Analysis of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

From the film:

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

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

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

From the novel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus begins Bowman’s going down.

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

See how all these strands fit together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Either Good or Bad

 

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We sufferers of C-PTSD often find ourselves overwhelmed with bad thoughts, thanks to our inner critic. It seems as though negativity is a permanent, static state to be in.

As hard as it is to believe for sufferers of complex trauma, though, neither good nor bad states exist permanently; good and bad flow back and forth between each other like the waves of the ocean. This is part of the reason I use ‘infinite ocean‘ as a metaphor for universal reality. The good moments are the crests, and the bad moments are the troughs; we must be patient in waiting for the troughs to rise into crests.

Recall Hamlet‘s line to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Only our thoughts cause this flow (of one opposite to the other) to ossify into rigid absolutes. Freed of that rigidity, we experience the flow of good to bad, to good to bad, to good, as a Unity of Action.

This Unity of Action is the unity of opposites, an idea found in philosophical traditions around the world, throughout history. It was part of Heraclitus‘s thought: “the path up and down are one and the same”; he also understood how these opposites flow into each other in a state of endless change, for “everything flows”, and “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. Dialectical monism is central to Taoist philosophy, particularly in the concept of yin and yang. Unity in duality is seen in the idealist Hegelian dialectic, which Marx turned into a materialist version, and Lenin, Stalin, and Mao in turn all expanded on Marx.

My point in bringing up these various testimonies to the validity of a universal dialectic, many from independent sources, is to show that talk of a Unity of Action is not just some New Age sentimentality. When a great thinker such as Hegel affirms the truth of dialectical monism, we know it’s not something to be airily dismissed.

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I like to use the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationships between opposites such as happiness and sadness. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, all opposites can be seen at the extreme ends of a continuum, rather than in rigid terms of black and white. This continuum can be coiled into a circle, with one extreme phasing into its opposite. The biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros can represent those meeting extremes.

I’ve demonstrated how the ouroboros, representing the Unity of Action, is manifested in class struggle, in the development of capitalism, in the relationship between oneself and other people, and in the relationship between mental health and various forms of mental illness, in the form of a general theory of the personality.

Now, I’d like to show how we can use dialectical thinking to turn negative emotions and experiences into positive ones. When we’re seriously upset about some problem, it’s often hard to imagine a solution, especially if we’re emotionally dysregulating and making a catastrophe of the problem in our minds. Good and bad are imagined in terms of black and white, with an insuperable barrier between the problem and a solution.

However, when we see the problem and possible solution dialectically, in the form of the ouroboros, we can now imagine a path from the bitten tail of the problem, passing along the length of the serpent’s body towards greater and greater hope, all the way to the biting head of a solution.

Since, as I described elsewhere, one can compare the three parts of Hegel’s dialectic (which I, admittedly, am simplifying here, for the sake of brevity) to the tail (the “thesis,” or abstract), the head (the “antithesis,” or negation, a logical challenge to the original abstract idea), and the length of the serpent’s body (the “synthesis,” the concrete, or sublation, a resolving of the contradictions between the head and tail to form a higher truth…a new abstract tail to be negated and sublated again and again in endless cycles), we can see how dialectical thinking can help us turn negative thinking into positive.

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When we have a problem, negative thought, or any reason to be depressed or anxious, we start with the “thesis,” or abstract. Next, we imagine the negation, which is the solution to our problem, or the happy state of mind we wish we were in. Since there is a unity of opposites, we know we have no reason to believe a solution to our problem is unreachable.

We must now work out the contradiction between the difficulty and the solution we wish we could find; this is the sublation we need to work out, that path along the circular serpent’s body towards the solution. How can we do this? We can start by asking what we could learn from the problem. We can always learn from past mistakes, or learn to avoid repeating past misfortunes. Second, we can acknowledge what we have to be grateful for; we can count our blessings, all those things and people (i.e., friends) we take for granted, but shouldn’t, at this moment of crisis.

I’ll now give an example of how to negate negativity, as I did with regards to my family. As I explained here, I started with my parents’ vices–my father’s bad temper, bigotry, parsimony, and closed-mindedness, as well as my mother’s lack of empathy, narcissism, and habitual gaslighting, triangulating, and smear campaigning–and I used them as the “thesis.” Since writing The Inner Critic blog post, I’ve added my siblings’ vices–their bullying and verbal abuse, as well as my sister J.‘s constant attempts to reform me into the brother she wants me to be–to the collective family “thesis,” or abstract.

Now, for the “antithesis,” or negation: in The Inner Critic, I wrote of meditating on and visualizing, in hypnotic trance, kind, loving parents who pick you up and cuddle with you. In the case of my parents, I imagine the dialectical opposites of those vices I mentioned above: I visualize a new father who is easy-going, tolerant, giving, and open-minded; I imagine a new mother who values lifting up her children’s self-esteem, as well as promoting family harmony; added to these, I meditate on a supportive, protective older brother (something my brothers, R. and F., never were), and a sister who wouldn’t change one character trait of mine, but rather considering my eccentricities as part of my charm. Instead of the old family sneering at me, I imagine the new family cheering for me. This alone, done with the right intensity and focus, makes me feel much better.

As for a “synthesis,” the concrete, or the Aufhebung, my repeated and intensive auto-hypnotic meditations on the negation should, over time, counterbalance all the negativity I suffered from my family over four decades of dealing with them. I note how the idealized family of my self-hypnosis represents who my old family should have been; also, my memories of the old family are no less ghosts in my mind, old bad object relations, than are the newly internalized objects of my idealized new family, who are there to heal me and eliminate my inner critic. Combine this visualization with my “Christopher Sly” meditation–a tossing aside of my past ghosts as having no more right to be considered reality than are the new family of my meditations–and I should balance out the negative past with my positive present, and thus have a median, realistic self-assessment.

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Remember how suggestible the mind is during hypnosis, which is just a meditation in a relaxed, yet focused mental state. Note also that the mind doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination: that’s how we can get emotionally involved in a movie, which of course is pure fiction and illusion. So we can use this suggestibility to our advantage in curing ourselves of our C-PTSD.

As I’ve said before, we sufferers of narcissistic and emotional abuse tend to imagine a fragmented world where the shattered pieces can’t be put back together. To solve this problem, I see it as imperative that we all cultivate an outlook of seeing the underlying unity in all things. This means seeing a unity between oneself and others to end C-PTSD isolation and alienation, The Unity of Space.

It also means putting the past behind us, worrying less about the future, and focusing on NOW, The Unity of Time. Finally, we also need to stop seeing an insurmountable wall existing between our sorrows and the happiness we crave, but see instead how all opposites are dialectically unified, as symbolized by yin/yang and the ouroboros, The Unity of Action.

Such unifying replaces despair with hope, alienation with belonging, and anxiety and depression with joy in the present moment–a lasting cure for complex trauma.

Putting the Painful Past Behind Us

To stop myself from ruminating on my painful childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood–a bad habit I picked up, thanks to the emotional abusers I had to endure during those years–I recently found inspiration in Shakespeare. Yes, the immortal Bard wrote a not-so-well-known scene in one of his otherwise most popular comedies, a scene whose meaning I interpreted in a way that I now see (in the form of a meditation/self-hypnosis) as something that may help us forget the past, and focus on the present. Allow me to explain.

In my Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew, I argued that the Induction is the main story, not the Katherina (‘Kate’) and Petruchio story, which is just a play within a play, a further remove from the audience’s sense of reality than the Induction itself is (a full synopsis of the play can be read here, if you don’t have access to it or the time to read it).

In the Induction (<<<YouTube video of Scene i), a boorish, drunken tinker named Christopher Sly is tricked (<<<video of Scene ii) into thinking he’s a lord, after waking up from a fifteen-year coma (as his pranksters tell him), during which his memory of his whole life as a tinker has been only a dream. Lying in a luxurious bed, wearing the bedclothes of a rich man, and surrounded by people pretending to be his loving friends, servants, and wife (a boy dressed in women’s clothes), Sly is incredulous at first, but soon acquiesces to the whole thing, and then watches a farcical play of the Kate and Petruchio story.

As far as pranks go, this is a rather odd one. Why go to such lengths to flatter a drunken slob? Far from making Sly look foolish, the trick dignifies and ennobles him instead. What’s more, we never even see the prank brought to its conclusion. Sly nods off to sleep during the performance of the play (Act I, Scene i, lines 242-247), which is briefly halted to wake him up, then carries on till the end of the story; no more mention of Sly is ever made. We never see the pranksters reveal themselves as such, laughing at the fool for falling for the gag. It’s as if we, the audience, are also tricked into thinking the Kate and Petruchio story, rather than that of Sly, is the real one.

What comes later (Sly as a lord; the Kate and Petruchio story) comes off as real, and what came first (Sly’s life as a tinker; the Induction, often excluded from productions of the play, or movie and TV adaptations) is forgotten about and deemed irrelevant.

To relate the Induction to our lives, we can see Christopher Sly as representing us. We were originally treated with contempt as he was, and that contempt may have caused us to have a surly manner; after all, when we believe we’re unworthy, we often behave as unworthy people…not because we really are, but because we’ve been manipulated by our abusers to think of ourselves as unworthy. We must go from believing ourselves as base to thinking of ourselves as someone much better. Thus, we must trick ourselves.

As formerly emotionally abused children (or ex-boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses), we C-PTSD sufferers must trick ourselves into deeming as irrelevant the pain that came earlier in our lives, just as Sly is tricked into thinking his earlier life, as a contemptible slob, is just a dream (and as the audience watching Shakespeare’s play is tricked into thinking the play-within-a-play, rather than the Induction, is the real story).

We must imagine ourselves as having woken up from a nightmare (I’m assuming you, Dear Reader, have distanced yourself from your abusive family or ex, and gone NO CONTACT; if you haven’t, I urge you to do so; if you can’t do it yet, make it your ambition), and see our new life, our present life, as one of glorious new possibilities.

We must remember that our NOW is the only reality we have. Our memories are just ghosts haunting our minds, old object relations we need to eject from our consciousness (see these links for meditations on how to replace old, bad internal objects with new, good ones). The past is no longer real for us, except in our ruminations. We need to stop that obsessive over-thinking…but how?

I’ve already described in other posts how we can, in auto-hypnotic trance (a restful, focused state in which one is more suggestible), imagine our oneness with everything around us by getting our bodies so relaxed that we can feel ourselves vibrating all over. Those vibrations, in and around us, can be compared to a feeling like the waves of the ocean. In our meditative state, we imagine our bodies, our cohesive, non-fragmented Self–our Atman, if you will–as part of an infinite ocean, our surroundings, the whole universe–Brahman, as it were. This meditative state, our unity with everything, can cure us of our sense of isolation, provided we practice it, in sessions of substantial duration, every day over a lengthy period of time.

Added to this contemplation of The Unity of Space, as I call it, we can also contemplate what I call The Unity of Time, the eternal NOW. As we focus on those ‘waves’ passing through our vibrating bodies, which are part of the water of the infinite ocean of Brahman, we also focus on the present moment, doing our best never to let our minds wander and daydream of other things (if we let ourselves get distracted, we should gently but firmly bring our minds back to the present moment). This discipline will gradually take our minds off the past, to focus more on NOW. We must always keep our minds on those moving waves, for every second.

Another meditation we can do to say goodbye to the past is to lie in bed with our eyes closed, and after getting ourselves perfectly relaxed in the manner I described in previous posts (breathing in and out, deeply and slowly, focusing on all the parts of our bodies, from our toes up to our heads, until they’re vibrating with calm, counting down from ten, with our bodies getting more and more relaxed with each passing number), imagine waking up as Sly does, with loving family (the new, good one we’ve imagined, of course, not the original, abusive one) and friends all around our bed, teary-eyed with joy that we’ve revived from a ‘coma’.

adult affection bed closeness
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We do not recognize these people, and are shocked to hear them say they are our family. They speak lovingly and respectfully to us, yet to be honoured in such a way feels alien to us, and we protest how odd they are behaving. Still, they insist that we are worthy of such love, and that we should cease this idle notion that we would “be infused with so foul a spirit” [Induction, Scene ii, line 15] as to deserve to be treated as we had been by our past abusers.

We feel dazed still, unable to believe what we’re hearing. We wonder, “do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now? / I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak; / I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things.” [Induction, Scene ii, lines 67-69] We come to believe that we aren’t the person we thought we were before. We’re someone new, and we have a whole new life ahead of us!

With a bright smile on our face, we accept that this present moment is, indeed, our true life, and the painful past we’d experienced before was just a bad dream, something we can now brush aside and forget. We are the lord of our new, liberated life!

Now, the people in this meditation are not pulling a prank on us: they genuinely love and care for us. Though this is a meditation, we’ll do a dialectical flip, and imagine the present visualization to be reality, and our past to have been the illusion. Yes, we’ll be playing a benevolent prank on ourselves, tricking our minds into conceiving this present moment as our true reality.

And why not? The past is just ghosts and visions; NOW is the material reality before our eyes and all around us. By sustaining this meditative state for ourselves, as truly sly Christophers (or sly Christinas, if you’re female), for as long as we can, and doing this self-hypnosis regularly, every day (just after waking up, ideally, to get the best, most realistic effect), we can, over time, truly put the painful past behind us.

Imagine those loving faces around your bed, those people telling you that your painful past was all just a long, bad dream. You’ve just woken from a long coma of many years, and NOW is your real life, surrounded by people who love you. Flood your whole body with feelings of love, acceptance, and validation, what you’ve been cruelly denied for far too long. Don’t worry about visualizing accurate physical details; focus on the good feelings.

Since there’s a dialectical unity of opposites, we can feel free to turn our bad situation into its good opposite, a negation of the thesis that was once our awful lives, and work through the contradictions of our bad past and our good present, then sublate them into the synthesis that will be the basis of our new lives.

I’m not talking about deluding yourself: I’m advocating a disciplining of your mind to focus on now and forget about your past. When you’re no longer ‘tinkering’ with your painful memories, you’ll be lord (or lady) over your present life, you’ll be truly sly (that is, in your cunning but benevolent self-deceit), and the raging shrew inside you will be tamed. No, Christopher (or Christina), you aren’t a loser: you’re the master of your life.

Analysis of ‘Marat/Sade’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Romance

I

Mom is here.  Dad is here.
Child is held.

Mom is harsh.  Dad is harsh.

Child runs off.

New Mom guards.  New Dad guards.
Child is safe.

She says, “Play.”  He says, “Play.”

Child can play.

II

Mom looks over.  Dad looks over.
Child is watched.

Mom looms over.  Dad looms over.

Child then flees.

New Mom sees him.  New Dad sees him.
Child is tended.

She saves him.  He saves him.

Child is free.

III

Parents are rich…yet, they’re poor.
Child feels empty.

Parents give things…but not love.

Child feels lonely.

New parents: poor…yet, they’re rich.
Child has plenty.

New parents love…but, sans silver
Child–loved wholly.

 

My Blog’s New Title

I’ve changed the title of my blog, formerly titled simply after my name (‘mawrgorshin‘), to ‘Infinite Ocean’, named after not only a song I wrote, recorded, and published on the Jamendo website (along with a number of other pop songs and classical compositions of mine [these latter under my original name, Martin Gross]), but also after the philosophy I’m trying to cultivate here.

On this blog, I will continue to write analyses of literature and film, typically from a psychoanalytic and/or Marxist/leninist slant (the lower case l is deliberate, for reasons that I hope are obvious; if they aren’t, please read these posts to understand). I’m trying to explore how inner fragmentation and family dysfunction result in social alienation and class conflict, as well as how the latter two rebound and cause the former two problems in turn, and the pairs of causes and effects go back and forth like a ball in a tennis court.

It is my hope that these analyses will contribute to a restoration, on at least some level, of social harmony and justice.

The Calm After the Storm

There is the breast that gives milk,
and that which doesn’t;
and then, there are both, which feed us sparingly.

We, smiling, suck on the first,
we bite the second;
we sigh when we see they’re from the same mother.

One parent is our hero,
one is a mirror;
but both are bridges from us to the world.

Some heroes will fall from grace,
some mirrors crack;
our bridges, then, will break, and we can’t cross them.

Bravely, we’d walk on the water,
see wavy reflections
beneath our feet, our warped and rippled faces.

Thus, we ignore the storm,
feel still, calm waters,
blind to the splashing sea we’re drowning in.

We’d reach the other side,
the land of milk,
but all we have to drink is wind-tossed water.

The storm cannot be calmed
until it’s faced.
We see our faces blowing on the waves.

We see parental ghosts
inside our eyes,
the ruach blowing on the rolling seas.

They blow the wind into us,
we blow it out,
and all our gales break mirrors and bridges.

Our gusts make crests and troughs,
and gentle waves
will only come when we can calm the winds.

Bad ghosts blow hurricanes,
good ones blow breezes;
cast out the bad by letting in the good.

The good are our new heroes:
they’ll mend the mirrors,
and help us build new bridges we can cross.

The winds of rage will slow down to a calm.

We’ll cross the bridges, reach the other side,

and drink the milk of bliss and mutual love.

Beyond the Pairs of Opposites

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“All creatures are bewildered at birth by the delusion of opposing dualities that arise from desire and hatred.” —Bhagavad Gita, Seventh Teaching, verse 27

I’d like to try to unify all I’ve written on this blog so far, in order to sculpt an all-encompassing philosophy, if you’ll indulge me, Dear Reader.

If you have been reading my blog posts with an attentive eye, you’ll have noticed a recurring theme that has shown itself in many forms: the dialectical relationship between opposites. This will be apparent to you regardless of whether you’ve read my political posts, or my literary or film analyses. It can even be seen a little in my complaints about my family.

I mentioned duality and dualism in my Analysis of Romeo and Juliet, and how the opposites intermingle sometimes. I mentioned equivocation in my Macbeth analysis (how an idea can sway either to one opposite, or to the other: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”), and the upside-down world in King Lear (to be good, one must be rude and blunt, as well as be disloyal to the established power structure; while evil Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are polite, and those loyal to them are also evil). Hamlet delays his revenge because he is psychologically paralyzed by the paradox–in killing his uncle, the king–of the revenge’s extreme good (out of love for his murdered father) and evil (the prince will be as guilty of regicide as his uncle is). In Richard III, we see constant, swift shifts from good fortune to bad, and bad to good. I believe that one of the main reasons Shakespeare’s writing continues to resonate with us is his understanding of the paradoxical unity of opposites. Such understanding leads us all closer to the truth.

In The Graduate analysis, I mentioned the dialectical idea that the tightening chains, if you will, of parental authority forced Benjamin to fight to free himself of that authority. The sexual trap Mrs. Robinson set for him woke him sexually and helped him to mature. Her forbidding him to date her daughter, Elaine, on the one hand, and his own parents’ pressuring him to date her, on the other, were the tightening chains that made him defy both the Robinsons and the Braddocks, and free himself.

In my two Ouroboros posts, I wrote of how the dialectical relationship between opposites can be seen in the form of a circular continuum, symbolized by a serpent, coiled in a circle, biting its tail, the head and tail being those extreme opposites. I showed how this unity of opposites is seen in the history of class struggle and in the growth of the capitalist mode of production.

In writing of narcissism in the family, I wrote of the contradictions between the golden child (my sister) and the scapegoat (me); and how, in some ways, the former child has it worse, and the latter has it better, because the tightening chains around me, like those around Benjamin Braddock, freed me, while my older sister J.’s favoured position in the family has actually held her in stronger chains.

All of these unities-in-contradiction are manifestations of what I like to call The Unity of Action: what in one way goes well clockwise along the ouroboros’s tail, for example, goes badly counter-clockwise, and vice versa in another way. Another issue, particularly seen in some of my more recent posts, is alienation and fragmentation, the contradiction of self vs. other. The cure to this ill I see as what I call The Unity of Space, to be discussed below. A third dichotomy, that of the past vs. the future, can be reconciled by a focus on the present, a fading out of the past and a fading into the future, or The Unity of Time.

I believe a proper understanding of these Three Unities can help us solve a great many of the world’s problems. The Unity of Space can cure social alienation by helping us to see the other in ourselves and vice versa, thus creating and building empathy and compassion for others, instead of fighting and competing. The Unity of Time can help us to stop obsessing over either past pain or idealized past eras, as well as to stop worrying about a bad future or fantasize about an idealized one, and to focus on making the most of the eternal NOW. The Unity of Action can make us stop dichotomizing projects into absolute successes or failures, and instead monitor our slow but sure progress towards increasing levels of achievement (e.g., why we can’t have full communism immediately after a revolution…the transitional worker’s state must be allowed to run its course).

So many of us feel isolated and alienated, typically because of traumas from childhood abuse or emotional neglect. The aggressive authoritarianism in families in the US and around the world, resulting in all these forms of abuse and neglect, has been found by researchers to be almost universal. It isn’t a far leap to go from perpetrating abuse at home to shootings, from authoritarianism to police brutality and racism, to a fetishizing of religious fundamentalism and of the ‘free market’, and ultimately to viewing imperialist wars as ‘fighting for one’s country,’ rather than the unlawful invasion of sovereign states. Authoritarian abuse causes a split between the powerful and powerless.

This split is an example of the dichotomy of self vs. other. The alienation one feels from this split blinds one to the dialectical unity between self and other. Hegel understood this in his allegory of the lord and bondsman in The Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel, pages 111-119). We experience self-consciousness only through a recognition of another person as a kind of reflection of ourselves, and the other recognizing us.

When two men meet, who will dominate whom? A death-struggle ensues, Hegel tells us, and the winner is the lord, getting his sense of self through himself independently, as well as knowing his bondsman acknowledges his existence; while his bondsman has a sense of self only through his relationship through his master, for whom he now works.

Over time, though, the fruit of the servant’s work, his creations, accumulates, giving him a sense of his own mastery of his art; while his master increasingly comes to depend on the slave’s work, since the lord isn’t really working. Thus, the lord and bondsman seem to switch roles in a way, a dialectical relationship that can be symbolized by the ouroboros, the biting head (lord) shifting to the bitten tail (bondsman), and vice versa. The bondsman’s journey (i.e., the accumulation of all the products of his work) from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body, all the way up to the biting head, now makes the bondsman into a new kind of lord.

It’s easy to see how Marx could apply Hegel’s idea to the relationship of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: one day, the workers would seize control of the means of production, where they’d produced so much, and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. This new workers’ state would, in turn, wither away eventually–once all pockets of counter-revolutionary capitalist resistance would be annihilated–and we would finally have anarchist communism, a reward for all our patience.

We must try to see how this interdependent self/other relationship applies to all human relationships. In so doing, we could be aided in dismantling authoritarian thinking, we’d kindle a sense of mutual empathy, and mend the social rifts that cause all our alienation.

Indeed, we must understand the ego to be an illusion, as Lacan did. The fragmented, ill-defined sense of self a baby has changes into a unified one when the infant sees his image in a mirror. This mirroring also comes in the form of a parent looking into the baby’s eyes and responding to him. This unified ego, however, is an illusion, a fake ideal to strive for. This is true not only of the mirror reflection, whose phoney ideal alienates us from it, but also of all those people whose faces we gaze into, people who mirror themselves back at us. These hellish others, as independent egos, are as fake as the self.

Recognizing this phoney sense of self and other, really just two fragmented sources of energy bouncing back and forth at each other (in the forms of projection, projective identification, and introjection), leads us to reject the alienating dichotomy of self vs. other, in favour of a Unity of Space, a dialectical monism where the boundary between self and other is much blurrier than one would assume.

The blurred boundary between self and other, the unity of all things in matter, is not just something believed by meditating mystics and practitioners of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc (or some users of LSD, for that matter). It is also seen in the notion of internalized object relations, as well as the notion of self-objects in self psychology.

What does it mean to be me, other than the sum of influences (as well as the sum of all of those I’ve influenced) in my life? As I’ve argued elsewhere, the human personality is relational, an intermingling dialectic of self and other. I–the subject in a relationship with another, the object–am the serpent’s head biting the tail of the other, and vice versa.

As well as there being a dialectic of the self and the other, there’s also a dialectic of the fragmented parts within the self. Heinz Kohut wrote of the bipolar self (not to be confused with the cyclothymic ups and downs of sufferers of bipolar disorder), a self based, on one pole, on an inner child whose grandiosity wishes to be mirrored with an empathic parent, and on the other pole, an internalized parental imago to be idealized. Super-me at one end, and Super-Mom (and/or Dad) at the other.

If all goes well, the child’s grandiosity and idealizing are let down in gradual, bearable bits over time, a move from the narcissistic biting head of the ouroboros down the length of its body to the middle. The child will thus be able to form a cohesive self with mature, realistic narcissism, in which restrained grandiosity is integrated with bearable, circumscribed amounts of shame.

If such transmuting internalization and optimal frustration don’t occur, a result of parenting that’s lacking in sufficient empathy (or worse, child emotional neglect or even abuse), the child’s narcissism is split–vertically (through denial and disavowal, creating and maintaining a False Self, or, I believe, through projection) and/or horizontally (through repression)–into a dichotomy of pathological grandiosity vs. toxic shame. Here, one is suspended at the serpent’s biting head of narcissism and the bitten tail of shame. The result? Sometimes, people like Donald Trump, a poor little rich (overgrown) kid whose ego is fed by his religious-cult-like followers, and who’s shamed (through no one’s fault but his own) by the mainstream liberal media. More typically, though, the result is poor kids with impoverished egos, because they got little empathy from Mom and Dad.

The only way such a pathological narcissist can socially function is to deny his unique problem with grandiosity, by either projecting it onto everybody (“The only thing worse than immodesty is false modesty: pretending you’re humble, when secretly you really think you’re great,” my older brother, R., once said; I suspect his motive was to rationalize and project his own arrogance onto the world.), or to project it onto a particular target (as my probably narcissistic late mother tried to do to me with her autism lie, herself imagining autism to be essentially identical with narcissism, an idea as ridiculous as it is offensive). Here we see the internal dichotomy transforming itself into one of self vs. other.

So many of us live fragmented lives, alienated from each other, and alienated from ourselves within. We’re like a large window broken into hundreds of shattered pieces, lying strewn all over the ground, with jagged edges. If anyone approaches us, he or she risks cutting his or her feet on us, because we too often react with hostility to anyone trying to connect with us. We’re shattered glass within as well as shards lying beside each other.

We need to recognize ourselves not as all these tiny fragmented shards of glass, but rather as drops of water in an infinite ocean. We move up and down in waves, those waves being the ever-shifting dialectic of the self and other, as well as pretty much everything else. All things in the infinite ocean we call the world can be conceived of as having the characteristics of both particles and waves. This wave metaphor can also represent the communist definition of equality: not a flat, straight line where everyone is forced to be the same, as the political right would straw-man our ideal; but instead as crests shifting into troughs, then back to crests, and to troughs, over and over again–from each according to his or her ability (crests), to each according to his or her need (troughs).

(The Unity of Space may sound like pantheism to some, though I’d describe it as a philosophy of dialectical monism. These kinds of ideas certainly do not have the backing of the scientific community; indeed, most physicists rightly scoff at writers like Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav for sentimentally oversimplifying both science and Eastern philosophy, conflating particle/wave duality with a ubiquitous cosmic consciousness [whereas I’m more interested in the unconscious]. I’ll content myself with how Einstein praised Spinoza’s monism, an idea similar to mine. Appealing to those geniuses far from scientifically proves my case, of course [My knowledge of physics is at Bill Hicks‘s level!], but it’s good enough for me. Just as creationism isn’t and shouldn’t be mistaken for science, neither should my ideas; I do believe, however, that they can help people.)

When we come to see ourselves as united rather than fragmented, we can build mutual empathy and friendship, which can lead to community and finally to solidarity. With solidarity, we can begin to organize against the ruling class, the one other that we’ll never be reconciled with, because not only don’t they want to reconcile with us, but they also want us to be forever at odds with each other, and fragmented within. They use their media to divide us in this way.

But how can we heal our fragmentation within? First, we must take an honest look at our relationships with that primal other in our lives: our parent(s). No parent is perfect, or ever could be, of course, but by any reasonable measure, were our parents at least good enough? If they, and thus their corresponding internalized imagos, were more bad than good (i.e., non-empathic, authoritarian, manipulative, cruel, or abusive), we must replace these bad object relations with good ones, for those wounded primal relationships make up the blueprint for all subsequent relationships.

Well, how can we do this? If I may be so bold, I’ve found hope in one possible solution: hypnosis/meditation. In a state of hypnosis, the unconscious mind is on average more suggestible, more easily influenced (though more resistant people will be harder to hypnotize, of course). After getting oneself in a relaxed state by taking deep breaths in and out slowly, and relaxing every part of one’s body, one body part at a time, from the head to the toes, one begins to visualize the ideal mother and father. You can pick a good mother and father from inspiring scenes in movies (I like these examples), and after adapting the scenes in your thoughts in ways that are more fitting to you, you then imagine them treating you with the same love and kindness. In as vivid a visualization as you can make, imagine yourself as a little kid being loved and cared for by these idealized parents, who will be your new imagos.

What will they say to you? What kind, loving, supportive, encouraging words will they use, and in what kind of gentle tone of voice? How will they validate your experiences? How will they show patience and understanding when your foibles are apparent? Try to visualize this Edenic childhood in as much detail as your imagination, under hypnotic trance, can muster. Do this several times a day, every day, and feel the love and security wash all through your body. (Though not using hypnosis, Kohut tried to achieve a kind of empathic self-object relationship with his analysands in his narcissistic transferences.)

I’ve tried doing hypnotic meditations in Richard Grannon‘s Silence the Inner Critic course, which is rather expensive, but if you have even as mild a case of C-PTSD as I do, you’ll consider it money well spent. After only a few hypnosis sessions, I found my road rage, and propensity to blow up in anger over trifles, to be reduced to 10%-20% of what it had been before. It’s amazing! If I can do it, I’ll bet you can, too, because my bad habits are stubborn, and my tendency to make catastrophes of things is one of the most stubborn of all.

I plan on writing more about this kind of thing, so this introduction to such ideas is rather brief and sketchy; a more detailed, systematic elaboration of these ideas will follow.

This replacing of bad object relations with good ones, the introjection of an idealized parent imago to replace a traumatically frustrating, non-empathic imago, is something I believe that religions have unconsciously tried to do, using a loving sky-father god. Consider the sentimentality of such Bible verses as, “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.” (Psalm 136:1); “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21); and “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) They all reflect this idea of the loving Spirit of God the Father, an internalized object relation, really, coming inside us, transforming us, and turning pain into inner peace. Though most of what Freud said about religion was wrong, I believe he was right about the idea that God is an illusion, based on a psychological need for a father figure.

Having said this, I must stress that my idea of The Three Unities is not meant to be the starting of a religion…in any conceivable sense. Some readers (insofar as anyone will be interested in reading this rather idiosyncratic post) may choose to think of my ideas in a religious sense if they wish to; but that’s their doing, not mine. If by any microscopic chance in the remote future, my idea is institutionalized as some form of fanaticism, causing atrocities of the sort committed by the religious superstitions of the past, then I–right now, for the record–wash my hands of it. My idea is grounded in the philosophy of dialectical monism, in psychoanalysis, and in historical materialism; I say this in case some cretin gets the idea that this writing makes me–absurdity of absurdities!–into some kind of…prophet (!).

I want to use my ideas to help people gain a power for living, not to promise a panacea. We will always feel pain and frustration in life; The Three Unities won’t stop that from happening. They may help us all to cope much better, as I’m hoping, by helping us to go beyond the pairs of opposites–dichotomous thinking, alienation, fragmentation–to experiencing the undulating rhythms of everything, the waves of an infinite ocean.

Barbara Stoler Miller, trans., The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, Bantam Books, New York, 1986

Infamous Hearts

Infamous Hearts Full Wrap.jpg

Though I sometimes write erotica (to be found on the Literotica website) and erotic horror, my own writing isn’t to be found at all in this dark romance anthology. I wish to promote it, nonetheless, in order to help out a friend and fellow writer, Emery LeeAnn, as well as help out all the other writers whose works grace this volume.

So if you like dark romance writing, you might be interested in the following:

#NewRelease #InfamousHearts

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  • •••••Synopsis••••••

Thirteen authors come together to provide a glimpse at notorious couples through history. When finding love in the arms of Hades must be escaped before dawn. Where the secret of the outlaw’s bride is found only in a place between heaven and hell. Where the wrath of Rosaline swings ominously like a pendulum and rapture can be found in the most iniquitous of times. When the secret of hieroglyphic hearts are drawn by daddy’s toy to overcome the feeling of being a darling little pet. When the blonde bombshell thrives high above the world in a tower made up of wanton lust and lies. When becoming a Kray is the only way to survive the mean streets of London. Time becomes frozen in each moment and secrets are told in whispers only to the most coveted.

 

Infamous Hearts: A Match Made in History.

 

 

Author pages:

Ashleigh Giannoccaro: https://www.facebook.com/Colourmyugly/?ref=br_rs

Avery Reigns: https://www.facebook.com/Avery-Reigns-Author-552254841785731/

C.A. Bell: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorC.A.BELL/

Dani René: https://www.facebook.com/DaniReneAuthor/

Destiny Hawkins: https://www.facebook.com/authordhawkins/

Elizabeth Cash: https://www.facebook.com/ElizabethCashAuthor/

Ellie Midwood: https://www.facebook.com/EllieMidwood/

Emery LeeAnn: https://www.facebook.com/EmeryLeeAnn/

Julia Clare: https://www.facebook.com/authorjuliaclare/

Natalie Bennett: https://www.facebook.com/NatalieBennettWriter/

Rose Devereux: https://www.facebook.com/rosedevereuxbooks/

Virginia Johnson: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorVirginiaJohnson/

Yolanda Olson: https://www.facebook.com/yolandasendlesswords/

 

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“A different take on famous or infamous characters that spin a different tale on romance. Each author propels the need to keep reading, a different way of thinking in every mini-story, a different level of consuming darkness.”

So, go and check out this awesome collection of writing!

Analysis of ‘Richard III’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry VI, Part I

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

Henry VI, Part II

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

Henry VI, Part III

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

Richard III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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