‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Five

The ecstasy I’ve taken has amphetamine mixed into it, so there’s no way I’m going to fall asleep. Indeed, as I recline here on my sofa, I’m fidgeting and, so to speak, bouncing off the walls as I peak on the E. Still, sitting here with my eyes closed, and in the middle of a trip on a combination of E, weed, and ketamine, while also tipsy on my few glasses of bourbon, I’m finding myself slipping into a reverie…

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

I am a little white elephant, floating in the clouds in the evening. The sun has almost set.

Looking down from heaven, I see the Queen of Sakia, all decked out in regal finery: she is wearing a red robe with goldwork embroidery on the neck and chest areas, as well as on the wrists of the sleeves and on the hem at the bottom. She looks gloriously beautiful.

She is reclining on a soft, purple couch and sleeping with her legs open, in all insouciance. Still hovering in the heavens, I decide to make my descent.

As I’m coming down, I find myself always fidgeting and twitching. A sparkling sensation is stimulating me from my head to my four feet, a sparkling augmented by that shiny gold embroidery on her, which shines, sparkles, and glows all the more as I get closer to her.

I’m shrinking in my descent. By the time I reach her open lap, I’m small enough to fit into her vagina. A hole in her white undergarment opens up so I, now the tiniest of elephants, can go inside the dark opening.

In her infinite black of a womb now, blacker than eyes squeezed shut, I float there, still fidgeting and twitching. Though I no longer see any shining gold, that sparkling feeling never ceases to thrill every inch of my body.

The sparkling slowly changes into a warm, humming sensation. As I feel this soft buzz, I can also feel the shape of my body changing. I’m getting thinner. My elephant ears are shrinking, as are my trunk and tusks. These all shrink to the point of disappearing.

My elephant legs are also shrinking, eventually getting to the point of transforming into the tiniest of feet and hands, which do little more than shake slightly. My head, almost as round as a ball, is about the same size as my torso. I’m attached to a placenta. No longer white, I’m a light, dull grey.

I am now a human fetus, of the development of one about two months in the womb. I black out for a moment.

I open my eyes briefly and see my living room, the TV turned off. I close my eyes again, and see only black.

It seems I’m opening my eyes a bit, for the blackness is only at the top and bottom of my field of vision, my eyelids’ borders, apparently. The light outside is blurry; I can barely make out anything at first.

I feel myself fidgeting and twitching some more, but now because I seem to be coming out of something dark, moist, and smelly. Fully emerged, I am soaking wet, naked, and freezing cold. The shock of it causes me to bawl. Someone wraps a blanket all over me, except for my face.

Aah…that feels much better.

My eyes focusing, I can see the flowers of a garden all around me. These flowers are of a variety of bright colours, including reds, yellows, pinks, purples, and whites.

I hear birds chirping, and I look up at the branches of trees above the flowers to see those birds in their nests. Funny thing: the birdsong sounds like a flute, a flute improvising variations on an Indian raga. I hear the glissandi of a violin, and the tapping of tablas, in the background, too.

I breathe in the fresh air, though I can also smell the smoke of a burning marijuana cigarette not too far away. I look up and see a cloudless blue sky beyond the trees’ foliage.

I feel myself being picked up and handed to that beautiful queen, my young, pretty mother, who is now wearing a dark green satin robe, again with goldwork embroidery along the hems. She puts me on her lap, caresses my head, and looks down at me with a loving smile.

I look to the side and see a man approaching, one perhaps ten years older than her. Wearing a gold crown and finery similar to hers, he must be the King of Sakia, my adoptive father. He sits beside her, looks down at me, and smiles.

An old man with a cane hobbles over to the three of us. He says, “This child will grow to be either the heir to your kingdom, to run the family business, or he will become a great revolutionary and spiritual leader!”

“A revolutionary?” the king shouts with indignation. “Not while I am king! I will do all that I must to prevent such a calamity to my kingdom and people!”

I close my eyes and see another void of black.

I open them again, and see myself inside a magnificent, luxurious palace, with gold lining the walls; between the gold lining is dark red or dark green, with paintings hung in the centre of each wall. These are portraits of the king and queen, as well as landscapes and scenes of glorious battles.

A nurse is breastfeeding me. I wonder where the queen is. My nurse is weeping, as is everyone else who walks by and looks at the queen’s portrait.

I hear one of the male servants say in sobs, “Only a week has passed by since the birth of the little prince over there, and our beloved Queen Maya is dead! What will King Sutton do without her?”

Another servant, a female, whispers, just loud enough for my baby’s ears to hear, “He will marry her twin sister, an abominable act of incest typical of royalty, with an abominable woman who I’m sure will give the prince no love at all…but what are we to do about it?”

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter One

My name is Sid, I’m forty years old, and…we’re all going to die.

Now, I’m not talking about plain, old, ordinary mortality here. I mean that all of us on this planet are going to die, and quite soon.

I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment late tonight, and I can hear the sounds of machine gun fire and far-off explosions from outside my window. I’m watching the news on my TV as I roll a joint, my right hand an inch or two away from my half-drunk glass of Jim Beam and Coke.

While all of this is happening, the last thing I want to be is sober.

President Harris is giving a press conference on the progress that the US and NATO have made in engaging the ‘enemy’: the alliance led by Russia, China, and Iran. She keeps ruling out the use of nuclear weapons, but why should we believe a word from that cackling bitch?

For almost fifteen years, I’ve been teaching English as a second language here in China…though we shouldn’t expect the Western world ever to admit that this small island is a part of China. Many, if not most, of the locals here insist it’s a country rather than a Chinese province.

Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I, a Western expat, simply leave when I had the chance, before this island became a war zone? There are several reasons: one, this is my home, of which I have no other, me being estranged from my ‘family,’ the Gordimer family, owners of Sakia, a weapons manufacturing company. As a pacifist, I have no need of any other reason to disown that family, though I have many others, as I will go into later on.

Two, my skill set as an English teacher is very limited. What am I going to do for work in my predominantly English-speaking country, where so many others are snapping up almost all of the job opportunities, as scant as they already are? I’ll doubtless be a derelict back there.

Three, and most important of all, World War Three has been going on for the past several days. This island isn’t the only place being hit, as I can hear from outside my window. Russia is counter-attacking Europe and the UK. China is hitting not only us here, but also Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada with its long-range missiles. Iran is hitting the American military bases surrounding it. North Korea has its nuclear weapons ready to fire.

Nowhere is it safe; it especially won’t be when the nukes start flying…when they start flying.

So, you see, we’re all going to die, and quite soon.

Nothing is going to save me or anyone else. Not getting off the island, not praying to a God that so obviously doesn’t exist, and not any of the wisdom contained in all the books on the bookshelves I have surrounding my TV.

No, none of my translations of Buddhist scriptures, nor the inspiration of Gautama’s mythical biography, nor my three volumes of Das Kapital, my Communist Manifesto, my Grundrisse, my Lenin anthology, my essential works of Mao Zedong, my Dialectical and Historical Materialism, nor any of my books by Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, Wilfred R Bion, Heinz Kohut, or Jacques Lacan will help me.

My only escape will be a mental one, a manic defence, assisted by booze, marijuana, ecstasy pills, and a line or two of ketamine.

Yes, we, the lowly, wretched people of the Earth, are the targeted. It’s as though each of us has had a bullseye painted on his or her chest. If the bullets and conventional bombs don’t hit us, the nukes will. And even if, by some miracle, we manage to survive all of that, then the destruction of the Earth through climate change will kill us all.

If only we the people could target all the evils of the world, hit them like marksmen, and save humanity from itself. If only we ‘targeters,’ if you will, could have gone thus and stopped the warmongers from instigating what’s now the irreversible: the destruction of all life on this planet.

The targeter, having thus gone to his target, not missing the mark, would replace the error of the warmongers’ ways with the truth: namely, that those who are able should give to those in need; that ego is an illusion and we all are one; and that to harm others is to harm ourselves.

I can only dream of such a cure for the world, though. It’s already too late for us all. I hear the noisy proof of our doom from outside my window, and from the quacking of the American president on my TV.

So, in my despair, I’m using alcohol and drugs to numb my pain. If I can’t escape in body, I’ll do so in mind. May I, being a target, be too stoned to feel the incineration of my body when the time comes. May the drug trip I’m about to go on take me on a surreal journey somewhere far away, somewhere peaceful, so I won’t care when I finally die.

Boats

The
small
boats
exclude, give
salvation
to few.

The
large
boats
are much more inclusive.
They will eventually
provide room for
all the world.

We
can
not
save only the
few, the rest
drowning.

We
can
not
rescue everyone, all
at one time, either,
with not enough
room onboard.

So
all
our
boat can do for
now is start
smaller,

and
grow
into
a bigger boat. One big
country of permanent
evolution, until the
whole world

is
one
all-
inclusive ark of dry
salvation for us all,
shielding us from
the big Flood.

Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.

II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites

The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.

What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.

Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.

III: Catholic Mysticism

Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.

Original text in German: 

Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn—
lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.

Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond—
preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau—
preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.

Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut—
preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.

Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall—
preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.

Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee—
preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.

Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel—
preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English: 

O all ye works of the Lord—
praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.

O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord—
O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.

O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.

O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord—
O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.

O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.

O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord—
O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.

O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord—
O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.

O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord—
O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.

O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord—
O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.

IV: Garbled Words

Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.

His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.

V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story

To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.

What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:1415, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.

Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.

It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.

VI: Resolving the Paradoxes

We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.

They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.

This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.

VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering

Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.

WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!

Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.

VIII: Heaven in Hell

To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.

This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.

Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.

IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music

Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.

These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.

At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.

Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.

Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.

X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text

Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]

These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.

These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.

XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire

Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.

These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.

Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.

To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.

XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again

The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).

We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.

Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”

Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.

In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?

The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.

Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.

If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.

Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.

Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”

So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.

Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.

Analysis of ‘The Rite of Spring’

I: Introduction

The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) is a 1913 ballet and orchestral piece composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography originally by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage designs and costuming by Nicholas Roerich. This was the third of Stravinsky’s three great ballets (the other two being The Firebird and Petrushka) commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris.

The ballet is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” When Stravinsky was finishing work on The Firebird, he claimed he had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.” I assume that by “the god of Spring,” he was referring to a Russian variant of Yarilo, a Slavic pagan god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime.

The brutality of human sacrifice, meant to appease the gods and avert such disasters as a bad harvest, is well-linked to the revolutionary aspects of Stravinsky’s music here: namely, his use of polytonality, polyrhythms, asymmetric and constantly changing meters, irregular accents, and harsh dissonance. These controversial departures from the more traditional, post-Romantic style of The Firebird and Petrushka (though these two also have their share of musical innovations–in the latter, the use of bitonality is especially to be noted), along with Nijinsky’s stomping choreography, resulted in an infamous riot at the ballet’s premiere on May 29th, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

The riot, to paraphrase Cocteau, centred around two warring groups in the audience: the wealthy conservatives, who hated the ballet, and the “Bohemians,” who were thrilled at this new provocation of the stuffy cultural establishment. The controversy began early, with the dissonant winds of the Introduction; but the disturbances got worse when the curtain rose and Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography began. The uproar got so bad, the shouting of the audience drowning out the music, that Nijinsky had to shout the step numbers to his confused dancers.

I was introduced to the piece as a child through the truncated version of it heard in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which replaced the pagan rites with cartoon sequences of the formation of the Earth and fighting dinosaurs struggling…and failing…to survive. The brutality of life was thus preserved in the adaptation; and The Rite of Spring has been my all-time favourite piece of music ever since my teens, this being the CD I enjoyed listening to.

Verses, set to music by Henry Cowell (another musical innovator who must have found the verses amusing), express the displeasure conservative ears have to Stravinsky’s ballet. Nonetheless, over the years, public opinion has changed, and now The Rite of Spring, whether performed as a ballet (with notable later choreographies, for example, by Léonide Massine in the 1920s–which revived performances of the ballet–and by Maurice Béjart) or as a concert suite, is acknowledged not only as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century classical music, influencing many modernist composers–such as Varèse, with his Amériques, and Messiaen, who constantly analyzed it–but also as one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Here is a performance of the ballet with Nijinsky’s choreography (the music starts at 4:38). [Please bear in mind that when I refer to ‘Nijinsky’s choreography,’ I really mean the reconstruction of it performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which is probably as close as we can get to an accurate version of Nijinsky’s intentions.] Here‘s one with Béjart’s choreography. Here‘s the Fantasia cartoon sequence. And here‘s a version with the orchestral score. Please refer back to the links of this paragraph for the sources to my commentary.

II: Adoration of the Earth

The “Introduction” of Part One of the ballet begins with a bassoon playing in a register so unusually high for the instrument that it sounds like anything but a bassoon: indeed, the beginning high C sounds like that of a flute to my ears. Other woodwinds join in, with strings later. Stravinsky said it was meant to sound like “a swarm of spring pipes,” or dudki. Peter Hill, in his book, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, wrote of the build-up of tension–before a sudden return to silence–saying, “it is bursting ecstatically into bloom.”

The Fantasia sequence shows the beginning formation of the universe, a darkness suggesting that of the Greek creation myth, then the fire of desire lights everything up, and we see the fiery, volcanic Earth by the beginning of “Augurs of Spring,” just before which the bassoon theme returns, but a semitone lower.

The curtain comes up, and we see the dancers stamping to the strong rhythms of “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls.” An E-flat dominant seventh chord, played over a triad of E, G-sharp, and B (or F-flat, A-flat, and C-flat, as seen in the strings in the score), is heard on the horns and strings. This polychord is one of many instances of polytonality in the ballet, or of bitonality in this particular instance. Just as the bitonality of Petrushka was meant to represent the half-human, half-puppet nature of the titular character of that ballet, so can the bitonality of The Rite be heard to represent, among other conflicts, a duality in the adored Mother Earth.

The Earth mother goddess of Slavic pagan myth, Mat Zemlya, would have been both adored and feared, depending on whether she provided a bountiful harvest in the fall (i.e., the flourishing of Yarilo) or a bad one. The plenty or dearth that she provided would have been the salvation of the pagan tribe, or its doom…hence the tension in the music.

Recall what Camille Paglia had to say about the use of society and culture as an illusory shield against nature, and we can begin to understand the pagan tribe’s need for these ritual dances: “Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements…Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake–anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.” (Paglia, page 1)

Recall how, in the Fantasia sequence during this section of the music, we see erupting volcanoes, with bursts of lava synchronized at each of Stravinsky’s irregular accents that are played on the horns over the scraping strings. Consider the contrast of these visuals with those of the ballet, with the girls dancing a ritual to appease Mother Nature.

The Earth mother goddess, therefore, can be understood to be like the dual mother of Kleinian psychoanalysis: she is the good mother and the bad mother, the good breast that provides milk for her baby, and the bad breast that won’t provide. Sometimes Mat Zemlya provides a plentiful harvest; sometimes she doesn’t.

The people of the pagan tribe are like helpless babies, all dependent on their Earth mother goddess. They’re in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, knowing that the good and bad breasts belong to the same good and bad mother. In their helplessness, the tribe must accept her as she is, in her capricious state, for they lack the scientific knowledge we today take for granted.

Utterly bereft of modern knowledge, the pagans have to believe in something to give them comfort and hope, so they have their ritual dances. Otherwise, the turbulent, chaotic, and unpredictable ways of nature–symbolized in the music by Stravinsky’s use of irregular accents, as we hear from the beginning of this section, with the dissonant E-flat major seventh chord on the E-major triad–would be unbearable for these people.

The pagans’ adoration of Mother Earth, thus, is them currying her favour. When Mommy is angry, her child blames him- or herself; for to contemplate the possibility of Mommy being the guilty one is far too frightening for the helpless child…or in this case, the helpless pagan tribe.

Since gods and goddesses are modelled on male and female authority figures respectively (e.g., mothers and fathers, as noted above), we can link the authority of Mother Earth with that of the old matriarch of the tribe who, during this section of the piece, comes out, prophesies the future of the tribe, and teaches rituals to the girls. One can imagine her prophesies to include a future doom to the tribe if one of the girls isn’t sacrificed.

“The Ritual of Abduction” gets even more violent and dissonant, with pounding tympani and frenzied instrumentation beginning in 9/8 time. French horns, playing an up-and-down tune of perfect fifths, contrast polytonally with shrill flutes and piccolos playing a frantic tune in eighth notes that repeats the same theme just heard by them, but in a lower key, two pages earlier in the score, with the trumpet in D and woodwinds.

Men appear and join the dancing girls. Each man grabs a girl, and they all dance: the men’s seizing of the girls is presumably what is meant by “abduction,” a word with far more forceful, violent connotations. Since the music is getting more and more intense, with growing dissonance and changing meters, I sense that each “abduction” of each girl is meant to be an omen for the girl among them to be chosen as the sacrificial victim, forced by the men surrounding her to dance herself to death, as happens at the end of the ballet.

The tension ceases with a soft passage of woodwinds. Flute trills are heard in the background, while clarinets in E-flat and B-flat play a tune octaves apart from each other in a bar of 5/4, then 7/4, then three bars of 6/4, and a bar of 5/4 again, before getting into the main theme of “Spring Rounds.”

This main theme was taken from a brief passage in “Augurs of Spring,” a hymn-like theme played in seventh chords, but now played more slowly, and with a mournful quality. The girls dance a Khorovod to it. Though all of Part One of this ballet, as an “adoration of the Earth,” is ostensibly about a celebration of the beginning of spring, with rituals meant to honour Mat Zemlya, the deep sadness felt in this section suggests one’s sense of resignation to one’s fate: one of these girls must die for her tribe. The depressive position, recognizing that Mat Zemlya is both a loving and cruel mother, is keenly felt.

Such a sad resignation isn’t without a sense of horror at the cruelty of the imminent sacrifice, though, for the sad theme suddenly transforms into an explosion of dissonant violence, punctuated by the tympani and the crashing of the tam-tam. After that, a frenzied passage precedes a repeat of that soft woodwind passage, ending this section.

“Ritual of the Rival Tribes” puts the men of the tribe in war games. Two groups compete: like the ritual preparations for human sacrifice to ensure the survival of the tribe in an unpredictable, treacherous world, so must there be preparations for the possible danger of invading tribes. The music is fittingly dissonant, violent, and metrically irregular, with lots of banging of the tympani.

A soft, rising and falling melody is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the brass, then in the violins and clarinets, with polytonal counterpoint in the pizzicato cellos and contrabasses. After that, a loud, martial theme is heard in the horns, suggesting those war games. The rising and falling theme returns and segues into the “Procession of the Sage,” but it’s even more dissonant and foreboding, with the brass in the background.

A wise tribal elder is brought onstage; from the Nijinsky choreography as seen in the performance in the video provided (link above), the old man appears to be blind, his disability allowing him to have a closer link to the spirit world, not distracted by the sights around him.

The violence of the music abruptly comes to a halt. Very soft, tentative music is heard as “The Sage” kneels down and kisses the Earth, blessing Her. Again, this sanctifying of the mother goddess, as an act of love, is actually performed out of fear of Her. Will the sacrifice be pleasing to Her and to Yarilo, or will there be a bad harvest after all, the victim having died in vain?

This question should be kept in mind with the explosive crescendo of the bass drum, tam-tam, and tympani leading to the “Dance of the Earth,” meant by the tribe to be a sanctifying and becoming one with the mother goddess. The tribe would express their love for Her, but the dissonance and irregular, stabbing rhythms suggest fear.

The Disney cartoon sequence puts this section at the very end, after the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” (which shows the dinosaurs dying off from a heatwave and drought). Significantly, we see an extreme earthquake tearing up the land, a furious mother goddess to contrast with the passionate, celebratory dance seen onstage with Nijinsky’s choreography. The dancing is meant to prevent the wrath of the goddess. Stravinsky once described the dancers as “stomping like Indians trying to put out a prairie fire”: how aptly put.

The pagan tribe’s senses are assailed by the sundry irritants of a hostile world that they, in their pre-scientific mindset, haven’t a prayer of understanding. Their only way of expelling the pain heaped upon them is to project it all onto a chosen sacrificial victim.

III: The Sacrifice

The “Introduction” to Part Two of this ballet, as its title implies, leads us directly to which girl will be the chosen sacrificial victim. That is, we’re moving straight to the heart of the matter…the sacrificial death.

The Disney cartoon sequence, however, begins with the origin of life on Earth at this point in the music–a kind of dialectical irony…the end of life, and its beginning. It has often been said that we begin dying as soon as we’re born, so beginning Part Two of the cartoon in this way is fitting.

The music begins with a soft but eerie, wavelike theme of up-and-down eighth notes played on flutes and clarinets, the rising and falling possibly a symbolic suggestion of that relationship between the rising of birth and the falling of death. Adding to this eeriness is a melody, introduced with violin harmonics, in a bar of 4/4, then one of 2/4: A-G-A-E-D-G-E. This seven-note theme will be developed, with other instrumentation and transposed, throughout this introduction and in the following section.

A soft theme shared by two trumpets in C in 5/4, with a slight variation in 6/4, is another to be developed; a creepy background is heard in the violas and cellos for two bars of 5/4, then two bars later, an upward splashing of sextuplet 32nd notes is heard in the E-flat clarinet, backed by a similar upward splashing of notes in the violins and with viola harmonics. All of these sound effects create a portentous atmosphere.

“Mystical Circles of the Young Girls,” paralleling the “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls,” sees the curtain rise to show a group of female dancers moving in a circle, as the title implies. (Interestingly, in the Béjart choreography [link above], we first see the female dancers only in the ‘Introduction’ of Part Two, for Part One is all male dancers; both sexes will dance together from the third section of Part Two.) Musically, this section begins with that theme first heard in violin harmonics from the “Introduction,” but now played by a sextet of three violins and three violas, not in harmonics, with the six of them playing in the key of B.

The girl to fall from the circle will be the chosen victim. According to Nijinsky’s choreography (see link above), the chosen one will fall twice, to music of a paralleled arrangement, heard on trumpets in C and on French horns. This horn arrangement gives us a feeling of surprise, and the second time we hear it, with the confirmation of the chosen victim, the horns repeat the motif, little by little getting louder and faster, and climaxing in a dissonant shriek, bringing us to the violent next section with a barbaric pounding in a bar of 11/4.

“Glorification of the Chosen One” opens with brutal, pounding rhythms in 5/8, 9/8, 5/8, 7/8, 3/8, and 4/8. All the girls dance in a circle around the chosen victim, who stands still and looks up with a frozen gaze, accepting her fate and repressing her fear, for even the slightest flinching on her part may displease the gods and jeopardize the tribe’s hopes for a good harvest.

It’s interesting to contrast Nijinsky’s choreography with the Disney cartoon sequence, which at this point in the music shows a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or some similar such predatory carnivore) appearing among a group of other dinosaurs, and fighting (and killing) a Stegosaurus. The dancing girls may be ‘glorifying’ and honouring the heroine who will lovingly give her life ostensibly to save her tribe, but she is an ill-fated Stegosaur in her own right (and rite), facing a T-Rex of superstitious tradition that is demanding her life.

In what way could her predicament be a metaphor for social phenomena in our lives today? I ask this question in the hopes of finding a way to make The Rite of Spring relatable to our modern world. Just as she, the chosen victim, is being made to die in a rite of human sacrifice, in the hopes that her death will improve the lives of the tribe, so do we, as a society in today’s alienated world, choose people to victimize in the hopes of making our own lives more bearable, to take our pain out on them.

I’m not speaking of human sacrifice, of course, nor am I even speaking necessarily of having someone die for us. I speak of bullies choosing a victim, picking on someone, to bear the brunt of all our pain, a victim to be bullied so we can hate ourselves a bit less, to release some of our own pent-up frustrations.

This maltreatment of others is so commonplace in our world–at school, in the family, in the workplace, and online–as to be a universal experience. Such universality of pain can symbolically give the pagan story of The Rite of Spring an unexpected relevance in a world far removed from that of superstitious people terrified of the wrath of the gods.

After all, the tribe bullies the girl, essentially, into dancing herself to death, because the tribe, in turn, feels bullied by the parent-like gods, who threaten such things as droughts or bad harvests if a sacrificial victim isn’t offered to them. Similarly, people who bully others tend to have been bullied themselves, so bullying others is a quick and easy, but cowardly way of ridding themselves of their pain.

The gods thus are like bullying parents, for example, the Kleinian bad mother I described above; and the children the parental gods bully–the tribe–are like elder siblings who pass the abuse down to younger siblings, like the tribe’s chosen victim. Remember that her “glorification” is just a bribe to motivate her to cooperate in doing something–dancing herself to death–that no one in his or her right mind would otherwise ever agree to doing.

“Evocation of the Ancestors” is brief, with fanfare-like brass and woodwinds, and pounding drum rolls. As the title of this section implies, the girls dance to invoke the tribal ancestors. We see, in Nijinsky’s choreography, the girls in a circle around the chosen one, falling towards her or away from her, with every drum roll. It’s as if they were falling to their deaths, yet ritualistically projecting the fall to death onto her.

Male dancers, representing the old men of the tribe, appear for the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” The music starts off very softly, with pizzicatos in the strings playing quarter notes with the French horns and the soft tapping of the bass drum, and a kettledrum and tambourine are hit during the offbeats. The cor anglais repeatedly plays a chromatic ascension of four 32nd notes (encased in a triplet), each phrase ending with a tied whole note (the first time), then with a tied, dotted half note.

At this point in the ballet, the victim is given to the care of these old men. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the men make sure that she goes through with her ritualistic suicide, and is never able to back down. It’s implied bullying, and the creepy, building tension of the music attests to this implication.

After a brief, pianissimo moment with the kettledrum and pizzicato strings, this ominous feeling heightens when we hear an undulating flute melody in the octatonic scale; soon after, a melody in the trumpets is also octatonic. The Disney cartoon sequence at this point in the music shows the dinosaurs plodding in a desert during a heatwave that has dried up everything. They’re doomed to an imminent death, as is the chosen one, surrounded by old men of the tribe.

Suddenly, the music gets loud, with French horns blasting that octatonic trumpet theme. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see the male dancers going in circles around the victim, who still stands frozen in her spot in the centre, trembling and breathing heavily, as trapped and helpless as those dying dinosaurs in the cartoon.

The music gets softer, yet intensely suspenseful, for a brief moment. Female dancers join the males in the circles around the victim, and the loud octatonic French horn theme returns. A tense, rising four-note tremolo theme is played repeatedly in the first violins during this loud reprise of the French horn theme. In the Disney film, we see a Tyrannosaur fall on a sand dune, dying from dehydration and exhaustion. The chosen victim, too, will die of exhaustion from her endless dancing.

The music gets soft again, rather like the beginning of this section, but with a bass trumpet in E-flat playing the repeated, ascending chromatic line of 32nd notes played previously on the cor anglais. Flurries of notes are heard on the clarinets and bass clarinets. A bar of 2/4, with a quick descending of sixteenth notes in a septuplet on the bass clarinet, segues this section into the climactic last one.

The “Sacrificial Dance” (of “The Chosen One”) begins with particularly harsh dissonances in the strings, immediately followed by the oboes, cor anglais, and horns, with changes of time signature at almost every bar. The discords are so harsh, they almost sound like tone clusters.

The time has come: the victim begins her dance to the death. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see her jumping, flailing her arms, and kicking her feet backward in frantic desperation.

What is interesting about this particular rite of human sacrifice is that we don’t see her ceremonially killed by someone else: no decapitation, no knife cutting her heart out. She must do the dirty work all by herself.

This is a forced suicide. This is the ultimate abuse, forcing her to destroy herself while all the others watch, her knowing no one will save her, which would shame her before the whole tribe.

The use of extreme dissonance and constantly irregular meters is fitting, for such music aptly expresses the Chaos-like, disorderly sense of what Lacan called The Real, an undifferentiated, and therefore traumatizing, world that cannot be symbolized or verbalized. This sense of the undifferentiated comes from the fact that the sacrificial victim, in giving her life for the tribe, is renouncing her sense of individuation to be submerged in the Dionysian unity of all things.

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, described this Dionysian oneness as the opposite of Apollonian individuation: ‘Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. Freely, earth proffers her gifts, and peacefully the beasts of prey of the rocks and desert approach…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbour, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.” (Nietzsche, page 37)

Now, one’s individuality being absorbed into the unifying All, like Atman into Brahman, can be a blissful experience, nirvana, if one voluntarily goes into it. This girl, however, has no choice but to be thus absorbed; and as I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s a dialectical unity between what we typically call Heaven and Hell, so her absorption into that unity under duress means she’ll be experiencing the hellish aspect of The Real, Bion‘s O, “the void and formless infinite” of Milton.

We see the men circling around the chosen victim as she stands trembling in the centre. The music has softened, yet is full of suspense and dread of the worst to come. Staccato sixteenth notes are played on bassoons, contrabassoon, and strings, with staccato 32nd notes on French horns. A threatening chromatic descent of sixteenth notes in a quintuplet is heard twice in the trombones, then in the trumpets. She briefly resumes her dancing with the sound of these brass instruments, as if their threatening notes were coming from the men.

She freezes for a moment again, as if her resolve to go through with her dance of death were faltering. Those staccato 32nd notes, once softly played on the French horns, are now loudly and aggressively bowed on the strings, and she is nervously moving again. The threatening chromatic descent is now heard in a different key in the trumpets in D and in the piccolos and piccolo clarinet in E-flat, raising the tension to an agonizingly dissonant climax in the brass and woodwinds, in a bar of 3/8, then of 4/8.

The soft staccato notes in the strings and French horns return. She is still and trembling again. She’s afraid to carry on with the dance…but she knows she must. Tense, chromatic waves of 32nd notes in quintuplets in the first violins, aided by similar playing in the piccolos, seem to restore her resolve (at least for the moment), and she’s moving about again.

The dissonant, metrically irregular beginning theme of the sacrificial dance returns, with added, extra pounding of the tympani. She’s doing the same jumping as before. She’s getting exhausted…but she cannot stop dancing. The men are sitting around her, not allowing her to rest.

The music explodes into a barbaric and chaotic sea-storm of sound, with sustained bursts of energy that sadistically pressure her to go to the polar opposite of her exhaustion. The tympani are pounding away, the horns are blaring, and she falls…but she must get up and continue!

She hits her fist on the ground in frustration, then gets up to dance again. She falls again, hits her fist on the ground again, gets up, falls…

Her leg is in pain. She mustn’t stop! More men in the circle surrounding her approach her, their dancing meant to inspire her…or threaten her, more likely…to continue. She’s twirling and flailing her arms about in a desperate attempt to give the best dance she can to the gods.

Any sacrificial victim would far prefer a quick death, the pain only brief before passing out. She cannot hope for such a happy death. As with crucifixion, hers will be a long, drawn-out, agonizing death in which one must keep moving long after total exhaustion makes even the slightest budge pure torture.

Though the “Sacrificial Dance” is only about four or five minutes long, we can assume that the girl’s dance to the death would be much longer. In a state of total exhaustion, yet still being required to dance, our poor victim will be moving around with every inch of her body in excruciating pain.

She is suffering the trauma of the undifferentiated state of The Real; life and death are one to her. Accordingly, the music ends with pounding rhythms of metric irregularity and dissonance after dissonance. After a brief, soft moment, the music gets loud and pounding, and it climaxes with her finally collapsing. The men pick up her dead body as an offering to the gods. The music ends with a final pounding of the bass and kettledrums.

IV: Conclusion

As I said above, we can find this music relatable to our world by seeing the human sacrifice, to appease the gods, as a metaphor for how we scapegoat people in our society as a cheap and easy way to rid ourselves of our pain. This is why the music is so dissonant: it’s a cathartic release of that pain.

Modern systems of farming, however, have ended the famines that plagued peasants living off the land throughout history, making such pain no longer an inevitability. The collectivization of agriculture in the USSR of the 1930s, contrary to popular belief and to Nazi propaganda about the “Holodomor,” actually ended the famines of that part of the world. The same is true of Maoist China, in spite of the bad start with the Great Leap Forward.

We now have the potential to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medically treat the people of the entire world…provided we use the world’s wealth properly. So why aren’t we doing this? Instead, some of our centi-billionaires are needlessly flying rockets into space while millions die each year of hunger. Aren’t these oligarchs, in a way, like the men in the circle, while the Earth’s wretches are like the girl dancing herself to death in the centre?

My point is that in today’s world, with the build-up of the productive forces, we have the potential for spreading love everywhere instead of dumping pain on the weak from a fear of scarcity that need no longer exist.

Forgive me, Dear Reader, if I’m getting too preachy here, but if our current world–with its ongoing ecocide, economic collapse, and threat of nuclear WWIII–continues down its present course, we’ll end up like those Disney dinosaurs.

Instead of destroying the Earth, let’s be in true adoration of Her. Let’s stop the dance to the death, and instead have a dance of life.

Analysis of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

I: Introduction

Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 epic sword and sorcery film directed by John Milius and written by him and Oliver Stone. Based on Robert E. Howard‘s Conan, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and James Earl Jones, with Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow, Mako, Sven-Ole Thorsen, and Ben Davidson.

The film gave Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition, and in the years since its release, it became a cult film, making a lot more money on home video. It spawned a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984, and a reboot was made in 2011.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

[My main concern in this analysis is the political agenda of this film. I very much like the movie, but that doesn’t mean I, as a leftist, agree with its politics, which I will criticize here. If you happen to love Conan the Barbarian, and you agree with the right-wing ideology that the film espouses–however subtly and allegorically–then this analysis is definitely not for you; therefore I recommend you read no further and find a more politically sympathetic write-up.]

II: Conservative Conan

I am analyzing Conan the Barbarian because it is very much a film of its time. Made in the early 1980s, it reflects, in symbolic and allegorical form, the politics of Reagan and his ilk. The film metaphorically not only glorifies the individualism that was and is part of the ideal of Reagan and other right-wing libertarians (who, incidentally, include Milius and Schwarzenegger), but also the reactionary hypermasculinity that went against feminist gains in the 1970s. There’s even a subtle nod to fascism in its light-brown-haired ‘Aryan’ muscleman hero fighting a black villain (Doom himself may not be black–he’s rather a member of an extinct pre-Atlantic race–but we see a black actor [Jones] playing him, and it’s the film’s social effect on our world that matters, not the fictional world it is literally presenting.), the decapitation of whom disturbed Roger Ebert. In fact, there was a white supremacist streak even in Robert E. Howard himself.

These three elements–right-wing libertarian individualism, hypermasculinity, and Aryan supremacist fascism–are interrelated, since the former two lie on a continuum with the extreme third (as even the social democracy of mainstream liberalism does, something Stalin noted). These three are especially interrelated in Conan the Barbarian, a highly entertaining film acting out the fantasies of mostly alienated pre-adolescent boys back in the early 80s (in spite of the film’s R-rating for violence, sex, and nudity); and it’s the mingling of these three ultraconservative elements that’s what makes the otherwise well-made film so dangerously seductive to such an impressionable young audience.

III: Steel

Let’s start with the notion of the “Riddle of Steel,” and what it can be seen to represent. While the fetish of weaponry (i.e., the steel of a sword) has long existed in literature–the Iliad, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.–since this film came out during the early Reagan era and reflects the ideology of the time, we must consider what the steel of a sword can be seen to symbolize in the context of the film.

Steel is an alloy of iron with a tiny percentage of carbon to improve its strength. Iron, in turn, is an element forming much of the Earth’s outer and inner core (hence Crom, Conan’s god, is a god of the Earth). The point is that steel is derived from the Earth, fashioned for men’s purposes, as we see during the film’s opening credits. As a metal, like gold, silver, or copper, steel thus can be associated with money, the fetish of capitalists.

Since our concern is with the steel of a sword, we now move from the money-loving, Earth-plundering capitalist to phallic symbolism, thus linking the steel of a sword with hypermasculinity. After all, we don’t just see Conan displaying his muscles and brandishing a sword, but we also see him bed several women.

This hypermasculine association with phallic steel swords is reinforced in his constant killing of his enemies with his sword. This constant going out to far-off lands to kill others links the metal alloy of steel (symbolically associated with gold and coins) with the hypermasculine phallic sword and ultimately with imperialist plunder. Since this is a movie of the early Reagan era, we shouldn’t be surprised to see how these three elements of the “Riddle of Steel” are centred in capitalism.

IV: Flesh is Stronger

Of course, it must be emphasized that what Conan learns over the course of the film is that steel, the literal metal, is not the great source of strength that he, as a boy, came to understand from his father’s teachings. It is rather the steel heart of determination that gives one strength. In fact, Thulsa Doom (Jones), though originally coveting steel and killing Conan’s father and mother to acquire one of those swords, eventually learns that flesh is more powerful than steel, hence Doom’s snake cult.

Now, since Conan represents the heroic ideal of Milius’ libertarian/hypermasculine/cryptofascist myth, the villain of the film must be the ideological opposite. Conan, Valeria (Bergman), and Subotai (Lopez) are on Reagan’s side, so Doom must be symbolic of communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Doom’s death cult is thus, thanks to the spurious anticommunist propaganda that flooded the Western media during the Cold War, representative of the wildly exaggerated death toll associated with communism.

Having a black man play Doom reinforces these associations for the film’s intended right-wing, white male audience. As I said above, it doesn’t matter that Doom, with his blue eyes and straight, long hair, is not actually a black man in the story: we as an audience see Jones, a black actor wearing blue contact lenses and a wig, on the screen. We make the necessary association, in spite of the actual race of the fictional character. If anything, the blue eyes and no Afro make one think of the experiments of Josef Mengele, who injected blue dye into people’s eyes to make them ‘more acceptable Aryans.’ The film’s fascist ideology is subtle, not obvious. The reason for this subtlety should also be obvious in the liberal world of Hollywood.

Now, if Thulsa Doom’s snake cult in this allegory represents the ideology of communism, and if he is right to have recognized that flesh is more powerful than steel, then his correctness goes against the tendentious political bias that this film is promoting. His affirmation of the superiority of flesh to steel, of the human will’s mastery of the sword, is a kind of Freudian slip that exposes the error of the right-wing ideology championed in Conan the Barbarian. After all, it was the steely determination of the Red Army that defeated the Nazis in WWII, in spite of the metal of the tanks of the Wehrmacht.

V: Freudian Slips

I’ve argued elsewhere that ‘Freudian slips,’ if you will, exist in many films, parapraxes that go against the bias presented in each of the films. The one I mentioned above in Conan the Barbarian isn’t the only one in that film. Others include the fact that our heroes, representing the “free market” capitalist agenda advocated by Milius and Schwarzenegger in the film’s allegory, are thieves by their own admission.

We on the left have always complained that capitalists–who exploit labour by taking, as surplus value, much of the value that workers put into the commodities they produce–are thieves who deny workers the full fruit of their labour, all for the sake of maximizing profit. When right-wing libertarians gripe that “Taxation is theft!”, being especially irked when tax revenue is put into social programs for the poor, they fail to understand how this ‘stolen’ money is really being returned to the poor from whom it was originally stolen by the capitalists.

Another Freudian slip is in how this film is supposed to reflect the right-wing libertarian opposition to ‘big government,’ as symbolized by Doom’s cult (for recall, libertarians tend to regard all socialism as ‘something a government does’); yet our hero, Conan, is understood to become a king at the end of the film. Though the film is set in a world of kings and queens, suggesting either feudal times or the ancient master/slave contradiction, these past class relations are still analogous to the modern contradiction of the bourgeoisie (and the state that protects its interests) and the proletariat; so seeing King Conan on his throne at the end of the film is a metaphor for the ‘government-hating’ libertarian who becomes the head of the government…as Reagan was.

VI: Libertarianism and Fascism

The notion of ‘big vs small government’ was and is a big lie. It isn’t the size of the state that makes it oppressive vs liberating; it’s whom the state serves–the rich, or the people–that makes it the one way or the other. So Conan, the thief who decapitates and disembowels with his sword, then becomes king, is hardly any better than Doom and his snake cult.

Remember that right-wing libertarianism isn’t the same thing as fascism, but the one exists on a continuum with the other. The only difference between the two is in how the material conditions of the world give rise to the one or to the other. Libertarian thinking is usually popular during economic good times (as is mainstream liberalism), when socialism is propagandized against as it was during the Reagan era. But when times are financially hard, as during the Germany of the 1920s, or over the past ten years, fascist and authoritarian systems of government tend to arise and even become relatively popular. As for our current situation, in which fear of disease is prompting measures that are disturbingly approaching totalitarianism, anyone who thinks Republican-friendly Biden is a communist is an idiotseriously.

The fascist ideology cunningly woven into the film’s narrative includes elements either rightly or wrongly associated with Nazism. These include the opening quote from Nietzsche‘s Twilight of the Idols (‘Maxims and Arrows,’ 8): “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” though at the film’s beginning, it’s rendered, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Now, Nietzsche was about as far removed from being a proto-Nazi as anyone could be: just read his books, and note the many times he bashed his own country as a reaction against the disturbing growing trend of German nationalism that he saw all around him. Still, his pro-Nazi sister, Elisabeth Förster-Niezsche, edited his writing to make it seem sympathetic to Nazi ideology, and this association is sufficient for the film’s ideological purposes. After all, the opening quote, reflecting the film’s theme of determination, as well as such notions as The Will to Power, fit well with the themes of The Triumph of the Will. Add to these facts the film’s influence of Wagnerian opera, and we can further see the link, however subtle, with Nazism.

VII: The Barbarian’s Beginnings

Anyway, the story begins with Conan’s father telling him, a boy, to trust neither men, nor women, nor beasts…a perfect recipe for alienation. The boy is to trust steel and steel alone, which as I interpreted above means to trust the resources plundered from the Earth for the benefit of the rich, to trust the metal of coins fetishized by the rich, to trust a phallic symbol that encourages toxic masculinity, and to trust a weapon wielded for the sake of empire.

Later, Conan learns that he, indeed, can trust men (Subotai), women (Valeria), and beasts (the horses and camels he rides). His father was wrong. One of the most important things we learn as we grow up is, to our utter disillusion, how often our parents are wrong about things.

Since Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, in this allegory, represents the Soviet Union as demonized by right-wing propaganda, Doom’s raid on the Cimmerian village can be seen to represent how the Russian Revolution affected the country’s bourgeoisie in the late 1910s and in the 1920s (fittingly, the raid happens on a snowy day, suggesting a Russian winter). Conan’s steel-fetishizing parents can thus be seen to represent the Russian petite bourgeoisie, the confiscation of whose private property is symbolized by Doom’s taking of Conan’s father’s sword. The killing of Conan’s parents is, symbolically, just more anti-Soviet propaganda.

As a result, Conan’s simmering lust for revenge can be compared to the resentment of such Russian bourgeoisie as Ayn Rand, whose parents’ business was confiscated by the Soviets, and who emigrated to the US and got her revenge on the USSR by writing pro-capitalist novels and promoting her egoistic Objectivist philosophy.

VIII: Conan’s Coming-of-Age

Chained to the Wheel of Pain, young Conan grows up a slave. This is how self-pitying capitalists see themselves, not only under the dictatorship of the proletariat (where, thanks to Lenin’s NEP during the 1920s, the kulaks were allowed to make profits, and only when Stalin ended the NEP and collectivized agriculture, which benefitted the poor and ultimately ended famines, did the kulaks lose their profits, then, out of spite, hoarded food and killed livestock, thus exacerbating the bad harvests of the early 30s that were misrepresented as the “Holodomorhoax by Nazi propagandists), but also under social democratic forms of government, with their high taxes.

As a young man, Conan is given the opportunity to display his talents as a fighter. First we see this Aryan-looking Cimmerian (the casting of Schwarzenegger is more than ideal) fight and defeat a black man with razor-sharp teeth, the bestial savagery of whom reinforces that disturbing feeling we have at the end of the film, when Conan kills Doom. Recall Howard’s words contrasting whites and blacks: “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

This discovery and glorification of Conan’s abilities as a fighter represents a promotion of the capitalist ideal of competition. It is acceptable if the bourgeois, feudal lord, or ancient slave-master kills, but it’s never defensible if the proletarian vanguard, as represented in Thulsa Doom, kills.

IX: Women

Women in Conan the Barbarian are typically sexualized and treated as objects of men’s pleasure, hence the scene with the terrified, bare-breasted woman put in Conan’s cage so he can enjoy her while other men lecherously watch. It doesn’t matter that we see Conan put a blanket around her, playing the role of the ‘gentleman’: her fear and reluctance clearly demonstrate her non-consent. This is rape.

As for the beautiful witch (played by Cassandra Gava), who has presaged Conan’s coming, and who knows of Doom’s standard, with the snakes facing each other, again, it seems obligatory that she let him have her; note how she erotically crawls before him. And though Valeria is his equal fighting companion, he beds her, too. It is easy to see how all these women exist largely, if not almost exclusively, for male fantasy: this ties in with the hypermasculinity promoted in this right-wing film.

Connected to this is Conan’s ‘correct’ answer to the question, “What is best in life?” His answer, a paraphrasing of a Genghis Khan quote, glorifies conquest, implying a lust for imperialism, and the pleasure of hearing “the lamentation of [the enemy’s] women,” sounds like misogynistic sadism, a fascistic/imperialistic sadism. Small wonder right-wingers love this movie and Conan’s quote, delivered in Schwarzenegger’s German accent.

Why isn’t peace “what is best in life?” Why isn’t a society in which production is to provide for all “what is best in life,” rather than production to benefit a wealthy, privileged few? We wouldn’t expect these Mongol-like warmongers to embrace such pacifist, empathic values, of course, but the point is that the audience is expected to sympathize with the answer of the film’s light-brown-haired, Aryan-like hero.

X: Freedom and Friendships

Conan as a young man is freed, and in his travels is chased by dogs; he stumbles into an underground Atlantean colonist warrior’s tomb, where he finds an ancient sword. This going underground, then coming back up to the surface, is a symbolic death and resurrection, a theme to be repeated several times later in the film. His retrieval of the sword will make him feel as though he’s closer to discovering the Riddle of Steel, and his new, phallic weapon will make him feel like a rejuvenated man. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

He soon meets Subotai (based on a Mongol), a Hyrkanian, meaning someone from the Eurasian Steppe. This means he is someone who ethnically could be anyone from Eastern Europe to Xinjiang, Mongolia, and/or Manchuria. He’s made to look Asian, though the actor, Lopez, is a Hawaiian of Mexican descent. Just as Jones was made to look ‘less black,’ so is Subotai ‘not so Asian.’ His voice, incidentally, was overdubbed by the Japanese-American actor, Sab Shimono.

Conan and Subotai discuss their gods while eating. Subotai prays to the Four Winds, whom he considers superior to Conan’s Crom; naturally, our hero considers his Earth-god better than Subotai’s wind-god. Once again, we see a promotion of the spirit of competition, the urge to be superior, or at least associated with superiority, in our heroes’ banter.

XI: Thieves

They meet Valeria in the city of Zamora, and all three raid the Tower of the Serpent, stealing jewels and killing a giant snake there. Among the snake art we see there, usually two snakes facing each other, we also see an ouroboros, my symbol of the dialectic, which is fitting for how Doom’s snake cult is meant to represent the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.

King Osric (von Sydow), impressed with these three thieves’ daring, and detesting Doom’s cult, pays them with all the jewels they can carry to rescue his daughter, who has been seduced by Doom’s ideas. The king’s love for his daughter is so great that he can easily give up so many jewels…but the eyes of the trio of thieves light up at the sight of so much wealth.

Conan, still with revenge on his mind, goes out alone to face Doom, since Valeria feels content just to take Osric’s jewels. Conan meets the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako), who also narrates the story. It’s curious how he, the film’s narrator, refers to Conan as his “lord” and “master.” Since this wizard is Asian, his subservient attitude to Aryan Conan reinforces the white supremacist undercurrent in this right-wing film. (Recall how, at the beginning, the narrator refers to the “sons of Aryus.”)

XII: Doom’s Cult of Personality

Conan reaches Doom’s Temple of Set, or Mountain of Power. Set, in the Marvel Universe of demons used in the Conan comics, is the “God of the Dead.” Thulsa Doom is based on two of Howard’s characters: the villain in Kull of Atlantis, yet based even more so on Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” (One might also associate Set with the ancient Egyptian deity of violence, disorder, and foreigners, among other things, who was at times vilified for having killed Osiris, but who was also seen by some as a heroic deity.) Many see Doom as being like Jim Jones, the “apostolic socialist” cult leader whose control over his people was so complete as to make hundreds of them willing to kill themselves, as we see Doom have one of his female followers drop to her death.

Since Doom, in terms of the film’s Reaganite allegory, represents the ideological foe of the political right, this seductive death-cult leader is meant to represent the “cult of personality” seen in communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and the Kims…at least as they’re portrayed in right-wing propaganda. What is little known, however, is that left-wing leaders like Stalin and Mao rejected the kind of idolatrous status that men like Hitler and Mussolini were all too happy to receive. Far from being the dictator he was believed to be, Stalin actually tried unsuccessfully to resign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union no less than four times; he had only one vote in determining Soviet policy, and often lost in these votes; and the notion of a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin was actually a Khrushchev lie.

XIII: Doom’s Followers

When we see Conan among Doom’s many followers by the temple, it’s curious to note how, in their dress and their hair, they resemble hippies. This, I believe, is significant because far right-wing types tend, idiotically, to equate hippies with communists, when the former are so obviously liberal.

Conan approaches one of the priests, and it’s implied that this priest is homosexual and interested in our muscleman hero, who beats him unconscious and steals his priestly robes to disguise himself in. One shouldn’t be surprised to see our beloved hero act in this way: recall the German gay men forced to wear pink triangles on their Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

The dark robes of some members of Doom’s snake cult, including those worn by, for example, Rexor (Davidson), have a design in its contrasts of white and dark that, to my eye, vaguely suggest the clothing of rabbis, particularly those of ancient times. One normally expects snake designs to be round and swirling; but these snake designs are angular, square-like, and being dark against a white background, they vaguely remind me of Hebrew letters. I’m not saying any of this was consciously intended; I bring this up to suggest another fascist association often made with communism: the notion of Jewish Bolshevism. This Nazi association is made even though very few high-ranking members of the Bolshevik Party were Jews.

XIV: Christian Symbolism

Conan is apprehended by Rexor and Thorgrim (Thorsen), a spike on the latter’s boot is stabbed into Conan’s hand, and Doom gives the command, “Crucify him,” reminding us of what “the Jews” told Pilate to do with Christ (John 19:14-16).

And so, Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. While the religious world of this film is thoroughly pagan, of course, any rejection of Christian symbolism in this scene is absurd. After all, much of the make-up of Christianity is pagan mystery tradition, as Hyam Maccoby pointed out in his book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. Many Christians try to deny the pagan influence on their religion, but even CS Lewis expressed the belief, in his book Mere Christianity, that his Christian God put the foretelling of Jesus on the Cross into the dreams of the people of all the heathen religions (page 37 of this pdf). These pagans, in Lewis’s opinion, misunderstood the message, and distorted it with myths of dying and resurrecting gods, or like Odin when nailed to Yggdrasil, whom Conan resembles on the Tree of Woe.

The accommodation of Christian symbolism into Conan the Barbarian also dovetails with the film’s right-wing message, since fascism and other forms of conservative politics have always found Christianity to be a useful tool for reactionary purposes. Make the toiling masses believe they will be rewarded in heaven, and they’ll work harder without complaint. Even libertarian-centrist Frank Zappa was worried about the direction that right-wing libertarian/Christian Reagan was moving America in; he warned of a future “fascist theocracy.” One can debate whether or not Zappa’s fears have been realized in the US, but the links between right-wing libertarianism, fascism, and Christian traditionalism are undeniable; all three of these can be seen, in a veiled symbolic/allegorical form, in Conan the Barbarian.

Francoist Spain was a combination of Falange fascism, monarchism, and Catholicism; in 1959, their government adopted “free market” economic policies. Pinochet’s right-wing authoritarian government in Chile also had “free market” policies courtesy of the Chicago Boys. While Nazi Germany made use of much of Teutonic pagan myth, Hitler et al also accommodated Christian ideas; Catholic Hitler and Nazi ideology tried to promote an ‘Aryan Christ,’ one not too far removed from light-brown-haired Aryan Schwarzenegger on the Tree of Woe.

My associating of Doom’s cult symbolically with “Jewish Bolsheviks” dovetails with this Christian interpretation of Conan’s crucifixion, since Nazi antisemitism has its roots in a two-millennia-old Christian antisemitism. Recall how Hitler used to enjoy reading Luther‘s antisemitic rants. Recall also how 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion.

The relating of Conan the Barbarian with Christian ideas doesn’t end with our hero’s crucifixion. Valeria, Subotai, and the wizard rescue him, take him down from the tree, and treat his wounds in a manner reminiscent of the speculations of Hugh J Schonfield‘s Passover Plot. Unconscious Conan is beset by demons in the night, while Valeria fights them off (she’ll pay with her own life later); this scene symbolically suggests Jesus’ harrowing of Hell.

The next day, we see a rejuvenated Conan (“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”), suggesting the symbolism of a resurrected Christ. Now, Conan and his companions plan how they’ll infiltrate the Temple of Set and rescue Osric’s daughter.

XV: Orgiastic Music

Wearing stripes of black and white camouflage, our three thieves enter the mountain from the back. We hear choral music subtly reminding one of Orff‘s Carmina Burana (i.e., ‘O Fortuna’), but also suggesting Wagnerian opera, as Milius had always fancied his film to be. Images of large pots with the body parts of victims of cannibalism symbolically reinforce the anti-Soviet propaganda.

Added to this propaganda is the following scene, with our three heroes entering a large room with Doom and Osric’s daughter, and a bevy of beautiful women lying about orgiastically in the centre. Subotai remarks on the sight, calling it “paradise.” Right-wing ideologues assume that Stalin, Mao, the Kims, et al lived in the lap of luxury, when high-ranking members of communist parties lived only marginally better than their respective common populations. To see the obscene luxury of the capitalist über-wealthy, look no further than Bezos, Musk, Gates et al…and some of their ilk have been involved in their own orgiastic scenes.

Since I’ve been so critical of this film, I’ll take a brief moment to praise the waltz-like music in this scene. Film-score composer Basil Poledouris“Orgy” is a delight to listen to, with memorable melodies undulating throughout. It always stands out in my mind as one of the film’s highlights.

XVI: The Serpent

In this scene, we see Doom transform into a giant serpent. That his is a snake cult ties in well with the film’s Christian symbolism, for if Conan is our Christ-like hero, getting stronger after not dying from his crucifixion, then Doom as our villain is, fittingly, the Satanic serpent of the Garden of Eden, tempting such Eve-like women as Osric’s daughter and the half-naked women in the orgy.

The serpent, like the sword, is a phallic symbol in its own right, but one made of the stronger material of the flesh, not of steel. Phallic, serpentine Doom is leading women like Osric’s daughter astray, exploiting them, as the film would have us believe of leftist leaders; yet, was Conan any better with the bare-breasted woman in the cage?

Pre-Castro Cuba was teeming with prostitution when that right-wing butcher Batista was a puppet for American politicians and mafia. One of the first things communists do after a revolution is to work aggressively to rid their countries of prostitution, striving to provide women with the education, equal opportunities, and material conditions needed so they can avoid having to sell themselves to survive. Presenting Doom in an orgy symbolically portrays socialists as whoremongers; this pro-capitalist film is projecting right-wing guilt onto the left.

The thieves take the princess out and ride away. Doom, changed back into human form, makes a small snake into an arrow and fires it at Valeria, killing her. The superiority of phallic flesh over phallic steel is demonstrated again, for his command, “Seek,” is enough to ensure a hit. Valeria had paid the gods for interfering with the demons’ attack on unconscious Conan.

XVII: Valeria and the Princess

Conan burns her body with Subotai’s torch at her funeral. Subotai weeps for him, for as he observes, Cimmerians never weep. As the film’s masculine ideal, Conan reinforces the hypermasculine notion that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Subotai’s weeping for him suggests Asian servility to white supremacy, like the wizard’s servility.

We’re meant to believe that the princess’s continued allegiance to Doom is some kind of brainwashing, as right-wingers assume leftists to have, rather than a projection of right-wing brainwashing that ‘capitalism is freedom.’ So Doom’s shooting of a snake arrow at her is more symbolic anti-Soviet propaganda. The Battle of the Mounds, a desert-like region, reminds me of the then-already-underway Soviet-Afghan War that had been manipulated into being by Carter and Brzezinski: Conan and Subotai, luring Doom, Thorgrim, and Rexor to the mounds for a final battle, are thus like the mujahideen, well-paid and armed by the US (as Osric has paid the three thieves with an abundance of jewels), and bleeding Soviet power dry, as Conan does of Doom’s power, by killing Thorgrim and Rexor.

XVIII: Symbolic Castration, and Transcending a Father’s Wisdom

Indeed, the killing of Rexor is symbolic castration (with the help of Valeria as a glowing, Valkyrie-like spirit), with Conan’s breaking of his sword and realizing that the Riddle of Steel isn’t about steel per se, but about having the steely manhood to wield the sword with determination to win. In this way, Conan has outlearned his father, for part of becoming a man is going beyond the limitations of your father’s wisdom. Such an upstaging of your father is a symbolic castration of him (like Cronus‘ rising up against Uranus), and symbolic castration occurs in many forms in Conan the Barbarian.

Since I’ve equated serpents with the phallus, we can see Conan’s decapitation of the giant snake in his raid of the Tower of Serpents as a symbolic castration, too. And since Doom himself can be a giant serpent, his decapitation at the end of the film is also a symbolic castration. It’s interesting in this connection to note how Doom, immediately before Conan kills him, tries to hypnotize him and manipulate him by calling him his “son.” In Conan’s rise to manhood, he’ll have no one as his father, not even a father-figure in Crom, who, in Conan’s prayer to Him, says He can go to Hell if He won’t help him and Subotai defeat Doom.

In Conan’s prayer/curse to Crom, we see how the right-winger can take God or leave Him, depending on the circumstances. We’ve seen how Nazis can pose as Christians or as quasi-pagans. Similarly, such “new atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have embraced neoconservatism as an imperialist reaction against Islam.

XIX: King Conan

The film ends with a shot of an older Conan sitting on a throne with an expression that suggests Henry IV‘s dictum, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This image is reiterated at the end of Conan the Destroyer, with the narrative voiceover of Akiro the Wizard saying, “…he found his own kingdom and wore his crown upon a troubled brow.”

So Conan in the end will himself be a king, a ruler, the governor, as it were, of a people. Since this story, set in an ancient and fantastic world, is meant as an allegory of our times, his becoming a king represents how the libertarian ideal will eventually be the very government that people like Milius and Schwarzenegger so dislike (recall in this connection how Schwarzenegger would eventually be the Governor of California).

Similarly, the Koch brothers, of right-wing libertarian disposition, got heavily involved in influencing the government, as do Rand Paul and Ron Paul. The two Pauls, to be fair, are anti-war and opposed to the kind of rampant corruption we see in American politics today; but neither of them is willing to overturn the capitalist system that is, through the profit motive, the basis of all this corruption and all these wars. Perhaps that is the reason for King Conan’s “troubled brow,” his “uneasy…head.”

XX: Conclusion

Reagan ran on the idea that “government is the problem,” then he became the leader of that very government. His tax cuts to the rich, and those of similarly-minded politicians, allowed millionaires eventually to become billionaires, whose money has since been used to buy politicians to ensure that the state serves the rich rather than the people. The greater accumulation of capital, concentrating and centralizing it in the hands of the richest people, has required a larger government, not a smaller one, to protect all the resulting proliferation of private property. Libertarianism leads not to small government, but big, privatized government, hence Reagan’s inflated military budget. Conan, fighter of the powerful, will become one of them.

The right-wing message of Conan the Barbarian is subtle and muted–fittingly so, given the subtle and muted expression of the neoliberal agenda started by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 80s, when this film came out. Some on the left warned of the dangers of this resurgence of conservative ideas, but the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears, just as many would have considered this film to be harmless fun.

It seemed reasonable to most people of the time, myself included, to think of the collectivism of Doom’s followers to be representative of a supposedly similar Soviet collectivism, mindlessly obeying their leader and lacking in Conan’s virtuous individualism. But just as we don’t see what becomes of Doom’s followers after his head is thrown down the steps, neither did most people see how huge percentages of Russians and other Eastern Europeans didn’t want to see the security of the Soviet system give way to predatory capitalism.

Stalin rightly predicted that a dissolving of socialism would result in the most virulent reaction, grabbing the working class by the throat. In today’s post-Soviet world of extreme wealth inequality, the control of most of the American media by six corporations, epidemic homelessness, ecocide, and imperialist war threatening a nuclear WWIII, we see what Doom really is.

In the allegorical sense, Conan really was a barbarian…and a destroyer.

Analysis of the Medea Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

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

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

‘The Day that We…’, a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

I have a new poem here by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at so many times before. As usual, his words will be in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Here’s the poem:

The day that we fell
Fell so far
Shooting stars
Dividing worlds
Becoming God’s
A future law of three
A past shone in the trees
A photograph that changes
The malice and the rage
The quest for poetry that speaks till it’s raw
By word of mouth
Sometimes stars
One in five none get out alive
But the words
The words
Whisper of forever
And forever we’re denied
Living on in nothing
Just a star fell from the sky
The night that we
Became reality.

And now, for my analysis.

I suspect that the speaker is one of the fallen rebel angels, who “fell so far.” They’re “shooting stars” nonetheless in their rebellious glory, “dividing worlds” into the heavenly and the hellish, as we know them in Milton‘s Paradise Lost.

He and the others are “becoming God’s” in the sense that He will use them to test mankind. “A future law of three” sounds like Adam, Eve, and the serpent being tempted to sin through the commandment not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. One is reminded of Romans 7:8, “sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.” This is “a past shone in the trees” of the Garden of Eden.

“A photograph that changes” reminds me of my connecting of the Garden of Eden myth with the park scene in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s film, Blowup. In the film, Thomas has taken photos in an Edenic park of a young woman and her elderly lover, photos she wants back because they make her feel shamed, as Adam and Eve felt shamed in their nakedness. His taking the photos makes him into either the Yahweh or the serpent figure for interfering with the two. The photograph changes because it, among many others taken in the park, go from being relatively innocent to implying that a murder has been committed there, rather like the shift from innocent to sinful Adam and Eve, a shift caused by the serpent, or by Thomas’s changing photographs. (See my analysis, link above, for more details on that.)

Imagine “the malice and the rage” of the fallen angels, who search “for poetry that speaks till it’s raw.” One wishes to speak one’s own poetry, one’s own language, not that of those who impose their will on us, as God did on His angels and on Adam and Eve. These are words spoken “by word of mouth,” naturally, not edited on the page.

The mortality imposed on us all for defying God’s authority, on man as well as on the rebel angels, means that, to paraphrase what Jim Morrison once sang, “One in five none get out alive.” “The words,” however, presumably those of Scripture, “whisper of forever/And forever we’re denied,” because we disobeyed God.

We’re “living on in” a hell of “nothing.” We, in our defiant glory, are “just a star” that “fell from the sky.” But in our damnation, we were true to ourselves, not mere compliant, willing slaves, for this was “the night that we/Became reality.”

Analysis of ‘La Notte’

La Notte (‘The Night’) is a 1961 Italian film by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. Filmed on location in Milan, it is about the disintegrating relationship of a man and his wife, as both of them are tempted into having extramarital affairs.

The second film of a trilogy (the first being L’Avventura, and the third being L’Eclisse), La Notte continues Antonioni’s abandoning of traditional plots in favour of visual composition. The film was acclaimed for its exploration of modernist themes of alienation; it received the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a first for an Italian film, and it also won the David di Donatello award for Best Director in 1961. It’s one of Stanley Kubrick‘s ten favourite films.

Here is a link to quotes, in English translation, from the film.

When the opening credits are showing, we see a shot of a building up close, one much taller than the other buildings of the city either in the background or in the reflection of the skyscraper’s windows. The camera is slowly moving downwards.

Since La Notte is about a married couple growing alienated from each other, and we know that the essence of alienation is an inability to communicate with and understand other people, then this descending camera shot of a skyscraper suggests the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven. But God (Elohim) says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7). And indeed, after the credits are finished showing, we see the beginning stages of the breakdown in communication between writer Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and his frustrated wife, Lidia (Moreau).

Subtle associations in moments in the film with key moments in the primeval Biblical narrative can be found afterwards, too, though largely in reverse order to that of the early chapters of Genesis. I’ll return to these other associations soon enough.

Giovanni and Lidia enter a hospital where their good friend, fellow writer Tommaso Garani (played by Bernhard Wicki), is a seriously ill, dying patient in need of morphine to ease his pain. In this pitiful state, Tommaso personifies the Pontanos’ ailing marriage.

Before the couple go into his room, they’re accosted by a pretty but emotionally unstable young woman who complains of the telephone in her room not working (symbolic of already failing communication). She will later make sexual advances on Giovanni after Lidia has left the hospital in tears over the wretched state Tommaso is in. There is a clear link between seeing their dying friend and this young woman, for temptations to adultery are among the things that are slowly tearing this marriage apart.

The theme of stifled communication is developed in Giovanni’s repeated self-deprecatory remarks about his fading abilities as a writer. The ability to use language is crucial to a writer, of course, but also key to having healthy relationships, especially in a marriage. Language is a central part of Lacan‘s Symbolic Order, brought into being through the prohibition of Oedipal indulgence via the Nom, or Non! du père, and bringing the child out of his narcissistic, dyadic relationship with mother and into the world of society, culture, and shared customs. Giovanni’s indulgence with pretty girls like this wild woman in the hospital, and later with Valentina Gherardini (Vitti), is a regression to a self-centred, childish state, a retreat from society (coupled with his fading ability to write, to use language) that will wreak havoc with his marriage.

The funny thing with Lidia, as far as Giovanni’s temptations with both women are concerned, is that she isn’t jealous. She’s just disgusted with him. It’s a clear sign that the love has died in their marriage. This is why we see her walking off from him, going off alone so many times.

First, she has to go off alone at the hospital, after empathizing with the pain of Tommaso, the personification of her marriage to Giovanni. Then, at the promotion of his new book, La Stagione (“The Season”), she walks off again. Finally, at the Gherardinis’ party, she’s often alone.

She’s sometimes tempted by other men, directly or indirectly, as Giovanni is by young women. During her walk-off from his book promotion, after which he goes home surprised to find her not there (and turns off a recording of an English lesson, the translation of English vocabulary into Italian; his turning off of the recording is symbolically another indication of the ending of language, and therefore, of communication), she encounters some people and things that can at least symbolize, or be associated with, thoughts of her being with other men.

At one point, Giovanni lies down and naps for a bit. Lidia walks along a sidewalk with short stone posts that are phallic in shape; she touches one or two of them, and passes by an old woman who would seem to be a reflection on her own aging…and fear of further aging.

Later, having been driven around in a cab (her riding with a male driver other than her husband suggestive of an adultery fantasy), she encounters a gang of boys, two of whom get into a fistfight. Though she naturally abhors the sight of violence, and promptly stops the fight, one suspects that she–being a woman raised in a traditional society–would find two virile young men fighting to be erotically stimulating, at least on an unconscious level.

After that, she sees rockets being fired into the sky. The sight strongly suggests ejaculating phalli. Such images of virility, something that seems conspicuously lacking in mild-mannered Giovanni, suggests the root of her problems with him: he seems impotent (an at least psychological inadequacy, if not a physical one), and only able to get it up with young women. In fact, even with the wild woman in the hospital, he doesn’t seem to be aroused.

Early during her walk, she comes to the run-down buildings of some poor people and finds a child crying. Though she, as a bourgeois, is not of the poor child’s class, she nonetheless sympathizes; and her wish to comfort the child suggests her frustration at never getting to be a mother. Indeed, we know of no sons or daughters from the Pontanos.

Giovanni wakes from his nap in an agitated state, suggesting he’s just dreamt what she experienced alone outside. It’s another example, as I’ve noted in Blowup and The Passenger, of Antonioni verging on, though not quite lapsing into, the surreal, the borderline between reality and dream, or fantasy. In any case, Giovanni’s worst nightmare is being realized: she’s falling out of love with him and having adulterous thoughts of her own.

She telephones him and has him pick her up in a place where they used to live, a reminiscence of a happier time when they were still in love. In response to his worries, she says it’s “nothing”…as in Much Ado About…When he arrives, he notes a train track now covered in vegetation; he remembers when the train was once used. Back in the time when they’d lived there, their love was going places, like that train. Now, their love goes nowhere…like that train.

When they get home, she takes a bath. The scene is interesting in that it was originally censored for giving us one or two brief flashes of Moreau’s breasts. (Other scenes in the film, such as the wild woman’s seduction of Giovanni, including her undressing after their kiss, as well as his and Lidia’s rolling around in the dirt kissing at the end, and one of two ladies walking together saying ‘whore’–or ‘tart,’ depending on the translation–at the Gherardinis’ party, were also censored.) Giovanni shows no sexual interest in his naked wife, adding to her frustrations.

Night is approaching, their marriage’s ‘dark night of the soul,’ so to speak, and Lidia doesn’t want to sit around at home. They’ll go to the Gherardinis’ party, but first to a night club. She shows herself off to him in a new black dress, but he shows minimal interest, disappointing her once again.

At the night club, they watch a striptease/equilibrist perform while balancing a wine glass. The juxtaposition of Giovanni and Lidia watching a woman being undressed (by her husband?) with her balancing of a glass half-filled with wine, which she later drinks, vaguely suggests Genesis 9:20-22, when Noah got drunk and naked in his tent, and Ham saw him. Ham thus is cursed.

The shame in the scene in the film, though, is in how the erotic dancing does nothing to inspire passion in Giovanni, a passion that he could direct at Lidia. As he says to her, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” She is thus once again frustrated. Their marriage is cursed.

They arrive at the Gherardinis’ party, where the lady of the house (played by costume designer Gitt Magrini, who incidentally also played Jeanne’s mother in Last Tango in Paris) greets them.

Her husband is a curious sort: he would seem to be a socialist’s fantasy of what a boss ought to be like. Mr. Gherardini (played by Vincenzo Corbella) speaks of not being interested in making profits, but rather producing things to be remembered. He imagines that Giovanni writes out of necessity. He also offers Giovanni a job, to write the history of Gherardini’s company. Giovanni probably won’t accept the job offer: after all, as a bourgeois with a servant in his home, Giovanni would seem out of place working for a ‘socialist.’

Still, he might consider taking the job after all…if he can get closer to the Gherardinis’ pretty daughter, Valentina. Giovanni Pontano’s philandering with young women suggests that his surname is a pun on puttana, or more aptly, ‘puttano,’ a male whore.

He begins his pursuit of Valentina by playing a game she’s devised, that of sliding her compact across a floor of checkered tiles with the aim of it landing on one specified tile, to win points. By participating in this game, Giovanni is demonstrating what a ‘playa‘ he is.

He is so careless and foolish that just after the end of their game, he kisses her…and Lidia sees him do it! This is shortly after she’s learned, from having telephoned the hospital, that Tommaso has just died. She isn’t jealous of her husband with Valentina because she knows her marriage is dead.

Soon after, it starts to rain. This heavy rain can be compared to the forty days and forty nights of rain of the Great Flood. Now, the placement of the rain in the time sequence of the film is one of the few instances that don’t coordinate with the reversed time sequence I mentioned above about the major events of the early chapters of Genesis. Still, the Biblical parallels are enough to make my point about Giovanni’s and Lidia’s marriage: it’s going backward, not progressing.

The cause of the wickedness of the world leading up to the Great Flood, as described in Genesis 6:1-4, was the sons of God mating with the daughters of men, a forbidden mixture of the human and divine worlds that brought chaos to God’s ordered creation. The ‘sons of God’ of La Notte are Giovanni and Roberto (played by Giorgio Negro), who show a sexual interest in, respectively, Valentina and Lidia, the ‘daughters of men’; and the former pair pursues the latter pair before, during, and after the rain, which doesn’t quite correspond with the reverse order of the analogous events in the Bible. Still, I say the correspondences are close enough.

At first, many of the guests at the party use the rain to elevate their hilarity and fun–a number of people jump in the swimming pool, reinforcing the association with the Flood; ultimately, however, the rain causes certain crucial guests to split up and go their own ways, a breaking up of the universal socializing and communicating that is the essence of the Symbolic. Giovanni and Valentina become a dyad, and so do Lidia and Roberto.

These two dyads, metaphorical mirrors looking into each others’ eyes and reflecting each others’ egoism, are experiencing what Lacan called the Imaginary. The desire one member of each dyad has for the other is a wish to be at one with the ideal-I that is experienced in the reflected faces of their metaphorical mirrors. The one desires to be the desire of the other, or to be recognized by the other. Giovanni wants the youth and vitality of Valentina, since he’s losing his own virility with age. Lidia hopes to be a sexy, desirable woman for Roberto, since she cannot be such a woman for her husband.

So both husband and wife have regressed from engagement with the Other (society in general, mingling with many people instead of just focusing on one) to engagement with the other (just one other person, making a dyad with him or her, a transference of the mother/son or father/daughter, Oedipal pairing). These narcissistic duos, reflecting each other like mirrors, are a regression from the adult world of the Symbolic to the infantile Imaginary, and thus constitute a breaking down of communication.

Now, it isn’t so easy to regress into the secondary narcissism of the revisited Imaginary without the danger of lapsing into the terrifying chaos of the Real, which is what the Deluge-like rainfall symbolizes. Narcissism is a defence against psychological fragmentation, a falling-apart of the self and a psychotic break with reality.

Lidia is in Roberto’s car during the heavy rainfall; they are in ‘Noah’s ark,’ so to speak. We see them through the car windows, chatting with and smiling at each other, enjoying one another’s company; but we don’t hear a word they’re saying. Inside the car is the narcissistic dyad of the Imaginary; outside the car, out in the rain–like the forty days and forty nights of rain that killed everyone on Earth–is the traumatic, undifferentiated horror of the Real, what cannot be symbolized with language.

This scene in the film reminds me of what Slavoj Zižek once said about the inside and outside of a car as it relates symbolically to the Real. In Looking Awry, he commented on a passage in Robert Heinlein‘s Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. A couple are in a car driving home, but are told under no circumstances, no matter what they see, to open the windows of their car. They witness, during their drive, a child hit by a car, and naturally feel the urge to roll down a window, just a bit, to tell a patrolman about the accident. Instead of seeing all that they’ve seen through the closed windows, though, they see through the opening “Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life.” (Zižek, page 14)

So what is this “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life,” Zižek asks, “if not the Lacanian real, the pulsing of the presymbolic substance in its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside, materialized in this case by the windowpane…To those sitting inside a car, outside reality appears slightly distant, the other side of a barrier or screen materialized by the glass. We perceive external reality, the world outside the car, as ‘another reality,’ another mode of reality, not immediately continuous with the reality inside the car. The proof of this discontinuity is the uneasy feeling that overwhelms us when we suddenly roll down the windowpane and allow external reality to strike us with the proximity of its material presence…But when we are safely inside the car, behind the closed windows, the external objects are, so to speak, transposed into another mode. They appear to be fundamentally ‘unreal,’ as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis–in short, they appear as a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane. It is precisely this phenomenological experience of the barrier separating inside from outside, this feeling that the outside is ultimately ‘fictional,’ that produces the horrifying effect of the final scene in Heinlein’s novel. It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside reality had stopped working, as if, for a moment, we had been confronted with the formless grey, with the emptiness of the screen…” (Zižek, pages 14-15)

In La Notte, however, it isn’t seeing out from the inside, from the narcissistic veil of illusion out onto the harsh reality of outside, but the other way around. From the Real that is outside, one looks inside to see two people experiencing the illusion. It is just like Noah’s family and the pairs of animals, experiencing the comfort of the illusion of life, as opposed to the chaos and destruction of the Flood going on outside, killing everyone and every land animal, a return to the tohu-wa-bohu of primordial Chaos. Accordingly, Lidia can enjoy the feeling of being courted by Robert; but when they park the car and get out, and he continues his pursuit of her, she snaps out of it and realizes she cannot cheat on her husband. She has had a taste of the Real, standing out in the rain for a moment, and her narcissistic illusions have been shattered.

She cannot cheat on Giovanni, even though she knows he hasn’t been faithful to her; this is partly because of the patriarchal double standard that indulges a husband’s affairs, but not a wife’s. Also, she cannot cheat on him simply because she’s much more responsible and adult than he is. We’ve seen her smile and watch the jazz band play up close, admiring these attractive, talented men. She has gotten in the car with Roberto. But she never fully acts on her temptations as Giovanni does. She won’t even kiss Roberto.

When Giovanni and Valentina are alone in the house, she plays a tape recording she’s made of what seems affectedly poetic TV dialogue; she feels embarrassed about it, for she asks him to promise not to make fun of her for having recorded it. After playing it, he wants to hear it again, but when she rewinds it, she also erases it, considering the recording to be “drivel.” Once again, La Notte shows how the removal of language and communication vitiates relationships.

When Lidia and Roberto return, she and Giovanni have to confront each other’s temptations to adultery. Giovanni is offended at something Roberto says to him with challenging eyes, that in democracy we “take things as they come”; it would seem more reasonable to assume he’s more annoyed at Roberto being alone with his wife (i.e., free to take her as she comes) than at what he has said. As mentioned above, though, Lidia denies any feelings of jealousy over her husband’s interest in Valentina, even though he’s made no attempt to hide that interest.

Instead, she feels as if she wants to die, for she knows she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore. Like Tommaso, her marriage is dead. The Cain of her husband’s concupiscence has made her no longer able…or, Abel?…to love him anymore. Giovanni, his eyes wandering in the land of Nod, knowing those other than his wife, has murdered her love, just as Cain killed his brother.

The morning has come, and it’s time to leave the party. Giovanni and Lidia decide to walk through Mr. Gherardini’s golf course. She finally tells Giovanni about Tommaso’s death; he’s annoyed that she didn’t mention it earlier, but he was playing (i.e., the game with Valentina with her compact slid across the checkered tiles–trying to seduce her). With the mention of Tommaso’s death comes her final confrontation with Giovanni about the end of her love for him…and vice versa.

She reads him an impassioned love letter she’s had in her purse. Though he’s visibly moved by the letter’s contents, he has forgotten that he, in fact, wrote it long ago, back when he still truly loved her. His obliviousness to what he wrote proves his love, too, has died–how his ineptitude with language has ruined their relationship.

He won’t accept this painful truth, though, so he makes unwanted sexual advances on her. They’ve been sitting by a group of trees, him rolling on top of her in the dirt. This moment is comparable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

His pitiful attempt at lovemaking reminds us of St. Augustine‘s interpretation of original sin, coming from concupiscence, or involuntary desire, which has been plaguing their marriage from the beginning. His uncontrolled arousal was directed at women other than Lidia; this same involuntary arousal was no longer directed at her, so when he tries to make love with her there, it’s fake, and she knows it (i.e., she knows he hasn’t got an erection–he’s impotent). He’d wished, in his love letter, for his love for her to be immortal, but not even his memory of the letter was immortal. Small wonder she, too, has looked outside their marriage for love.

His attempt at lovemaking is so fake that it should be obvious even to him that his love for her died long ago. He knows, as if from eating the…here, bitter…fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that their love is dead. Only his narcissism would push him to hide his shame by pretending to feel desire for her, paradoxically related to the shame that made Adam and Eve want to hide their genital arousal by covering it with fig leaf aprons.

They roll in the dirt of his concupiscence, for Giovanni, like Adam, is dust, and like their marriage, to dust shall he return. From the Tower of Babel of the opening credits, to the…Edenic?…ending of the film, their marriage has gone backwards, not forwards.

This ‘Edenic’ ending is not a return to the lost paradise, for Giovanni and Lidia remain in their fallen state; they know their love is dead–they aren’t the naïve, unknowing naked pair before having eaten the forbidden fruit. Fully clothed, they’re like Adam and Eve only after God has clothed them in animal skins.

Now, it isn’t that sex per se is dirty, as Augustine conceived it; it’s that desire isn’t controlled–it’s misdirected. Sex itself didn’t bring about the Fall of Man; God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Childless Giovanni and Lidia were never fruitful. Desire brought about the fall of, respectively, both the naked and the clothed couples of the Bible and La Notte. The Buddhists agree that it’s desire that is the root of human suffering, and the Pontanos’ misdirected desire has been causing their suffering throughout the dark night of their marriage.

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, OCTOBER Books, London, 1991

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman