Analysis of ‘The 39 Steps’

I: Introduction

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

II: Context

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

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

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

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

III: Beginnings

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

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

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

IV: Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

V: Smith > Scudder

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

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

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

VI: Disguise

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

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

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

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

VII: Imperialism

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

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

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

VIII: On the Train, On the Run

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

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

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

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

IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away

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

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

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

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

X: Colonizer as Victim?

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

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

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

XI: The Manhunt Continues

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

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

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

XII: Speeches

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

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

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

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

XIII: The House of the Spies

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

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

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

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

XIV: Friends of Spies

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

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

XV: A Fine Romance

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

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

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

XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?

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

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

XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships

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

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

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

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

XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A

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

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

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

XIX: Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, for my analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the Medea Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

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

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

The Sixth Poem from ‘Diverging Paths’

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

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

And now, for my analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That way madness lies.

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

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

Here’s the poem:

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

And now, for my analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fifth Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s Book, ‘Diverging Paths’

Here is Poem #5 from Diverging Paths, a book of poetry and prose by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. As always, I’ll put the words of his poem in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

My illusion of good, 
And my illusion of evil, 
Differ for the cause, 
I can’t believe I used to believe 
In these flaws, 

I want my sanity, 
My mind resentful of humanity, 
Returned to me, 
Behind the backdrop, 
Of falling profanity, 

Profane, 
In the domain, 
Of the choice of everything versus nothing,

And now, for my analysis.

This poem can be seen to represent the shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. The first position is one of splitting our experience of others (our internal objects, the people we know and who inhabit our thoughts) into absolute good and absolute bad; the second position is one of reconciling the bad and good experienced in others, of allowing oneself to see in others a combination of good and bad.

Thus through psychological splitting, one sees an “illusion of good” and an “illusion of evil.” When one has achieved reparation, though, one finds the flaws of the previous, split thinking, so utterly wrong that one cannot believe one once believed the dichotomous thinking was true. The evolution, growth, and maturing of the personality requires an acknowledgement of the grey area in everyone, not just the ‘black’ or ‘white.’

When one splits objects into ‘black’ or ‘white,’ that splitting affects us internally. We try to project the bad parts, but we can’t, for they are a part of us. So, if “I want my sanity,” however “my mind [may be] resentful of humanity,” I must do this reconciling of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ into the grey that all of humanity really is. This is the only way my sanity will be “returned to me.”

“Behind the backdrop” is the unconscious mind, which is a repository of all the repressed hurt and trauma “of falling profanity,” all those hurtful words and verbal abuse that one has been subjected to all of one’s life. The splitting and projecting of the bad of others is a defence mechanism against such hurt.

But one cannot always go around seeking refuge in the illusions of splitting, which is “profane, in the domain,” an unspiritual place where illusion masquerades as truth, instead of the spiritual place of reconciled oneness, where contradictions are resolved, and the choppy fragmentation of splitting is replaced by a flowing of ups and downs.

“The choice of everything versus nothing,” caused by splitting, must be replaced by an embrace of everything and nothing, a confrontation with trauma in order to heal it; then one can have one’s sanity returned.

The Fourth Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s Book, ‘Diverging Paths’

Here is another poem by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at so many times before. This is Poem Four from Diverging Paths. As usual, I’ll be putting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine:

Disillusioned
I face my personal hell, 
I am the illusion, 
Of a man you know well,
 

Time is a distance, 
Scattered betrayers, 
Crucify me, 
With the intrepid 
Definitions of reality, 

You are the only being, 
That I could care less if I see, 
When I realize I am not me, 
But a fool looking to the sky for substance and 
meaning,

And now, for my analysis.

I don’t believe the poet is speaking in his own voice here. Instead, this is a person confronted with his own phoniness. He’s lived with a False Self for much of his life, but at some point he cannot maintain his illusions. His “personal hell” is the realization that he can no longer pretend illusion is reality.

The pain of this realization is a kind of narcissistic injury, so it’s easier to blame his woe on “scattered betrayers” who “crucify” him, rather than take the responsibility for himself. Making his pain into something as grandiose as to be compared with Christ’s Passion, he can try to hold on to some sense of illusory greatness. Try, but not succeed.

The “definitions of reality” are “intrepid” because the truth is that fearless in how it hurts us without remorse. The person to whom he speaks is someone much better; he “could care less” if he sees this person, which is better than not caring less, so this person is of at least some value to him, in his otherwise empty life.

It is the ideals that he looks up to, symbolized by a heaven that supposedly has “substance and meaning,” that are what make up his not being himself. It is the narcissist’s tendency to idealize someone else, and to want to emulate that idealization, that creates the False Self; for the idealization is a false person, too. So the person to whom he addresses his identity crisis is, presumably, that idealized person, who is now not so ideal, hence he “could care less” to see him or her.

This loss of someone to idealize is the essence of his “disillusioned” state, for the idealized other is a face mirroring back one’s own narcissistic, illusory self. Note also the continuous use of commas, especially at the end, suggesting that this is an ongoing, unending pain. For though “time is a distance,” that distance in time from the original injury to one’s ego will never erase the pain entirely.

Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

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

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

Here is a link to famous quotes from the novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the Evrémondes everywhere in the world watch out.

The modern-day Madame Defarge is doing her knitting.

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

The Third Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s Book, ‘Diverging Paths’

Here’s another poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection of poetry and prose, Diverging Paths. As anyone who has read my blog posts knows, I’ve written about my Facebook friend’s poetry many times. Again, I’ve set his writing in italics to distinguish it from mine. Here’s the poem:

I hate it all, 
Can I watch it die, 
Fading embers, 
Of a burning sky, 
Call me, 
To be nothing but what I am,
 

Every fucking day is the same, 
Breaking me apart, 
Too dark to start, 
Can’t hit the Wall, 

break the design, a
pattern of time, 
Is unheard and underlying, 
Maladies return me to the death of my humanity,
 

O Lord I am broken, 
My soul tattered and shattered,
 

Too a point nothing fucking matters, 
And all the dreams are lies, I kiss
my Deliverance goodbye, And yet
it seems,
 

I am me, 
But broken, 
Where no vessel should be, 
I am nothing, I …. 


Will not bother, I….. Will not bow, 
I….. 
Will not scrape, 


I am nothing, 
But at least I’m me,

And now for my analysis.

The poet would “watch it die,” the “Fading embers/Of a burning sky,” that “Call [him],”… He seems to be referring to the religious authority represented by God in the sky, which is “burning” because the validity of that authority is “fading”. Having been abused by it, he would happily “watch it die.”

In “Every fucking day is the same,” the use of the word fucking doesn’t seem to be just gratuitous swearing. I’ve learned from his life that he was a victim of sexual abuse, something kids often suffer in Catholic institutions, for which the perpetrators all too often go unpunished. Feeling the effects of the trauma is an every day thing, hence “Maladies return [him] to the death of [his] humanity.”

The poet calls out to God for help, “O Lord I am broken,” but that God isn’t there to help him, because here God is just the idol of institutionalized religion, rather than representative of any genuine spirituality…”all the dreams are lies.”

“Too a point nothing fucking matters” should be seen as a pun on too and to. Nothing matters to a point, but his problem is, too, a point, the point of the rapist’s phallus. Again, fucking isn’t gratuitous swearing. He kisses his “Deliverance” goodbye, because there is no deliverance, yet the capitalized D implies an allusion to the film and novel featuring the rape of a man. The deliverance of the Church, resulting all too often in the sexual abuse of children, is mere deliverance into another kind of hell.

He is broken, so he calls himself nothing, since part of the trauma he feels makes him devalue himself. In spite of his pain, though, there is some defiance against his abusers. He “will not bow,” and “will not scrape.” Society devalues him, yet “at least” he’s sincerely himself, not the kind of phoney person that society favours.

The aligning of the first half of the text to the right, where the focus is on the cause of his suffering, versus the aligning of the second half of the text to the left, mostly his reaction to his suffering, as well as his defiance to it, suggests the right-wing authoritarianism of the Church versus his left-wing aspiration to be liberated from such authority.

‘Complete,’ a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

Here’s a new poem by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. This one is another one with a happier theme–love. Again, I’ll put his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

I ran into the mirror
Fell right through
Woke up without eyes
But could see you
You were brighter than the moon
You smiled I swooned
Kissed your lips with my finger tips
I wrote our love sonnet
Upon your flesh
Awoke with a Memory
And a belief
That today we may be strangers
We will meet one day
And we shall be
Complete

And now, for my analysis.

Note the relationship between running into a mirror and seeing the person he loves. When we see a mirror, we see ourselves, of course; but mirrors can be metaphorical, too. The mirror in the Lacanian sense can be a metaphor for the face of another looking back at you, an idealized version of yourself, or an idealized parent looking back at you, mirroring your love back to you.

The Oedipal relationship with the idealized parent gets transferred onto someone that one later falls in love with. The poet “fell right through” (i.e., in love) and “could see” his love “without eyes,” because as we know, love is blind. His love was “brighter than the moon,” the same moon that was envious of her maid, the sun Juliet, for being far fairer than she (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii, lines 2-10).

Another indirect reference to Shakespeare can be found in the poet having written their “love sonnet.” They “will meet one day/And…shall be/Complete.” This is the lifelong drive to attain the idealized state of the object seen in the mirror (the “Memory” from one’s first childhood experience of looking into the mirror and establishing a sense of self…a repressed, unconscious memory), to try to be as perfect as the image one sees on the other side, with whom one feels a stranger. To have one’s love, projected into and embodied in that other person.