Analysis of ‘Carrie’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carrie White eats shit.” (page 4)

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

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

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Review and Analysis of ‘Mayan Blue’

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis…SPOILER ALERT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘The Shining’

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

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

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

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

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

You lost your temper, Ullman had said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘American Psycho’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Titus Andronicus’

Long time, no Shakespeare!

I’m going to do this analysis differently from my previous analyses of Shakespeare plays. I’m doing this for two reasons: as Titus Andronicus isn’t one of the famous classic plays, I won’t be doing a separate synopsis of the play for the sake of my students; though historically detested, Titus Andronicus has been experiencing something of a revival due to how its themes of cruelty and revenge are relevant in today’s increasingly harsh world; so unlike with my other Shakespeare analyses, I’ll be relating events in TA with contemporary issues.

Titus Andronicus is a tragedy Shakespeare apparently co-wrote (with George Peele, who many scholars think wrote the first act, as well as the the first scenes of Acts II and IV) between 1588 and 1593. It was his first tragedy, though his first great play, The Tragedy of King Richard III (actually a history) may have been finished earlier (in 1592). TA was a hit when first produced, since Elizabethan audiences loved gore in their plays, and revenge plays were very popular at the time.

It didn’t take long, however, for the play’s reputation to sink. Indeed, from the 17th century up till the mid-20th, TA was considered by many to be Shakespeare’s worst play. Its excesses of gore and cruelty are too much for many people to stomach. I, on the other hand, would say that Love’s Labour Lost, with its dated humour and pedantic, Baroque prolixity, is the Bard’s least successful play (Consider Kenneth Branagh‘s failed attempt at a film version, whose replacement of much of the text with old jazz standards was considered, if anything, one of the movie’s high points!). TA, however, has a relevance to today’s world that actually indicts contemporary violence, thus vindicating the play.

I feel no discomfort in thinking that Shakespeare wrote the whole play, even though it may very well have been a collaboration. It seems that scholars don’t want to credit the immortal Bard with such a harsh play, claiming it was a collaboration, a play written before his talents had matured, or one erroneously attributed to him. I believe TA has been derided because Shakespeare was exploring the dark shadows in our psyches, shadows we’d prefer to believe don’t exist. Cruelty is not a pleasant theme to develop, and Shakespeare developed themes to the hilt.

I believe Shakespeare was satirizing his contemporaries’ fondness for gore and revenge plays (as he had pastoral plays, I believe, with As You Like It) by delivering the violence in such extreme doses: fourteen killings, including two filicides, a rape, an act of cannibalism, six examples of dismembering, and a live burial. When we compare the Elizabethan love of gore with that of today (note the blood and guts in so many contemporary horror movies), we realize that Elizabethan bloodlust was not unique to their time. The fascination with the writings of the Marquis de Sade further illustrate my point, as do Freud’s writings on the death instinct, a result of his sorrow over the destructiveness of World War I.

Julie Taymor did a flamboyant movie adaptation of TA, Titus, and the BBC did a TV adaptation back in 1985. Both versions begin with Titus returning to Rome from victories against the Goths, taking their queen Tamora, her sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, as well as Aaron the Moor, as captives; the written play, however, begins with brothers Saturninus and Bassanius with their respective followers, vying to be the next Roman emperor after the recent death of Caesar, their father. This switching of scenes is made to accommodate an often-omitted continuity error in the text (Act I, scene i, beginning at line 35), which refers to the killing of Alarbus, which hasn’t happened yet in the story.

This killing of Alarbus is the first act of cruelty in the play; it sets in motion all the violence and revenge to follow. He is to be killed in a rite of human sacrifice to appease the ghosts of those sons of Titus already killed in battle. His eldest son, Lucius, willingly carries out the slaying of Alarbus, which involves burning him alive and hacking off his limbs. Of course, Tamora begs and pleads for Titus to spare her first-born son, though Titus is deaf to her cries. All she can do is complain about “cruel, irreligious piety!”, a reference to how religion, founded largely on scientific ignorance, leads all too often to cruelty. Apparently, the capturing of the Goths and Aaron, a product of Roman imperialism, isn’t cruel enough.

Now, this act of cruelty merely gives Tamora and her sons a motive for revenge. Titus’ foolish declining of the offer of succession to be emperor, along with his support for Saturninus to succeed, leads eventually to the new emperor’s choice in Tamora to be his bride. Now, she and her sons have the opportunity for revenge.

Before the choice of Tamora for his queen, Saturninus chooses, in all capriciousness, Bassanius’ betrothed, Lavinia. This choice seems to be an act of spite towards his brother, cruelly depriving him and Lavinia of having each other’s love. When Bassanius takes her away, through the force of Titus’ sons, their again-foolish father, blindly loyal to Saturninus over his own family, kills his son, Mutius (this video from the 1985 BBC production) for blocking his way in the chase after Lavinia.

Indeed, we see a lot of foolishness in Titus, as in all the cruelty and violence seen in this play: his murder for religion (Alarbus); his filicides (Mutius and, in the end, Lavinia); his giving up of an opportunity to be emperor and thus protect his family from future reprisals; his all-too-quick giving up of his hand in a vain attempt to save the lives of his other two sons, Quintus and Martius; and his eventual descent into madness.

One criticism of this play is in how the excesses of violence seem more like a black comedy than tragedy; indeed, Harold Bloom once said that the best director for the play would be Mel Brooks. Consider the stage direction of having Titus’ severed hand carried in the mouth of handless Lavinia. But the whole point of the play is that cruelty is absurd and senseless.

Let us remember such atrocities as when the colonial rule of Belgian King Leopold II caused the deaths of about ten million Congolese back in the late 19th century. Consider the Armenian genocide in 1915, when between 800,000 and 1.5 million were killed. Or the Holocaust, in which not only were about six million Jews murdered, but also from 220,000 to 1.5 million Roma were murdered, as well as 2-3 million Soviet POWs; German gay men (from 5,000 to 15,000 imprisoned–it is uncertain how many died), leftists (among the first to be put in concentration camps), the disabled/mentally ill (about 270,000 killed), political and religious opponents, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also among those persecuted.

Added to the absurdity of cruelty is that of revenge. How does revenge make the pain of the original wrong go away? For the killing of Alarbus, Tamora says, “I’ll find a day to massacre them all,/And raze their faction and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons,/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life;/And make them know, what ‘t is to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.”

With the help of her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, as well as Aaron the Moor, Tamora has Bassanius murdered and Titus’ sons, Quintus and Martius, framed for the crime, leading to their execution. Worse, she allows her sons to rape and mutilate Lavinia. Added to these outrages, Lucius is exiled, and Aaron tricks Titus into cutting off his hand in a fruitless ransom to save his two condemned sons. His reward is to be presented his hand with the heads of his sons. Tamara may have grinned maliciously at her achieved revenge, but how has this carnage brought Alarbus back to her?

The rape of Lavinia is especially cruel. One of the recurring themes of TA is that of begging for grace in vain. Lavinia thus pleads to leave her chastity intact, saying that slaying her unstained would make Tamora “a charitable murderer” (Act II, scene iii, line 178). All such pleas, including an appeal to Tamora’s womanhood, fall on deaf ears, just as Tamora’s weren’t heard by Titus, and his pleas to save Quintus and Martius, in turn, aren’t heard by the tribunes. Aaron pleads to spare the life of his illegitimate son by Tamora: by the end of the play, is the baby spared?

Not only is Lavinia brutally raped by Chiron and Demetrius, but they also cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, to ensure she has no way to accuse them. Any woman (or man or child) who has been raped feels every bit as unable to accuse, even with hands and tongue intact. Such is the power of the bully to silence the victim.

Next comes Titus’ final revenge on all his enemies. First, his exiled son joins the Goths and raises an army to invade betraying Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” (Act III, scene i, line 54), now considered as barbarous as the Goths. So upset is Saturninus with the bad news of  Titus’ complaints to the gods of the emperor’s wickedness, sent in notes fired by arrows up into the sky, that he has a clown needlessly hanged. But this is only the beginning…

Titus’ men apprehend Chiron and Demetrius. Before slitting their throats as Lavinia watches and holds between her stumps a bowl to catch the drops of blood, he tells them his plan to cook their flesh in meat pies and serve them to their mother in a feast! Indeed, as Tamora is unwittingly eating her sons’ cooked flesh, Titus kills his daughter in a kind of honour killing, rationalizing it more as an ending of his misery than hers, and an ending of her shame, when it is her rapists who truly bear the shame.

Consider how some Muslims, victims of the terrible crimes of Western imperialism, often turn to forms of extremism like  Wahhabism, then turn their violence on each other in such forms as honour killings, or resort to the terrorist killings of Western civilians, many of whom sympathize with their plight. Too often, we turn our wrath against the wrong people.

Next, we see a quick cycle of violence and revenge: when Titus tells Tamora she’s been feasting on the flesh of her sons, he kills her; then Saturninus immediately rises and kills Titus in a fury; then Lucius avenges his father by killing Saturninus.

We see similarly absurd violence in the imperialist violence against Iraq, Libya, and Syria, giving rise to ISIS, whose violence in such attacks as those in Paris prompts retaliations in Syria, out of which refugees are pouring. Violence merely begets more violence, which never ends.

The play ends with Aaron being buried alive, up to the neck, and left to starve to death. Anyone feeding or pitying him will be executed. His last words are, “If one good deed in all my life I did,/I do repent it from my very soul.” (Act V, scene iii, lines 189-190) This is what becomes of the soul of a man consumed by hate and malice: “Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” (Act III, scene i, line 206)

Lucius ends the play by commanding that Tamora’s body not be buried, and that she, having been without pity in her life, can “let birds on her take pity.” (Act V, scene iii, line 200) He is thus the dubious redeemer of the play, having started the cycle of violence with the ‘hewing’ of Alarbus’ limbs, and having ended it with these final cruelties.

Ending the play on such a dark note, the essence of its profound tragedy, leaves so many with such queasy feelings that that TA has had such a bad reputation. Few of us can bear to see the darkest shadows of ourselves explored so thoroughly, and taken to such cruel conclusions. Yet the violence of today’s world shows us the relevance of this play, with such examples as the Rwandan genocide, whose own cycle of violence was ended with a relatively lenient punishment of most of the perpetrators. This ability to forgive is what we can learn about how to deal with our darker shadows.

Analysis of ‘Brave New World’

Brave New World is a novel written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1932. Like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is a dystopian novel about a future world tightly controlled by a totalitarian government. There is, however, a crucial difference between these two dystopias: Orwell’s Hell is a totalitarianism predicated on brute force, surveillance, and a manipulation of logic called doublethink; Huxley’s tyranny is more like a Heaven, or a Spenserian Bower of Bliss, predicated on a mindless pursuit of pleasure (promiscuous sex, getting high on soma, and watching ‘feelies’, this last being comparable to the 4DX experience in movies) to distract people from questioning the world around them.

At the same time, there are similarities between these two tyrannies: both involve intolerance of nonconformity, though where Orwell’s thought-criminals are tortured and killed, Huxley’s are simply exiled; and both systems of power do their utmost to erase history to ensure that their citizens never get a taste of an alternative culture, which might lead to a dangerous wish to rise up against the current regime. “‘When the individual feels, the community reels,’ Lenina pronounced.” (Chapter 6)

As with my analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I can’t resist comparing Huxley’s dystopia with our world today. Indeed, in Brave New World Revisited, Huxley himself compared the world of his ‘fable’, as he called it, to the world he saw around him in the late 1950s, and found it disturbingly close in many ways to his fictitious world. He also contrasted his predictions to those of Orwell’s: “It is worth remembering that, in 1984, the members of the Party are compelled to conform to a sexual ethic of more than Puritan severity. In Brave New World, on the other hand, all are permitted to indulge their sexual impulses without let or hindrance.” (page 34)

Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, also made a comparison of Huxley’s novel with our world over thirty years ago, feeling that the America of the 1980s was far more like Huxley’s heavenly Hell than Orwell’s more blatant one. The whole idea of Postman’s book was how the once serious discussion of politics, which involved lengthy speeches, detailed analyses of the issues, and fierce debates, all by a literate public, has degenerated into mere TV entertainment. We are not so much bludgeoned by fascistic cops as we’re lulled to sleep with amusement. If Postman were alive today, he would see how much more correct, and prophetic, his analysis was by watching the clownish likes of Donald Trump on TV.

In my opinion, today’s world is about half Orwellian and half Huxleyan. For my comparison of Nineteen Eighty-Four with our world, please go here. And now, for my comparison of our world with that of Brave New World.

One thing to remember about Huxley’s novel is that it is a satiric exaggeration of the early 1930s (and, by extension, today’s world). We haven’t done away with families, procreation, pregnancy, parenthood, and monogamy, as has been done in World State society, but in many ways we are already well on our way to abolishing such things (and, recall above, that Huxley in Brave New World Revisited also believed that in the late 1950s our world was coming closer to such a state of affairs than he’d originally imagined). Western divorce rates are absurdly high, many people are opting out of marriage completely, artificial insemination has existed for decades, and in spite of the fear of STDs, or of men taking advantage of drunk or stoned women, one-night stands in Western countries are as common as the common cold.

As Huxley says in Brave New World Revisited: “The society described in Brave New World is a world-state in which war has been eliminated and where the first aim of the rulers is at all cost to keep their subjects from making trouble. This they achieve by (among other methods) legalizing a degree of sexual freedom (made possible by the abolition of the family) that practically guarantees the Brave New Worlders against any form of destructive (or creative) emotional tension.” (page 34)

A few words need to be said about Huxley’s World State when compared with today’s political world. The notion of an oppressive, global government is the subject of a popular conspiracy theory that sells lots of books and makes lots of money for right-wing kooks like Alex Jones. Needless to say, I don’t subscribe to such nonsense. I once read the beginning of a webpage about the ‘NWO‘ in which the writer claimed there are two ways to interpret all the phenomena of history: they’re either accidents–coincidences; or they’re all planned (i.e., conspiratorial). The belief in this false dichotomy among ‘truthers’ and the like was confirmed whenever I read their use of the term ‘coincidence theorist’ as a straw-man against any doubters of their paranoid ideas.

What’s especially interesting about these conspiracy theorists is how many of them are either right-libertarians or religious fundamentalists (Christian or Muslim). They fancy themselves anti-authoritarian, but they’re in total denial of the hierarchy and authoritarianism inherent in capitalism and religion. They won’t trust the mainstream media, but they don’t mind referring to it when it criticizes ‘socialist’ Big Government. And while we’re on the topic of conspiratorial thinking, since there has been, from the Reagan and Thatcher years to the present, a push towards greater and greater deregulation and tax cuts for the rich–which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, leads ironically to bigger rather than smaller government–it doesn’t seem an ill-founded suspicion to think that the rich oligarchy is more than happy to promote these conspiracy theories. After all, they criticize only the state, while leaving ‘free market’ capitalism and religion well alone. And if the elite is so incredibly powerful, we can’t do anything about it…so don’t bother trying. The capitalists have already won. They would love us to be so pessimistic.

As I see it, a more accurate contemporary parallel to the World State is globalization. The so-called ‘free market’ doesn’t pulverize the state, as the right-libertarians would have us think: it merely privatizes the state. World governments are increasingly being run by capitalists, as such shady deals as the TPP show; multinational corporations can use the TPP to sue any government that makes regulations that limit their profits. To know who has the power, follow where the money is going…and capitalism is all about making as much money as possible.

The state is just the bouncer of the World Casino, if you will; and who is the state’s boss, if he isn’t a capitalist? Huxley’s satire is as much a critique of capitalism as it is of the state. Indeed, in the 1946 Foreword to Brave New World (page xliii), he described his ideal society as being economically Georgist (which can be considered a variant on left-libertarianism) and politically ‘Kropotkinesque’, and it was he who thus introduced me to anarcho-communism.

References to capitalism in Brave New World include the World State’s class system, with people like Mustapha Mond, one of ten World Controllers composing the ruling class. Then there are Alpha-plus people like Helmholtz Watson and Bernard Marx, beneath whom are upper-middle-class Betas, then the Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, the equivalents of such groups as the petite bourgeoisie and the working classes who are conditioned into being content to stay in their respective castes and/or do menial labour. Note that there is nothing even remotely socialist about such a world, since socialism aims to create a classless, worker-ruled society.

Elsewhere, capitalism in Huxley’s world is seen in the World State’s promotion of consumerism, a constant buying and fetishizing of commodities (“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.”–Chapter 3). Indeed, with the World State’s requiring of its citizens to engage in promiscuous sex (“Every one belongs to every one else.”–Chapter 3), we see even a commodifying of people. In the Hatcheries, where babies, including cloned ones, are mass-produced instead of born the natural way, we see human commodification taken to a satirical extreme.

Speaking of mass production, a worship of Henry Ford has replaced that of Christ; there is even a regular singing of ‘Solidarity Hymns’ to Ford (Chapter 5, part 2). The crucifix is replaced by a T (i.e., the Ford Model T), and A.D. is replaced with A.F., “After Ford,” a new dating system beginning with the year that the first Model T was produced. Ford is honoured because of his development of assembly-line production, which represents the capitalist ideal in World State society. He is so godlike to the World State that expressions like “O, Lord, Lord, Lord,” and “Thank the Lord” are replaced with “O, Ford, Ford, Ford,” and “Thank Ford!” World State citizens worship capitalism just as today’s free market fundamentalists do, with their God-like ‘invisible hand,’ which allegedly guides consumers to making wise decisions in buying products. (I wonder how many of them are aware that such things as their coffee, chocolate, and diamonds are often produced through slave labour in the Third World.) World State citizens, just like so many of today’s conspiracy theorists (who are so above all those unthinking ‘sheeple’), worship capitalism as a religion.

Now, how are the citizens conditioned to be content with their lot, wherever it may be in the caste system? One way is through hypnopaedic conditioning: as children are sleeping, they hear recordings that subliminally teach them to conform. This is comparable to how we passively, thoughtlessly watch TV and accept every entertaining image, as if we were sleeping. TV, movies, and popular music these days are all mindless nonsense, or they bombard us with propaganda, either that of divisive political correctness, or of materialist pleasure (overt sexuality, the ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’ would-be philosophy, etc.). The CIA started influencing world media with Operation Mockingbird back in the 1950s, and it is doubtful if they ever stopped; one of the most influential feminists of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Gloria Steinem, who helped in the shift from second wave to third wave and radical ‘Marxist’ feminism, had CIA connections.

Another way the World State controls the people is through a drug called soma, which gives people a high to help them forget their troubles (“A gramme is better than a damn.”–Chapter 3). This is like how disruptive children in the US are constantly given psychiatric drugs to treat conditions like ADHD or ODD. Pharma for profit, rather than for actually helping people. Elsewhere, people enjoy coffee and nicotine to keep them contented workers, and alcohol to make those workers forget their problems over the weekend. Sure, narcotics are illegal (the gradual legalizing of marijuana notwithstanding), but the prison-for-profit industry in America is all too happy to incarcerate drug addicts and traffickers (consider what a failure the ‘War on Drugs’ has been).

Then there’s all that sugary, fattening food we enjoy: our very own soma. Combining that with the dumbing-down of our society, consider what Huxley had to say in Brave New World Revisited: “And now let us consider the case of the rich, industrialized and democratic society, in which, owing to the random but effective practice of dysgenics, IQs and physical vigour are on the decline. For how long can such a society maintain its traditions of individual liberty and democratic government? Fifty or a hundred years from now our children will learn the answer to this question.” (page 21) Indeed, I think we have.

Of course, all these attempts to make the people conform don’t always succeed. Bernard Marx is unhappy because he is too small in physical stature. Lenina is criticized for not being polygamous enough. Helmholtz is too smart and creative a writer for the World State’s insistence on superficial slogans (for example,”A gramme in time saves nine.”–Chapter 6). Still, all three of them are conditioned enough either to want to fit in (Bernard, Lenina), or at least to accept the contrived World State morality (Helmholtz). Even Mustapha Mond owns forbidden literature, and has read it, and though he as a youth had a dangerously inquisitive mind (in scientific matters), he accepts and defends the need to keep conformity as an indispensable part of life, for the sake of social stability.

Another non-conformist, who nonetheless aches to fit into World State society, is Linda, mother of John the Savage. She is branded a whore both in the World State for accidentally getting pregnant (during a visit to a reservation in New Mexico), and in the reservation, where a conservative sexual morality condemns her for sleeping with the aboriginal women’s husbands.

These people are like most of us, who try to conform either to conservative or to liberal forms of morality, but fail to do so, to varying extents. We’re all trapped in a world of pursuing pleasure and social status.

Then there’s the greatest non-conformist of them all–John the Savage. Given the prejudices of conservative Westerners, there is an amusing irony in labelling John–a white man born to World State citizens (Linda and Thomas, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning), but raised among aboriginals in the New Mexico reservation–a ‘savage’. Added to that irony is how his conservative morality, including such traditional values as monogamy, piety in family and religion, and a love of classic literature (John constantly quotes Shakespeare), is regarded as uncivilized among the people of the World State. Is this not like the scorn left-leaning liberals have for what they deem to be backward conservative ideas?

While I personally don’t believe in God, I don’t feel the need to stick my tongue out at religious people; as long as they keep their faith to themselves, I’ll tolerate it. Still, many of the New Atheists use their disdain for religion to justify Western imperialism in the Middle East. I’m no defender of anti-woman, anti-LGBT sharia law, but the American invasions of Iraq, Libya, and Syria have exacerbated the problem of Muslim extremism rather than diminished it.

This issue leads to my next point. Though John is a white man born out of wedlock and raised among aboriginals, I find it interesting to compare him to today’s Muslims living in the secular West. Like Muslims in America, Canada, and Europe, John is a fish out of water who has great difficulty adjusting to life in the World State. In chapters 8 and 15, John quotes Miranda in The Tempest, who, when she first sees people not from the island she’s been raised on, says, “O wonder!/How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in’t.” But quickly, the novelty of the World State wears off, and John comes to despise this new world around him, as many alienated Muslims in the West must feel.

In the World State, notions of marriage, family, and religious tradition are laughed at and even abominated. In our world, such people as radical feminists on the one side (far more influential in the media than many care to admit) and MGTOWs on the other consider straight marriage to be a trap for their respective sex, a life-ruining decision to be avoided. Because of high divorce rates, Western families way too often are broken. And since religious authoritarianism has caused much more pain than given the comfort and black-and-white assurances it so dubiously promises, many in the West feel more than justified in criticizing religion, if not outright lampooning it.

John, however, believes that marriage, family, and religion fill our lives with a meaning that soma, consumerism, and promiscuous sex cannot. Muslims feel the same way, and just as John takes umbrage at Helmholtz’s laughing at Shakespeare’s writing of mothers and marriage (Chapter 12), or Mustapha Mond’s invalidating of religion (Chapter 17) or the values embodied in the literary classics (Chapter 16), so does the Muslim take offence at the stereotyping of his faith as being, essentially, violent fanaticism.

While we sympathize with John’s alienation, we shouldn’t idealize his alternative to the World State’s philosophy of happiness, either. His self-flagellations and over-reliance on Shakespearian poetry to give him meaning lapse into absurdity. The same can be said of the endless conflict between his desire for Lenina and his prudish refusal to satisfy that desire: consider his melodramatic reaction when she makes sexual advances on him, quoting Othello and calling her an “impudent strumpet!” (Chapter 13) Compare these absurdities to the Muslim insistence that the Arabic poetry of the Koran, for all of its undeniable beauty, is the eternal word of Allah rather than man-made dogma and religious laws created to help 7th-century Arabic tribes cope with the socio-economic and political pressures of their time. The Christian fundamentalist has similar problems with his ‘infallible’ Bible, as does the Mormon with his clumsilywritten appendix to the ‘Word of God’.

Again, I can empathize with the isolated Muslim in the Western world, with his people in the Middle East routinely being killed by drone strikes, with countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria needlessly torn apart by Western imperialists (Iran likely to be the next victim), alongside Israel’s endless persecution of the Palestinians, and the media’s constant blackening of his religion. On the other side, freedom of speech, including the freedom to criticize all religions, must be respected. There are no straightforward answers to these problems.

John is right, however, to try to destroy all the soma (Chapter 15). Too many of us indulge in various forms of substance abuse instead of dealing with our problems directly. While smoking marijuana from time to time may be acceptable, it should be legal, and it’s certainly a lot of fun, many people ‘medicate’ themselves with it every day; and research has shown that there is a link–though a by-no-means straightforward one–between constant marijuana use and schizophrenia. Avoiding pain may be preferable to enduring it, but experiencing pain is part of being human; and people like Lenina and Linda are like living corpses when on soma. Indeed, the death of John’s mother (Chapter 14) from excessive soma use is what throws him over the edge.

Bernard and Helmholtz are exiled to far-away islands, these being almost pleasant punishments in Huxley’s dystopia. Indeed, they’re a far cry from Room 101. But John exiles himself, as it were, by leaving the cities and living in an abandoned ‘air-lighthouse‘ (Chapter 18). The nosy World State media and sight-seers, ever fascinated with this ‘savage’, follow him and do news stories of him beating himself. This is comparable to how the American media (mostly controlled by only six corporations) focus on Muslim extremism instead of Muslim acts of kindness and charity (or Muslim condemnation of Islamic extremism), to feed anti-Muslim sentiment and fuel more imperialist aggression in the Middle East, as well as to distract Westerners from many contemporary examples of capitalist corruption, like the Panama Papers.

John just wants to be left alone, just as Muslims want the US military bases out of the Middle East. Lenina wants him, and tries to seduce him again, just as Muslim men must be tempted by all those ‘half-naked’ Western women. Finally, John lashes out at Lenina, shouting “Kill it, kill it, kill it…” This could be compared to the scurrilous behaviour of what seems to have been mostly North African men (mostly not refugees) towards German women during New Year’s Eve, 2015-2016.

John’s attack on Lenina leads to an orgy with the other World State citizens present, in which he participates, to his shame. Overwhelmed with self-hate for having given in to his desire, John hangs himself. His despair is comparable to how many suicide bombers must feel. After all, however one may criticize the world John has been raised in, the World State is clearly much more at fault. The parallels of these two worlds with, respectively, the Muslim and modern Western worlds, should be obvious.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Vintage, London, 2007 (first published in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus, 1932)

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Vintage, London, 2004 (first published in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus, 1959)

Analysis of ‘The Godfather’

The Godfather is a trilogy of films by Francis Ford Coppola, written by him and Mario Puzo, based on Puzo’s 1969 novel. As a trio of crime dramas, its depiction of the mafia is understood to symbolize general corruption in American politics, though I will be carrying my analysis far beyond just that. I will be focusing on the first two films, generally considered to be two of the greatest films ever made; while Part III, being good only in parts (and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion), will be touched on more lightly. I’ll also discuss parts of Puzo’s novel.

In general, the social, political, and economic critiques in The Godfather are those of hierarchy and authority. Mafia families represent competing capitalists, and the Corleone family in particular represents the traditional patriarchal family. Mafia Don Vito Andolini, who would change his surname to Corleone (‘Lionheart’), the name of the town in Sicily where he was born, has “all the judges and politicians in his pocket,” as so many US billionaires do in today’s neoliberal world. Here we see the source of corruption in American politics, or the politics of any other country: capitalism’s use of the state to protect its interests.

Here are some famous quotes from all three movies:

Part I

“Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then that scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.” –Don Corleone

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” –Don Corleone (ranked #2 in American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations.)

“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” —Tessio

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” –Clemenza

“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” –Michael

“Times have changed. It’s not like the old days when we could do anything we want. A refusal is not the act of a friend. Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York, and he must share them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly, he can present a bill for such services. After all, we are not Communists.” –Don Barzini

“Only, don’t tell me you’re innocent, because it insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.” –Michael, to Carlo

Part II

“There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” —Michael (the bolded portion is ranked #58 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations )

“If I could only live to see it, to be there with you. What I wouldn’t give for twenty more years! Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without Kefauver, the goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away, in partnership with a friendly government. Ninety miles! It’s nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be President of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” –Hyman Roth

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” –Michael

“Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother. You’re not a friend. I don’t wanna know you or what you do. I don’t wanna see you at the hotels. I don’t want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won’t be there. You understand?” –Michael

“Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael! Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil. I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son, Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael… no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years!” –Kay

“Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” –Michael

Part III

“No, I don’t hate you, Michael. I dread you.” –Kay

“Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.” –Don Lucchesi

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” –Michael

“Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know you do not believe that. You will not change.” –Cardinal Lamberto, to Michael

The first movie begins with Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker whose daughter has been beaten by two men who attempted to rape her. Though he begins by saying, “I believe in America” (i.e., ‘the land of the free’), he quickly learns how corrupt the judges are when one of them gives her attackers a suspended sentence, allowing them to go free that very day. Now that he knows that might makes right in America as much as it does everywhere else, he comes to the mafia for ‘justice’, to have them killed.

This corruption of justice is similar to how social services offered by the state decline in effectiveness due to corruption or insufficient funding from taxes, then (as Noam Chomsky once pointed out) we go to the private sector for these services, which are given only for a price, as Don Vito will expect a favour in return one day from Bonasera for beating up his daughter’s attackers. After all, Vito is only a moderate mafioso/capitalist, who knows that killing the “scum that ruined [Bonasera’s] daughter” isn’t justice, since she’s still alive.

Bonasera, in his naïveté about how the mafia does things, assumes he can simply pay Vito to have his soldiers murder her two attackers. Having unwittingly insulted Vito, Bonasera learns the importance of getting Vito’s “friendship”, which leads to the beating up of the two men “as a gift on [Vito’s] daughter’s wedding day.” This friendship shows the hypocrisy in the Corleone family, in how they try to pass themselves off as decent people, always keeping up appearances, the way the bourgeoisie does in general.

The juxtaposition of Bonasera’s failed attempts at protecting his daughter with the wedding day of Vito’s daughter Connie, is an interesting one. In the traditional patriarchal family, a girl’s marrying into another family involves her father giving her away to her husband-to-be, an old protector being replaced by a new one. Throughout most of this scene, Vito is so busy granting requests that he can rarely, if ever, leave his office and participate in the wedding party outside. After all, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day, symbolizing the honour and love he has for her.

Here we see the contradictions inherent in the patriarchal family: the overzealousness with which ‘our girls’ must be protected leads to a failure to protect them; Vito’s symbolic honouring of his daughter by granting all wishes on her wedding day leads to his hardly ever being with her until the end of the party, a symbolic failure to protect. Similarly, he does nothing to help Connie when her husband Carlo beats her later, rationalizing (in the novel, Book IV, Chapter 16, page 238) that she should submit to Carlo’s authority, and saying the rest of the family shouldn’t interfere with her and Carlo’s private business (an attitude Vito’s wife, Carmela, agrees with).

Bonasera has been very lax in his protection of his daughter, allowing her to stay out late drinking with the two men who assault her; but the failure to protect Connie, coupled with overzealous protectiveness, is symptomatic of the failure of the Corleone family to protect themselves in general, as we’ll explore later.

The corruption that the mafia represents extends to Hollywood, where movie producer Jack Woltz is intimidated into giving a role to Johnny Fontane, a singer/actor the producer hates for having made him look bad. The corruption Woltz represents is seen in his lecherous taste in underage girls, one of whom we learn has been in his bedroom when consigliere Tom Hagen has visited (this lechery is evident in the novel, Book I, Chapter 1, pages 62-63, and in one deleted scene in the movie).

All of the mafia families represent competing capitalists, but Don Corleone is only a moderate capitalist, wanting nothing to do with the heroin business Virgil Sollozzo wants to bring into New York. The Tattaglia family, as well as that of Barzini, wanting Corleone to share his political and police protection so they can get in on the new heroin business, represents the expansion and accumulation of capital, and its growing evil.

The conflict of interests between the Five Families, with Corleone’s on one side and the other four opposing him, represents the contradictions inherent in capitalism. The war that erupts between the Corleone and Tattaglia families symbolizes those contradictions escalating into an economic crisis, for indeed, as the war continues, Tom warns Sonny, who is acting Don while Vito’s in hospital, that business is suffering. Similarly, Clemenza tells Michael that these wars have to happen every (five or) ten years or so…the same time period that, sans Keynesian state interventions, usually comes between economic crises. The violence and killings can thus be seen to symbolize the suffering caused by capitalism’s instability.

Capitalists typically deny malicious intent, as do these gangsters. Sollozzo tells Hagen,”I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” Sonny, Tom, and Michael all repeat the mantra that this mob violence is nothing personal–it’s just business…when Michael’s wish to kill Sollozzo for trying to have his father killed, as well as the corrupt cop McCluskey for breaking his jaw, is clearly personal (see also the novel, Book I, Chapter 11, page 145).

Indeed, bringing Michael into “the family business”, when he was originally intended by Vito to be a senator or governor in the “legitimate”, respectable part of society, shows how capitalism seeps into everything, a corruption we’ll continue to see spreading through the rest of this movie/novel and its sequels.

Michael goes into hiding in Sicily, where he wishes to see the town of Corleone, to get a sense of his family roots. Here we see beautiful countryside as well as simple town life, a pleasant contrast to the harsh modern life of New York City. This idyllic life suggests how the world was before capitalism grew into the monster it is today.

Still, there are dangers in Sicily that Michael must be wary of. Apart from all the deaths from local vendettas, the Italian-American mafia is trying to find and kill him in revenge for Sollozzo and McCluskey. This symbolizes how capitalism, in an earlier stage of development, is creeping into rustic Sicilian life, as it had in the enclosures of the Commons in 18th-century England. On the other hand, a deleted scene in the movie shows a group of communists marching about Sicily, hoping to recruit new members. Fleeting references to communism appear here and there in the first two movies, like a spectre haunting Europe, America, and Cuba. The class war is growing.

Meanwhile, back in America, Sonny learns that Carlo, sore that he’s being excluded from the family business, has beaten up Connie. Though Sonny has previously been warned not to interfere by his mother, echoing Vito’s insensitivity to Carlo’s increasing abusiveness, the hothead beats up Carlo, warning he’ll kill him if he ever hurts Connie again. The intensity of the beating that Sonny gives Carlo shows the dangers of zealous over-protection, since violence only begets more violence. Indeed, Carlo plots with Barzini to have Sonny gunned down, and beats up Connie to lure Sonny to his death.

Vito, still the moderate gangster, wants no revenge, but instead arranges a meeting of the Five Families to end the war. Barzini and Tattaglia complain about Vito’s refusal to cooperate in the new heroin business, which would have resulted in giving the other families police protection. But we learn that “times have changed”, and police and politicians now can be bought to ensure safety from prison in the new drug business. At one point, Barzini reminds us that the mafia “are not communists.” Of course not: mafia are capitalists…and capitalists are mafia; that’s what The Godfather is all about.

One significant part of the class conflict caused by such systems as capitalism is racism. Earlier, Sonny mentioned how “Niggers are having a good time with [Corleone] policy banks in Harlem”. During the meeting of the Five Families, Don Stracchi says his men leave the drug trafficking among “the dark people, the coloureds. They’re animals, anyway, so let them lose their souls.” The others at the meeting seem to agree to this arrangement, and ‘peace’ is achieved between Corleone and Tattaglia.

Michael returns to America, and is now the new Don of the Corleone family, Vito having retired. Michael meets Kay, his old American girlfriend, and asks her to marry him. While he gives an empty promise that the Corleone family will be “completely legitimate” one day, he also tells her the cynical reality that senators do have men killed, just as the mafia does. Of course they do: politicians do much of the dirty work of capitalists, because the state works for capitalism…even though right-libertarians promise that a laissez-faire form of capitalism will purify the market of state corruption. But instead, when Michael has the other heads of the Five Families all killed, and he becomes the sole mafia head in New York, we see symbolically how laissez-faire, in wiping out competition (thanks to the tax cuts and deregulation that give large corporations an unfair advantage over small businesses), leads to the very crony capitalism, or monopoly capitalism, it claims it will eradicate. (For a thorough discussion on how that happens, look here.)

The killing of all those men happens in a particularly chilling way: Michael is standing as godfather to Carlo’s and Connie’s baby, telling the priest in the cathedral that he does “renounce Satan”, and that he believes in God the Father, Jesus, His Son, and the Holy Spirit! ‘Godfather’ is a perfect name for this movie, as well as for Vito and Michael, for it exemplifies the authoritarian nature of the mafia, of capitalism, of religion, and of the traditional patriarchal family, all in one fell swoop. This scene, in which Michael ruthlessly pretends to be a good Christian while knowing full well that a bunch of people are about to be brutally murdered (Stracchi, shot in an elevator by Clemenza; Moe Greene with a bullet in his eye; Cuneo, shot by Cicci in a revolving door; Barzini, shot by Al Neri-who’s dressed as a cop [in the novel, he’s a former cop who used to beat people with a large flashlight–Book VIII, Chapter 30, pages 413-414]; and Tattaglia, shot in bed with one of his prostitutes, by Rocco Lompone), starkly shows the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in its pretence of virtue.

To top everything off, when Michael tells Carlo these men were all killed by his orders, he tells Carlo that he has “settled all family business.” Just like a capitalist. And having promised he won’t make Connie a widow, Michael has Carlo garrotted by Clemenza.

With the Corleone move to Las Vegas, hence the killing of Moe Greene, we see how capitalism expands and accumulates, wiping out the competition. First, there was the Genco Olive Oil business in New York; now, there’s the gambling business in Nevada.

Though one would imagine Connie to be grateful to her brother for ridding her of her abusive, adulterous husband, she’s in tears and furious with Michael. When she tells Kay about the murders of the other heads of the Five Families, saying, “That’s your husband! That’s your husband!”, frowning Kay asks him if it’s true. He lies and denies it, of course, and the first movie ends with her frowning, suspecting the lie. An outtake shows Kay in church lighting candles, and the novel ends with her praying for Michael.

Part II begins with Vito Andolini as a nine-year-old boy in Corleone, Sicily. His whole family gets killed by the local mafia, whose chieftain is Don Ciccio, and he must leave before they find and kill him. He emigrates to New York.

The smaller mafia of Corleone, like the family Vito establishes in New York, can be seen to represent the early stages of capitalism. The scenes that follow his rise (also in Puzo’s novel, Book III, Chapter 14) alternate with scenes of the continued story of Michael as Don of his father’s family. These contrasting scenes symbolize capitalism’s seemingly benevolent beginnings and ugly maturation.

In late 1950s Nevada, we see Michael’s growing business empire. We also see more of the pretence of respectability in the party celebrating his son’s First Communion at Lake Tahoe. Michael meets with Senator Pat Geary about getting a gaming licence. In a combination of prejudice against Italians and a disgust with mafia corruption (though he’s no better), the senator wants an exorbitant bribe for the licence; he also bluntly insults Michael’s family to his face. Michael, always one to defend his family and their honour, insists that the hypocrisy of his business and Geary’s government doesn’t apply to his wife and children. Their innocence is always protected: that’s why the family business is never discussed around them…even though they know full well that Michael’s business is anything but innocent.

Geary’s wish “to squeeze” Michael could be seen to represent the agenda of left-leaning or social democratic governments, which tax capitalists as much as possible. Indeed, the post-war world seen in The Godfather, Parts I and II, and continuing up till the 1970s, saw the rich being taxed much more than they are today. Geary’s later hypocritical praise of Italian-Americans during Michael’s trial can be seen to indicate the phoney, would-be egalitarianism promoted by the politically correct aspects of the left, always expressing sympathy for the darker-complexioned, but typically leaving the Third World in the lurch.

When Geary is caught in a Fredo-run whorehouse with a bloodily murdered prostitute (apparently killed by Al Neri to blackmail Geary into helping the Corleone family), he is assured by Tom Hagen that he is safe. From then on, Geary is fully on Michael’s side. Here we see a symbolic indication of how the capitalist class can get even ‘left-leaning’ politicians to represent right-wing interests, as would happen increasingly with the Clintons and the Democratic Party in America, and with Tony Blair in the Labour Party in the UK.

Meanwhile, we have the usual capitalist contradictions symbolized in the competing families of Michael, Pentangeli, and Hyman Roth, as well as the Rosato Brothers. Racism and capitalism tend to go hand in hand, hence Pentangeli’s antisemitic attitude towards Roth and his use of racial slurs against blacks and Hispanics.

When an attempt is made on Michael’s life, in his and Kay’s bedroom, he quickly crawls over to her, covering her body with his. Here we see one of the main purposes of sex roles: the male obligation to protect women, the nucleus of matriarchy within every cell of the traditional patriarchal family, which is seen elsewhere in Michael’s preoccupation with whether or not the unborn child in Kay’s womb is a boy.

We see the spread of capitalism represented in the presence of mafia families in Nevada (Corleone), New York (young Vito and Pentangeli), Florida (Roth), Sicily (Ciccio), and Cuba, where Michael and Roth meet with Fulgencio Batista, who felt no discomfort allowing foreign capitalists, including the American mafia, to exploit his impoverished people. Interestingly, this visit to Cuba happens when Fidel Castro’s communists take over.

On the night when the Cuban Revolution prevails, around midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day in 1959, all the capitalists, including Michael and his older brother Fredo, must get off the island. Music (<<at 2:30) reminiscent of an early section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (a ballet about a human sacrifice) is heard, suggesting the brutality of the material conditions necessary to bring about revolution: the brutality of the extreme contradictions of capitalism that cause the whole system to come tumbling down.

And indeed, brutal contradictions reach even to the extent of the Corleone’s family’s integrity, for Michael has learned who the traitor in his family is, the one who made a secret deal with Roth and Johnny Ola–Fredo. This indicates one of the main themes of Part II: betrayal.

Pentangeli feels betrayed by Michael, since Michael’s business dealings with “that Jew” Roth undermine Pentangeli’s ability to deal with the Rosato Brothers; Roth feels betrayed by Michael, his business partner, when he’s learned that Michael gave the order to kill Moe Greene, a fellow Jewish gangster. Michael feels betrayed not only by Fredo, but by Kay when she tells him the unborn male child in her womb didn’t die of a miscarriage, but was aborted (the look of rage on Al Pacino’s face here is, in my opinion, some of his very best acting). Michael ultimately betrays his whole family by having Fredo killed by Al Neri, who mercifully allows him first to do a ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer.

Once again we see, in the Corleones’ overzealous wish to protect the family, they end up killing their own.

Kay aborts the son out of a wish to end the mob violence; Michael has Fredo killed out of a wish to punish and therefore deter treason. This self-destructive cycle of violence and revenge can represent the contradictions of capitalism: the excessive lust for profits (a wish to protect oneself financially) creates huge wealth inequality and imperialist wars (symbolized by all the mafia violence), resulting in the poor not being able to buy much of anything, stopping the circulation of money and commodity exchange, and leading to financial crises.

Going back to the story of young Vito, he must deal with Don Fanucci, The Black Hand, who can be seen to represent either a competing capitalist or the feudalism that preceded capitalism. There was never any feudalism in American history (apart from British hegemony over the early American settlers, provoking the American Revolution), of course, but we’re discussing the language of symbol here. Vito’s killing of Fanucci (who, like feudal lords’ taxing of their vassals and peasants, wants a cut of Vito’s money in exchange for his ‘protection’) can thus be compared to bourgeois uprisings like the French Revolution in 1789, or the one that brought about the Republic of China in 1911.

As Vito’s mafia family rises in power, including the creation of his Genco Olive Oil Company in the 1920s, we see his benevolence towards an old lady whose landlord wants to evict her. This kindness and growth in power are comparable to the generosity that the bourgeoisie claims to have; they justify their class privileges by pointing out the raised standard of living they create (while neglecting to mention how they alone enjoy the vast majority of the benefits of that economic growth); they also talk about donating to charity, instead of trying to change society’s material conditions, such that charity becomes no longer necessary.

Estes Kefauver’s investigations into the mafia in the 1950s are reflected in Michael’s trial. The state’s attempt to put him in jail can be compared to the postwar period in American history when greater state regulation, including higher taxes for the rich, reduced income inequality and produced a large middle class. But Michael manages to beat Questadt, who is working for Roth, by implying a threat to the life of Pentangeli’s brother (who has just flown in from Sicily) if Pentangeli testifies against Michael. Symbolically, this shows that, even when capitalism is regulated by the state (or because it is regulated, because of competing interests–i.e., Roth), it is still corrupt to the core. Nothing can reform it.

In spite of this ever-present capitalist corruption, some communists have acknowledged the necessity of a capitalist stage superseding feudalism, before the world is ready for socialism. The temporary period of young Vito’s benevolent bourgeois rule can be seen in this light; but by the time Michael takes over, the oppressiveness of capitalism can no longer be ignored.

In Part III, we see Michael about twenty years after the end of Part II, racked with guilt and trying to redeem himself by going completely legitimate at last, after years of failing to keep this promise to Kay, whom he’s divorced. His wish to control International Immobiliare, a real estate holding company known as “the world’s biggest landlord”, must have no mafia connections at all. To his dismay, he learns that those involved in Immobiliare, such as Lucchesi, are either mafiosi or are connected with them…including the Vatican. A cigarette-smoking archbishop named Gilday, who attempts to swindle Michael out of his money, symbolizes Church corruption.

Elsewhere, Michael meets a good man of God, Cardinal Lamberto, who receives Michael’s tearful confession; though, like Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, Michael cannot repent, since to do so necessitates giving up his money and power, as well as being incarcerated for his crimes. Lamberto is Pope for a brief time, then a plot by Archbishop Gilday, Lucchesi, and Keinszig results in him being served poisoned tea.

Michael’s gifts to charities, as generous as they are, also cannot redeem him. Kay watches his show of goodwill, and is disgusted at the hypocrisy she sees. She actually prefers him as a common hood; his pretence as an ‘honest’ businessman makes him even more dangerous now. As we can see, all attempts to reform and legitimize capitalism fail, for it is inherently criminal. It always has been, and it always will be.

And again, try as Michael might, he cannot protect his family from danger; he tries to get out of the mafia, and they pull him back in. He wants Vincent Mancini to stay away from his daughter Mary, Vincent’s cousin, for her safety, but she is shot and killed. Finally, Michael dies alone in the garden of a Sicilian villa as an old man. The self-destruction of capitalism and authoritarianism is complete.

Mario Puzo, The Godfather, Signet Fiction, New York, 1969 (30th anniversary edition)

Analysis of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1948 and published the following year (the title of the novel seems to come from a reversing of the last two numbers of the year he was writing it). It is a political satire whose main target is the Stalinist USSR, but it can also be seen to satirize any totalitarian society, such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Francoist Spain, or even contemporary neoliberalism and the intrusive state apparatus that protects today’s capitalist class.

Given the current geo-political climate, I find it irresistible to compare Orwell’s Hell with ours today; and because this story is so rich with possible political interpretations, I will explore many of those here. Not all of these necessarily reflect my own personal political beliefs, but they’re here to show all the interpretive possibilities in such a literary masterwork.

Some right-libertarians like to misuse this novel, as well as Animal Farm, to suggest that Orwell was attacking socialism as a whole (while, adding to that, idiotically saying that Fascist or Nazi totalitarianism was also a brand of socialism, of which it was really the opposite). Actually, Orwell was committed to the ideal of democratic socialism; these two literary criticisms of Stalinism really show his anti-authoritarianism, not anti-socialism. His book, Homage to Catalonia, clearly shows his sympathies for a worker-ruled society.

In the 1930s, however, neither Stalin nor the leftist media, which propagandized for him, was very sympathetic to the Spanish Revolution, on the Republican side of which Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War; indeed, they denied that a socialist revolution was even going on there, because Stalin wanted to control the Spanish Republicans and purge them of Trotskyists and anarchists. Instead, Stalin’s meagre support of the Republicans against Franco‘s right-wing coalition of Nationalists was in the name of ‘defending liberal democracy’, not socialism, in order to appease Britain, France, America, and he hoped, get their help in fighting Nazi Germany later on. This Soviet betrayal of the Spanish leftists was what embittered Orwell against Stalin.

So, the ‘socialism’ that Orwell was criticizing in Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t really socialism per se; rather, Stalinism, as Orwell saw it, was a perversion of socialism, a bureaucratized bastardization of it, as symbolized by the Newspeak corruption of Oceania‘s ‘English socialism’ into ‘Ingsoc’ (this ‘socialism in England’, as opposed to worldwide socialism, suggests Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country‘). Similarly, Eurasia‘s political system is called ‘Neo-Bolshevism‘, implying a corruption of Leninism; and Eastasia‘s system is a kind of ‘Death-Worship’, or ‘Obliteration of the Self’. This religion-like quality brings to mind aspects of Juche in North Korea, with its infallible ‘Great Leader’, who does all the masses’ thinking for them. In other words, Orwell was satirizing authoritarianism, not socialism.

In fact, the Ingsoc short form resembles the Nazi short form for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. This suggests the state capitalism of fascism rather than socialism, since all left-leaning Nazis (except Goebbels) were purged from the party when Hitler came to power, propped up by big business. Moreover, the first people put in Nazi concentration camps were leftists. So Big Brother’s moustache may not only represent Stalin’s, but also Hitler’s. Not only Big Brother, but also BIG BUSINESS IS WATCHING YOU.

Another interesting concept in this novel is doublethink, in which two contradictory ideas can be simultaneously true. It can be considered a corruption of the notion of Marxist dialectics, when contradictions in material conditions are contemplated, and a unity seen in the contradictions leads to a refinement of one’s philosophy, then to be contradicted and refined, again and again. But where dialectics bring out a refinement, or improvement, in philosophy, doublethink uses contradictions for the sake of self-serving politicians.

Winston Smith‘s name was deliberately chosen by Orwell, suggesting the character’s everyman quality through Smith, a common English surname, and his anti-totalitarian stance (Winston, i.e., Churchill…not that Churchill is any kind of hero to self-respecting leftists, mind you; and just as we shouldn’t idealize Stalin, nor should we ignore Orwell’s faults). Indeed, the juxtaposition, Winston Smith, could be seen as an example of doublethink in itself: Winston Smith indicating that, if you will, IMPERIALISM IS POPULISM; after all, for all of Orwell’s faults, he always despised British imperialism, of which Churchill was its personification at the time, despite his anti-fascism.

Julia, as Winston’s love interest, suggests Juliet.

As members of the Outer Party, Winston and Julia are in a position analogous to the middle class (the Inner Party being the ruling class state capitalists, and the ‘proles‘, or proletarians, being the working class). Oddly, the Outer Party members are the most repressed in this society, since they are the biggest potential threat to the Inner Party. The proles, on the other hand, are given more lenience, since they, in their ‘low-class’ ignorance of political matters, are more easily controlled through pleasurable distractions (pornography, beer, football, etc.).

This acute repression of the middle-class Outer Party seems to presage the near-annihilation of the middle class by neoliberalism over the past thirty to forty years. Though Orwell’s novel has only a totalitarian state as the collective antagonist, we must remember the principles of doublethink. Since WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, then, if you will, the FREE MARKET IS STATISM, too.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, deregulating capitalism and giving tax cuts to the rich allows them to accumulate obscenely large amounts of wealth, enabling them to buy corrupt politicians; elsewhere, they can use free trade deals (more deregulation) to get cheap labour overseas instead of paying local, unionized labourers; and endless imperialist war means profits through the sale of weapons, and through the plundering of Third World resources. All of this results in more private property that needs protection, hence the state expands rather than contracts, contrary to the fantasies of right-libertarians. The ‘free market’ (of which there really is no such thing, anyway) creates crony capitalism, or another kind of state capitalism.

Winston Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth–whose short form, Minitrue, suggests the half-truth nature of the propaganda it spreads (TRUTH IS LIES, if you will)–is to eliminate all elements of the past considered politically troublesome to the Inner Party. He will eliminate all evidence of the existence of anyone guilty of thoughtcrime, those now rendered unpersons, just as Stalin used to take old photos including people considered enemies of the state and eliminate them from the pictures, so no memory of the hated people remains.

Similarly, today’s capitalist class can rely on us to forget the past provocations (e.g., the CIA giving money and weapons to Bin Laden and the mujahideen in the 80s, America and other Western countries aiding Iraq by helping develop chemical weapons during the Iran/Iraq War, the US creating the conditions out of which ISIS arose) that have led to the ‘War on Terror‘. Instead of blaming Western imperialism, we blame Muslims, just as the people of Oceania spit out their hostility to Emmanuel Goldstein during the Two Minutes Hate, then swoon in ecstatic adoration of Big Brother, whose Inner Party is their real oppressor.

Interestingly, the remaining part of the globe that isn’t a part of Oceania, Eurasia, or Eastasia–the disputed area where most of the war is going on–is most of Africa, much of the Arab world, and all of southeast Asia, or the Third World, which is the area most oppressed by Western imperialism today. How little things change.

The people of Oceania shout so loudly at the video of Goldstein–a Jew just like Leon Trotsky, so hated by Stalin; yet also a man representative of all the Jews, so hated by Nazis and today’s antisemites among the conspiracy theorists–that not one word of his can be heard. This is like how so many people today, so committed to one ideology, hate its antithesis so virulently that they won’t listen to its despised ideas. The ruling class, like the nomenklatura or the fascist totalitarian state, always makes sure we hate the wrong people.

The cult of personality surrounding Big Brother–just like that of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, or even, arguably, Obama–makes him into a Godlike figure in opposition to the ‘devil’ Goldstein. Here we can see a critique even of religious authoritarianism: Jesus is Lord, but the liberal left are the spawn of Satan; Allahu Akbar, but the West is the Great Satan; etc. Accordingly, we aren’t even sure if Big Brother exists (or Goldstein, for that matter), as with God or the Devil. Big Brother is like a kindly older brother who protects us from bullies, but we sometimes forget that an older brother himself often bullies us, too.

The notion, ‘Who controls the past…controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’ is pregnant with thought-provoking interpretations. It expresses the essence of propagandistic white-washing of the past. The current regime is free to vilify whoever was in power previously, comparing the present state of affairs favourably to that of the past by showing only the light side of now and only the shadows of yesterday. And in perpetuating this propaganda, the current regime will ensure that future generations have the ‘correct’ opinions.

Consider how synagogues, churches, and mosques have all blackened the memory of their pagan or secular predecessors or enemies, to ensure that the flock remains faithful. And not only did Stalin’s regime denigrate the names of ‘revisionists’ and ‘reactionaries’ like Trotsky to ensure the survival of his rule, but today the capitalist class portrays socialist states like the USSR (misusing Orwell, as we know) as evil dictatorships to discourage any reconsideration of socialism in today’s neoliberal society.

Similarly, the memory of the Black Panther Party is vilified to deter anyone in the struggle against white racism. Conservatives stereotype feminists as all being like Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon to discourage any move away from traditional sex roles; while, on the other side of the coin, radical and third wave feminists propagandize about the past and about ‘patriarchy’ to justify current gynocentrism. And apologists of Western imperialism exaggerate the jihadist history of Islam to deaden sympathy for Muslims. The list of examples can go on and on.

Everywhere in Airstrip One, a deliberately dull choice for a name for England, there are telescreens, or two-way televisions through which the Inner Party and the Thought Police can watch everyone 24/7 in order to catch ‘thought criminals’. Today’s telescreen is the ubiquitous internet surveillance, through not only the NSA and other government organizations out to get any subversive types they can find, but also through capitalists who monitor all our online shopping and other interests to present us with products they hope we’ll waste our money on and fatten their wallets. Consumerism distracts us from activism.

Marriages and other relationships are bereft of affection in Orwell’s Hell, as they are in much of today’s society, with almost half of Western marriages ending in divorce. People would rather stare at a smartphone, tablet, or computer than communicate face to face with people; the emotionless conversations of all Outer Party members, including the public chats of Winston’s and Julia’s, reflect this grey reality. And while Winston is already guilty of thoughtcrime from the first word he’s written in his journal (actually, from when he bought it), it’s not until he and Julia have become lovers, copulating for their mutual enjoyment (‘sexcrime’) instead of for the sake of producing offspring for the state (‘goodsex‘), that they are finally arrested.

And when they are arrested, the symbolism is powerful. Winston and Julia–made to hold their hands behind their heads–are completely naked in the second-floor room of Mr. Charrington’s shop (he secretly working for the Thought Police). The lovers’ nakedness symbolizes their vulnerability and powerlessness, their secrets all known while their fully-clothed intruders needn’t worry about their own secrets being known.

Held in the Ministry of Love (a place of torture), Winston sees not only the usual police rough-housing of prostitutes and other common criminals among the proles, but also the detainment of Tom Parsons, a character known for his sycophantic adherence to Big Brother. Even a bootlicker like him can be a thought criminal! Parsons, a man who happily incorporates the corruption of English known as Newspeak into his speech, has been betrayed by his own daughter, a member of the Party Youth, who are like the Hitler Youth, or like today’s Social Justice Warriors, typically being young university students who have been fully indoctrinated in political correctness by the mainstream corporate media and the corporately controlled universities.

Newspeak is in itself a fascinating concept. Syme speaks of the beauty of the destruction of language. If no words exist for a concept, for example, freedom, then that idea won’t exist anymore, either. This is comparable to how political correctness tries to eliminate bad ideas by doing away with all those words associated with unacceptable ideas. Apparently,  if we dispense with words associating a job with only one sex–businessman, stewardess–and replace them with ‘gender-neutral’ language–businessperson, flight attendant–social attitudes will change such that people won’t be tricked into thinking that these jobs are exclusive to one sex or the other (Never mind that at least a whole generation using politically correct English has gone by, and there are still far more businessmen than businesswomen, and far more female flight attendants than male ones.). Similarly, if we do away with ‘ableist’ language–‘retarded’ as a synonym for stupid–it seems that people will stop showing contempt for mentally handicapped people (Never mind that the still-used words idiot, cretin, imbecile, and moron were once words used for mentally disabled people.).

In today’s world, we hardly need a totalitarian state to condemn someone for thoughtcrime. Merely use the ‘wrong’ vocabulary, or tell a politically incorrect joke, and the masses will go mad on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, doxxing and shaming you, or destroying your career and reputation by spreading the word about what a ‘bad person’ you are. Though today’s militarized police are certainly frightening, we the common people are our own Thought Police. And remember: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death, thoughtcrime IS death”.

Winston’s next shock is seeing O’Brien, the man who gave him Goldstein’s book (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a parody of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed), come into the room. But the greatest shock is knowing that O’Brien hasn’t been helping the resistance (which, incidentally, is called The Brotherhood), but has been working with the Thought Police all along. Like O’Brien, so many of us only seem to be against the system: ‘anarcho’-capitalists, who oppose the state, but support an economic system that can’t exist without the state; bickering leftists who get hung up on minor ideological differences instead of building solidarity, and betray each other in the manner described in the above paragraph; or ‘Democratic’ leaders like Obama who at first claim to want to ‘spread the wealth around’, then end up serving the same ruling class as eagerly as the Republican Party.

Along with the physical torture that O’Brien subjects Winston to, there is also psychological manipulation in the form of gaslighting. This includes bullying Winston into acceding that 2 + 2 = 5. Those in power can coerce or trick us into accepting all kinds of nonsensical beliefs, including the notion that more capitalism (the ‘free market’) is the solution to the evils of our current capitalist system, which apparently is so merely because the state is involved in it. Just minimize or remove the state and its regulations, and capitalism will be ‘purified’, demagogues like Ron Paul tell us. This is also what the Koch brothers have always said; and instead of liberating society, all their political influence has intensified our troubles. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

O’Brien burns pictures of the unpersons Aaronson, Jones, and Rutherford by dumping the photos down a memory hole, saying the men never existed, the lack of extant evidence of their existence being ‘proof’ of their never having existed. That they still exist in Winston’s mind is evidence only of his ‘mental illness’. This is like how authoritarian societies of all kinds, whether left or right-wing, disregard all memory of past offences, pretending they never happened, then pretend that defiant people are mentally ill (i.e. oppositional defiant disorder). “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever,” O’Brien tells Winston.

Finally, Winston must be brought to ‘love’ Big Brother. Of course, to love Big Brother is to be a traitor to oneself, as loving Stalin was betraying the working class (from the anti-Stalinist point of view, at least), or loving Hitler was betraying Germany. To make Winston betray himself and Julia, he is brought to Room 101, with the cage of hungry rats strapped to the front of his face.

Earlier in the novel, he shrieked at the sight of a rat in Charrington’s second-floor room, when he was with Julia; later, Charrington revealed himself to be a rat, having informed the Thought Police of Winston’s and Julia’s affair. Now, Winston sees terrifying rats right before his face.

While, on the surface, his fear is of having his face destroyed by the rats, on a deeper level, his fear of them symbolizes his fear of himself as a rat, about to betray Julia. Seeing those rats is Winston looking at his own mirror reflection (all of which raises the question of how self-conscious Orwell may have been of his own ratting out of pro-Stalin communists). Those in power, whether they be Stalinists, fascists, religious fanatics, or capitalists, always stay in power by making us betray ourselves. Winston the anti-authoritarian is Churchill the imperialist.

We all long for freedom, but when the pressure is on, when we’re taken out of our comfort zone, our spirit is broken, sooner or later, as Winston’s is. We lack the necessary backbone; we are too complacent, especially in the First World; we lack true revolutionary potential. We all give in, and then everything is all right, we’re finished with the struggle, and we resume our obedient following of authority.

We love Big Brother.

Analysis of ‘Henry V’

Henry V is a history play that Shakespeare wrote in about 1599.  It is part of the second of two tetralogies he wrote to chronicle the history of England’s kings.  The first tetralogy, among his very first plays, were Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, and Richard III, his first great play; the second tetralogy dealt with the years before the first, and are thus a ‘prequel tetralogy,’ so to speak–Richard II, Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V.  While most of these plays are dark and gloomy, sometimes even tragic in tone (indeed, Richard III is fully titled The Tragedy of King Richard III), Henry V is largely the one ray of sunshine in the whole cloudy chronicling.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention.” –Chorus, Prologue to Act I, lines 1-2

2. “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;/His present and your pains we thank you for./When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,/We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set/Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.” –Henry, Act I, scene ii, lines 259-263

3. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/Or close the wall up with our English dead./In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man/As modest stillness and humility;/But when the blast of war blows in our ears,/Then imitate the action of the tiger.” –Henry, III, i, 1-6

4. “This story shall the good man teach his son;/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered–/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition;/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” –Henry, IV, iii, 56-67

The main theme running through this play is that of pride, in all of its variations and permutations: arrogant, overweening pride, wounded pride, honour, shame, humility, and even maidenly bashfulness.

The play opens with the Chorus humbly admitting that an Elizabethan stage cannot properly show the vast fields of France (see Quote #1, above), or a battle with hundreds of knights either marching or on horseback.  Thus, with the play’s producers’ pride held firmly in check, the Chorus, speaking on their behalf, asks us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the play’s imperfections, and to judge it kindly.

When King Henry V is presented with tennis balls, a gift meant as a slur on his abilities as a king, his pride is wounded (see Quote #2).  The sender of this insulting gift is the arrogant Dauphin of France, next in line to be the French king…except for Henry.  While feeling his power threatened by King Henry’s plans to invade France and claim the country as his by right, the Dauphin haughtily presumes that Henry is the same reputedly dissolute youth of his earlier years as a prince, and imagines Henry must be a similarly feckless king now.

With the ‘moral’ sanction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely (who would rather their king invade and loot France, causing death and destruction there, than deprive the English Church of funds, for such is the arrogance of the Church’s sense of entitlement), and now angered by the Dauphin’s proud provocation, King Henry promises to “play a set” with those tennis balls that will so shock the Dauphin as to turn his pride into shame.

Speaking of shame, when the king is in Southampton preparing to cross the English Channel to France with his men, he uncovers a plot engineered by three traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, who have been suborned by France to kill Henry.  When his knowledge of the plot against him is shown to the traitors, they admit to their guilt and shame, wishing only death for themselves, as their pride knows that receiving the death penalty willingly is the only honourable way out.

Other dishonourable knaves in the play show their pride in other ways.  Nym and Pistol squabble over who gets to have Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar’s Head tavern.  Pistol has already married her, but Nym is too proud to accept this.  Pistol comments on Nym’s excessive pride, saying, “O braggart vile and damned furious wight!”  A swordfight between them is stopped just in time by Bardolph.

Meanwhile, in France, the Dauphin continues to scoff at what he considers Henry’s weak resolution, saying the French court should consider the preparation for war to be little more than “a Whitsun morris-dance.”  Even his fellow courtiers cannot endure his presumption.  The king of France humbly holds his pride firmly in check when he acknowledges the strength of Henry and his family, who have shaken and shamed France in defeats in war in the past.  Indeed, the other courtiers (apart from the Dauphin) realize how much Henry has changed, and the Duke of Exeter, visiting the French king, relays the contempt of the English onto the proud Dauphin.

Already in France, Henry’s men have besieged the castle in Harfleur, where he urges them to carry on fighting (see Quote #3).  During peacetime, it is proper to be modest; but during war, one should fight as proudly as a tiger.

Later during that scene, we see such soldiers as the Welsh Fluellen and the Irish Macmorris proudly arguing over whether Ireland is deserving of the scorn Fluellen gives her, and whether Macmorris’s supervision of the digging of the mines is up to standard in “the disciplines of the war”.

The French princess and Alice discuss learning English; but the French princess is shocked at how some English words sound dangerously close to certain rude words in French.  Namely, Alice mispronounces ‘gown’ as ‘con,’ a French word that refers to a certain part of the female anatomy–one that in English also begins with a c; the other word, ‘foot,’ is mispronounced so as to sound like the French word for a certain intimate bedroom activity, a word for which the English equivalent also begins with an f.  The princess’s pride would rather not allow her to degrade herself by saying words of such an immodest sound.

When the French learn of Henry’s victory at Harfleur, they feel their pride wounded, and fearing that their women will dishonour them by preferring Englishmen as lovers who will litter France with bastard sons, the French king will have his army meet Henry’s with their “sharp defiance,” and his herald, Montjoy, is to send Henry a warning: either pay a ransom for the damages he’s caused France, or be her prisoner.  The Dauphin’s pride is wounded at not being allowed by his father, for the moment, to join the other French to fight Henry.

Montjoy meets with Henry and gives him the French king’s warning, saying proudly, “Though we seem’d dead, we did but sleep; advantage is a better soldier than rashness. Tell him we could have rebuk’d him at Harfleur, but that we thought not good to bruise an injury till it were full ripe. Now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.”

Henry proudly replies, “forgive me, God,/That I do brag thus! This your air of France/Hath blown that vice in me. I must repent./Go therefore, tell thy master here I am;/My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk,/My army but a weak and sickly guard;/Yet, God before, tell him we will come on,/Though France himself and such another neighbour/Stand in our way.”

On the night before the battle of Agincourt, in a tent in the French camp, the nobles all show proud impatience for the sun to come up, so they can kill the English and prove the valour of the French.  The Constable brags that he has “the best armour of the world,” and the Duke of Orleans brags of his horse; but the Dauphin’s boasting of his horse is so excessive that it annoys the other French nobles.

Meanwhile, in a tent in the English camp, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham to cover himself with, and thus keep his identity unknown to his men as he goes about to learn of their true feelings about him and the next day’s battle.  In bringing himself down to their level, he briefly forgoes his royal dignity and pride, and humbles himself, for he needs to know how his men really feel.  And with “A largess universal” he “doth give to every one…A little touch of Harry in the night.”

When he encounters Williams’s proud disdain of the king’s–to him–questionable justification for war, and the risk of his men’s lives, Henry gets angry, and the two proud men agree to a personal quarrel after the battle, if both men survive.

The next morning, the English are daunted by the far greater number of French adversaries they must face.  Then King Henry approaches, and in his St. Crispin’s Day speech (see Quote #4), he proudly speaks of how he covets honour, greedily wanting as large a portion for himself, and for each of his men–however smaller a number they may be in total–as possible.  Indeed, he is content to allow any men without a stomach for the immanent battle to return to England.  And those men in bed in England on this day will, in the future, feel greatly wounded pride in the presence of any who have fought with the king on St. Crispin’s Day.

This rousing speech fires up the pride of Henry’s men, whose fear has been changed to steely valour.  In the ensuing battle, their smaller number gloriously defeats the over-confident French (thanks in no small part to the English archers and their use of the effective English longbow).  The pride of the French changes to the heaviest shame.

Their shame increases by their ignominious act of killing all the boys in the English camp, a deed that infuriates King Henry.  But when he learns of the huge number of dead French as against the small number of English dead, he forbids himself pride, insisting instead that God won the battle for him.  He has his men sing ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum’ to show their humble thanks to God.  After this moment of humility, Williams is made to realize that the man he was to quarrel with would have been the king himself, and Williams must humbly beg Henry’s forgiveness.

Later, Fluellen makes Pistol, who has insulted the Welsh, swallow his pride by force-feeding him a leek, the symbol of Wales.

When the English and French kings meet, with their respective nobles, to go over the terms of the peace treaty, Henry has a private meeting with the French princess, whom he hopes to marry.  As he woos her in English, she replies in her still far-from-perfect English; then he swallows some pride in speaking just-as-broken French, moving her only to laugh at him.

Finally, he asks to kiss her, but her maidenly modesty won’t permit her to do so, for her pride won’t allow her to dishonour herself.  But he proudly insists that kings and (future) queens are the makers of manners (“nice customs curtsy to great kings”), and then gets a kiss from her.

The play ends with the Chorus reminding us of how England, after her glorious victory over the French, all too soon would feel her pride wounded when the poorly-managed English kingdom of the child King Henry VI would lose France.  This story, of course, had been presented many times on the London stage, in the Henry VI tetralogy mentioned above.

Analysis of ‘Othello’

Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in about 1603.  It is based on the Cinthio short story Un Capitano Moro (‘A Moorish Captain’), and it is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, dealing with such themes as jealousy, envy, undeserved reputations, gossip, and the issue of racial prejudice.

On this last issue, it is necessary to examine the unclear racial background of Othello the Moor.  He is referred to as, and calls himself, “black” several times in the play.  What is meant by black is open to interpretation.  Is he meant to be a sub-Saharan African, or a swarthy, dark-complexioned north African?  Both interpretations are possible, based on the vague way the people of Renaissance England used the word black to describe people.  One possible piece of evidence to suggest black, and not merely swarthy, is Roderigo’s pejorative description of Othello (in Act One, Scene i) as “the thick-lips,” but this is far from conclusive.

However Shakespeare meant the Moor to be, he was historically portrayed by white actors in blackface.  Some notable exceptions to this include the first black actor to play Othello, Ira Aldridge, in 1833; later, there was Paul Robeson’s Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona in the hit Broadway run in 1943.  This use of blackface on white actors for the Othello role was finally starting to be faded out by the 1970s and 1980s: one of the last of these notable conservative productions being the BBC TV one with Anthony Hopkins in the title role.  Ever since then, black actors have usually been used; one noteworthy exception to this, however, was an inverted 1997 production with Patrick Stewart as Othello without blackface, and with a black cast playing everyone else.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. I am not what I am.  –Iago, Act One, scene i, line 66

2. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram /Is tupping your white ewe.  –Iago, Act One, scene i, lines 89-90

3. Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.  –Iago, I, i, 117-118

4.  Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters,
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her:
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.  –Othello, I, iii, 76-94

5. Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.  –Brabantio, I, iii, 292-293

6.

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe.
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery–How, how? Let’s see:–
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.  –Iago, I, iii, 377-398

7.

And what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
The inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her
To win the Moor–were’t to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfetter’d to her love,
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.  –Iago, II, iii, 325-351

8.

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul,
But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.  –Othello, III, iii, 91-93

9. O!  Beware, my lord, of jealousy;/It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on. –Iago, III, iii, 169-171

10.

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree. –Othello, V, ii, 1-15

11.

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.  –Othello, V, ii, 341-359

12. I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this,/Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.  –Othello, V, ii, 361-362

Particularly obvious themes in Othello are those of jealousy and envy, but it is useful to distinguish between these two similar words.  Jealousy is usually used to describe someone who is afraid of losing a lover to a rival, whereas envy involves unhappiness or resentment over already not having what another has, and wanting to destroy the envied person.  Envy comes from the Latin invidia, which refers to looking at people with an evil eye, in other words, with a feeling of malice and hatred towards the envied one.  Iago, of course, perfectly personifies envy in Othello.

Iago envies Michael Cassio for getting the promotion to lieutenant that Iago feels he deserved.  Instead, Iago, a much more experienced soldier than Cassio, must remain merely Othello’s ensign (or ‘ancient,’ as he is called in the play).  Because Othello judged Cassio the better man for the promotion, the Moor must suffer; since Cassio got the promotion Iago should have been given, Cassio must suffer.

Though Othello suffers racial prejudice as a dark-complexioned Moor in Venice and Cyprus, both places dominated by whites, he is valiant, noble, and well-spoken; he only becomes violent when manipulated by Iago, the real beast of the story.  And for all of Iago’s reputation for being honest and good, he gives all the indications of his own bestial nature, right from his first appearance in the play.  Indeed, his first word is a blasphemy: “‘Sblood,” he says to Roderigo.  Soon afterwards in the same scene, he says, “Zounds”, and he speaks crudely of Othello’s seduction of Desdemona (Quotes #2 and 3 above).  Also, he constantly uses the imagery of beasts in his choice of words: ram, ewe, Barbary horse, baboon, cats, puppies, snipe, asses, “the green-ey’d monster,” etc.  All these word choices of his set the tone of his evil character: wild, and immoral.

Othello’s jealousy over Desdemona’s supposed affair with Cassio isn’t the only instance of jealousy in the play.  Roderigo is jealous of Othello’s marriage to her, hoping foolishly that she will get bored with the Moor (according to the lie Iago tells Roderigo), and then the buffoonish suitor will supposedly get his chance to have her.

Iago also grapples with jealousy when he has heard a rumour that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia (see Quote #6).  This, given during a soliloquy, seems to be the greater reason for Iago to want revenge.  “And nothing can or shall content my soul/Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.” (II, i, 223-224)

Apart from these jealousies, there is also Bianca’s jealousy when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries” (as Iago has earlier described it) among Cassio’s things, and assumes her lover has been seeing another woman.  Significantly, Othello has been secretly watching this altercation, and is himself even more inflamed with jealousy, assuming Cassio’s rumoured affair with his wife has been incontrovertibly proven.

Many reputations in this play are unjustly acquired.  Iago, a most heinous liar throughout the play, is honoured as “honest Iago” right up to Emilia’s accusation of him lying to Othello.  Iago feels Cassio doesn’t deserve the good name associated with being lieutenant, and easily engineers proof that, with a few cups of wine, Cassio can demonstrate his unworthiness of the rank.  Othello has a reputation for being unshakeable in the face of war and death, yet the mere suggestion that his wife could be having an affair makes him fall so to pieces that he strikes her in public, in front of Lodovico, her cousin!

Ultimately, the most undeserved of reputations is that of Desdemona as “whore”.  So guiltless is she that not only can’t she even say the word “whore” without difficulty, but she can’t even imagine any other married woman being unfaithful to her husband, as she says to Emilia on the night she is to be murdered.  Indeed, she keeps a perfectly Christian attitude right to the end, expressing her love and loyalty to the Moor by saying, “Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!”  Then she dies, after having been smothered by a pillow held in Othello’s hands.

It is her very sweetness that makes her unjust murder so especially horrific.