Analysis of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

I: Introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the story is a critique of psychiatry and, in a larger context, of all tendencies to impose social control.

It was adapted into a Broadway and off-Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy, with Gene Wilder playing Billy Bibbit. Danny DeVito, who played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway play, would reprise his role for the 1975 film, which starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

I’ll be focusing on the novel and the film, which–though following the novel fairly closely–was actually based on the play. The supporting cast of the film, which was co-produced by Douglas’s son Michael and directed by Miloš Forman, includes Louise Fletcher as the manipulative and subtly domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, named the fifth greatest villain in movie history according to the AFI), Will Sampson, William Redfield, DeVito as mentioned above, Sydney Lassick, and Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their film debuts.

The film won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), the second film to achieve this (after It Happened One Night in 1934), and the third to do so not until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and in 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress. AFI lists it #20 on its list of the greatest films of all time in 1998, demoted to #33 in 2007.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here are some quotes from the novel, and here is a link to a performance of the play.

II: Background to the Novel

To get back to the novel, it’s useful to know some of the historical context and background to its creation. It was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was already a growing sense of antiestablishment thinking in the collective consciousness of the US at the time. There was also a controversial move towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, something that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel.

Kesey worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California, an experience that, through his interactions with the patients and the staff there, obviously inspired his novel. He also experimented with such psychoactive drugs as LSD and mescaline there, as part of Project MKUltra. These mind-expanding experiences led not only to his advocacy of using the drugs recreationally, but also freed his mind in a way that influenced the antiestablishment attitude championed in his novel.

III: A ‘Mute’ Narrator

The arrangement of the main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is strikingly contrary to what one would assume them to be normally, in terms of who wields authority and who cows under it, and who is central versus who is marginalized. Almost all of the patients–except for “Chief” Bromden (Sampson in the film), a half-Native American–are white men who are dominated, bullied, and controlled by, most of the time, women and blacks: Ratched and Nurse Pilbow, and the “black boys,” aides Washington (played by Nathan George), Williams (Miller in the film), and Warren. Though McMurphy’s the protagonist, Bromden narrates.

Bromden fakes being deaf and dumb in the hospital, which allows him to be privy to many of the machinations of the staff, who chat around him while assuming he can’t hear what they’re saying. His muteness is also symbolic of how the aboriginals of North America have been silenced by the establishment, the white settler colonial state that is embodied in, for example, the US and Canada.

…and yet, ironically, this ‘mute’ is the narrator of the novel.

His narrative style is noteworthy in itself, often switching back and forth between present and past tenses, as well as expressing himself ungrammatically in such ways as saying, “They should of knew better’n to…” (Kesey, page 4). This informal, non-standard English gives us a vivid sense of how Bromden is, in spite of having been a college student, just an ordinary, common man, as opposed to being a higher-ranking member of society. This proletarian-like commonness will be important in how he will eventually rise up and free himself, in a quasi-revolutionary way, from the societal prison that the mental hospital represents.

IV: An Upside-down World

That the white men are bullied by “the Big Nurse” (Ratched, of course) and the other nurses reflects another issue Kesey was concerned with: the emasculation of modern men in society. I see something broader than that in this, if you will, ‘matriarchal’ hospital with its “black boys” also pushing around the white male patients: as a reversal of the normal social hierarchy, life in the mental hospital, the ‘loony bin,’ “the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a fittingly upside-down world, comparable in a sense to that of King Lear, in which a king is reduced to a mad beggar. Such an inversion of the normal…and equally deplorable…state of affairs in our society can be seen as a way to let our white male rulers know how it feels to be ruled by others. Both the normal and inverted worlds are mad worlds.

The nature of the hospital’s ‘matriarchal’ rule is aptly given in the maternal form of nurses telling the male patients what to do (Dale Harding–played by Redfield in the film–literally calls it a matriarchy–page 63). These men, in their afflicted mental states that are even further afflicted by the nurses’ manipulations, are thus reduced to the role of children. This is best seen in the whining and temper tantrums of Charlie Cheswick (Lassick), in his noisy demands for his precious cigarettes.

V: When ‘Helping’ is Harming

Psychiatry and psychotherapy are supposed to serve in healing patients so they can return to society in a healthy state and become happy, productive contributors to that society. The critique of this novel, however, is that far too often, the psychiatric profession is used rather to control the patients. Far too often, confronting the mentally ill is about treating them with contempt and condescension instead of with empathy and compassion.

I know from personal experience in my life how people in the role of ‘nurse’ can speak of one as ‘ill,’ pretending to be concerned about that person’s well-being, but really using the label of ‘ill’ to justify treating the person as an inferior to be controlled. Instead of giving the person the help he or she needs, as is the stated intention of the ‘nurse,’ this ‘nurse’ causes the patient’s sense of worth and autonomy to be gradually eroded.

Now, the bogus treatment of illness as a guise for social control can be of mental illness, as dealt with in this story, or it can be of physical illness, as many have suspected of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s social control, disguised as ‘treatment,’ on the individual or local level, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there’s such social control on the national and even international, imperialist level, of which the novel and film can be seen to be an allegory.

Having Bromden as the novel’s narrator is thus useful for the purpose of such an allegory. In some ways, such an allegory works in the film, too, even without Bromden as a voiceover narrator (an omission Kesey was most unhappy about in the film adaptation), as I’ll try to show.

VI: Beginning of the Film

The film begins with a shot of a scene in nature, with mountains, grass, and a car going down the road (presumably McMurphy being taken to the mental hospital) during a sunrise. The film will end with Bromden having escaped the hospital and going off into a similar natural background–with trees, mountains, and the sunset.

Throughout the middle, of course, has been life in the prison of the hospital, a metaphor for our sick civilization. We start out in the beauty of nature, whose life is interrupted by our oppressive, man-made civilization, and we’ll ultimately liberate ourselves and return to the beauty of nature.

That Bromden, our half-Native American, half-white narrator, is doing the liberating from that civilization is significant; for that very civilization is the white settler colonial state that robbed the North American aboriginals of their natural home, and it must be returned to them if full liberation for all–white, black, Latino, Asian, and aboriginal–is to be achieved.

VII: McMurphy, the Bad-but-good Guy

To achieve that liberation, though, a revolutionary agent needs to be introduced…and this is where McMurphy comes in. He may be a criminal, someone who “fights too much and fucks too much” (page 14), but it’s his gregarious, free-spirited, and rebellious nature that is just what the intimidated other men need to inspire them to fight for their own freedom.

The fact that our hero is deemed a psychopath and a statutory rapist, one who’s faking insanity to escape the prison work farm and, as he hopes, coast his way through his sentence in the mental hospital, is yet another example of the upside-down world of this story. A violent bad guy is actually the good guy.

One manifestation of this bad-but-good guy is when he meets Bromden. In the film, McMurphy mocks Bromden with an aping of the stereotypical greeting of “How,” then with the hand-over-mouth war cry stereotype. On the surface, McMurphy is indulging in childish, tasteless racist ‘humour,’ but he and Bromden will soon develop a close friendship.

Similarly, there’s ambivalence in calling Bromden “Chief.” On the one hand, it’s a racial slur; on the other, his father was the leader of his tribe, so handing down the title of “Chief” is perfectly legitimate (page 24), as explained by Harding. Yet another upside-down ambivalence is in how Bromden, weeping over McMurphy’s lobotomy at the end, lovingly smothers him to death with a pillow to free him from his wretched fate.

Now, in the novel, it’s towards the “black boys” that McMurphy at one moment shows a racist attitude, calling one of them a “goddamned coon” and a “motherfucking nigger.” He’s mad at them for forcibly delousing George Sorensen, one of the “acute” patients who has mysophobia and is visibly upset over the forced delousing (page 273). Even in this scene, McMurphy’s surface nastiness is obscuring a deeper compassion for the disadvantaged.

So, with every bad thing about McMurphy, there’s also something good; and the good things about him are far more noteworthy. As I said above, he is the one who will inspire the others, waking them all up from their psychological torpor–even Bromden–with his defiant, oppositional example.

VIII: The Combine

To repeat another point I made above, the mental hospital is a metaphor for the whole sick society we all have to live in. In the novel, Bromden has a special name for this repressive world exemplified by the hospital: he calls it the Combine. “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nationwide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.” (page 192)

Yet another example of the upside-down world of the novel is how Bromden is in full realization of the evil of “the Combine”–which combines capitalism, white-settler colonialism, imperialism, and social repression–yet he has been diagnosed with clinical depression and schizophrenia, this latter involving psychotic breaks from reality. As with King Lear‘s “poor Tom” o’Bedlam, a homeless madman (as Edgar pretends to be) whom Lear, in the depths of his own madness, regards as a “Noble philosopher.” It’s the mad who are truly wise in this kind of world.

IX: McMurphy vs the Nurse

McMurphy takes an immediate disliking to “the Big Nurse” and her subtly domineering ways. He bets with the other patients that in a week, he “can get the best of that woman…without her getting the best of [him]” (page 73).

Getting the best of her won’t be easy, for part of how she maintains control over the ward is by exercising her authority through a near-perfect control of her own emotions, which we see fully in Fletcher’s brilliantly understated performance in the film. She rarely loses her temper, and in her self-control we see her confidence, a narcissistic False Self which in turn commands respect. With this command of respect for her as “the Big Nurse,” Ratched is able to effect a mother transference on all the male patients (on Bibbit in particular), which infantilizes them, ensuring her control over them.

Her power over them is so complete that McMurphy can’t even get the obnoxiously ‘peaceful’ music on the record player turned down a little bit, so he and the others can hear each other talking as they play cards. When he tries to get a majority vote so they can watch the World Series on the ward TV, she manipulates matters to include all the ward patients who know nothing of the vote; and by the time he gets Bromden to raise his hand and secure a ten-to-eighteen majority, Ratched has already adjourned the meeting and invalidated the majority. Ratched thus personifies the fake democracy of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

One of McMurphy’s more successful ways of getting to her is by taking note of her figure and large breasts. He is thus defying that maternal transference that she uses to subordinate the other men, defying the Non! du père that reconciles most boys with society’s rules.

Now, this defiance of le Non! du père is also understood, through Lacan‘s pun, as les non-dupes errent. That is, those people who are non-dupes err because, paradoxically, by not being duped by society’s phoney rules (represented by Ratched’s rules of the ward), the non-dupes go astray and mess things up (as McMurphy will for everyone during the drunken party at the story’s climax).

X: The Tub Room Scene

McMurphy’s determination to watch the baseball game is seen in the tub room scene, with the control panel that he foolishly imagines he’ll lift up and throw crashing through the window, then he’ll leave the hospital with Cheswick and watch the game on a TV in “any bar downtown.”

Significantly, during the tub room scene, we see Harding playing, of all games, Monopoly with some of the others (in the novel, the game is mentioned on page 114). Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, and both games essentially teach the players, if they’re paying attention, about the evils of private property, of capitalism, and of the suffering involved in paying up every time you land on someone else’s property. So symbolically, we see the connection of the hospital and capitalism with Bromden’s idea of the Combine.

…and if the hospital, capitalism, and the Combine are the prisons from which these men (and, by extension, all of us) need to be freed, then McMurphy’s attempt, however doomed to failure, to lift the control panel and bash it through the window, to liberate everyone, is representative of socialist revolution. This brief and failed attempt is thus like that of, say, the Paris Commune. Well, McMurphy tried, didn’t he? As with the Communards, at least he did that. Of course, at the end of the story, Bromden tries and succeeds, as the Soviets would succeed…for at least several decades, anyway, before the post-Stalin revisionists began the USSR’s decline.

XI: McMurphy, Therapist

Now, I’ve described McMurphy as liberator on the socialist revolutionary level of symbolic interpretation. There’s also him as liberator in terms of, if you will, psychotherapy. He inspires the others to defy Nurse Ratched’s authority, and he helps them to be more social, through card games, basketball, the push to watch the World Series on TV, the fishing trip, and getting timid Billy Bibbit (Dourif) laid with the help of Candy (played by Marya Small), one of McMurphy’s prostitute friends.

Getting Bromden to speak, to ditch his deaf-and-mute act, is perhaps McMurphy’s greatest therapeutic achievement, one that makes his racist mocking of Bromden, near the beginning of the film, fade into insignificance. As I said above, Bromden’s deaf/mute act symbolizes the silencing of the aboriginals by the white settler colonial state, which for him would be the most significant aspect of “the Combine.” McMurphy’s goading him to speak is thus a revolutionary helping of Bromden to regain his voice and his sense of self, a therapeutic cure as well as a remedy for anti-aboriginal racism. McMurphy is, in effect, achieving the ‘talking cure.’

XII: Bromden’s Silencing

From pages 210 to 215 of the novel, Bromden explains how he came into his habit of acting like a deaf mute: “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (page 210)

His act, this silencing of him, began long before the hospital. It was already happening when he was in the Army. It happened in grade school. It happened when he, ten years old, saw a car with white people arrive at his home, then inform his family of the government’s plan to put up a hydroelectric dam there, putting an end to their fishing. The white people would force it on the aboriginals one way or another. The Combine would force it.

My connection of the Combine with capitalism may seen tenuous or even made up to some readers, but what must be understood is that there’s a lot more to capitalism than just markets, as right-wing libertarians ingenuously (or rather disingenuously) try to reduce it to. As Marx explained, the social relations between the owners of the means of production, of capital, or private property, and the workers, who have only their labour as a commodity to sell, these relations are but the base. On top of this base is the superstructure: the capitalist state, the arts, the media, science (of which psychiatry can be seen as a part), religion, culture, the law, and education. The mental hospital can be seen as a part of, or as symbolic of, that superstructure. The Combine combines both the base and the superstructure.

An essential part of maintaining this Combine, the ideology of the base and superstructure, is racism, which keeps the proletariat divided and hating each other instead of working together in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class. Presenting “the black boys” and the nurses as bullying the mostly white male patients (granted, there are also the male psychiatrists, like Dr. Spivey [played by Dean Brooks], and the white male attendants, but these men intervene more occasionally in the story; in fact, Spivey seems to be ruled over by Ratched, too) is an ironic twist that nonetheless maintains the divide-and-rule aspect of the Combine.

Capitalism also expresses itself in the form of white settler-colonialism, an internal form of imperialism (i.e., within the territorial limits of the United States) that has affected Bromden his whole life, as mentioned above. Colonialism and imperialism, like religion, media manipulation, the law, the state, and education, are all forms of social control. The worst aspects of psychiatry, such as its use of drugs, are also forms of social control rather than of therapy. Anyone who tries to defy authoritarian psychiatry is looked down on as “ill” in order to deny him a voice, to deny him power.

XIII: Ratched’s Gaslighting

Hence, when Taber (Lloyd) doubts the validity of the medication he’s given by the nurses, Ratched says he’s chosen “to act like a child” (page 34) rather than listen to him, show him empathy, or validate his legitimate concerns (the film’s approximate equivalent of this scene substitutes McMurphy for Taber). Accordingly, Miss Ratched is “just like a mother,” according to a Public Relations man (page 37). Small wonder, as Bromden observes, “The ward is a factory for the Combine.” (page 40)

Part of Nurse Ratched’s way of dealing with rebellious McMurphy is to call him “McMurry,” something she does a number of times early on in the novel, and as I suspect, this isn’t a mistake. Her changing of his name sounds like a manipulative form of control, a gaslighting comparable to Petruchio‘s renaming of Katherina as “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew. Ratched would tame McMurphy in a similar way.

XIV: Alienation

Since capitalism breeds alienation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the ward, as symbolic of the superstructure, the Combine, also breeding alienation. We can see it in Taber’s taunting and antagonizing of Harding. Indeed, the discussion of Harding’s sexual problems with his beautiful wife, implying his repressed homosexuality, is more of a ganging-up on him and a bullying of him than any kind of therapy (page 56). Taber’s bullying of Harding, significantly, is resumed in the tub room scene, during the Monopoly game.

There’s alienation between people, and there’s also alienation within, the psychological fragmentation of people with psychotic mental states, people like Martini and Bromden, with their many hallucinations. During the basketball game, for example, when Martini has the ball, he tosses it to nobody, thinking he sees a teammate receiving it. Then there’s Bromden with his notion of the fog machine.

XV: Fog

He imagines that the fog machine, “bought from Army Surplus and hid in the vents” (page 131), is controlled by the hospital staff. Sometimes Bromden finds the fog to be frightening: “I’d wander for days in the fog, scared I’d never see another thing” (page 131). Such a fear sounds like an extension of his faked deaf/muteness, since this fog-induced blindness is something he’s mentally imposed on himself.

Actually, this fog is just a symbol of the bullying authority of the nurses and “black boys.” Just as his deaf/mute act is a result of the Combine silencing him, so is the fog machine a result of the Combine blinding him to his own worth, size, and strength.

The fog, like the deaf/mute act, isn’t a completely bad thing, though. Just as the deaf/mute act allows him to hide and listen to the staff’s secret schemes, so does the fog give him a safe place to hide from painful reality. And just as one might dismiss his fog machine and the Combine as loony conspiracy theories, they actually represent how perceptive he is of the power structures all around him.

XVI: Unity of Opposites

Remember that in the upside-down world of the mental hospital, opposites are united, so loony conspiracy theories are actually perceptive assessments of reality. Bromden is muted, weakened, and shrunken to insignificance, yet he’s also the narrator, a towering giant, and strong enough to lift that control panel in the tub room.

Similar paradoxes, as noted above, include bad boy McMurphy, who is ultimately the story’s hero, even Christ-like (more on that below). White male patients are dominated primarily by nurses and “the black boys,” when we know how things really are outside the mental hospital. And of course the hospital itself, though ostensibly a place to be cured of one’s mental demons, is actually a kind of prison–a worse one, in fact, than the work farm McMurphy came here to escape, for as he’ll find out, far from being released at the end of his original sentence, he’ll be kept here for as long as Ratched deems fit.

He is truly trapped in the mental hospital…potentially for the rest of his life, while he’s mentally the freest of everyone here. Most of the other patients–except for Bromden, Taber, and some of the Chronics–are voluntary, free to leave the hospital whenever they wish…yet mentally, they’re all too afraid to leave and face the real world outside, since Ratched is manipulating that fear.

XVII: Jesus McMurphy!

McMurphy therefore is, in many ways, a Christ figure in spite of his sinfulness. Just as Christ was crucified when he, as Pilate observed (Luke 23), had done nothing wrong, so is McMurphy trapped in this hell of a mental hospital when he’s the only healthy, if badly-behaved, one here.

In keeping with the theme of the unity of opposites in this story, we’ll explore other ways in which McMurphy is a bad-boy Christ. One obvious way is in his blatant, open sexuality, as contrasted with Christ’s saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 27-28)

Now, McMurphy looks on women lustfully all the time…including at Ratched, whose breasts he appraises by wondering, “did she wear a B cup…or a C cup, or any ol’ cup at all?” (page 208) In fact, his very effective therapy for Bibbit, in curing the boy–if only temporarily–of his mother-induced gynophobia, is to have him lose his virginity with Candy.

And just as Jesus suffered, so does McMurphy, first with the electroshock therapy, which he endures (lying on a “table shaped like a cross”–pages 131-132) as bravely as Christ endures the flagellation and the crown of thorns. And though McMurphy, in attacking Ratched in revenge for her having driven Bibbet to suicide, is doing the opposite of Christ’s loving His enemies and turning the other cheek, his ‘death,’ as it were, by lobotomy ends up being a sacrificial death that drives Bromden to pick up the control panel, smash it through the window, and show the way to freedom for all the patients.

McMurphy has the patients go fishing with him, an event that happens far later in the novel than in the film (Part 3, pages 208-256). This event, too, has far greater therapeutic value for the patients than all of Ratched’s manipulative efforts. In keeping with the Christ analogy, recall Matthew 4:18-20. ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him.’ Remember also the ichthys, the fish symbol of Christ.

Just as the historical Jesus, as a number of modern scholars have argued, was a political revolutionary trying to free the Jews of Roman imperialism (not the watered-down peace-lover meant to appease the Romans), so is McMurphy a revolutionary trying to free Bromden et al of the Combine. Furthermore, some Christian leftists believe “Jesus was a socialist”: I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly there are passages in the New Testament that are anti-rich. Consider Mark 10:25, Matthew 25:41-46, and 1 Timothy 6:10. So if McMurphy is like Jesus, his anti-establishment antics can be, in these ways, likened to socialist agitation.

XVIII: White Whale Underpants

McMurphy’s Moby-Dick shorts (page 84), a literary friend’s gift that he displays after undressing, are full of symbolism related to all I’ve said above about him as a sexual, bad-boy Christ. As I (and others) have pointed out, the white whale is a huge phallic symbol, a fact emphasized by its appearance on McMurphy’s underwear.

McMurphy’s link with Moby-Dick manifests itself in other ways. The whale represents wild, untamed nature, as McMurphy does. Indeed, as one uncorrupted by the mind-numbing social conformity that Ratched is imposing on the other patients, white McMurphy is more of a noble savage than Bromden could ever be stereotyped as–another example of the subverting of expectations of the novel’s upside-down world.

As a result of McMurphy’s unwillingness to be tamed, Ratched’s Ahab-like attempts to catch him ultimately bring violence on herself, as Ahab’s quest brings on his own self-destruction. In my Moby-Dick analysis (link above), I wrote of Ahab’s narcissism, his overweening pride and its mad refusal to accept how unconquerable the whale is; Ratched’s wish to control the patients and turn them against each other is similarly narcissistic in nature…malignantly so.

McMurphy is also like the whale in that he represents, as I argued in my analysis of Melville‘s book, the beyond-good-and-evil nature of ultimate reality, an ever-elusive, deep knowledge one can never decisively grasp. As such a personification of this ultimate reality, McMurphy is, like the white whale, God-like, and therefore Christ-like. Now, this God-like whale embodies evil as well as divinity, just like McMurphy as a bad-boy Christ. In these ways, we see again the unity of opposites in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

XIX: McMurphy–Socialist or Capitalist?

Now, when I associate McMurphy with socialist revolution, I’m sure I’ll get objections from readers who will cite the passage when Harding defends McMurphy’s “capitalistic talent” (page 266) at “making a little profit” from his gambling and the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched brings up McMurphy’s profiting as one of her many schemes to divide the patients and thus control them better.

It’s best to understand Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ by emphasizing that it’s only the former’s interpretation of the latter’s intentions. In that passage, Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American” capitalism is based on his not yet having been fully liberated psychologically from the prison of the hospital; he is still experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as a result of the ongoing influence of, as he (ironically?) describes her, their “Miss Angel of Mercy Ratched”, who “is absolutely correct in every assumption she made…about McMurphy.” (page 266)

Furthermore, to use McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ to debunk his socialism fails to think dialectically about the two opposing economic systems, as such assumptions mean forgetting about the upside-down nature of this story. McMurphy, recall, does bad things to promote good. He’s a bad-boy Christ figure, so it should be predictable that he’d promote socialist liberation through capitalism. As Harding notes, “We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we?” (page 266) Recall that McMurphy’s efforts have all been far more therapeutic than anything Ratched has done for the patients, regardless of the money he’s made off of it.

The promotion of socialism through capitalism is far from unheard of: the USSR did it through the NEP in the 1920s, and China and Vietnam brought back the market in the 1980s; indeed, China’s state-regulated use of capitalism, intended to boost the productive forces of the country, has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, a feat achieved far quicker than the economic development of the “free market” has done for the global poor elsewhere. And the only meaningful liberation is the kind that ensures people are all fed, sheltered, employed, educated, and given healthcare.

XX: Menial Work

Remember that the mental hospital, with its staff’s subtle manipulations, bullying, and enforced conformity, is a metaphor for society in general. A part of this prison of a society is the menial jobs given to the patients, a proletarianizing of them, such as Bromden with his mopping of the floors (page 3), and McMurphy’s cleaning of the toilets (pages 159-160). He’s escaped the work farm only to end up doing latrine duty.

As a punishment for McMurphy’s gambling and ‘profiteering’ as discussed above, Ratched rations the patients’ cigarettes, which can be seen to symbolize low wages. So Cheswick’s protests about his cigarettes, escalating to McMurphy breaking the glass to the nurses’ station, taking a box of them, and giving it to Cheswick, is like a workers’ strike. The “black boys” taking the two men and Bromden to get electroshock therapy is thus like the police rounding up the strikers.

XXI: A Fog of Words

When Bromden hears, during a therapeutic meeting, talk “about Bibbit’s stutter and how it came about” (page 133), the words come out like a fog as thick as water. Normally, therapy is supposed to heal a psychiatric patient through the talking cure, as noted above; and Bibbit’s stutter is a symptom of his psychiatric problems, his inability to talk, with its origins in his relationship with his mother. As Bibbit tells Ratched, “The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mamma.”

Ratched’s therapy, of course, is the opposite of a talking cure; instead, it’s a talking infection. Small wonder Bromden experiences the discussion as a fog. It’s just another manipulation of the Combine.

XXII: The Oedipal Basis of Ratched’s Matriarchal Rule

Within all patriarchy, including the patriarchal family, there’s a small nucleus of matriarchy. I don’t mean to promote MRA thinking here; I’m just discussing the dialectical nature of sex roles and the power systems revolving around them. The father bosses around the family, while the mother more directly bosses around the kids. A transference of such a relationship has occurred between the nurses and the patients.

Such a transference has been most potently achieved in Billy Bibbit, a thirty-something with the psychological development of a little boy. As part of McMurphy’s therapy for the young man, it’s been arranged for him, during their naughty party at the story’s climax, to lose his virginity with Candy and thus ‘make a man of him.’

When he’s been discovered in bed with Candy and he has to explain himself to Ratched, he briefly loses his stutter: a temporary cure of his gynophobia–brought on by his domineering mother, who’s presumably as narcissistic as Ratched–has become his talking cure.

…but that fog of words comes back as soon as Ratched brings up how much the boy’s mother will disapprove of his little sexual indiscretion, which the Big Nurse, his mother’s close friend, will assuredly tell her about.

The power Bibbit’s mother has over him–extended by transference over to Ratched–is based on his Oedipal need for her to love him back. Normally, a mother’s authority over her children is expressed in a benign, loving way…not so if she has pathologically narcissistic traits.

The boy, already prone to suicide and hence his being in the hospital, is so fearful of losing his mother’s love that, knowing Ratched will never refrain from telling her of what he’s done with Candy, he slits his throat in Dr. Spivey’s office.

XXIII: Conclusion–Big vs Small

In the upside-down world of this story, physically big people are often psychologically small, and vice versa. Bromden is, of course, the primary example of this paradox. As he explains to McMurphy, whom he regards as psychologically huge despite his smaller physical size, Bromden speaks of his physically big father who was shrunken down to size by Bromden’s white mother and the Combine. They worked on his father, they’ve worked on him…and now they’re working on McMurphy (page 220).

Why do some people have confidence (i.e., are big), and others lack it (are small)? Not so much because of innate abilities, or lack of them, but because as I argued here, there are people (emotional abusers, white supremacists, the bourgeoisie, colonialists, imperialists, etc.) who work on the small. Such working on is what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about.

Sometimes we fight back, as when McMurphy chokes Ratched for driving small Bibbit to suicide. McMurphy’s violent act is a revolutionary one, since revolution is of necessity a violent act. When revolutions fail, though, the insurrectionists are sternly punished, as is McMurphy.

Ratched isn’t left unscathed: her injury from the choking leaves her unable to speak; instead, she communicates by writing on a pad, which of course is far less effective for manipulating the patients (page 321). Most of the voluntary patients have left the hospital; of those who went on the fishing trip, only Martini, Scanlon (played by Delos V Smith Jr in the film), and Bromden remain. The others left because Ratched no longer has power over them. She has been silenced, as Bromden was; she has shrunken from big to small.

As I said above, though, her reduction to smallness hasn’t been left unpunished. For his scurrilous behaviour, McMurphy has been lobotomized, a punishment compared by Harding to castration: “Frontal lobe castration.” (page 191)

Since the Lacanian phallus is a signifier, McMurphy’s symbolic castration is a silencing of him, too. As a new ‘vegetable,’ he no longer speaks. He’s forever in the fog.

He’s been made small, but Bromden, touched by his Christ-like sacrificial act, is inspired to “feel big as a damn mountain.” Bromden can’t bear to see his friend in a state of living death, so he smothers McMurphy to death with his pillow. McMurphy must come with him out to freedom, if not in body, then in spirit.

Bromden’s picking up of the control panel and smashing it through the window is his revolutionary act of liberation. He’s breaking free not just of the hospital, this metaphor for conformist society, but also of the Combine. At the end of the film, we see him going off into a background of nature. He’s freed himself of the white settler colonial state, and so the world around him looks as it did when the aboriginals were the only ones living there.

Now, this symbolic liberation is not just for the Native Americans, but for all of us together. Recall that McMurphy is coming with Bromden in spirit; also, Bromden is white on his mother’s side. The true liberation of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc., is a liberation from capitalism, imperialism, and white settler colonialism…the Combine, the combination of all of these. To fly over the cuckoo’s nest, we must replace the Combine with federations of post-colonial states that, while allowing equal civil rights for people of all colours, are also acknowledged as belonging to the indigenous peoples of those places.

To be big, we must sometimes let others be big, and let ourselves be smaller.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New York, Berkley, 1962

The End of the World?

I: Introduction

As the above title implies, I’m afraid that this isn’t going to be a very rosy, positive post, Dear Reader.

Some readers who have read my posts about my family, and who know about my C-PTSD, might think that what I’m about to describe is just a reflection of my tendency to catastrophize the problems of the world, and I’d really like to think that that’s all that is going on here in my reaction to current events.

But I don’t think it’s my attitude to the problems.

I think it’s the problems themselves.

Now, before you think I’m just putting you on a real downer here, Dear Reader, consider that the first step in dealing with problems is acknowledging that they exist, rather than denying and running away from them. So let’s acknowledge these problems, where they began, how they’ve progressed, and what they’re escalating into now.

II: Background

First, with the ending of the great majority of the socialist states of the world, the capitalist class no longer felt the need to soften the plight of the working class with such things as welfare; for without any significant existing Marxist alternative to capitalism, the ruling class needn’t fear revolution if things grow intolerable for the poor. Hence, the rise of neoliberalism.

(For those of you who don’t think of the demise of 20th century Marxism-Leninism as a bad thing, please read this to understand why I think its demise was bad.)

That problem, however, was only the beginning.

With contemporary capitalism always comes imperialism, and with the end of the anti-imperialist bloc of Soviet states came, from the point of view of the imperialists, the gleeful realization that they could do anything they wanted, to any country, with impunity. The September 11th attacks, regardless of whether you choose to believe they were caused by radical Muslim terrorists or were an inside job, gave the American imperialists the perfect pretext to start carving up the Middle East any way they liked, as a general explained was the plan in this video.

With the “War on Terror” came the Patriot Act and the beginning of the decline in civil liberties. The state of permanent war has also meant a rise in the profits of the likes of Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, etc., profits that must be kept up to counteract the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, so the perpetuation of war has made it into a kind of addiction.

With war always comes war crimes, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were of course no exceptions. Chelsea Manning sent classified government documents of such crimes to Wikileaks, exposing the murderous American military and arousing its wrath. The persecution of her and Julian Assange has been the first major recent example of a threat to the freedom of the press, something that has gotten much worse in the 2020s.

Similarly, when Edward Snowden publicized the NSA’s plan to monitor the cellphone conversations of ordinary Americans, an Orwellian act rationalized as a form of counterterrorism, he was forced to leave the US for ‘treason,’ really a defence of freedom.

I’ve made this summary to set the stage, as it were, for what’s been coming since. The rise of neoliberal capitalism, an unfettered “free market” version that allows the rich to get richer and to exploit and immiserate the poor, has resulted–far from the right-wing libertarians’ fantasy of “small government”–in the wealthy being so rich that they can buy the government and make it do their bidding. The imperialist drive to find new markets in, and export capital to, other countries results in a further bloating of the military-industrial complex…big government, capitalist government.

The current-day depredations of imperialism aren’t limited to the countries of the Middle East. Any country that runs foul of the globe-spanning hegemony of the US and NATO is a target. Such targets have included the DPRK, Venezuela (with her vast oil reserves), Bolivia (with her lithium, so coveted by Elon Musk), and…of course, Russia and China.

And here is where things start to get especially scary.

III: The Threat of World War III

Not only has NATO, an extension of US imperialism, inched further and further eastward towards the Russian border over the past three decades, making Vladimir Putin more and more nervous, so has China been surrounded by American military bases in places like Australia, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea in what John Pilger has quoted a US strategist as calling “the perfect noose.” There is also the US navy in the South China Sea, and there are the over-a-billion-dollars worth in weapons the Trump administration sold to Taiwan to point at China.

A reminder: the US and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons, and China has hundreds.

So, we have all this dangerous and totally unnecessary nuclear brinksmanship going on with these three countries, which instead of competing with each other could be working together for the greater global good, a potential multipolarity whose balance of power could, if developed properly, actually improve our chances for world peace. Instead, the US is jealously fighting to preserve its unipolar hegemony, and would rather risk the annihilation of all life in a nuclear WWIII than share global power.

IV: Media Censorship

To make matters worse, as the Russian/Ukraine war rages on, one that even the Pope has acknowledged was NATO’s fault, the culmination of a thirty-year (and especially an eight-year) provocation of Russia from that eastward expansion I mentioned above, the mainstream Western media is censoring any dissident voices questioning the narrative that the war is ‘all Putin’s fault.’ Putin is no saint, to be sure, but the Russian intervention was far from unprovoked.

You know the old cliché: in war, the first casualty is the truth, and such a casualty is certainly here with Ukraine. Though the mainstream news media admitted to the presence and influence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and military before the Russian intervention, since then their presence is either denied, downplayed, or outright ignored. Yet it is precisely this neo-Nazi presence that provoked the Russian response by killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region in the eight years between the 2014 coup that ousted Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian military operation beginning this February to protect that Russian community.

One can claim the pro-Russian side is biased if one wants to, but so is the anti-Russian side. The point of having a free press is to allow publication of both sides of the story, for the sake of balance. Justifying censorship of “Russian propaganda” has only reduced the Russophobic coverage of CNN, the BBC, MSNBC, etc., to nothing more than Western propaganda…and hypocrisy.

The censorship of the pro-Russian side–properly understood, the actual anti-war side, since the only real end to this war will be granting Russia’s security requests, i.e., giving the Donbass region its independence, as well as ensuring a neutral Ukraine (no NATO membership)–has gotten so bad that the US set up a Disinformation Governance Board, in effect, a Ministry of Truth directed by a self-styled Mary Poppins. Added to this, many dissident voices, including those of Caleb Maupin, Mint Press News, etc., are no longer being given access to PayPal; so in not getting paid for their journalism (something that had precedent with Wikileaks about twelve years ago), these people are in effect being silenced, for one can’t be expected to focus properly on one’s journalism if one has to use up one’s necessary time making money doing another job.

And if we aren’t given access to dissenting voices that might otherwise dissuade us from going along with the manufactured consent for more and more war, we’ll find ourselves inching all that much closer to a nuclear WWIII.

V: A Love of Death

So what is the mindset behind all this pushing for more and more war? Obviously, part of it is the profit motive, as I mentioned above (i.e., Boeing et al), since war is a business and a racket. But with the ever-growing dangers of nuclear annihilation, which will also halt the growth of those profits, we must look for an additional motive behind all this warmongering: what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character.

By “necrophilous,” Fromm wasn’t referring to the sexual perversion, but rather to a pathological preoccupation with death, with the non-living: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. [Fromm, page 369, his emphasis]

Fromm’s idea of the necrophilous character orientation is an elaboration on and a refining of Freud‘s notion of the death drive, which with Eros, the life instinct, is conceived as one of “the two most fundamental forces within man” [Fromm, page 369]. The death drive, just like the drive to achieve pleasure, involves a removal of tension to achieve a state of rest. As Hamlet said, “To die, to sleep, no more…”

It shouldn’t be hard to see how endless wars, leading to the risk of nuclear annihilation, as well as capitalism’s immiseration of the poor leading to their deaths through suicide, drug abuse and other addictions, the epidemic of homelessness, and the yearly starvation of millions in the Third World, are all manifestations of the necrophilous orientation in the ruling class, who adamantly refuse to do anything about these problems. This orientation, however, has manifested itself in other ways, too, which I’ll describe now.

VI: Economic Collapse and the Oligarchs

At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic blew up into what it’s been since, there were already predictions of a global economic meltdown, which the pandemic, of course, has only exacerbated (and served as a political distraction). Masses of people have lost work, have been threatened with (if not already subjected to) homelessness, and/or have developed serious mental health problems; the horrors of Third World poverty have gotten much worse, and the gig economy has found new, particularly heinous, ways of exploiting workers desperate for money.

Such Western oligarchs as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk have all, in their own ways, exploited the covid pandemic to get even more obscenely wealthy as all this global suffering continues. Their combined wealth, as well as that of the other multi-billionaire oligarchs of the world, could end world hunger, end homelessness, and be used to build schools and hospitals, among other benefits; but they always seem to have excuses for why doing such good for the world ‘won’t work.’ Instead, they fly off in rockets or buy social media platforms.

These men know they could help the world. People have nagged them to do it. Still, they won’t: this isn’t merely because of greed and selfishness, as I see it; I think they have at least an unconscious urge to kill off masses of the poor. Recall Bezos‘s connections with the CIA, as well as his ownership of the Washington Post; he is one of many examples of oligarchs who have undue influence over the government and the media. Gates, with not only all the money he’s given to control the WHO, but also the money he’s given to many, many media sources, is another “philanthropist” who has similarly excessive influence.

Recall how Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to allow mergers and acquisitions in the American media, resulting in about 90% of that media being controlled by six corporations. Hollywood is essentially required to make the CIA, an evil organization dedicated for decades to bringing about regime change after regime change, look good in films. See how the government, media, and oligarchs are working hand in hand to deceive and screw us all.

VII: The Oligarchs’ Love of Death

Let’s connect the dots: wealthy oligarchs control government organizations and the media, the latter of which is now silencing dissident voices, first about covid, then immediately after about the Russian/Ukraine war, which as I said above, could go nuclear. (People denigrate ‘authoritarian’ countries like Russia, China, the DPRK, Venezuela, Cuba, etc., for having state-controlled media; yet with Western oligarchs controlling the American government and media, both of which, through organizations like NATO, control other countries’ governments and media, do these Western “democracies” really have anything other than state-controlled media, if only indirectly so?) Manufactured consent for war, with no dissident media voices allowed to reverse the influence of this evil: the necrophilous orientation, on full display…if only people could see it.

Elsewhere, we see the number of covid deaths in the US has recently reached around one million (this assuming that they, as the ever-so-dubious mainstream media maintains, have all died of covid as opposed to having died with covid, especially since the omicron variant, though spreading faster, is less deadly than the previous variants, of which the survival rate has always been the great majority of those who have caught it). A single-payer, universal health-care system would suit these patients, in the richest country in the world. Yet the American government still prefers to spend billions of dollars on the military (while having upwards of a thirty-trillion-dollar deficit), and to send over a billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine, to make Ukrainians cannon fodder in the US/NATO proxy war against Russia. There’s money for war, but not for health: this is the necrophilous character, in a nutshell.

VIII: Roe vs. Wade

Now, one thing has happened recently in the US that, on the surface, doesn’t seem all that necrophilous: the Supreme Court’s leaked majority vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. If we examine this right-wing outrage more thoroughly, though, we’ll see that it’s hardly life-affirming at all: the compassion that the anti-abortionists have for the unborn ends when the unborn are born. These right-wingers are adamantly opposed to providing any kind of childcare, maternity leave, or any other form of financial relief to struggling single mothers (or fathers now obligated to help raise babies both parents would otherwise not have had). Life may “begin at conception,” but compassion ends at birth, apparently.

And in a world with not only the pandemic forcing children to wear masks and therefore get very little chance to learn how to read facial expressions (as older generations have taken for granted), with not only the looming threat of a nuclear WWIII, and with not only an economic meltdown so bad that it could be the end of capitalism (replaced not with socialism, but either barbarism or some kind of neo-feudal totalitarianism), but also skyrocketing inflation (made worse by rising gas prices in a bid ‘to stick it to Putin,’ a cutting-off of one’s nose to spite one’s face if ever there was one), bringing excessive life into such a shitty world is anything but “pro-life.” Birthing unwanted babies in the worst of economies, with very possible food scarcities (conveniently blamed on Russia, mind you, while the West is completely unwilling to grant Russia’s most straightforward requests to end the war that’s exacerbating this food crisis) on the way: what could go wrong?

IX: Compassion

Bible-thumpers call life (before birth, mind you) “sacred.” Buddhists, however, say, “Birth is Ill, decay is Ill, sickness is Ill, death is Ill: likewise sorrow and grief, woe, lamentation and despair. To be conjoined with things which we dislike: to be separated from things which we like–that also is Ill. Not to get what one wants–that also is Ill. In a word, this body, this fivefold mass which is based on grasping–that is Ill.” [Smart and Hecht, page 236]

Small wonder Schopenhauer, greatly influenced by Buddhism, had a pessimism regarding non-life as preferable to life; but being far removed from those of the necrophilous orientation, he confronted human suffering with an attitude head and shoulders above that of these Bible-thumping anti-abortionists–he espoused compassion for sufferers.

We socialists also have compassion for those who suffer; this is why we advocate universal healthcare, housing, education, and employment for all, and a society that produces things not for profit, but to provide for everyone. Such a beneficial transformation of society would reduce suffering to a far more tolerable level than we have in the current neoliberal nightmare. Such vast improvements are far more pro-life than the Bible-thumpers could ever offer.

X: Climate Change

Now, if we don’t end all life on this Earth through nuclear war, there’s another, equally sure way that will do it: through climate change. The warnings have been given for decades, and while conservatives outright deny the existence of this danger, liberals offer woefully inadequate solutions to the problem. All of the efforts of ordinary people to mitigate the problem–e.g., recycling, plastic straws replaced with paper ones, cleaning up pollution on the beaches, etc.–fade into insignificance when compared to the gargantuan contributor, which if anything is only getting worse: the US military as the greatest polluter in the world.

The climate change issue is not only very real, it’s an urgent problem that must be reversed, and soon, before its devastating effects can no longer be rectified. Sea levels are rising now. Wildfires have been raging in countries all over the world. This issue cannot wait, yet as I said above, the efforts to deal with it so far have been nothing more than puny compared to what must be done.

As for those right-wing libertarians who deny climate change, and who are no doubt informed by the greedy heads of corporations who put profit before human life, those right-wingers should consider the implications behind the underground bunkers that the super-rich will have when a world-ending disaster like the ultimate effects of climate change happen, or when there’s a nuclear war, or when the civilizational collapse brought on by the self-destruction of capitalism renders money useless. Will the boot-licking, climate-change-denying conservatives ever admit to themselves what the super-rich have known all along–that climate change is real, and that the super-rich thus have been lying to the conservatives?

Indeed, a number of blog posts by Rainer Shea discuss how the oligarchs plan to deal with the very civilizational collapse they themselves have been responsible for bringing on. In one such post, a CEO euphemistically referred to “the Event” (i.e., the end of the world via climate change or nuclear war), worrying about the loyalty of the armed guards of his bunker when money has become useless. As always, these necrophilous types care only about themselves, and they plan to hide out in their bunkers while the rest of the world burns.

XI: Conclusion–Revolution is the Solution

To make matters worse, the return of fascism, as a way of tightening the elites’ grip of power on us, is but one of many examples of how ‘democracy’ has revealed itself to be an illusion. The rich have militarized police, robotic dogs, and fascistic-minded bootlickers among the working class and petite bourgeoisie, all ready and willing to protect them. Liberals, though pretending to be progressive, are in their very defence of Ukraine revealing fascist sympathies. Though the sanctions on Russia have resulted in many countries, such as China and India, dropping the US dollar, which will help bring about the end of the Anglo/American empire, such a Western decline won’t come without a fight.

Chelsea Manning sent out an interesting tweet recently, about the need not only to be armed, but also for the armed to come into communities to train together. People, time is running out. Voting out the bad guys won’t work. There is no kind and gentle way to end the corruption in politics. We will have to fight our way out of this.

We can no longer just sit around and share memes on Facebook about revolution. We have to do it, and soon. Right-wingers among the masses, convinced by bourgeois propaganda that socialism is “Satanic,” will fight us tooth and nail, as will the police and standing armies of the ruling class. A revolution is not a dinner party.

In my heart, I don’t like violence; but it isn’t a matter of liking it. We have no other choice. If we on the left don’t organize, train, and act now, the end of the world will come, in the form of nuclear war, climate change, or neo-feudalism brought on by civilizational collapse, with that of capitalism. And with the media as censored as it is now, many won’t even see it coming.

Let’s get our act together, people.

Analysis of ‘One Hour Photo’

One Hour Photo is a 2002 psychological thriller written and directed by Mark Romanek. It stars Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, and Michael Vartan, with Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle, Clark Gregg, Erin Daniels, and Dylan Smith.

One Hour Photo was both a commercial and a critical success. Williams’s performance earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor.

Indeed, it was gratifying to see him in a dramatic role for a change, finally going against his usual typecasting as a zany character in such superficial, feel-good films as Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. In playing a mentally-ill man in One Hour Photo, Williams demonstrated the range of his acting talent; if only he’d done roles like Seymour “Sy” Parrish more often.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Sy is a lonely photo technician in a one-hour photo in a big box store called Sav-Mart. He has no family, friends, or partner. He values his job above and beyond anything else in his life, believing he’s providing a “vital service” to his customers in developing quality photographs. This job gives his life meaning in the absence of loving human company.

Photos are of extreme importance to him for reasons to be discovered in full by the end of the film. At the beginning of the story, he idealizes photography, insisting that one takes pictures only of the happy moments in life, never the sad ones. By the end of the film, though, we discover that this idealizing of taking pictures is a reaction formation against the fact that, as a child, photos were taken of him in extremely unhappy, traumatizing circumstances.

He also points out that no one takes pictures of the banal, mundane, “little things” that we don’t normally pay attention to…yet at the end of the film, after he’s revealed to Detective James Van Der Zee (La Salle) the source of his trauma, we see his recently-taken pictures of such banal things as the objects and furnishings of a hotel room. It seems that, with these pictures, he’s sublating the thesis of happy photos with the antithesis of traumatizing ones.

The trauma he suffered as a child was to have been exploited as a participant in child pornography photography, exploited by his own parents. This trauma explains his loneliness: his parents betrayed his trust at such a tender age, and so he has distanced himself from them. Since one’s primary caregivers are, as internal objects, those blueprints, so to speak, for all subsequent relationships in life, this alienation from one’s parents tragically leads to social alienation in general.

Still, Sy must try to pull himself together, to rebuild some sense of psychological structure, since with such extreme trauma as he’s suffered, the threat of psychological fragmentation is never far away. Heinz Kohut‘s model of the bipolar self is useful for understanding Sy’s personality. One pole is that of the grandiose self, which we see in the pride Sy takes in his photo developing. The other pole is that of the idealized parental imago, which he can’t get from his own parents, of course, so he has to do a transference of them onto the Yorkin family.

Nina (Nielsen) and Will Yorkin (Vartan) are Sy’s idealized mother and father transferences, and their son, Jake (Smith), represents the kind of happy boy Sy wishes he had been when he was a kid. His idealizing of the Yorkin family comes from all the ‘happy’ photos he has developed for them over the years…while keeping a copy of each one for himself to put up on a wall in his apartment, too.

This wall of Yorkin family photos is Sy’s altar, so to speak, where he can worship his idealized conception of the family he wishes he had. The photos, as idealizations, are collectively a metaphorical mirror reflecting his love of them back to himself. This ties back to his job as a mirror of his grandiose self.

Recall the scene of him in front of the bathroom mirror in SavMart, where he looks at himself, and words on the glass remind him and all other staff to “check [their] smile” at work. He internalizes this capitalist ideal for the worker, and so it becomes his Lacanian ideal-I. This ideal-I is extended to photographs in how he takes Nina’s camera and, not wanting to waste a shot, takes a picture of himself for the Yorkins to add to the family photo collection. His ‘selfie,’ as it were, is a metaphorical mirror adding himself, “Uncle Sy,” to the Yorkin family.

These images, frozen in time, of the Yorkins on Sy’s apartment wall are thus, as a collective metaphorical mirror, Sy’s reconstruction of the Imaginary, his need for narcissistic acknowledgement and recognition. “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” Lacan once said, a desire to be desired by other people, for recognition from other people. This is what Sy needs from his idealized conception of the Yorkins, and this is why he obsesses over them.

His idealization of them is, of course, an illusion based on wish-fulfillment, for the Imaginary Order, established by the infant when seeing itself in front of a mirror for the first time, gives form to an illusory ego. As a narcissistic psychological state, the Imaginary’s setting up of the illusory ego, the ideal-I one strives one’s whole life to live up to but ultimately never succeeds at, is seen in an extreme form in Sy’s idealizing of his job as a “vital service.” His job is his narcissistic False Self.

Another part of his False Self, a defence against fragmentation, is his persona of mild-mannered innocence (a defence against the molestation he suffered as a child), given physical, symbolic expression in the predominantly white and light grey colours we see him wearing. This whitish innocence is extended to his light blond hair (we can see how dark-haired Williams most obviously dyed his hair, to the point that it seems as if Sy dyed his, too) and the whites and light greys of his apartment and car, as well as the predominant whites and light greys of SavMart, his idealized place of work.

When he leaves SavMart to go home one night, though, we see a greenish-yellow light (colours of envy and jaundice) as he goes to his car, the windshield glass of which is smashed. This reflects the bitter reality of his life, which hides behind his idealized fantasy world.

Like Lacan, Buddhists understand that the self is an illusion, for the world is too fluid, transitory, and impermanent to include the existence of permanent souls or egos. Sy’s False Self is just such an illusory ego, and those frozen moments in time, his photos of the Yorkins, are also such illusions, making us forget about the eternal flux of life.

He’s nowhere near as good at his job as he imagines himself to be, not by his boss’s standards, or by any reasonable standards. The photos he gives Nina early on in the film are larger than what she wants, and the SavMart manager, Bill Owens (Cole, who here plays a kind of serious version of Office Space‘s Bill Lumbergh), is full of complaints about Sy.

In Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins, his collection of copies of their photos means he’s printed far more photos than have been ordered and paid for, a discrepancy that Bill cannot tolerate. Sy has also spaced out on the job, taken ninety-minute lunch breaks, given Jake a free disposable camera for his birthday, and had a loud altercation with the repairman for the photo developing machine, an altercation heard by the customers all over SavMart.

While some of Bill’s complaints reflect real faults of Sy’s work performance, others reflect the kind of conflict between boss and employee typical of what Marx described in his theory of alienation. Sy’s job is practically a religion for him. It gives his life meaning, it’s part of his species-essence; whereas for Bill, Sy’s mundane job is just one among many to be overseen in SavMart; Sy should just do it right and not make waves. Bill’s pragmatic attitude to Sy’s job-as-mission thus alienates Sy from his species-essence, which only adds to Sy’s alienation in general.

Bill fires Sy, which devastates him because not only can’t he do the Yorkins’ pictures anymore, he’s also lost one of the two poles of his self that give him psychological structure–he’s lost his grandiose self, that False Self of the photo developer performing a “vital service” to customers like his idealized Yorkins.

Sy has been a victim of capitalism through his conflict with Bill as described above, and he was a victim of it as a child when exploited and commodified by his parents through kiddie porn photography. The commodification of photos links both experiences for him in how photos are fetishized commodities. The customer sees the finished product and pays for it, but he or she doesn’t see the process the workers went through to produce the commodity.

In the case of kiddie porn photography, the drooling pervert masturbating to the disgusting pictures sees only the fantasy that’s presented in them; he doesn’t take note of the pain and fear in the naked children’s eyes as they’re forced into doing the shameful things they do in front of the camera. Similarly, and in reverse fashion, though Sy is the seller, not the buyer, he sees only the happiness of the Yorkins in their photos; but he knows nothing of the very real problems in their far-from-ideal family. Of course, he’ll learn of those problems soon enough.

When Maya Burson (Daniels) shows up at SavMart and gives Sy her photos to be developed, he recognizes her from somewhere (actually, in one of the photos in his Yorkin ‘altar’). He later flips through them and discovers some of her with Will Yorkin, having an affair. His whole image of the ideal Yorkin family has been shattered. The other pole of his self has been compromised. He’s now in danger of fragmentation.

Because of the extreme abuse he suffered as a child, Sy would have engaged in the defence mechanism of splitting from right back in those early years. This means that, instead of regarding his parents in the normal way, as a complex combination of good and bad traits, he’d have seen them as just the bad father and bad mother. No grey or white, only black.

Sy nonetheless needs to believe in the idea of the good father and good mother, for the paranoid-schizoid position that he feels himself permanently trapped in demands a white, or at least light grey, area to counterbalance the black area that he cannot deny.

This counterbalancing is what the Yorkin parents are meant to personify in Sy’s fragile inner mental life. Other ways in which he tries to achieve this white counterbalance include the old black-and-white photo of the pretty woman he buys; significantly, he later shows it to Nina, of all people (the good mother of his transferred idealized parental imago), telling her that this woman is his mother. This would be the good mother meant to offset his emotionally neglectful bad mother, who allowed Sy’s bad father to take those obscene photos of him as a child.

His notion that photos are always of happy occasions, never of things we want to forget, is his white counterbalancing of those black photos taken of things that he most intensely wishes he could forget. All of this black vs white opposition is a reflection of his psychological splitting, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Melanie Klein called it. “Schizoid” refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad, or black vs white; “paranoid” refers to the fear that the rejected, bad internal objects will return to persecute Sy again.

Since Will has proven to Sy that he isn’t the good father Sy needs him to be, in his paranoid-schizoid mental state, Sy can regard Will as only the bad father. Of course, we the audience have known of Will’s faults almost from the beginning: we saw his argument with Nina about his emotional neglect of her and Jake. Since he rationalizes his preoccupation with his work at their expense (and there’s some truth to this, though he can carry this excuse only so far), we see again how capitalism contributes to the problem of alienation (i.e., he has to work to pay for everything to make his family’s life more comfortable).

His mistress, Maya, however, cannot be included in his excuses for not being as emotionally available to his family as he should be; hence, Sy deems him a bad father, and he scratches Will’s face off of all the photos on his ‘altar.’ Not only has Will become the bad father, though: photography for Sy has changed from being a white source of happiness to a black form of predation.

Indeed, Sy discusses the origin of the term “snapshot,” which he says wasn’t at first associated with photography, but with hunting–that is, quickly firing a snap shot from a rifle at an animal without taking the time for careful, preparatory aim. Sy’s camera has become his weapon, his gun…just as his parents’ camera was a weapon used on him as a child.

Now that Sy can no longer hide behind his False Self as the white-and-grey-clad, mild-mannered photo developer doing a “vital service” for customers he can no longer work for, and now that his system of white idealizations has been sullied by Will’s black adultery, Sy must face his own darkness, all that blackness inside himself that he’s been repressing, splitting off and projecting outwards.

First, he gets a little revenge on his former boss by taking predatory photos of Bill’s daughter. This taking of photos of her–though she’s fully dressed, playing innocently with her dolls, and is insouciant of any voyeuristic danger–nonetheless anticipates the revelation of, and cruel meaning behind, the photography of Sy when he himself was little and defenceless.

Since Sy can no longer use his grandiose self and idealized parental imago to shield himself from his childhood traumas, he must find a way to release and eject the emotional tension he feels from that trauma. A common way to do that is through projection, and projective identification, which ensures that those who receive the projections internalize and embody them.

So Sy steals a large knife from SavMart, a phallic symbol representative of the rapes he suffered as a child. He tracks Will and Maya down to a hotel where they’ve planned to have a sexual encounter, and there he’ll use his camera on them the way his parents used their camera on him: to shame the adulterer and his mistress by capturing their sexual encounter in a set of pornographic photos.

Sy not only forces Will and Maya to pose nude and simulate sexual acts; he’s also verbally abusive in the orders he gives them, behaviour diametrically opposed to his usual, mild-mannered False Self. This verbal abusiveness, it is safe to assume, is derived from the verbal abusiveness he as a child must have received from his photographer father. Sy must release all this pent-up pain by taking it all out on Will and Maya, by projecting it onto them.

After taking the photos, he leaves his traumatized victims and goes into a neighbouring hotel room he’s booked for himself. There, he lies on his back on the bed and looks up at the ceiling; he seems temporarily relieved, having gotten so much of that tension and pain off his chest.

He’s also taken photos of such banal things as a closeup of the rings on the curtain rod on his room’s shower curtain, as well as closeups of taps on the bathtub and bathroom sink. After all the good photos of the Yorkin family, then the bad photos of Will and Maya, he needs to take these neutral photos, to sublate the good vs bad dichotomy. This sublation is part of his healing shift from the black-and-white duality of the paranoid-schizoid position to the grey neutrality of the depressive position.

Switching from paranoid anxiety to depressive anxiety–the fear and sadness coming from losing our internal objects–is crucial for Sy’s healing process, and it’s related to the grey sublation of the black vs white mentioned above. The depressive position involves acknowledging how our caregivers are actually a complex combination of good and bad, and we must accept both the good and the bad in them. One must also mourn the abusive parents who failed us as children, our lack of good parents, as when we see Sy break down and cry when revealing to Detective Van Der Zee how he as a child was sexually abused.

Sy cannot see any good in his parents to counterbalance the bad, nor can he see any good in Will Yorkin. He can, however, still see Nina and Jake as good people (even though he’s frustrated to see her not showing anger at Will after seeing the photos of his affair with Maya). He also feels convinced that Van Der Zee must be a good husband and father. So these conclusions are enough for Sy to reconcile the good and bad in parents in general.

Now we can end the film with him looking at his banal photos of closeups of bathroom objects, their banality being his resolving of ideal vs shameful pictures.

Though called a psychological thriller, One Hour Photo actually has a rather sad tone, for though we would never condone what Sy does, we can’t help feeling empathy for him and the troubled life he’s lead. This kind of empathy, even for those who do ‘creepy’ things, is important for us to be able to heal collectively from all of our own traumas, for we all need to help each other process our grief. (Recall how Williams suffered from depression and committed suicide.)

Satanist?

I’ve been getting a fair amount of trolling lately for my more overtly political articles.

First, I got called an “extremist” Marxist, and this comment was on an article in which my criticism of capitalism was quite mild. Then, in response to the article (first link above) in which I defended my “extremist” leftism, I got a particularly grumpy comment.

He called my article a bunch of “garbage,” and repeated the usual propaganda (which my article had already explained away) about the suffering of those in the socialist states whom the bourgeoisie usually weep for (all the while ignoring, as usual, the many millions more who have suffered and died under capitalism). He was particularly irked by my comment that included Solzhenitsyn among writers of “fiction,” a generalization I’d qualified as both literal and figurative, directly and indirectly so, though my qualifications seemed to have been ignored.

He then went on about me being “delusional” for having my political views (he, of course, is utterly free of delusion of any kind), and he ended off his mini-rant by saying…get this…I’m “probably also a Satanist.”

The melodrama of this new label makes “extremist” sound…well…moderate.

To any right-wingers out there who happen to be reading this at the moment: calling me a “Satanist” is not going to hurt my feelings, let alone discourage me from having the left-wing beliefs I have, or from promoting them. What the commenter had said prior to this new label might be hurtful on some level (my considering the source easily mitigating such hurt), but using such a ridiculous word quickly deflated what little force his counterargument originally had. Really–I chuckled at having been called a “Satanist.” Who was he, some Bible-thumper?

More importantly, what was meant by “Satanist”? Does he literally believe every commie out there worships the Devil just because we don’t buy into all that neoliberal crap about the “free market,” TINA, and anti-communist propaganda?

(Incidentally, actual Satanism is nowhere near as shocking as most of us have been led to believe.)

Or by “Satanist,” did he have a more metaphorical meaning? Was he just saying that I, as a communist, am espousing some kind of heinous, inhuman evil? Did he, so typical of Christian fundamentalists, imagine that people of my political persuasion are unwittingly worshipping the Devil in the form of idols of “the god that failed”? Am I unwittingly helping bring about the Satanic NWO?

Egad.

Let’s just go through all the ‘evils’ that I espouse.

According to this troll (my deleting of whose comment can be seen as a compassionate preserving of him from having embarrassed himself):

If you advocate lifting the Third World out of poverty, you’re a Satanist.

If you advocate free housing, education, and healthcare for all, you’re a Satanist.

If you advocate ending world hunger, you worship the Devil.

If you advocate ending all wars and imperialism, you’re evil incarnate.

If you advocate equal rights for women, people of colour, LGBT people, etc., you love Satan.

If you advocate employment for all, but wage slavery for none, you have horns and hooves.

By the same logic, the following result from Christian virtue: leaving the Third World in poverty and despair, allowing homelessness to continue existing, and keeping education and healthcare too expensive for the poor. Other Christian virtues, apparently, include allowing people around the world to die by the millions of malnutrition, when we produce enough food to feed them all, and have been able to do so for a long time (in this connection, recall Matthew 25:31-46).

Also, it’s apparently Christian to allow all the imperialist wars to continue (remember Matthew 5:9). It’s also Christian to oppose equality for women, people of colour, and LGBT people (no irony this time). And finally, one is a good, God-fearing citizen if one advocates for a reserve army of labour to keep wages down.

Now, as for the more metaphorical meaning of “Satanist,” we must look into the psychology of those paranoiacs who imagine that communism is part of a grand scheme to bring about a “one-world government,” deemed to be the greatest evil and tyranny possible (as if it were even possible to establish one, or that many governments in the world were less evil and tyrannical, or that they couldn’t actually be worse).

These people, especially if they’re Christian fundamentalists, tend to deflect blame for the world’s problems from capitalist imperialism onto such scapegoats as Jews, Freemasons, and communists (and in doing so, they tend to show a thinly veiled sympathy for Naziism). In denying the fault of the world’s problems as that of the economic system they defend, and in putting the blame on the shoulders of these scapegoats, these paranoiacs are engaging in projection, just as I observed in my article about the “extremist” communist as a projection of the capitalist extremist.

Another defence mechanism to be noted in the thinking of these paranoiacs is splitting. Just as with the Christian dualism of God vs Satan, these people have a black-and-white, dichotomous view of anyone who thinks differently from them. So if you espouse socialism, you’re an “extremist” and a “Satanist,” rather than simply someone who opposes capitalism. (For a more thorough examination of the psychology of the capitalist, go here. And for a more thorough defence of Marxism-Leninism, go here, here, and here.)

As for my branding of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn‘s writing as “fiction,” a number of things must be kept in mind. First of all, he did write fiction: here‘s a list of his novels. True, he also wrote ‘non-fiction,’ though I’d take his biases as a historian with a generous grain of salt.

The Gulag Archipelago, among his most famous writing, though understood to be non-fiction, was described by no less than his ex-wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya, as “folkloric and frequently…mythical.” She implied that he exaggerated the hellish existence in Russian prison camps (which even the CIA secretly acknowledged as not being anywhere near as bad as the media has portrayed them); she also said that he was “an egomaniac who brought government censorship upon himself with his searing criticism of the Soviet system.” The book’s very subtitle, An Experiment in Literary Investigation, sounds suspiciously like an admission to its (at least partial) fictionality.

During WWII, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag for having written a letter criticizing Stalin. On the surface, this naturally would sound like an excessive punishment for mere political dissidence. One must, however, see his offence in its proper historical context. At that time, the Soviet Union was in an existential, life-and-death war with the Nazis, and Stalin’s government had not too many years before dealt with traitors who were trying to tear apart the first workers’ state from the inside.

Solzhenitsyn, an avowed Russian nationalist, surely should have supported the Great Patriotic War with all his heart, and even if he had a few points of ideological disagreement with Stalin, her surely should have been prudent enough to refrain from discussing such points for the time being, in favour of supporting the military campaign against the invading Nazis. Surely this would have been so…unless at least a part of him, consciously or unconsciously, supported that invasion. Because of this suspicion, some of us on the left feel it’s at least understandable to imagine Solzhenitsyn as having had fascist leanings.

And though he was anti-Soviet, even he was irked to see how the neoliberal capitalist West had weakened his beloved Mother Russia in the 1990s. And from what had been done then to what is happening there now, as well as between Nazi threats to Russia then and Nazi threats there now, we must move on to the next topic of discussion.

The historic relationship between Ukraine and Russia is complicated. Parts of Ukraine, originally Russian–including Crimea and the Donbas region–were added to Ukraine when it was an SSR. Some Ukrainians, going back to WWII, have had nationalistic feelings approaching, bordering on, or lapsing into fascist sympathies.

Their hero is Stepan Bandera, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator back in WWII. The extremists among these Ukrainian nationalists, while also hating the usual groups–Jews, the Roma, LGBT people, and feminists–have an especial hate for Russians. Such is the historical context in which such far-right Ukrainian groups as the Azov Battalion and Svoboda should be understood today.

NATO, never a friend to Russia, is an extension of US imperialism. Even anti-communists should be able to acknowledge that this Western pact hasn’t needed to exist since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet here it is, NATO, stronger than ever, and right on Russia’s north-western border, with troops doing military exercises there.

Though on the reunification of East and West Germany, Gorbachev was promised that NATO wouldn’t move “an inch” to the East, it has most certainly moved much more than that. Democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych, leaning towards Russia (unacceptably so, in the opinion of the West), was ousted in a violent coup d’état in 2014, replacing his government with a pro-US/NATO one including the above-mentioned neo-Nazis.

These neo-Nazis, given generous amounts of weapons from the West, have been killing ethnic Russians in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine for the past eight years; the death toll is up to 14,000 Russians. The Nazi-influenced Ukrainian government has banned the Russian language, taken down statues of Soviet heroes, banned communism and glorified fascist leaders. The Nazis have attacked the Roma, LGBT people, and feminists as well as the ethnic Russians.

The biased Western media denies the significance of neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine based on their relatively small percentage (though their influence has been huge) and the fact that Zelenskyy is a Jew (incidentally, if he does anything against the wishes of the neo-Nazis [i.e., make peace with Russia], they’ll kill him). That a Jew would never collaborate with Nazis is refuted by the fact that, among other unsettling facts, Trotsky was willing to do so to oust Stalin.

The dishonest liberal Western media, in its disingenuous denial of Nazi influence in Ukraine–implicitly supporting them–reminds us of what Stalin once said: “Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Now, social democracy is the left wing of liberalism; so if social democracy is moderate with respect to fascism, liberalism, right-wing libertarianism, and conservatism in general are all that much closer to fascism.

Putin tried everything to deescalate the tense situation in Ukraine, in which the totally disregarded Minsk accords were meant to end the violence. The US/NATO and Ukraine government wouldn’t budge when he reasonably insisted on such security assurances as Ukraine not joining the inimical NATO, which would point weapons at Russia. All of the above provides the context needed for understanding why Putin intervened in Ukraine.

For my part, I hate all war, I wish this intervention (tankies‘ sheepish euphemism for invasion) could have been prevented, and I feel bad for all the innocent, ordinary Ukrainian civilians caught in the middle of this conflict. That said, though, it’s the fault of the US and NATO that the war has happened, not the fault of “Russian aggression.” When the Western media claims Putin was “unprovoked,” they’re lying.

As for Putin, he’s far from representing my political ideal. He’s the leader of a reactionary bourgeois government; today’s Russia is nothing like the Soviet Union, and he doesn’t want to bring it back. Still, he’s nowhere near the imperialistic “Hitler” the Western media is calling him, a truly silly claim (Russia as a whole is by no means imperialist, in the Leninist sense, either); and sanctioning all things Russian, and all this censorship and banning of all Russian media, is showing how increasingly undemocratic the West has become.

Now, since it’s no use crying over spilt milk, we should instead hope for the best possible outcome of this conflict: may it end as quickly as possible (not likely, given the insistence of the US, NATO, and the Ukrainian neo-Nazis wanting it to continue), may the US and NATO back off (again unlikely, for obvious reasons), and most important of all, wipe out those neo-Nazis!

No reasonable person wants war of any kind, but to resolve this issue, we must think dialectically. Any ratcheting up of hostilities against Russia (and, by extension, against China) could easily escalate into WWIII, which in turn could go nuclear. In smearing Putin for his intervention, the Western corporate media is trying to manufacture consent for a bigger war against Russia and her ally, China. This is dangerous, and it must be avoided at all costs. To stop the big war, we’ll have to let the little war run its course, and hope for the best.

The US and NATO don’t care about the suffering of Ukrainians any more than they care about the suffering of those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, or Yemen. Ukraine, for the imperialists, is just another pawn on the chessboard for their scheme to prevent the emergence of a much-desired multipolar world, one that would deny American global hegemony.

All of this leads me back to my point about ‘Satanist’ politics. Those who believe in an emerging “new world order,” that is, those on the political right, tend to believe it’s a secret, Satanic cabal that is orchestrating the whole thing, step by step. They imagine that a confederacy of Jews, Freemasons, and communists (note the implied bigotry) are conspiring to rule the world with the establishment of one, global government. What they fail to understand is that the real new world order has existed ever since the fall of global communism thirty years ago.

So if one wishes to know who the real ‘Satanists’ are (I refer to that metaphorical meaning given above), one need look no further than the neoliberal capitalists in the American government and NATO. We communists are bitterly opposed to these ‘Satanists,’ whose love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). All capitalist bootlickers who, however unwittingly, are supporting an economic system that unswervingly leads to imperialism, should realize that, in calling us leftists ‘Satanists,’ they are engaging in the same projection I said previously of those who call us “extremists.”

The unipolar world is run by the US and NATO. Their economic system isn’t socialism, it’s “free market” neoliberal capitalism. Allowing for the emergence of Russia and China will replace unipolarity with multipolarity, something the American empire will never tolerate.

These people who see people like me as ‘Satanists’ don’t want to look inside themselves, see what is psychologically broken in themselves (i.e., their alienation), and understand that supporting–directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly–fascism and nuclear brinksmanship is about as Satanic as Satanic gets. Because supporting these evils in our already tense world is going to get everybody…EVERYBODY…killed.

As for us commies, who want to end the wars, end corporate greed, feed the world, provide housing, education, and healthcare for all, and–far from establishing a one-world government–hope for the eventual withering away of the state…if wanting these things makes us ‘Satanists,’ then I don’t want to be ‘Godly.’

And to you right-wing trolls, by all means, keep your snarky comments coming. Far from discouraging me, you’re actually inspiring me to write up new blog posts. It really helps me.

Hail Satan!

Extremist?

I: Introduction

A week or two before I began writing out the first draft of this blog post, I received a snarky comment from an obvious right-winger who described me as an “extremist” Marxist. The comment, since deleted (apart from its snark, it doesn’t deserve to be dignified by being allowed to continue existing, for reasons I’ll go into soon enough), was on my analysis of The Last of Sheila, in which my criticisms of capitalism are far from extremist; though to many right-wingers (the extremists of their camp in particular), any criticisms, even the mildest, are deemed “extremist.”

Granted, he may have also read other blog posts of mine, such as my analysis of Conan the Barbarian, in which I go further in my capitalist critique, and take the obviously controversial position of defending such communist leaders as Stalin and Mao. Now, if my right-wing friend–‘right-wing,’ because only someone of that political persuasion would think that calling me a “commie” is an insult–had made his comment on the Conan post rather than the Sheila one, his labelling of me as an “extremist” might, from a politically mainstream point of view, have at least some validity. Instead, he chose to make his comment on a post with only moderately anti-capitalist remarks.

I must ask: why call me on “extremist” on the Sheila post–if that’s all he’d read of me–and not the Conan one, or any of the many others where I present my admittedly hard-left stance? Since my political position is controversial, I am compelled to back up my arguments with a flood of links. A clue to his choice to be snarky on the Sheila post could be found in a careless error I made in the opening paragraphs (since corrected, naturally, and so for that, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him): I misspelled Raquel Welch’s surname as “Welsh”…twice! (Oops! I actually made a similar mistake, in my analysis of Tommy, in misspelling Ann-Margret [again, corrected]; I’m going to have to be more careful with future posts!)

Could it be that the only way he could confidently point out a “Gotcha!” was to hit me with a petty spelling mistake? After all, the realm of politics is a nebulous one, in which pointing out the errors of one’s ideological foes isn’t so clear-cut. An appeal to popular opinion, one based on decades of anti-communist propaganda (which, if you’ve read enough of my writing, Dear Reader, you’ll know doesn’t impress me at all), combined with a spelling “Gotcha!”, is apparently the best my butt-hurt commenter could do.

Nonetheless, it seems that it’s time for me once again to defend my political stance, since people like him never stop coming out of the woodwork. So in the following paragraphs, I will attempt not only to justify my defence of Stalin, Mao, and the other socialist leaders, but also to prove that, on the contrary, it is the right-wingers who are the extremists. In fact, given the aggravation of the neoliberal agenda over the past few decades, even defenders of the mainstream liberal status quo can be legitimately called extremist, as I will also try to prove.

II: A General Defence of Socialism

Let’s start by asking and answering a simple question: what does a socialist want? We can then look at the following list of answers and determine whether or not it’s “extremist.”

–the means of production are controlled by the workers
private property is abolished
–commodities are produced to provide for everyone
elimination of class differences, leading to
–…no more centralized state monopoly on power, and…
–…no more money (i.e., replaced with a gift economy)
–an end to imperialism and all the wars it causes
–an end to the huge gap between the rich and the poor
–an end to global hunger in the Third World
–free universal health care
–free education for all, up to university, ending illiteracy
–housing for all
–equal rights for women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people
–employment for all, with decent remuneration and hours
–a social safety net in case of job loss

The capitalist is the only one who will find this list of goals objectionable, since implementing it will cut into, if not totally obliterate, his profits. He’ll also rationalize his objection to it by claiming its implementation to be impractical and unrealistic.

Actually, a study of the achievements of the USSR, China under Mao, Cuba, and the other socialist states of the 20th century will show that many, if not most or even all, of these goals were either fully achieved, or at least great progress was made towards achieving them, though you wouldn’t know that to read the lies of the right-wing propagandists who endlessly quack about how “socialism doesn’t work.”

Many workers’ co-ops have been achieved in otherwise capitalist societies, and they have not only survived, but they have often thrived. Private property (factories, farms, office buildings, stores, apartment buildings, real estate, etc.) already isn’t owned by the vast majority of the population; we just want to bump that small percentage down to 0%, so everyone can share all of it. (And no, your toothbrush, cellphone, TV, car, and underwear are not private property–they’re personal possessions. You don’t profit off of them, and you don’t exploit workers with them, so we “commies” don’t want to force you to share them. Please don’t hand me that idiotic argument!)

Capitalism arranges the production of commodities to make profits; communists want them to be made to provide everyone with what he or she needshow is this a bad thing? Right-wingers claim that we can’t afford to make this change, yet billion-dollar spending in the US military, causing a sky-high deficit, is somehow workable. Our billionaire and centi-billionaire class could use their combined money to feed the world, build schools and hospitals–all well-equipped and with well-trained staff–provide affordable, if not outright free, housing, clean up the Earth, and provide well-paying jobs…but they don’t. They’d rather fly rockets out into space. Small wonder so many of us on the left dream of sticking the heads of the superrich in the guillotine (Egad!…how extremist of me!).

Right-wing libertarians fetishize the elimination of the ever-intrusive state, yet they fail to understand that the whole purpose of government is, as Lenin observed in The State and Revolution, to protect the interests of one class at the expense of the other. Usually, it’s the bourgeoisie whose interests are protected by the state, while the proletariat is held down; only in the socialist states established in the 20th century, the workers’ states, were the classes’ positions reversed. Because such a protection of class interests is the raison d’être of the state, its elimination will be possible only with the elimination of those class differences, which must remain as long as capitalism exists to preserve them. The socialist state exists only as a transitional phase, causing the class differences to fade away, before the state can totally wither away…the libertarian dream, in all irony!

The socialist states of the 20th century were working hard to bring about that withering away of the state; Stalin as a committed Marxist-Leninist wanted to move ahead with that after the end of WWII, except that the reactionary traitors hiding in his government were at work thwarting his plans. These fifth columns within had their equivalents from without: the imperialists, who were doing all in their power to reverse the gains of the socialists and bring back capitalism to the entire world. It wasn’t that Stalin didn’t want the state to wither away, it’s just that internal and external factors made that withering away unattainable in his lifetime.

The evils of modern empire are a particular bane to socialists; for this reason, it isn’t enough just to be a Marxist–one must be a Marxist-Leninist and oppose imperialism, in its US/NATO incarnation ever since 1949 and metastasizing especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. How is opposing the depredations of empire “extremist”? Was the rebel alliance of Star Wars “extremist”?

III: Aggravation of Class Struggle

We Marxist-Leninists hear this tiresome series of accusations over and over again: the socialist states of the 20th century were tyrannical, totalitarian nightmares to live in; their leaders were psychopathic, genocidal maniacs who lusted after power; and they tried to ram an unattainable, utopian fantasy world down the throats of an unwilling public. Yawn.

When we try to defend our ideology, we are dismissed for spewing “tankie” propaganda against the ‘moderate’ and ‘objective’ historical analysis of mainstream liberals and conservatives. We, apparently, are the biased ones, who can’t accept that ours was ‘the god that failed,’ not them. We, apparently, have an ideological axe to grind, not them. Yawn.

First of all, let’s be fair here: there’s no such thing as objectivity in politics. Those mainstream political analysts very much have an ideological axe of their own to grind, namely, the defence of the class system that privileges them at the expense of the working class and the global poor (the only substantive difference between the liberal and conservative camps of this mainstream is that the former will tolerate more taxes on the rich, while the latter won’t, because the former are more willing to spend on social programs, while the latter are less so).

Second, the neoconservatism/neoliberalism they have been defending (to varying degrees) for the past forty years is also a god that has failed; it is, in fact, a much more failed god than communism could ever have been. Capitalism, particularly in its present form, has been nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. It’s so bad that its defenders insist that it isn’t ‘true capitalism,’ but ‘corporatism,’ for the only true capitalism is the ‘free market.’

Third, anti-communist critics are way too overconfident in the sources they rely on. These sources were the propagandistic product of the Cold War. It’s often said that in any war, hot or cold, the first casualty is the truth. This is especially true of anti-communist Cold War propaganda. History is written by the winners; in fact, in the early 1990s, history was even ‘ended’ by the winners.

Though it isn’t well-known by the general public, most of the sources of anti-communist propaganda are laughably inadequate in terms of facts. I refer to such dubious sources as Robert Conquest, The Black Book of Communism, Mao: The Untold Story, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Leon Trotsky, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Djilas, and Nazi propaganda. You can click on the links for criticisms of these various writers, but to put it briefly, they essentially wrote fiction, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically.

My fourth and final, but by far most important, point is that none of the above writers’ critiques adequately, if at all, take into consideration the enormous pressures put on the socialist states to restore capitalism, making revolution to have been all in vain. Capitalists disingenuously claim that their economic system involves no coercion: if you don’t like your job, you can quit and find another (no thought is given to the fact that for most workers, almost every other job they’re qualified for, if it’s even available, is hardly any better, and often worse…some choice!). Socialism, apparently, has a monopoly on state coercion.

Such an obtuse generalization ignores the history of 20th century socialism right from its inception in the Russian Revolution, almost immediately after which came the Russian Civil War, during which armies from all over invaded Russia in an abortive attempt to force capitalism back on the Russian workers and peasants.

Now, Russia won that war, but at great cost. Not only did many on their side die from the war, but also of starvation resulting from the war’s privation and from another of pre-industrial Russia’s many bad harvests. These are the kinds of difficulties that force many communist parties to become authoritarian: with the threat of future invasions or other forms of counterrevolutionary subterfuge, leaders like the Bolsheviks found it necessary to end all sectarian bickering to ensure the steady sailing of the Soviet ship through treacherous waters.

An article on Stalin I found in the bourgeois media, which is of course heavily biased against him (and against Putin, by the way), nonetheless has the surprising decency to acknowledge how misunderstood he’s always been. It admits that, contrary to popular belief, Stalin wasn’t motivated by a mad lust for power (he incidentally tried to resign as General Secretary four times), but was genuinely committed to implementing Marxism-Leninism. (It also acknowledges that the death count of the Great Purge of the mid-to-late 1930s was far lower than the right-wing propagandists would have us believe.)

The article acknowledges the genuine fear that Stalin and the Soviets had of more attempts by the international bourgeoisie to restore capitalism, either by force or by cunning, but what the article gets wrong (or…what it fabricates?) is that these fears were largely unfounded. Just because the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union wouldn’t happen until 1941 doesn’t mean the Russian communists had little, if anything, to fear during the intervening years. The failure of European socialist revolutions in the late 1910s and early 1920s was the tip of the iceberg.

Socialism in One Country, an idea that started not with Stalin but had precedence in Lenin, meant focusing, for the time being, on a defence of the USSR against the very real possibility of future invasions. For fascism, a true form of violent political extremism and an outgrowth of capitalism, was emerging not only in Italy and Germany but also in a number of other European countries in the 1920s and 1930s.

Fascism, properly understood, is the ugly face of capitalism, once the liberal veil of politeness has been removed. Capitalists only pretend to care about freedom and democracy; as long as their class interests are secure, they wear the liberal smile. Threaten the security of their class privileges, though, as the Soviet Union had done in the early 1920s, and the capitalists get tough–hence, fascism.

Such contradictions as that between communism and fascism necessitate the aggravation of class struggle. This inevitably leads to communist leaders having to make harsh decisions. These harsh decisions, in turn, have a distorting effect on socialism.

If we had our way, unimpeded, we communists would just have focused on realizing that list of goals I outlined above at the beginning of Part II. The global bourgeoisie, however, has to this day been so relentless in forcing the imperialist agenda on everyone, thwarting almost all attempts at socialist gains, that we’re forced to react to their extreme. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: capitalist harshness results in communist harshness. In my heart, I don’t like violence; but it isn’t a question of liking it–we simply have no choice in the matter.

It is naïvely assumed that the unjust executions of the Great Purge were the responsibility of Stalin, whose ‘stubborn’ devotion to ‘utopia’ wouldn’t tolerate mere ‘political dissent.’ Speaking of traitors and conspiracies conjures up images of a paranoid Soviet government. It’s paranoia, however, only if the suspicions are ill-founded.

First of all, the bulk of the unjust imprisonments and executions of the Great Purge were not Stalin’s fault, but were rather the fault of the likes of Nikolai Yezhov, the quisling head of the NKVD whose treasonous persecution of innocent Soviets and pardoning of genuine traitors wasn’t even realized by Stalin (who as leader of the gigantic USSR couldn’t be expected to have omniscience over the goings-on of every department to which he’d delegated authority) until much later.

Capitalists narcissistically assume most people agree with them, and so the ‘victims of communism’ are supposedly just regular people. Of those punished legitimately for counterrevolution, these capitalist sympathizers–kulaks, Trotskyists, crypto-Nazis, etc.–were actually a small percentage of the Soviet population, and they were genuine traitors and enemies not just of the Soviet leadership, but also of the working class and peasants of the entire USSR.

Kulaks, resisting the necessary collectivization of agriculture, were hoarding grain and killing livestock during the famine of the early 30s. In other words, they were assholes who deserved punishment. Trotsky was such a power-hungry, narcissistic piece of shit that he actually wanted to enlist the aid of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan just to oust Stalin. As a Jew, Trotsky should have been purple-faced with shame; don’t expect me to feel sorry for him for getting that blow to the head with Mercader‘s ice-axe.

Could you even begin to imagine what would have happened if the fifth column sneaking around in the USSR, pretending to be good communists, had succeeded in their conspiracy? Something far worse than the injustices of the Yezhovshchina would have happened: a successful Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would have dwarfed the 27 million Soviet deaths that actually occurred in WWII.

Nazis would have carried out an ongoing enslavement, brutalizing, and genocide of Slavs, an ethnic group Nazis hated on a level comparable with their hatred of Jews. Stalin’s unflinching leadership, indefatigably pushing for industrialization to build and prepare the Red Army for the upcoming Nazi menace, not only prevented such a horrifying alternative, but also saved Europe from fascism.

Normally, people get called heroes for doing things like that.

The justification for the aggravation of class struggle doesn’t end with the Soviet Union, though. North Korea got bombed to the Stone Age in the early 1950s, giving the Kims more than legitimate reason to begin a nuclear weapons program to prevent the US from ever mass murdering them again. Cuba has suffered an economic embargo ever since the 1960s. China has endured a similar embargo and military threats from the West, justifying their nuclear arms program begun by the beginning of the 1960s. Just after having repelled the French colonialists, Vietnam had to endure such horrors of American imperialism as napalm. The CIA helped the right-wing dictator Suharto murder up to a million Indonesians, regardless of whether they were actual communists or just suspected ones. These are just a few examples of imperialist atrocities that get far too little mention in the bourgeois media.

IV: Voting Doesn’t Work

Many will wonder, given the violent, forcible nature of revolution, why people like me won’t simply opt for voting for a leftist political party. After all, isn’t revolution by its very nature extremist, and voting the moderate, reasonable solution to today’s political ills?

Please refer back to the title of this section for an answer.

Bourgeois democracy is nothing more than an illusion that voters have a choice in who will lead the country. Even if the most radical of candidates is voted in, he or she will never challenge the essential class structure of society. This illusion of democracy is one of a myriad of techniques that the ruling class will use to keep the masses at bay. The face of capitalism has a liberal smile, a libertarian sneer, and a fascist scowl. When the people finally see past the illusion and fight in the streets for change, that smile turns upside-down and we see the ruling class in all their repressive ugliness.

The death-grip that the American ruling class has on their country is so tight that a mere social democrat like Bernie Sanders hasn’t a prayer of winning the Democratic candidacy, let alone getting elected so he can have a chance at enacting his only modestly progressive reforms. He is, however, useful to the ruling class as a kind of liberal lasso to throw around the necks of the more gullible of the progressive camp; when he loses to the likes of Hillary or Biden, enough of these gullible types will be expected to vote for such hucksters, leading often enough to a victory for the DNC.

On the right side of the aisle, someone like Trump can pretend to campaign for change, not being part of the Republican political establishment. Still, he’s a member of the billionaire class, and anyone with a modicum of understanding of class analysis will know that, even though Trump opened his big mouth a lot and blurted out comments to embarrass the American political establishment (the real reason they hate him), he could still be counted on to keep the political status quo essentially the same (e.g., bipartisan, billion-dollar military spending, corporate tax cuts, pro-Zionism, anti-immigrant policies, etc.).

In Canada, Justin Trudeau speaks with all the usual politically correct liberal verbiage, but commits the usual imperialist and neoliberal crimes, too (e.g., giving haven to Ukrainian fascists, putting a gas pipeline through aboriginal land, selling weapons to Israel to kill Palestinians, and to Saudi Arabia so they can kill more Yemenis, etc.). I call my country’s prime minister “Turdeau” for a reason.

No, voting won’t make the necessary political changes; recall how the Russian people’s attempt to vote back in the communist party was thwarted by the American ruling class in 1996. Mao meant it when he said “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “revolution is not a dinner party.” We cannot expect the capitalist class to allow us to legislate them out of their wealth.

Class war is not a mere excuse for communists to engage in “extremist” acts; class war is a reality. The capitalist class has been winning this war over the past forty years, and they’re continuing to win this war as we speak. In fact, they started the whole class war by taking over from where our feudal lords had left off: it is now up to us “extremist” communists to end this war.

V: Utopians?

Right-wing propagandists often say that we socialists are dreaming of an impossible-to-attain utopia, rather than the truth, which is that we’re trying to make life better for everyone, as good as is humanly possible. In this way of presenting a straw-man argument, right wingers are, however unwittingly, exposing their own black-and-white thinking: either we accept the total shit, TINA world of capitalism, or we fantasize of a perfect world…what utter nonsense.

Marx had already made it clear in The Communist Manifesto that there is a difference between utopian and scientific socialism, of which we communists espouse the latter. Marx says, ‘The significance of Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism bears an inverse relation to historical development. In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, this fantastic standing apart from the contest, these fantastic attacks on it lose all practical value and all theoretical justification. Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavour and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias, of founding isolated “phalanstères,” of establishing “Home Colonies,” of setting up a “Little Icaria“—duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem, and to realize all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees they sink into the category of the reactionary conservative Socialists depicted above, differing from these only by more systematic pedantry, and by their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.

‘They, therefore, violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel.’ (Marx, III: Socialist and Communist Literature, 3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism)

We don’t merely dream of a perfect world, violently take over countries, then ‘force’ our unattainable ideals on a largely unwilling public. Like scientists, we thoroughly scrutinize the inner workings of capitalism (as Marx did in his three volumes of Capital), we examine the dialectical shifts in history (as Marx did, and as Stalin did), and we analyze how the drive to seek out new markets in foreign countries leads to imperialist competition and war (as Lenin did in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism).

After communist revolution, state-planned economies are set up to replace the profit motive with a system that benefits everyone. Some changes in the way of doing things succeed, while others fail; when failure occurs, we adjust our methods to see if things go better; if not, we adjust them again and again until we succeed. This is the scientific method applied to socialism, hence “scientific socialism.” We’re not dreaming, we’re doing. The black-and-white capitalist mentality imagines that “socialism doesn’t work”; the nuanced, dialectically-minded socialist admits, “Socialism has had problems, but it has also had many successes.”

Let’s look at some of those successes, starting with the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks started with a huge area of land that was, by modern standards, backward: mostly agrarian, with peasants living off the land, without electricity or modern farming technology. Thanks to such efforts as Stalin‘s three Five-Year Plans, the Soviets industrialized and transformed that backward part of the world into a modern, nuclear-armed superpower by the time of his death…a time period of about two and a half decades!

Such an achievement is nothing short of impressive, yet when you come to think about it, it makes perfect sense: people can do amazing things when they all help each other, which is a lot more than when they slavishly work for one egomaniac at the top who overworks and underpays them, then takes almost all of the credit for the success of that work.

Elsewhere, we can find the achievements of Cuba, which took an island controlled by a right-wing dictator, infested with prostitution, illiteracy, and poverty, and transformed it into one with the best health care in the Third World (even sending doctors to people in need in countries around the world), with housing and education for everyone. This has all been achieved in spite of the strangling economic embargo imposed on Cuba since the 1960s.

China’s transformation from the ‘sick man of Asia’ to the second-largest economy in the world has been a rocky one, but ultimately just as sure a one as the two others just mentioned. Though things started out badly with the Great Leap Forward (the wildly exaggerated death toll of which was mainly the fault of a bad harvest; and if the right-wing propagandists want to emphasize bad policy decisions of the CPC as having exacerbated the problem, we can respond by saying the American economic blockade against China, hoping to help bring about the Sino-Soviet split, was also a factor), eventually the industrialization and modernization of China has worked out beautifully.

The CPC has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, and regardless of how leftists choose to think of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ one cannot deny that the country’s transformation over the past forty years is yet another impressive example of the superiority of state planning over the anarchy and chaos of the “free market.”

Finally, though the Nordic Model of the Scandinavian countries, and the social democracy of Venezuela and Bolivia, are not socialism as it’s properly understood in the Marxist-Leninist sense, the success of their free healthcare, free education, and other social programs is proof that the achievement of these progressive ideas is far from being a pipe dream. The capitalists are just too greedy and selfish to be willing to let them succeed, hence all the imperialist attempts to sabotage the efforts of the left-wing governments in places like Latin America.

VI: Fascism

In the previous sections, I went over the contrast between the good intentions, the goals, of socialism, and the pressures placed on socialist governments that had a distorting effect on them, forcing them to take on authoritarian measures they’d never have wanted to take on had the imperialists left them alone. Let us now contrast left-wing intentions with right-wing ones.

What do fascists want? Let’s list their goals:
–strengthening one’s nation against foreign influence
–imperial conquest of foreign nations to achieve the above end
class collaboration
–use of violence to achieve the above ends
–national chauvinism, bigotry, and xenophobia
–a strong, authoritarian state to achieve these ends
–achievement of all the above ends to safeguard capitalism from socialist revolution

Put another way, fascism is capitalism, nationalism, and authoritarianism gone mad. Fascism is extremist…and it never really went away at the end of WWII.

Though some Nazis were punished during the Nuremberg trials (really, little more than just a show to placate the many victims of Nazi murder), many more Nazis were not only left unpunished, but were actually given prominent jobs in the American and West German governments to help the capitalists fight the Cold War.

Matters got so tense between East and West Germany during the 1950s and early 60s that, to avoid war, the Berlin Wall was erected. The East German name of the wall gives a hint as to its real intention: The Antifascist Protection Wall. It wasn’t so much about ‘trapping’ anticommunists and preventing them from defecting, as the right-wing propagandists would have you believe (although a legitimate wish to prevent brain-drain was part of the reason); it was about keeping fascist spies out of the GDR.

Fascism has continued to pop up in various forms over the years. I mentioned above the Canadian accommodation of Ukrainian fascists, who have revived such ahistorical forms of Nazi propaganda as the Holodomor hoax, a canard spread through Hearst‘s fake news, and later spread by that liar, Robert Conquest.

My analysis of Conan the Barbarian (link above) highlighted the fascist/right-wing libertarian agenda of the film-makers, who even did Nazi salutes on the set; and incidentally, my aim in writing up that analysis was not ‘to prove’ a right-wing agenda so obvious to any film analyst, and subtle only to those moviegoers who pay no attention to themes and symbolism, watching it for mere entertainment; my intention was to demonstrate the film’s social effects, the dangerous allure of subliminal fascist symbolism.

Indeed, many of the slanders directed against socialism have Nazi origins. Consider the ridiculous conspiracy theories of Wall Street and Jacob Schiff supposedly supporting the Bolsheviks, of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” and the like. Why would a capitalist bastion like Wall Street support anticapitalist revolutionaries, just because of some bigoted nonsense about “the Jews”? Schiff was an anti-tsarist and Zionist, not a communist.

Another slander thrown on communists was the Katyn massacre, which when disregarding the ‘official’ narrative, and being researched thoroughly, leads to who I’d say were the real perpetrators: though Soviets did execute some Polish soldiers (no women or children!), presumably for having committed certain crimes, the killers at Katyn were in all probability the very Nazis who slandered the Soviets. (People have, at least, shown the decency to admit that the similar massacre in Volodymyr-Volynskyi was indeed perpetrated by the Nazis, and not by the NKVD).

To be fair, it’s hard to take a firm line on what happened when the evidence is so foggy and often contradictory. Still, we need at the very least to consider the political agenda of the ‘official’ version every bit as much as that of the Soviet self-defence. It’s interesting how those who found the bodies were Nazi murderers who (reliable of sources!) blamed it on the Soviets, then the Soviets said it was the Nazis who did it, and now, in our neoliberal, increasingly fascist-sympathizing era…apparently, it was the Soviets after all! (When Gorbachev, of all people, is corroborating a Nazi accusation, we shouldn’t be too trusting of the sources.)

Yet another attempt at moral equivalency between fascism and communism is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact over Poland in 1939. I’ll let the links give you the details, but to make a long story short, many non-aggression pacts were made between the capitalist West and the fascists (i.e., Munich), Stalin never got chummy with Hitler (the epic fighting between their two armies that ensued soon after should be enough to prove the point), and their pact bought Stalin some needed time to get ready for the inevitable Nazi invasion of the USSR.

VII: Who Are the Real Extremists?

You might have noticed, Dear Reader, a recurring theme in this blog post: the creeping emergence of fascism, a true form of extremism. As I said above, it never went away; the loss of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was a mere setback.

Such things as Operation Paperclip, anticommunist propaganda disseminated throughout the Cold War era, Operation Gladio, Canadian accommodation of Ukrainian fascists, White Nationalism, and “MAGA” are all manifestations of one form or another, be they more subtle or more blatant, of a resurgence of fascism, the kind of thing I saw an allegory of in my analysis of The Boys from Brazil.

Fascism, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Other reactionary elements in the politics of the past forty years, generally deemed more ‘moderate,’ are also helping to push our world in an extremist direction.

In my Conan analysis, I discussed how right-wing libertarianism, though not identical with fascism, is on a continuum that inevitably leads to it. Indeed, it is common for libertarians to slide over to fascism, or to at least a sympathy for it. Now, who are the extremists?

The past forty years has been a shift rightwards from libertarian origins (i.e., Reagan and Thatcher) to at least fascist tendencies (e.g., Trump, Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen‘s near-win, etc.). The DNC, having always been bourgeois in spite of the right’s idiotic characterization of it as “socialist,” moved particularly to the right during the Clinton years, a move continued by Obama and Biden.

Indeed, liberalsnever a group to be trusted by us on the left–have moved dangerously to the right in recent years. They’ve supported Democratic politicians who have been banging the war drums against nuclear-armed Russia and China, against the former because they were sore losers over Hillary’s loss to Trump in 2016, spreading a spurious accusation of Russian meddling in the election.

It should be common sense that we don’t want to start WWIII, which could easily turn nuclear and wipe out all life on the planet. We communists, in direct contrast to the liberals and conservatives, want peace with Russia and China. We’ve always wanted peace: the first thing the Bolsheviks did on seizing power in the November revolution was to get out of WWI. We’ve generally fought wars only because we had to, as the Soviet Union did when the US was helping the fundamentalist mujahideen thwart attempts to make Afghanistan socialist. Look at the mess that country is in now.

I ask again: who are the extremists now?

People need to be reminded that reality isn’t fixed in a state of rigid stasis: reality is fluid, ever-changing from one state of being to another; this is why we Marxists are dialecticians. What seems moderate now can become extreme later, and vice versa. Thirty to forty years ago, communism was almost universally regarded (by me, too, back then!) as extreme; now, more and more people are reconsidering socialism. Libertarianism was seen as moderate back then; now that we’re in the death-grip of neoliberal privatization, austerity, and extreme wealth inequality, the so-called “free market” is clearly understood to be not all that free. History is repeating itself.

Unlike the paranoid Nazi notion of “the Jews” being the root of all evil, the communist notion of imperialism is a very real evil, one especially evident over the past thirty years, since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, something most Russians never wanted.

Without the USSR to demonstrate a real alternative to capitalism, not only could neoliberalism thrive unchecked, but the US/NATO imperialists could do anything they wanted with impunity. Despite promises made to Gorbachev that a reunified Germany would not result in a NATO move eastward, such a move very much resulted, starting quite soon.

In the nineties, they took Yugoslavia. The demonizing of Milošević was used to justify regime change there, which would become a major foreign policy tactic of the US and/or NATO. 9/11 gave a perfect rationalization to start carving up the Middle East and thereabouts, hence, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and all the US military activity in Africa. Killing, killing, killing.

Who are the extremists? I ask again.

Added to the extremism of imperialist war is the lukewarm effort to deal with climate change. The US military is the worst polluter of them all, the “free market” allows deregulation so corporations can pollute the earth, the sky, and the water with impunity, while we the common people are expected to reverse the problem with such puny measures as using paper straws. On top of this, our anti-covid masks are littering the earth everywhere.

The best that bourgeois liberals can do to warn us of the dangers of climate change is to film a tepid and occasionally-funny satire, Don’t Look Up, in which the metaphor for the ecological disaster is a comet hitting the Earth. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio may have ditched his private jet to fly to COP26, but why does the pro-environmentalist have a private jet in the first place?

So, we have endless imperialist wars escalating to a very possible nuclear WWIII, and foot-dragging responses to climate change…hmm. Note also how the green capitalism of Musk’s Tesla had the motive for the Bolivian couplithium. What are the roots of these extremist problems?…capitalism. The endless search for profit causing not only so much suffering, but also threatening our planet’s very survival.

But apparently, Marxists are the extremists…I see.

VIII: Conclusion

In previous posts, I made the analogy of a runaway train racing to a cliff where the bridge is out; I used this analogy to describe our current political dangers. For the sake of argument, I’ll say that we see the train shooting from left to right. After all, this train represents capitalism.

Of all the passengers on the train, the right-wingers are walking or running to the front. The liberals are staying in their seats. Moderate progressives are walking to the back. Anarchists are walking faster to the back. We Marxist-Leninists, however, are running as fast as we can to the back, then jumping off the last car.

We aren’t extremists. We’re reacting to today’s extremism in the only appropriate way.

Analysis of ‘The 39 Steps’

I: Introduction

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

II: Context

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

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

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

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

III: Beginnings

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

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

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

IV: Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

V: Smith > Scudder

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

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

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

VI: Disguise

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

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

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

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

VII: Imperialism

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

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

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

VIII: On the Train, On the Run

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

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

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

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

IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away

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

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

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

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

X: Colonizer as Victim?

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

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

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

XI: The Manhunt Continues

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

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

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

XII: Speeches

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

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

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

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

XIII: The House of the Spies

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

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

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

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

XIV: Friends of Spies

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

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

XV: A Fine Romance

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

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

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

XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?

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

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

XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships

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

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

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

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

XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A

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

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

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

XIX: Conclusion

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

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

Stairs

The wealthy, monied aristocracy

causes those of the petite bourgeoisie

to be afraid of those in poverty,

to whom those in the economic centre

may, one unhappy day, have to descend.

Those in the lower social echelons

dream, one day, of ascending to the top;

but those already there would have them stop

for fear that they would, one day, them usurp.

Still, the rich promote the American dream.

In their deceptiveness, they’d make it seem

that anyone financially can rise,

to make them work more tirelessly…what lies!

for their employers; yet, nothing comes of

this extra work. Hence, this misguided love

of all things monetary blinds us all

from the reality that there’s a wall

that separates each step on this stairway.

All walls of glass, invisible, but they

will stay there always, until we, as one,

decide to break them down. Then, we will run

up to the top, and tear the structure down.

Then we will have a world for all the people, not one of rising claimants to the crown.

Analysis of the Medea Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

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

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

Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

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

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

Here is a link to famous quotes from the novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the Evrémondes everywhere in the world watch out.

The modern-day Madame Defarge is doing her knitting.

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