Analysis of ‘The Thing’

I: Introduction

The Thing is a 1982 science fiction/horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Like the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, it was an adaptation of the 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, written by John W. Campbell (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart); actually, though, the 1982 film is much more faithful to Campbell’s novella than the 1951 film was.

The Thing stars Kurt Russell, with A. Wilford BrimleyT. K. CarterDavid ClennonKeith DavidRichard DysartCharles HallahanPeter MaloneyRichard MasurDonald MoffatJoel Polis, and Thomas Waites in supporting roles. Though the film garnered praise for its special effects, it was poorly received on its release; some even considered it one of the worst films ever made. Its critical reputation has since improved, though, and it’s now considered one of the best sci fi/horror films ever made.

Here are some quotes:

[talking into tape recorder] “I’m gonna hide this tape when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. The storm’s been hitting us hard now for 48 hours. We still have nothing to go on. [turns off tape recorder and takes a drink of whisky. He looks at the torn long johns and turns it back on] One other thing: I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over. Windows found some shredded long johns, but the nametag was missing. They could be anybody’s. Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait… R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot, US outpost number 31.” [turns off recorder] –MacReady (Russell)

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” –MacReady

[the Thing roars at MacReady] “YEAH, FUCK YOU TOO!!!” [throws stick of dynamite] –MacReady

[after passing the blood test] “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot. But when you find the time… I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” –Garry (Moffat)

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

MacReady: I don’t know. Thousands of years ago it crashes, and this thing… gets thrown out, or crawls out, and it ends up freezing in the ice.

Childs (David): I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.

Palmer (Clennon): Childs, happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?

Childs: You believe any of this voodoo bullshit, Blair?

Palmer: Childs, Childs… Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.

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

Blair (Brimley): [showing the remains of the dog-thing to the entire camp] You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

Norris (Hallahan): Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

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

MacReady: Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By Spring, it could be all of us.

Childs: So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

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

MacReady: How you doin’, old boy?

Blair: I don’t know who to trust.

MacReady: I know what you mean, Blair. Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what – why don’t you just trust in the Lord?

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

Childs: The explosions set the temperatures up all over the camp. But it won’t last long though.

MacReady: When these fires go out, neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well… what do we do?

MacReady[slumping back] Why don’t we just wait here a little while? See what happens.

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

[from teaser trailer] Some say the world will end by fire. Others say it will end by ice. Now, somewhere in the Antarctic, the question is being settled forever.

[from theatrical trailer] Twelve men have just discovered something. For 100,000 years, it was buried in the snow and ice. Now it has found a place to live. Inside. Where no one can see it. Or hear it. Or feel it.

Nauls (Carter) and Clark (Masur) playing pool; Norris (Hallahan), Bennings (Maloney), and Garry (Moffat) playing cards.

The main theme of this film is paranoia, distrust of others, based on the fact that “The Thing” is an alien able to imitate other life forms to perfection, thus making it next to impossible to be sure if any of the men in the research base in Antarctica is really a man, or an alien imitation waiting for its chance to change the other men into imitations.

This ability to pretend to be human or animal, not just in physical but in mental form, too, is also in Who Goes There?, unlike the 1951 film, which is essentially just a monster movie. The alien can slip in undetected and seem to be one of the men, knowing their memories and personality traits down to the last detail. Hence, “Who goes there?” implies the next, and even more relevant question: “Friend, or foe?”

II: Unity of Opposites

This friend/foe duality is merged in how those who seem friends are often really foes…and vice versa. This merging and juxtaposition of opposites is seen in other forms, too, as in the extremes of fire and ice, both of which end and preserve lives (i.e., the flame thrower and the blowing up/burning down of the research base, which kill alien manifestations and save the men; this burning happens in the freezing cold temperature of a winter in Antarctica, which can kill the men and preserve the alien in a state of hibernation…“to die, to sleep”). Also, there are the literally polar opposites of Antarctica versus Scandinavia (i.e., the Norwegians whom MacReady confuses with Swedes, so, the Arctic); then, there’s the 1951 movie’s moving of the setting from Antarctica to Alaska.

Another opposition in the film is in its implied anti-woman versus anti-male attitudes. There isn’t even one actress in the entire film (save Adrienne Barbeau‘s voice-acting of the “Chess Wizard” computer game, which sexist MacReady calls “baby,” and a “cheating bitch” before pouring his glass of booze into its inner circuitry, because he can’t accept losing a chess game to a ‘woman’), something to annoy any feminist. On the other hand, this very lack of females is ironically itself a criticism of masculinity, since the point of the film is the relative lack of empathy, cooperation, and friendship among the characters, virtues more stereotypically associated with femininity.

MacReady (Russell)

III: Who Were Our Real Friends and Foes During the Cold War?

The more germane question of the movie, however, is what does this alien represent, this “Thing” that causes so much alienation and confusion among the men? One allegorizing of the film is of the Cold War (indeed, the story is a literal cold war), representing the antagonism between the NATO and Warsaw pacts, and the danger of provoking MAD.

Some might see the alien as representing the Soviets, and therefore its spreading imitations of humans as the fear of the spread of communism; while the paranoid, bickering men represent such right-wing curmudgeons as those in the GOP (and since this is a Hollywood film, all of this hostility between the two extreme sides is best neutralized with a ‘balanced’ liberal mindset [!]).

Those of you who have read enough of my blog posts will know that I have no intention of interpreting this film’s meaning through either conservative or liberal lenses. I, contrarian that I am, plan to flip conventional analysis of this film on its head. So what follows will be, in part, a Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the story.

Though the men fighting off the thing are Americans, and at the beginning, Norwegians (that is, members of two countries that were founding members of NATO, and therefore ideological opposites to the Soviets), I see them as symbolic of any socialist state fighting off the forces of capitalist reaction. US vs USSR, friend vs foe, fire vs ice, all men vs no women: all dialectically related opposites, the one side merging and interacting with the other. Because of the dialectical unity in all contradictions, we can see an interesting irony in Americans representing their ideological foes.

The Thing, capable of taking on any shape and imitating any life form, as we see here in its cross between a giant insect and Norris’s head.

Consider what The Thing can do: taking on any shape or form, it sneaks up on unsuspecting people, attacks them, and replaces them with imitations of them; then those imitations do the same to others, again and again, until–theoretically, at least–the entire Earth has replaced all life with alien imitations. It’s rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, actually.

This spreading of a kind of cancer, if you will, wiping out all life and replacing it with the infection–is this not like what capitalism does? Modern capitalism grew out of the mercantilism and merchant capitalism that were dominant in the modernized parts of Europe about five centuries ago. Those two, as well as feudalism, transitioned into capitalism as the new form of class conflict, which then spread around the world.

Capitalism also causes alienation between workers, like the estrangement felt among the paranoid men in the film. It causes alienation from one’s species-essence, symbolized in the film by the contradiction between the False Self of the alien imitation and the True Self of the original man who is imitated.

The alien imitations pretend to be the men’s friends, just as capitalism is made out to be the friend of humanity, according to bourgeois propaganda, liberating us from Bolshevik state tyranny, eliminating poverty, and bringing about economic prosperity. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, especially since the disastrous dissolution of the USSR, has shown what lies these notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘poverty elimination‘ and ‘prosperity’ are, just as when we are shocked to learn that Norris and Palmer are aliens.

A research base in Antarctica: a lonely, isolated place, vulnerable to attack.

So in this context, the US research station in lonely Antarctica can be seen to represent any of the socialist states, past and present, that have been economically isolated by sanctions and embargoes. The Americans’ struggle to defeat The Thing represents the aggravation of class struggle under socialism, as manifested in the Great Purge and the Cultural Revolution. Stalin and Mao knew there were bourgeois traitors hiding among them and pretending to be fellow socialists (just as The Thing hides among the Americans in the film), and allowing them to gain the upper hand would have lead to the defeat of socialism, the actual achievement of which, as we have seen since the 1990s, has lead to the egregious wealth inequality, the constant threat of US imperialist war, and destruction of the earth that we’ve seen and are still seeing.

Now, as we recall, a lot of nastiness occurred in the USSR in the 1930s, and in China during the late 1960s, just as there is nastiness among the Americans in the movie as they try to eliminate the alien: MacReady shoots Clark (not an alien) in the head. Of all the men MacReady–threatening them with dynamite–has tied up, only Palmer is an alien; the men freak out, tied up and helpless, as the Palmer-Thing reveals itself and infects Windows, forcing MacReady to kill them both with the flamethrower. These problems are comparable with the innocent Soviets imprisoned and executed (the fault of Yezhov, not of Stalin), and with the violent moments of the Cultural Revolution.

The film begins with a sled dog (man’s best friend?) running in the snow towards the US research station, with Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing it and shooting at it. The Norwegian with the rifle shouts frantically about the danger the dog poses; since he isn’t shouting in English, the Americans have no idea what his problem is. Because of his constant shooting at the dog, and accidentally wounding Bennings, he seems crazy (Dr. Copper [Dysart] speculates that the “stir-crazy” Norwegian got “cabin fever”)…and dangerous himself; so Garry gets a pistol, points it out the window, and kills the man.

Communists are similarly seen as crazy (as are the victims of narcissists) when warning the world about capitalists (who, especially in the upper echelons of power and wealth, tend to be narcissists); they’re vilified and often killed, as is the Norwegian. My point is that we leftists, like the Norwegians, see a real danger that most other people don’t.

The Norwegian, trying desperately to kill the dog-imitation. Though this seems madness, yet there is method in’t.

Later, we see that sled dog looking intently, ominously, out a window at the Americans’ helicopter returning after investigating what happened at the Norwegian base. Ennio Morricone‘s keyboard soundtrack was playing when the dog was chased by the helicopter, with an eerie bass synth ostinato highlighting a pair of loud notes making us think of a heartbeat…the alien’s heartbeat? The dog isn’t man’s best friend, but his worst enemy.

When the dog is caught in the middle of making another dog into an imitation, Blair (Brimley) examines the internal organs of the imitation and realizes how indistinguishable those organs are from a real dog’s organs. He is so horrified by the implications of this alien ability (i.e., that it can imitate humans) that he goes mad and violent, and then has to be sedated and confined, separate from the other men.

The imitation is both internally and externally perfect, and so the alien can take on all kinds of shapes and forms. Recall what happens to Norris’s body when Dr. Copper does the defibrillating; a huge mouth opens up from Norris’s chest, with huge teeth that bite off Copper’s hands, killing him. Then Norris’s head rips off the body and grows what look like an insect’s legs and stalks with eyes on the top of each; hence MacReady’s correct observation that The Thing’s body parts, right down to drops of blood, can be complete life forms in themselves. Copper’s mutilation symbolizes the injuries the worker under capitalism often suffers, often without compensation.

Capitalism, too, can adapt and imitate many aspects of leftist ideology, in ways so convincing that many people confuse real leftism with phoney versions of it, for example, mainstream liberalism, social democracy, identity politics, social justice warriors, “democratic socialism,” etc. Tiny parts of capitalism existing within ‘socialism’ are still cancerous capitalism, and thus must be rooted out. Capitalism’s ability to adapt is remarkable, as David Harvey noted in a quote I’ve used in other blog posts, but it’s relevant to reuse it here, too:

“Capital is not a fixed magnitude! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of ‘accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.” –David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, page 262

Left to right: Childs (David), Dr. Copper (Dysart), Nauls (Carter), Clark (Masur), Garry (Moffat), and MacReady (Russell). No one trusts anyone, no one knows who is friend or foe. Friends and foes get confused.

So, with all this shapeshifting and adapting that The Thing does, who are the men’s friends, and who are their foes? Much suspicion is put on Clark, Windows (Waites), Garry, and MacReady, all of whom, it turns out, are not aliens (though we can’t be too sure about MacReady at the end of the movie). Windows in particular has a menacing look on his face as he waits in the shadows for MacReady to dip a hot wire into a sample of his blood, only to prove his innocence.

Similarly, who are the friends, and who the foes, of the working class? Is communists’ preoccupation with the imperialist plunder of the Third World a legitimate concern, or does this concern just make us ‘tankies‘ whose ‘over-solicitude’ is used to justify ‘dictatorship’? Will a few left-leaning reforms, giving the Western working class some free stuff, be sufficient, while we not only ignore but aggravate the exploitation of people in developing countries? Is getting rid of Trump and the GOP all we need to do, or is there something more fundamental that needs to be fixed in American politics?

As I mentioned above, this alien doesn’t need a full body to reproduce itself in imitations: a mere drop of its blood is enough, hence the efficacy of MacReady’s blood test with the hot wire (also used in the novella). Since I see the alien as symbolic of capitalism and imperialism, we should consider what the drops of blood–these ever-so-small parts of the alien’s body as fully-functioning, independent units of existence, each a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the whole Thing–imply about the danger of the existence of even the smallest manifestations of capitalism, that eerie alien (and alienating) heartbeat that never dies.

Social democracy incorporates strong unions, a welfare state, free education and healthcare, among other benefits for working people, all within the context of a market economy. Yugoslavia under Tito pursued a market socialist economy and remained independent of the Eastern Bloc; some say Yugoslavia‘s non-alliance with the Eastern Bloc gave Western imperialism an advantage, helping them defeat communism by the 1990s, thus ushering in the current neoliberal hell. Recall that Lenin’s NEP was only meant as a temporary measure. Stalin put an end to it after a mere eight years.

Even the smallest part of The Thing–its blood–can exist as a complete entity, and thus as a formidable enemy.

Even the smallest amounts of capitalism–just like even the smallest amounts of The Thing–can’t be allowed to live and thrive. The microcosm is no less evil than the macrocosm.

IV: The Narcissistic Thing

While discussing the tinier manifestations of evil as seen in The Thing, consider how narcissism or psychopathy (seen in ambitious, exploitative individuals) are the microcosm of the macrocosm of capitalism and class war. People with Cluster B personality disorders will slip in among the crowd of normal people, pretend to be as normal as the latter, and will treat them as extensions of themselves, just as The Thing does to the Americans.

Non-psychopathic and non-narcissistic people will be falsely accused of having either those pathologies (i.e., through projection) or similar ones, as Clark, Garry, Windows, and MacReady are suspected of being alien imitations. Not only will the Cluster-B-disordered one accuse the innocent, but so will his enablers (even the unwitting enablers), as is the case when the non-assimilated men accuse each other of being ‘Things.’

The narcissist or psychopath is, like The Thing, selfish, wishing only to survive, even at the cost of betraying his own kind (this selfishness is noted especially in the novella with respect to “the monster”–Chapter VIII). A game of divide and conquer is played, making the victims hostile to each other instead of to the victimizer. We see this antagonism in The Thing, in the exploitative relationship between narcissists and their victims–that is, on the microcosmic level–and in class relations (i.e., big corporations vs. small businesses and workers) on the macrocosmic level. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

The imitation of Palmer (Clennon), once exposed as such.

Still, the narcissist needs other people to give him narcissistic supply, and the capitalist always needs new supplies of profit to offset the TRPF; just as The Thing always needs a new supply of life forms to assimilate. If the narcissist’s True Self is exposed, he goes berserk with narcissistic rage, feeling the danger of psychological fragmentation; just as the alien goes wild and physically comes apart when Palmer is exposed as an imitation.

Heat will expose the alien, and fire will kill it. It can, however, hibernate in ice. The narcissist, as well as the capitalist, has an icy heart–cold is his home. The Thing, narcissist, and capitalist can all hide in human warmth, though, pretending to be a friend even as they plot our destruction.

V: The Thing-in-itself

So, to recap, The Thing could be seen as symbolizing the threat of the spread of communism, as conservatives and liberals would see it. In my Marxist interpretation, the alien invader represents capitalist imperialism, the microcosm of which (that is, The Thing’s blood) is the narcissistic or psychopathic personality. But this all depends on one’s sense perceptions.

What is The Thing, in itself?

Thanks to Kant, I’ve just answered my own question.

Das Ding an sich.

The Thing appears to be a sled dog at the beginning of the film, thanks to the limitations of the Americans’ sense impressions. When they see the thing-in-itself, that is, in mid-transformation into other dogs, they realize their senses have deceived them. The men continue to have this sensory deception throughout the film, as do we, the viewers, right up to when MacReady and Childs share the bottle of scotch and begin freezing to death.

In this sense, The Thing represents the source of human problems, whatever that source really is; it is what it is, in spite of the limitations of our sensory impressions, those of our world view, those of our political biases. Conservatives’ and liberals’ biases would call that source communism, or something similar. Marxists like me would call that source the capitalism that conservatives and liberals defend (in its ‘free market‘ or ‘kinder, gentler‘ forms, respectively).

So, which is the friend, capitalism or communism, and which the foe? According to John Carpenter, one of the two freezing men sharing the bottle is an alien assimilation: is it Childs, or MacReady? Which is the friend, and which the foe? Is the friend the man who–suspected of being a foe–‘Stalinistically’ [!] had most of the other men tied up, and yet exposed Parker; and is the foe Childs, who was opposed to imperious MacReady’s blood testing, yet at the end of the film shows no light reflection in his eyes, and whose breath isn’t visible?

As for the thing-in-itself, some, like Wilfred Bion in his mystical conception of O, might associate Kant’s idea with God, or Ultimate Reality. O is to be understood intuitively through the abandonment of memory, desire, and understanding–no use of deceptive sense impressions. Bion didn’t sentimentalize his mystical idea, though; he acknowledged that O results in moments of ominous and turbulent feelings…feelings the alien certainly provokes in the Americans…feelings that cause one to lose one’s anchor of security in everyday reality.

The seemingly omnipotent Thing is too terrifying to contemplate in its unmasked reality.

If The Thing, as thing-in-itself, is some form of Divinity, again we must ask: is God friend, or foe? Is Ultimate Reality a comforting…or a terrifying…reality? Recall that Christians (Protestants in particular) often embrace capitalism, believing that God is rewarding their work ethic, seen as an expression of their religious faith, with financial success. Thus, God is a friend to the capitalists–to the rest of us, not so much.

During the end credits, we hear Morricone’s funereal organ tune and its alien heartbeat bass synth line; a fusion of life and death, more dialectical unity in opposites. The killing alien is still alive. The defeat of communism is a joy to the capitalists, but a catastrophe to us Marxists, who see imperialism‘s continued destruction of the rest of the world, just as The Thing will surely continue to assimilate other humans when a rescue team comes and finds the American research base.

When Childs and MacReady freeze, the human will die and The Thing will hibernate until that rescue team comes and thaws it out. Which man is real, and which is fake? It’s been said that all the men whose eyes show a reflection of light are real, and those without that reflection–like Palmer, Norris, and Childs (at the end)–are imitations. But that’s just the opinion, the sense perception, of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who deliberately provided a subtle illumination to the eyes of uninfected characters, something absent from Childs, with his conspicuously invisible breath, at the end. 

Cundey created that sense impression in the characters’ eyes, just as we all create our own sense impressions of the world through our personal biases. Does light in the eyes symbolize ‘seeing the light’ of human truth, or do we just interpret the symbolism that way? Is the light in our eyes just the limitation of our own sense perceptions?

If, Dear Reader, your senses perceive it to be disturbing that I would consider the communists our friends, and the capitalists–of every conceivable stripe–our foes, remember that The Thing is a horror movie. That’s the whole scary thing about the film: we don’t know who our friends and enemies really are, including our ideological friends and foes; and in spite of the persuasiveness of the light-in-the-eyes theory, we don’t know for sure which man–Childs, or MacReady–is The Thing.

The two freezing men will just have to wait there a little while, and see what happens.

Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

Pink Floyd–The Wall is a 1982 film directed by Alan Parker and written by Roger Waters, with music from Pink Floyd‘s 1979 album, The Wall. It stars Bob Geldof in the role of Pink, an alienated rock star (modelled after Waters) who isolates himself from the world with a metaphorical wall built around him.

Indeed, the film is intensely metaphorical and semi-autobiographical (of Waters), with numerous surreal animated sequences done by Gerald Scarfe. It deals with themes of alienation, madness, and ultimately, fascism. It has little dialogue, with the song lyrics largely filling in the verbal narration.

The film was generally well-received (now having cult status), in spite of problems with production and its creators’ dissatisfaction with what resulted.

Here is a link to all the lyrics from the album.

The film begins in a hotel hallway, one side of it, with its wall and row of doors, being prominent. A maid is going from room to room with a vacuum cleaner. A song is heard about Christmas, and a little boy for whom the holiday is no different from any other, for Santa Claus forgot him. This is an indirect reference to Pink, who is then seen in his room, watching TV alone, remembering his dead father. She’d like to clean his room, and she knocks on his door, but he ignores her.

Pink (played by Bob Geldof).

Her attempts to open the door agitate him, making him think of the hell of having people around him, watching him. We then see images of running British soldiers fighting in WWII, juxtaposed with a running crowd of Pink’s fans at one of his concerts who are violently apprehended by cops for their unruliness, then with Pink’s fantasy of himself as a fascist leader at a rally with his crowd of followers, actually his fans at his concert. The sequence of images ends with the killing of his father in the war.

This juxtaposition is significant in how it identifies and equates these three groups. Soldiers, as patriots, are fans of their country, fans (that is, fanatics) to the point of being willing to kill for the fatherland. Fans of a rock star idolize him to the point of stampeding in a concert venue (the kind of thing that can lead to such tragic accidents as the trampling-to-death of eleven Who fans at a Cincinnati concert in 1979, the same year The Wall was released as an album) and being willing to believe or do whatever the rock star wants. Fascists are a kind of military rock star, if you will: charming, hypnotizing, and manipulating their followers to do whatever the leader wants them to do, as Hitler demonstrated.

Pink’s estrangement from the world is rooted in several childhood traumas: his bullying teachers, his over-protective mother, and most importantly, the death of his father as a soldier in WWII, before Pink was even at an age to have known him.

These three sources of trauma all involve, in one sense or another, Pink’s relationship with authority, how that authority has dominated his life. How his mother and the teachers have oppressed him is obvious; how his dead father has done so requires further explanation.

Pink as a boy (played by Kevin McKeon).

While Pink’s father’s death in WWII is autobiographical, in how Waters’s father also died as a soldier in that war, the death of Pink’s father can also be symbolic of the death of God the Father. Note that Waters, unlike his late father, is an atheist. Thus Pink’s father can be seen on one level as symbolic of Church authority, its validity dead to both Pink and Waters, yet still weighing down on them.

On the other hand, the literal death of Pink’s (and Waters’s) father is still troubling the rock star decades later. This goes way beyond mere mourning: this is melancholia, which leads to a discussion of Freud‘s reflections on the matter in Mourning and Melancholia.

As Freud conceptualized it, mourning and melancholia share almost all of the same traits, except that only in melancholia is there also a profound self-hate. Freud theorized that this self-hate results from ambivalent feelings towards the lost loved one, a mix of unconscious hate and hostility with the expected love for him or her, if not a pure, though repressed, hostility. The lost loved one has been internalized, introjected into the mourning subject (the self), and is now an internal object; so any hate or hostility felt for the object (the other person) is now felt for the self, who reproaches himself for having ‘willed’ the death of the loved one.

Freud explains: “If one listens patiently to a melancholic’s many and various self-accusations, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love. Every time one examines the facts this conjecture is confirmed. So we find the key to the clinical picture: we perceive that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego.” (Freud, pages 256-257)

Daddy died in the war.

Freud’s insights here became part of the origin of object relations theory, as further developed by Melanie Klein, DW Winnicott, WRD Fairbairn, Wilfred R Bion, and others. The point I’m making about Pink (and Waters, presumably) is that he feels as though the ghost of his father is still inside him, tormenting and oppressing him.

Pink feels as though his father abandoned him by dying when he was a baby:

Daddy’s flown across the ocean
Leaving just a memory
A snapshot in the family album
Daddy, what else did you leave for me?
Daddy, what d’ya leave behind for me?
All in all, it was just a brick in the wall
All in all, it was all just bricks in the wall

This has led to feelings of hostility towards his father–as well as a longing for him. Thus, Pink’s hostility is redirected back at him, oppressing him, because he has internalized his father.

Freud explains: “…identification is a preliminary stage of object-choice, that it is the first way–and one that is expressed in an ambivalent fashion–in which the ego picks out an object. The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. […]

“Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism. It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning. The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open. Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it.” (Freud, pages 258-260)

Young Pink identifying with his father by wearing his army hat.

We see a visual manifestation of Pink’s identifying with his father in the scene when he, about ten years old, goes through his father’s old things, puts on his dad’s uniform (which, of course, is far too big to fit), then sees himself in the mirror. The image alternates between seeing the boy’s reflection and seeing his father in the uniform.

This is Lacan‘s mirror: young Pink looks awkward in his father’s uniform, and the image of his father, alternating with that of himself, in the reflection represents the alienation of oneself from the reflected image. His father looks perfect, even ideal, as a war hero, in the uniform; but that uniform is awkwardly too big on the boy. His father is his ideal-I, but his imperfect approximation to that ideal means he is alienated from his ideal and from himself.

Since I’ve argued that his dead father symbolizes dead God, too, then we see atheist Pink (a stand-in for atheist Waters) as alienated from God the Father, particularly in the scene with him (about the age of six) and his mother in church. Only she prays; he shows no interest in religious matters. He does, however, play with a toy fighter airplane, thus showing his wish to be a warrior like his father (though it was a fighter plane that killed his father, so the boy’s playing with the toy plane could also be seen as an unconscious wish to do away with his father, a reflection of that ambivalence of love and hostility). Once again, Pink is alienated from an ideal Father, though trying to identify with his real father (from whom he is also alienated).

The next authoritarian source of his traumas is his school life. One teacher in particular is abusive, giving bad kids canings and humiliating Pink by reading one of the boy’s poems aloud in class. The poem in question is the song lyric from ‘Money.’

Money, get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack […]

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

The abusive teacher (played by Alex McAvoy).

The teacher calls the boy’s writing “absolute rubbish,” and demands that he focus on his lesson. Since ‘Money‘ is a critique of capitalism, and the teacher is invalidating the poem, we see in this scene how capitalism stifles creativity. (I’ve briefly discussed this stifling in other analyses.)

The abusive teacher shouldn’t be seen as just a tyrannical entity unto himself, though, for he has a domineering wife he has to put up with every day at home. People receive abuse, then pass it on to others. Pink himself does this, in his emotional neglect of his wife, driving her into the arms of another man; in his terrifying of the groupie by busting up his hotel room in a manic rage; and finally, in his fantasy as a fascist who inspires violence in his followers.

After Pink’s humiliation in the classroom, he daydreams about the suffering of his oppressed classmates, who are all seen marching–looking like automatons and wearing grotesque masks of school conformity–towards a meat grinder (the shadows of which ominously show the fascist hammers to be seen later, an indication of what excessive conformity can lead to) spewing out shit-shaped meat. Ultimately, Pink fantasizes about a student revolution, involving the teacher getting his comeuppance.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

The surreal nature of this scene, as with all the cartoon sequences, shows how all of this is Pink’s unconscious phantasy. Indeed, this whole film is about the turbulent, conflicted world of the unconscious.

What’s interesting, given the teacher’s henpecked attitude towards his wife, is how he could be seen as a substitute father for Pink. As a violent, bullying authoritarian, the teacher certainly embodies the stereotype of the conservative father; as such a substitute father, the teacher would thus be a disappointing, alienating one, disillusioning Pink from his ideal father and–through his identification with his father–driving him towards his own authoritarian, fascist fantasies. The teacher’s submission to his wife also parallels Pink’s own submission to his mother, suggesting an equating of one woman with the other.

This observation leads us to the third source of Pink’s traumas, that of his over-protective mother. She is oversolicitous about him getting sick, fretting in a conversation with the doctor. We see the boy climb in bed with her, indicating his unresolved Oedipal relationship with her.

Pink’s mother (played by Christine Hargreaves).

Mama’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you.
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby,
Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall.

Mother do you think she’s good enough, for me?
Mother do you think she’s dangerous, to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Ooh ah,
Mother will she break my heart? Hush now baby, baby don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you.
Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through.
Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in.
Mama will always find out where you’ve been.

Because of this Oedipal relationship, Pink will find it difficult to have intimate relationships with women, for no woman could ever replace Mama. Small wonder his marriage is a disaster, as is his picking up of the groupie. He shows hardly any sexual interest in women at all. One wonders: is Pink a virgin?

Pink and his estranged wife (played by Eleanor David).

Though Pink is emotionally neglectful of his wife, a residual part of him still wants to connect with her, hence the number of long-distance calls he makes to her from hotels or pay phones while he’s on tour. Nonetheless, his attempts to connect with her are too little, too late. She’s already in bed with another man, and Pink knows.

Through his constant melancholia, he already hates himself (really an introjection of the bad father object he’s angry with for having abandoned him by dying in the war, as explained above). Since being cuckolded has always been a crushing source of shame for men, Pink finds his wife’s being with another man to be an unbearable intensifying of his self-hate.

This is not “just another brick in the wall”: this is many scores of bricks. Hence, the cartoon sequence with the all-enveloping wall, a screaming head emerging from the bricks.

This wall represents what Fairbairn called the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration that all of us have as a part of our personalities, though people like Pink have it far worse than the average person. According to Fairbairnian psychoanalysis, the libido seeks objects (i.e., other people to have relationships with); but after experiencing disappointments in relationships, or the kind of trauma Pink has endured, the ego splits into three parts–the original, Central Ego that seeks real bonds with other people (the Ideal Object), the Libidinal Ego that seeks pleasure (the Exciting Object), and the Anti-libidinal Ego that builds metaphorical walls (keeping the Rejecting Object away).

Because of his wife’s infidelity, Pink’s Anti-libidinal Ego is going into overdrive, rejecting all contact with anyone. Furthermore, as a surreal part-animation sequence shows, he is also experiencing persecutory anxiety, as if his wife is vengefully attacking him for neglecting her…and, even, abusing her…

How could you go?
When you know how I need you
To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night

Still, small residual amounts of the other two thirds of his fragmented psyche remain. What’s left of his Central Ego later asks, “Is there anybody out there?” to any possible manifestations of the Ideal Object. His Libidinal Ego, as moribund as it is, also seeks out the Exciting Object in the form of a groupie.

This pleasure-seeking is a manic defence aimed at getting him to forget his pain. The attempt fails miserably, of course, because pleasure-seeking results from a failure to build relationships with others, as Fairbairn noted: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140).

Pink’s groupie (played by Jenny Wright).

Freud also noted how manic pleasure-seeking is an attempt, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, to deal with grief: “…the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’, but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside. Our second pointer is afforded by the observation that all states such as joy, exultation or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania, depend on the same economic conditions.” (Freud, page 263)

That this attempt at pleasure-seeking with a groupie is doomed from the start is seen in the fantasy visuals of a group of girls arriving and seducing security guards, symbols of Pink’s super-ego, in turn an internalizing of his domineering, moralizing, overprotective mother. Pink’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s approximation to Freud’s id) fantasizes that the Exciting Object (the groupies), by seducing the super-ego/security guards, will free his libido to enjoy the girls, which of course will never happen, because…Mama. The song, ‘Young Lust,’ with the lyrics, “Ooh, I need a dirty woman/Ooh, I need a dirty girl,” is so obviously non-Pink Floyd in nature (the song is actually a parody of arena rock) that it can be understood as a sarcastic attitude of celibate Pink.

The surreal animation sequence, of copulating/cannibalistic flowers, is a far more accurate representation of Pink’s attitude towards sex. A phallic flower, symbolizing Pink, is hesitant before entering a yonic flower, representing his wife, or any female partner. When intercourse is achieved, the ‘female’ flower devours the ‘male’ with her ‘vagina dentata.’ Next, we see the creation of the wall with its screaming head. The animation ends with a hammer (having formed from a raised fist, the kind symbolic of socialism), then we see a store window broken with the same, portentous kind of hammer, reminding us of when the Nazis attacked Jewish stores.

Alienation and self-hate can, and often do, lead to fascism. What’s more, fascism tends to lead people astray from socialism, hence the fist morphing into a hammer.

Self-hate also leads to a rejection of humanity, of neediness of anyone or anything, because the hate, unbearable as it is, gets projected outwards:

I don’t need no arms around me
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don’t think I need anything at all
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all

Thus, he’s rejected the groupie, despite her attempts to contain his tormented, loner self by sucking on his fingers, to take in his pain and hold it, as a mother would her baby’s anxieties in a state of maternal reverie. Still, he won’t be contained, so he flips out, terrifying her and smashing everything in the hotel room, a projection of his self-hate.

Run to the bedroom
In the suitcase on the left
You’ll find my favourite axe
Don’t look so frightened
This is just a passing phase
One of my bad days
Would you like to watch TV?
Or get between the sheets?

Later, he arranges all of his smashed property into some kind of work of art (the only substantial example of creativity we ever see him engage in) on the floor. Broken records and guitars, cigarettes, and other things are spread out on the carpet in rectangular shapes and straight lines.

Then he goes into the washroom to shave. His looking at himself in the mirror parallels when he, as a boy, looked at his reflection in his father’s uniform. His reflection, in Lacan’s mirror, represents an idealized, coherent, unified person that the man looking at it–being a fragmented, awkward man who’s falling apart inside–would like to measure up to.

To attain the mirrored ideal this time, though, instead of adding to his imperfect self (i.e., wearing his dad’s uniform), Pink feels he must remove unwanted, disliked things from himself (shaving his chest and eyebrows, cutting himself many times). His self-hate is growing: all that shaved hair represents the ugliness in himself that he hates; also, his self-hate expresses itself through his self-injury with the razors.

This removal of unwanted hair reminds us of how women suffer to be beautiful, shaving their legs, armpits, pubic hair, and (in the case of such medieval/Renaissance fashions as those typified by the Mona Lisa) even eyebrows. Pink’s self-hate is women’s everyday self-hate, introjected from society; his very name makes us think of the stereotypical girls’ colour.

Pink is back watching his TV, like all of us zombies staring at the idiot box, or these days, at our phones, tablets, and laptops. His unconscious wanders about in a dreamlike state: we see young Pink wandering about the fields of WWII, seeing the bloody bodies of the soldiers; evidently, he’s still looking for his dad.

Young Pink here represents Fairbairn’s Central Ego, seeking the Ideal Object of his father. He goes through a military hospital, finding present-day Pink (representing the Anti-libidinal Ego) going mad, and he sees adult Pink watching TV in the field, with those ominous hammers among the tall grasses and bushes.

Pink’s manager (played by Bob Hoskins) breaks through the hotel door with a group of men, all of them needing Pink to get ready to perform at a concert that night. Shocked at the sight of Pink in his mentally broken-down state, they give him a shot of something to bring him back so he can do the show. We hear the song ‘Comfortably Numb.’

As the song is playing, Pink goes through a series of memories of everything that has traumatized him, including a time when young Pink found a huge rat in a field and wanted to take care of it at home. Naturally, his mother would never have a rat in her house; but this being one of the few times Pink has ever connected with another living thing, he is deeply hurt by his mother’s rejection of it.

The assonance of the line “I have become comfortably numb” expresses the ‘pleasure’ of feeling immune to any emotions, since they can only cause pain for Pink. Emotional numbness is a common avoidance symptom of PTSD sufferers.

As David Gilmour‘s second guitar solo is playing and Pink is carried from the hotel to a car taking him to the show, he hallucinates that his body is melting and decomposing. This symbolizes his psychological fragmentation, his disintegration, his falling apart. The imagery of worms, which eat away at corpses, add to this sense of Pink’s self-destruction.

In the car on the way to the concert, Pink finds the one and only way to protect himself from fragmentation: to take on the narcissistic False Self of posing as a fascist.

Narcissistic defences against fragmentation are far from the only reasons Pink has for fantasizing about fascism. Recall that one of his main problems is self-hate, which he tries to project outwards. Hatred for “any queers” out there, anyone who “looks Jewish,” every “coon,” and anyone “smoking a joint” is an obvious projection of his self-hate, as is the case with any Nazi.

But there’s a deeper thing going on in Pink’s unconscious: recall that hostility to his father, introjected and now an internal object, thus becoming self-hate. Instead of facing his taboo hate against a father he feels abandoned him by dying fighting fascism, he fantasizes that he is his father’s ideological foe. (Obviously, his father’s death wasn’t really an abandoning of him, but we aren’t concerned with physical reality here, only with Pink’s mental and emotional representation of reality.) In Pink’s mind, it’s better to be a fascist than not to “honour thy father and thy mother,” a Biblical morality no doubt reinforced throughout his childhood by his domineering mother.

Then there’s the relationship between fascism and capitalism. Roger Waters, as a rock star whose left-wing father fought fascism, has always had ambivalent feelings about his wealth, and Pink represents him in this autobiographical film. Waters’s writing of ‘Money’ represents this ambivalence, for though the love of “money, so they say, is the root of all evil today,” Waters (and therefore, Pink too, no doubt) naturally likes the luxuries capitalism provides those in the upper classes. Waters and Pink have wrestled with the guilt of this craving for lucre, for–Dengists aside–socialists tend to frown on the personal accumulation of wealth and capital.


Pink the fascist.

Along with Waters’s/Pink’s ambivalence towards capitalism is fascism’s unholy alliance with the profit motive. Consider Big Business’s financing of Hitler in their hopes that the Nazis would crush the Soviet Union (something Churchill also hoped for, especially after the Nazi defeat, and Pink’s father fought under Winston’s leadership). Consider MI5’s paying of Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in the imperialist First World War, and capitalists’ glee that his fascists crushed the socialists in Italy back in the early 1920s.

Finally, the cult of personality that fascist leaders use to hypnotize the masses is not all that far removed from the hero worship that rock fans engage in, and that rock stars use for their financial gain and narcissistic supply. For all of the above reasons, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see an ‘anti-establishment’ rock star embracing far-right thinking.

Now, Pink’s projection outward of self-hate, inciting his fans to attack ethnic and racial minorities in England, can’t be expected to last long, since identifying with some of the world’s most despised people is hardly a cure for self-hate. So, a vision of those marching hammers is enough to make Pink scream, “Stop!”

Personified hammers: the only way humanity can be together, in Pink’s mind, is to be mindless automatons, without individuality, acting as instruments of destruction.

We next see Pink reading in a toilet cubicle of a public washroom, of all places, sitting next to a toilet. His self-esteem is so low, he’s literally on a level with shit. One of those security guards, who as I mentioned above in their encounter with the groupies, represent Pink’s super-ego, opens the door to the toilet cubicle to find him there.

Recall that the adult Pink represents his Anti-libidinal Ego, which Fairbairn devised to replace, and therefore make approximately equivalent to, Freud’s super-ego. Fairbairn originally called the Anti-libidinal Ego the Internal Saboteur, and it’s easy to see how Pink has sabotaged his whole inner emotional life. Furthermore, the overly judgemental, moralistic super-ego is essentially an inner critic, tearing down one’s self-esteem, often requiring one to build a protective wall around oneself, as the Anti-libidinal Ego does by rejecting people and pushing them away. Thus, in Pink we see a fusion of Freud’s and Fairbairn’s concepts of aspects of the human personality.

Fittingly, when the door to the toilet stall is opened, we don’t see Pink reading beside the toilet anymore, but instead we see the beginning of an animated sequence, with the enveloping wall, guarded by the hammers, and a doll-like figure lying against the wall. Here is Pink at his most vulnerable, and his cruel super-ego is about to judge him.

He is accused of daring to show feelings (Egad!), and he is judged, in turn, by that abusive old schoolteacher (who in turn is abused by his puppet-master wife in a kind of S and M fantasy), Pink’s wife (who calls him a “little shit”), and his mother. These three are all internalized bad objects who–having been repressed before–have now returned to torment him.

The conclusion that Pink has gone mad is expressed in a predictably judgemental way, using slang euphemisms and lacking any compassion:

Crazy
Toys in the attic, I am crazy
Truly gone fishing
They must have taken my marbles away
(Crazy, toys in the attic, he is crazy)

The judge declares his wish to defecate, he’s so disgusted with Pink’s inadequacies. The final judgement? “Tear down the wall!” Now, tearing down the wall is a necessary condition in helping Pink, but it’s far from being a sufficient condition, for the wall’s removal alone won’t reunite him with humanity–it will only expose him to humanity’s judgements. And in his fragile emotional state, such judgements would be disastrous for him, causing him either to succumb to fragmentation, or simply to build another wall.

Ultimately, the true source of his trauma–his ambivalent, love-hate attitude towards his father, the root of his melancholia–has not been processed or healed. This healing must occur, though. His unconscious hostility to his father–for not being there with him when he grew up–was never brought up to his conscious mind. Without that processing and healing, he’ll never be able to rejoin humanity.

So, what should we make of the ending? The three children in this scene can be seen as aspects of Pink’s inner child. The girl’s collecting of milk bottles suggests a wish to return to being nurtured by his mother; the dark-haired boy’s emptying of the Molotov cocktail could represent a wish to end all hostility. But the blond-haired boy, collecting bricks and putting them in a toy truck, seems to represent a wish to use them to rebuild the wall.

The message of Pink Floyd–The Wall, as I see it, is about the relationship between internal and external pathologies. We start with childhood traumas, in this case, Pink’s mourning and melancholia over his lost father, then his domineering, over-protective mother, his abusive schoolteachers, and finally, his explosive reaction to his wife’s infidelity. From here we go from his inner world to the outer world.

As a rock star, Pink enjoys the luxurious lifestyle of the rich, a product of capitalism, which also, by the way, reinforces alienation, a social estrangement Pink is already suffering. This combination of rejecting people, but enjoying material objects–like the smashed-up ones he makes into a work of art on the carpet of his hotel room, or the buildings, cars, stereos, and TVs seen as part of the wall in one of the animation sequences–exacerbates the inner problem by making it into a social one. When this problem comes to a head, we can find ourselves faced with a rise in fascism.

Shall we buy a new guitar
Shall we drive a more powerful car
Shall we work straight through the night
Shall we get into fights
Leave the lights on
Drop bombs

Look at our world today: the number of Pinks out there is disturbing. Alienated people, from broken or abusive families, stare at TVs instead of connecting with others; people who worship rock stars, celebrities, and authoritarian demagogues, blindly following them instead of thinking for themselves. These idolized narcissists, typically members of the capitalist class, feed on our insecurities, separating us and making us fight with each other when we should unite. We need to tear down the walls, but if we don’t heal our old wounds, those bricks will just get collected and used to build new walls.

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

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

Analysis of ‘Salomé’

I: Introduction

Salomé is an opera by Richard Strauss that premiered in 1905, the libretto being Hedwig Lachmann‘s German translation (with some editing by Strauss) of Oscar Wilde‘s 1891 French play. Wilde’s play, of course, was in turn inspired by the Biblical narratives in the Gospels According to Mark and Matthew.

Wilde transformed the brief Biblical story, making what’s implied explicit, namely how Salomé’s dance sexually aroused the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, elaborating on it as The Dance of the Seven Veils, considered by some to be the origin, however unwitting, of the modern striptease. Wilde also altered certain details, such as when, in the Biblical version, Herodias tells her daughter, Salomé, to demand the head of John the Baptist; instead, Wilde has Salome ask for “the head of Iokanaan” of her own accord.

Both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera caused scandals on their earliest performances, resulting in performances of them being cancelled or banned, for example in London, for many years. Now, Strauss’s opera is considered a masterwork, a regular part of any orchestral or operatic repertoire.

II: Quotes

Here are some quotes from Wilde’s play (some of which are not in Strauss’s opera), in English translation:

“How beautiful is the Princess Salomé to-night!” –Narraboth, the young Syrian, Captain of the Guard

“You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.” –Herodias’ page

“How pale the Princess is! Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver.” –Narraboth

“The Jews worship a God that one cannot see.” –First Soldier

“After me shall come another mightier than I. I am not worthy so much as to unloose the latchet of his shoes. When he cometh, the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.” –the voice of Iokanaan, heard from below, in a cistern

“What a strange voice! I would speak with him.” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

[Approaching the cistern and looking down into it.] “How black it is, down there ! It must be terrible to be in so black a hole ! It is like a tomb. . . . .” [To the soldiers.] “Did you not hear me? Bring out the prophet. I would look on him.” –Salomé

“Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, and to-morrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers I will let fall for thee a little flower, a little green flower.” –Salomé

“Oh! How strange the moon looks. Like the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.” –Herodias’ page

“Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full? Where is he, who in a robe of silver shall one day die in the face of all the people? Bid him come forth, that he may hear the voice of him who hath cried in the waste places and in the houses of kings.” –Iokanaan, having emerged from the underground cistern

“It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons. . . . Do you think he will speak again?” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

“Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me. Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids? I know not who she is. I do not desire to know who she is. Bid her begone. It is not to her that I would speak.” –Iokanaan, of Salomé

“Speak again, Iokanaan. Thy voice is as music to mine ear.” –Salomé

“Back! daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

“Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust. It is like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck. I love not thy hair. . . . It is thy mouth that I desire, Iokanaan.” […] “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.” –Salomé

IOKANAAN: Never! daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never.

SALOMÉ: I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.

“Cursed be thou! daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed!” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

HEROD: Where is Salomé? Where is the Princess? Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded her? Ah! there she is!

HERODIAS: You must not look at her! You are always looking at her! […]

HEROD: I am not ill, It is your daughter who is sick to death. Never have I seen her so pale.

HERODIAS: I have told you not to look at her.

HEROD: Pour me forth wine [wine is brought.] Salomé, come drink a little wine with me. I have here a wine that is exquisite. Cæsar himself sent it me. Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.

SALOMÉ: I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.

HEROD: You hear how she answers me, this daughter of yours?

HERODIAS: She does right. Why are you always gazing at her?

HEROD: Bring me ripe fruits [fruits are brought.] Salomé, come and eat fruits with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit that I may eat what is left.

SALOMÉ: I am not hungry, Tetrarch. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Behold the time is come! That which I foretold has come to pass. The day that I spoke of is at hand.

HERODIAS: Bid him be silent. I will not listen to his voice. This man is for ever hurling insults against me.

HEROD: He has said nothing against you. Besides, he is a very great prophet. […]

A THIRD JEW: God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in all places. God is in what is evil even as He is in what is good.

A FOURTH JEW: Thou shouldst not say that. It is a very dangerous doctrine, it is a doctrine that cometh from Alexandria, where men teach the philosophy of the Greeks. And the Greeks are Gentiles: They are not even circumcised. […]

FIRST NAZARENE, of Jesus: This man worketh true miracles. Thus, at a marriage which took place in a little town of Galilee, a town of some importance, He changed water into wine. Certain persons who were present related it to me. Also He healed two lepers that were seated before the Gate of Capernaum simply by touching them. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN, of Herodias: Ah! the wanton one! The harlot! Ah! the daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and her gilded eyelids! Thus saith the Lord God, Let there come up against her a multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her. . . .

HERODIAS: Command him to be silent.

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Let the captains of the hosts pierce her with their swords, let them crush her beneath their shields. […]

HEROD: Dance for me, Salomé.

HERODIAS: I will not have her dance.

SALOMÉ: I have no desire to dance, Tetrarch. […]

HEROD: Salomé, Salomé, dance for me. I pray thee dance for me. I am sad to-night. Yes; I am passing sad to-night. When I came hither I slipped in blood, which is an evil omen; also I heard in the air a beating of wings, a beating of giant wings. I cannot tell what they mean . . . I am sad to-night. Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech thee. If thou dancest for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: [Rising.] Will you indeed give me whatsoever I shall ask of thee, Tetrarch? […]

HEROD: Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: You swear it, Tetrarch?

HEROD: I swear it, Salomé. […]

SALOMÉ: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]

HEROD: Ah! wonderful! wonderful! You see that she has danced for me, your daughter. Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give thee thy fee. Ah! I pay a royal price to those who dance for my pleasure. I will pay thee royally. I will give thee whatsoever thy soul desireth. What wouldst thou have? Speak.

SALOMÉ [Kneeling]: I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . .

HEROD [Laughing]: In a silver charger? Surely yes, in a silver charger. She is charming, is she not? What is it thou wouldst have in a silver charger, O sweet and fair Salomé, thou art fairer than all the daughters of Judæa? What wouldst thou have them bring thee in a silver charger? Tell me. Whatsoever it may be, thou shalt receive it. My treasures belong to thee. What is it that thou wouldst have, Salomé?

SALOMÉ [Rising]: The head of Iokanaan.

HERODIAS: Ah! that is well said, my daughter.

HEROD: No, no!

HERODIAS: That is well said, my daughter. […]

“You have sworn an oath, Herod.” –Salomé

“Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Iokanaan, I love only thee. . . . I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire. . . Ah! ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me? If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater that the mystery of death.” –Salomé, holding and gazing upon the severed head of Iokanaan

“She is monstrous, thy daughter I tell thee she is monstrous.” –Herod, to Herodias

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood ? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. . . . They say that love hath a bitter taste. . . . But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth.” –Salomé, still with Iokanaan’s head

HEROD: [Turning round and seeing Salomé.] Kill that woman! [The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa.]

III: Themes and Beginning

Recurring themes in the play/opera include these: lust, with gazing/leering/staring at the object of desire, hence objectification; the conflict between, and complementarity of, opposites (love/loathing, spirituality/carnality, desire/disgust, white/black, male/female roles, beauty/ugliness, life/death, victim/victimizer, etc.); and the decadence of the ruling classes, as against the assurances for the oppressed that revolution, redemption, and liberation are soon to come.

The story begins at night, just outside a banquet held by Herod, his wife, Herodias (widow of his half-brother, Herod II), and her daughter, Salomé, along with all their guests in Herod’s palace. The moon is shining, silvery-white and bright. Silvery-white because, as Narraboth says, “She [the moon] is like a little princess…whose feet are of silver,” and “who has little white doves for feet.”

Narraboth, a young Syrian and Captain of the Guard, amorously declares how beautiful Salomé looks. The Page of Herodias wishes he wouldn’t always stare at her, for the Page fears that disaster will come of his passion.

The moon is a pale, virgin, silvery white, as is Salomé’s flesh. The moon looks so pale and white, “She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman,” as the page of Herodias observes.

The princess-moon, with her innocent white feet, can drive men lunatic, as can Salomé’s virginal beauty; as, in turn, the holy purity of similarly-pale Iokanaan drives her mad with love for him. In this play, virginal innocence is dialectically related to the deadly sin of lust: the one opposite dissolves into the other.

IV: Enter Salomé

Salomé leaves the banquet area, finding it disturbing how Herod keeps staring at her with lust in his eyes. Of course, Narraboth is eyeing her similarly, but she will soon be an ogler herself, for she hears the voice of Iokanaan from the cistern below.

He has spoken harsh words against her mother, Herodias, as well as against Herod (i.e., his incestuous marriage with his half-brother’s widow); Salomé knows of this, but instead of being offended by Iokanaan’s words, she’s intrigued. It seems evident that Salomé has hardly any less contempt for her mother than she does for her adoptive father: alienation, including that between family members, is a typical symptom in a world of class conflict, in this case, that of the ancient slave vs. master variety.

Thus, any speaker of ill against Salomé’s family is a singer of sweet music to her ears. Small wonder she’d like to take a look at that mysterious man down in that dark, yonic pit. She looks down into it, awed by its darkness. This blackness, of course, is associated with Iokanaan’s mysticism. An ominous, eerie tritone is heard in the musical background when she looks into the cistern and notes its blackness, near the beginning of scene two.

Let’s compare some images used so far. Pale Salomé is consistently associated with the silvery-white, virginal moon, an ominous orb portending imminent evil. The cistern is black, as Salomé observes, but since it houses a holy man, a celibate man, it could be seen as virginal, too, the yoni of a virgin such as Salomé herself. The cistern’s blackness thus has a dialectical relationship with the silvery-white moon, which phases from white full moon to black new moon, and back again. Iokanaan, like the moon, also portends an evil coming too soon for comfort.

She insists on having Iokanaan brought out so she can see him, to have his mysteries revealed…just as Herod will want Salomé to dance a striptease for him, to reveal her anatomic mysteries. The lecherous, decadent tetrarch, of course, also hopes to make the young beauty replace her mother as his new queen, so her virginal yoni‘s dark secrets can be revealed to him…just as she wishes to have Iokanaan, the secret of the dark yoni of the cistern, revealed to her eyes.

The parallels between Iokanaan’s display and that of her nakedness continue, first with Narraboth’s and the soldiers’ insistence that the prophet not be allowed out (by Herod’s orders), on the one hand, and Herodias’ disapproval of her daughter dancing erotically for Herod. Also, Salomé entices Narraboth with suggestions of her favouring him (offering a green flower and a smile) if he’ll allow Iokanaan to come out, and Herod entices her with an oath to give her anything she wants if she’ll dance for him. Both Narraboth and Salomé are persuaded to do what they’d otherwise never do.

V: Enter John the Baptist

Iokanaan emerges from the cistern, pale, hairy, and filthy, but always shouting his imprecations against the decadent kings and queens of the world, especially Herodias. His holiness inspires Salomé’s passion for him, symbolizing the dialectical relationship between the erotic and the ascetic (something also explored in Hindu myth, as Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty observed in Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, pages 33-36).

At first, Salomé loves Iokanaan’s white flesh, a parallel of the love Narraboth and Herod have for her pale flesh. The prophet, of course, rejects her wish to touch his body; indeed, he can’t even bear to have this “daughter of Sodom” look at him. She’s angered by his rejection, feeling narcissistic injury, no doubt; but his chastity fascinates her all the same.

Salomé is used to having a train of admiring men following her everywhere, leering at her, lusting after her. Such men bore her, annoy her, inspire her contempt; but Iokanaan is no lecherous pig. With him, the sexes are reversed, and the man is disgusted with the woman’s lechery. She’s hurt by his rejection, but she can only admire him all the more for it. This man’s spiritual willpower is as rare as her physical beauty is, and her desire for him is made all the hotter for this.

As soon as he rejects her, she speaks ill of his whitest of white body, which she’s just finished praising. Now she speaks of loving his blackest of black hair; note the immediate juxtaposition of opposites–loved/loathed, beautiful/ugly, and white/black. When he rejects her wish to touch his hair, she’s now repelled by it and begins loving his red lips.

VI: Baiser

She wants to kiss his mouth, saying in Wilde’s French: “Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche.” Baiser, as a verb, originally meant ‘to kiss,’ but it grew to mean ‘to fuck,’ this new meaning starting as early as the 16th or 17th century, having been used this way in, for example, a few poems by François Maynard. This usage began to grow more common by the beginning of the 20th century, prompting the French to start using embrasser to mean ‘to kiss’ instead.

My point is, given the already shockingly erotic overtones of Wilde’s play, as well as in his choice to write it in French instead of his usual English, did he use baiser as a double entendre? Was he suggesting a secondary meaning, a cunnilingus fantasy of Salomé’s, to get head from Iokanaan?

Now Strauss, in using a German translation for his opera, used the word küssen, which only means ‘to kiss.’ Perhaps he was aware of the growing use of the sexual meaning of baiser, and wanted to mitigate the scandal by eliminating that problematic French word. I’m guessing that my speculations hadn’t been discussed by critics back around the turn of the 20th century, given the-then taboo nature of this subject; but this taboo use of baiser has been discussed more recently.

VII: Lustful Staring

Back to the story. The prophet is so shocked by this “daughter of Babylon” that he curses her and goes back down into the cistern. Salomé’s unfulfillable desire has turned into an obsession; speaking of which, Narraboth’s has caused him to implode with sexual jealousy, since he can see she clearly prefers Iokanaan to him. Thus, he stabs himself and dies, fulfilling Herodias’ page’s dire prediction that his obsessive, mesmerized staring at Salomé would bring evil.

Of course, the young Syrian hasn’t been the only one staring at Salomé to the point of such ogling being dangerous. Herod enters with Herodias; he slips on Narraboth’s spilled blood, an obvious omen.

The tetrarch speaks of the silvery-white moon and Salomé’s pale skin, an evident identifying of the one with the other, just as Salomé has identified the chaste moon with celibate Iokanaan. We see more unions of opposites: virginity and whorish objects of desire, in both her and the prophet.

Herodias is annoyed with Herod’s staring at her daughter, with Iokanaan’s insulting diatribes against her, and Herod’s–to her, absurd–belief in omens and prophecies. She is a purely materialist, decadent queen: the moon is just the moon to her.

She wishes he would just give Iokanaan over to the ever-disputatious Jews, who come out and begin a clamorous storm of debating over whether Iokanaan has seen God, whether he is Elijah having returned, and whether this or that dogma is correct. This is another example of wanting to know mysteries, to see secrets.

In all of this arguing among the Jews, we see dramatized the dialectic of contradictory viewpoints. Added to this is the contradiction between the Jewish point of view and that of the Nazarenes, who now come onstage.

VIII: Revolution

Since the Crucifixion hasn’t happened yet, discussion of how the Messiah will save the Jews from their sins is never in the Pauline notion of a Divine Rescuer dying and resurrecting, so that believing in Him will confer God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, salvation for the Jews is understood to come in the form of a revolution against Palestine’s Roman imperialist oppressors. Recall Matthew 10:34.

Revolution! Insurrection! Such words terrify decadent rulers like Herod and Herodias, who naturally don’t want to lose their privileges as members of the ruling class. Thus do we see the dialectic move, from the Hegelian sort we heard among the debating Jews, to the materialist sort that Marx discussed: the contradiction between the rich and poor.

Iokanaan prophesies the downfall of sinful rulers like incestuous Herod and Herodias, as well as the redemption of the downtrodden. As the prophet says at the beginning of Wilde’s play, “the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.”

Such welcome changes can be seen to symbolize revolutionary relief given to the suffering. The blind seeing, and the deaf hearing, suggests the enlightenment of the poor, hitherto ignorant of the true causes of their sorrows. The idea of gladdened solitary places suggests the replacement of alienation with communal love. The suckling child, with his hand on the dragon’s lair, and leading the lions, suggests the end of the oppression of the weak by the strong, replacing it with equality.

Marx similarly prophesied the end of the rule of the bourgeois, to be replaced by communist society. The bourgeois today, like threatened Herod and Herodias, are scared of their imminent downfall, for many believe their days are numbered.

My associating Iokanaan with Marx is no idle fancy, for in 1891, the very same year Wilde wrote Salomé, he also wrote The Soul of Man under Socialism, inspired by his reading of Peter Kropotkin, and in which Wilde considered Jesus to be a symbol of the extreme individualist he idealized. Wilde would also have been aware of the short-lived Paris Commune twenty years prior, which Marx joyfully described as being a manifestation of his notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

IX: The Music

It seems apposite, at this belated point, finally to discuss Strauss’s music. Influenced by Wagner’s musical dramas, Strauss used Leitmotivs (“leading motives”) for each character in Salomé, as well as for many key moments or concepts in the story.

There’s the light, dreamy Leitmotiv heard when Narraboth expresses his admiration for Salomé’s beauty at the beginning of the opera. There’s the Leitmotiv when she sings of wanting “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” which gets increasingly dissonant with her every iteration of the demand for it, to ever-reluctant Herod.

And there are Leitmotivs for Iokanaan and his prophetic abilities, the former being a stately, dignified chordal theme heard on the horns; and the latter melody being a trio of fourths, C down to G, then F down to C, then–instead of another, third perfect fourth–there’s a tritone of A down to D-sharp, then up to E, now a perfect fourth (relative to the previous A). These three sets of perfect fourths symbolize Triune, holy, divine perfection; the tritone, though the diabolus in musica, nonetheless resolves to E, symbolizing a prophecy of sinning imperfection soon to be made perfect, redeemed.

Strauss, as a late Romantic/early modern composer, anticipated many of the revolutionary musical ideas soon to be realized in full by such modernists as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern. Strauss was thus a kind of musical Iokanaan. Strauss, through his extreme chromaticism, pushed tonality to its limits, while not quite emancipating the dissonance, as Schoenberg would soon do. Since some have seen the emancipation of the dissonance as linked with the emancipation of society and of humanity, the music of Strauss–as musical Iokanaan–can be seen symbolically as heralding the coming of that social liberation I mentioned above.

The harsh discords in his score symbolize the contradictions not only in the class conflict between the decadent rulers (puppet rulers for imperial Rome) and the oppressed poor, but also in the conflicts between what Narraboth, Salomé, Iokanaan, Herod, and Herodias each wants. Also, the contrast between these dissonant moments and the prettier, more tuneful sections suggests the dialectical relationships between beauty and ugliness, and love and loathing.

Finally, the choice of ‘harsh‘ (at least from the point of view of English speakers), guttural German–instead of Wilde’s erotically lyrical (if a tad idiosyncratic) French–reinforces the dramatic tension, especially when Salomé demands the prophet’s head on a silver charger.

X: Dance for Me, Salomé

Back to the story. Herod is so obviously troubled, on the one hand by the threats Iokanaan is making against his rule, and on the other by his fear of the prophet as a man of God–which means he can’t kill him–that the soldiers note the tetrarch’s sombre look.

Herod hopes that Salomé will dance for him, to take his mind off his troubles. This escape into sensuous pleasure is an example of the manic defence, to avoid facing up to what makes one so unhappy.

Always annoyed that her husband stares lustfully at her daughter, Herodias forbids Salomé to dance for him. But his oath to give her anything she wants, even to half of his kingdom, puts a sly grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye; so Salome agrees to dance.

Wilde‘s brief stage direction, of Salomé dancing in seven veils, has been made so much of. It says nothing explicitly of a striptease, but why else would she dance in those veils, if not to remove them one by one?

Strauss’s exotic, sensuous music certainly makes much of the dance, starting with a slow, erotic, mysterious aura and building up to a fast, frenzied, and dissonant climax, once almost all (or absolutely all, depending on the boldness of the woman playing Salomé) of the veils have been removed.

XI: Getting Naked

As each veil is removed, more of the mysteries of her body are revealed to horny Herod, just as the mystery of Iokanaan was revealed to lascivious Salomé when he emerged from the vaginal cistern. This story is all about the desire to have secrets revealed, including, as the Jews obsess over, the mysteries of God, through such things as prophecies, as the Nazarenes are concerned with. Mysteries thus may be sensual or spiritual: note the dialectical relationship between these two.

While we usually think of men objectifying women, as Herod is doing with Salomé here, in Salomé the objectifying is a two-way street, since she lusts after chaste Iokanaan. And while it is usual and correct to be concerned with the injuries done to female strippers, sex workers, and pornographic models and actresses, consider how pathetic the men are, those addicted to porn, prostitutes, and strippers, using these as a manic defence to avoid facing their own sadness. Consider their shame at knowing what pigs they’re being (or at least seen as being), each a modern Herod, walking guiltily in and out of strip joints, whorehouses, and the porn sections of DVD rentals.

There are two sides to objectification: the view to destroy, as Salomé does to Iokanaan, and as Herod does to Salomé at the end of the opera; and there’s the view to admire, to worship the beautiful object, as any connoisseur of art understands…and as Salomé and Herod also do to their adored objects. Looking to admire and to destroy are, again, dialectically related. This obsessive urge to look, a pagan adoration of divinity that is–in this opera–thematically related to whether or not the Jew or Nazarene has ‘seen’ God, is also a weakness that can be exploited.

Salomé is certainly using her sexuality to take advantage of this weakness of Herod’s. And since, on the one hand, the tetrarch is objectifying and using her for his pleasure, getting her to strip down to a state of nude vulnerability; and on the other hand, she’s turning his lust against him, we have here a male/female variant of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic, or a dialectic of feminism meeting antifeminism.

XII: Switching Roles

The master (Herod) uses the, so to speak, slave (Salomé) for his own pleasure, but she uses her creativity (her dance) to build up her own mastery over him. Thus, master and slave switch roles, making her especially triumphant, since she’ll cause the doom of two men–decapitated Iokanaan, and the revolutionary toppling of Herod, as it is assumed will happen to him when the Nazarenes (and God!) are so enraged to learn of the execution of their beloved prophet.

Women are perceived to be inspiring of lust and sin (the misogynistic, antifeminist side of the dialectic), yet Salomé and Herodias triumph in thwarting the tetrarch and killing the male religious authority (the feminist side). What’s more, Salomé is all the more feminist in wishing for Iokanaan’s head for her own pleasure, not out of obedience to her mother.

Herod pleads with Salomé to ask for something else. The tetrarch has made himself a slave to his oath, of which she’s the master. He offers her rare jewels, ones even her mother doesn’t know he has; he offers her rare white peacocks. All she does is repeat her demand for “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” each time given more and more aggressively, with increasingly tense music in the background. Finally, he is forced, in all exasperation, to relent.

XIII: The Head

When the executioner is down in the dark cistern, Salomé waits by the hole and listens. Suspense is built when she hears nothing. She grows impatient, thinking she’ll need the soldiers to do the job she imagines the slave who went down with his axe is too incompetent or cowardly to do. Nonetheless, he emerges with Iokanaan’s bloody head. The ruling class’s indulgence of their petty desires always brings about violence of this sort.

Still, there are contradictions even among the desires of the different members of the ruling class. Herod is horrified to see Salomé’s maniacal gazing at the head, but Herodias is pleased to no end. Salomé kisses the mouth, triumphant in having achieved what the living prophet refused to let her do. In her mania, she imagines for the moment that Iokanaan’s eyes should be looking at her, as if the severed head could possibly be alive. She is thus disappointed that the eyes don’t look at her.

She wishes that he could have accepted her love, that if he’d looked at her, that if he’d just let her kiss his mouth, he would have loved her back, for love is a greater mystery than death.

XIV: Decapitation as Symbolic Castration

Since Wilde’s use of baiser has the implied secondary meaning of “to fuck,” and since she says, “Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she is implying that she has a symbolic vagina dentata, which will castrate him when they make love. She compares his body to a column of ivory, a column being a phallic symbol. Thus, ‘fucking’ his mouth with the implied vagina dentata means his decapitation is a symbolic castration.

Herod’s unwillingness to have Iokanaan beheaded is thus an example of castration anxiety, especially since loss of the phallus is a symbolic loss of power. Herod’s fear of Iokanaan’s execution provoking a Nazarene revolution, spearheaded by none other than God, reinforces this symbolic fear of castration. Iokanaan’s “Kopf” is a cock.

XV: Conclusion–Who Wins the Sex War (and the Class War)?

Salomé (and by extension Herodias, since she has wanted Iokanaan’s death from the beginning), having the prophet’s head in her arms, is now symbolically the powerful phallic woman. She, especially in her madness and perversity, is a threat to Herod. Regarding her as “monstrous,” he orders all the torches to be put out. He says, “Hide the moon! Hide the stars!” For the whiteness of the moon and stars resemble her pale skin far too much for his comfort.

Finally, the male/female dialectic sways back in the antifeminist direction, and Herod orders his soldiers to “Kill that woman!” The men surround Salomé with their shields, and crush her to death with them, ending the opera with a barrage of discords.

Still, we know that the days of all decadent kings and queens–as well as those of the tetrarch, it seems–are numbered. Herod is still quaking in fear over the consequences of killing a holy man. The Nazarenes believe the tetrarch cannot stop the march of God through history, just as we Marxists believe the bourgeoisie cannot stop the dialectical movement of historical materialism.

Herod can hide the moon and the stars for only so long. Recall Iokanaan’s words: “In that day the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood, and the stars of the heaven shall fall upon the earth like unripe figs that fall from the fig-tree, and the kings of the earth shall be afraid.”

Furthermore, Salomé may be dead, but her double, that pale moon overhead, is still shining. In his poem, ‘Problems of Gender,’ Robert Graves wondered which gender to assign the moon, asking, “who controls the regal powers of night?” In Salomé, I think we know which sex controls them.

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

Scarface is a 1983 crime film directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s a remake of the 1932 film, which in turn was loosely based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, itself based on Al Capone, who also had the nickname of Scarface.

In the 1983 version, Tony Montana (Pacino) is a Cuban criminal who immigrates to the US and lives in Miami, Florida. He rises to wealth and power in the criminal underworld there selling cocaine. He’s always been a bad man, but the acquisition of wealth and power estranges him from everyone around him, leading to his self-destruction.

The film got a negative response initially, with much criticism over its violence (also a criticism of the 1932, pre-Production Code film) and strong language (indeed, the 1983 film is one of those, like The Big Lebowski, in which the word fuck is heard more often than in most other films). Its critical reputation has improved over the years, though, thanks in part to its status as a cult classic, and now the film is generally praised.

Here are some quotes:

Tony Montana: You a communist? Huh? How’d you like it, man? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. Do you wanna be like a sheep? Like all those other people? Baah! Baah!

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t have to listen to this bullshit!

Tony Montana: You wanna work eight, ten fucking hours? You own nothing, you got nothing! Do you want a chivato on every corner looking after you? Watching everything you do? Everything you say, man? Do you know I eat octopus three times a day? I got fucking octopus coming out of my fucking ears. I got the fuckin’ Russian shoes my feet’s comin’ through. How you like that? What, you want me to stay there and do nothing? Hey, I’m no fuckin’ criminal, man. I’m no puta or thief. I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fuckin’ human rights, now! [slams desk] Just like the President Jimmy Carter says. Okay?

Immigration Officer #1: Carter should see this human right. He’s really good. What do you say, Harry?

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t believe a word of this shit! They all sound the same to me. That son of a bitch Castro is shittin’ all over us. Send this bastard to Freedom Town. Let them take a look at him. Get him outta here.

Tony Montana: You know somethin’? You can send me anywhere. Here, there, this, that; it don’t matter. There’s nothing you can do to me that Castro has not done. Nothing! […]

“You tell your guys in Miami, your friend, it’d be a pleasure. You know, I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” –Tony

“What I try to tell you? This country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman. That’s why you gotta make your own moves.” –Tony, to Manny

Tony: You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!

Elvira: A true capitalist if ever I met one. […]

[to the guests at the restaurant] “What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!” –Tony

“Okay, Sosa. You wanna fuck with me? You fucking with the best! You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You little cockroaches… come on. You wanna play games? Okay, I’ll play with you. You wanna play rough? Okay! Say hello to my little friend!” –Tony, with a grenade-launcher-equipped M16A1

The film begins with footage of Fidel Castro announcing that the Cuban government is letting go of thousands of Cubans who refuse to cooperate with the Marxist-Leninist revolution. This Mariel boatlift is sent to Miami, Florida.

A huge portion of those on the boat are criminals, like Tony and his friends. They come to the US with nothing, and have to fend for themselves in a country that has never cared for the poor in a meaningful way. Contrast this with revolutionary Cuba, which has provided housing for pretty much everyone, as well as free education, free healthcare (training superb doctors who often go to poor or wartorn countries to give the afflicted medical aid), and usually low unemployment rates. All of this, in a Third World country saddled with an economic embargo for almost sixty years now!

Tony tries to charm his way through US immigration, the officers there not buying a word of his lies. He speaks of all of his family being dead, when his mother and kid sister (Mastrantonio) live right there in Miami. He speaks of being oppressed by the Cuban communists, when he, representative of capitalists, is hardly one to judge the faults of any political or economic system.

The officers ask him about the scar on his left cheek: he says they should see what he did to the boy who gave him the scar when he was a kid. That scar is symbolic of a narcissistic scar, the childhood cause of Tony’s criminal pathologies.

Narcissism on a pathological level is typically rooted in childhood emotional neglect, abuse, and a lack of empathy from one’s parents, as Heinz Kohut observed in such writings as his book, The Analysis of the Self: “The mother’s responsiveness to the child’s needs prevents traumatic delays before the narcissistic equilibrium is re-established after it has been disturbed, and if the shortcomings of the mother’s responses are of tolerable proportions, the infant will gradually modify the original boundlessness and blind confidence of his expectation of absolute perfection. […]

“If, however, the mother’s responses are grossly unempathic and unreliable, then the gradual withdrawal of cathexis from the imago of archaic unconditional perfection is disturbed; no transmuting internalization can take place; and the psyche continues to cling to a vaguely delimited imago of absolute perfection, does not develop the various internal functions which secondarily re-establish the narcissistic equilibrium–either (a) directly, through self-soothing, i.e., through the deployment of available narcissistic cathexes; or, (b) indirectly, via an appropriate appeal to the idealized parent–and remains thus relatively defenseless vis-à-vis the effects of narcissistic injuries…In general…they consist in a hypersensitivity to disturbances in the narcissistic equilibrium with a tendency to react to sources of narcissistic disturbance by mixtures of wholesale withdrawal and unforgiving rage.” (Kohut, pages 64-65)

Now, while Tony’s mother is justified in being–to put it mildly–disappointed in him for his criminal ways, one shouldn’t find it hard to believe, knowing Kohut’s insights, that she was probably lacking in motherly love for him when he was a boy. Tony’s quick temper, his fury sparked by any slight, or by any sense of having been dishonoured, is the essential manifestation of his narcissistic wound, which is central to his personality.

He won’t have the Cuban communists telling him what to do, or what to think, though he’s perfectly content to tell his kid sister, Gina, what to do or think (i.e., not give up her ‘maidenly virtue’ to any man). Indeed, with all his mafia criminal activity in Florida, he’d do well to have the communists tell him what to do and think.

Now in the ‘free’ capitalist world of the US, Tony quickly comes to hate being a dishwasher at a local Miami restaurant. Granted, any worker would rightly complain of the alienation inherent in being a wage slave, helping a boss make profits and not getting the full fruits of his labour; but with Tony, the narcissistic injury of being a ‘lowly’ worker is too much for him. He wants to rise high in the capitalist world, and the upper echelons of capitalism are filled with narcissists.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, gangsters make a perfect metaphor for capitalists, people who get rich off of people’s craving for commodities, here symbolized by cocaine. Hence, Tony becomes a drug lord, killing his way to the top, as many capitalists have done.

Indeed, every rung of the ladder that Tony climbs, he kills people, has them killed, or at least alienates them: first, there’s Rebenga, the Cuban communist he kills so he and his friends can get green cards; then, there’s Hector, with the chainsaw. Hector’s dismembering of Angel Fernandez with the chainsaw perfectly symbolizes the psychological fragmentation, disintegration, and alienation from oneself that capitalism causes.

Next, there’s the murder of Omar, whose arguing with Tony exemplifies the alienation between competing employees. Finally, the killing of Frank Lopez, for his attempt on Tony’s life, demonstrates the alienation between worker and boss.

Tony is alienated from his family–first, from his disapproving mother, then from Gina, who grows sick of his overprotective attitude, really his sense of the patriarchal family’s honour being tarnished.

Indeed, alienation and social isolation permeate this film. Few people are real friends with each other. Men chase women only for sex and to acquire females as social jewelry, so to speak, as is the case with Tony pursuing Elvira (Pfeiffer)…not for love. Manny may feel a bit more for Gina than the women in bikinis he pursues with his laughable ideas of how to pick them up, but Tony’s gun ends the newlyweds’ love fast.

Elvira never feels anything for Tony, or for Lopez, for that matter; she just lives off their money and snorts their cocaine. She judges them and their work, just as a liberal judges capitalism, but enjoys all the privileges associated with it.

As mentioned above, Scarface is among those films in which the word fuck is said most frequently. Many objected to the film’s ‘excessive’ profanity, but I’d say there’s justification for the constant use of the word fuck, since it symbolizes the nature of human connection throughout the film. People fuck each other constantly, if usually only in the metaphoric sense.

The word‘s denotation as sexual intercourse–an entering and connecting of one person with another–is paired with its connotations of violence: one etymology of the word is from the Swedish focka, ‘to copulate, strike, push’). So this combination of denotative and connotative meanings gives us a hint as to the true nature of human relationships as seen in the movie–people connect, and they hurt one another.

This connecting to cause mutual grief suggests Wilfred Bion‘s extensions of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, that is, Bion’s concept of container and contained, symbolized respectively by a yoni and a phallus. One projects one’s pain into another, like a raping phallus entering a vagina, the contained entering the container, causing the container to hold all that psychological grief, and to become, to manifest, what is projected.

Normally, only a mother in what Bion called a state of reverie could contain the pain of her frustrated baby, and only a trained psychoanalyst like Bion could contain the pain of a psychotic, transforming that pain into something acceptable that is returned to the baby or psychotic, pacifying them. In Scarface, Tony forces others to contain his pain, which they cannot do; as a result, no pacifying return of the projections is possible.

Tony’s scar is a symbolic yoni, a container receiving narcissistic injury from his childhood, and from–I theorize–an unempathic mother who never contained his violent infantile projections in reverie. He therefore projects that pain onto others, symbolized by his every fatal gunshot or stab, and also in how he hurts and alienates his mother, through his criminality, and Gina, through his patriarchal overprotectiveness.

Indeed, Tony’s killing of Manny, after learning his friend has had his sister, is a projective identification causing her to be as violent as her brother has always been. She approaches him in a provocative state of relative undress, firing a gun at him and offering (in bitter sarcasm) her body for his incestuous pleasure. Tony ‘fucks’ Manny–with his bullet-ejaculating, phallic gun–for fucking Gina; she ‘fucks’ Tony back by firing an ejaculating, phallic pistol at him while offering herself to be literally fucked by him. Container and contained switch roles in this dance of relationships of symbolic sexual relations.

These relationships by fucking are explicitly connected with capitalism when Tony complains of the criminalization of drugs by the establishment. Capitalists don’t mind exploitation as long as they are the exploiters; but when the government intervenes and regulates, the capitalist feels exploited from the disrupting of his business, the lowering of his profits. Hence, Tony is enraged at the ‘unfairness’ of it all.

At least Tony acknowledges that this government interference can happen within the context of capitalism, unlike your average right-libertarian. Tony complains, “You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!” Elvira notes his hypocrisy, though, by calling him, “A true capitalist if ever I met one.” Capitalism is only good when it’s convenient for this or that capitalist.

Capitalism is also about expansion, and seeking out new markets in other countries, other parts of the world, resulting in imperialism. Hence Tony’s interest in doing more business with Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) in Bolivia. Sosa’s drug empire stretches throughout the Andes; Tony builds his in a number of major cities in the US, after he removes the small-potatoes drug lord, Lopez. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Sosa and his South American associates have their worries about a journalist who has been investigating their criminal activities. Sosa needs Tony’s help in killing the journalist, who is about to make a UN speech exposing Sosa. A car bomb is set up to kill the man, but his wife and daughters unexpectedly get in the car, too. Tony’s sense of honour is offended: he has no problem killing men, but to kill women and children would cause him intolerable narcissistic injury, so he kills Alberto the Shadow, the assassin operating the car bomb, instead. This infuriates Sosa, causing a mafia war.

This mafia war symbolizes inter-imperialist conflict, since Tony’s and Sosa’s cocaine businesses are those of capitalists from different countries, capitalists with conflicting interests. Tony, always snorting the commodity he sells, is full of narcissistic brashness, fighting to the end, even after the killing of Gina, who injures him with a gunshot.

At Sosa’s men, he fires a huge, phallic, grenade-launching M16A1, calling it his “little friend,” an ironic reference to this extension of his big dick. He narcissistically defies his killers, even after being wounded several times, saying, “You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!” Finally, a shot in the back from The Skull is the one narcissistic wound he won’t recover from.

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

The Liberal Mindset

I: Introduction

As much as I recognize the conservative as my ideological foe, I can at least have a kind of grudging respect for him. We on the left know where we stand with those on the right: they support and rationalize the authoritarian class system we all suffer under, and while they spuriously claim that capitalism is good for society as a whole, they don’t go around pretending they care about social justice in a meaningful way.

With liberals, on the other hand, the situation gets foggy, and it’s in this way that the ruling class is particularly cunning. The liberal claims to care about all the social issues we communists are insistent on addressing (racism, etc.), but he or she backslides right when matters get urgent, or when his or her class privileges are threatened.

What must be understood is that the liberal, in relation to the conservative and fascist–and by these three I include every variety–is just another snake-head on the body of the same Hydra. Slice off Bernie Sanders‘s head, and the heads of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tulsi Gabbard pop out of the same reptilian neck to replace his.

We communists, on the other hand, represent a different kind of serpent altogether: that of the dialectical ouroboros, as I’ve argued elsewhere. We recognize a fluid reality of material contradictions rubbing up against each other, especially in the form of class conflict.

For us, the resolution of class war will not come about in the form of making compromises with the capitalist class, as liberals would have it, by emulating the Nordic Model, or having a market economy with a strong welfare state, single-payer healthcare, shorter working hours, and free education all the way up to university; these social democrat benefits, of course, would be paid off through imperialist plunder.

No, we want to extend those benefits globally, and to rid ourselves of the market as soon as the productive forces of society have been fully developed, for the benefit of all. The liberal will never help us with this project; he, nonetheless, routinely tricks many left-leaning people into thinking he’s our friend. For this reason, we leftists need to be educated not only in dialectical and historical materialism, but also in the psychology of the liberal worldview.

The liberal, as we know, is hypocritical in his claims to care about social justice, and opportunistic in his politics. He says all the right things (well, except for stating a commitment to socialism), but fails to do what needs to be done. At the heart of this hypocrisy and opportunism is a psychological conflict resulting from a confrontation of his material privileges.

The liberal’s superego is making all these moral demands to care about social justice, including resolving class conflict; but his id enjoys all the pleasures and privileges of being part of a higher social class (including his cushy place in the First World), and his id doesn’t want to lose them. So his conflict tends to resolve itself in the form of espousing such things as identity politics: he’ll keep the class structure of society intact, but allow blacks, women, gays, etc., into the upper echelons.

The best way to think is to have neither the id‘s pleasure principle, nor the superego‘s ego ideal, dominant, but to have the ego‘s reality principle at the forefront. That’s why we Marxists are neither id-like opportunists, nor are we superego-minded utopian socialists: we are ego-oriented, realistic materialists, scientific socialists, acknowledging the necessity of revolution and the ongoing, lengthy struggle of making the dictatorship of the proletariat run its course until the day finally comes for the withering away of the state, and the enjoyment of communist society.

II: Defence Mechanisms

Still, liberals must preserve their illusions of having the most sensible solutions to the world’s ills, which are really just resolutions of their psychic conflict. Indeed, they try to resolve their cognitive dissonance with a number of ego defence mechanisms, such as denial, rationalization, projection, splitting, reaction formation, displacement, and fantasy, among many others. We’ll examine these now.

Liberals are in denial about the extent to which they support, whether covertly or overtly, the capitalist system. They will, for example, play the same game of false moral equivalency as conservatives will when it comes to comparing communism and fascism. In their opposition to communism, one every bit as vehement as conservatives’, they’ll pretend that Stalin’s leadership was every bit as cruel and oppressive as Hitler’s, even though it was the former’s army that did most of the work in defeating the latter and his army. See here for a more thorough discussion of the huge differences between the far left and far right, a discussion beyond the scope of this article.

Liberals rationalize their defence of the establishment by pretending to have a ‘pragmatic’ approach to curing the ills of our world. Hillary Clinton has claimed to be a “progressive who gets things done,” when the only thing she and her husband ever got done was to move the Democratic Party further to the right.

The funny thing about the Clintons is that they aren’t even, nor were they ever, liberals–they’re conservatives in ‘centre-left’ garb. Consider all they did in the 1990s: helping to lay waste to Russia with ‘free marketreforms, and keeping unpopular Yeltsin in power; the 1994 Crime Bill, allowing the prison system to ruin thousands of lives; the gutting of welfare with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996; the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed regulations and allowed mergers and acquisitions in the media, resulting in the great majority of it owned by only six corporations; the repealing of Glass-Steagall, which some believe was at least a factor that brought about the housing bubble and the 2008 financial crisis; and the carving up of Yugoslavia, culminating in the 1999 bombing of the former socialist state, using depleted uranium on the victims. A progressive pair, indeed.

Liberals’ ‘pragmatism’ is set against the ‘utopianism’ of Marxism, when as I mentioned above, it’s the latter of these that’s the pragmatic application of progressive ideas. Liberals, on the other hand, aren’t progressive at all. They like to imagine they occupy a ‘reasonable’ position in the political centre, avoiding the violent extremes on either side. We are not, however, living in a world where reality is static, unchanging.

On the contrary, we live in a world in which everything flows dialectically, like the waves of the ocean. Crests of theses alternate with troughs of negations, the rising and falling of the water being the sublations of all these material contradictions.

What’s more, the current of these waves has been going further and further to the right, ever since the dawn of the Cold War, and especially since the disastrous dissolution of the Soviet Union. That rightward movement means that ‘neutral’ centrism is at best a passive acquiescence to that current, and at worst a collaborating with it. We must move against the current, and that can only mean an aggressive, revolutionary move to the left.

Still, liberals smugly insist that they’re ‘the good guys,’ projecting their support of the unjust status quo onto conservatives, as if only the right is to blame for our woes. Oh, the GOP and their awful wars! Vote in the Democrats, and the wars will end…or, at least, they’ll be tolerable [!]; the same for the Tories and Labour Party in the UK, and for the Conservative and Liberal Parties in Canada.

Liberals not only project all government corruption onto conservatives, but also project their tendency to interfere in the democratic process onto other countries, as in the case of Russia, a country with whose politics they themselves have interfered, as I mentioned above with regard to Yeltsin. Even after the Mueller report showed no proof of the claims of the Steele dossier (in which many, including myself, saw no real evidence right from the beginning), some liberals will surely still claim Russia colluded with Trump to get him elected in 2016. Now, he can use liberal folly and dishonesty to his advantage, and quite possibly get reelected in 2020. Thank you, liberals!

Both liberals and conservatives use splitting, or thinking in terms of absolute black vs. white, good vs. evil, when judging each other. That conservatives do this is painfully obvious: “Either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Liberals pretend to be above splitting, characterizing themselves as “open-minded,” but they’re just as hostile to differing ideologies as conservatives are.

I’ve known many supporters of the Democratic Party who imagine that all will be fine as long as their idolized party is elected, as opposed to the GOP. This blind devotion continues in spite of how similar their party’s agenda has come to that of the Republicans. In liberals’ universe, the DNC is all good, and only the GOP is all bad, no matter what either party does.

On Facebook, back when Trump had just been elected, and all the liberals were traumatized, I posted a meme that said, “So, you’re Obama‘s biggest fan? Name 5 countries he’s bombed.” A liberal FB friend of mine (then, not now) trolled me, saying, “Who cares? We have Trump.” Now, granted, Trump’s bombing of countries has grown even worse than Obama’s, but this needn’t (and shouldn’t) involve us trivializing Democrat sins. The problem isn’t this party vs. that party, or this charming man vs. that charmless man: it’s the metastasizing of imperialism that’s the real problem; whichever party is manifesting it at the moment is immaterial. Liberals can’t grasp this reality.

This splitting between ‘good DNC’ vs. ‘bad GOP’ is so extreme now that liberals are willing to go to war with Russia for her ‘collusion with Trump.’ These same people who were so passionately antiwar back in the 60s and 70s now bang the war drums, all because they’re such sore losers over the 2016 election results. Recall Rob Reiner’s short film with Morgan Freeman.

When I posted an article saying that Russia is not our enemy, that liberal FB friend of mine trolled me, saying it was a “crock of shit article…Russians are persecuting gays.” I responded sarcastically, saying, “You’re right, Peter. We should start World War III.” He liked my reply. Yes, risking nuclear annihilation is the only way to help gays. Hmm…

Liberals will engage in reaction formation, condemning everything bad they see conservative politicians doing, while resting perfectly content if a liberal politician commits the same egregious acts; in other words, liberals make an open show of hating the political evils of the world, yet secretly either don’t mind them, or even support them. Had Hillary been elected, liberals would be at brunch now instead of protesting Trump; even though she’d have had similar, if not virtually identical, policies as he has. The wars would have continued, the super-rich would have their interests protected, she’d have been tough on immigration (including a US/Mexico barrier), etc.

Liberals engage in fantasy, not only the totally uncorroborated fantasy of “Russian collusion,” but also fantasies that mere incremental reforms will fix what’s wrong with our world. Ocasio-Cortez‘s Green New Deal, apparently, will heal environmental degradation, when nothing less than an immediate, revolutionary takeover, by the people, of the government will do so. Sanders‘s giving away of free stuff will cure everything, it is supposed, instead of merely placating the public and staving off revolution.

A fantasy world of people indulging their desires via legalized prostitution, pornography, and drugs would fulfill people, as some liberals would have it, instead of fulfillment from ending pimps’ and madams’ exploitation of sex workers, and having government-funded rehab programs to get addicts off of junk.

Deeper than that issue, though, is how pleasure-seeking is a mere manic defence against the depressing reality of alienation, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Instead of understanding libido as satisfying drives through pleasure-seeking, we need to promote an object-directed libido (by objects, I mean people other than oneself, the subject; hence, object-directed libido is, as Fairbairn understood it, an urge to cultivate human relationships). And the promotion of loving human relationships is part of what socialism is about.

III: Hollywood and Pop Culture

Entertainment as escape to fantasy is especially apparent in the liberal media empire known as Hollywood. Anyone who has read enough of my blog posts knows that I like to write up analyses of films, many of which are mainstream ones. Sometimes I do psychoanalytic interpretations of them, sometimes I do Marxist ones, and sometimes a combination of the two.

This does not mean, however, that I have any illusions about these all-t00-reactionary films. My Marxist interpretations are deliberately subversive: I wish to turn these narratives into various threads of a leftist mythology, if you will, in order to counter the liberal/CIAlaced propaganda narratives Hollywood is brainwashing the public with.

Another reason I believe my Marxist slant is justified in interpreting these liberal narratives is because I see them as reflecting the conflicted liberal psyche I outlined above. The liberal’s superego demands films that promote equality, but his id wants the gratification of pleasure and the maintenance of the usual class privileges. Hollywood may be liberal, but it’s also a business. Hence, there’s a mask of the idealized liberal version of equality (identity politics, etc.) in these movies, but behind that mask are manifestations of class contradictions the liberal would rather you didn’t see.

‘Liberty and equality’ in these films, past and present, are defined in bourgeois contexts, as in Casablanca; peel away the mask, though, and note how subordinate blacks like Sam are. American Psycho is masked as a scathing critique of yuppies far more than of the capitalist world they embody…which you’d see if you removed the mask. The old Planet of the Apes movies idealized a peaceful coexistence between ape (symbolizing the proletariat, in my interpretation) and man (symbolizing the bourgeoisie), rather than promoting revolution (which was toned down in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Political corruption is seen as sensationalistic and titillating in Caligula, while the real oppression of slavery sits almost unnoticed in the background…behind the mask.

With the growing of neoliberalism, though, Hollywood movies have resolved the id/superego conflict, on the one hand, through identity politics (showing us strong women and blacks, as well as sympathetic portrayals of LGBT people, etc.), and on the other hand, through an upholding not only of the class structure of society (e.g., CEOs who are black and/or women, as opposed to promoting worker self-management), but also of imperialism and perpetual war (check out the spate of DC and Marvel superhero movies to see my point).

Whenever class issues are addressed, they’re rarely if ever dealt with in order to promote revolution; rather, it’s just as if to say, “Here, we acknowledged the problem–good enough.” Consider such films as Elysium, Snowpiercer, and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi to see my point. Thus is the superego placated, while the id is indulged.

Liberal pop stars like Bono and Madonna put on a show of caring about human rights, yet they’re bourgeois through and through. Consider her shameful support of Israel through her planned Eurovision concert; on the other hand, she felt morally justified in opposing only the Trump facet of the ruling class, promising blow jobs to those who voted for Hillary, as if Trump’s non-election would have made much of a difference.

IV: Julian Assange

Trump’s election certainly made no difference as to Julian Assange‘s fate, despite all this nonsense of the last few years of him and Russia supposedly helping Trump win in 2016. Trump, who repeatedly spoke of how he loved Wikileaks, and of how fascinating Wikileaks is, now says he knows nothing about it, and that it is of no consequence to him, now that Assange has been carried out of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Now we expect repressive, authoritarian measures from conservatives like Trump against journalists who make them look bad…but where are all the liberals, those who loved Assange when he exposed the imperialist brutality of the Bush administration, but changed their tune when it was the brutal imperialism of Obama’s administration, and of Hillary’s corruption, that was exposed?

On top of liberals’ splitting of the political establishment into ‘good DNC, bad GOP,’ we also see the displacement of blame from the rightly accused (Hillary and the rest of the Obama administration) to the whistleblower (Assange). The same, of course, goes for Chelsea Manning’s persecution, a displacement of blame from the murderous US army to she who accused them.

That same liberal former Facebook friend of mine (Peter) used to speak ill of Assange right up until Trump’s surprise election. Peter went on about how Assange had ‘lost all credibility’ (according to mainstream liberal propaganda, of course), even though not one Wikileaks publication has ever been proven false. He also described Assange with the most eloquent of language, calling him “a fucktard.” He claimed, back in 2016, that Ecuador was sick of putting up with Assange living in their embassy, when left-leaning Rafael Correa wanted to protect him there, and it’s only with Lenin Moreno’s election (and money from the IMF!) that Assange has been kicked out.

V: Conclusion

Liberals backslide and betray the people at the very moment when their class privilege is threatened. That’s what Mao observed in ‘Combat Liberalism’: “liberalism stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent, Philistine attitude…To let things slide, for the sake of peace and friendship…To let things drift if they do not affect one personally…To indulge in personal attacks, pick quarrels, vent personal spite or seek revenge…It is negative and objectively has the effect of helping the enemy; that is why the enemy welcomes its preservation in our midst. Such being its nature, there should be no place for it in the ranks of the revolution.” (Mao, pages 177-179) This is why liberals are no friends of the left.

Stalin once called social democracy “the moderate wing of fascism.” On the face of it, his words may seem excessive; but when you consider how liberals like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Gabbard (in spite of, to her credit, Gabbard’s opposition to the war in Syria and defence of Assange) have no intention of overturning the capitalist system–instead, they would just soften it in order to stave off revolution–the logic of Stalin‘s words is revealed.

As I explained in my ouroboros posts, the clock ticks counter-clockwise from social democracy, then to mainstream centrist liberalism, then to neoliberalism, and finally to fascism. It’s not enough to be ‘left-leaning’ to turn the ticking back in the clockwise direction. Only a hard-left stance will have the necessary force to counteract the counterrevolution of the last fifty years: this means such things as ridding ourselves of antiStalin and anti-Mao propaganda, to arrive at the truth of the value of the communist alternative; for imperialism is a formidable foe that requires a resistance far more effective than the pathetically weak one offered by liberals.

Analysis of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a 1972 rock album by David Bowie. The eleven songs on the album together tell the story of Ziggy Stardust, a messenger who tells of saviour aliens coming to an Earth that has five years left before all life on it must come to an end. He tries to save the Earth in the form of an androgynous, bisexual rock star, but his arrogance, excesses, and decadent lifestyle end up destroying him. The songs were written first, and the story grew around them later.

The album shot Bowie into stardom, and it’s now considered one of the most important albums in rock history. Bowie toured in the Ziggy persona for several years; but his immersion into the character blurred the line between him and Ziggy, almost driving him over the edge. This going-over-the-edge is similar both to that of Vince Taylor, Ziggy’s main inspiration, and that of ‘Maxwell Demon,’ the persona of Brian Slade in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, inspired by Ziggy Stardust.

Here is a link to the lyrics for all the songs on the album.

Five Years” introduces the problem of the story: it isn’t specified what the cause is, but “we had five years left to cry in.” The end of the world is nigh, apparently. Environmental destruction? Nuclear war between the NATO and Warsaw pact countries? No cause is stated explicitly, if it’s even implied. Bowie paints a vivid verbal picture of the traumatized reaction of everybody, but little more than that.

There are, however, a few hints as to what’s really going on. First of all, consider who the would-be messiah is: an alien whose herald is a bisexual, androgynous rock star? What can such a messenger do beyond entertain? Adults understand this, but the idolizing teenager sees so much more in the heroes he or she worships.

This story is a teenage fantasy, a melodrama in which rock stars are messengers of saviours, and mundane problems are seen as apocalyptic. How often have we heard adolescents over-dramatize whatever upsets them, acting as though their problems are heralding ‘the end of the world’? They do this again, and again, and again…

Consider the chord sequence of almost the whole song: G major, E minor, A major, and C major–four chords, repeated in a cycle throughout the song (save for the fat/skinny, tall/short, nobody/somebody people verse–A minor to C major [twice], G major to C major, D major 7th, and A minor to C major–not much of a variation). Anyone who listens closely to David Bowie songs, especially those of the 1970s, will typically hear many chord changes and variations within each song. “Five Years,” with its repetitive four chords, is symbolic of that adolescent melodrama of, “Mom! Dad! You’re ruining my life! My life is over!” happening again and again, in teenage crisis after teenage crisis.

Those five years are rumoured to have been the result of a dream Bowie had, in which his deceased father told him he would die in five years; but I see the choice of five years ’til ‘Armageddon’ as going from turning 13 to turning 18, or from turning 14 to turning 19…five years of emotional crises; perhaps a teenage fear of not being able to take care of oneself upon reaching the independence of adulthood. This fear of freedom is something Erich Fromm once explored.

The first time I heard this song, back when I was a teen, I was struck by how different Bowie’s voice sounded. It wasn’t his more usual baritone; he sang the song in a more boyish-sounding upper register, suggesting he was telling the story from a teen’s point of view.

Aside from the teen perspective, though, there are other interesting observations. Life is equated with suffering, since “we had five years left to cry in,” rather than live in. The teen narrator is observant in how deceptive the media is, since by his noting of the reporter’s tears, he “knew he was not lying.”

The teen wishes he could escape the pain by distracting himself, thinking of pop culture-oriented things, entertainment, etc.: “opera house, favourite melodies, boys, toys,…and TVs” (he and the other teenagers will be distracted by the pop culture icon, Ziggy Stardust, soon enough), but this manic defence cannot cure his despair.

His head is in pain; it feels “like a warehouse, it had no room to spare.” Now, he’s trying to cram in people, instead of pleasurable things; for as Fairbairn observed, correcting Freud, our libido is object-seeking (that is, seeking relationships with other people–objects are people other than oneself, the subject), not seeking to achieve pleasure, or the gratification of drives.

The boy is cramming “so many people”: fat/skinny, tall/short, nobody/somebody–these pairs of opposites sound like merisms, figures of speech often found in the Bible (heaven/earth, good/evil, as in the first three chapters of Genesis) meant to indicate the whole range from one extreme to the other. In other words, the teen is stuffing the internalized objects of people of all shapes, sizes, social classes, and of everything between the extremes of fame and obscurity, into his head, in a desperate attempt to escape the despair and desolation of loneliness that the imminent destruction of his world would cause for him.

The boy sees child abuse caused by the stress felt from the global crisis: a girl his age hits some children, rather like an elder sibling imitating the abusiveness of his parents. A black person stops her, saving the kids. This vignette suggests a number of the social issues many were especially concerned with at the time: the teen girl’s imitation of parental abuse suggests she isn’t observing the dictum, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” We also see a negation of the stereotype of the black criminal, by making a black man the hero this time. Teens of the early Seventies would have been sensitive to anti-establishment ideas like these.

A soldier stares at a Cadillac: he’s a member of the working class, who often die for the rich during war; he contemplates the luxury he himself can never enjoy, but for which he slaves away, so the ruling class can enjoy it. A cop defers to religious authority, disgusting a gay man who has been persecuted by that very authority.

The boy sees his love in an ice cream parlour, “looking so fine.” He feels “like an actor”–presumably in a melodramatic love story, or perhaps, in his teenage identity crisis, he doesn’t feel like his True Self. He wants his mother; he wants to regress back to an early childlike state, to an easier, less stressful time.

He thinks of his love, “drinking milkshakes cold and long.” He mentions his love’s “race”: is this person black? Is this the cause of his emotional crisis, the ‘end of the world’ for him? Have his conservative parents rejected his love for being a non-white? (Or is he black, and is his love white?) Is his love a she…or a he?

If he is in an interracial relationship, how does this tie in with the black person stopping the teen girl from beating the kids? His open-mindedness towards other racial groups for lovers is commendable, but is his choice of a (presumably non-white) partner meant as a deliberate act of defiance against his parents’ authority? If so, is his seeing a black person saving kids from a teen girl’s assault actually a wish-fulfilling dream, the girl representing his (immature) mom, the kids representing him (and similarly bullied teens), and the black person representing his love?

Does he want his love “to walk” up to him? “To walk” free from prejudice? Anyway, they have five years that he’s so obsessed with, it’s “stuck on [his] eyes,” and the “surprise” sounds like sarcasm; for he’s been through these brain-hurting crises so many times before, and will again so many times in the future, hence the repetitiveness of the song’s chord progression.

Soul Love” expresses the pitfalls of idolatrous “love” in several different forms. There’s the fake love of patriotism, the “slogan” of fighting for one’s country, leading to a mother’s tears at the sight of her son’s headstone in a cemetery.

Another form of idolatrous love is the puppy love of a teenage boy and girl speaking “new words.” But “love is careless,” descending over “those defenceless.” “Sweeping over, cross a baby,” could mean lovemaking resulting in an unwanted teen pregnancy, or it could mean the Cross that the baby Jesus, another idol, would eventually give His love on. Furthermore, “love is not loving.” The idolized ideal is far from the real thing.

“The flaming dove” could be religious zeal for the Holy Spirit, or the burning destruction of peace when “idiot love will spark the fusion” resulting in nuclear war, that foolish love of conquering an enemy (i.e., those ‘commies’ during the Cold War), instead of the wise love of learning how to coexist with differing ideologies. The “idiot love” could also cause “the fusion” resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

The “soul love” of a Catholic priest tasting the Host (“the Word” made flesh…and in this case, made bread) is “told of love” of the Most High God as “all love” (1 John 4:8); but Bowie sings that his “loneliness evolves by the blindness that surrounds Him.” Evolutionary theory helps expose the phoney idolatry of religious faith, freeing man from Church authoritarianism, but also leaving us to feel alone and insignificant, in need of a new idol to worship, a new leader to follow blindly, as Fromm observed:

“When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, page 29) The teen, rejecting parental or Church authority, nonetheless needs a new leader to follow, someone in whom he can submerge his individuality so he no longer feels alone or insignificant. The stage is set for Ziggy Stardust’s arrival.

Moonage Daydream” is more of a surrealist vignette than a continuation of the album’s narrative. Incoherent imagery (“I’m an alligator. I’m a mama/papa coming for you…a pink monkey-bird…,” etc.) abounds, like the automatic, random ramblings of the unconscious, a teenager’s “moonage daydream” of his coming rock ‘n’ roll messiah-herald, his dream as wish-fulfillment.

The notion of a wish for salvation through rock ‘n’ roll is accentuated with Mick Ronson‘s power chord at the beginning of the song. This “moonage daydream” is a teenage fantasy in which the teen hopes his rock ‘n’ roll idol will “lay the real thing on [him],” and prove that he really cares for the fan.

The daydream could be seen as a surreal dialogue between the rock star and his fan. We keep the “‘lectric eye” (the TV camera) on the star, while he presses his “space face close to” the fan’s. This “church of man,” a secular church of rock ‘n’ roll to replace that of the Bible-thumpers, “is such a holy place to be,” for it frees us of the repressions of the past.

Starman” advances the story with Ziggy Stardust heralding the coming of a saviour from outer space. The message is heard on a rock radio station; then, those Earthlings who hear it hope to learn more “on Channel Two,” on their TVs. Here we see how the media mesmerizes us with pop culture icons, who distract us from our real problems by tempting us to idolize rock stars; but as we learned from “Soul Love,” love (i.e., the idolatry of celebrities, religious figures, or partners who may break our hearts in the future) is not loving (i.e., real, selfless love).

The melody Bowie sings at the beginning of the chorus, with its upward leap of an octave and step down a semitone, reminds us of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” We’re being lured into a fantasy world, the adoration of a rock star, when we should focus on our reality on Earth; Dorothy similarly dreamed of an ideal world to escape from dreary Kansas–she’d want to return home soon enough, though. Little children were charmed by the Land of Oz; teenage “children” will “boogie” to Ziggy’s musical message.

It Ain’t Easy” has fewer chord changes than even “Five Years.” It isn’t a Bowie composition, though: it was written by Ron Davies. Bowie nonetheless did make a few lyrical changes to the song, in particular, this one: “With the help of the good Lord [instead of “patience and understanding”], we can all pull on through.” Such a change reinforces the album’s theme of reliance on religion, a form of idolatrous love that is a drug to distract us from our problems–recall, in this regard, what Marx had to say about religion.

Another contrast is between Davies’s bluesy original and the dainty melancholy of Bowie’s version, accentuated by Rick Wakeman‘s harpsichord playing. The repetition of the song’s few chord changes, like the four of “Five Years,” can be heard to symbolize the mundane normality of our unhappiness: same shit, different day.

“We will all pull on through, get there in the end. Sometimes it’ll take you right up, and sometimes down again.” The idolatrous love that religion and rock stars inspire only temporarily raises our spirits; like the highs and depressing coming-down on drugs, these manic defences aren’t omnipotent.

Side Two of the album establishes the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll prophet Ziggy Stardust. Now, “Lady Stardust” is actually about androgynous Marc Bolan, but the song still fits the narrative, since Ziggy represents glam rock stars like Bolan, Lou Reed, Jobriath, and of course Bowie. The boys and girls gaze on the beautiful star in pagan adoration.

While Ziggy is often confused with the extraterrestrials he’s heralding, it shouldn’t really matter whether he’s merely an earthly messenger or a quasi-divine alien. Rock stardom, here a metaphor for organized religion, shows that the distinction between messenger and message is typically blurred. The Bible is often perceived as infallible, even when its message of love is ignored; rock stars are practically deified by their fans, when it’s really their performances that should be admired. Jesus is God according to Christians; he’s a prophet according to Muslims. Religion on TV is entertainment as distracting as rock ‘n’ roll.

Star” begins with references to men who tried to improve their world through methods more down-to-earth than Ziggy’s. “Tony” is involved in the troubles in Northern Ireland, with the conflict between Britain and the IRA. Nye Bevan, as the UK Minister of Health from 1945 to 1951, tried to improve health care in England by socializing it. Some try to make things better, others fail and suffer.

Ziggy, however, imagines he can save the world by announcing the alien saviour “as a rock ‘n’ roll star.” He finds it “so enticing to play the part.” While Bowie himself had been without a major hit since “Space Oddity,” and therefore “could do with the money”; this preoccupation with cashing in on selling salvation through the media is chillingly redolent of the TV evangelists.

Hang On to Yourself” focuses on Ziggy’s party lifestyle with the groupies who idolize him. I’m reminded once again of the sons of God descending on the daughters of men in Genesis 6:1-4. The Starman has descended on Earth, and his mingling with us has resulted in the heroic Nephilim of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Yet since, as I argued in my examination of “Lady Stardust,” it doesn’t matter all that much whether Ziggy’s the alien himself of just an Earthly messenger of the Starman (because the religious tend to revere prophets almost on the same level as gods), then Ziggy and his band could themselves be the sons of God enjoying the daughters of men in their hotels every night. ‘Sons of God’ could be angels, gods, or otherwise quasi-divine beings, or they could be the descendants of Seth; therefore, Ziggy et al could be terrestrial or extraterrestrial, actual spiders from Mars.

In spite of the light-hearted attitude towards screwing groupies, though, they’d still “better hang on to [themselves].” For all of this freewheeling partying will ultimately lead to Ziggy’s self-destruction, just as the mating of the sons of God with the daughters of men led to the Deluge and destruction of the Earth, this latter already something expected to happen in five years.

Ziggy Stardust” tells the whole story in brief, but from the point of view of the envious Spiders from Mars. Ziggy’s an amazing talent on the guitar, but “he took it all too far.” Ziggy lets his talent and fame go to his head, “making love with his ego.” He imagines himself as godlike, “jiving us that we were voodoo.” The fans recognize that, in his growing egotism, Ziggy isn’t the saviour they’ve thought he is, so they kill him, and that’s the end of the band. The idolatrous always suffer bitter disappointment when reality hits them in the face.

Suffragette City” is about Ziggy’s relationship with a woman who’s great in bed, but has him so wrapped around her finger that she won’t let him hang out with his male friends. The power-based relationship is given a tongue-in-cheek comparison to men’s relationship with feminism, since Manchester, England was a major city for the growth of the Suffragette movement.

One of the hurdles in the fight for equality of the sexes is the perception that it involves one sex trying to dominate the other. Accordingly, feminists are perceived as ruling over their boyfriends/husbands in exchange for sex. On the other hand, a young man without a girlfriend or wife is seen as a freewheeling “droogie” running around partying, doing drugs, destroying property, beating people up, and even engaging in sexual impropriety (as Bowie himself was apparently guilty of with then-underage Lori Maddox).

What’s interesting, from the point of view of this song, though, is how rock star and groupie have changed roles: the idol has become the idolater, and vice versa. A son of the gods, having mated with a daughter of men, has become a son of men mating with a daughter of the gods. The dominant and submissive have swapped positions.

So, part of Ziggy’s self-destruction as a rock star is his ‘domestication’ by his girlfriend, thus losing his power and status as a rock-and-roll demigod; part of it is his having disappointed his fans by not delivering the salvation he’s promised; and most importantly, part of it is the drinking and drugs he’s overindulged in.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” focuses on that self-destructiveness through the excess partying. You can smoke the cigarette of time quickly, or you can savour it; live life in the fast lane, or take life with a relaxed attitude. Teenagers are stuck at a time of life of being “too old” and “too young” at the same time, too young to be partying to excess, but too old to be overprotected as children.

Early in the morning, one may “stumble across the road” drunk and stoned after a night of partying, which is a manic defence against all that is depressing to a teen…the “five years left to cry in.” Ziggy knows that kind of pain, for he’s “had [his] share.”

Even in his dying, Ziggy tries to comfort all the teens that he’s disappointed with his “religiously unkind” posturing as a prophet (making him no better than the priests and televangelists). Still, his advice is worth hearing: “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone!”

One of Bowie’s musical influences was Jacques Brel, whose “Jef” has been echoed in this song: “Non, Jef, t’es pas tout seul.” Brel comforts his friend Jef, after his girlfriend has dumped him and broken his heart; Ziggy comforts his teen fans after he himself has disappointed them, breaking their hearts. “You’re not alone!” Don’t let alienation get you down! “You’re wonderful!” You don’t need to identify with a rock star to feel worthy, teens. You’re already wonderful, just as you are.

The song climaxes with a whirlwind of chord changes and modulations suggesting the complicated emotions teens go through during those turbulent years. After the C major to A major sequence beginning with “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone,” we hear those words again with a chord progression of C-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, B major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor, C-sharp major, B major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor, and C-sharp major. Then, repeated chromatic ascents from B-flat major to C-sharp major are heard as Bowie sings, “Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone!…Give me your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful!” etc.

The lesson to be learned from this album is that, no matter what ‘apocalypse’ of “Five Years” we’re about to suffer, “No matter what or who you’ve been, no matter when or where you’ve seen, all the knives seem to lacerate your brain,” we don’t need an idol to “get there in the end.” No messengers of such idols, as the media likes to distract us with–be they priests, televangelists, or rock stars–are going to help us “all pull on through.”

It’s knowing that we’re not alone, that is, we’re all sharing the same sorrows and alienation of one form or another, that will comfort us, through our mutual empathy (that is, through Ron Davies’s “patience and understanding”). And if we give each other our hands in that empathic attitude, to help each other in solidarity, we’ll realize we have a lot more than just five years to live in.

Analysis of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 buddy drama film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by John Schlesinger and written by Waldo Salt, the film is based on the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It was rated R originally, then rated X for its treatment of adult subject matter (gender-bending gay men and other people deemed ‘degenerates’ of the seedier side of New York City) considered discomfiting to moviegoers at the time.

Ultimately, the film is relatable for its exploration of themes of loneliness, fantasy (including dissociation and drug use, as escapes from the ugliness of the real world), melancholia, poverty, and alienation. There’s a recurring manic defence against depression, guilt, and sadness in the film.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Lotta rich women back there, Ralph, begging for it, paying for it, too…and the men – they’re mostly tutti fruttis. So I’m gonna cash in on some of that, right?…Hell, what do I got to stay around here for? I got places to go, right?” –Joe Buck (Voight), to Ralph

“You look real nice, lover boy, real nice. Make your old grandma proud. You’re gonna be the best-looking cowboy in the whole parade.” –Sally Buck, to little Joe

“Well, sir, I ain’t a for-real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud.” –Joe, to Mr. O’Daniel

“I’m lonesome, so I’m a drunk. I’m lonesome, so I’m a dope fiend. I’m lonesome, so I’m a thief! I’m lonesome, so I’m a fornicator! A whoremonger!” –Mr. O’Daniel

[To taxi driver]HEY! I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here! [bangs hand on car] Up yours you son-of-a-bitch! You don’t talk to me that way! Get outta here! [to Joe] Don’t worry about that. Actually, that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance, you know.” –Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman)

“The X on the windows means the landlord can’t collect rent, which is a convenience, on account of it’s condemned.” –Ratso

“Got my own private entrance here. You’re the only one who knows about it. Watch the plank. Watch the plank. Break your god-damn skull. No way to collect insurance.” –Ratso

“The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did you know that? That’s a fact. In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got ’em in the, uh, gas stations over there. And ladies? You know that in Miami, you got, uh, you listenin’ to me? You got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita on a given day, there’s probably, uh, three hundred of ’em on the beach. In fact, you can’t even, uh, scratch yourself without gettin’ a belly-button, uh, up the old kazoo there.” –Ratso

“Not bad, not bad for a cowboy. You’re OK. You’re OK.” Ratso, to Joe

[to Joe] I’m gonna use ya. I’m gonna run you ragged…You and me can have fun together. It doesn’t have to be joyless.” –Mr. O’Daniel (John McGiver)

“I’ve prayed on the streets. I’ve prayed in the saloons. I’ve prayed in the toilets. It don’t matter where, so long as He gets that prayer.” –O’Daniel

“Do you love me, Joe? Do you love me? Love me? You’re the only one, Joe. You’re the only one. You’re better, Joe. You’re better than the rest of ’em. You’re better than any of them, Joe. You love me, Joe. You’re better than all of ’em. You’re the best, Joe.” –Annie […]

Cass: I hate to ask you, but you’re such a doll.

Joe: You know, Cass, that’s a funny thing you mentioning money. ‘Cause I was just about to ask you for some.

Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Huh?

Joe: Hell, why do you think I come all the way up here from Texas for?

Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with? Some old slut on 42nd Street? In case you didn’t happen to notice it, ya big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one helluva gorgeous chick.

Joe: Now, Cass, take it easy.

Cass: You heard it. At twenty-eight years old. You think you can come up here, and pull this kind of crap up here! Well, you’re out of your mind! […]

The film begins with a shot of a blank movie screen at a drive-in. As the shot backs away, we hear the sounds of gunfire in a ‘cowboys and Indians’ shoot-out in an old Western movie. The sound, but lack of cowboy movie visuals, reinforces the sense of fantasy, the fantasy Joe Buck (Voight) has of being a cowboy. But real life is no movie, and he is no real cowboy.

We see him showering and singing about the joys of leaving for New York, where he imagines he’ll prosper as a prostitute servicing rich but lonely older women. As he fantasizes, he’s already aware of the reality of his annoyed coworkers at a restaurant where he’s expected to be to wash the pile-up of dishes. He’s just quitting all of a sudden, and taking a bus to New York, in all irresponsibility.

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Texas as Joe is walking down the streets to catch the bus. This pleasant day symbolizes his enjoyment of his fantasizing about his glamorous life as a “hustler” in New York, ignoring the traffic as he crosses the road. A truck driver honks at the absent-minded dreamer.

Nilsson‘s “Everybody’s Talkin’” is heard as Joe is walking merrily along in his cowboy outfit, carrying his suitcase and radio. Even if he’d been given warnings about what problems he might have in New York, a city he’s never been to, and one he’ll be totally out of his element in, Joe wouldn’t have listened to them.

His fellow dishwasher, Ralph, asks what he’s “gonna do back East,” as if anticipating Joe’s future problems; but it doesn’t occur to Joe at all that there might actually be problems there. “I betcha it’s a mess back there,” Ralph warns in all prescience, though oblivious Joe just thinks he’ll “cash in on some of that.”

Nilsson sings, as if in Joe’s voice, “Everybody’s talking at me; I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind.” Joe won’t heed any warnings, because he “won’t let you leave [his] love behind,” his love being his dream of being famous in New York as “one helluva stud.”

“People stopping, staring, I can’t see their faces, only the shadows of their eyes.” Joe won’t heed people’s warnings, nor will he behold their disapproving facial expressions. He can barely make out the disapproving shadows of their eyes. He won’t face the reality of the disastrous future he’s walking into; he barely notices taxis or trucks about to hit him on the road. All he cares about is his fantasy, and his hopes of fulfilling it.

His fantasy is an escape from his painful past, one that included his mother giving him up as a child to his grandmother, the late Sally Buck. His relationship with her was a strange one, only superficially loving. She’d often leave him alone in the house, blowing him a kiss and dropping off a few dollars for him, to be with “a new beau,” the drunk Woodsy Niles. Sometimes she’d lie in bed with little Joe and kiss him: did she sexually abuse him? Is that why he wants to prostitute himself to older women?

Whatever was going on between little Joe and Sally, it’s certain that his family relationships were a failure. Her unexpected death on his return from the military has only increased his feelings of isolation. His sexual relationship with Annie, a girl with a reputation for being promiscuous (boys lined up to have sex with her), was also a failure that has contributed to his loneliness; for those boys who’d lined up to have her grew jealous of her preference for Joe, and so they got revenge on both lovers by surprising the two in a car when they were making love, and gang-raping her, forcing Joe to watch.

Her trauma resulted in her being institutionalized, and Joe was alone again. Throughout his life, he’s been taught that sex is a commodity, an exchange value rather than part of the value of a relationship with a mate. For these reasons, Joe can find only pain and loneliness in the Texas he’s grown up in; so he must leave to escape that pain, his dream of being a desirable “hustler” as his manic defence against the crushing depression he’d feel from facing that pain.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein first wrote about the manic defence as part of an infant’s dealing with the pain of transitioning from the paranoid-schizoid position (hostility towards the “bad mother” half of the split mother object in the baby’s mind) to the depressive position (involving guilt over that hostility, fear of the hated object being taken away and/or killed, and a wish for reparation when the infant realizes Mother is a mix of good and bad aspects). The manic defence, however, can be felt at any point in one’s whole life, and D.W. Winnicott expanded on Klein’s idea in a 1935 paper. We can see, in his description of the characteristics of the manic defence, how Joe Buck deals with his pain through an escape in sex.

Winnicott describes one aspect of this manic defence, which we can see as applying to Joe, in the following way: “Denial of the sensations of depression–namely the heaviness, the sadness–by specifically opposite sensations, lightness, humorousness, etc. The employment of almost any opposites in the reassurance against death, chaos, mystery, etc., ideas that belong to the fantasy content of the depressive position.” (Winnicott, page 132, his emphasis)

So, in order to protect himself from the pain of his childhood and failed relationship with Annie, Joe must assume the opposite feelings: hope, enthusiasm, excitement, and joy. To evade feelings of loneliness, he must seek the opposite, to be close to as many other people as possible, so close as to be intimately close, his naked body rubbing up against others in sex. To avoid the pain of reality, he must be constantly daydreaming, in a fantasy world, living inside his mind, ignoring the sobering outside world.

His loneliness is accentuated through his experiences with the others on the bus: he tries to chat with the driver, who ignores him; young women titter when he walks by in his cowboy outfit, his radio in his hands; and the only person who shows any real interest in communicating with him is a little girl who plays some coquettish peek-a-boo…not an appropriate client for his services, to put it mildly.

Elsewhere on the bus, a group of army men are singing “The Caisson Song,” with the enthusiasm of the brainwashed, but at least they have each other’s company. Women on the radio speak of how they want a stud in bed, and Joe is thrilled, but it doesn’t occur to him that these women don’t want a prostitute.

Wherever he sees himself in a mirror, he’s pleased to see a handsome cowboy…but even he knows he isn’t “a for real cowboy.” That mirror is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he sees only his idealized self, his ideal-ego, all together, unified, and cohesive; but this ideal-I is only an illusion, for his real self looking into the mirror is an awkward, fragmented, and unhappy man.

This real man is suited for the most menial of labour, like dishwashing, a job so lacking in glamour that he’s run away from it so quickly, no notice is even given to his boss. He quit because of the alienating nature of the job: it alienates him from any sense of pride in his work; it alienates him from his coworkers and boss; and it alienates him from his species-essence, or his sense of meaning in life. He hopes the cowboy image will restore all that he’s been alienated from, but he’ll soon be even more alienated in New York.

Indeed, as he wanders the streets with his money having run out, and his having been kicked out of his hotel, he walks by a restaurant and sees a dishwasher through the window, a frowning young blond who could be his twin. His reflection in the glass is seen beside the dishwasher, accentuating both their identity with each other and the Lacanian illusion of his reflection. His False Self and True Self are tragically juxtaposed.

Upon his arrival in New York City, he’s been going around trying to connect with his would-be female clientele, but of course with no success. In fact, his only success has been with a call girl who expects him to pay her! The big question ringing in the head of every viewer of this movie is, Where did Joe get the idea that scores of New York women want to pay a man for sex?

Finally, he meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman) in a bar; this is the one time we see the con man/cripple dressed well, for this first impression Joe gets of him is as Rico’s False Self; for most of the rest of the film, he has his more typical scruffy “Ratso” look, getting sicker and sicker. Thus, Rico is Joe’s double; we have the posturing duo of a “cowboy” and a ‘streetwise man with connections,’ both trying to escape their wretched condition.

As Joe is chatting with Rico in the bar about the disastrous hook-up with the call girl, and Rico is pretending to help Joe get the “management” he needs, we can hear the song “A Famous Myth,” by The Groop, playing faintly in the background. Indeed, it is a famous myth that anyone beyond the 1% will ever “fly so high.” This goes double for Joe’s fantasy of being a glamorous “hustler” or Rico’s fantasy of living the good life in Florida. Note the song’s juxtaposition, of the hopeful aspiration in the lyrics, with the sadness of that unfulfillable longing in the music. The manic defence fails again.

As Joe and Rico are talking and walking down the street on their way to Mr. O’Daniel’s place, we see Rico’s limp. In the famous scene of them crossing the road and a taxi almost hitting Rico, his shouting “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” (as opposed to him limping) is a wish fulfillment we later see in his Florida fantasy, when we see him actually running with Joe on the beach.

Mr. O’Daniel (played by the character actor, John McGiver) is Joe’s would-be connection with that coveted elder female clientele; but wearing that bathrobe and smiling that maniacal grin, O’Daniel comes across as some kind of sex pervert. When he says Joe will need his “strong back,” we wonder what for.

As it turns out, O’Daniel–who correctly notes that being “lonesome” is what leads to alcoholism, crime, drugs, and sex addiction–has his own manic defence against loneliness and depression: religion. Prayer, even in the toilet stalls, will cure sadness!

(Recall, in this connection, what Marx said about religion: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” [Marx, Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right])

Joe, whose childhood traumas remind him of the excesses of religious fanaticism, runs out of the apartment, another attempt to escape from pain. In his mad search for that cheat Rizzo, Joe dissociates in his thoughts, and what ensues is a melange of images of Rizzo found in the subway, Joe’s wish-fulfillment that he’s found the snake, with memories of Annie’s gang rape mixed in. Reveries, dreams, religion, and drug-induced hallucinations all represent the failure of fantasy as a manic defence cure for sadness.

Later, Joe’s money runs out, and he’s kicked out of his hotel room, an obvious example of private property. Homelessness is one of the abused children of private property and capitalism, and Joe has joined Rico as one of those children. Desperate, Joe resorts to gay prostitution (something, in the novel, that he is indifferent to because of having been a victim of homosexual gang rape).

He allows a young man (Bob Balaban) to perform fellatio on him in a movie theatre for $25, which the boy, it turns out, doesn’t even have. Joe tries fantasizing about sex with Annie to get excited during the blow job. His feelings of degradation are mirrored by the science fiction movie playing: in it, an astronaut is cut off from his spaceship, depriving him of his oxygen supply as he drifts off, lost in space. Joe feels similarly lost, his dream of being a lady-pleasing stud also losing oxygen.

The phallic spaceship comes apart into halves, symbolizing castration, as does the severing of the connection of the ill-fated astronaut to his ship. Since engaging in gay male sexual activity is traditionally associated with a loss of manhood, and cowboy-stud Joe believes in such traditional societal narratives, he feels himself to be symbolically emasculated.

The irony of Joe’s belief in the macho cowboy, John Wayne stereotype, his ideal-ego that he sees in the mirror, is that Rico disillusions him by telling him that only gay male prostitutes dress like cowboys. Joe’s manic defence has never protected him from his self-loathing.

Rico has his own manic defences, apart from his con man/thief persona. Just as Joe dreamt of leaving Texas to find his would-be haven in New York City, so does Rico dream of leaving the hell of New York for the would-be paradise of Florida.

And just as Joe has had painful relationships with his neglectful mother and his grandmother, who suddenly died on his return home from the military, so does Rico suffer the memories of his disappointing late father, a shoe-shiner who “was even dumber than [Joe],” and whose headstone should say “one big, lousy X,” just like the building he and Joe are squatting in. They’ve been “condemned by order of City Hall,” part of the bourgeois state that protects private property and throws people like Joe and Rico out onto the street for not having made more of themselves.

The loss of, or traumatic disappointment in, parental objects results in a splitting of the personality into ego-segments that WRD Fairbairn called the Libidinal Ego (connected to the Exciting Object) and an Anti-libidinal Ego (connected to a Rejecting Object). Joe’s pursuit of older women as clients represents the former ego/object configuration, while Rico’s misanthropic rebuffs (e.g., “Take your hands off of me!” at the party) represents the latter ego/object configuration.

This libidinal or anti-libidinal retreat into a world of exciting or rejecting objects is another escape into fantasy, a refusal to face the real world, where Fairbairn‘s concept of the Central Ego is linked to an Ideal Object (“ideal” because it is best to be in relationships with real people [“objects” in relation to oneself, the subject] in the external world, as opposed to the fantasy life of the internal, mental world). At least Joe and Rico have each other as Ideal Objects…that is, until the end of the movie.

One comical scene shows Joe and Rico in their non-heated home, the condemned building, shivering in the winter and dancing to a commercial jingle on Joe’s radio about “Florida orange juice…on ice.” An icicle is hanging from a tap, and Rico’s fantasy of the warmth of Florida makes the jingle into a cruel musical joke on his manic defence.

Another escape attempt from their melancholy comes in the form of a party held by artsy siblings “Hansel and Gretel McAlbertson.” At this party, we can see the difference in the manic defence’s degree of success or failure in Joe vs. Rico. Joe (Libidinal Ego) bogarts a joint that he naïvely thinks is just a regular cigarette, then he’s given a pill to augment his high (Exciting Object). Rico (Anti-libidinal Ego), on the other hand, remains misanthropic, stealing food and picking pockets, and scowling at all the other guests (Rejecting Object). Elephant’s Memory‘s psychedelic “Old Man Willow” is heard in the background.

A woman Hansel is filming grins and says, “I love everything in the theatre. I would like to die on the stage.” Of course: the theatre is a staged illusion, an escape from the pains of the real world; hence, “to die on the stage,” the final, sad acquiescence to reality, would at least be a happy death.

Joe’s brief escape into the euphoria of drugs ends with him scoring with a woman guest (Brenda Vaccaro, another Exciting Object for his Libidinal Ego) at the party, but also with his worries over Rico’s declining health. This worry, along with perhaps the effect of the marijuana and the pill, affects his ability to get an erection for the woman in her bed; hence, the look of abject terror on his face.

Winnicott wrote of the “ascensive” quality of the manic defence (Winnicott, pages 134-135), which can be symbolically associated with an erection. Joe’s failure to get it up thus represents his failed escape from melancholy through sex. Rico never succeeds in escaping his own sadness, especially on that bus ride to Florida; and Joe is so psychically conjoined to Rico, that Rico’s failed escape becomes Joe’s, too.

Rico refuses to accept the reality of his worsening illness; he’d rather be sick and risk dying in sunny Florida than get well in a New York hospital, which could lead to cops and to his incarceration. Desperate to get money for the bus ride, Joe assaults (and possibly kills) a client (Barnard Hughes) to steal all of his money.

The beautiful sight of bright, warm, sunny Florida–Rico’s manic defence against his melancholy, and ironically similar to the sunny Texas that Joe escaped from at the film’s beginning–is tragically contrasted with the continuing decline of Rico’s health. His body’s in pain, he wets his pants, and he’s sweating all over; this symbolizes his psychological disintegration–his body is trying to project his self-hate, just as he was projecting it onto all the people he was robbing, cheating, and rejecting at the party.

Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia, wrote of the similarity between the two, but with the one crucial difference being that, with normal mourning, one fully loves the deceased, mourned love object, whereas with melancholia, the unconscious source of one’s sadness comes from a mix of love and hate for the deceased. One internalizes the deceased–that is, identifies with the object through introjection; so the hated aspects of the object become the hated self, hence the mysterious source of one’s sadness. (Freud, pages 254, 256-260)

Both Joe and Rico have this melancholy after having lost and mourned family members who were far from ideal. Unconscious hostility to Sally Buck and to Rico’s father are thus introjected, and Joe and Rico hate themselves.

Nonetheless, even Freud acknowledged the presence of mania as having a dialectical relationship with melancholia: “The impression which several psychoanalytic investigators have already put into words is that the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’, but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside. Our second pointer is afforded by the observation that all states such as joy, exultation, or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania, depend on the same economic conditions.” (Freud, page 263)

Some, like Joe, are more successful with the manic defence, while others, like Rico, fail at it, and also fail at projecting their self-hate onto others (e.g., Rico‘s homophobia and misanthropy in general). For these reasons, Rico dies while Joe lives, but now Joe has a new loved one to mourn, and to be melancholy about.

The Midnight Cowboy theme, the lead melody of which is played on Toots Thielemans‘s chromatic harmonica, symbolizes this ‘happy sadness’ of the manic defence perfectly. Though a profoundly sad piece of music, the theme is melodically based on paralleled major 7th chords (save the G dominant, so C maj. 7, A-sharp maj. 7, G-sharp maj. 7, C-sharp maj. 7, G7). Major scales and chords seem to sound ‘happy,’ or ‘bright’ (like the sunny skies in Texas and Florida) as opposed to the ‘sad,’ or ‘dark’ (like the darkness inside Joe’s and Rico’s hearts, or the shadows in wintry New York) minor scales and chords. Here, the major melodies are sadder than Nigel Tufnel‘s D minor.

In sum, the movie’s whole message is that, no matter how hard we try to escape our sadness and loneliness with pleasure-seeking or fantasy, we can’t. Our melancholia can be cured only by confronting it.

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

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

The Ouroboros of the Workers’ State

If the ouroboros of the workers’ state were to be compared to a clock, 12:00-3:00 would be a state of ‘NEP,’ as it were (see below); 3:00-6:00 would be the beginning of a real building of socialism, as Stalin did in the 1930s; 6:00-9:00 would be remarkable progress in that building; and 9:00-12:00 would result in the withering away of the socialist state, and the attainment of communist society.

It goes without saying that one doesn’t go from revolution to full communist society overnight. A process of gradual transformation has to be made, starting with the capitalist structure one has just taken over (recall when Lenin wrote of how “difficult [it would be] to abolish classes”–Lenin/Tucker, pages 668-669), smashing the possibility of it continuing seamlessly from before that takeover, and building socialism step by step, changing every facet of what had existed before, each facet examined one by one.

This process of moving along the continuum from capitalism, through the building of more and more socialism, to full communism can be symbolized by the ouroboros, a circular continuum where the serpent’s biting head represents one extreme, and its bitten tail represents the opposite extreme. The tail is the dialectical thesis of the desired communist society; the head is the capitalist negation of that desired society; and the length of the coiled body is the socialist sublation of the contradiction. In other posts, I’ve discussed this ouroboros symbolism before.

We wish to move in a clockwise direction from the capitalist head (i.e., 12:00-1:00) to the communist tail (11:00-12:00); but a counter-clockwise reactionary movement continually threatens to undo all our progress. Because of this danger, the movement towards more and more socialism must be accelerated, to at least some extent; also, proper protections must be established, and acts of treason must be extirpated with the utmost ruthlessness.

In the early stages of socialism (i.e., 1:00-3:00 along the ouroboros’ body), some concessions to the established order are sadly inevitable, as was the case with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty to get the RSFSR out of World War I, a move Lenin had to make to fulfill part of his “peace, land, and bread” promise, yet also a move that angered the impatient left communists.

Lenin, in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, responded to this anger: “It had seemed to them that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a compromise with the imperialists, which was inexcusable on principle and harmful to the party of the revolutionary proletariat. It was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made.” […]

“The party which entered into a compromise with the German imperialists by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been evolving its internationalism in practice ever since the end of 1914. It was not afraid to call for the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and to condemn “defence of country” in a war between two imperialist robbers. The parliamentary representatives of this party preferred exile in Siberia to taking a road leading to ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government. The revolution that overthrew tsarism and established a democratic republic put this party to a new and tremendous test–it did not enter into any agreements with its “own” imperialists, but prepared and brought about their overthrow. When it had assumed political power, this party did not leave a vestige of either landed or capitalist ownership. After making public and repudiating the imperialists’ secret treaties, this party proposed peace to all nations, and yielded to the violence of the Brest-Litovsk robbers only after the Anglo-French imperialists had torpedoed the conclusion of a peace, and after the Bolsheviks had done everything humanly possible to hasten the revolution in Germany and other countries. The absolute correctness of this compromise, entered into by such a party in such a situation, is becoming ever clearer and more obvious with every day.” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 563-564, Lenin’s emphasis)

Another concession Lenin made was with the NEP, which he himself called “state capitalism” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 511-531) as a temporary measure to deal with the economic exigencies of the early 1920s. Nonetheless, Stalin had already phased out the NEP by the beginning of the 1930s, as it was by then time to move socialism on forward. Indeed, when the concessions are no longer necessary, it’s time to continue clockwise along the body of the ouroboros (i.e., move from 3:00 to, say, 6:00).

In this connection I must discuss China under Xi Jinping, and do so with necessary candour. Nothing would make me happier to believe that the country is going down a genuine path of Marxism-Leninism, but beyond Xi’s rhetoric, I’m sorry to say that I can only see China as being, at best, in a seemingly almost permanent state of arrested NEP development.

China‘s is a mixed economy, partially state-planned and partially private enterprise. This latter part is the beginning of the cancer of capitalism in any country; the small amount of private enterprise allowed in Cuba is enough to make me fear for her future. That there’s so much more free enterprise in China should be enough to make any communist nervous, yet many respectable Marxist-Leninists out there still rationalize what China is doing. I must respectfully disagree with them.

The defences I’ve heard to support Dengism as legitimate Leninism include such arguments as wages have been rising (itself a debatable notion), hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and of course, theirs is a state-planned economy. All of these arguments can be applied to capitalist countries, where at certain points in history, wages have risen (as they did in the West from 1945-1973), ‘millions lifted out of poverty’ has been claimed to have been a capitalist achievement, and state-planning, or state intervention, has existed–to at least some extent–in both fascist and Keynesian forms of capitalist economies.

How have ‘hundreds of millions of Chinese been pulled out of poverty,’ anyway? The poverty line is defined at making US$1.90/day, so any money earned above that, even US$1.91, is considered to be technically ‘above poverty.’ This World Bank definition is applied equally to capitalist boasts of raising people out of poverty as it is to Chinese boasts. Granted, many Chinese today are now doing much, much better than they were back when Deng Xiaoping had just taken over (including today’s hundreds of Chinese billionaires and millionaires!); but in the rural areas–and in some urban ones–many are still very poor.

How many of these Chinese ‘above the poverty line’ in as recent a year as 2015 were making, say, US$2.00/day, or $2.50, or $3.00, or in any case, under $3.20/day? Up to 7%. How many made under $5.50/day? 27.2%, not a trifling percentage, and not much money. As of the end of 2017, Xinhua acknowledged that 30.46% of rural Chinese were still below the poverty line. I don’t think the average Westerner would be happy to make less than US$3.20/day, or less than $5.50/day, then be congratulated for no longer being impoverished!

Need I remind you, Dear Reader, that the ‘state-planned economy equals socialism’ argument is commonly heard among certain quarters outside the China-defending Marxists?…they’re called right-libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists. It isn’t state-planning per se that makes it socialist: it’s how the planning is used. Does it lift the poor out of squalor in a meaningful way, or does it allow–or even facilitateflagrant wealth inequality?

Recently, the Chinese government has cracked down on corruption; but this can happen in capitalist countries, too, if only with modest success. Socialist government is by far the most moral, but at least some virtue in government can be seen elsewhere. Virtue in government alone doesn’t make it socialist.

It’s not my wish to disparage China, or to speak out of malice; China’s growth since the 1980s has been nothing short of impressive. I certainly have no bourgeois agenda against China; these criticisms I’ve made are not the kind you get from anti-communists; nor are they of the infantile disorder one gets from impatient, utopian socialists who want everything perfect all at once. I just want to see China move further clockwise towards the tail of the ouroboros. I’m a patient socialist, but my patience has limits.

I would much rather have China (or Russia, for that matter), far less inclined to waging war, as the strongest country in the world than the eternally bellicose US…and I live as a Canadian in Taiwan! But until someone can provide more convincing arguments that China, having joined such capitalist institutions as the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank, is legitimately socialist, I’ll continue to have my doubts.

Consider the working conditions in China’s (and Vietnam‘s) factories and sweatshops. Consider the legal existence of private property in China, and how Marx and Engels told us, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Consider the evidence of imperialistic tendencies, often reduced, by China’s apologists, to investment in the growth of developing foreign countries.

I think I understand the psychological motive for many to regard China as socialist in spite of its obvious capitalist tendencies: it is depressing to see the great majority of socialist nations having succumbed to neoliberal depredations, and so we’d all like to believe that China isn’t one of those casualties. Until I see a genuine Chinese movement away from the tendencies I outlined above, however, and more muscular efforts to even out the wealth inequality, I’ll find it difficult to support Xi’s government.

But enough of ‘NEP-oriented’ politics. Time to move further clockwise along the serpent’s body, from 3:00-6:00. When the productive forces are sufficiently developed, efforts towards universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare must be immediately undertaken. We’re moving towards the ideal of ‘from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs.’ Part of this means taking the ‘his or her’ part seriously, thus establishing full equal rights for women and a way out of the trap of restrictive traditional roles for both sexes (Lenin/Tucker, pages 679-699).

These developments, along with such ones as promoting tolerance for LGBT people, helping people with physical and mental disabilities, and eliminating racial prejudice, will help move us further clockwise along the ouroboros from its head to its tail, from 3:00-9:00.

Proper defences against the danger of a reinstating of capitalism, a move from 6:00 back to 1:00, must be erected. North Korea has done well in that regard with their development of nuclear weapons, the only thing that has prevented a US invasion. Venezuela must do more to protect herself from imperialist aggression: gusanos like Guaidó should be arrested (at least) for treason; let the liberal media lambast Maduro for being firm with these traitors, for they’ll criticize his democratically socialist government as a ‘dictatorship’ regardless of what he does. To ensure the survival of the proletarian dictatorship, not letting it slip counter-clockwise back to the bourgeois dictatorship of ‘liberal democracy,’ one mustn’t flinch at such measures.

To an extent, some concessions have to be made to ensure against the backsliding into bourgeois ways. But sometimes, those concessions really do result in such backsliding. A delicate balance must be made, like walking a tightrope. Moving too much the one way (as Mao was perceived to have done) or too much the other way (as I perceive Deng to have done) leads to a slipping along the serpent’s tail back to its capitalist head.

And once we reach the tip of the tail of the ouroboros (9:00-12:00)–when all remaining traces of capitalism have been eradicated, mountainous class differences have been lowered to the calmly rippling waves of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” the state finally withers away, and money is replaced with a gift economy–we mustn’t assume our new communist society will be a painless utopia. There will be new challenges to be dealt with, new contradictions of some sort or other. The bitten tail will phase into a new biting head, though not a capitalist one. We’ll have to be ready for those new challenges when they come.

Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975

Analysis of ‘Three Friends’

Three Friends is a concept album by Gentle Giant, released in 1972. At this time, the band was a sextet, with saxophonist/singer Phil Shulman playing beside his younger brothers, Derek (vocals) and Ray (bass, violin, acoustic guitar, backing vocals); original drummer Martin Smith was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore, who played only on this Gentle Giant album before being replaced in turn by drummer/tuned percussionist/singer John Weathers, who would stay with the band until their breakup in 1980.

This album is not as dissonant or complex as the other Gentle Giant albums, and I say this in full knowledge of how they abandoned progressive rock in the late 70s in an abortive attempt to become more radio-friendly. Put another way, I don’t consider their attempt at going pop to be genuine Gentle Giant…and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion. The profit motive ruins art by forcing it to conform to trends.

The outer front album cover shows three boys, sharing a similar whitish-blue-purple colour for their bodies, sitting and facing each other, with a seagull in the middle; the back cover shows the three boys with their backs to each other, their colours now different (reddish-white, greenish-white, and purplish-white), and the seagull flying away. The front cover thus suggests their similar nature at first as boys, enjoying each other’s company by the sea, an image I’ve elsewhere associated with the highest peace; this then changes, on the back cover, to their growing different from each other, and thus alienated, with the memory of their togetherness by the sea having flown away, like the seagull.

The inner sleeve shows black and white drawings of the boys at school, with their strict, authoritarian teacher, their blissful memories together hearing an old brass band, and playing with kites on the beach, with the seagulls flying nearby. Then, we see each of them as men in their respective career choices: a wealthy businessman in his coat and hat looking at his nice, expensive house and car; a construction worker with his pickaxe; and an artist in his (basement?) studio with his drawings. The three men are facing away from us, for they are as alienated from us and the rest of the world as they are from each other.

The six songs of the album tell the story of these three boys, whose childhood friendship ended with them as men going their separate ways–a worker, a painter, and a businessman. This story can thus be seen to be an allegory of how class conflict causes alienation among people who, except for this class conflict, would be close and happy together.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album.

The first song, “Prologue,” sets the tone for the album by presenting a precis of the story in the lyrics, and by creating a dark mood in the music. A snare drum roll by Mortimore leads into a mildly dissonant opening, with Kerry Minnear‘s organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and Ray’s bass; these three are playing in 6/8 time while Mortimore is drumming a cross-rhythm in 4/4.

Next comes a dark theme, the main one of the song, played on Ray’s fuzz bass, Green’s guitar, and Minnear’s Minimoog. Phil joins them on baritone sax, then sings the lead vocal, with a backing vocal by Minnear, singing contrapuntal melodies that are independent of each other, and reminding us of the independent voices of a polyphonic Renaissance madrigal, already a staple of Gentle Giant’s music.

Phil sings of how the boys’ friendship shared all the joys and sadness that any childhood relationship would have. “But fate and skill and chances” would eventually separate the boys, not just geographically, but also in terms of class, most crucially. As Phil and Minnear are singing, we hear Ray’s sad notes plucked on a 12-string acoustic guitar in the background.

“They tell their tales to justify,” that is, justify why they have had to go their separate ways; for, in spite of how, deep down in their unconscious, they’d much rather be together again, as adults they are in deep denial of how empty their lives have become. “Skill” separates them, for their differing skills (or lack of them) result in their going either higher or lower in terms of social class, the “chances” being their differing economic opportunities.

“Schooldays” is my personal favourite song on the album, for it is the richest in melody and harmony, in my opinion. It opens with a playful melody on Minnear’s vibraphone and Green’s jazz-toned guitar. It suggests the joyful, spontaneous energy of children running around, laughing, and playing together. Minnear and Phil sing in reminiscence of the happy time the boys shared, one voice following the other, as one boy chasing the other in play.

Each of the three men, in his dreams or internal monologues, has moments remembering his Edenic childhood; for only in their unconscious minds, or their private thoughts, would they allow such idyllic moments to be experienced. “Was it real, or did we dream? The days of children gone,” young Calvin Shulman (Ray’s son) sings as Minnear sings of the boys together with their ice cream on the beach, or hearing the brass band play.

The childlike innocence of the first half of the song gives way to a dark melancholy in Minnear’s pounding piano chords, based on the tritone interval (the diabolus in musica), suggesting the loss of that Edenic innocence as childhood naïveté acquires devilish knowledge in the authoritarian setting of school. The bitonality between these dark piano chords and the simultaneously playing, but also fading-out instrumentation of the previous “How long is ever,…” section also emphasizes the conflict between childhood innocence and adult experience.

The strict, Yahweh-like teacher wants obedient, unquestioning pupils who get all their homework assignments done on time. One suspects that the boy who thinks “it’s worth the pain to go out when [he] want[s]” will become an underachieving student who, when he becomes a man, will be…

“Working All Day” begins with Green playing a guitar part whose tape recording is slowed down, the discordant lowering of pitch suggesting how the first of the three friends has gone down in social rank, and how discordant the resulting class conflict feels. Indeed, since he’s a member of the working class, the painful contradiction between him and the bourgeoisie will be most keenly felt of all three men.

“Digging up the roads,” he has to do the most menial of labour to live. As miserable as he is, though, he’s often in denial of that misery, for he gets his money to “spend it where [he] like[s],” and “money buys escape” (drinking and partying, presumably), so he’s “got no regrets,” apparently. This denial of discontent is just as evident in the other two friends, as we’ll soon see.

The guitar- and sax-driven main riff reflects the meat-and-potatoes life of the working class, a strong contrast to the jazzy playfulness of “Schooldays,” and the Baroque lushness of the first part of “Peel the Paint.” The rock-oriented voice of Derek is thus most appropriate for “Working All Day.”

“Papa was rough. He didn’t care for learning. Hell, life is tough.” Either Papa was “rough” in the sense of unrefined, or “rough” in the sense of beating the boy, or both. In any case, the first friend wasn’t encouraged to be ambitious, hence he’s a worker.

The bitterness he feels over his life’s disappointments causes him not to believe in socialist ideas about equality, so one assumes he isn’t in a union; from this, we can assume that “working all day” means working more than eight hours a day for him.

He does all the work, “the boss gets all the money. Life ain’t just.” Without a union to help him fight for his rights (and this at a time, in the 1970s, when unions were at their strongest), “who can [he] trust?” The dissonance of the background instrumentation at the end of each verse symbolically reinforces the sense of class conflict, the contradiction between the interests of the boss and those of the overworked, underpaid workers.

Since the painter, whose story is sung by Phil during the first half of “Peel the Paint,” is “free from the start” and “thinks he has won a place in the sun, free from the worries and the ways of everyone,” it seems reasonable to assume that he isn’t the stereotypical starving artist. I’m guessing that this second of the three friends has achieved a moderate level of success, though “high in the air, his dreams are there,” as he hopes for greater financial success.

Since the first friend is working class and the third friend is among the upper classes, and since all three friends have gone “from class to class” (as we hear in the title track), that is, separated from each other in terms of social class, it is safe to assume that the artist occupies the remaining section of the social ladder–the middle class.

He fancies himself a creator of great art, of the sort that will be remembered among the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer; hence, in the background instrumentation we hear Ray plucking violin pizzicatos behind Phil’s singing, then after we hear Phil sing “colour the brush,” we hear a lavish pastiche of Baroque music with Ray bowing harmonized violin overdubs. This Baroque/Rococo parody suggests the artist’s snobbish pretensions.

The contrast between Phil’s gentle singing of “colour the brush” (i.e., put on the paint, and hide yourself), as against Derek’s aggressive singing of “peel the paint” (i.e., take off the paint, and show who you really are) symbolizes the artist’s pretence of artistry against the moral imperative to reveal the ugly truth, that the artist has compromised his integrity for money. Putting on the paint, versus taking it off, is like a prostitute painting her face with bright colours of makeup (as if pretending to like what she does), versus removing it and showing her unhappy self.

The artist imagines himself to be refined, but underneath he’s “the same old savage beast,” whose savagery is reflected in the change from the fancy first half to a balls-out hard rock second half, now with Derek on lead vocals. This brutish materialism is what the artist really exudes underneath the phoney genteel surface, since he’s a mere panderer to lucrative trends; Gentle Giant’s moral condemnation of the painter is ironic given how the band made a failed attempt to do what Genesis succeeded at in the late 70s, a pandering Gentle Giant would soon regret.

Speaking of pandering for the sake of financial success, consider now the third friend, who’s grown up to be “Mister Class and Quality?” He brags of “the prizes [he has] showing,” then denies his narcissism by saying he “never shout[s] about them,” namely, his “house and car and pretty wife.” His friends are his only in terms of how they can help him rise higher; put another way, those two childhood chums of his are no longer of any use to him, so why try to reunite with them?

After each verse, a dissonant counterpoint is heard between the guitar, organ, and bass, once again representing the class conflict between him, “the artist [and] the lazy workers” as well as between him and those at work, among whom he must “give and take the orders.” There’s a similarly dissonant bitonality between the fading-out end of the instrumental jam (licks courtesy of Green’s bluesy guitar and Minnear’s wah-wah electric piano) in the bridge and the return of the main riff (lead by Ray’s violin) for the final verse.

The title track is a sad epilogue for the album. Some on the internet claim either that the three friends see the error of their ways and reunite in the end, or at least imply a possible reunion. I see no evidence anywhere in the lyrics or in the music, especially with this last song’s melancholy melodies, to justify such an interpretation.

Their childhood past was “sweet in sadness,” for it included both the good and the bad times that occur in every relationship. The “gladness” that comes “in the end” must be ironic, a reference to how gladly the businessman chooses money over friendship; how the painter gladly panders for money, instead of sacrificing comfort for the sake of preserving artistic integrity; and how the worker gladly spends his meagre wages as a fleeting “escape” from his miserable existence as a wage slave.

The tragedy of the three friends–a tragedy whose cathartic quality is what makes the album so artistically satisfying–is their mutual alienation, an inevitable consequence of moving “from class to class,” lower, middle, and upper. People on different rungs of the social ladder don’t mingle, except “to give and take the orders.” That’s the whole point of Three Friends: all of us, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, are like those three lost boys, separated by skill, fate, and opportunity, mutually alienated.

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.