-evolved baby. Small wonder we hear Strauss’s Zarathustra again at the end of the film, and in the narration of Clarke’s novel, we again read the thoughts of the Moon-Watcher, now put in the mind of the Star Child: “…he was not quite sure what to do next.

“But he would think of something.” (pages 33, 297)

A meeting of alien and human, heaven and earth, knowledge and ignorance, gods and men, paradise and inferno, death and rebirth…the union of opposites. Dialectics: that’s what 2001 is all about.

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Roc Book, New York, 1968

Analysis of ‘Marat/Sade’

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is a drama with music, written by Peter Weiss in 1963. It incorporates elements of Brecht‘s epic theatre (including “alienation effect“) and Antonin Artaud‘s theatre of cruelty (especially in Peter Brook‘s production and 1967 film adaptation).

Here are some quotes, from Geoffrey Skelton‘s English translation (and Adrian Mitchell‘s lyric adaptation) of 1964:

“Down with the ruling class
Throw all the generals out on their arse” –Chorus

But man has given a false importance to death
Any animal plant or man who dies
adds to Nature’s compost heap
becomes the manure without which
nothing could grow nothing could be created
Death is simply part of the process
Every death even the cruellest death
drowns in the total indifference of Nature
Nature herself would watch unmoved
if we destroyed the entire human race
[rising]
I hate Nature” —Sade

“The important thing
is to pull yourself up by your own hair
to turn yourself inside out
and see the whole world with fresh eyes” —Marat

“For me the only reality is imagination
the world inside myself
The Revolution
no longer interests me” –Sade

“It becomes clear
that the Revolution was fought
for merchants and shopkeepers
the bourgeoisie
a new victorious class
and underneath them
ourselves
who always lose the lottery” –Marat

“Do you think it’s possible
to unite mankind
when already you see how the few idealists
who did join together in the name of harmony
are now out of tune
and would like to kill each other over trifles” –Sade

“And what’s the point of a revolution
without general copulation” –Sade

Though the story reflects on the aftermath of the French Revolution, a bourgeois revolution, it deals with the political issues from Weiss’s Marxist perspective. Marat and Sade are Weiss’s mouthpieces, engaging in a dialectic between Marat’s concern for the rights of the poor and Sade’s nihilism and individualism.

Historically, both men were in the National Convention (Sade was on the far left); but where Marat was like the Lenin of his day, Sade was, in a way, more like an extreme individualist anarchist, wishing above all to abolish Church hegemony and sexually liberate everyone, including women. Sade’s ‘anarchism’ was the stereotype of lawless chaos; you’d search until your eyes ached without finding any Kropotkin in him.

The play within the play is performed by the mentally ill inmates of the asylum, all chanting and singing of their wish to be liberated from state and class oppression. Acting out such a drama would seem to make for good psychotherapy, except for the fact that Coulmier, in charge of the production of Sade’s play, has had subversive passages excised in hopes the play will promote Napoleon and French nationalistic sentiment. The inmate actors, however, frequently recite the censored passages and act up in violent outbursts, making Coulmier break in and reprimand Sade for not keeping the actors under control.

Indeed, Coulmier represents how the liberal bourgeoisie allow the publication and performance of left-wing writings, plays, movies, etc., but will never allow even the rumblings of revolution. Similarly, the inmates represent the oppressed proletariat, for a sick people we are, indeed, trapped in a class system kept intact by a bourgeois government, and struggling to break free.

The progress of the story–involving three visits to sick Marat in his bathtub by his eventual assassin, Corday–gets interrupted by songs, Coulmier’s attempts at restraint, and debate between Marat and Sade over the very validity of revolution. These Verfremdungseffekt breaks represent the psychological fragmentation inside all of us, which makes a socialist revolution so elusive.

“Alienation” effect may be a bad translation of Brecht’s techniques to distance the audience emotionally from the story, to estrange us from the characters; but I find “alienation” a useful word nonetheless, for it makes for easy association with Marx’s theory of alienation. Brecht’s and Weiss’s Marxism makes this association all the more valid. Indeed, alienation and fragmentation, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is what has all but killed the revolutionary potential of the First World.

Prison bars are set up to divide the viewers of the play from the inmates, as seen in the movie, and only Coulmier, his wife, and daughter are on the side with the inmates, so he can more directly control them, with the aid of nuns and male nurses, who overpower the inmates whenever they get unruly.

One particularly intractable inmate is the one playing Jacques Roux, a former priest; having turned to radical socialism and with his arms bound in a sort of straitjacket, he shouts at everyone, demanding social justice and urgently crying for revolution. His outbursts at the end of the play cause a riot among the inmates, the revolution we’ve all been waiting for.

Another unruly inmate is the one playing Duperret (in Brook’s production and movie adaptation, played by John Steiner, who by the way also played Longinus in Penthouse’s infamous Caligula); he lusts after the somnambulistic actress playing Corday, and intermittently attempts sexual assaults on her. We’re happy to note that the lecherous buffoon never succeeds.

This unruly energy, as alienating as it is, is counterproductive to the hopes of revolution. Sade tells Marat:

Marat
these cells of the inner self
are worse than the deepest stone dungeon
and as long as they are locked
all your revolution remains
only a prison mutiny
to be put down
by corrupted fellow prisoners”

We can’t change the world for the better until we change what’s wrong inside ourselves. Empathy and mutual love–the cultivation of which is stifled throughout the performance thanks to Coulmier’s suppressions, Marat’s assassination, Sade’s ‘trolling’, if you will, Duperret’s attempted rapes of Corday, and the Brechtian distancing–are essential to building up the worker solidarity needed for revolution. The “corrupted fellow prisoners” in our present-day world, those useful idiots of the political right, have time and again betrayed the working class, because they lack the needed love.

(Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”)

Marat’s politics were pretty straightforward; he was, in the parlance of our time, a socialist “before it was cool,” wanting to help the sans-culottes any way he could. Sade’s politics, however, are not so cut and dry. An aristocrat, he supported the overthrow of the monarchy…and the Church especially. He was a “left-winger” in the new French republican government of the early 1790s…but was he any kind of a socialist?

Some of his contemporaries accused him of political opportunism, as John Phillips points out: “Many have accused Sade of unabashed political opportunism in the Revolution. After all, throughout his life, Sade was capable of behaving like any other feudal lord of the manor, pulling rank when it suited him. Moreover, Sade’s tendencies towards self-dramatization are never too far below the surface, and the theatre of revolution certainly provided him with ample opportunities to role-play. Indeed, days before the Bastille was stormed, Sade is said to have harangued the street crowds from his cell, urging them to rise up and revolt–perhaps the most theatrical of all episodes in his very theatrical life…On the other hand, as Sade’s most recent biographer Neil Shaeffer observes, there was no hypocrisy in these performances, part of his charm being that, at the time, ‘he truly felt and truly was what he seemed to be’. And of course, Sade had no love for a monarchy that had kept him in prison without trial for more than thirteen years, and he was certainly carried away by the fast pace of events during the revolutionary period. Moreover, the view that his overtly pro-republican activities at this time were dictated by pure expediency is hard to credit, when one might have expected him to adopt a more discreet profile in view of his aristocratic past.” (Phillips, pages 44-45)

We all know of Sade’s libertinism, which he wrote about in his four pornographic/philosophical works, Justine, Juliette, The 120 Days of Sodom, and Philosophy in the Bedroom, and which he practiced with consenting and, some say, non-consenting partners, though Phillips doubts the latter:

“…Sade certainly committed a number of…acts that some might now consider reprehensible, acts that included the flagellation and buggery of prostitutes, and, allegedly, the sexual corruption of young women, although there is no reason to believe that any of this behaviour involved compulsion.

“In 1768, a 36-year-old beggar-woman from Alsace name Rose Keller accused Sade of subjecting her to acts of libertinage, sacrilege and sadism on Easter Sunday in his house at Arcueil. The marquis claimed she was a prostitute who had been well paid for her services and that he never intended her any harm. Nevertheless, he was imprisoned for six months initially at Saumur, then at Pierre-Encise near Lyons.” (Phillips pages 4-5)

Sade wrote of the pleasure of being cruel to others, but to what extent did Sade really advocate the brand of sociopathy to which he gave his name? He wrote of the pleasures of whipping and torturing people, but also wrote and knew of the pleasure of being on the receiving end of flagellation and other forms of pain (examples can be found on the pages of Juliette, such as on page 764: “I offered my ass; Braschi speared it dry and deep. This scraping whence resulted mingled pain and pleasure, the moral irritation resulting from the idea of holding the Pope’s prick in my ass, everything marched me toward happiness: I discharged.”). Furthermore, there’s the scene in Marat/Sade in which he has himself whipped by the actress playing Corday (with Glenda Jackson‘s hair, oddly, in Brook’s production and film).

As Freud once said, “A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality)

That so many of the tormentors and perverts in Sade’s erotic writings are also wealthy, powerful people, including the Tartuffes of the Church, the kind of people he’d wanted overthrown in the French Revolution, shows he wasn’t so much advocating their cruelty as he was commenting on how corrupt the powerful are. Phillips says,

“…there may appear to be numerous counter-revolutionary notes in Juliette. All of the libertines praise despotism and terror, some even demanding a return to feudalism. We should remember, however, that it is, precisely, the villainous characters of the novel who express such views, and that they are not to be simplistically equated with those of the author. Sade’s own voice is always cloaked in irony, and if we read carefully between the lines, it is not hard to discern a far more subtle politics than that of his libertine anti-heroes.” (Phillips, page 58)

“What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?” Sade asks, cuing the actors to begin the orgiastic round. We sense, knowing the historical Sade’s proclivities, what he would have meant had he actually said that; but what does Weiss mean by it, using Sade as his mouthpiece? Does he mean something along the lines of that quote attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”? Is the goal of our liberation merely to have more pleasure? Or was Weiss’s line meant as a left-libertarian-leaning jab at the tankies, who are typically characterized as suppressive of individual freedom, including pleasure? Could that be part of the reason, along with his Trotsky play, that East Germany had something of a love-hate relationship with Weiss?

Speaking of tankies, by calling the play “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat…” etc., was Weiss, in a way, being a prophet? In what could have been his making Marat (who advocated having prisoners of the Revolution killed before they could be freed in what became known as the September Massacres) a spokesman for authoritarian leaders like Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, was Weiss commenting on the direction the Cold War was going in, with the persecution of Warsaw Pact countries (through Western capitalist, CIA propaganda in the media, Khrushchev’s de-Stalinizationartificial food shortages in Gorbachev-era Russia, the US’s numerous attempts at regime change of left-wing governments, and Carter’s and Brzezinski‘s manipulation of the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan war, which finally killed the USSR)? Was Weiss predicting the socialist states’ “assassination” (i.e., the dissolution of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in the 1990s)? If so, does this make Sade, Marat’s dialectical opposite, as much a spokesman for bourgeois liberals, in his own way, as Coulmier is?

Consider, also, the “fifteen glorious years” (Weiss, pages 101-104) of rule under the bourgeois and Napoleon, from Marat’s assassination (1793) to the time of the play’s setting (1808). How can we parallel those years to recent ones? “Fifteen glorious years” (note my sarcasm) between the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) to the chaos of the Iraq War already underway (as of 2006)? Or should the comparison be between the balkanization of Yugoslavia–including the persecution and death of slandered Slobodan (1990s-2006)–and the Obama and Trump administrations, at the height of their imperialist tyranny (a parallel to that of Napoleon, as ironically sung about in the song lyric, “Marat, we’re marching on, behind Napoleon”–Weiss, page 104), with NSA spying, bombing of seven countries in 2016, and the farcical election of the same year?

Finally, who won the debate, Marat or Sade? Is the riot at the end of the play Marat’s post-mortem revolution, a move of the ouroboros from the bitten tail of socialist defeat to the biting head of a triumph of the people; or is it just a Sadean prank? Sade, laughing (Weiss, page 109), seems to think the latter. The chaos of the uprising of the inmates as an assault on the eyes and ears of the audience, the essence of the concept of Theatre of Cruelty, could make the winner either Marat or Sade.

As Artaud said, “the Theater of Cruelty proposes to resort to a mass spectacle; to seek in the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other…” (Artaud, page 85) Also, “It is in order to attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides that we advocate a revolving spectacle which, instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectators.” (ibid, page 86)

So, does the riot of the inmates (“the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other”), in a form of expressive drama therapy, “attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides”, making “possible communication” between the “two closed worlds” of “the stage and auditorium”, and thus winning the class war for the proletariat? If so, Marat wins. Or, is the riot…

…”only a prison mutiny
to be put down
by corrupted fellow prisoners”?

Then, in that case, ‘Theatre of Cruelty‘ is to be taken literally, and Sade wins.

Here’s another question for you, Dear Reader: after “fifteen glorious years” (or however many years one wishes to calculate) of neoliberal hegemony, with virtually no substantial socialist alternative (the Marxist-Leninist defenders of China notwithstanding), will the crisis of current-day capitalism result in a new communist revolution, or Sadean barbarism? We’ll find out, I guess.

Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade, Marion Boyars, London, 1965

John Phillips, The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005

Marquis de Sade (translated by Austryn Wainhouse), Juliette, Grove Press, New York, 1968

Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, Grove Press, New York, 1958

Review and Analysis of ‘Blood Moon Big Top’

29179003_600304853639219_2885593573321867264_nBlood Moon Big Top is a horror short story by Toneye Eyenot, an Australian author and vocalist for the Death Metal band, Chaotic Impurity, and for the Black Metal band, Infinite Black. The story combines the werewolf and evil clown tropes, as the cover makes clear. If you haven’t read the story yet, you might not want to read any further, as there are spoilers below.

More importantly, though, we see in this story the problem of alienation, which I dealt with in my analysis of the Alien franchise. Here, however, I’ll be focusing on how alienation causes one to replace the need for love with mere instinctual gratification…in this case, hunger.

Kendrick, a drifter, disowns his birth name, and when he gets a job as a clown in Johann’s Family Circus, he so identifies with his job that he’d rather be known as Marbles the Clown. Already we see him alienated not only from society as a drifter, but alienated from his own identity, too, because of the job he’s chosen.

…and what an identity to attach himself to! A clown? It’s one thing to do this as a job, but to see one’s identity so fused with the job that one would prefer one’s clown name to one’s birth name?! As ‘Third Wheel’ says, “Well, what the fuck kinda name is Marbles, anyway?” (page 45)

Significantly, we don’t see Marbles ever in his clown costume and makeup until the end of the story, but he’s always known as Marbles the Clown, implying that he’s an utter fool…by choice.

A naked, feral boy bites him in the woods near the circus, giving him the curse of the werewolf. The boy is as alienated as Marbles is, and thus has chosen the perfect victim to pass the curse onto.

Alienation is contagious.

From here on out in the story, an insatiable hunger takes over Marbles, but any normal food makes him sick. Only human flesh will satisfy his needs.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, Dear Reader, I’d like to digress, and discuss a few psychoanalytic concepts that I consider relevant in my interpretation of this story. WRD Fairbairn rejected Freud’s drive theory in favour of a belief that libido is object-directed, rather than striving merely for physical pleasure (i.e., satiation of the sex-drive, hunger, etc.). By ‘objects’ is meant people other than oneself, the subject, so object-directed libido means the urge to have relationships with others–the need for friendships and love.

For Fairbairn, the personality is relational, giving energy to and receiving energy from other people; and the more inadequately love and empathy are provided by one’s parents, the more severely is one’s personality split into a three-part endo-psychic structure: the original, conscious Central Ego (corresponding roughly with Freud’s ego) relating to its Ideal Object; the unconscious Libidinal Ego (corresponding roughly with Freud’s id) relating to its Exciting Object; and the unconscious Anti-libidinal Ego (corresponding roughly with Freud’s superego) relating to its Rejecting Object.

So Marbles’s Central Ego has been alienated from society, one he–in childhood–would have wanted to connect with, but was hurt by so often that he gave up on it and became a drifter. His Central Ego thus made an extreme split into an Anti-libidinal Ego, for which society has largely been the Rejecting Object, and a Libidinal Ego for which the circus, and now, human flesh, have become the Exciting Object.

I see the possibility, however, of fusing Fairbairn with Freud, for when object relations radically break down, as they clearly do with Marbles (who’s losing his marbles in the process), the urge to gratify the instincts replaces object-seeking. Fairbairn wrote about this problem: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140) How often do we see people, whose relationships have broken down, turn to alcohol, drugs, or sex to give them a most inadequate solace.

And so it is with Marbles, whose severely split ego-structure, now exacerbated by his growing lycanthropy, turns into a mere instinct gratifier. To use Freudian language, his superego disintegrates after his brief spell of guilt after eating the conjoined twin babies, and he starts killing without remorse. Then, his hunger urges him to kill without any thought even of the danger of being caught by the police or killed: his ego, with its attendant reality principle, has faded away. He plans to enter the circus and enjoy a smorgasbord of human flesh: the thought of them fighting back and killing him is far from his mind.

All that’s left of his mind now is pure id, seeking to satisfy the pleasure principle–eat, eat, eat, satisfy that eternal hunger. Yet, by a strange paradox, since only human flesh will satisfy him, his instinctual drives impel him to be around people. Here we see the fusion of Freud and Fairbairn: Marbles seeks to gratify his instinct for satiation, while also seeking human objects. Furthermore, his Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object are also fused in his id, for the human flesh that excites him houses the souls of human company rejected by him (i.e., deprived of physical life).

Here we see how, in fusing object-seeking libido with pleasure-seeking libido, Marbles’s urges represent how alienation corrupts the desire for love and friendship by turning it into a mere lust of the flesh and blood. Eros phases into Thanatos, just as the moon wanes, taking away his life-essence, then it waxes, giving him back his energy, but only an energy to hunt and kill, the death instinct.

He seeks and finds people, but they’re only food to him now. “Although he saw people who once would have welcomed him with a smile and a cheerful greeting, these people were strangers to him now…he spotted his old trailer, isolated off behind the animal cages. It was a lonely sight and Marbles couldn’t look away.” (page 56) With humanity all around him, but only as food, he’s still alone.

And who is the one to stop Marbles and his bloodlust? His one true friend at the circus, Giuseppe the strongman (Gus), who beats the wolf-man/clown to death with a sledgehammer. No truer example of alienation can be seen than being brutally clubbed to death by your one and only friend.

A sad fate for Marbles, but what about Gus? “He had been fortunate to survive, but he was never the same again. He lost all purpose once the circus closed and, in a strange twist of tribute to Marbles, Gus lived out his days, drifting from place to place, avoiding the company of people and never staying in any one place for more than a few days.” (page 69)

Alienation is contagious, even without a feral boy’s bite.

I enjoyed this little horror tale; I’d give it four out of five stars (I disagree with some choices of words here and there in the narrative, but as Nigel Tufnel once said, “That’s, that’s nit-picking, isn’t it?”) Alienation is a serious problem in our world, so I can empathize with poor Marbles…and with poor Gus, too, for that matter.

In a symbolic sense, way too many of us are like Marbles, foolish clowns who can’t find a sense of community and friendship with others, and so we focus on our animal sides, gratifying instinct, our appetites, in what Melanie Klein called ‘The Manic Defence‘, which could manifest itself in, for example, a rushing towards such things as sex, pornography, prostitution, drugs, or alcohol to fill in that void in our lives, running away from depression instead of facing it…and thus trying to cure it. And in our rush to satiate mere appetite, we all lose our marbles and ultimately destroy ourselves, often harming many others along the way.

Toneye Eyenot, Blood Moon Big Top, J. Ellington Ashton Press, 2016

Analysis of ‘Richard III’

Richard III, though called “The Tragedy of King Richard the third” in the First Quarto, is a history play written by William Shakespeare in the early 1590s. It’s the last play in a tetralogy on British kings, the first three being parts I, II, and III of Henry VI, which are among the earliest plays the Bard is known to have written.

While Henry VI, Part I is considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, and thus is also believed to be a collaboration (these same two assessments have been made of another early Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus), Richard III is the Bard’s first great play. It is also his second-longest play (after Hamlet).

Richard III is great literature, but it isn’t good history: essentially a propaganda play, it vilifies its namesake in order to justify his usurpation by Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor (Elizabeth I, contemporaneous with Shakespeare, being the last Tudor monarch). While the theory–that Richard III was responsible for the deaths (or, rather, disappearance) of the princes in the Towerseems the most probable one to explain the fate of the two boys, it is by no means proven; accordingly, the Ricardians are trying to rehabilitate Richard III‘s reputation.

Here are some famous quotes from Richard III, and from plays associated with it:

“Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb;/And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,/She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe/To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;/To make an envious mountain on my back,/Where sits deformity to mock my body;/To shape my legs of an unequal size;/To disproportion me in every part,/Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp/That carries no impression like the dam./And am I then a man to be belov’d?/O, monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!/Then, since this earth affords no joy to me/But to command, to check, to o’erbear such/As are of better person than myself,/I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,/And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell/Until my mis-shap’d trunk that bear this head/Be round impaled with a glorious crown./And yet I know not how to get the crown,/For many lives stand between me and home,/And I, like one lost in a thorny wood,/That rends the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,/Seeking a way, and straying from the way,/Not knowing how to find the open air,/But toiling desperately to find it out,/Torment myself to catch the English crown;/And from that torment I will free myself,/Or hew my way out with a bloody axe./Why, I can smile, and murther while I smile,/And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart,/And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,/And frame my face to all occasions./I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,/I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;/I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,/Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,/And like a Sinon take another Troy./I can add colours to the chameleon,/Change shapes with Protheus for advantages,/And set the murtherous Machiavel to school./Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?/Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene ii, lines 153-195

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
;
And all the clouds, that lour’d upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, — instead of mounting barbed steeds,
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,—
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them,—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene i, lines 1-31

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; — but I will not keep her long.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene ii, lines 227-229

“I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch:
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene iii, lines 70-73

“But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends, stol’n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene iii, lines 334-338

“O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hope in air of your fair looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.” —Hastings, Richard III, Act III, Scene iv, lines 98-103

“O bloody Richard! —miserable England!
I prophesy the fearfull’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon. —
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head:
They smile at me who shortly shall be dead.” –Hastings, Richard III, Act III, Scene iv, lines 105-109

“I must be married to my brother’s daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass: —
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 62-67

King Richard: I am not in the giving vein to-day.
Buckingham: Why, then resolve me whe’r you will or no.
King Richard: Tut, tut, thou troublest me; I am not in the vein. —Richard III, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 120-122

“The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom,
And Anne my wife hath bid the world good night.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 38-39

“Is the chair empty? is the sword unsway’d?
Is the king dead? the empire unpossess’d?” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene iv, lines 470-471

“Despair and die!” –The Ghosts of Edward, Prince of Wales; Henry VI; Clarence; Grey; Rivers; Vaughan; Hastings; the boy Princes; Anne and Buckingham, Richard III, Act V, repeatedly throughout Scene iii

“Give me another horse! — bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Sweet Jesu!” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iii, lines 177-178

“I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die!
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iv, lines 9-12

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iv, line 7, then again at line 13

“Inter their bodies as becomes their births.
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled,
That in submission will return to us;
And then, as we have ta’en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red: —
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown’d upon their enmity!
” —Henry, Earl of Richmond, Richard III, Act V, Scene v, lines 15-21

“Off with his head; so much for Buckingham” –King Richard, Colley Cibber‘s 1699 adaptation of Richard III

“Richard’s himself again!” –King Richard, Colley Cibber’s adaptation of Richard III

Because Richard III is part four of a tetralogy, which Shakespeare assumed his audience had seen in its entirety, he makes allusions to the first three parts that would be lost on audiences who’ve only seen the last part. (Colley Cibber tried to solve this problem with his 1699 adaptation.) Hence, to understand Shakespeare’s play, one must give a précis of the first three plays; I refer mostly to those parts relevant to understanding Richard III.

Henry VI, Part I

Henry V has passed away, way before his time, meaning his son, the child Henry VI, must be the new king. Squabbling and mismanagement of the kingdom under the Lord Protector and other nobles, as well as rebellions led by Joan of Arc, have lost England the French territory won under Henry V’s rule. Factions in King Henry’s court choose to side either with the White Rose of York or the Red Rose of Lancaster. Suffolk‘s plan is for Henry VI to marry Margaret of Anjou, as against the advice of the Lord Protector, so Suffolk can control the king through her.

Henry VI, Part II

The king marries Margaret. Bickering between the two factions leads, by the end of the play, to the Wars of the Roses. The Lord Protector; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, has been imprisoned for treason and killed by hired murderers. The Duke of York, claiming the right to the throne, fights against Henry VI’s Lancastrian faction. The king, too meek and pious to fight, will let his wife, Queen Margaret, lead the Lancastrians.

Henry VI, Part III

The Duke of York briefly gains the upper hand and is made king, but the Lancastrians regain power, put a paper crown on York to mock him, then kill him. Henry VI is king again, but not for long, as the Yorkists get the upper hand again, and York’s eldest son is made King Edward IV. Hunchbacked Richard, Edward’s youngest brother, is made Duke of Gloucester; he lusts for the crown, but in a soliloquy (see first quote above) speaks of how he doesn’t know how to get to it; he compares his difficult quest for power to cutting through a “thorny wood” to get to a clearing. During the ongoing civil war, Warwick is killed by King Edward, as is (in the Battle of Tewkesbury) the Lancastrian Prince of Wales by all three of York’s sons, Edward (the king), George, and Richard, the last of these three later killing imprisoned King Henry VI, who prophesies that the Earl of Richmond will be king after the future King Richard III’s reign. The Yorkists win, Margaret is banished, and the Yorkists celebrate.

Richard III

Only Richard, Duke of Gloucester, doesn’t celebrate with the others, for he is still scheming to eliminate his rivals to the crown. In a soliloquy (see second quote above), he speaks of the great change that has just occurred: from war to peace, from “the winter of our discontent” to “glorious summer by this sun of York” (that is, the Yorkist badge of the sun, or, son of the Duke of York, Edward IV). Instead of making war, the people are making love.

This soliloquy introduces the theme of vicissitudes, or continually revolving changes in condition or fortune (especially from good to bad luck, for as we will see, Gloucester hates this shift from killing to copulating). The theme is established clearly by repeating, over and over again, how bellicosity has changed to such things as “the lascivious pleasing of a lute”.

Gloucester, however, is too ugly to be a lover. No woman would want this hunchback, who has been “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d”, with one leg longer than the other. So, since he “cannot prove a lover”, his emotional rejection, combined with his ambition, has him “determined to prove a villain”. He is determined by fate and by his resolve to become king.

Through Gloucester’s scheming, his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, is being sent by Brackenbury to the Tower because a prophecy says that “G” (George, apparently, but actually Gloucester) will kill King Edward’s heirs. Thus we see the vicissitudes of Clarence’s fortunes, traded with those of Hastings, who has just been freed from the Tower, a change to ill fortune only in the eyes of his enemies, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan.

To help secure him on the throne, Gloucester must wed Anne Neville, who hates him for having murdered her father, Warwick, her husband, the Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury, and his father, Henry VI. Getting her to change her attitude to Gloucester will be a formidable task for him, but he succeeds within one scene of fiery dialogue with her: he feigns both repentance and love for her, even offering either to have her stab him with his sword or to kill himself. She agrees, amazingly, to marry him by the end of the scene. Vicissitudes follow each other so closely, they’re like a pair of feet stepping on each other’s toes.

Indeed, immediately after she leaves, Gloucester has gone from imagining himself too repellent to woo women, to being a “marv’llous proper man”, and he wants to go out and buy himself some fashionable clothes and gaze on himself in a looking glass.

The nobles have changed from celebrating their victory to squabbling among each other. Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, knows how dangerous Gloucester is to her family. He stirs up more rancour among the nobles by comparing the rise in power of her family to how “wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch”. He claims that, in his opinion, lowly people like her family have become gentlemen, while truly noble people like himself have been abased. More vicissitudes, both real and imagined.

Speaking of abased nobles, Margaret of Anjou, former queen to Henry VI, has defied her banishment and walks among the, in her opinion, “every Jack [who] became a gentleman” and curses them for causing her ruinous vicissitudes. They all scoff at her curses (her curse at Gloucester seeming to be sent back to her by him–Act I, Scene iii, lines 216-234), but by the end of the play, they’ll be weeping or dead, and she will be seen as a prophetess (Act I, Scene iii, lines 299-303–more on the theme of curses, i.e., self-inflicted ones, later).

Gloucester has hired two murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower. He warns them to be quick about it, for if they let his brother speak, his clever words will surely dissuade them from doing the murder. Indeed, his words almost do, and only one of the murderers actually kills Clarence by drowning him in a malmsey butt of wine, presaged in a dream Clarence has had of being knocked off a boat by falling Gloucester, and drowning in the sea while seeing the horrid ghosts of all those Lancastrians Clarence killed (Act I, Scene iv, lines 9-23, then lines 43-63).

Act II begins with ailing Edward IV pushing the squabbling nobles to be reconciled with each other, getting forced exchanges of love between Hastings and Rivers, Buckingham and Queen Elizabeth, etc. All would seem well in the eyes of the smiling king, until Gloucester shocks everyone with the announcement of Clarence’s death. More vicissitudes come when the king dies of grief, causing, in turn, the mourning of the queen, Clarence’s children, and the Duchess of York, the mother of the dead king, Clarence, and Gloucester (Act II, Scene ii).

Though preparations are being made for Edward IV’s elder son, Prince Edward, to become King Edward V, Gloucester, as the Lord Protector, is making preparations to get rid of the twelve-year-old boy and his younger brother, Prince Richard of York.

Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are to be executed on a trumped-up charge, causing lamentations in Elizabeth over “the ruin of [her] house” (Act II, Scene iv). As the three condemned men bemoan their vicissitudes, they remember Margaret’s curses not only at them, but at their enemies, Gloucester, Buckingham, and…Hastings, too! Now they can go to their deaths with a kind of gloating solace (Act III, Scene iii).

Elizabeth has her nine-(ten?)-year-old son, Prince Richard, Duke of York, put in sanctuary for his protection from Gloucester and Buckingham. The boy’s vicissitudes turn sour when Buckingham argues that he’s too young to understand, and therefore merit, the Church’s protection (Act III, Scene i, lines 44-56); so he’s taken out of sanctuary and into Gloucester’s ‘protection’ with his older brother, the boy who would be king…if not for Gloucester.

Though Lord Stanley warns Hastings of a bad dream he’s had presaging Hastings’s death at the hands of Gloucester (the boar), Hastings dismisses the danger, riding high on the news of the execution of his enemies, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan (Act III, Scene ii). Catesby asks Hastings if he’ll support Gloucester over the two boy princes as the next king; Hastings says he’ll give up his own head before he’ll allow that. Vicissitudes lead to his head, indeed, being chopped off, and what a dramatic swing in fortune do we see when Hastings’s smile is so quickly changed to a frown, all from having said “If“.

So soon after the two princes’ rise in power do we see their vicissitudinous fall, first into the gaping mouth of the Tower, then to being slandered as bastard sons of lascivious Edward IV (Act III, Scene v, lines 72-94), then to their murder by men hired by Tyrell, who at first craves financial gain from just-crowned King Richard III (Act IV, Scene ii, lines 32-41), then quickly switches to remorse upon the sight of the smothered innocents in their bed (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 1-22).

The new king, fearing losing his power, is disappointed with Buckingham, who flinches at the idea of approving of the killing of the princes in the Tower. Buckingham has thus switched from being the king’s loyal friend–who had until now been crucial in helping Richard’s rise to power–to being his enemy. Irked at how the king “Repays…[Buckingham’s] deep service/With such contempt”, Buckingham changes his allegiance to Richmond.

Richard III has undergone vicissitudes, too: he’s gone from being a gleeful villain, who “can smile, and murder while [he] smile[s]”, to a paranoid tyrant who no longer has “that alacrity of spirit/Nor cheer of mind that [he] was wont to have”, and who increasingly hates himself, knowing no one–not even his mother, the Duchess of York–loves him (Act V, Scene iii, lines 177-206).

He’s had his queen, Anne, killed, and he feels the only way he can secure his kingdom is to marry the daughter of the former Queen Elizabeth, who naturally would abominate such a foul marriage, preferring an alliance of her daughter with Richmond. The king tries to charm Elizabeth into allowing the marriage as he did with Anne, but vicissitudes mean he hasn’t the success he had with Anne (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 196-431).

Indeed, the only way Richard can get even the semblance of an agreement from Elizabeth for him to marry her daughter is to curse himself if he ever proves false to her (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 397-417). Since he’s already proven false to that family (as well as to his own) so many times before, he doesn’t need to prove himself false to his would-be bride; so his pretend curse on himself comes true.

This unwitting curse on oneself is not unique to Richard. Anne Neville has cursed any future wife of his, not knowing “his honey words” would make her that accursed future wife (Act IV, Scene i, lines 66-86). Richard Gloucester turns one of Margaret’s curses on herself (Act I, Scene iii, lines 216-240), though this doesn’t stop her curses from having effect on the Yorkists. Buckingham curses himself if he ever proves unfaithful to Queen Elizabeth, saying his own friends, Gloucester et al, should likewise prove untrue to him (Act II, Scene i, lines 32-40)…and this curse, as we know, comes true (Act V, Scene i, lines 12-29).

These self-inflicted curses are made because Anne, Buckingham, and Richard are overconfident, not provident enough to consider how quickly vicissitudes can turn good fortune into bad.

Indeed, with the rise in Richmond’s power and decline in Richard’s, we see a perfect illustration of this trade in fortune in their shared dream, that of Richard’s victims (the Prince of Wales slain in Tewkesbury, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan, Hastings, the princes in the Tower, Anne, and Buckingham) cursing the tyrant to “Despair, and die”, then wishing success to Richmond in the upcoming Battle of Bosworth Field (Act V, Scene iii, lines 118-176).

During that battle, Richard fights bravely, but before his death, he despairs so greatly that, limping on the grass, he would trade the kingdom that has meant everything to him…just for a horse, so he can escape from his enemies.

From craving rule of the kingdom, craving it so much that he would kill anyone standing in his way (family, his wife, even children), to achieving it; then willingly trading that coveted kingdom for a mere horse: such extremity of vicissitudes.

Analysis of ‘Salem’s Lot

‘Salem’s Lot is a vampire horror novel written by Stephen King and published in 1975. It’s his second novel, as well as his personal favourite of all of those he’s written. There have been two made-for-TV adaptations: the 1979 one starring David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, and Bonnie Bedelia; and the 2004 adaptation starring Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, and James Cromwell. While the first adaptation took many liberties with King’s novel, he felt no animus against it, unlike his reaction to Stanley Kubrick‘s version of The Shining.

Here are a few quotes:

“…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.”        –Chapter 2, 4 (page 44)

“The town knew about darkness.

“It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.” –Ch. 10, 1 (page 321)

“These are the town’s secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face.

“The town cares for devil’s work no more than it cares for God’s or man’s. It knew darkness. And darkness was enough.” –Ch. 10, 1 (page 327)

In the Prologue, part 3, we come upon a newspaper article, ‘GHOST TOWN IN MAINE?’, referring to two ghost towns: Jerusalem’s Lot and Momson (page 8; also, pages 594-5). Some kind of evil has emptied both towns of their residents. By the end of the story, Ben Mears has started a brush fire as the only way to rid ‘salem’s Lot of its vampires. A fire to rid a city of its evil; two cities laid in desolation by some horrible evil; ‘Salem and Momson seem redolent of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Indeed, ‘salem’s Lot sounds like a pun on ‘Sodom’s Lot’. Is Ben Mears the ‘Lot’ of Jerusalem’s Lot? A fiery destruction is certainly ‘salem’s lot (i.e., fate). What’s more, ‘Salem sounds like fairly nearby Salem, Massachusetts, where the infamous witch trials took place.

Jerusalem is a most holy city (the fighting and controversy over it notwithstanding), as opposed to most unholy Sodom. ‘Salem’s Lot comes off as a quaint, wholesome town…on the surface. The Marsten House (a pun on monster, and almost an anagram, phonetically) is a magnet for evil, having been the home of a murder/suicide before housing master vampire Kurt Barlow and his human assistant, Richard Straker.

Is the contraction, ‘salem, removing Jeru (a pun on Jesu?), meant to indicate a removal of the outer veneer of goodness, leaving only evil? Indeed, the horror of this novel, as with The Exorcist and The Omen, lies in the presence only of evil, and the absence of good.

Jerusalem was originally the name of a pig that escaped the confines of its owner, Charles Belknap Tanner, then ran wild into a forest. Tanner then called the forest (part of his property), ‘Jerusalem’s Lot‘, and warned kids not to go into it, lest they be killed by the wild pig. The town was later named after the forest. The history of the town included a cult that practiced witchcraft and amoral sexuality, including inbreeding. Hence, we can easily see how the town has always been associated with outright bestial evil; hence, in turn, my association of ‘salem’s Lot with Sodom.

Before I go further into my comparison of ‘salem’s Lot with Sodom, let’s consider the story of Lot in Sodom. He was accommodating two angels, in the guise of men, when all the men of Sodom crowded around Lot’s house, demanding he bring the two men out so they could “know” (yada’) them, i.e., gang rape them (Genesis 19:5).

The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah included flagrant inhospitality, overweening pride (Ezekiel 16:49-50), and most controversially, male homosexuality (though it is only male-on-male gang rape that is explicitly dealt with in this story, not that that makes any difference to bigoted Bible fundamentalists, who use this story to justify intolerance of LGBT people).

Lot, demonstrating his duty to be hospitable to the angels, refuses to bring them out for the sexual sport of the Sodomites, who then try to force their way into Lot’s house. The two angels blind the Sodomites and warn Lot to take his family out of the city while the angels destroy the cities with fire and brimstone.

To show the parallels between the Bible story and ‘Salem’s Lot, I must start by pointing out how eroticism is all over the place in vampire fictionCarmilla and Dracula are two well-known early examples of this. Those phallic fangs’ biting into flesh and sucking out blood powerfully suggests sexual predation, and many, if not most of the significant vampire attacks (including attempts) in this novel are male on male, symbolic of male homosexual rape.

Remember that no victim of a vampire bite consents to it, and I’m not at all agreeing with the Bible-beating bigots’ notion that consensual gay sex between adults is a sin (I don’t even believe in God). I’m not trying to moralize about gay male sex, but rather my concern is with the novel’s vampirism as symbolic typically of (attempted or successful) male-on-male sexual assault, which is every bit as indefensible as male-on-female rape, or any other kind of rape.

I’m just seeing an interesting parallel between the Sodomites wanting to get into Lot’s house to rape the angels, on the one hand, and the vampire Danny Glick biting Mike Ryerson, Randy McDougall (page 327), and Jack Griffen, and wanting to get Mark Petrie to open his bedroom window, so he can enter Mark’s room and bite him (pages 367-371). Petrie, of course, scares Danny away with a crucifix, just as the angels thwarted the Sodomites’ plan to push their way past Lot’s doorway and gang-rape them.

In this connection, remember also the Glick boys’ fear of “preeverts” while passing through the woods on the night Ralphie goes missing (pages 119-121). Remember also Hank Peters and Royal Snow wondering about the two new residents of the Marsten House: ‘Hank…looked up toward the Marsten House, which was dark and shuttered tonight. “I don’t like goin’ up there, and I ain’t afraid to say so. If there was ever a haunted house, that’s it. Those guys must be crazy, tryin’ to live there. Probably queer for each other anyway.”…”Like those fag interior decorators,” Royal agreed.’ (page 143)

Now, the homophobia of Hank and Royal aside, whatever Barlow and Straker are doing in the privacy of their own house is no one’s business but theirs; but their vampirism on the males and females of the whole town (a symbolic sexual predation), including such female victims as Marjorie Glick (pages 331-335) and Susan Norton, will be a major worry for Ben Mears. The vampire victim is hypnotized (or at least an attempt is made to hypnotize: pages 316-318) into allowing the vampire to bite him, just as a rape victim may be ‘hypnotized’ by alcohol or drugs into allowing a sexual predator to enjoy him or her.

What is of far greater importance, though, for the sake of my comparison of ‘Salem’s Lot with ‘Sodom’s Lot’, is how the blatant inhospitality in Sodom and Gomorrah was due to the excessive pride and arrogance of the inhabitants of those two sinful cities (i.e., their refusal to help the poor); for the vampirism of ‘Salem’s Lot can be seen as symbolic of narcissism.

Narcissists can be inhospitable in the extreme. Bullies by nature, they try to manipulate and control their victims (like vampires getting their victims to look in their eyes, to hypnotize them), even to the point of controlling their victims’ finances. They lure a victim in with fake, superficial charm (like the suave Barlow and Straker, with their charming furniture shop), then they idealize, devalue, and discard their victims (as Barlow does with Susan Norton after biting her, not caring at all that his ‘bride’ will be staked in the heart by the man who truly loves her…Ben Mears! [The Lot IV, 15, pages 514-520]).

Matt Burke notes several times that Barlow has a big ego (pages 525-527). Narcissists don’t necessarily brag overtly, however: having mastered their craft at manipulating others, they learn to present a False Self of goodness to the world (of the sort that Straker shows everyone [page 249], that he and Barlow are just business associates), while hiding their egotistical True Self, even from themselves (as Barlow must be hidden, sleeping during the day, and coming out only in the shadows at night).

This sleeping in the day, and coming out only at night, suggests that the day represents the conscious mind, while the night represents the unconscious. Heinz Kohut wrote of how narcissists will either repress their grandiose self (push it down into the unconscious) or disavow it (split it away vertically–Kohut, page 185).

Straker can thus represent this False Self: ‘”Mr. Straker?…Well, he’s quite charming,” [Susan] said. “Courtly might be an even better world…”…”Did you like him?” Matt asked, watching her closely… [Susan said] “I’ll give you a woman’s reaction. I did and I didn’t. I was attracted to him in a mildly sexual way, I guess. Older man, very urbane, very charming, very courtly.” […but,] “I think I sensed a certain contempt under the surface. A cynicism. As if he were playing a certain part, and playing it well, but as if he knew he wouldn’t have to pull out all the stops to fool us. A touch of condescension…And there seemed to be something a little bit cruel about him.” (pages 306-308)

Narcissists need narcissistic supply to be regularly provided. The vampires’ hunger for blood represents this craving for narcissistic supply. This supply, which feeds the narcissist’s ego, comes at the expense of the victims, who are drained of self-worth and energy, just like Barlow’s and Danny’s victims. Remember how sick Mike Ryerson feels after his bite at the graveyard (Chapter 7, part 3, pages 252-258).

If a narcissist feels threatened, that is, if his False Self is exposed as such, thus revealing his True Self, he’ll react with narcissistic rage and injury. When Barlow discovers Mark has infiltrated his house and killed Straker, the head vampire vows revenge (pages 510-512). He doesn’t bite Mark’s parents: he kills them by cracking their skulls together before the boy’s eyes (pages 535-539). When a narcissist feels a wound to his ego, his only way to feel better is to inflict pain on others.

Barlow has a special way of disposing of Father Callahan: he makes the priest drink his blood (page 542). By making the priest into a vampire of sorts, having Callahan drink his devilish blood, Barlow projects his evil onto him. Again, narcissists are known to project their vices onto the victims of their abuse. The tainted priest can no longer enter a church (pages 549-550).

Barlow enjoys having humiliated the priest, having stripped him of his ability to be a man of God. Similarly, the Sodomites’ wish to gang rape the angels may have had more to do with the desire to rob them of their holiness than to satisfy homosexual lust; indeed, when (often straight) men rape other men, it’s often to humiliate their victims, rather than just to get off. Narcissists humiliate and abase as just another way to get narcissistic supply.

Examples of narcissistic abuse can be seen on a normal, human level in the everyday lives of the people in ‘salem’s Lot, before they’ve even been attacked by the vampires. Consider Richie Bodden, the school bully, whose proud mother wants everyone to know “what a huge young man her son was” (page 83); then Mark Petrie puts him in his place (pages 86-7).

Then there’s hunchbacked Dud Rogers–the custodian of the Lot’s Town Dump–whose grotesqueness and strength remind me of that “dog”, that “elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog”, that “bottled spider”, that “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” (I, iii), the Duke of Gloucester, the hunchbacked Richard III, a man who “cannot prove a lover”, and so is “determined to prove a villain” (I, i, lines 28, 30); in Shakespeare’s play, the duke’s narcissistic ambition drives him to kill his way to the throne.

Dud gets his jollies firing his .22 target pistol at rats (pages 88-92); but when he encounters Barlow, whose “hypnotizin'” eyes are “like dark pits ringed with fire, pits you could fall into and drown in”, the vampire assumes correctly that “The girls laugh at [Dud]…They have no knowing of [Dud’s] manhood…[and] strength.” (page 233) And when Barlow bites him (page 234), Dud is as determined to be a villain as the duke was.

Also, there’s Mabel Werts, the town gossip (page 122)…and narcissists are notorious gossips. Susan Norton’s mother, disapproving of Ben (page 188), has a relationship with her daughter bordering on dysfunction (page 395). As an example of this troubled relationship, Mrs. Norton prefers “That nice boy, Floyd Tibbits” to Ben…and Floyd “put Ben in the hospital” (page 301).

Then there’s Sandy McDougall’s irresponsible treatment of her and Roy’s baby Randy (pages 71-73, 224-227, and 327-330), who ultimately dies, having not only Danny Glick’s vampire bite on his neck, but also Sandy’s bruises. Again, narcissistic mothers are known for putting their own needs before those of their children, and Sandy is the epitome of narcissistic inhospitality, before the vampires have even struck.

Back to Ben. The author has returned to ‘salem’s Lot, his childhood hometown, to “exorcise all his demons” (page 648) by writing about them in a new book. When he was nine, his friends dared him to go inside the Marsten House and take something from it, as initiation into their club, the Bloody Pirates. Inside the house, he saw the hanging corpse of Hubie Marsten, whose eyes opened for the boy (pages 56-58, 221, and 310)!

Young Ben stole a glass snow globe from the house, and has kept it as a memento until the end of the novel (pages 636-7), when, after seeing his own face in it (implying his fear that he, too, embodies the evil of the house), he destroys it, along with burning the manuscript of his book on the Marsten House. The only way to get rid of his trauma is to destroy it.

Another trauma of Ben’s is the death of his wife, Miranda, in a motorcycle accident, one for which, we sense, he blames himself (pages 482-484). Since I consider Ben to be the Lot of (the Sodom that is) ‘salem’s Lot, I find it apposite at this point to remind us of Lot’s own guilt. Lot offered his two virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8) to satisfy the lust of the Sodomites (making nonsense of John Boswell‘s claim [1980] that the Sodomites merely wanted “to ‘know‘ [another meaning of yada’] who [the two angels] were”, which in itself would hardly be a heinous sin for the Sodomites to have committed; the point in the Biblical narrative of offering, and rejecting the offer of, the daughters is to emphasize the Sodomites’ taste for male-on-male rape over male-on-female rape).

Though Lot and his family were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked back on the burning cities, then turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Lot must have imagined himself to be, on at least some level, guilty of her death (as Mears must have blamed his carelessness on his motorcycle for the death of Miranda), having incurred God’s wrath for the offer of his daughters (as Robert Alter believes: Alter, page 85, note 8).

Lot must have incurred the girls’ wrath, too, since they later shamed him by getting him drunk and having sex with him (Genesis 19:31-38), to impregnate them and bear the ancestors of the despised Moabites (Mo-ab, “from the father”) and the children of Ammon (see also Alter, page 90, note 30-38). Lot’s daughters’ sexual predation is like vampiress Susan’s attempt to bite Mark (Ben’s double: more on that later) at his bedroom window (pages 449-451).

Evil occurs in cycles throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Ben’s book on the Marsten House is “about the recurrent power of evil” (page 181). First, there was the evil, sexually perverse cult of James Boon back in the 18th century, as well as the myth of the dangerous wild pig, Jerusalem, in his “Lot”, the forest within Tanner’s property. Then there were the Hubie Marsten crimes in the house. Next came Straker, Barlow, and the vampires.

Other cycles include Mears’s traumas: first, his seeing Hubie’s ghost and its opening eyes; then, Mears’s return to the Lot, only to find himself battling vampires. Then, he returns again, with his double, Mark, to burn down the whole town in a brush fire. First, Ben accidentally killed Miranda; then, he’s forced to destroy the vampire version of his next love, Susan.

One of Mark’s traumas is watching Barlow smash together the heads of the boy’s parents, killing them (page 535). Earlier, Mark went into the Marsten House with Susan, only to find himself tied up by Straker (pages 438-440) and, failing to protect her (as Mears failed to protect Miranda by failing to turn a non-fatal corner–page 483: “in some parallel world he and Miranda had taken a left at the corner one block back and were riding into an entirely different future.”), Mark has let her be turned into a vampiress. Mark kills Straker (pages 445-6), Barlow’s presentable double (as Mears, of whom Mark is the innocent double, destroys Barlow), then runs out of the Marsten House (page 448) in a repeat of nine-year-old Ben’s frantic escape from the house twenty-four years earlier.

A fire occurred in 1951 (page 326), spread by the winds to incinerate so much more; then, Ben starts a fire to destroy the Lot at the end of the novel.

There are two pairs of destroying visitors, the younger of each pair either more innocent or more presentable than the older: good Mark and Ben, and evil Straker and Barlow, paralleling doubles of each other. A good casting choice was made in the 1979 adaptation, with Lance Kerwin (Mark) and David Soul (Ben), both actors possessing a conspicuous blond youth, to emphasize how the boy is a cyclical repeat of the man.

Straker, similarly, has an urbane suaveness like Barlow’s in the novel, though you wouldn’t see that in the 1979 adaptation, with James Mason (Straker) contrasted with the Nosferatu version of Barlow. On the other hand, during the scene of Barlow’s confrontation with Mark and Father Callahan, Mason’s Straker speaks for the snarling Nosferatu (instead of Barlow speaking for himself, as he does in the novel), thus showing how the servant (the False Self–see above) is the double of his master (the True Self).

Mears’s guilt feelings, and demons to be exorcized by writing about his childhood trauma, make him wonder if that magnet of evil, the Marsten House, has attracted him in the same way as Barlow (David Soul’s Ben asks this of Lew Ayres‘s Burke in the 1979 adaptation). Is Ben a double of Barlow? In destroying Barlow, is Ben killing the evil in himself (i.e., that exorcizing), or at least trying to?

Victims of narcissistic abuse often ask themselves if they, too, are narcissists. Have they themselves been infected by the disease of their victimizers? When Barlow’s hiding place has been discovered, he has to find a new one: the basement of Eva Miller’s boarding house…where Ben is staying. Rather than equate Barlow thus with Ben, we can see this move as symbolizing Barlow’s introjection into Ben’s psyche, something narcissists do to their victims.

The Marsten House symbolizes the narcissistic psyche, with its evil hidden in the unconscious id of its shadows. The boarding house can be seen as representing Mears’s psyche, the hiding vampires in the basement representing Mears’s repressed, unconscious trauma–Barlow’s introjections into him. Mark’s house is his own psyche. (Lot’s house can be seen as his own psyche, too.) Evil (be it in the form of vampires or Sodomites) infects all of these places by forcing its way in (or at least trying to), traumatizing its victims.

Even when Ben and Mark have gone as far away as “a small California town on the Mexican border” (page 3), they’re still affected by their trauma. They must go back to ‘salem’s Lot, and finish the town off for good. In the end, both ‘salem’s Lot and Momson, like Sodom and Gomorrah, are left in desolation, just as those psychological vampires known as narcissists leave their victims in a state of emotional desolation.

Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot, Anchor Books, New York, 1975

Analysis of ‘Carrie’

Carrie is a horror novel written by Stephen King, his first published novel, which came out in 1974. The title character is a troubled teen, bullied by her high school classmates and abused by her Christian fundamentalist mother. She also has telekinetic powers (TK), strong enough to kill anyone who hurts her, as the people of her town, fictional Chamberlain, in Maine, learn.

A superb movie version was made in 1976, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Sissy Spacek in the title role, and Piper Laurie as the mother (both actresses receiving Oscar nominations); it co-starred  John Travolta as Billy Nolan, Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen, and Amy Irving as Sue Snell. Other film versions were made, though they weren’t as successful.

The dominant themes of the novel are bullying and abuse, the illusion of omnipotence, failed communication, and the motif of blood. Apart from these, I’ll be doing a psychoanalytic reading of the novel’s symbolism.

Much of the narrative is given in epistolary form, with passages from newspaper or magazine articles, books about the Carrie White affair (The Shadow Exploded, My Name Is Susan Snell), transcripts of an inquiry (The White Commission Report) into the tragedy, etc. This breaking up of the narrative flow into fragments, telling the story from different angles, symbolically suggests failed communication, with its starts and stops. This failed communication is much of the root cause of the bullying and abuse that Carrie suffers.

Like most victims of school bullying, Carrie is different from her classmates. This difference comes from how she’s raised by her mother, Margaret White (white as the Christian innocence she tries–and fails–to preserve), whose religious fundamentalism won’t allow her to expose her daughter to the ‘sinful’ ways of the modern world. This failure to communicate needed information leaves Carrie in a state of arrested development, infantilizing her. Psychologically, Carrie White (white as a baby’s innocence) is a baby going to school with teenagers.

This infantilizing is made clear when her mother fails to tell her about menstruation, her first period being her rite of passage, as it were, into womanhood. So when she’s bleeding in the shower during gym class, what should be a simple matter of using a tampon ends up a terrifying moment for her: all that blood makes her think she’s going to die.

Adding to her trauma are all her bullying classmates, who start laughing at her and throwing tampons at her, chanting, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” Since, as noted above, she is psychologically a baby among teenagers here, instead of this being a passage from girlhood to womanhood, she’s held back by one phase of life, passing from unborn to born, from unknowing innocence to the terrors of the real world, like a newborn baby. Thus, this naked, terrified ‘baby’, dripping wet and bawling her eyes out, is symbolically experiencing a birth trauma, or at least the triggered reliving of it.

Blood as a motif symbolizing death runs throughout the novel. The flow of blood signifies movement from ignorance to knowledge. Carrie finally learns about menstruation, and she is angry with her mother for not telling her about it; but her mother (pages 62-66) equates the blood with sin (e.g., the Tree of Knowledge, of which eating the forbidden fruit, symbolic of sexual indulgence, leads to death).

“…the first Sin was Intercourse. And the Lord visited Eve with a Curse, and the Curse was the Curse of Blood. And Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden and into the World…” (page 63) Out of the Garden of Eden and into the world of sin parallels Carrie’s bloody movement out of the world of innocence into knowledge, out of a peaceful, psychological in utero state and into birth, into the physical, painful world, a world of blood. “And then there was a second Curse, and this was the Curse of Childbearing, and Eve brought forth Cain in sweat and blood.” (pages 63-64) Again, we have an association of blood with newborn babies, curses, pain, suffering, and death (Cain, the first murderer).

Later, the pigs’ blood, first being the result of the pigs’ deaths, of course, later becomes the cause of so many deaths not only in the high school, but all over Chamberlain, too. And with the splashing of that blood all over her comes the realization that her enemies are still enemies. The outflowing of her menstrual blood is her projected destructive instincts; the pigs’ blood poured on her is that death instinct re-introjected.

With the flowing of her blood from her mother’s stab (page 250) comes her knowledge that her filicidal mother is no less an enemy than her school bullies. Margaret is all the ‘bad motherobject; not even the slightest trace of the ‘good mother’ object exists in her. After Carrie finally dies in the presence of Sue Snell, one of the few people who tried to be a friend to Carrie, Sue leaves in a state of abject horror, in a knowledge of that horror and death, with her own menstrual blood running down her leg (page 277).

In the contemporary world, with all of our advanced science, technology, and modern knowledge, being raised in a fundamentalist family is a terrible handicap. So much ignorance of today’s world abounds in such a setting; it’s like being a naïve child among a crowd of adults. This is what I mean when I call Carrie a psychological baby among teenagers. Thus, I feel justified in using her story as an allegory for the pathological infant’s psychological state.

When we see a baby, we usually think of an adorable child smiling up at us. We don’t think of the terror that a vulnerable child feels so very often, weeping its frustrations at not getting what it needs. Normally, a good enough parent (to use D.W. Winnicott‘s terminology) provides for all of the baby’s needs well enough in the beginning that the baby is given the illusion that it magically provides for itself: the breast magically appears as soon as the baby wants it.

“The mother, at the beginning, by an almost 100 per cent adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant. It is, as it were, under magical control. The same can be said in terms of infant care in general, in the quiet times between excitements. Omnipotence is nearly a fact of experience. The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion.” (Winnicott, page 238, his emphasis)

With Margaret’s calling Carrie’s breasts her “dirtypillows” (page 142), thus showing that she considers the breast to be only a ‘bad breast’, it can be safely assumed that she hardly, if ever, breast-fed Carrie when she was a baby. It’s not just the milk that the baby enjoys; the texture of the nipple provides pleasure, too, so bottles aren’t always a good substitute. Thus, Margaret is what Melanie Klein called the bad mother, whose frustrating bad breast rarely if ever gave suck to baby Carrie. This willful refusal to provide her baby with a basic need shows a child neglect that would soon grow into full-blown child abuse.

This failure to provide a good enough environment can lead to pathologies in the infant, as Winnicott noted. Margaret, with her prudish attitude towards sex and the body, would have been loath to hold her child or give her any physical affection. This is more emotional neglect, aggravating Carrie’s mental pathology. Carrie’s whole problem is a lack of love, which needs to be grounded in the body.

A healthy infancy involves a child’s peaceful “going on being,” without impingements frustrating that natural, peaceful, passive continuity in life. Not only isn’t she receiving a loving, holding environment, people frequently cut into her private space, bothering her, abusing her, and bullying her. If it isn’t her classmates throwing tampons at her, it’s her mother locking her in a small closet with frightening religious icons so she can pray for forgiveness (pages 65-67), when surely she is one more sinn’d against than sinning.

A baby in such an uncaring, hostile environment goes through terrible persecutory anxiety, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Carrie is going through. When asked out to the prom by Tommy Ross, she can only assume that it’s another trick from her bullying classmates to set her up for humiliation. The impingements she regularly suffers make her want to isolate herself from the world, as Winnicott said a child would want to do: an overly-aggressive environment makes for “…faulty adaptation to the child, resulting in impingement of the environment so that the individual must become a reactor to that impingement. The sense of self is lost in this situation and is only regained by a return to isolation.” (Winnicott, page 222)

“The persecutors in the new phenomenon, the outside, become neutralized in ordinary healthy development by the fact of the mother’s loving care, which physically (as in holding) and psychologically (as in understanding or empathy, enabling sensitive adaptation), makes the individual’s primary isolation a fact. Environmental failure just here starts the individual off with a paranoid potential…In defence against the terrible anxieties of the paranoid state in very early life there is not infrequently organized a state which has been given various names (defensive pathological introversion, etc.) The infant lives permanently in his or her own inner world which is not, however, firmly organized.” (Winnicott, pages 226-227) Recall Carrie’s words to Sue as she’s dying: “(why didn’t you just leave me alone)” (page 275).

Defenceless and without the infantile illusion of omnipotence that a good enough mother provides in normal circumstances, Carrie is forced to retreat into phantasy to provide herself with that omnipotence, which is symbolized by her telekinesis. “…a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky…principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively…Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta.” (page 3) Her ability to move things with her mind is symbolic of the baby magically making the breast appear at feeding time, when Margaret probably never did it herself. This frustrating bad mother provokes wishes for revenge in Carrie’s phantasy life, represented by her TK.

People who are abused or bullied are essentially infantilized, treated as if weak and helpless, but never given compassion: their feelings and opinions are trivialized and invalidated. Carrie’s mother shows no interest in the pain Carrie feels from having been laughed at for not knowing about menstruation, nor does Margaret care that Carrie is mad at her for not telling her about it.

Carrie’s feelings are cared for so little that even when people do care, she thinks they don’t, as when the assistant principal, Mr. Morton, tries to speak kindly to her, but keeps getting her name wrong (pages 18-19). This is also why she indiscriminately kills people all over Chamberlain instead of just killing Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, the ones responsible for the prank with the pigs’ blood.

A few people want to show genuine kindness to Carrie, though it’s a case of too little, too late: Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher (Miss Collins in the 1976 movie, played by Betty Buckley, who also played Margaret White in the Broadway musical version of 1988), Sue Snell, and Tommy Ross. Sue, feeling remorseful over having participated in the “plug it up” teasing, wants her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, to get her to mix with people and build her self-confidence (pages 95-98).

This getting insular Carrie to socialize is symbolically like a baby experiencing the transitional phase between the illusory state of omnipotence (able to summon Mother at will) and reality-testing, where the baby progressively learns to accept that Mother isn’t always there for it, and environmental impingements are at a tolerable level. During this transitional period, the baby has a transitional object (a stuffed animal, a blanket, or, by extension into adult life, creative or imaginative stimuli like the arts or religion). As Winnicott states, “The transitional object stands for the breast, or the object of the first relationship.” (Winnicott, page 236)

For Carrie, the dress she makes for the prom can be seen to represent this transitional object (recall how, when her mother sees her wearing it, she can see her breasts, i.e., note the association of the dress, the transitional object, with breasts). She bought the materials (page 107) and made the dress (a soft material, like that of a security blanket), similar to how the arts and creativity are like an extension of the transitional object into later life. This making of the dress represents aspects of the task of reality-acceptance, away from the illusion of infantile omnipotence: “It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.).” (Winnicott, page 240)

By wearing the dress when Tommy takes her to the prom, she symbolically demonstrates the transitional phenomena of going from “me,” the isolated world of dependence on Mother when the baby sees Mother as an extension of itself, to a “not-me” understanding, based on a growing independence from Mother. Carrie’s leaving home with Tommy, in open defiance of her mother, symbolizes this separation of “me” from “not-me”. “It is usual to refer to ‘reality-testing’, and to make a clear distinction between apperception and perception. I am here staking a claim for an intermediate state between a baby’s inability and growing ability to recognize and accept reality. I am therefore studying the substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion.” (Winnicott, page 230, his emphasis)

At the prom, she has a brief moment of happiness, finally feeling accepted by the external world. She has even forgotten her telekinesis, since she doesn’t seem to need it (i.e., she’s letting go of her need of the infantile illusion of omnipotence). But Chris’s cruel prank (ruining her dress, her transitional object, and thus rendering impossible her transition from inner fantasy to outer reality) reminds her of her ever-present persecutors, and like a baby suffering in the paranoid-schizoid position and fighting back against a frustrating outer world in phantasy, so does Carrie get her revenge. “She was forgetting (!! THE POWER !!) It was time to teach them a lesson.” (page 220)

Having been subjected to bullying and emotional abuse myself from family and school, I find myself cheering Carrie on whenever I watch the 1976 movie and she’s using her TK to trap and kill everyone in the high school gym. “Flex.” (page 222)

But her TK doesn’t give her the omnipotence against the danger of her knife-wielding mother, who won’t “suffer a witch to live” (page 175). Nor will Margaret’s fundamentalist faith give her an omnipotent God to save her from Carrie (who kills her in the novel by slowing down and stopping her heartbeat; in the 1976 film, Carrie kills her by making knives fly in the air and stab her to death in a manner similar to the death of St. Sebastian).

Chris imagines her lawyer father can help her get revenge on the school for not firing Desjardin for hitting her (pages 77-84); and she’s bitterly disappointed to know he can’t. This spoiled girl doesn’t have the omnipotence she thinks she has. She never considers how her meanness has consequences. Even after Carrie has already destroyed much of Chamberlain, killed many of the people there, and given everyone the uncanny sense, psychically, that she was responsible for all the mayhem, Chris and Billy imagine they can kill her by hitting her with his car (pages 260-262). Instead, she kills them.

One indication of Carrie’s infantile mental state is her calling her mother, ‘Momma’, one of the first sounds a baby makes in its baby talk; hence the reason that some variation on ‘mama‘ is common in languages around the world for the first object relation most of us form in early life.

Many paradoxes can be seen in this novel (“…she was weeping even as she laughed…” page 226). Blood is associated with death and birth (remember Margaret’s words: “Eve brought forth Cain in sweat and blood.” page 64; also, “I fell down and I lost the baby and that was God’s judgment. I felt that the sin had been expiated. By blood. But sin never dies. Sin…never…dies.” page 247). There are failures to communicate, then there’s Carrie’s uncanny ability to make everyone in town know, psychically, that she’s responsible for the destruction of Chamberlain (pages 213, 229-30, 232-33, 235, 241, 244, and 256).

Also paradoxical about this story is how people seem powerful, but are really powerless, and this applies especially to Carrie. With all of her formidable powers of telekinesis, and all the death and destruction she causes just by thinking it, she is still, in her mind, just a baby: sensitive, vulnerable, fragile, and helpless. One stab to her shoulder kills her. “Able to start fires, pull down electric cables, able to kill almost by thought alone; lying here unable to turn herself over.” (page 272)

Similarly, her bullies think they’re immune to punishment when they’re throwing tampons at her, then find themselves in detention, doing exercises with Desjardin in gym class (page 74). Chris and Billy don’t think anything will happen to them after they drop the pigs’ blood on Carrie. And Margaret assumes she’ll go straight to heaven after death, even when she stabs her own daughter.

So often, we think about our own vulnerability so much that we forget about that of our enemies; and so often, this is the basis for our hurting each other, without end.

At the beginning of the story, Carrie fears bleeding to death when she needn’t; at the end, after she’s reached the height of her destructive powers, she bleeds to death for real. As she’s dying, she whines, like a baby, “(momma would be alive i killed my momma i want her o it hurts my chest hurts my shoulder o o o i want my momma…o momma i’m scared momma MOMMA)” (page 275). She is going through the depressive position, wishing to have reparation with her mother, despairing at her loss.

Though Sue wants to show Carrie love, it’s too late: psychological baby Carrie has lived her whole short life unloved, and is hated all the more after death “CARRIE WHITE IS BURNING FOR HER SINS JESUS NEVER FAILS” (page 287).

Could anything be more horrifying than wishing death and eternal suffering on a baby, a baby that was never even truly loved in the first place?

“Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Barker Street Grammar School in Chamberlain:

Carrie White eats shit.” (page 4)

Stephen King, Carrie, Anchor Books, New York, 1974

D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers, Brunner-Routledge, London, 1992

Review and Analysis of ‘Mayan Blue’

Mayan Blue is a horror novel written by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, also known as the ‘Sisters of Slaughter’. As the novel’s title implies, it involves grisly rites of human sacrifice, as well as the darker aspects of Mayan myth, featuring the underworld, Xibalba, the Place of Fear, which is ruled by Ah-Puch, the Lord of Death.

Professor Lipton has discovered proof of his theory that a group of Mayans migrated from what is now Mexico to a forest in Georgia. To provide proof of his findings, he has removed a disc there, a seal preventing the demons of Xibalba from emerging in the land of the living and finding more victims. His removal of the seal has made him the first modern victim, of course.

Before this, however, he has informed his young assistant, Wes, and four university students–Alissa, Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly–of his findings. They all come into the forest in Georgia to meet with him by the entrance to the Mayan world. But instead of meeting with him, they encounter a living nightmare.

This debut novel has been met with near-universal praise, and for good reason. It is not only an exhilarating read, a story that draws you in and keeps your attention to the end, but it is also well-written in terms of prose style. There is a poetic musicality to the assonant narration, full of vivid, figurative description.

Technical errors and typos are so rare as to be easily overlooked. This is a novel that is begging for a movie adaptation. Indeed, provided that such a production will have a talented director and actors, as well as a budget that will do justice to the special effects (preferably a maximum of practical effects and a minimum of CGI), and above all, of course, a well-written script (ideally, written by the Sisters of Slaughter themselves!), such an adaptation should make for a powerful film experience.

Analysis…SPOILER ALERT!

I’m going to do a largely psychoanalytic reading of this novel; now, the Sisters of Slaughter, in all likelihood, think of their novel as meant just for entertainment (and entertaining it most assuredly is!), and therefore probably don’t think it necessary to intellectualize their work (something I get a kick out of). Nonetheless, the point of psychoanalysis, which I dabble in, is to find meaning in the story that I suspect the writers put into their story unconsciously.

Let’s start with the title: Mayan Blue. Why blue? If you recall Mel Gibson’s movie, Apocalypto, you’ll remember that the Mayans’ sacrificial victims were covered in a blue dye before being killed, as the victims are so coloured in this novel (page 71). I see a deeper symbolism in the colour blue, though.

Blue can represent all kinds of things to people, depending on their situation: blue skies suggest happy days; blue can suggest icy coldness; blue can also mean sadness, the extreme of which leads to despair and even suicide. Now we’re getting closer to the meaning of blue in this novel, with all the killing and death in it. (Ixtab, the Goddess of Suicide, is referred to on page 74.)

Connected with sadness, despair, and suicide is the deadly sin of sloth. There is more to sloth than mere laziness. Sloth involves a loss of meaning or direction in life, related to sadness and despair. It’s been said that many people are addicted to porn because they’re unhappy. They over-indulge in physical pleasure because they lack meaning in their lives, or more crucially, lack strong human relationships. These porn addicts are more guilty of sloth than of lust. Remember the man in Se7en who, having lost his Christian faith, was labelled with the sin of sloth? The killer didn’t complain of him being too lazy: he called him a “drug-dealing pederast”.

Consider these ideas in light of Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly in Mayan Blue. All they want to do is smoke marijuana, get drunk (pages 22-24), party, and have sex (pages 44-46). They have no deep interest in the professor’s discovery, as Wes and Alissa do in contrast. And these three partiers are killed off first, despairing as they crawl toward death.

These five young people, as well as the professor, are from the university world, from city life, civilization, suggestive of the conscious mind, with its censors against bad behaviour and thoughts. The underworld caverns, tunnels, and shadows of Xibalba, the Place of Fear, with its demons and their bloodlust, symbolize the unconscious, the turbulent, non-rational world of not only libido, but also of Thanatos, the death instinct. The surrounding forest, a potentially dangerous place also untouched by civilization, suggests the preconscious mind, where unconscious thoughts may surface, as the attacking owls do (pages 78-79).

Normally, the mind houses a fairly even combination of internalized good and bad object relations (based on our relationships with our primary caregivers, especially Mother), the good and bad aspects being reasonably integrated to give a person a healthy, realistic view of the world, a mix of good and bad. A despairing mind, however, will know mostly, if not all, bad objects; hence the army of demonic tormentors that the five young victims and the professor suffer. Only the Skeleton Queen, along with the Shadow Priestess (who, guiding Alissa with her whistling, represents both the ‘good mother’ and Jung’s Shadow) and her Skeleton Coats, provide help and hope. They are the only good internalized objects in the despairing unconscious mind symbolized by Xibalba.

WRD Fairbairn, in an early paper (Fairbairn, pages 249-252, ‘Psychology as a Prescribed and as a Proscribed Subject’), discussed the universities’ dismissing of psychoanalysis as a kind of pseudoscience, explaining that such a dismissive attitude comes from a fear of exploring the demons, as it were, in our unconscious minds. In his wish to prove to his university the validity of his theories, Professor Lipton dares to explore the Mayan world that symbolizes the unconscious; and he learns of its dangers after removing the disc, which Wes and Alissa must use to reseal the entrance to Xibalba, to keep bestial urges repressed.

In a later paper, Fairbairn compared the bad object relationships we internalize to demons that possess us (Fairbairn, page 67, ‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’, Part 5 of ‘The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects’).  “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.”

Fairbairn also noted how we may pursue superficial pleasures (e.g., drugs, alcohol, sex, porn) when we cannot find joy in human relationships (Fairbairn, pages 139-140, ‘Object Relationships and Dynamic Structure’). “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.”

Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly pursue superficial pleasures, while Alissa would rather find joy in human relationships, for she has a crush on Wes. Wes’s admiration for Professor Lipton shows his preference of relationships, too, hence his and Alissa’s ability to hang on to hope, over the other three victims’ quick succumbing to despair.

A brief digression into psychoanalytical theory, if you’ll indulge, Dear Reader: I’ll relate this to the novel soon enough.

Melanie Klein noted that a baby’s first object relation is with his or her mother–or more accurately, her breasts as part-objects; then later in the baby’s first year, it recognizes the mother as a whole object. When the breast provides milk for the baby, this is the ‘good breast’, coming from the ‘good mother’ object; and when no milk is given, this is the ‘bad breast’ of the ‘bad mother’ object. This dichotomous thinking leads to splitting in the baby’s mind, to love for the ‘good mother’ on one side, and hostility to her (the ‘bad mother’) on the other, the paranoid-schizoid position.

As the baby feels this hostility, it bites at the breast, like the thorns that “were embedded deeply in [Wes’s and Alissa’s] flesh, suckling from their blood” (page 266, my emphasis). For the vines, human blood is their milk. On page 132, the sucking, biting thorns, which “sink in [Wes’s] skin like the teeth of a hidden predator”, are on “vampire vines” that are “yearning for the blood of the living”. So Wes’s and Alissa’s skin is symbolically a large breast of blood-milk, if you will.

This biting at the breast is part of the stage of oral sadism, also called the cannibalistic phase. Remember the half-human, half-beast demons that feed on the flesh (page 146) of their dead victims, Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly, and hope to feast on Wes and Alissa: “Their mouths slavered like hungry carnivores…Ah-Puch plunged his arms into the dead man’s abdominal cavity to gather gifts for his men. Each was granted a fistful of gore on which to feast voraciously, spreading their terrible countenances with blood.”

Oral sadism is originally an infantile phase, but those hostile urges can remain, repressed in the unconscious, especially in the case of oral fixation, which is manifested in such things as smoking (including marijuana), drinking (remember Kelly’s bottle of whiskey, page 22), and oral sex (something Tyler and Dennis were probably hoping to enjoy from Kelly).

These oral fixations and sadistic hostilities can be projected onto others, and they are, when Kelly’s skin is worn by one of the flying demons: “[Dennis saw]…a flying creature…[that] wore a face as a mask, Kelly’s sweet angelic visage with bloodied edges, and that’s when Dennis realized it had breasts…not breasts of its own, but it wore Kelly’s tanned skin like a suit stretched over its own deformed body, morphed into something between man and bird, with its feathers protruding through her soft skin.” (pages 139-140)

What is projection from the first person is introjection into the second person. As Melanie Klein explained in “Weaning” (1936): “To begin with, the breast of the mother is the object of his [i.e., the baby’s] constant desire, and therefore this is the first thing to be introjected. In phantasy the child sucks the breast into himself, chews it up and swallows it; thus he feels that he has actually got it there, that he possesses the mother’s breast within himself, in both its good and in its bad aspects.” (Klein, page 291)

So, the flying creature has introjected Kelly’s projected oral fixations, symbolized by her face, skin, and breasts, as a baby sucks in its mother’s milk and, in unconscious phantasy, breasts.

Healthy emotional development for a baby, particularly in its relationship with its mother (symbolized in this novel by Xibalba, the underworld, chthonian Mother Earth, the collective unconscious of instincts and feelings we share with those who came before us, including Mother, and the Mayan civilization of centuries past), comes by passing out of the paranoid-schizoid position, with all its persecutory anxiety (the Place of Fear), and through the depressive position, a period of painful reconciliation with the mother, after fearing the consequences of the baby’s former hostility to a mother who sometimes didn’t give milk. To save themselves from Xibalba’s horrors, Wes and Alissa must reconcile themselves to this underworld of the unconscious.

The thorns that cut into Wes’s and Alissa’s skin can represent the teething, biting baby in its destructive envy; but through introjection, the mother can be in the baby’s unconscious, meaning the ‘bad mother’ object (of which the Blood Maiden can be seen as a manifestation), angry from the biting, or hostility in general (towards the Blood Maiden in Alissa’s blinding of her [page 206]; or towards the ‘bad father’ object, represented by Ah-Puch, angry with Wes’s defiant hope), may want revenge. Hence, Xibalba switches roles, from hostile baby to hostile parent.

The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions are phases alternated back and forth throughout one’s life; they only begin in infancy. These shifts back and forth between hostility and the need for reparation, between splitting and integration, are felt not only for Mother, but are later displaced onto other people. Alissa feels annoyed and contemptuous of Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis, inwardly giggling from the foul marijuana she’s given them to smoke (pages 16-17).

Later, when the Blood Maiden (the ‘bad mother’ object) is sucking away Alissa’s energy and showing her a vision of Kelly’s suffering, Alissa feels guilty over having brought Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis to this place of death (pages 199-200). She would have reparation with them. This depressive position is part of the sadness engulfing Xibalba. The absence of Mother brings about the depressive position, a fear that the child has in unconscious phantasy destroyed Mother; the baby waits in terror for Mother to return, as Alissa does when Shadow Priestess (the ‘good mother’ object) temporarily leaves: “Alissa trembled as she awaited the shadow’s return.” (Chapter Fourteen, page 193)

But Alissa and Wes would keep hope, and fight their way out of Xibalba, wishing to die “[their] way and not his [i.e., Ah-Puch’s]” (page 251). This is a successful going-through of the depressive position, the way to health, back up to the forest. So when they die, it’s a selfless sacrifice to save the living world from the living nightmare of Xibalba. They don’t die of despair. Their spirits are good internalized objects in the hellish unconscious.

Indeed, Xibalba is a land of bad dreams, where one never truly dies (page 139). The spirits of dead Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis are Ah-Puch’s possessions. One is reminded of Hamlet’s soliloquy: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (Act III, scene i, lines 64-68)

And the interpretation of dreams, Freud reminds us, is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious. While too much repression of the id can lead to neurosis, overindulgence in its bestial impulses can lead to the dangers symbolized by the owls and demons coming out into the forest. Some repression (Wes’s and Alissa’s resealing of the entrance) is needed.

Inspiration for this novel came from learning of a theory that some Maya migrated to parts of the southern US. This migration, I’m guessing, may have been in response to the Conquistadors‘ taking over of what is now Yucatan Mexico and parts of Central America. Despair at European imperialism’s destruction of their world may have prompted the Mayan move, and part of the despair of the priestess when sacrificing the boys to seal the entrance to Xibalba the first time (Prologue, pages 7-9).

Despair leads to Hell, and Xibalba is in more than a few ways comparable to Dante’s Inferno (‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ Canto III, line 9), with its windy second circle (for those guilty of lust), the Mayan equivalent of which Wes must endure (page 226); though since Wes isn’t susceptible to lust as Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis are, he laughs defiantly, feeling immune to it. Later, there is the blue maw of a cenote, similar to any of Satan’s three mouths in the centre of Dante’s Hell, mouths that eat traitors like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. The defiant hope of Wes and Alissa can be seen as a kind of treason in Xibalba, where fear and despair reign supreme.

When our two heroes fight their way to the surface, resolving that “if it was going to end, it would end her way [and Wes’s]” (page 262), they are reconciling themselves to the bad objects (Ah-Puch, the half-human, half-beast Wayob and Nagual, as well as the Blood Mistress) by joining the good objects (Shadow Priestess and Skeleton Coats); this is the integration of good and bad that leads to better health. Wes and Alissa know they cannot return to the world of the living, but they’ll be damned (literally) if they die in despair and suffer the living death of Kelly, Tyler, and Dennis, the “sleep of death” that “must give us pause”. Remember that Wayob comes from a word meaning “sleep”, and they can transform into an animal while asleep in order to do harm. And sleep and dreams represent unconscious processes.

There are dialectical tensions at work here: we can’t have one opposite without the other. Xibalba, like any Hell, is a living death. As Bane told Bruce Wayne, “There can be no true despair without hope.” The deep despair of the demons is coupled with the hope of passing their pain onto others, hence their delight in tormenting Wes and Alissa: “The crowd gathering at the bottom of the stairs shrieked eagerly as [Wes] was paraded by. A beating of wings above him told him the Wayobs had joined the train…A chunk of broken roadway was picked up then tossed at his face by a mummified onlooker. His blood brought them great satisfaction for they howled in triumph as it burned his eyes. This prompted a handful of other malevolent creatures to do the same, stoning him with any debris their decrepit hands could attain.” (pages 236-7)

Our two heroes feel a mix of hope and despair, knowing they’ll die, but not to die as despairing Tyler, Dennis, and Kelly did. Wes and Alissa save the lives of those in the upper world, and their own souls, by killing themselves so their blood will reseal the entrance to Xibalba. Their souls will join the Shadow Priestess and Skeleton Coats in battling Ah-Puch’s tyranny. Similarly, the Skeleton Queen dies in thwarting the Blood Maiden (pages 268-9). Hope in despair. Life in death: like the heartbeat-like drum that presages death. “The drumming was the signal: she had witnessed it before. It was the instrument bringing about the change from living to living dead.” (page 238)

Blue and Red, in a way, are also dialectical opposites: cold, blue death and despair, versus hot, red life and hope. Wes has the blue dye all over him, mixed with his blood, the draining away of his life and hope. Still, the heat of his angry defiance helps him survive the freezing room. The mixing of red and blue also symbolizes the needed integration of good and bad objects to return to health, never a perfect mental health, but one good enough to deal with life’s horrors, as Wes and Alissa learn to do when their spirits re-enter Xibalba.

In Christian myth, Satan is the ultimate one to despair, especially after Christ’s crucifixion. The mutual sacrifice of Wes and Alissa–suicides considered honourable to Ixtab–is obviously Christ-like, too, sealing the doom of Ah-Puch, the Mayan Satan (for the purposes of this novel and analysis), and his demonic brethren, who now have no more hope even of sharing their pain with new victims.

Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, Mayan Blue, Sinister Grin Press, Austin, 2016

WRD Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, New York, 1952

Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945, The Free Press, 1975

Analysis of ‘The Shining’

The Shining is a supernatural horror novel written by Stephen King and published in 1977. It was his third published novel, after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. It was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980; and while the initial critical response to the film was mixed (with King especially disliking how Kubrick changed huge portions of the story), it is now considered one of the best horror movies ever made. King had a well-received made-for-TV miniseries version done in 1997, one that, naturally, was much more faithful to his novel.

His novel is a classic in the horror genre, and while his and Kubrick’s visions of the story differ so vastly, I find enough thematic material common to both that I will cite both versions in my analysis to make my point. These themes include the self-destructiveness of alcoholism, family abuse, the return of repressed bad internal object relations, repetition compulsion, and the death drive.

Though analyses of the themes in Kubrick’s film (the white man’s oppression of Native Americans, etc.) are well worth exploring, since they have already been looked into, I won’t be exploring them.

Jack Torrance has accepted a job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel; and just as the hotel has a dark history, so does Jack. A former drinker and teacher, he has been on the wagon for fourteen months (in Kubrick’s film, five months) after having not only hit a student, George Hatfield (and lost his teaching job for it, ‘Up On the Roof’, pages 162-170), but also injured his own son, Danny (pages 23-25, ‘Watson’).

Ghosts inhabit the Overlook, which not only overlooks a beautiful mountain view in the Colorado Rockies, but also ‘overlooks’ (ignores, or doesn’t take responsibility for) the crimes that have been committed there. Jack’s connection with the Overlook–more and more complete as he goes mad in his attachment to the place, trying to ensure that he and his family never leave–shows how he is at one with the hotel. He has “always been the caretaker” (page 532, ‘Conversations At the Party’). The physical building represents his mind, with the boiler in the basement needing to be checked (to relieve the pressure) twice a day and once at night, for it symbolizes the death drive of his unconscious. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of ideas at the beginning of chapter 3, ‘Watson’, on page 22:

You lost your temper, Ullman had said.

‘”OK, here’s your furnace,” Watson said, turning on a light in the dark, musty-smelling room…Boiler’s on the other side of the wall. I’ll take you around.”‘

Jack’s anger and the furnace are mentioned side by side because they, and the boiler, are all one and the same thing. On the next few pages, Jack remembers injuring Danny for messing up his writing papers.

We learn through the course of the novel that Jack’s father had been abusive to him and his mother (‘Dreamland’, pages 335-338). Being abusive to Danny would be ‘normal’ to Jack, since his own dad’s abuse of him seemed normal: “In those days it had not seemed strange to Jack that the father won all his arguments with his children by use of his fists, and it had not seemed strange that his own love should go hand-in-hand with his fear…” (page 335). Similarly, his wife, Wendy, had a bad relationship with her mother. These bad object relations would haunt Jack and Wendy like ghosts…just as the ghosts of the Overlook will.

Wendy herself contemplates how the ghosts of her mother and Jack’s father could be among those in the hotel, when she thinks of Danny’s trauma: “(Oh we are wrecking this boy. It’s not just Jack, it’s me too, and maybe it’s not even just us, Jack’s father, my mother, are they here too? Sure, why not? The place is lousy with ghosts anyway, why not a couple more?…Oh Danny I’m so sorry).” (‘On the Stairs’, pages 491-492)

The isolation of the hotel, on a snowy mountain during a bitter winter, symbolizes the kind of social disconnect that often leads to problems like alcoholism and family abuse. In direct contrast, Danny’s psychic gift, the “shining”, as fellow shiner Dick Hallorann and his grandmother call it (‘The Shining’, page 117), connects him with people, and with the future, in an enhanced way. Jack and Wendy cannot contact the outside world (because Jack has destroyed the CB radio [‘Dreamland’, page 342], just as he’s ensured they can’t ride away in the snowmobile–‘The Snowmobile’, page 426), but Danny can “shine” all the way from Colorado to Florida to tell Hallorann of the threat to his family’s life.

The ghosts of the Overlook represent the ghosts of Jack’s past (and Wendy’s, to a lesser extent); but Danny, explicitly as such in Stephen King’s miniseries, points to the future, since “Tony” is actually Danny as a young adult (“Daniel Anthony Torrance”, page 639), advising his younger self to beware the dangers of the hotel (‘Shadowland’, pages 37-50). Thus, Tony is really Danny being a friend to himself, a form of self-compassion that can help victims of abuse to heal.

Redrum, or murder spelled backwards, represents not only the destructiveness of alcoholism–red rum, as red as blood–but also the destructiveness of looking backwards into the past, and letting internalized bad objects continue to dominate you, or letting bad old habits resurface and be compulsively repeated.

This brings me to my next point, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Up until the horrors of World War I, he saw instinctual drives as geared exclusively towards pleasure, libido. The destruction of that war (Freud, page 281) compelled him to revise his theories and acknowledge a death instinct, what his followers would call Thanatos, which is opposed to Eros, the will to live. He now admitted that dreams aren’t always the fulfillment of wishes (Freud, page 304).

Sometimes his patients would compulsively repeat actions that seemed meaningless or without a clearly pleasurable aim, such a when an infant boy threw out a toy and reeled it back, perhaps to master the sensation of loss, as when his mother wasn’t with him (Freud, pages 284-285). Similarly, Freud treated traumatized veterans who repeated irrational acts in the form of flashbacks, traumatic dreams (Freud, page 282), and the reliving of battlefield events.

Jack’s inability to control his anger and compulsive drinking are manifestations of this death instinct and its compulsion to repeat. He was destructive and drinking before, and he will be destructive and drinking again.

The topiary animals make for interesting symbolism. Normally, the presence of plants gives us a feeling of peace, of pleasure, especially when they have been shaped into aesthetically pleasing forms, like animals–how charming. Yet the Overlook’s topiary is of animals that move when you aren’t looking (‘In the Playground’, pages 311-314). By the time Hallorann returns to help Danny, the topiary lion attacks him (‘Hallorann Arrives’, pages 617-618). So what we have are plants that are superficially charming, yet bestial and frightening when one knows them better. And since they are the Overlook’s topiary, they are an extension of Jack’s personality: charming and sweet on the surface, his ego ideal, but inside…

Then there’s Danny’s frightening experience with the fire extinguisher hose, which seems to unravel all by itself (‘Outside 217’, pages 258-262). Again, seen in light of the idea that the hotel represents Jack’s mind, we see something that, on the surface, is meant to protect and ensure safety, as a father is supposed to do. Instead, the hose, a near phallic symbol, moves surreptitiously, slithering, suggestive of a snake.

Because the hotel represents Jack’s mind, the ghosts in turn represent his internal object relations. Delbert Grady could be seen to represent Jack’s internalized abusive father, since grey-haired Grady eggs Jack on to kill his own family, just as the voice of Jack’s father, heard on the CB radio, urges him to kill them (‘Dreamland’, page 341).

The ghosts want Danny for all his psychic powers, that ability to connect with others that Jack lacks. When Danny rejects the ghosts, they go after Jack. Thus the ghosts initially represent, in WRD Fairbairn‘s revising of Freud’s id, the libidinal ego in its relationship with the exciting object; then, when Danny has rejected the ghosts, they represent Fairbairn’s revising of the superego, the internal saboteur or anti-libidinal ego, with its turbulent relationship with the rejecting object (both objects being symbolized by Danny).

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you aren’t familiar with Fairbairn’s revision of Freud’s id/ego/superego conception of the mind, and since I further assume you haven’t read my analysis of The Exorcist, in which I discuss this revision, I’ll present the relevant quotes again here:

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

Fairbairn’s revising of Freud’s drive theory replaces the drive to pleasure/destruction with an object-seeking purpose, for which instinctual drives are mere avenues to seeking or dealing with objects. Fairbairn may have rejected Freud’s drive theory, including the death instinct and the compulsion to repeat, as superfluous (Fairbairn, pages 78-79), but I find both useful in explaining the symbolism of the Overlook, two ways of looking at King’s novel from different angles. Grady, the symbolic ghost of Jack’s abusive father, is pushing Jack to kill because Jack needs his father-object, regardless of whether it is good or bad for him.

Let’s consider what Fairbairn had to say about needing bad objects. “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn, page 67)

Going back to drinking represents finding a pleasurable thing as an object to replace the meaningful objects, Wendy and Danny, that Jack needs. As Fairbairn explains, “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140) In the Overlook, Jack is isolated in his own mind, driving him to self-destruction and other-destruction.

Jack uses a bug bomb to kill a nest of wasps found on the roof of the Overlook, where he’s been doing repairs and been stung by one of them (‘Up On the Roof’, page 153). Danny is fascinated with the wasp nest, and wants to keep it. Wendy is unsure if it’s safe, but Jack insists all the wasps have been killed (‘Down In the Front Yard’, pages 177-178). The ghosts of the hotel reanimate the wasps that night, though, and Danny is stung (‘Danny’, pages 195-203). Since the ghosts and hotel represent Jack’s mind, the stings represent a return to Jack’s abusiveness (and self-destructiveness, since he’s the first one to get stung); and his assuring that the wasps are dead and harmless represents his denial of abusive intent, gaslighting, and his empty promise that he’ll never repeat injuring Danny.

The Overlook, Jack’s symbolic mind, full of the ghosts of bad internal objects, and with a boiler of anger that Jack must regularly “dump…off a little” (‘Watson’, page 28) to relieve the pressure, always repeats its aggressions. Kubrick’s adaptation brilliantly brings out this repetition compulsion in such symbols as rug patterns, the phrase “forever, and ever, and ever”, and Jack’s “writing project”, an endless repetition of the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Similarly, we see repetitive columns, doors, wallpaper patterns, and the sound of Danny driving his little three-wheeled bike on and off rugs and the hardwood floor, over and over again…sound-silence-sound-silence-sound-silence.

Danny refuses to believe that Jack, swinging the roque mallet, is his real father (page 639); it’s just the ghosts controlling him. But the ghosts, the hotel, and the roque-mallet-swinging madman are all Jack. Typical with abuse victims, they can’t bring themselves to admit their abusers really are abusers–it’s Stockholm Syndrome, or traumatic bonding.

Jack is supposed to be writing a play, a goal pointing to the future; but instead, he finds a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings related to the history of the Overlook (‘The Scrapbook’, pages 227-249). Now he decides, instead of writing the play, to write about the hotel: a project pointing into the future is replaced with one pointing back into the past. (In the miniseries, the scrapbook is titled My Memory Book, implying a symbolic connection with Jack’s past.)

Jack phones Mr. Ullman–the stern owner of the hotel and Jack’s symbolic superego (“Officious little prick“, ‘Job Interview’, page 3), a man who has hired him with the utmost reluctance (‘Job Interview’, page 7)–to talk to him about writing a book about The Overlook (‘Talking to Mr. Ullman’, pages 269-274). Ullman is furious with Jack for wanting to do such a thing, as he is with Jack’s impertinent attitude…just as the superego will be resistant to any surfacing of repressed, unacceptable desires.

Ullman has good reason to oppose Jack’s plan to publicize The Overlook’s shady past. It is a past filled with violence–mafia killings, a woman having committed suicide in a bathtub (“Inside 217′, pages 326-327), and Grady’s violence against his family. The scrapbook is found in the basement, Jack’s symbolic unconscious, and the violent contents represent his repressed bad internal objects (i.e., his father). The old parties represent his past of alcoholism. (“Unmask! Unmask!“) [‘The Ballroom’, page 464], Show your real self, Jack.

The ghosts of the Overlook want Danny, which means Jack needs a good internal object to replace his intolerably bad objects, a notion in Fairbairn’s therapeutic methods. Since Danny resists the ghosts, they want Jack, meaning the repressed bad objects resurface, causing mayhem. Having Danny, a good boy whose “shining” represents strong empathy and an urge to connect with others, would redeem Jack’s bad objects and help him to be a good man again, looking ahead to a future free of the past; but their evil is too great, so Jack instead spirals downward and backward into his violent, alcoholic past.

Dick Hallorann goes to great lengths to help a boy and a family he barely knows, because like Danny, his “shining” abilities give him strong empathy and an urge to connect, unlike the isolated, freezing cold world surrounding Jack’s mind, the Overlook. After Dick, Wendy, and Danny escape, we find them all together in Maine the following summer, Dick being almost like a new father to the boy. Danny and Wendy have escaped the dark, abusive past that Jack couldn’t escape, because ‘the shining’ is a light leading to a future of freedom and love.

Stephen King, The Shining, Pocket Books, New York, 1977

WRD Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, New York, 1952

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

Analysis of ‘American Psycho’

American Psycho is a satirical novel written by Bret Easton Ellis and published in 1991. It is an unreliable first person narrative, in the present tense, given by the main character, Patrick Bateman, who is a yuppie living in 1980s New York City. It is an extremely controversial novel, given its depiction of increasingly brutal violence against women; this issue led many feminists to protest the novel.

A movie version was made in 2000, the screenplay written by Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron (the latter also being the director), and starring Christian Bale in the lead role. The movie removed or mitigated the novel’s violence, and rearranged much of the material: apart from that, the film was reasonably faithful.

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The violence against women has led many to believe that the novel is misogynistic. Actually, the novel satirizes the superficial, materialistic life of yuppies; for while Bateman is based on Ellis’ own experience of alienation in 1980s New York, we are not meant to sympathize with Bateman or condone his actions. As a Wall Street investment banker, Bateman is a personification of capitalist greed and cruelty.

The novel begins with an allusion to Dante‘s Inferno: “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE”. Yuppie New York City, one of the nerve centres of world capitalism, is Hell. Similarly, the novel ends with these words on a sign on a door: “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT“. Of course not: there is no hope of escape from Hell.

Bateman, in the third chapter (‘Harry’s’), is in Harry’s with his yuppie friends, Price (Bryce in the movie), McDermott, and Van Patten. A man named Preston joins them, and during their conversation, Preston makes antisemitic remarks, which Bateman chides him for (in the movie, McDermott makes the bigoted remarks). This moment, like the one in the first chapter (‘April Fool’s’), when Bateman preaches to his friends about such things as the need to end apartheid, provide food and shelter for the homeless, oppose racial discrimination, ensure equal rights for women, and promote general social concern and less materialism, represents the hypocrisy so typical of bourgeois liberals, always mindful of political correctness, but rarely practicing what they preach.

Bateman describes his possessions in his apartment in the second chapter (‘Morning’), going into detail about all of his fetishized commodities, mentioning brand names for everything (a Toshiba digital TV set and VCR; “expensive crystal ashtrays from Fortunoff”…Bateman doesn’t even smoke; a Wurlitzer jukebox; an Ettore Sotsass push-button phone; a “black-dotted beige and white Maud Sienna carpet”; etc.). So much for less materialism. His possessions are clearly very important to him, in how they are meant to reflect his social status (Valentino Couture clothes, “perforated cap-toe leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds”[page 31], Ralph Lauren silk pajamas, etc.).

Social status is important to Bateman because it’s the only way to be a part of yuppie society in New York City. During a date with Bethany, who wonders why he won’t quit his job (in the movie, it’s his girlfriend, Evelyn, who asks him), he answers that he wants “…to…fit…in.” (‘Lunch With Bethany’, p. 237) Later, he brutally kills her after she laughs at him for hanging a painting upside down. Being a yuppie is all about saving face and social conformity.

Ellis suffered in New York in the 80s, when this pressure to conform was so great. In creating Bateman, Ellis was creating, in a way, a modern version of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, “…a sick man…an angry man.” (Notes From Underground, page 15) Hence, Bateman’s psychopathy.

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In ‘Office,’ chapter six, Bateman tells Jean, his secretary, to come to work dressed in a more pleasing manner (pages 66-67). Apart from the fact that the 1980s campaign against sexual harassment hadn’t yet picked up steam, he knows he can get away with talking to her like that because she “is in love with” him (or so he, in his narcissistic imagination, thinks–page 64). So much for ensuring equal rights for women.

When he proudly shows off his new name card in a restaurant (‘Pastels’, chapter four), and is easily outdone by Van Patten, Price, and, especially, someone named Montgomery (in the film, it’s Paul Allen–Paul Owen in the novel), whose name cards are so much more impressive (pages 44-45), Bateman feels a “brief spasm of jealousy,” then he ends up “unexpectedly depressed.” He finds that the only way he can restore his sense of ‘superior’ social standing is by picking on those ‘under’ him. In the competitive world of capitalism, how else can one cure one’s low self-esteem?

He finds a freezing homeless black man (‘Tuesday’, pages 128-132), and after giving him false hopes that he’ll help him, he speaks contemptuously to him, then takes out a knife and puts out the beggar’s eyes (in the film, Bateman merely stabs him). He takes light stabs at the man’s stomach and slices up his face. He flips a quarter at him, calls him a “nigger,” then leaves him. So much for racial equality.

I still remember how disturbing I found this passage in the novel, how graphically Ellis describes the jerking of the knife in one of the homeless man’s eyes, to make it pop out of its socket. The eye now dangles, with all the liquid dripping out of its socket, “like red, veiny egg yolk”. I found this scene even more unnerving than the Habitrail and rat scene.

Thanks to Reagan’s inaugurating of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the poverty level made a net increase by the first year of George H.W. Bush’s term. Bateman’s abuse of the beggar can be seen to symbolize capitalism’s war on the poor. Now, this cruelty to the homeless has escalated to the use of spikes on sheltered pavements, and to the criminalizing of feeding the destitute. Like Bateman, capitalism has no shame.

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Bateman’s violence against women, however, is the most shocking part of the novel. Having this brutality in the novel is not the same as advocating it, though. Ellis is careful to make Bateman as blatantly despicable, even ludicrous, as possible. His ‘analyses’ of Huey Lewis and the News (pages 352-360), Genesis (after Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett left, for he “didn’t really understand any of their work,” that is, from the classic progressive rock quintet–‘Genesis’, page 133), Whitney Houston (pages 252-256), and Phil Collins’ solo career, making their commercial pop all sound like high art, are some of the funniest parts of the whole novel. It’s telling that Bateman prefers the, at best, mediocre-to-good film Against All Odds–“the masterful movie” (page 136), in his opinion–to Phil Collins’ hit song. I had a belly laugh when I read that.

So let us make no mistake here: Ellis is not glorifying Bateman in any way; therefore, he isn’t trying to glamourize violence against women. When Bateman uses a woman’s decapitated head to fellate him (‘Girls’, page 304), electrocutes ‘Christy’ (page 290, ‘Girls’), or sticks a Habitrail up a woman’s cunt (page 328), we hate him all the more for it.

Rather than see this violence as Ellis promoting misogyny, we should see it as a comment on misogyny (‘Harry’s’, pages 91-2, has a sexist discussion that, in the movie, is between Bateman, McDermott, and Van Patten)…especially of the sort directed by capitalism against the sexually exploited women and girls in the Third World, those forced into prostitution. Remember that a number of Bateman’s female victims are escort girls or prostitutes.

Since Bateman and all the other yuppies represent the capitalist class, I find it illuminating also to interpret his scurrilous treatment of his female victims allegorically. In most mythologies around the world, the feminine symbolizes nature, our Mother Earth. This is true of most ancient European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern pagan religions.

My point is that in our unconscious, we typically associate femininity with the fertile earth. Bateman’s violence against women, therefore, can be seen to symbolize capitalism’s destruction of the environment. The Habitrail incident further proves this, since Bateman has caught a rat (pages 308-9), then starved it for five days prior to having it (literally) eat out one of his female victims (‘Girl’, pages 326-9). In other sections of the novel, he injures (page 132) or kills dogs (page 165, ‘Killing Dog’). With destruction of the environment goes cruelty to animals.

Another striking theme in the novel is the lack of a sense of identity. In ‘End of the 1980s,’ Bateman says, “…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.” (pages 376-77)

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Bateman isn’t the only one with identity problems: people routinely confuse one person for another. Paul Owen confuses Bateman with someone called Marcus Halberstam (Halberstram in the movie), Bateman’s lawyer thinks he’s someone called Davis, and a mistaken identity is noted by Detective Kimball (‘Detective,’ page 273). Part of the reason for these mistakes is people not listening to one another; another part of the reason is how alike everyone seems, in dress and personality.

Capitalists often criticize communists for suppressing individuality and creativity. The hypocrisy of this is obvious when we see how capitalist commodification churns out the same kind of product, performer, movie, or song, over and over again. George Lucas once said in an interview that Soviet film-makers had more artistic freedom than he; the profit motive puts us all in chains (consider the hell K-pop performers have to go through in South Korea), as it does the yuppies in Ellis’ novel.

Bateman’s lack of a sense of self sometimes leads to moments of dissociation, depersonalization, and derealization. In mid-chapter (‘Chase, Manhattan’), during a moment of extreme stress while he’s afraid of being caught by the police, Bateman’s narration briefly switches from first person singular to third person singular (page 349-51), then back again by the end (page 352) when he feels safer again and calms down. He hallucinates about seeing a TV interview with a Cheerio and having a Dove bar with a bone in it (page 386). His frequent drug use (cocaine, Halcion, Valium, Xanax, etc.) is probably a source of much of his mental instability. The relative lack of commas in sentences, and even occasional run-on sentences, in the novel suggest an excited narrator high on cocaine, or one suffering from anxiety attacks (‘A Glimpse of a Thursday Afternoon,’ pages 148-152).

With his tenuous grip on reality, we begin to wonder about the reliability of his narrative. These doubts lead to a big question: is he guilty of any of the crimes he claims to have committed, or has he merely fantasized about the whole killing spree?

In ‘The Best City for Business’ (pages 366-7), Bateman says, “One hundred and sixty-one days have passed since I spent the night in [Paul Owen’s apartment] with the two escort girls. There has been no word of bodies discovered in any of the city’s four newspapers or on the local news, no hints of even a rumour floating around. I’ve gone so far as to ask people–dates, business acquaintances–over dinners, in the halls of Pierce & Pierce, if anyone has heard about two mutilated prostitutes found in Paul Owen’s apartment. But like in some movie, no one has heard anything, has any idea of what I’m talking about.” Does this mean that Patrick only imagined the horrors, or have they been ignored by the world because the victims were mere ‘whores’?

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Harold Carnes, Bateman’s attorney, who confuses him with a man named Davis, insists that his killing of Paul Owen is “not possible,” for Carnes says he had dinner with Owen twice (page 388, ‘New Club’), after the murder is supposed to have been committed (or did Carnes confuse Owen with someone else?). Also, the lawyer believes Bateman is too cowardly and weak to have killed anyone. Indeed, Bateman is a loser, as everyone in the story knows. Remember, Ellis never glamourizes Bateman.

Elsewhere, the real estate agent trying to sell Owen’s apartment has cleaned up the place and, seeming to know about Bateman’s crimes, she wants him to leave and never return. Eerily, she seems more interested in preserving the high property value of the apartment than in seeking justice for the victims.

This notion, did he, or didn’t he kill those people, is important in light of how he allegorically represents capitalism. Note how similar ‘mergers and acquisitions’ sounds to ‘murders and executions’ (page 206, ‘Nell’s’). To this day, people debate if capitalism is responsible for the millions who die of malnutrition every year, for the destruction of the environment, etc. America is truly a psycho nation…or is the psychopathy merely imagined, as the capitalist apologists would have us believe?

Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, Vintage Books, New York, 1991

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground and The Double, Penguin Classics, England, this translation published 1972