Analysis of ‘Venus In Furs’

Venus In Furs is a novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and published in 1870. Because the semi-autobiographical story is about a young man, Severin von Kusiemski, who persuades a beautiful woman, Wanda von Dunajew (her real-life counterpart having been Sacher-Masoch’s mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor), to dominate, whip, humiliate, and enslave him, we derive the word masochism from its author…thanks to Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his seminal text, Psychopathia Sexualis.

Though the novella was originally meant to be part of an unfinished cycle of stories called The Testament of Cain, Venus In Furs is by far Sacher-Masoch’s most famous work, and it is one of the few of his writings to be translated into English.

Here are some quotes:

“Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?” –narrator of framing story (page 4)

‘”And as a rule it is the man who feels the woman’s foot,” cried Madam Venus with exuberant scorn…’ (page 5)

“Yes, I am cruel–since you take so much pleasure in that word–and am I not entitled to be cruel? Man desires, woman is desired. That is woman’s entire but decisive advantage.” –‘Madame Venus,’ the talking statue in the narrator’s dream (pages 5-6)

“Woman’s power lies in Man’s passion, and she knows how to make use of it if man isn’t careful. His only choice is to be woman’s tyrant or slave.” –Severin, to the narrator (page 10)

‘…my beloved was made of stone…a stone statue of Venus…This Venus was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.’ –Severin (page 12)

‘Enough: this Venus was beautiful, and I loved her as passionately, as morbidly and profoundly, as insanely as a man can love only a woman who responds to his love with an eternally consistent, eternally calm stone smile. Yes, I literally worshiped her.’ –Severin, of his Venus statue (page 12)

“Nature knows of no permanence in the male-female relationship.” –Wanda (page 19)

‘My love was like a profound, a bottomless abyss, into which I kept sinking deeper and deeper, from which nothing could save me.’ –Severin (page 27)

‘Cold shivers ran down my spine. I looked at her: she stood before me, so solid and self-assured, and her eyes had a cold glint.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 28)

“…the greatest passions…arise from opposites. We are such opposites, almost hostile to each other. That explains this love of mine, which is part hatred, part fear. In such a relationship, only one person can be the hammer, the other the anvil. I want to be the anvil. I can’t be happy if I look down on my beloved. I want to be able to worship a woman, and I can do so only if she is cruel to me.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 29)

“…sensuality now became a sort of culture in my imagination, and I swore not to squander its holy sensations on an ordinary creature but to save them for an ideal woman–if possible, the Goddess of Love herself.” –Severin (page 32)

“In my mind I always pictured a beautiful female ideal…” –Severin (page 33)

“So a woman wearing fur,” cried Wanda, “is nothing but a big cat…?” (page 35)

“I saw sensuality as sacred, indeed the only sacredness. I saw woman and her beauty as divine since her calling is the most important task of existence: the propagation of the species.” –Severin (page 36)

“Yes–you’ve aroused my most cherished fantasy.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

‘”I’m afraid I’ve already found my ideal!” I cried and pressed my hot face into her lap.’ –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

“You’ve corrupted my imagination…” –Wanda, to Severin

“Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be.” –Wanda (page 47)

‘Wanda…was so kind, so intimate, so full of grace.’ –Severin (page 48)

“A woman’s infidelity is certainly a painful stimulus, the supreme voluptuousness.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 49)

“You may always address me as ‘Mistress,’ do you understand?” –Wanda, to Severin (page 60)

‘…from time to time I heard our Mistress enjoying herself, surrounded by admirers…’ –Severin (page 77)

‘Venus in Furs was jealous of her slave. She tore the whip from its nail and struck me across the face. Next she summoned the black maidservants, and had them tie me up and drag me down to the cellar, where they threw me into a dark, dank subterranean vault–a bona fide dungeon cell.’ –Severin (page 84)

‘I felt myself starting to hate that woman.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 85)

‘…I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why–as terrified as a condemned man who knows he is heading toward the scaffold, yet starts to tremble the moment he sees it.’ –Severin, of half-naked Wanda (page 89)

‘…Wanda threw off her fur coat in a single moment and stood before me like the Goddess in the Tribuna.

‘At that instant, she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty that I knelt before her as I had knelt before the Goddess, and I pressed my lips devoutly to her foot.’ –Severin (page 90)

‘He was a handsome man, by God. No, more: he was a man such as I had never seen in the flesh. He stands in the Belvedere, hewn in marble, with the same slender and yet iron muscles, the same face, the same rippling curls.’ –Severin, of Alexis Papadopolis, his rival for Wanda’s love (page 96)

‘What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.’ –Severin (page 101)

“You know what I am,” she retorted nastily. “I’m a woman of stone, Venus in Furs, your ideal–just kneel and worship me.” –Wanda, to Severin (page 103)

“The moral is that I was an ass.” –Severin, speaking to the narrator (page 119)

“The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” –Severin (page 119)

The story begins with a framing device involving the original narrator telling Severin about a dream he’s had of conversing with a living statue of Venus, who has a huge fur wrapped around her marble body (page 3).

This notion of being infatuated with the statues of Venus is a motif recurring throughout the novella, for a man’s willful enslavement to a woman is based on his pagan worship of her (as he sees it) divine beauty.

This beauty is carved into immovable stone: cold, inflexible, hard, and therefore cruel. The immovability of the stone also suggests permanence; combine this unmoving, unchanging permanence with beauty, we have ourselves an ideal.

The notion of ideal feminine beauty is also a recurring theme in the novella. Recall Goethe‘s words: “The Eternal Feminine draws us on high.” Beauty on the outside is seen as a symbol of beauty on the inside…regardless of how unrealistic such ideals are.

Another classic work of art–a painting–has inspired Severin: Titian‘s Venus with Mirror, the goddess’s lower body wrapped in fur, apart from which she is naked. Both Severin and the narrator fetishize her in the fur.

In his paper, “Fetishism,” Freud pointed out that the fur fetish is based on desire for a woman’s pubic hair, a desire traced back to boys’ Oedipal desire for their mother, and their horror, upon seeing her genitals, at realizing she has no phallus. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, believes that Venus In Furs supports Freud’s claim (Paglia, pages 258, 436).

As Freud himself observed: “…it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish. Thus the foot or shoe owes its preference as a fetish–or a part of it–to the circumstances that the inquisitive boy peered at the woman’s genitals from below, from her legs up; fur and velvet–as has long been suspected–are a fixation of the sight of the pubic hair, which should have been followed by the longed-for sight of the female member; pieces of underclothing, which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize the moment of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic.” (Freud, pages 354-355)

If Freud’s explanation seems far-fetched, consider Jacques Lacan‘s more metaphorical version. The mother’s lack of a phallus is, for Lacan, connected with the dissolution of the Oedipus complex and the father’s prohibition against a boy’s having of his mother; the boy cannot be the phallus that his mother desires, because his father won’t allow it. Hence, his father has symbolically castrated him. From this lack–manque–comes one’s desire.

Since a boy can’t have his mother, he must look elsewhere to gratify his unfulfillable desire, the objet petit a, a substitute for the forbidden mother that, in this story, Severin and the narrator can attempt to replace with the fur fetish and the Venus ideal. [For a more thorough explanation of such psychoanalytic concepts as those of Lacan, look here.]

Freud’s thoughts on fetishism seem to anticipate Lacan’s ideas about manque and the objet petit a in this passage: “In the conflict between the weight of the unwelcome perception and the force of his counter-wish, a compromise has been reached, as is only possible under the dominance of the unconscious laws of thought–the primary processes. Yes, in his mind the woman has got a penis, in spite of everything; but this penis is no longer the same as it was before. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor…We can now see what the fetish achieves and what it is that maintains it. It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.” (Freud, page 354)

That Titian’s painting has the fur covering Venus’ lower half further supports the symbolic association of the fur with her pubic hair. Cupid, Venus’ son, holds her mirror: the Goddess of Love and Beauty is the Mother.

Now we can see the origin of Severin’s desire to be dominated by a beautiful woman: he has an unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred onto Wanda. She symbolizes his mother, who in his unconscious has been split into Melanie Klein‘s “good mother”–his idealized parental imago whose beauty he desires to enjoy (hence, the furs)–and the “bad mother” who punishes him and is cruel to him.

Freud noted how a spanking can give erotic pleasure to a child: “Ever since Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s Confessions, it has been well known to all educationists that the painful stimulation of the skin of the buttocks is one of the erotogenic roots of the passive instinct of cruelty (masochism).” (Freud, page 111)

Severin, as a boy, must have enjoyed getting swats on his little buttocks from the hand of his pretty mama. Little is said in the novella about his relationship with his mother; the lack of any mention of his (as I suspect) shameful desires for her can easily be attributed to repression. Instead, Severin freely admits to desiring his beautiful but violent aunt–a clear displacing of his Oedipal desires from his mother to his aunt! (pages 32-34)

To return to the beginning of the novella, the narrator is woken from his dream by a hand “as brown as bronze” (page 6), suggesting another hard, cold statue, this time one of a man, the narrator’s “Cossack,” who stands “at his full height of almost six feet.” (page 6)

The Cossack tells the narrator that he must hurry and meet up with Severin, and that “it’s a cryin’ shame” (page 6) that the narrator is asleep when he must be going. This scene is symbolic of the father making a boy give up on his Oedipal dream of having Mother (symbolized by the statue of Venus in the dream). The “bronze” statue of the Cossack represents the father bringing the narrator (symbolic of a boy experiencing the Oedipus complex) into the world of reality.

Severin’s story, of himself also leaving his dreams (page 117) and coming into reality, will help the narrator understand the need to wake up, too; for the narrator is an obvious double of Severin. In fact, both men can be seen to represent the universal Oedipal desirer, the common male masochist. Severin’s story is written in a manuscript called Confessions of a Suprasensual Man. (page 10)

Speaking of writing, it seems prophetic that the narrator has a book by Hegel lying next to him as he sleeps (page 7); in the explanatory notes at the end of my Penguin Classics English translation of Venus In Furs (page 125), it is justifiably assumed that the passage of Hegel that the narrator has been reading before dozing off is the master/slave dialectic section of The Phenomenology of Spirit. In this dialectic, the slave gradually comes to free himself of his master, as Severin will of Wanda, and–one hopes–the narrator will of his slavish devotion to Venus in furs, too.

Before Severin meets Wanda, he–just like the narrator–has been idolizing a stone statue of Venus; only instead of it being in his dreams, Severin’s is in a meadow, in a garden in the small wilderness where his house is. Because of this ideal, he has had very little interest in Wanda…but she will soon embody that ideal for him, in the flesh.

There are numerous passages in the novella that suggest that Severin’s love for Wanda is at least comparable to a boy’s Oedipal love for his mother. To give one example: after kissing her foot, which causes her to run away, leaving her slipper in his hand–because she feels he is “getting more and more indecent,” he returns it to her the next day and stands “in the corner like a child awaiting its punishment.” (page 24)

Another example, suggestive of his relationship with Wanda as being like that of a mother and her little boy, is on page 82: “She started caressing me, cuddling me, kissing me like a child.” Yet another example, symbolically suggestive of a boy’s Oedipal jealousy, is on page 101: “What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.”

He remembers having his idolatrous fetishes from as early as the cradle; he “can’t remember ever not having them.” His mother told him he was “suprasensual” from those earliest years, “suprasensual” being his word for describing his desires. (page 30)

I’ve already mentioned his aunt, to whom–I believe–he made his first transference of his repressed Oedipal desires for his mother. Countess Sobol “was a beautiful, majestic woman with a charming smile; but [Severin] hated her, for the family regarded her as a Messalina.” (page 32) This love/hate is the splitting of the mother into her good and bad aspects, but displaced onto Severin’s aunt.

Severin describes his aunt beating him with a switch while wearing “her fur-lined kazabaika.” After the beating, he “was forced to kneel down, thank her for the punishment, and kiss her hand.

“Now just look at the suprasensual fool! The switch held by the beautiful, voluptuous woman, who looked like an angry monarch in her fur jacket, first aroused my desire for women, and from then on my aunt seemed like the most attractive woman on God’s earth.” (page 32)

Since Severin is telling the story, and since he’s clearly addled by his strange passions, it’s easy to believe that he’s an unreliable narrator. (His having been “healed” of the sickness of his masochism at the end of the novella is also unconvincing, especially given how Sacher-Masoch himself, on whom Severin and the narrator are based, carried on with his acting-out of his female domination fantasies years after the publication of Venus In Furs, to the irritation of his wife at the time!) When he admits he incestuously desires his aunt, this could easily be a cover-up for a much more forbidden desire…to have, and be punished by, his mother!

Severin explains his fur fetish to Wanda by speaking of “the bewitching beneficial influence that cats exert on highly sensitive and intelligent people.” (page 35) Yes, Wanda, “a woman wearing fur…is nothing but a big cat.”

Sacher-Masoch uses the word Katzen, in italics in the original German. Now, Katze innocently just means cat, the -n being the plural ending. But consider the context behind the usage of the word in this “erotic” conversation. (page 35)

In English, “pussy” has been used to mean a woman’s genitals as early as the 1870s, and probably earlier. In French, chatte, the feminine for chat, has had the same meaning, so the European association between the feline and the vagina has existed for some time.

Furthermore, Katzen sounds dangerously close to tzchen, the German word for kitten, or…pussy! Given the strict censorship of any lewd ideas back in the prudish late 19th century (Recall the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which the title character would baiser John the Baptist’s mouth!), one should find it easy to believe that Sacher-Masoch was using Katzen as a euphemism for the yoni.

So, in all of this, we see further support for Freud’s idea that furs and velvet are associated with a woman’s pubic hair. If by Katze, Sacher-Masoch had innocently meant cat, what would make Severin’s conversation with Wanda such an “erotic treatise”?

Almost immediately after this discussion of furs and Katzen, Severin mentions his reason for worshipping woman’s divine beauty: “her calling is…the propagation of the species.” (page 36) Human life emerges from female genitals, our uncanny sight of origin (a seeming wound where a phallus might have been, if only in unconscious phantasy). Woman is a goddess because she is a mother, the Giver of Life. Severin’s sexual passions, and his pagan devotions, are at their unconscious root, Oedipal.

He wants to be “the slave of a woman, a beautiful woman,” one who ties him up and whips him, and who kicks him “when she belongs to another man.” (page 37) How similar such a woman is to the Oedipally desired mother who punishes her naughty son with spankings, and who belongs to another man…the boy’s father. Having found his ideal in Wanda, Severin presses his “hot face into her lap” (page 37), an area of her body where he often brings his face (pages 44, 50, 112), where–were her clothes to be removed–her pubic hair would be found.

She tells him he is “mistaken” to “believe that everything lurking in [his] imagination is in [her] nature too” (page 38), but he won’t listen. For such opposites as those of love and hate are what give us our greatest passions (page 29).

His experience of Wanda, as mentioned above, is a transferred splitting of the Oedipally desired mother into absolute good and bad. He likes these extremes because of the arrest in his childhood sexual development, as we saw with his aunt. He won’t learn or grow out of these fixations, what Wilfred Bion would have called -K, a refusal to know; and for this reason, Severin will suffer terribly as the story goes on.

Wanda herself comments on his refusal to know her, to grow in knowledge (-K): “Don’t you know me yet, don’t you even want to know me?” she asks him (page 28). For Bion, another important element in the Oedipus myth is the urge to gain knowledge (K) at all costs, as the Theban king wishes to do in learning the identity of Laius‘ killer; yet Tiresias understands the danger of revealing this identity, and so in his reluctance to tell Oedipus, represents -K.

Severin’s refusal to grow in knowledge (-K) is linked to his repressed, unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred first onto his aunt, then onto Wanda. His growth in knowledge would involve a reintegration of the split good and bad aspects of his mother, a movement from the paranoid-schizoid position (PS) to the depressive position (D).

In the fetishizing of his feminine ideal, Severin stays split: he idolizes the good mother, displaced onto Wanda’s beauty when in the furs; and he suffers the cruelty of the bad mother, displaced onto Wanda when she whips, kicks, enslaves, and–worst of all–cheats on him.

She warns him of the danger of arousing her narcissism by worshipping her and allowing himself to be unconditionally enslaved by her; but he won’t listen (-K, reversible perspective). She would have him integrate the absolute good and bad of femininity: “Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be…The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feelings, actions.” (page 47)

Still, Severin won’t listen, for he prefers those extreme opposites that arouse passion (page 29), his split state of PS, over the sane moderation of D. He wants to stay in thrall to his ideal imagining of her, which he “both reviled and worshiped.” (page 105)

Now, she agrees to his absurd fantasy of enslaving him while wearing furs, though secretly she plans to cure him of his desires by pushing his fantasy too far. In living out his fantasy of being dominated by a beautiful woman, Severin is experiencing what Lacan called jouissance, a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a surfeiting that leads to pain.

In jouissance, one willingly endures this pain as a kind of extension of the transgressive pleasure. This is a shifting past the biting head of the ouroboros (extreme pleasure) to experience the bitten tail (extreme pain). In other posts, I’ve written of the dialectical relationship between opposites as symbolized by the ouroboros’ head and tail, with the coiled length of its body representing every intermediate point on a circular continuum between those extreme opposites.

While Severin thinks Wanda is indulging his jouissance in going past the biting head over to the bitten tail, she’s actually taking him in the opposite direction. She’s taking him along the coiled length of the serpent, further and further away from the biting head of pleasure, and closer and closer to the bitten tail of pain…unbearable pain, unbearable even for him.

By being enslaved by his “Venus in furs,” with Wanda as the replacement for his mother, Severin is using Wanda as his objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of his desire. He can’t have Mother, in her desirable aspect (i.e., the good mother, who like the Virgin Mary, is “full of grace”–page 48), or in her domineering aspect (the bad mother); so he has Wanda. But Wanda as a symbolic mother introduces a torture that even masochistic Severin can’t accept: the male rival as symbolic father.

In the BDSM community, consensual limits–as to how much pain, erotic humiliation, etc., is given and received–are strictly respected (through safewords, etc.). No such restraint is seen in Sacher-Masoch’s novella or in the Marquis de Sade‘s pornographic novels, in which victims (including children!) are not only tied up and whipped, but also raped, tortured, and murdered–the wealthy, powerful criminals responsible getting away scot-free.

Severin wants to experience the jealous fear of Wanda cuckolding him, but only within a reasonable limit–just the fear of it (page 49). She carries things way beyond his masochistic fantasies, though, in particular with a Greek named Alexis Papadopolis. (page 97)

Normally, the mother/infant relationship involves the mother soothing the baby’s fears, anxieties, and frustrations by absorbing and containing them in what Bion called maternal reverie, then sending those feelings back to the child in a form tolerable to it. This exchange of energy back and forth, through projective identification, is how a baby grows in K.

What Wanda, as Severin’s symbolic mother, is doing, however, is a negative version of this container/contained relationship (the mother, as container, being a symbolic yoni, and the baby’s contained anxieties being a symbolic phallus), so that instead of soothing Severin’s anguish, she is turning it into a nameless dread, driving him mad with jealousy.

In a nightmare, he dreams she has turned into “a huge polar bear drilling her claws into [his] body.” (page 68) He awakens to “hear her diabolical laughter.” This is an example of the negative container/contained relationship: in his dream, it is he who must contain her hostility, symbolized by her phallic claws digging yonic wounds into his skin. When he wakes in terror, she won’t contain his fear; instead, she laughs at it, making him feel worse.

The persecutory anxiety of his PS continues when he dreams of being condemned to death for having “murdered Wanda in a raging fit of jealousy.” (page 80) He is about to be beheaded, but instead of feeling the blade of an ax go beyond touching the back of his neck, he feels a slap. Wanda has woken him up with the slap, and she demands her fur.

She is free to make him feel jealous all she wants, but he is forbidden to treat her the same way. When he looks too long at Haydée, one of Wanda’s African female servants, he is put in “a bona fide dungeon cell.” (page 84)

Freud’s theory about the fur fetish as a covering of the female genitals, the shocking sight of a missing phallus [Freud, page 352: “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and–for reasons familiar to us–does not want to give up.”], seems apparent when Wanda is nude before Severin, except for the fur she’s wearing (page 89). He narrates, “I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why…”

He doesn’t know why he’s afraid (one would think he’d simply be aroused) because the root of his desire is a repressed wish to have his mother; but her lack of a phallus, as Lacan observed, is associated with Severin’s having been forbidden to have her, a forbidding from the Name of the Father…and the name of Severin’s symbolic father is Papadopolis.

Severin is afraid to know Wanda’s beauty (-K), so when she throws off her fur coat and stands before him in her glorious nakedness, he doesn’t think about his “Goddess” lustfully, but instead kneels before her, for “she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty” (page 90). Like the Virgin Mary, Wanda is “so full of grace.” (page 48) He would rather have a reaction formation to her, seeing the pure, good mother, than lust after the naked, whorish, bad (symbolic) mother.

Still, she arouses his jealousy with a number of male admirers, including a poor young painter (pages 91-95), and finally, the Greek! (pages 96-97) Severin finds Papadopolis especially threatening, for he knows he cannot compete with him to win Wanda’s love.

Severin feels “seized with that dreadful mortal terror, an inkling that this man could capture her, fascinate her, subjugate her.” Severin feels “inadequate next to his savage virility…envious, jealous.” (page 99) This is the same Oedipal jealousy a little boy feels when he knows only Daddy can have Mommy.

Severin wants to run away from Wanda…but he can’t.

Ultimately, she has him tied up, but Papadopolis is to whip him! (pages 114-117) Since Wanda and the Greek are Severin’s symbolic mother and father, the whipping symbolizes a re-experiencing of the childhood, Oedipal trauma of a boy being punished by his father for wanting his mother. The pain is too much for Severin; in his indignant rage, he demands to be untied. (page 115)

This descent into greater and greater suffering is like moving along the coiled length of the ouroboros’ body to reach the bitten tail of the most excruciating pain, then to reach a state of clarity, to understand the need to give up his Oedipal jouissance, to realize his objet petit a will never be fulfilled. It’s like “awakening from a dream.” (page 117)

After escaping from this ordeal, Severin goes home to help his old and ill father. Along with an unrealized wish to join the army, we can see in this father/son reunion a symbolized identification with the father, which is precisely what happens to a boy after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex.

Wanda, one day long after, writes a letter to Severin, explaining how the excesses of her cruelty were meant to cure him of his strange passion, to send him past the bitten tail of pain and over to the biting head of self-mastery, a return to peace of mind.

Severin, however, is not truly cured; he’s just switched from masochist to sadist. Now, he dominates women instead of submitting to them (page 9). As Freud, reversing Severin’s process, once said, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist…” (Freud, page 73)

Severin’s submission to, and idolatry of, Wanda has really just been a reaction formation against his wish to rule over women. The Oedipus complex, properly understood, is a narcissistic trauma: a child’s love of his mother is a selfish wish to have her all to himself, never to share her. She, as his ideal, is a mirror reflecting his narcissism back to him as he experiences the Imaginary Order. In worshipping Wanda, Severin has merely been projecting his excessive self-love (disguised as self-abasement in his reaction formation with her) onto her.

Women are wise to resist men who want to worship them. Sacher-Masoch’s wife learned this the hard way. True equality of the sexes will come when men stop deifying women, which dialectically resolves into misogyny, a shift from the ouroboros’ biting head of worshipping women to the bitten tail of despising them. The apotheosis of Woman as Mother, as Giver of Life, easily shifts over to the notion that “a woman’s place is in the home.” Women should be seen as neither goddesses nor slaves, but as human beings.

Severin himself acknowledges that woman “will be able to become [man’s] companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” (page 119) Still, he bosses around “a pretty, buxom blonde…bringing [him and the narrator] cold meat and eggs for [their] tea.” (page 9) This is Bion’s -K and reversible perspective: Severin can understand the basic principle of supporting equality, but the specific premises–that one must do what one can to promote equality in one’s day-to-day life–are rejected.

Severin is thus still trapped in the duality of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). He can bear dialectical opposites, Hegel’s thesis and negation, but not the sublation of those opposites, the ambivalent feeling of the depressive position (D). He is by no means cured.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus In Furs, Penguin Classics, London, 1870

Sigmund Freud, 7. On Sexuality, The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, London, 1987

Wilfred Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London, 1963

My Horror Short Story, ‘Bone Cabin,’ In the November Issue of ‘Terror Tract’

I’m thrilled to announce that I have another horror short story of mine to be published in next month’s issue of Terror Tract. The name of my story is “Bone Cabin.” I don’t want to go into any detail as to what the story is about, but let’s just say that when it comes to any place you stay for a vacation, be sure that you won’t be too cramped in…

Other talented writers included in this November 2019 issue are Theresa Scott-Matthews, Cody W. Higgins, John Palisano, Scott Deegan, Howard Carlyle, Dusty Davis, Edmund Stone, David B. Harrington, Andy Rausch, David Niall Wilson, Timothy A. Wiseman, Ryan Woods, Charles Lynne, and Thomas S. Gunther.

Here’s a pre-order link.

So, go out and get a copy of these scary stories. I want to give a great big thank you to Becky Narron for including my story this month. Hugs and kisses to you! 🙂

‘Insidious,’ a Poem by a Friend

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, who also goes by the name Immortal Magpie, wrote this poem about the insidious effects of narcissistic abuse:

Insidiously
You weave your web of lies
Gossamer strands of falsification
Strive to imprison me once more
A myriad of ignoble eyes
Project rose coloured echoes of the past
Evoking flashbacks of tenebrosity and pain

On enlightened wings I rise
Free from the odious taint of your deceit
Familiar to your fallacious words
Impervious to the callous beast
that resides behind the mask

This poem is essentially about her ex-husband’s attempts at hoovering her back into a relationship with him. He’s like a spider, weaving his “web of lies/Gossamer strands of falsification.” I love the musical assonance of these lines, as I do the lyricism and music of the whole poem.

Comparing her narcissistic ex to a spider reminds one of the hubris of Arachne, who boasted that her weaving was better than that of Athena. Just as Athena turned Arachne into a spider for her presumption, Cass’s ex is but a spider in her eyes, one she knows will never weave anything of love for her, no matter how he tries to make her think he will. She won’t ever be imprisoned in those webs again.

“A myriad of ignoble eyes” suggests the ever-watching, invasive eyes of Argus, eyes of judgement we get from narcissists who have few kind words to say to us, but many critical and cruel ones. Still, those eyes “Project rose coloured echoes of the past,” in an attempt to suck her back into the doomed relationship by misrepresenting it as having once been beautiful. She won’t be fooled, though.

“Evoking flashbacks of tenebrosity and pain,” those eyes only trigger painful memories for her, emotional flashbacks that she wants to put behind her forever. Thus ends the first verse, one evoking the pain of the past relationship that she is in danger of being sucked back into. Then comes the second, final, and empowering verse, which looks out into the future.

She flies with “enlightened wings,” knowledge of his true, cruel nature, a knowledge that sets her “Free from the odious taint of [his] deceit.” She is “Impervious to the callous beast/that resides behind the mask” of his narcissistic False Self. That “callous beast” is the lack of love and empathy that he tries to hide behind his fake show of love.

This poem is a delightfully lyrical expression of the pain we can feel in a relationship of narcissistic abuse, as well as the hope of one day putting it all behind ourselves. If you, Dear Reader, have any stories to tell of similar experiences, whether in verse or prose, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll reblog what you write here in a future post. Peace and love! 🙂

‘I Was a Kid,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here is a kind of prose poem that a Facebook friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, wrote several days ago, to express the pain she felt from having an emotionally abusive father. Actually, I think the poem is in verse (note the mid-sentence capitalization that occurs from time to time), but it was presented to me in paragraph form, and I’m presenting it below in the same form for two reasons: first, I don’t know for sure where she wants the lines broken (e.g., for the sake of enjambment), and this damn blog won’t (to my knowledge) allow me to separate lines within the same blocks to make verses, so we’ll have to make do with what’s below.

The poem was originally written in Dutch, but she translated it as you can see below. In it, she expresses her childhood traumas as I recommended to in this post; and as I suggested here–where I called out to all bloggers to share their experiences of narcissistic and emotional abuse–I want to encourage others to share their pain in words, so I can reblog them here. Here’s the poem:

“I was a kid, A happy child, a child that wanted to be loved. There was no space, there was no time, I wasn’t allowed to cry or be myself. I was not allowed to think what I thought or express that hard or soft. Nothing about me was good enough, Only if I did something he asked me. Then I got a little appreciation, A little attention a little time. I thought it was up to me That everyone saw me as a bother, Whenever I said how I felt or said something, there was always a comment on me. Who I had to be and what I had to be, it takes a lifetime to cure this. I now know better who I am and that I know myself a bit. I was always allowed to be there even though I didn’t feel that way, I was still small. And now if something happens or I get tired, the black clouds cover my sky again. Then I feel again that lonely child who did not belong and was not loved. Yet I know that I just had bad luck, that my father went through it himself. Yet that does not make the sadness go away it is perhaps a little easier to bear if I can access it, as I say now. I still feel hatred when I feel bad and someone is standing in front of me. I am mad at all the injustice here. It is my life it is my destiny, I can give my love my heart is not rotten. I understand that people don’t get it when I’m in the middle of it again. That makes it painful because I feel even more distant from everyone else. And indeed I feel very bad because I am not what is expected of me. But in the end what they do is not relevant, I would like to contact even if it is not possible. Don’t blame me for being an instigator if you don’t understand. It only hurts more.”

I think we can all relate to how, “if something happens or I get tired, the black clouds cover my sky again. Then I feel again that lonely child who did not belong and was not loved.” Elsewhere, “I still feel hatred when I feel bad and someone is standing in front of me,” like that inner critic facing us with his frowns. Still, we know there is good in us in spite of how awful we feel: “I can give my love my heart is not rotten.” The trauma of emotional abuse won’t make our feelings rot away–we’ll survive.

I’ve written before about the problem of feeling “even more distant from everyone else.” As for our abusers, remember that “in the end what they do is not relevant”; they do not deserve the consideration our endless rumination gives them. We shouldn’t be blamed “for being an instigator,” for we have to right to give expression to our pain. If we don’t express it…”It only hurts more.”

Please, Dear Readers, put your pain into words. If you’d like me to post your words here, I’ll be glad to, for we all have to help each other. We all need others to validate us. You can put your thoughts in the comments section, and I’ll quote them in a future post. Peace! 🙂

Analysis of ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is considered one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. It is a scathing critique of the materialism and hypocrisy of the so-called ‘American Dream‘ as embodied in the Roaring Twenties (a time to which current levels of income inequality are often compared) and the Jazz Age, and therefore of American capitalism in general.

A number of movie adaptations have been made of the story over the years, most notably the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan; and also the 2013 version with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy. I’ve included links to a few YouTube videos of scenes from both of these film versions below.

Here are some famous quotes:

Chapter 1

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘”Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” –Nick Carraway, the narrator

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

“All right.[…] I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” –Daisy, on her daughter

Chapter 2

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

Chapter 6

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
–Nick and Gatsby, on Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy

He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken.

Chapter 7

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

Chapter 8

Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night. “God sees everything,” repeated Wilson. –Wilson talking about the billboard outside his window

Chapter 9

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. –closing lines

A pervasive myth in the US is this notion of ‘the American Dream,’ as personified in Daisy in the story. Apparently, it doesn’t matter where one is born on the social ladder: if one works hard enough, one can rise to the top. Given the reality of class, as it has always existed in the US, right from the time of the Founding Fathers and the creation of the Constitution, every bit as much as elsewhere in the world, we can see what nonsense this fantasy of upward mobility is.

Even the wealth and success of Gatsby cannot disprove this disillusioning reality, for when he’s murdered, he is publicly despised (no one other than his father and Nick attends his funeral), not only because he takes the blame for the manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson, but because he has acquired his wealth through the illegal practice of bootlegging during the Prohibition years (the Prohibitionists themselves a much-misunderstood political movement). Though the capitalist accumulation of wealth through the exploitation of workers–that is, in the conventional way–may be legal, it’s no less immoral than Gatsby’s way.

Nick has received advice from his father not to judge those in the world who haven’t had the advantages he’s had; but by the end of the novel, he can easily judge Tom and Daisy Buchanan–the latter actually being guilty of Myrtle’s killing–since these two have had all the advantages of being from the upper classes. The “fundamental decencies [are] parcelled out unevenly at birth.” (page 1, my emphasis)

Many working class Americans admire Donald Trump as an ‘anti-establishment president’ embodying the American Dream, but they ignore that he was born into wealth. His grandfather made the family fortune, and the Donald claimed his father gave him “a small loan of a million dollars” to start out when he was young, which isn’t true, incidentally; but even if it were, the average Third World sweatshop worker (some of whom work like slaves for Ivanka) would kill to have that much money to start a business. This inequality is what we socialists mean by class privilege.

The Carraways embody this class privilege, too, since Nick’s “grandfather’s brother…sent a substitute to the Civil War” (page 2). Nick goes East to learn the bond business, and has “bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.” (page 3)

Nick lives in a house in a fictional area on Long Island, New York, called “West Egg,” and on the other side of the bay, “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water” (page 4). These two oval-shaped formations of land are the eggs that begin the life of this story.

Daisy and Tom, when Nick meets them in East Egg, almost immediately display their upper class arrogance: she shows her contempt of those in West Egg, and Tom blatantly reveals himself to be a white supremacist (page 10), right at a time, incidentally, when fascism was emerging in Europe. Recall elsewhere when Tom says, “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” (page 99)

Tom is especially obnoxious: he’s arrogant, aggressive, and obscenely wealthy (having “brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest” to Long Island–page 5), and we learn soon enough that he has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, whom he hits for daring to say his wife’s name (page 27). But it turns out that Daisy will have an amour of her own–Gatsby, who gazes out at a green light (where the Buchanans’ home is, far off across the water from his mansion).

The colour green is appropriate–the green of greenbacks. Money, accumulated in large enough amounts, it would seem, is the ticket of entry into the world of the upper classes. Since Daisy personifies ‘the American Dream’ in this story, and Gatsby so yearns for her, we can see why he’s gazing far off at that minute green light.

Myrtle lives with her poor husband, George Wilson, in a place between West Egg and New York City referred to as “the valley of ashes.” (page 17) The place is actually Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, which in the 1920s was a kind of dumping ground of ash and waste; but since Myrtle is struck dead by Gatsby’s car on the road there, and since George shoots and kills Gatsby in revenge for his wife’s death, then kills himself, making “the holocaust…complete” (page 125), I can’t resist associating this “valley of ashes” symbolically with Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, where burnt offerings of sacrificed children were given.

Both Gatsby and Myrtle are sacrificed, as it were, by Tom and Daisy, who carry on their upper class existence without repentance–hence Nick’s contempt for both of them at the end of the story. In this story, sacrifice isn’t about giving up something valuable in order to get something better: here, it is just ceremonial murder.

Gatsby, as the man who rose to wealth and has fallen by the end of the story (rising and falling is a motif expressed over and over again, in different forms, throughout the novel), is a kind of Christ for capitalism. He takes the blame for Daisy’s manslaughter of Myrtle (page 110), just as Christ died for our sins; then “Gatsby turn[s] out all right at the end” (page 2), which suggests at least a symbolic resurrection. He rose to wealth, died, and–so to speak–rose again.

[Fitzgerald published this novel four years before the stock market crash of 1929, but he seems to have been a prophet, seeing how overconfident people were in the Twenties, buying now and paying later. He saw how the economy rose and rose…he must have known it would fall. In any case, a casual reading of economic history would have informed him of the many economic crises that had already plagued the US over the centuries, enough to inform him that another one was coming soon.]

Gatsby’s mansion is his church, where he is the host of wild parties, his Mass. Heavy drinking goes on there; such drinks as champagne are his sacramental wine. As a bootlegger, Gatsby is saying to his guests, “Drink…This is My blood…” (Matthew 26:27-28). In the “hilarity” of these parties, we see a fusion of the Eucharist with Dionysian revelry.

Zagreus was a version of Dionysus (whom some ancients identified with Yahweh) who was killed, cooked, ceremoniously eaten (as are the wafers of the Host), and who rose from the dead. The Eucharist (drinking Christ’s blood and eating His flesh) is believed to have been derived from ancient pagan cannibalism; certainly the pagan Romans persecuted Christians out of a belief that Communion was cannibalism.

Nick refers to Gatsby as his host a number of times in Chapter 3, which vividly describes one of these parties; on one occasion, after “the first supper” (!), Nick and Jordan are “going to find the host” (page 33), which sounds–in this context–rather like trying to find Jesus, in this story, the Christ of wealth.

The “premature moon,” which has been “produced like the supper,” (page 32) has “risen higher” at “midnight [when] the hilarity ha[s] increased” and “happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky” (page 35). The moon is associated with lunacy, in this case Dionysian lunacy. Towards the end of the party, the moon is described as a “wafer…shining over Gatsby’s house,” and later in the same paragraph, Gatsby is once again referred to as “the host” (page 41).

When Nick meets Gatsby, the latter says to him, “I’m not a very good host.” Of course not: he’s a Christ for capitalism. The Great Gatsby-Christ does, however, confer his grace on you: “He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” (page 36)

Passages of this sort, among other Biblical allusions, abound in the story. Recall when “Owl Eyes [is] washing his hands of the whole matter.” (page 40) Earlier, there’s a reference to a magazine named Simon Called Peter. (page 21)

Gatsby is from a poor family in rural North Dakota; but he considers himself “a son of God” (!) and narcissistically aspires to something better. His wish to marry Daisy is thus like Christ’s love of His bride, the Church. Not only must she love Gatsby, though, she must also say she’s never loved her husband, Tom–rather like how the sinner must completely renounce his life of sin in order to be saved.

Gatsby’s fantasies of upward mobility, as opposed to the Buchanans’ already established class status, are like the right-wing libertarian’s dreams of striking it rich through the “free market,” as opposed to the way capitalism establishes wealth in the real world–through the protection of the bourgeois state and its laws…through class.

Gatsby as a nouveau-riche has made his fortune in a lawless manner, by selling booze as a mafia-capitalist during Prohibition. He is thus regarded as scum by Tom and the upper-class establishment. The Prohibitionists were opposed to the capitalist exploitation of alcoholism, of getting rich off of drinkers’ addiction; they weren’t so much priggish opponents of having fun, as popularly assumed. On the other side of the coin, the scorning of Prohibitionists as liberty-denying prigs was more out of a wish to continue profiting from the sale of liquor than from promoting ‘liberty.’

For these people, ‘liberty’ is really just licence to be selfish. Such ‘liberty’ is also seen in the taking of mistresses, which contrary to the denials of those into polyamory, just fuels jealousy, as we see mutually between Daisy and Myrtle over Tom, and between him and Gatsby over Daisy. Class differences intermingle with these jealousies, too–not just between aspiring Gatsby and Tom, but also between Myrtle and Daisy, the former being ashamed of her poor husband, George Wilson.

Gatsby idealizes not only the class status of Daisy, whose “voice is full of money” (page 92); he also idealizes the past–namely, his past with her prior to the war. He imagines, in his utterly quixotic way, that he can bring back that pristine past–the same way the market fundamentalists, wilfully ignorant of how capitalism has metastasized from its nineteenth-century, free competition form into the monopolistic, imperialistic finance capitalism that it has been for over a hundred years, imagine they can bring back the old laissez-faire of the past.

Gatsby’s love affair with Daisy, years prior to the beginning of the novel, was a kind of absolute jouissance that was taken from him when he had to fight in World War One. Having returned from the war, he’s hoped to reunite with her, but his hopes have been shaken from learning she’s married Tom. The happiness he had with her prior to the war is what Lacan would have called Gatsby’s objet petit a (“little-a object,” a standing for autre, “other“), the object-cause of his unfulfillable desire. He hopes his reunion with her will bring back that unrealizable joy, that excess of jouissance.

Gatsby has a lack, a void or hole in his life that he imagines Daisy will fill for him, when of course she can never do that, since she’s married to Tom and, in class terms, she’s out of Gatsby’s league, in spite of his newly-acquired wealth.

James Gatz has changed his name to Jay Gatsby, hoping this change in words will help change who he is. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Gatsby, and the Word was Gatsby. And the earth was waste and void, just as Gatsby has a void he needs Daisy to fill.

He takes the blame for Daisy’s having killed Myrtle with his car; for Gatsby so loved the girl that he gave his one and only life, that her reputation shall not perish but carry on living. His lack, his void, is the poor world he’s ashamed to have been born in. As a ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaire,’ he has this embarrassment as his objet petit a, which causes him to desire Daisy, marriage with whom will be his ticket to the upper classes.

Is his love for Daisy based on a transference of Oedipal feelings for his mother? Does Daisy’s voice, so “full of money,” remind him of his mother’s voice from when he was a child? We have no way of knowing, and it very well may not be; but even if there is no literal Oedipal connection, the relationship between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom can be seen as at least symbolically Oedipal.

In this scenario, Gatsby is the ‘son’ (recall that he’s “a son of God”), Daisy Buchanan is the ‘mother’ (with whom he’s had unrestrained jouissance before the war, as an infant has had with its mother before the Oedipal conflict begins), and Tom Buchanan is the ‘father,’ whose nom (or Non!) forbids the love of the first two.

Since Gatsby is ashamed of his humble beginnings, we can imagine him, in all likelihood, having grown up with a family romance, in which he has dreamed of being born to aristocratic parents. “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people–his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.” (page 75) Thus, his “Platonic conception” of being “a son of God” is an immaculate conception, in which his idealizing of Daisy, the American Dream personified, makes her a symbolic Madonna.

The Oedipal love in this family romance could have been unconsciously transferred onto Daisy and Tom. Just as Jesus was born into a humble setting, yet said to be “made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God…” (Romans 1:3-4), so has James Gatz been declared Jay Gatsby, “a son of God.”

Thus, Gatsby’s time of jouissance with Daisy before the war is like a baby’s time of narcissistic mirroring with its idealized mother, Lacan’s Imaginary, as I’ve described it elsewhere. In this scenario, Jesus Gatsby, if you will, is with Daisy the Madonna. The mythography of Mary, mother of Jesus, was influenced by mythology (or, at least, iconography) involving pagan couplings of mother goddesses (or virgin mortals) and their divine sons/(sometimes) lovers. Gatsby, as a “son of God,” is an expression of James Gatz’s grandiose self, and Daisy, as a symbolic Virgin Mary, represents an idealized mirror reflecting that narcissism back to him.

Law and custom must break up that narcissistic relationship, though: hence, Gatsby’s leaving Daisy to fight the war. This represents a leaving of the Imaginary to enter the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and society–no more one-on-one relationship with a mother/lover figure. One must embrace the world and know humanity in general.

Gatsby has his parties, but he doesn’t drink with his guests. His only reason for socializing with Nick is to get him to arrange a meeting with Daisy, the one person he wants to connect with, to revive that one-on-one, narcissistically mirrored relationship.

In Gatsby’s confrontation with jealous Tom in the Plaza Hotel (Chapter 7), we see the symbolic Oedipal hostility between ‘son’ (Gatsby) and ‘father’ (Tom). It isn’t enough for Gatsby to have Daisy love him, and for her to have formerly loved Tom: she must never have loved Tom, just as a child wants Mommy to love only him, and never Daddy. Such is the child’s narcissistic, self-absorbed state, to have Mommy all to himself and for her to be his entire world, an extension of himself. Gatsby wants the same from Daisy: his petit objet a demands this unrealistic, impossible thing from her.

“There is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” Lacan once enigmatically said. What he meant by that, apart from his usual verbiage about language and ‘signifiers,’ was that love, in the sense of finding an ideal, life-long mate, is an illusion. Shortly after we get married, the romance dies out, and we become disillusioned with, bored with, or even fed up with our partner. For many, religion, tradition, and/or custom are the only things that stop them from divorcing.

This disillusion is what we see in the marriages of the Buchanans and the Wilsons: hence, Tom’s and Myrtle’s affair, then that of Gatsby and Daisy. Still, keeping the ‘sacred’ institution of marriage intact is all-important to Tom, in spite of his philandering, since the preservation of that institution is part of what holds society together, which for him includes protecting his class and racial privileges. (Recall his racist remark about miscegenation on page 99.)

One should recall what Marx had to say about the bourgeois institution of marriage in this regard: “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion, than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

“For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.

“Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others’ wives.

“Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident, that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” The Communist Manifesto, II–Proletarians and Communists

In sum, the following illusions are among the crucial ones that keep class conflict, in its current capitalist form, an undying problem: the unattainable, yet still ever-desired American Dream; racial superiority; bourgeois marriage; narcissism, and the Church. That love is expressed through adultery is more of a sign of alienation than any other.

George Wilson imagines God’s eyes seeing everything, but He did nothing to save the Wilsons’ marriage, let alone Myrtle’s life. The gigantic, God-like eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg watch over everything in the valley of ashes (page 17), yet like the God of the Church, they don’t do anything to intervene in the mayhem caused, to prevent the tragedy; thus they are rather like the aloof, yet watching eyes of the ruling class.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Collins Classics, London, 1925

Analysis of ‘The Time Machine’

The Time Machine is a science fiction novella written by H.G. Wells and published in 1895. The novella has spawned three movies and two TV adaptations, and the idea of time travel in general has inspired the premises of many popular sci-fi stories, films, and TV shows. His story is a warning that the future doesn’t necessarily bring progress.

Here are some quotes:

“There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives…Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter I, pages 2 and 3

“Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter IV, page 36

“We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!” –The Time Traveller, Chapter IV, page 39

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter X, page 97

The novel begins with a group of men in the house of a man known only as “the Time Traveller,” who discusses the topic of his given namesake. Indeed, most of these men (except one named Filby) are referred to by their professions (“the Psychologist,” “the Provincial Mayor,” “the Medical Man,” etc.) rather than by their names: it’s as though their professions are somehow more important than who they are as people; since Wells was a socialist (more of a social democrat, really–contrast his notions of socialism with those of Stalin, with whom he would, decades after the publication of this novella, have an interesting conversation), his labelling most of the men by profession seems a comment on the social alienation inherent in capitalism.

The Time Traveller discusses the fourth dimension of time with the other gentlemen, speaking of time as if it could be measured on a plane: one can go up and down in length, or side to side in breadth, or back and forth in depth, on planes of the first three dimensions; but imagine going back and forth in time, or skipping points in time, instead of just following time forward, second by second, an eternal now emerging from the past and disappearing into the future, in only that direction.

The following Thursday, the Time Traveller is to meet with some of those men (including the first person narrator) and a few new ones (“the Editor,” “the Doctor,” “the Journalist,” etc.); but when he arrives, he walks with a limp, his coat is “dusty and dirty,” with a cut on his chin, “his hair disordered,” and his face is “ghastly pale…his expression…haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering.” (page 15) He’s just returned from the remote future, a harsh world in which he’s had some traumatizing experiences. Therefore, when he tells the men his story, we must keep in mind how distraught he is; and so his emotional state, among other things, will distort his perception of the events of the future.

The men are incredulous, of course, but willing to hear his story. So, the first-person narrator is giving the account based on his recollection of the Time Traveller’s words.

Frequently, if not typically, a first-person narration is unreliable, at least to some degree, since the narrator is incorporating, consciously or unconsciously, his own biases; but here we have the first person narrator (seeming to be socialist Wells: recall his enthusiastic remark, “To discover a society…erected on a strictly communistic basis.” [page 6]) giving an account based on another first-person narration, so in this story we have not one, but two biases!

These biases seem to be contradictory opposites, one with communist beliefs, the other with anti-communist leanings (those of the Time Traveller). In fact, a major theme of this novella is dualism, or a conflict between contradictory opposites. These include above/below, metaphorical heaven/hell, metaphorical gods/devils, light/darkness, and forward in time vs. backward in time.

The Time Traveller describes the great discomfort he feels from shooting forward in time (page 21; also briefly noted on page 100); this could be seen to symbolize the displeasure often felt by reactionaries when social progress is made; also, the discomfort from this forward movement could symbolize a fear of facing the uncertain future.

He stops the forward movement at the year 802,701. He gets out of the time machine and sees a giant white sphinx. Since he gets the impression that there has been great neglect in the care of his surroundings (e.g., “a long-neglected…garden,” and “suggestions of old Phoenician decorations” that were “very badly broken and weather-worn,” page 30), this sphinx is symbolically comparable to that of ancient Egypt in that this future world seems to be the end of a former great civilization. Great eras of history seem to rise and decline in cycles. (Also, that sphinx will contain the riddle of where his time machine will be moved, when he later discovers it missing.)

Further proof of such a civilizational decline, in his opinion, is when he meets the Eloi, small, curly-haired, simple-minded, childlike people who live in idleness, eating only fruit. He has expected great advances in civilization, knowledge, technology, and strength; but it seems the world has gone backward in many ways.

For the Time Traveller, intellectual growth is driven by the need to survive; the easy living of the Eloi has made them complacent, lazy, and weak. The large, palace-like buildings he sees them living in–with no small houses characteristic of England–suggest the communal living of communism (page 34), of which one suspects he disapproves (Having sat–at the novella’s beginning–with his middle-to-upper-middle class guests in the comfortable chairs he’s invented, and with a housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett, among other servants in his home, the bourgeois Time Traveller would naturally be opposed to socialism.). Elsewhere, he notes how the Eloi seem to have little differentiation in terms of sex, symbolizing the future equality of the sexes.

There’s more to this utopia, this Spenserian bower of bliss, than meets the eye, though. First, after having left the time machine for a while, he returns to where it has been left, only to find it missing! Someone took it? Who? The Eloi are too small to have moved such a heavy machine. Will he be trapped in this strange world forever?

After searching fruitlessly for it in the bushes and elsewhere, he concludes that someone must have hid it in the White Sphinx. Since it cannot have been the puny Eloi who have moved it, there must be another people he hasn’t encountered yet. He also notices wells, connections to the underworld, where he’ll find those other people.

Here, we’ve encountered the main dualism in the story: that of the opposition between the Eloi living above and the Morlocks living below. Their names are puns on, respectively, the Hebrew Elohim (gods), and the pagan god Moloch, this latter god requiring child sacrifices. In other words, the Eloi are being represented as the angelic ‘good’ people, and the Morlocks are being represented as the devilish ‘bad’ people. Given the Time Traveller’s obvious bourgeois liberal biases, however, we shouldn’t be too sure about the accuracy of his portrayal of these two peoples.

At first, he associates the Eloi with the privileged capitalist class, in their indolence and easy living; similarly, he associates the Morlocks with the oppressed proletariat, since they make all the things the Eloi need to live. The emphasis of such a perspective could be due to the biases of the socialist first-person narrator who is recording the Time Traveller’s account (and who could be Wells himself–that is, if he isn’t Hillyer, possibly one of the Time Traveller’s servants, for all we know).

Such a perspective could also accord with the Time Traveller’s initial impressions of the Eloi and Morlocks, though he would judge such a situation with far less sympathy for the Morlocks than Wells (as I’ll call the first-person narrator, for convenience’s sake). For it won’t be long before the Morlocks are portrayed as savagely evil.

The Eloi live up in the light, in their near-Edenic, would-be paradise. The Morlocks live down in the darkness, fearing the light as any demon would. The Morlocks’ underground abode is easily characterized as a symbolic hell. The Eloi are like sweet children of God, for “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

It is only natural that a bourgeois liberal will portray the members of his own class as good, even if flawed morally (recall the Eloi failing to rescue one of their own, Weena, from drowning, thus making the Time Traveller get her out of the water [page 50]). Similarly, the bourgeois will characterize their class enemy, the working class, as dangerous or at least morally inferior. Accordingly, the Time Traveler cannot bring himself to think any kind thoughts about the ape-like, but mechanically-minded Morlocks (Chapters VI and VII, pages 61, 67, and 69).

Recall his judgement of the Morlocks here: “…I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one’s own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.” (page 82)

Even the names of the two peoples I have doubts about with respect to the Time Traveller’s representation of them. He claims to have learned a substantial amount of the Eloi’s language to know the names of the two peoples; but his brief sojourn in their world can only cause one to doubt that he’s learned all that much. So his learning of the peoples’ names, as with all else about them, can easily be tainted by his personal biases.

The horrific thing we learn about the Morlocks is that they apparently practice cannibalism–they come up from underground at night and eat any Eloi they catch. The absence of animals in this future world means that food has become scarce. This is why the Eloi eat only fruit; but why don’t the Morlocks just steal fruit from them at night?

Deprivation of food over long periods can drive anyone to resort to cannibalism. The Time Traveller changes his original position, from that of the Eloi as the capitalist Haves and the Morlocks as the proletarian Have-nots, to one of oppressed Eloi and oppressor Morlocks: that is, the latter provide for the former only because the latter are, as it were, farmers raising the former to slaughter.

While we know of the Morlocks attacking and giving their prey little bites, we know of no explicit evidence that the Morlocks are eating the Eloi, apart from the Time Traveller’s discovery of a meal of flesh underground (page 65). Could it not be the flesh of animals that he, during his brief stay in this future world, has never had the time to find? Those Morlock bites could just be attack bites rather than attempts to eat. Again, his biases against the Morlocks could easily be warping his perception of events.

One possible interpretation incorporating Morlock cannibalism (in a symbolic way) is in Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic. This interpretation fuses the Time Traveller’s (and Wells’s) original capitalist/worker conception with this new ‘farmer/livestock’ one. The Eloi were the masters originally, and the Morlocks were the slaves. Through the Morlocks’ ceaseless work, though, they have gained power, while the Eloi have grown dependent and indolent, causing the power imbalance to reverse itself.

The Time Traveller himself concludes similarly: “I felt pretty sure now that my second hypothesis was all wrong. The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; that had long since passed away…The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back–changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.” (page 70)

The Morlocks’ rising from underground at night can be seen to symbolize a proletarian uprising; they apparently eat the Eloi, just as the poor and deprived will one day have no other recourse than to eat the rich. The Time Traveller, as a bourgeois, naturally sympathizes with the Eloi; he criticizes them only because of their having backslid into apathy and laziness. He sees the necessity of strength, and strength coming from necessity. Such an attitude, of favouring competition over mutual aid–the former forcing one to adapt and to be strong, while the latter (so it is believed) causes one to be weak and complacent–is the conservative underbelly of liberals, which exposes itself whenever their class privileges are being threatened.

The Time Traveller fights off the Morlocks with a club, and uses his matches to build a fire to protect himself and Weena from them. The problem is that the fire he’s set causes a forest fire while he sleeps. In this story, fire–his weapon against the Morlocks–symbolizes civilization and technology; and as we can see, there are both good and bad sides to these two things we tend to regard as only good. Weena seems to have been killed in the fire; he prefers this fate to her having been possibly eaten by the Morlocks–though he doesn’t seem to give much thought to the fact that it is his fire that has killed her. Also, we can see fire as representing how bourgeois civilization and technology destroy the environment. Wells really seems to have seen the future…our real future.

The Time Traveller gets inside the Sphinx, and uses his time machine to escape and go far off into the future. He stops at a time with a black sky, a “salt Dead Sea” (page 103), an “air more rarefied than it is now” (page 102), reddish “monstrous crab-like creature[s]” (page 102), and a “sense of abominable desolation” (page 103). He goes ahead a hundred years from then, and sees “the same dying sea,” feels “the same chill air,” and there is “the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out…” (page 103)

He goes further and further into the future, by thousands of years, to discover ultimately no signs of life except for a “green slime on the rocks” (page 104). After Wells’s allegory of class struggle and violent proletarian revolution, we see the end not only of human and animal life, but of almost all life. Though Wells, of course, wouldn’t have known anything about nuclear war or global warming back in 1895, he seems here to have had the prescience of a time traveler; for he knew that we would have either socialism or barbarism, a world of social justice or our mutual destruction–more dualism.

The Time Traveller returns to his time in that physical and mental state of disarray already noted, such that we should be cautious in assessing the reliability and accuracy of his account. Only those withered white flowers from the future (symbolizing Eloi sweetness and innocence), given to him by Weena, indicate any truth to his story.

The Time Traveller uses his time machine again, never to return to his present. Has he gone into the past, or the future again? Has he returned to the Eloi and Morlocks, perhaps with a hope of either saving Weena from the fire, or avenging the Eloi and killing the Morlocks? Or have they killed him? Since, in his bias against the Morlocks, he’s chosen to resist proletarian revolution, we can see why he no longer has a now.

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, Bantam Classic, New York, 1895

‘Branches,’ a Horror Short Story

The visitor promised the people in town that he wouldn’t go into the forest. The warning they gave, that whoever went in never came out, because of a demonic presence left there by a witch centuries ago, was a silly tale; but to make them feel better, he promised he’d stay away from the trees.

He walked along a trail with bushes to his left and a fence of jagged wood to his right, with lush, tall grasses of yellow and green jutting out from behind it. The sky was a greyish-blue, but still, overall the scenery was too idyllic to pass up enjoying. Fresh air all around him was a balm to his skin.

He approached the shady entrance to the woods, then stopped. It’s the end of the line, he thought. I guess I’d better turn around and go back.

But he didn’t.

How stupid, he thought. It’s just a forest, no magic. What could possibly happen to me in there besides getting lost? The owner of the diner had said, ‘You die in there…yet at the same time, you don’t.’ What’s that even supposed to mean? 

“Forget it. I don’t have time anyway.” He turned around.

He took no more than one step away when he saw a flurry of dollar bills blown past him in the direction of the entry. A few bills flew into his hands…hundred dollar bills.

“Holy shit!” he whispered, then looked back at all the others being blown into the forest. Without thinking, he ran after them.

As he entered the darkness, he managed to grab a few more flying bills. He stuffed them in his pockets and went in further, reaching blindly for more, unable to see. Enveloped in black…His hands managed to find three more bills, then he groped about in the air in all futility, coming up empty.

The wind blew around him, caressing his skin, sounding almost like a whisper. “Oh…no…don’t…”

After reaching and reaching for more bills with no success, he finally gave up. He turned the way he had entered to leave.

Black. Everywhere.

“OK, what the f–”

Something whacked him in the ass, hard. It felt like a thick piece of wood. Not a plank. A branch.

Now he was shaking.

He stood there, rooted in the spot for about ten seconds. His heavy breathing drowned out any intelligibility in the whispering wind he still heard.

What felt like the roughness of bark rubbed against his arm.

“God!” he screamed, then ran in the direction of the way he’d come in, even though he now saw as black a void there as he saw everywhere else. He kept running and running, in the exact same trajectory as the curve of the path into the woods, but he ran at least three times the distance he’d come in from the original point of entry. Still, he kept running that way, in total darkness.

Until a thick tree branch ran him through like a sword.

It entered his gut, level with and to the left of his navel, then out his back to the right of his spine. He shook all over and coughed out blood. The branch lifted him two feet off the ground.

But he never passed out.

Wiry thin branches coiled around his wrists and ankles, tightened their grips, and stretched his limbs out to the point of his shoulders and thighs hurting.

Then the screaming began.

Not his screaming…the wailing of what seemed a million souls trapped in Hell surrounded him, impaling his eardrums.

His arms and legs were being pulled more and more…the pain was unbearable…yet he never lost consciousness!

He’d surely lost enough blood by now to die…yet he was wide awake! He felt a sharp, almost popping pain in his shoulders and femora/pelvis, which had just been dislocated!

Still, he didn’t pass out.

Then he remembered what the owner of the diner said: “You die in there…yet, you don’t.”

His arms and legs were torn off. Piercing screams all around…not his screams, though: he had too much blood clogging his throat to vocalize at all.

What felt like about a dozen thin but strong branches stabbed through his chest and guts, one through his heart.

A vine coiled around his neck, choking him tighter and tighter until it crushed his windpipe. It was torture not being able to breathe, and in his thoughts he begged to die…at least to pass out.

But he wouldn’t.

The vine was pulling his head up, pulling…pulling…until his neck-bone cracked, the flesh there tore, and his head came off.

He didn’t stop feeling the pain all over his body, though, even with his head removed…he was conscious of the pain everywhere.

Branches slashed and stabbed through his severed arms and legs, even making multiple stigmatas, as it were, through his hands and feet.

And he felt it all.

Branches stabbed into his face: two from the top-back poked his eyeballs out. A thick one went in his mouth, punched out most of his teeth, and went through the lower back of his head. Thin branches went up his nostrils, tore up his nose, and stabbed his brain. One branch stabbed into his right ear and went out his left.

Yet he never stopped hearing the screaming.

A branch rammed deep into his rectum and tore his intestines apart. All these impaling branches now moved in diverging directions and tore his head, torso, arms, and legs into pieces.

This was not the end of the tearing…

…and fantastically, he was still as conscious as if he’d been unharmed.

His shattered body parts could ‘see’ as if he had millions of eyes, and ‘hear’ with millions of ears, all the screams of previous victims. All the mutilated pieces of his body were themselves tearing and dividing into smaller and smaller fragments, by some kind of magical power that proved the townspeople right.

He felt his scattered drops of blood divide…painfully. He felt his cells being torn apart…were his atoms splitting apart? His body felt as if it were a nuclear bomb going off.

The only things unbroken were his continued consciousness…and his excruciating pain. The only coming together he felt was that between him and his fellow screaming sufferers, a solidarity of souls in a Hades of pain, endless waves of an ongoing throbbing.

Still, he remained so aware of his surroundings that he and the battalion of the damned he’d joined noticed those hundred dollar bills fluttering yet again into the forest from the once-again sunlit entry. A young woman came in trying to grab those bills. All he and his kindred sufferers could do, with their infinitesimally soft chorus of voices, was whisper, “Oh…no…don’t…”

‘Bloom,’ a Horror Short Story

Muir Cantell stared at the new flower he found in his greenhouse late that night. How did it get there? If his wife, Paula, had brought it in, surely she would have told him about it.

It was a beautiful, but unique flower. He’d never seen this kind of flower ever before, in all his years of gardening. It had silvery-gold, shining petals, with touches of bright red along some of the edges. A silvery gold that made wealth seem like poverty, a red like freshly-shed blood.

The flower seemed to stare back at him as it emerged from the black shadows; the bright petals were a chiaroscuro contrast to their home in the darkness. The petals seemed to speak to him.

Their language was their scent, an alien, dirty smell, but a smell that made him want to stay by the flower more and more, the longer he smelled it.

He watered it lovingly, then left to go to bed in his house beside the greenhouse, wanting to stay with the flower, but also afraid to stay.

***************

The next morning, he and Paula went into the greenhouse to begin the business day of selling flowers. He hurried over to the new flower, while his wife stayed at the other end of the greenhouse, as if trying to avoid the flower. When he reached the corner of the greenhouse where the flower was, he noticed an odd thing.

There were now two flowers.

The second was an identical twin of the first. The smell of the flowers was, as would be expected, twice as powerful as it had been the night before.

“It’s a…miracle,” Muir sighed, and stood before the flowers, almost as if in a trance. “They’re magical.”

He picked up his watering can and poured water on the two flowers, grinning at their glowing beauty.

The petals opened wider to receive the water. The flowers were like mouths that were opening not only to drink the water, but to thank their loving gardener. 

Tiny black seeds, ones as small as sesame seeds, flew out of the centre of both flowers and landed in the soil surrounding them.

“Does this mean I’ll get two more beautiful flowers by the end of the day?” he whispered to the flowers, imagining they could hear his words.

“Hey, Muir!” Paula called from the other side of the greenhouse. “We have customers here! Come on!”

“You handle it, honey,” he said, gazing at his flowers. “I’m busy here.”

“You bastard,” she whispered, then turned her frown upside down to meet the customers. “So, Helen, what can I do for you today?”

“What are those flowers your husband is so interested in?” Helen asked. “He looks as if he’s under a spell.”

“Something we got recently. They sure are pretty, but–I don’t know, there’s something about them…”

Muir pulled himself away from the flowers and rushed over to where Paula and Helen were.

Wow, he thought, I mustn’t let myself be around those two beauties for too long. They have some kind of hold on me. He went past the two women without saying a word.

“Good,” Paula said, assuming he was going to serve the other customer there, a man in his thirties looking at some orchids. “It’s about time you did your jo–hey, where ya goin’?”

Muir ran out of the greenhouse.

“What?” the male customer said. “I thought he was going to–”

“So did I,” Paula said. “Maybe he needs to use the bathroom. Well, I guess I have to take care of you both myself. Do you want some orchids today, Mr. Gadd?” 

“Yes, Mrs. Cantell,” he said. “But what about those flowers your husband was obsessing over?”

“Yeah, what about them?” Paula asked, then all three of them went over to those two flowers.

When they came within smelling distance, the dirty reek was overwhelming. The three tilted their heads back and said, “Whoa!” at the same time.

“They are pretty flowers, but that smell,” Helen said. “It kind of pulls you in and pushes you away at the same time.” She held her nose, but kept looking at them.

“All they do is push me away,” Mr. Gadd said, squinting and holding his nose. “They’re a dangerous beautiful. It feels like they’re pulling you in to destroy you.”

“I agree,” Paula said, frowning and looking askance at them. “I remember just one flower. Muir seems to have sneaked another flower in here.” She looked closer before wincing. “And what’s that little stem in the…”

“What are you doing?” Muir shouted as he rushed back to the flowers, pushing his wife and Mr. Gadd to the side to get back to his darlings. “Don’t touch them!”

“Muir, what’s the matter with you?” Paula asked.

“Well, they are lovely,” Helen said. “You just have to get used to the smell. I’d like to buy one.”

“They aren’t for sale,” Muir said. “They’re mine.”

“Honey,” Paula said. “You and I are going to have a talk about those flowers later.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he said, gesturing to them to go away. He looked down at the soil in anticipation. He was practically salivating.

Paula and Mr. Gadd walked away with furrows of worry on their brows. Helen followed, but was looking back at the flowers from time to time.

“Paula?” she asked. “Before I go, could I please borrow your purple hat? I’d like to take it to the haberdasher to have him help design a copy for me. Your hat is so unique, and so pretty. May I copy it, please?”

“Sure,” Paula said. “As soon as we’re done here with Mr. Gadd, I’ll take you over to the house and give it to you.”

“Thanks,” Helen said.

Muir just kept grinning and staring at his flowers, and at the soil where the seeds had fallen and sunk into.

On either side of the two flowers, he saw two little thin stalks growing.

******************

As soon as the greenhouse was empty of customers, which was a mere twenty minutes after Helen and Mr. Gadd left, Paula walked over to Muir, who was still watching the flowers. He was gazing at them in his usual, grinning daze.

“OK, Muir, what’s with you and those flow–” she began, then froze with widened eyes.

There were now four fully-grown flowers.

“Muir, where did you get that flower, the first one, I mean?”

“I didn’t,” he said, finally looking away from them. “I thought you got it.”

I thought you got it,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” He stepped back from the flowers, and turned his smile upside-down. “Who gave them to us, or rather, what did?”

“Let’s get away from them,” she said, taking him by the arm and pulling him back. “The smell is awful. That flower–those flowers–are giving me the creeps. How could two new flowers have grown out of nowhere so quickly?”

“Three new flowers. The second grew late last night.”

“My God. I’ve never seen that kind of flower in my life.”

“Nor have I. They’re a gift from heaven.”

“Or a curse from hell. In any case, they’re something completely alien. They’re…scary. Let’s throw them away. Let’s kill them.”

“No!” he shouted, picking up a trowel and aiming it at her heart. He scowled at her like a vicious dog, baring a few teeth like fangs; the hand holding the trowel was shaking.

Her whole body was now shaking.

The whites of almost all her eyeballs, it seemed, were showing as she stared at that trowel, then at his own wild eyes. Her eyes didn’t see her husband anymore, for his eyes weren’t the eyes of her husband–she was sure of that.

“Who…are you?” she almost sobbed, then ran out of the greenhouse and back home.

He looked down at the trowel he’d just threatened his wife with. “Indeed,” he gasped. Tears were soaking his eyes. He ran out after her, wanting to scream out an apology, but too ashamed to speak.

*****************

He’d been lying in bed, shaking, for the rest of the day. He was pale. An itch made him want to go back to the flowers…to see if they were safe and healthy, but he didn’t dare, for he sensed what they were doing to him, and making him like what they were doing.

Paula had been sitting on the sofa all day, rocking back and forth, but relieved that at least he understood he’d flipped his lid, and was staying away from the flowers. By the evening, she was finally starting to calm down.

Then Helen knocked on the front door. Paula answered the door.

“Yes, Helen,” she said with a smile to hide her fear. “Are you finished with my hat?”

“No, not yet,” Helen said. “It’s about those flowers. I know your husband doesn’t want to sell any of them, but I just must have one. I’ll pay you any amount he wants.”

“Well…they’re rather dang–I mean, I have a bad feeling about…” She looked up to the second-floor bedroom and thought about Muir, who, for all she knew, was much better now. “Well, maybe we can spare one flower and see what happens.”

Paula led Helen out to the greenhouse. When they reached the far corner where the new flowers were, they saw eight of them. The smell was overpowering.

“Are you sure you want one?” Paula asked Helen. “They smell awful. Oh!

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Helen said. “If I grow only one, I should be able to tolerate the smell. They’re just so pretty and colourful.”

“OK, but you may find yourself with more than one flower, and sooner than you know. There’s something spooky about…”

“Oh, they’re just flowers. I can kill them if I don’t like them. But I must have one. I’ll give you $20 for one.” Helen held out a $20 bill for Paula, who took it.

“Well, OK,” Paula said. “Pick whichever one you like, not that there’s any variation between–”

Helen had already snatched one and run out of the greenhouse without even saying good night to Paula.

Well, Paula thought, at least we got rid of one of them. Muir won’t miss a flower he never saw grow, surely.

*****************

The next morning, Muir felt unable to stand staying away from his precious flowers anymore, so he ran out to the greenhouse to check up on them.

I saw four seeds fly out of my flowers after I last watered them, he thought as he approached them. I should see eight now. “What?” he shouted. “Only seven?”

He watered the remaining seven with feverish speed, watched seven little black seeds fly out and land in the surrounding soil, then ran back to the house. He found an axe in the basement, then looked up to the ground floor. He was gritting his teeth.

“Paula?” he called up to her. “Come down here.”

“What is it?” she said in a shaky voice as she began descending the stairs. He held the axe behind him as she continued down to the basement. “Are you feeling any better?”

“You sold one of my flowers, didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t,” she said with a twitch.

“Don’t you lie to me! There should have been at least eight flowers in that corner of the greenhouse, where I reserved all that extra soil for my flowers. There are only seven there now. You sold one. It’s the only explanation.”

“Muir, if you can replace the flowers so easily with new ones, what do you care if you give up one or two? We could make a lot of money with them. Helen gave us twenty dollars for the one I sold her. She was as crazy about them as you are.” Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she presented the money in a trembling hand. “Here, I’ll give you her money. Every one of those flowers that we sell, you can have all the money made from them. I won’t take a cent of it.”

He clenched his bared teeth and brought the axe out front. He started walking towards her.

“Muir…what are you doing?” She stepped back with spastic legs. “I-I think, you’re losing your…you need to see a…doctor. The flowers are doing this to you.”

“You sold my flower,” he growled, raising the axe over his head. “Now I have to get it back from her, and that won’t be easy. It’s your fault.”

“Muir, my God! Don’t! No!

He brought the axe down on her head, chopping it right down the middle, separating her cerebral hemispheres and spraying her blood everywhere.

****************

After showering and changing his clothes, Muir drove over to Helen’s house down the street. He had a small knife in his jacket pocket.

Her husband was at work, and their kids were all at school. She was at home alone. He rang the doorbell.

“Mr. Cantell,” she said as she approached the door. She opened the screen door and let him in. “Are you here about the flower, or Paula’s hat? I know you didn’t want to part with any of them, but I loved them so much that I just had to have one.” 

“Oh, that’s OK,” he lied. “I’d just like to see it one last time, if you don’t mind.”

She led him to the back of the house, where she had the flower.

“There it is,” he sighed, his heartbeat slowing down.

“Yes,” she said with a grin as wide as his. “It is so beautiful, and if you look…” she stepped in front and pointed at the surrounding soil with a trowel, “…a new flower is beginning to grow. See the thin, green stem?”

“Yes, I do,” he said as he pulled the knife out of his pocket. He slowly brought it over to her neck.

“These flowers are a gift that keeps on giving, aren’t they?” she said, still gawking at the flower with dazed eyes and a toothy smile as his knife reached a centimetre or two from her throat.

“Yes, but only one person can have them,” he said.

“You’re right,” she said. Me!

She spun around and stabbed him in the gut with the trowel. He’d only managed to slice a shallow, thin red line along the back of her neck.

He fell to the floor with a thud; only the handle of the trowel was sticking out of his stomach. A pool of blood surrounded his body in a growing circle.

She grabbed a nearby tissue and pressed it against her neck to stop the blood. Then she squatted down. “I knew you’d kill your wife for selling me the flower, and that you’d want to kill me for taking it from you,” she said. “Such is the power those flowers have over us. But now that you Cantells are gone, I can take over the greenhouse, and have all the flowers to myself. Oh, don’t worry: I won’t sell any of them.”

She cleaned up the basement, wrapped his body in old, dirty blankets, then took it out to his car, checking to make sure no one was around in the neighbourhood: everyone was either at work or at school, and the only other housewife of their area, a gossipy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Granville, lived far off on the other end of the street, to the far side of the greenhouse; so Helen figured she was safe from being seen.

She had his car keys, put on Paula’s hat, then drove away to a forest out of town to bury the body there. She drove back the Cantells’ house and found Paula’s body in the basement. 

Showing no emotion at the gory sight of the body (for owning those flowers was infinitely more important to her), Helen disposed of it near Muir’s.

Now the greenhouse was hers.

*****************

When the neighbours wondered why Helen was running the Cantells’ greenhouse business, her excuse was that Muir and Paula had suddenly decided to take a vacation, since they’d been stressed lately. The neighbours were suspicious of Helen running the business in place of the Cantells, since she had no experience in gardening or selling flowers. What’s more, Helen was more interested in watching over those new flowers, which by now numbered over thirty, than selling the others, which were dying from neglect. 

When the customers realized Helen had no intention of selling any of the new flowers, which soon became the vast majority of those in the greenhouse, they all left with frowns.

Mr. Gadd stopped by a week after the murders, and found himself concerned not so much from the change from the Cantells’ to Helen’s management, but about how identical her attitude was to Muir’s.

And the smell of that greenhouse, now with only the identical-looking flowers, put him in a staggering daze once he’d entered.

As he walked back to his car, his staggering changing into normal walking after about ten seconds from exiting the greenhouse, he saw Mrs. Granville sitting on her porch, her mouth in a permanent pout and her eyes and ears out like antennae. 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Gadd,” she called out to him.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Granville,” he said, then put a small plastic bag in his glove compartment.

“Why didn’t you buy any flowers today?” she asked.

“None to buy that are of interest to me,” he said.

“What about all those pretty new flowers they have, the ones that all look like clones of each other?”

“You mean the silvery-gold-red ones? That’s all they have now. Over fifty of them, I’d say.”

“Well, why not buy one of those?”

“Nah. I don’t like them.”

“I don’t blame you. They all stink. They’re evil, too.”

“That’s the feeling I’ve always had of them. They have an evil charm.”

“C’mere, Mr. Gadd,” she said with a sly smirk and squinted eyes. “I’ll bet I know something you don’t about what’s going on over there.”

“What’s that?” he asked as he approached her porch.

“Y’know how Helen’s supposed to be watching over the greenhouse while the Cantells are in Florida?”

“Yeah, I heard. There’s no way they can afford a two-week vacation in Miami Beach.”

“Well, I remember seeing Helen buy one of those evil flowers, when none of ‘em were supposed to be for sale. She also borrowed one of Paula’s hats, her purple one, the day before she bought that flower. I saw Helen twice driving the Cantells’ car wearing that hat. She’d dragged something big and heavy into the car from the Cantells’ house. Big and heavy enough to be a body.”

“Are you sure?” Gadd asked.

“Yes. I think Helen killed the Cantells to get at those flowers. They’re supposed to return from their ‘vacation’ at the end of next week. I’ll make a million-dollar bet that Helen will still be running the greenhouse business, saying she doesn’t know what happened to the Cantells, then eventually make us believe they were murdered in Miami Beach instead of here.”

“Could be. There’s something about those flowers. Something in the smell. A smell of…covetousness.”

“I agree. That’s what I smelled, and I recoiled instantly upon smelling it. A smell honest people could never stand. You watch Helen over the next week. I sure will.”

“Yes, we should watch her.”

But Helen was watching them from the greenhouse, noting their scowling looks at her.

*****************

Two days later, Mrs. Granville went over to the greenhouse to see what was going on over there. She stood just outside, looking through the glass to see, but not smell, the goings-on inside. 

She gasped at what she saw.

Helen, pale, was swinging a knife at men and women who were trying to take her flowers; worse, the men and women had knives of their own, and stabbed not only at her, but at each other. Helen would need a larger bandage than the one along the back of her neck to cover the bloody gash along her left forearm.

A woman she’d stabbed in the back was lying dead on the floor between her and the other fighting customers, all of whom had cuts and gashes on their arms or legs. All of them ignored the pain, so focused were they on getting control of all the flowers. Some jealously held flowerpots in the arms that weren’t brandishing knives.

Mrs. Granville backed away from the window of the greenhouse when she saw Helen’s scowling eyes aiming murderously at hers. With a shaky hand, she took her cellphone out of her handbag and tried tapping a phone number, grunting in nervous annoyance whenever she tapped any wrong numbers. Finally, she finished dialling.

“Hello?” Mr. Gadd said.

“This is Mrs. Granville,” she said. “The situation with Helen and the flowers is much worse now.”

“How many are there now? In the hundreds?”

“Yes, but that’s not the worst part. She and several customers are swinging knives at each other, trying to take over the greenhouse and have all the flowers to themselves. One woman’s lying on the floor dead…Oh! I just saw a man stabbed and falling–he must be dead, too. All the others, including Helen, are cut and wounded, but still fighting as if they hadn’t a spot of blood on them.”

“They’re swinging knives at each other in broad daylight?” Gadd asked. “They aren’t worried about cops coming to stop them?”

“Of course not. The flowers have driven them all mad.”

“I’m coming over there.”

“Why? It’s dangerous. I should call the police.”

“No! Not yet. They won’t understand what needs to be done. The flowers must all be destroyed.” He sighed, then continued. “Arresting a few people won’t end this problem. As long as there are flowers, people will fight to have them. I’m on my way. Bye.”

He hung up.

Mrs. Granville watched in helpless horror as the fighting continued. She kept backing up slowly, without noticing the curb as her feet neared it.

A man swung his knife in an arc from right to left, slicing Helen across the guts and tearing them open. Shc buckled and fell to the floor, with parts of her intestines snaking out of the wound, coated in blood.

The man reached for the flowerpot she was holding and caught it before she hit the floor, but a woman stabbed him in the back and snatched the flower from him.

“Aah!” Mrs. Granville screamed not only from the violence, but also from tripping over the curb and hitting the road, hurting her right elbow.

A car raced over and was about to hit her in the face. She screamed, but the car stopped, the bumper just a few inches away from her nose. Mr. Gadd got out of the car and ran over to the greenhouse. He had a container of gasoline. 

He began running around the greenhouse, pouring gasoline all along the perimeter. Once he’d finished his tour around the greenhouse, he flicked a cigarette lighter and reached down to the ground.

“Oh, my God!” she said, moaning in pain as she fought to get back on her feet. She limped back to her house, saying, “Still, if those people are mad enough to kill each other over that devil of a flower, maybe they should all burn in the hell of their greed.”

She reached her porch. By the time she’d sat down, rubbing her elbow, she saw a rectangle of fire surrounding the greenhouse. Gadd raced back to his car and drove off.

One woman, the one who’d stabbed Helen’s killer in the back, was the sole survivor of the knife fight…though she wouldn’t survive much longer. 

The flowers by the glass were bursting into flame. As they burned, they made a chorus of squeals so shrill and ear-piercing, they made the screeching violins of horror movie soundtracks seem soothing.

More and more flowers burned and screamed. The woman joined in the screaming as the flames moved further and further inside, inching closer to her and the three flowerpots she was squeezing to her chest in a futile effort to protect them.

“No!” she screamed. “My flowers! They’re dying!”

By the time a fire truck and police cars had arrived, she and all the flowers had burned to a crisp.

Still on her porch and watching everything, Mrs. Granville called Mr. Gadd on her cellphone again.

“Are all the flowers dead?” he asked her.

“Every last one of them, thank God,” she said. “The last surviving woman in that fight perished, too. So awful.”

“Yeah. I feel bad about having caused such a loss of life, but you know as well as I do that those flowers had to be killed, to stop the cycle of human violence. Sometimes you have to make difficult sacrifices to avoid worse suffering.”

“I agree. She was a killer for those evil flowers, so I don’t feel much sympathy for her. Honest people like you and me would never allow ourselves to covet those flowers. Don’t worry, Mr. Gadd, I won’t tell the police what you did.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Granville,” he said. “Well, I have a few things to do, so if you’ll excuse me, we can discuss the rest of this later, OK?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “We both need a rest from all of this violence. Goodbye, Mr. Gadd.” They hung up.

Mr. Gadd took the little bag out of the glove compartment of his car and went over to his garden.

Now that there aren’t any more of those flowers around elsewhere, I’ll feel safe doing this, he thought. I hated having to kill all of them, but sometimes you have to make great sacrifices to avoid worse violence.

He opened the bag and sprinkled little black seeds on the soil.

My Short Story, ‘Violation,’ in the Horror Anthology, ‘Dig Two Graves, Vol. II’

Dig Two Graves: An Anthology Vol. II–Kindle edition by Death’s Head Press is now published! I have an erotic horror short story, ‘Violation,’ included in it. It’s about a group of young men who gang rape and murder a woman in the woods (or so they think), then realize they’ve gotten themselves into something supernatural and surreal, and a revenge ensues to make I Spit On Your Grave seem mild in comparison. That’s all I’m telling for now; you’ll have to read for yourself to find out how they get what’s coming to them.

Other great stories included in the anthology were written by Wesley Southard, Cameron Trost, Gerri R. Gray, Gary Power, Delphine Quinn, M. Ennenbach, Jack Bantry, Charlotte Platt, Cameron Kirk, Susan E. Abramski, Mark Lumby, Lucas Milliron, David L. Tamarin, Lori Tiron-Pandit, Pete Mesling, G. Allen Wilbanks, Thomas Vaughn, Sergio “ente per ente” Palumbo, Duane Bradley, David Owain Hughes, and Betty Rocksteady.

I want to show my appreciation to Death’s Head Press for including my story in their new anthology! If you love horror fiction, Dear Reader, I hope you’ll go out and get your hands on this collection of scary stories!

Analysis of ‘The Tempest’

The Tempest is a play Shakespeare is believed to have written around 1610 or 1611; it is therefore probably the last play he ever wrote alone. It isn’t easily categorized: it’s part comedy, part fantasy/romance, part semi-autobiographical (in a metaphorical sense), and part allegory on the European colonization that was current at the time.

A number of interesting film adaptations have been made of The Tempest, including the BBC TV adaptation with Michael Hordern as Prospero, the homoerotic 1979 Derek Jarman adaptation with Toyah Willcox as Miranda, and Julie Taymor‘s 2010 adaptation with Helen Mirren as a female Prospero…’Prospera.’ Other adaptations include the 1991 film Prospero’s Books, with John Gielgud in the title role, and Aimé Césaire‘s Une Tempête, a stage adaptation set in Haiti.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Ferdinand, 
With hair up-staring, — then like reeds, not hair, — 
was the first man that leapt; cried Hell is empty, 
And all the devils are here.
” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 212-215

“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, 
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, 
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me 
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how 
To name the bigger light, and how the less, 
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee, 
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle, 
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile. 
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms 
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! 
For I am all the subjects that you have, 
Which first was mine own king.” –Caliban, I, ii, lines 331-342

“Come unto these yellow sands, 
And then take hands; 
Curt’sied when you have and kiss’d, 
The wild waves whist, 
Foot it featly here and there, 
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 375-380

“Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes; 
Nothing of him that doth fade, 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
Ding-dong. 
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 396-404

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, 
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, 
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak’d, 
I cried to dream again.” –Caliban, III, ii, lines 130-138

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and 
Are melted into air, into thin air; 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on; and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.” –Prospero, IV, i, lines 148-158

“But this rough magic 
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d 
Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — 
To work mine end upon their senses that 
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, 
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound, 
I’ll drown my book.” –Prospero, V, i, lines 50-57

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I; 
In a cowslip’s bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry. 
On the bat’s back I do fly 
After summer merrily. 
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, 
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” –Ariel, V, i, lines 88-94

“O, wonder! 
How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!” –Miranda, V, i, lines 181-184

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown, 
And what strength I have’s mine own, 
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, 
I must be here confin’d by you, 
Or sent to Naples. Let me not, 
Since I have my dukedom got 
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell 
In this bare island by your spell; 
But release me from my bands 
With the help of your good hands. 
Gentle breath of yours my sails 
Must fill, or else my project fails, 
Which was to please. Now I want 
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; 
And my ending is despair, 
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer, 
Which pierces so that it assaults 
Mercy itself, and frees all faults. 
As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
Let your indulgence set me free.” –Prospero, Epilogue

Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was stripped of his dukedom and banished with his daughter Miranda twelve years before the play’s beginning. Gonzalo, a kind and optimistic giver of counsel, gave them provisions so they’d survive on the seas, ultimately arriving on the island where the two have been living since.

His usurping brother Antonio, along with King Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, Stephano the drunken butler, Trinculo the jester, and the king’s son, Ferdinand, have been sailing on a ship at the beginning of the play. They find themselves in the middle of a tempest that Prospero, a sorcerer, has created to cause their ship to crash-land on his island, for he wants to right the wrongs done to him.

In this wrong done to Prospero, we see the main theme of the play: disenfranchisement. Now, his disenfranchisement doesn’t give him the right to do the same to others, which indeed he does. He uses his magic to control a number of spirits, Ariel in particular, who expresses his displeasure at it and demands his freedom (I, ii, lines 242-250). Prospero offers a weak justification for making Ariel his servant by reminding him of how he freed him from a spell the witch Sycorax put on him, having caged him in a tree.

Sycorax, banished from Algiers and subsequently the first colonizer of what’s now Prospero’s island, was undoubtedly cruel in her treatment of Ariel; Prospero’s freeing of the spirit, however, in no way absolves him of similar colonizing and enslaving. Such an absolving would be like saying that the Spanish Empire’s brutal treatment of the natives (of what is now Latin America) makes US imperialism’s subsequent treatment of ‘America’s backyard’ negligibly oppressive–a truly absurd argument.

Mention of Sycorax brings us to a discussion of her son, the deformed Caliban, another native of the island forced by Prospero into servitude. Caliban is a near anagram of cannibal, and a pun on Caribbean; such associations give us a vivid sense of how he is a victim of colonialism, a native denigrated by his oppressor as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savage.’

Indeed, Prospero rationalizes his enslaving of Caliban by claiming originally to have been kind to the grotesquerie, that is, until his attempted rape of Miranda, which he gleefully admits to. Not to excuse Caliban for his scurrilous behaviour, but the degradation of slavery, often with torturous punishments for being slack or slow in service, nevertheless seems a bit much. After all, Prospero’s denigration of Caliban’s bestial nature reminds us of the racism colonialists have used to justify their dehumanizing of the natives they subjugate.

Indeed, for all his faults, Caliban has his virtues, too. He speaks poetically sometimes, as in the above quote from Act III, scene ii, lines 130-138. This quote shows how he is sensitive to the poetic, reminding us of the creativity of indigenous people; colonialists like Prospero make little of natives’ artistic gifts, but kinder souls like Gonzalo show their appreciation of what’s good in people like Caliban. Recall his words in Act III:

“If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?  
If I should say, I saw such islanders—
For, certes, these are people of the island—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note
Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of
Our human generation you shall find  
Many, nay, almost any.” –Gonzalo, III, iii, lines 26-34

Prospero, hearing Gonzalo’s words, agrees with them, but only insofar as they describe the Neapolitans present, whom he describes as “worse than devils.” (III, iii, line 36) He makes no mention of agreement that the natives have virtues. He should also consider including himself among the Neapolitan devils; recall Ferdinand saying that Prospero is “compos’d of harshness.” (III, i, line 9) What must be kept in mind is how Prospero prospers by using others. Wealth causes poverty, and this is especially true of imperialists and neocolonialists in relation to the aboriginals they exploit.

Prospero’s magic exploits nature, e.g. the tempest, to bring Alonso’s ship ashore; this symbolically can remind us of how big business today degrades nature for their gain. Prospero openly admits that he exploits Caliban: he says of his slave, “he does make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/That profit us.” (I,ii, lines 311-313)

Prospero uses his magic on Miranda, putting her asleep (I, ii, lines 184-186); in this way, he controls her sleeping and waking moments to limit her acquisition of knowledge. She and Ferdinand don’t merely fall in love; her father manipulates their meeting, for in their future marriage he hopes to consolidate his power as the restored Duke of Milan. Prospero may be giving up his magical powers, but in return he wants political power.

It can be argued, in fact, that he has never been truly worthy of being a duke; since during the time that he ruled the dukedom, prior to Antonio’s usurpation, he was so absorbed in his books (I, ii, lines 68-77, 89-93) that he cared little for his people. He admits this when he speaks in gratitude of Gonzalo’s help: “Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnished me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” (I, ii, lines 166-168) Note here that “prize” is in the present tense: Prospero admits he still loves his books more than the people of Milan; remember this Freudian slip when we consider his later promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book.”

Yes, he promises to renounce his magic (which we never see him physically do!), and so as the reinstated Duke of Milan, he’ll presumably focus on the needs of his people; but he says that in Milan, his “every third thought shall be [his] grave,” (V, i, line 311) suggesting he’ll still be too self-absorbed and retiring to think about his people.

So, Prospero enslaves and exploits the natives of the island, always promising to free them in the end (though we never see him use his magic to unbind them, so for all we know, these promises could be empty); he manipulates his way back into power, assuming he deserves this reinstatement (though the above two paragraphs put this worthiness in doubt); and he uses his daughter to make a political alliance with the king, manipulating her emotions to make her fall in love with whom he wants her to love.

Thus, in Prospero we see not only an exploitative colonialist, but also a man taking advantage of the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. His cunning is contrasted with the naïveté of his daughter, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Where Prospero is artful, these latter four are artless. Indeed, where there’s a dialectical relationship between wealth and poverty, as noted above (i.e, the one causes the other), there is also such a relationship between ability and inability, between cunning and innocence.

Consider the sweetness and innocence of Miranda. She sees the good in everyone indiscriminately. She has compassion for all the sailing sufferers of the storm; she’s oblivious to how her wicked uncle Antonio is one of the men on the boat. In her naïveté is kindness, in Prospero’s worldly-wisdom…not so much kindness.

Having seen so few people in her life, and assuming goodness in all humanity, she is delighted to see all those men before her at the end of the play (V, i, lines 181-184), rather than mindful of the possibility that a few of them (Antonio and Sebastian) aren’t so “goodly.”

Her artlessness is outdone by the outright stupidity of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. In his drunken stupor, Stephano can’t recognize supine Trinculo’s legs sticking out from underneath Caliban’s gaberdine (being the court jester, Trinculo is presumably wearing distinctive motley colours); instead, he imagines the supine monster Caliban has four legs. Trinculo, having originally assumed that Stephano died in the tempest, later looks the drunken butler in the eyes and has to ask him twice if he’s “not drown’d” (II, ii, lines 100-105). Finally, Caliban, after drinking Stephano’s supposedly divine wine, thinks the drunkard is a god!

In their foolish simple-mindedness, the trio think they can kill Prospero and rule the island. They can’t even avoid falling into a smelly pond, though, Trinculo later complaining of smelling “all horse-piss.” (IV, i, line 199)

Later, once they reach Prospero’s abode, Stephano and Trinculo can’t help but be distracted by the sorcerer’s “frippery.” (IV, i, line 226) The two fools try on Prospero’s clothes while Caliban warns them to focus instead on the plan to kill his hated master. They don’t listen, and Prospero has Ariel chase the fools away with hellhounds.

The way alcohol and fashionable clothes can make fools of people is paralleled today in how such distractions prevent revolutionary action. We today have every bit as much as, if not more than, an imperialist ruling class that mesmerizes the common people with foolish trifles. We’d all usurp the rule of our hypnotizing politicians and rich overlords…except we keep letting ourselves get hypnotized.

Along with the class conflict between rich land-owners and the poor, between the First and Third Worlds as symbolized in the Neapolitans on the one hand, and the island natives and spirits respectively, there’s also conflict between different factions of the ruling class. This latter conflict is evident when Alonso and Gonzalo are put to sleep by Ariel, then Antonio convinces Sebastian to make an attempt on the king’s life.

Later, this group experiences a sensual distraction that is comparable with the wine and finery that dazes the three drunken fools. An illusion of a table covered with a delicious feast is put before the nobles’ eyes. Sweet music is heard. The men prepare to eat, but Ariel appears in the form of a harpy and makes the feast disappear; the scene reminds us of the one in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, when King Phineus of Thrace was tormented with a feast that got ruined by attacking harpies.

This depriving the nobles of a meal reminds one of a modern equivalent in Luis Buñuel‘s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Tantalizing Alonso et al with a meal is punishment for what the king and Antonio deprived Prospero and Miranda of. The illusory meal, as a distraction from important political matters, is also–like wine and “frippery” for Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban–an example of bread and circuses.

The ‘bread’ aspect of Prospero’s distractions was noted in the mirage feast table; the ‘circuses’ aspect, if you will, can be seen in the masque with the singing goddesses (Iris, Ceres, and Juno; IV, i, lines 60-138) presented to Ferdinand and Miranda. Recall how their falling in love has been engineered by her father, who is using their marriage to solidify his power as the reinstated Duke of Milan.

He takes advantage of her scant knowledge of men to make her fall for handsome Ferdinand, “the third man that e’er [she] saw; the first/That e’er [she] sigh’d for.” (I, ii, lines 445-446) Prospero’s test of the boy’s virtue, by enslaving him and making him do essentially Caliban’s work (fetching wood), is a weak test–as if mere diligence were enough to prove Ferdinand’s worthiness of her. It’s ironic how making Ferdinand play the role of Miranda’s would-be rapist should prove him a good husband. Prospero even says to her, “Foolish wench!/To th’ most of men this is a Caliban” (I, ii, lines 479-480).

At the beginning of Act V, Prospero has his disenfranchisers brought near his abode (that is, his “cell”), and he immobilizes them so he can upbraid Antonio and Alonso for their collusion in the usurpation of the dukedom, as well as the former and Sebastian for having conspired to kill Alonso. Prospero speaks kindly of his “true preserver,” Gonzalo, of course; and he recognizes that forgiveness is “rarer” than taking vengeance, so he says he forgives his “unnatural” brother, though we can’t be sure if his heart is in his words.

This making of the nobles to “stand charm’d,” just like Prospero’s making Miranda fall asleep and his ‘bread and circuses’ distractions of everyone again shows the dialectical relationship between his power and the powerlessness of all the others. Prospero promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book” (V, lines 54 and 57), but should we believe he’ll keep his promises? As a duke, he is a kind of politician, and politicians who keep their promises are the exception rather than the rule.

If, Dear Reader, I seem to have too judgemental an attitude towards Prospero, consider the alternative: surely he is aware of the danger of giving up all his powers; one shouldn’t assume he’ll never again be the victim of a conspiracy once “what strength [he has is his] own” (Epilogue, line 2). Antonio and Sebastian are probably still plotting.

Of course, the fact that Shakespeare identified himself, the magic-making playwright, “such stuff/As dreams are made on,” with Prospero suggests that the promise to “abjure” his magic will be kept; after all, the Bard was about to retire from “the great globe itself” shortly after the first performances of The Tempest.

So my next question is: since Prospero represents, on the one hand, the colonialist/imperialist and exploitative/manipulative politician, and on the other hand, the magic-making playwright, what relationship can we see between these two otherwise contrasting representations?

Marx wrote of a base and superstructure that keep the class structure of society intact. The superstructure is composed of such things as the media, religion, and the arts. Now, Marx was describing modern capitalist society, as opposed to the feudalist one Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays in; but the seeds of modern capitalism had already been sown in his day, and feudalism was as much a form of class conflict as capitalism is.

Shakespeare’s plays tended to justify class hierarchies by glorifying kings (the deposition scene in Richard II, so offensive to Elizabeth I, being one of the noteworthy exceptions) and the imperialistic plunder of other countries (Henry V). Contrast this with his tendency to portray poor workers as not much more than buffoons (consider Falstaff, Bardolph, et al in the Henry IV plays, or the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as two sets of examples, to see my point). The tragic flaws of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, etc., ennoble them by inspiring Aristotle’s pity and terror; the faults of the poor in these plays generally inspire our contemptuous mirth.

What I’m saying here, of course, is not true in an absolute sense: there is a considerable grey area between the white of the nobility and the black of the peasantry in the Bard’s plays. Osric, who “hath much land,” is foppish in the extreme. Falstaff has much depth of character, and his passing is grieved most touchingly by his friends at the Boar’s Head Inn; still, he’s also mercilessly ridiculed in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Christopher Sly‘s transformation from drunken tinker into a lord is a mere prank. Malvolio, with his cross-gartered yellow stockings and ridiculous grinning, is the lady Olivia‘s subordinate, her steward. In The Comedy of Errors, the twin Dromio servants are constantly being abused and picked on by their twin Antipholus masters, a form of slapstick humour. The two gravediggers in Hamlet are referred to as clowns in the script.

My point here is that the grey area of relative equal worth between upper and lower classes doesn’t disprove the black and white of the hierarchy that Shakespeare affirmed as a truth in the world. His plays never fundamentally challenged class antagonisms. For all the many faults of the nobles in Shakespeare’s plays, even when they are outright wicked, they have a dignity far elevated above that of even the best of the poor.

In these ways, Shakespeare as Prospero could be seen as part of the superstructure of Elizabethan times, reinforcing notions of the ‘superiority’ of the landowning ruling classes as against the ‘inferiority’ of the poor labourers and peasants of his time. His portrayals of Caliban and Sycorax as monsters and fiends were probably inspired at least in part by the biases of the time, namely, the notion of Christian superiority over the ‘devil-worshipping’ heathens of the rest of the world (i.e., the worship of Setebos by Caliban and Sycorax).

Still, as much as I have issue with the politics of Shakespeare at times, I’ll continue to love and admire his art, as we all should. Many talented artists in remote and more recent history (Shakespeare, Dali, Frank Zappa, etc.) are people with whom we may have issues as regards their political stances. In this way, my judgement of Prospero can be seen, in a symbolic sense, as ambivalent rather than unilaterally condemning.

My leftist worldview must be more forgiving of what I see as politically lacking in the Bard. His aim as a playwright wasn’t mainly to promote a certain political agenda; it “was to please.” Therefore, let my indulgence set him free.