Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

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

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

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

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

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

Pink (played by Bob Geldof).

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

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

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

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

Pink as a boy (played by Kevin McKeon).

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

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

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

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

Daddy died in the war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The abusive teacher (played by Alex McAvoy).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink’s mother (played by Christine Hargreaves).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink’s groupie (played by Jenny Wright).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pink the fascist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Fear Freedom from Abuse

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

You might ask, Dear Reader, why any victim of emotional abuse would be afraid of being freed from it. Isn’t freedom from the abuse exactly what we victims crave? That freedom is what we want should be a no-brainer.

The sad reality is, however, that the functioning of the mind is far more complex than that of one having a straightforward wish for what’s good for us, or for what’s pleasurable for us. Not to rely too much on Freud, who got a lot more wrong than he got right; but for what it’s worth, in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he noted our self-destructive, aggressive tendencies in what he called the death drive (Thanatos) and “the compulsion to repeat” irrational acts, or re-experience distressing moments in the past.

Object relations theorists like Melanie Klein and WRD Fairbairn noted how negative internal representations that we have in our minds of our parents and early caregivers (the “bad mother” and “bad father” internal objects) can be transferred to our later relationships in the form of boyfriends, girlfriends, or spouses with similar narcissistic traits to those of our parents. These bad internal objects, residing in our minds like ghosts, become the blueprints for our later relationships, and they are difficult to shake off (see part 5 of this for a deeper explanation).

Making things even more difficult, our wish to find good people in our lives–to replace the bad ones we’ve gone no contact with–can be thwarted by what Fairbairn called the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration in our minds. Originally, Fairbairn called this the Internal Saboteur, for that’s exactly what this part of our minds does–it sabotages possible new, good relationships by rejecting people.

For Fairbairn, libidinal need is object-need, that is, a need people have for others to love and have relationships with (the subject=the self; objects=people other than the self); so the anti-libidinal ego is the part of oneself that is hostile towards and rejects objects. We all know how we reject new people from having been hurt so often by earlier ones.

In An Introduction to Object Relations, Lavinia Gomez explains that the “anti-libidinal ego [corresponding roughly with Freud’s superego] is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez p. 63-64)

Even worse, our relationships with narcissists, past and present, are those of traumatic bonding rather than ones of mutual respect and love. We feel as though we’re glued to these bad kinds of people whether we want to or not, so when we leave a relationship with a narcissist, we often fall back (however unwittingly or unconsciously) into a relationship with either the same one, or get trapped in a new relationship with another.

How do we get out of this vicious circle? Since I find relationships with these people to be overbearingly authoritarian, I find that the ideas Erich Fromm wrote about in his classic 1941 book, Escape From Freedom (also called The Fear of Freedom), to be applicable in relationships involving narcissistic abuse.

In his book, Fromm wrote about the experience of Europeans having been freed from the yoke of authoritarian thinking on two momentous occasions (from medieval-era Catholicism, and Germans from their authoritarian empire a century ago), only to find themselves with feelings of isolation, insignificance, and meaninglessness in their lives. The only way they found themselves able to reestablish a sense of meaning and belonging was to adopt new forms of authoritarianism: respectively, 16th century Lutheran and Calvinistic Protestantism; and for early 20th-century Germans, Nazism.

Fromm writes, [for the Germans] “The authority of the monarchy was undisputed, and by leaning on it and identifying with it the member of the lower middle class acquired a feeling of security and narcissistic pride. Also, the authority of religion and traditional morality was still firmly rooted. The family was still unshaken and a safe refuge in a hostile world. The individual felt that he belonged to a stable social and cultural system in which he had his definite place. His submission and loyalty to existing authorities were a satisfactory solution to his masochistic strivings…What he was lacking in security and aggressiveness as an individual, he was compensated for by the strength of the authorities to whom he submitted himself.

“The postwar period [i.e., 1918 and after] changed this situation considerably…the economic decline of the old middle class went at a faster pace…The defeat in the war and the downfall of the monarchy…on which, psychologically speaking, the petty bourgeois had built his existence, their failure and defeat shattered the basis of his own life. If the Kaiser could be publicly ridiculed,…what could the little man put his trust in? He had identified himself…with all these institutions; now, since they had gone, where was he to go?” (Fromm, pages 211-213)

In abandoning the old authoritarian structures, these Europeans achieved what Fromm called negative freedom, or freedom from an oppressive life; they hadn’t, however, achieved positive freedom, or freedom to reach their true human potential. Without this second kind of freedom, their sense of loneliness, purposelessness, and powerlessness could only lead them back to the comforting, though dysfunctional, structure of a new authoritarianism, namely, Nazism or authoritarian forms of Protestantism.

As for Luther and Calvin, Fromm writes, “Luther’s system, in so far as it differed from the Catholic tradition, has two sides…he gave man independence in religious matters…he deprived the Church of her authority and gave it to the individual; that his concept of faith and salvation is one of subjective individual experience, in which all responsibility is with the individual and none with an authority which could give him what he cannot obtain himself. […]

“The other aspect of modern freedom is the isolation and powerlessness it has brought for the individual, and this aspect has its roots in Protestantism as much as that of independence…Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines…[have] a negative aspect…: their emphasis on the fundamental evilness and powerlessness of man.” (Fromm, page 74)

Fromm explains further: “Calvin’s theology…exhibits essentially the same spirit as Luther’s, both theologically and psychologically. Although he opposes the authority of the [Catholic] Church and the blind acceptance of its doctrines, religion for him is rooted in the powerlessness of man; self-humiliation and the destruction of human pride are the Leitmotiv of his whole thinking.” […] Calvin himself said, “We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not our own…it is the most devastating pestilence which ruins people if they obey themselves…” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 7, 1; quoted in Fromm, pages 84-85)

There’s a kind of sadomasochistic quality to this authoritarian structure (just to be clear here, I’m not talking about the sexual kind found in the BDSM community; rather, I’m talking about the appeal of a dominant/submissive relationship with others, as a simpler, easier one, rather than the ambiguous, more challenging one of equality and mutual respect). In this structure, you know who is ‘above’ you, and who is ‘below’ you; hence, the comforting assurance and belonging felt in this structure. The Protestant God of Luther and Calvin was above the ‘unworthy’ sinners. (Again, I’m not criticizing Protestant Christianity in general here, just the particular, authoritarian form it took when Martin Luther and John Calvin had established their churches back in the 16th century.) Similarly, the Führer was ‘above’ the ‘Aryan‘ German; the Jews, Roma, gay men, and other persecuted groups were ‘below‘ the ‘Aryans.’

To get back to my main point, I believe this kind of authoritarian restructuring can be seen in the replacing of old forms of narcissistic abuse with new forms, either in staying with the abuser, in leaving one abuser only to enter into a new abusive relationship, or through our inner critic‘s continuing of the old abuse in our minds (“the fundamental evilness and powerlessness” that we imagine ourselves to embody, thanks to our abusers’ gaslighting of us), even years after we’ve ended the old relationships and not replaced them with new narcissistic abusers. (Note: I’m not trying to blame the victim here, but rather to explain what I think is happening.)

It’s been noted many times how we victims of emotional abuse keep the haranguing going on in our minds years later. I do this kind of haranguing to myself! There’s a feeling that if I don’t go over these feelings, this endless rumination and re-examining of past events, that I’ll have jumped to premature conclusions and misjudged my family too harshly. The feeling is, why can’t I just put it all behind me and be happy?

I suspect that many other sufferers of narcissistic abuse out there go through similar internal conflicts. Instead of properly processing their trauma and rebuilding their lives through a regular practice of self-care, they go over the same past events to reassure themselves that they’re judging their past relationships correctly (when they so obviously are correct about the abusive relationships, and thus don’t need to re-examine them, except that all their second-guessing perpetuates their doubts).

My point is, are we afraid of being free of the past?

Is our mental state comparable to what was happening after the end of medieval Catholicism, and after the end of the authoritarian German state? Has our traumatic bonding caused us to crave the sense of ‘security’ and ‘belonging’ that comes from the authoritarian rule of our narcissistic abusers?

Are we so used to the sadomasochistic structure, the false assurance, of who’s ‘above’ us (i.e., the narcissistic parents or ex) and who’s ‘below’ us (i.e., the scapegoats…if we’re the golden children or lost children) that we’re afraid of giving up that structure, only to be thrown into a world where we don’t know who we are anymore? Has the trauma of narcissistic abuse drilled a false self so deep into our heads that we can’t conceive of ourselves as having any other self?

Just as Fromm, at the end of his book, suggests positive freedom is the solution to the problem of negative freedom (and its attendant void of meaninglessness, loneliness, and powerlessness), so do I. Positive freedom, or the “freedom to” achieve one’s fullest potential, involves living a life of spontaneity, of solidarity and equality with others in mutual respect and love, with no more rigid sense of people ‘above’ or ‘below’ us. It involves us enjoying life in the moment, a focus on present-mindedness.

Fromm explains: “We have said that negative freedom by itself makes the individual an isolated being, whose relationship with the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of the self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself with the world–with man, nature, and himself. Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, that it leads to oneness–and yet that individuality is not eliminated…It affirms the individuality of the self and at the same time it unites the self with man and nature. […]

“In all spontaneous activity the individual embraces the world. Not only does his individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified…The inability to act spontaneously, to express what one genuinely feels and thinks, and the resulting necessity to present a pseudo self to others and oneself, are the root of the feeling of inferiority and weakness. […]

“…what matters is the activity as such, the process and not the result…[by focusing only on “the finished product” rather than the process, though,] man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness–the experience of the activity of the present moment–and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it–the illusory happiness called [financial] success.

“If the individual realizes his self by spontaneous activity and thus relates himself to the world, he ceases to be an isolated atom; he and the world become part of one structuralized whole; he has his rightful place, and thereby his doubt concerning himself and the meaning of life disappears. This doubt sprang from his separateness and from the thwarting of life; when he can live, neither compulsively nor automatically but spontaneously, the doubt disappears. He is aware of himself as an active and creative individual and recognizes that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.” (Fromm, pages 259-261, his emphasis)

I believe we survivors of emotional abuse can apply these principles in our own lives, incorporating them into all the other things we can use for self-care. Space in this blog post cannot do justice to a full explanation of what Fromm was writing about; so if you find these ideas intriguing but don’t fully understand them, I suggest buying his book and imagining how his ideas can apply to your healing journey.

Note that there is a dialectical relationship between freedom and bondage, as Fromm notes in his analysis of history. The thesis is authoritarian oppression, be it from the Church, the state, or a narcissistic abuser; then, there’s the negation, or freedom from those oppressors. We all too often expect life to have a kind of secure stasis, or a state of familiar fixity. Change frightens us, so a move to freedom from the familiar form of bondage is frightening. Spontaneous living, however, is the resolution of the opposition between freedom and bondage; spontaneity is the sublation of the contradiction, because our individuality/unity creates our own structure, belonging, and meaning.

Instead of settling for the false security of staying in abusive relationships (the troughs of the ocean of life), or fearing a permanent sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, and loneliness associated with negative freedom (the crests of the ocean of life), we should just ride the waves as they go up and down. There is no fixed, permanent solution in life, but there is a soothing flow to everything. Go with the flow.

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

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

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

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

Here are some famous quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe: Now, Cass, take it easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of ‘Enough Is Enough’

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Enough Is Enough: Surviving Emotional and Psychological Abuse is a memoir by Brien Nelson. As the subtitle indicates, the book is about not only his years of having been victimized by emotional abuse, but also about his efforts to overcome the trauma.

He wrote the book in response to a bitter divorce from a psychologically abusive, alcoholic ex-wife whose manipulation was pushing him to the breaking point. The one good thing she did, though, was to advise him to see a doctor because of his overwhelming health problems at the time; that doctor, in turn, after finding no physiological problems with him, advised that he seek psychotherapy (page iii). When he got that therapy, vast depths of repressed pain surfaced…from problems he’d had long before she entered his life.

The reason he’d been so susceptible to such a manipulative woman, a wife who repeatedly kicked him out of their apartment in wild rages, was that he’d developed a codependent mindset as a result of years of emotional abuse from his narcissistic parents and their golden child, his similarly narcissistic older sister.

After going through many memories detailing one painful episode after another, he goes into how he has been doing the healing work. As of the writing of his book, he is amazed at how much progress he’s made, in spite of knowing he still has a long way to go.

He writes of his childhood experiences as a bit of a loner, with few friends, in the first chapter. He writes, however, as if he were describing the childhood of someone else, a friend. Projecting himself into another boy has a sympathizing effect for the reader, at least from the writer’s point of view: we often don’t want to read of someone complaining about his own problems; but if he pleads the case of someone else, he doesn’t seem so ‘selfish’ about it, and this caring for another makes us want to empathize not only with that ‘someone else,’ but also with the writer.

Though this imagining of his sad childhood to have been that of a friend is an effective writing technique to arouse compassion in the reader, I for one was able to feel plenty of empathy for Brien just reading of his experiences as his own. Indeed, I was touched by how frank and honest he is about baring his soul to the reader; it took a lot of courage to reveal what he did…read the book yourself to see what I mean!

Though I, thank the gods, never experienced an abusive spouse or an acrimonious divorce, as he did, I nonetheless can relate to his childhood experiences of narcissism in the family. My parents weren’t alcoholics, and my father’s worst vices were his bigotry and mental slavery to conservatism, rather than narcissism. But my mother,…

As with Brien, I have a golden child sister, a narcissistic know-it-all who speaks when she should listen. Brien’s sister did things to him when a child that were, understatement of the year, sexually inappropriate. So did my sister play inappropriate games with me, when I was about eight or nine.

I don’t wish to go through everything he discusses in his book because, of course, it’s best to let him do it himself, in his own words. Suffice it to say, my take on why he went from an abusive family upbringing to an abusive marriage is from what I’ve learned from object relations theory.

The bad internalized objects we get from abusive parent/elder siblings reside in our minds like ghosts. These become a kind of blueprint for our later relationships, predicting with remarkable precision how they’ll be. If we’ve been abused as kids, we expect such relationships elsewhere; an abusive relationship becomes our normal.

Brien’s book, however, is not a pity party, as some idiot anonymous troll claimed it to be in the comments on the book’s Amazon page. In the later chapters, Brien focuses on what we can do to heal our trauma, such as repeating positive self-affirmations of beliefs contrary to the poisonous words we heard during our years of abuse.

One affirmation in particular that he gave touched me: “I am completely normal” (p. 137). Anyone who has read my blog posts on how my late, probably narcissistic mother subjected me to gaslighting (by claiming, in the most absurdly extreme language possible when I was a kid, that I have an autism spectrum disorder I’ve since learned I don’t have) will know why this affirmation resonates with me.

I’m at one with Brien in saying that positive affirmations, done repeatedly over a long enough period of time and felt to be true in one’s heart, can help in eventually healing psychological trauma. Going back to my point about object relations, I’d add that it helps, through autohypnosis and meditation, to imagine and introject new, loving objects who are the dialectical opposites of those abusive ones in our past.

In our suggestible hypnotic state, we can imagine those internalized objects (i.e, imagined new parents) saying those affirmations to us with loving eyes. The powerful emotional effect of hearing and seeing them, in our mind’s eyes and ears, should help to drive home the affirmations even better.

In chapter ten, Brien writes of “Silencing the Rebel,” which seems to be his way of referring to what is usually called the inner critic. It’s a rebel, because it rebels against our true selves, replacing who we really are with a false version of who we are, a projection of all the worst parts of our abusers. To heal, we must silence this inner bad object, exorcise the demon, even.

Brien also writes about his relationship with a higher power. Though we all have diverging opinions on religious and spiritual matters, it is common for survivors of emotional abuse to use some form of spirituality to help them heal and give them peace.

I do that through what I call The Three Unities: the Unity of Space, symbolized by a Brahman-like infinite ocean of universal oneness, which helps me to feel connected with the world, thus ending my isolation; the Unity of Time, at once a cyclical, wave-like conception of time and also the eternal NOW, which helps me to focus on my living, present reality, and not on my painful past, or worrying about my future; and the Unity of Action, a dialectical monism symbolized by the ouroboros, which helps me to know that whatever ill may befall me, it will eventually, in one form or another, flow back into good.

Whatever direction you choose to take, Dear Reader, whether it be spiritual or not, I recommend you read Enough Is Enough. For even when we’ve removed the abusers from our lives, we’re still haunted by the pain they’ve caused us; and apart from Brien’s advice about saying affirmations and using spirituality, reading his story is a helpful exercise in empathy.

The stronger empathy we feel for him (or for any C-PTSD sufferer, for that matter), the more we can be assured that we’re better than our non-empathic abusers. For remember, one of our abusers’ most powerful weapons against us is to make us believe we have their vices. In empathizing with Brien, though, we know we don’t have those vices.

Karma and Narcissistic Abuse

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Whatever energy, positive or negative, that we send out into the world, in one way or another, it comes back to us. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction: even physics, in its own way, acknowledges the reality of karma.

The funny thing about narcissists, though, is their adamant refusal to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. They can mistreat you, over and over again, and when you react in any way that displeases them, instead of being introspective and contemplating how it is possible that they either caused your displeasing reaction, or at least contributed to it in some way, they will assume your reaction is just further proof that you ‘deserve’ all the mistreatment you get.

This is what that collective of narcissists called my family-of-origin did to me. My siblings bullied me as a child, and my mother subjected me to the most cruel gaslighting. My father did far less of either evil to me, but he also did far too little to protect me from either evil. If you’re interested, Dear Reader, in the whole story, detailed with examples, you can read all about it in these posts.

To get to my basic point, though, my late (probably narc) mother lied to me, starting when I was about nine or ten years old, as I can remember, that I supposedly have an autism spectrum disorder.

That I have no such thing was established, beyond a reasonable doubt, by three things: 1) two psychotherapists I’d been seeing during the mid-1990s told me they saw no signs of autism in me; 2) I did the Autism Spectrum Quotient Test, and got a score of only 13/50, far below the minimum of 26-32/50, which would at least raise questions of having a form of autism; and 3) Mom described ‘my autism’ in such absurdly extreme terms (I seemed “retarded” to the mythical shrinks observing me as a little kid; would I “even make a good garbageman?” and, they apparently recommended locking me away “in an asylum and throwing away the key!”) that her improbable account of my early childhood is totally unreliable.

This notion, that I was “born” with my irritating problems (for that’s how ‘autism’ has been understood in my family–a vice to be groaned about and sneered at, not a condition to be pitied in someone) served two purposes for the family: they could avoid taking any responsibility for the effects their bullying and gaslighting were having on me; and they could project their personal issues onto me, then go about their lives kidding themselves that they have few personality problems of their own.

The kind of projection I’m talking about is a special one worthy of examination: it’s called projective identification, first discussed by Melanie Klein, then developed by Wilfred Bion. Projective identification goes a step further than normal projection in that one tricks the receiver of the projections into actually manifesting the projected traits, thus creating the illusion that those traits were never projected, but rather are innate in their receiver.

Bion further elaborated on this process through his conception of container and contained, each respectively represented by the feminine and masculine symbols. The container, symbolized by a yoni, receives the projections, which are the phallic contained.

When treating psychotic patients, Bion found them projecting their hostility and aggression onto him, which he then manifested himself. He found that if he could use his skill as a therapist and receive the aggression patiently, then neutralize it, the energy could be returned to the analysand in a softer form, thus calming the analysand. [See also Mitchell and Black, pages 103-105.]

A mother, in a state of what Bion called reverie, could do the same thing with her baby’s projection of its frustrations; that is, she could be a patient, long-suffering container–like Bion for his analysands–of the baby’s projected anger, anxiety, and frustration, the contained. When the baby’s hostile energy is neutralized in the container of the kind, loving mother, it can be returned to the baby in a benevolent form, giving the baby peace and a capacity for mental growth.

A capable mother, like a skilled therapist, can be such a container. Many mothers, however, don’t have this ability. They fail to contain their babies’ projected anxieties and fears, thus unwittingly worsening them instead of easing them.

I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but I suspect my maternal grandmother–dealing with the stresses of World War II in England, the death of my maternal grandfather, and her move to Canada soon after with my then-7-or-8-year-old mother–was never able to be my mom’s container. With neither her idealized father nor a mirroring mother to give stability and structure to her bipolar self (<<not bipolar disorder!), my mom–I believe–developed a pathological, even malignant, level of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation, which is a disintegration of the personality.

And without a mother to be a container of her projected anxieties and hostilities, my mother needed to search elsewhere for that container. At first, I believe that my father, older brothers R. and F., and my older sister J., were those containers…then I was born.

I believe she used the autism lie, always describing the condition in the language of narcissism (an antiquated definition of the word autismauto [“self”] + ism–denoted excessive self-absorption or self-admiration back in the first half of the 20th century, when Mom was a child, and–I suspect–she was often called ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘autistic’ [by this old definition] by her mother), to project her feelings of shame–on contemplating her own egotism–onto me. Thus, we can see how her insistence on my being ‘autistic’ served her own emotional needs rather than mine.

One should never use an impressionable child as a container for one’s own projections, especially if they’re harsh and shameful. As I noted above, only a skilled therapist or a loving, empathic mother can be such a container for, respectively, a deeply disturbed analysand or for a frightened, frustrated baby. Nonetheless, I’m convinced my late mother did exactly this psychic violence to me when I was a kid.

Not knowing what I was doing, I received the contained from her, accepted it as a part of me, and returned her now neutralized energy back to her, allowing her to function normally and enabling her use of a False Self of altruism and benevolence.

R., F., and J. quickly learned how to use me as their container, too; and I received all their viciousness, me being powerless to repel it (recall, I was a child at the time), and like Mom, they became able to function normally. The three of them now go about with False Selves, secure in their delusion that I’m containing all their pathologies.

To put the above crudely, I took all their shit, and in spite of that fact, they’re all full of shit.

You see, here’s the thing: a narcissist never fully rids himself of what’s internally wrong with him, no matter how much projecting he does onto his victims. When I left Canada for Taiwan over twenty years ago, they lost their container, and now needed a new one they could project onto on a daily basis. My cousins, L. and especially G., became Mom’s new targets, and R., F., and J. eagerly went along with Mom’s machinations.

Still, she didn’t have all that much regular contact with her nephews; on top of that, she knew I was going to marry my then-girlfriend in the early 2000s, meaning I’d presumably stay here in East Asia for the rest of my life. So Mom fabricated a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) for me, so I’d still be her container, along with L. and G. I also suspect she was hoping that by labelling me with AS, I’d feel emotionally dependent on her, then return home to Canada one day, so she’d have me around her every day again.

It was how strident she was being with this fake AS labelling, something she–lacking the psychiatric expertise to be authoritative about–insisted was a preordained, proven fact, that made me, for the first time, question her motives. This, combined with how consistently uncaring her attitude was about how much she was hurting me, is what turned me against her.

So, during the 2010s, I grew distant from her and her flying monkeys, R., F., and J. All I was doing at the time was being an agent of karma; they’d created this intolerably toxic environment for me, so I simply sought an escape from it. Because they fail to recognize the karmic effects of their own actions, they misattribute my coldness to them as yet another personal fault of mine, rather than a fault of theirs, however indirectly their fault was projected onto me.

I’ve explained the exact circumstances that led to my unwillingness to talk on the phone to my Mom when she was on her death bed in this post (Part 6: Is My Mother Dead?). The family considers my reaction to her dying as monstrously unfilial, when they know nothing she did that led up to my reaction (Part 5: More Elaborate Lies). Given all she’d done to me over the decades, the enormity of it all, it isn’t difficult to see how my punishment of her was quite mild: I just didn’t want to talk to her.

When I was bullied by R., F., and J. as a child, I was never allowed to fight back in any way (much of this being Mom’s stopping me and justifying them). Despite J.’s occasional paid lip service to the idea that I should assert myself and tell them off whenever they upset me, none of them ever heard me out, especially hypocritical J. You can’t assert yourself to people, or tell them off, if they won’t listen to a word you say.

This non-listening mentality of theirs was nurtured by Mom, who told them, in some form or another, that I was just one of those stupid “autistic” people, who know nothing outside themselves (or however she’d worded it, in any case, that was the message she gave R., F., and J.). It’s never occurred to any of them that they’ve known little outside their own inner social circle, the one Mom circumscribed for them, their folie à quatre.

As for my own karmic burdens, I’ll let my wife, Judy, define my faults, not R., F., or J. The difference? Judy has actually been good to me throughout our relationship of over two decades now; not a perfect relationship, of course, but one a mountain’s height above even the very best my family ever was to me, and I thank my lucky stars for Judy. I’ve been far less than an ideal husband to her, though, so she has the right to complain about me.

I won’t go into the details of how I’ve been a flawed husband (to put it mildly), since obviously that is a private matter. But this confession, however brief, should suffice to show that I’m not kidding myself about being a blameless man. Judy, such a wonderful wife, and deserving of so much better a husband than me, has the right to judge me, not R., F., or J.

Bullying older siblings and toxic parents have no moral authority over their victims (and that goes double for amateurish self-proclaimed ‘psychiatrists’ like my late mother), however morally flawed those victims may be. I’ve gone over the usually minor things I did as a kid to frustrate them in older posts–links in the third paragraph above (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, maladaptive daydreaming, taking too long to wash the dishes, etc.); all of these can easily be explained as karmic reactions–and very mild ones, at that!–to all the hurt they caused me (verbal abuse [all of the family], insults [all of them], name-calling [all of them], gaslighting [Mom], physical threats [F.], shoving [F.], actual hitting me [F.], certain inappropriate games [J.]…remember, I was a kid when much, if not most, of this was happening).

That they would be so upset that I merely stopped communicating with them, given all I’ve explained above, is an indication of their narcissistic injury. That R. would be so upset about my reciting, obviously with the family in mind, of “This Be the Verse” on YouTube (a video I never sent him, one he never had to watch) shows that the family can dish it out but can’t take it. That he found my bitter recitation “disturbing” merely means he was disturbed by the truth of what I’d said.

[Recall, from a previous post, how Mom had bragged several times, decades after the incident, that–when R. was a little kid–she’d pulled his pants down and spanked him in a public place for behaving badly, humiliating him. How was he behaving badly, I wonder? Was he shouting and being bratty? Possibly. But recall her propensity for lying. In her version of what happened, she’d naturally want to present herself in the best possible light and him in the worst, justifying her actions instead of admitting her reaction was excessive. Maybe he’d just done something to cause her to feel narcissistic rage–I don’t know what really happened, of course, but her blowing up at him over a trivial slight is a real possibility. That’s what I mean by my disturbing truth.]

To get back to the present time, I’m guessing that J. is going through a deep depression at the loss of not only our mother almost three years ago, but also of her husband (about a decade and a half ago), and of her younger brother…this last one due to her (as well as R.’s and F.’s) unwillingness to consider my side of the story.

Her sadness over losing me isn’t so much about losing a ‘loved’ family member: if she really loved me so much, why did she so often want to change huge chunks of who I am in order to be the ideal little brother she wanted me to be? (Love is about accepting people as they are, J., not demanding that they be custom-made for you.) She’s mainly upset that her fantasy family is no more. Every time she looks at a family photo with me in it, she is reminded of how she and the others failed to keep us all together.

(Insofar as I mean anything at all to her, I’ll bet she’s mad as hell at R. for the snarky comment he made on my YouTube video, which of course just deepened my estrangement from the family. It would amuse me–in a Schadenfreude kind of way–to imagine those two fighting over the issue.)

In my siblings’ inability to be introspective, they assume the problem is all about me being a jerk. They’ll never consider the possibility that the sadness they feel over their falling out with me is just karma finally coming back to haunt them.

And now, Dear Reader, enough of my complaining: let’s talk about you. If you are in as impossible a situation as I was with regards to your toxic family or ex-partner, don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Get help if you’re being mistreated; if that doesn’t help, get out! Any suffering they’re going through from your absence, assuming they are as awful as you feel they are (i.e., don’t jump to any rash conclusions about your family if you’re a teenager!), is just their bad karma biting them in the ass.

Writing about your pain is a good idea, too. It’s great therapy, especially if you can’t afford a therapist (let alone find one who speaks your language, as is the situation with me here in East Asia!). The toxic people in your life never respected your side of the story, so in your writing, feel free to focus as much on your side of the story as you like. That’s what I’ve done above, while acknowledging their side of the story, and my own real faults, as appropriate. Your ‘bias’ is just the karmic reaction to their bias.

It is no crime to refuse to be the container of toxic people’s projections. In many ways, removing yourself from their lives is the best thing for them; for it will force them to look at themselves in the mirror and wrestle with their own demons, instead of force-feeding them to you.

Analysis of ‘The Entity’

The Entity is a 1982 supernatural horror film based on the 1978 novel of the same name by Frank De Felitta, which in turn was based on the Doris Bither case. Bither claimed to have been repeatedly raped by a trio of spirits–two holding her down while the third raped her–over a period of many years, the assaults eventually becoming less and less frequent until, apparently, they finally stopped altogether.

The film stars Barbara Hershey as Carla Moran, who is based on Doris Bither. It also starred Ron Silver as psychiatrist Dr. Phil Sneiderman; Alex Rocco played Carla’s boyfriend, Jerry Anderson, David Labiosa plays her son, Billy, Jacqueline Brookes played parapsychologist Dr. Elizabeth Cooley, and George Coe played psychiatrist Dr. Weber.

Here are some quotes:

“Welcome home, cunt.” –The entity, to Carla

Carla Moran: I mean I’d rather be dead than living the way I’ve been living. Do you understand that?

Phil Sneiderman: Yes, I can understand that. Yes. I also understand that I care very much what happens to you. Very much. And I know that in your heart you know the difference between reality and fantasy. Carla, look at me, Carla – our reason, our intelligence: That’s the only thing that distinguishes us between any other species of animal, Carla – I care about you! Carla, don’t close yourself off now. It’s real important, real important that you maintain contact with at least one person that really cares about you.

Carla Moran: I don’t know what you’re saying.

Phil Sneiderman: I’ll tell you what I am saying! That you and I can make that contact.

Carla Moran: [softly] I don’t want to make that contact. […]

Cindy: Beautiful day outside, isn’t it? Nothing like good old southern California for lots of sunshine!

Carla Moran: I was raped.

“All right. All right, bastard. I’ve finished running. So do what you want. Take your time – buddy. Take your time. Really, I’m thankful for the, uh… rest. I’m so… tired of being scared. So it’s all right, it really is, it’s all right. You can, uh, do anything you want to me, you can, uh, torture me, kill me, anything. But you can’t have me. You cannot touch me.” –Carla

Thematically, we’re dealing with the conflict between acknowledging internal and external reality, which is symbolized by an external force–oh, so literally–coming inside Carla. What is this entity, and where did it come from? Outside of her, as seems most obvious; inside her, as the psychologists assume…or both? That is to say, is it a thrusting back and forth…”a little of the old in-out, in-out”?

On its first attack, the entity punches her in the face with an invisible fist, yet very visible blood is seen on her mouth. As it rapes her, and during its every attack, we hear this pounding music, suggestive of stabbing phallic thrusts. Then the music stops, the entity leaves her, and she’s screaming…but no man is ever seen on top of her.

The second attack involves no assault on her body, but rather on her house, which shakes as if during an earthquake. Her house thus symbolizes her internal mental world…and her vagina. The house shakes, her room shakes, the room’s walls shake…vaginal walls.

She, her son, and two daughters race out of the house and into her car. They go to the house of her friend, Cindy Nash (Maggie Blye), and sleep there for the night. Needless to say, Carla is reluctant to go back home; she’s also hesitant about seeing a psychiatrist, whose probing [!] might bring out some traumas from her past that she doesn’t want to have to deal with.

Carla Moran and her son, Billy.

Back at home at night, finally, she and her kids hear a frightening sound, that of scraping against metal. Suspecting her invisible attacker, they search for the source of the sound, which seems to be a pipe from under the house. A pipe…how appropriately phallic.

Still, the entity seems to attack only in the yonic symbol of her internal world, her home. Then, when she’s driving, it takes control of her car; riding in her car, it rides her…and drives her crazy after making her almost crash into other cars. The entity thus no longer resides only in her internal world; it is also in her external world, though inside her car. Here we can see the dialectical tension and unity between internality and externality.

Finally, she goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Sneiderman. He insists the whole thing is just a delusion she’s having, brought on by repressed traumas she has been trying to project onto the external world. Still, she can’t imagine how she’s been able to cause certain of her bodily injuries, which seem too inaccessible to be self-injury. It must be an external force!

Sneiderman goes into her home and looks around (since her home symbolizes her vagina, his entering has obvious sexual symbolism). He learns about her childhood, with an overzealously religious father who said “thee” and “thou” so often, she as a little girl thought his speech was modern English! He also held her inappropriately. A-ha! thinks Sneiderman.

Carla and Dr. Sneiderman.

Her later relationships with men–who, except for Billy’s father, are typically considerably older than she–have been short-lived. She seems afraid to commit to a long-term relationship; her current one with her boyfriend, Jerry, seems to be following this pattern (indeed, he’ll leave her as soon as he’s aware of the entity’s raping of her).

Sneiderman is touched by Carla, though. His countertransference, that is, his personal feelings as a therapist for his patient (as opposed to vice-versa), is going wild. She’s a beautiful woman. Now, he may be a professional therapist, but he’s also a man. He says he cares for her, but there’s surely more to his feelings for her than that.

I don’t mean to suggest that his feelings for her are merely physical. His countertransference is causing him to make wild speculations about her unconscious motives for having her “delusions” of being raped by a trio of incubi (i.e., the two “smaller” entities holding her down…her daughters, as Sneiderman would have it?–and the big one raping her…Billy, as Sneiderman thinks…or the ghost of her dead father, or of Billy’s father, as I speculate?); but he’s no creep. Her beauty, combined with her vulnerability and pain, with which he empathizes, are the roots of his desire for her, which he suppresses and rationalizes as concern for her well-being.

Nonetheless, his overemphasis on her problem as being internal is what turns her away from him. During her sleep one night, the entity has her, its invisible fingers pressing against her breasts (a prosthetic body was created for Hershey to achieve the invisible rape effect). It causes her to enjoy an erotic dream, causing her to orgasm. Her unconscious likes the sex!

Carla, being raped by the entity.

When she wakes up, she’s so ashamed of the pleasure she’s been manipulated to feel that she smashes all the mirrors in her room. She’d hate to think the woman she sees in the reflection is the real her, so alienated does she feel from the image, especially as against her own body, which she feels herself to have so little control over. The last thing a rape victim wants is to be made to feel that she “wanted it.”

In this connection, the evident phoniness of the prosthetic body–however painstakingly the special effects technicians worked to make it look real–seems symbolically appropriate: is this the real her, or is it a fake her?–ditto for the woman in the reflection. Which is her reality–inner, or outer?

Along with this observation, there’s another interesting image to compare the prosthetic nude body to: earlier, in the scene where she’s raped in the bathroom, we see her undress through two mirror reflections, with real breasts and buttocks exposed. If the mirror reflects an outwardly projected reality, an external reality, while her actual body being raped is shown with the prosthetic body, representing her internal reality, what does this say about which is real–the internal, or the external? Her, or what’s projected?

She tells Sneiderman how ashamed she feels about having orgasmed during the dream; he tells her his Freudian interpretation, that she’s afraid of her desires. This interpretation offends her, especially when he carries it to the extreme of suggesting she has incestuous desires for her handsome son, Billy, who’s the “spitting image” of his “exciting” father. Thus, she stops the treatment with the psychiatrist.

Carla, having her erotic dream.

(It should be noted that her dream, as it was in the novel, was supposed to be of her having committed incest with Bill; this was removed from the film for fear that the controversial content would have been fiercely objected to. In other words, Sneiderman’s interpretation isn’t as outrageous as it seems. I wonder if the entity is Billy’s father, the drunk, dope fiend who died in a motorcycle accident, for which she “thanked God.” If so, is the entity raping her in revenge for her being glad he died? Is it tormenting her by tricking her into thinking the dream was a wish-fulfillment?)

She sleeps over at her friend Cindy’s home again; the entity attacks the house, soon enough after Cindy and her husband leave, that they notice the attack and return. Carla has tears of joy in her eyes when Cindy confirms that the attack was real. This is what trauma victims so desperately need–validation, not being told “it’s all in your head.” The attacks of the entity, external ones, symbolize the real traumatic events that have occurred to cause the victim to relive her internal mental hell, over and over again.

Another thing has been noted, first when Billy tries to get the invisible rapist off of her, then when the parapsychologists do tests in her home: the entity shoots electricity and laser-like lights in the air. It’s like the hurling of lightning bolts. This leads us to a discussion of Zeus symbolism.

In Greek myth, Zeus–hurler of lightning bolts–used to prey sexually on pretty maidens, his ravishing of them eerily similar to what the entity is doing to Carla. His Roman name, Jupiter, is a derivation from Dieus Pater, or ‘day/sky-father‘ (outside, in the sky). Here, we can see a symbolic link between the entity and Carla’s lecherous father, who I assume is dead by the time the story begins, thus making it possible his ghost is the entity.

The entity’s ‘Zeus’ lightning.

Now, the fact that, on the one hand, she calls the entity (i.e., ‘Jupiter’) a “bastard,” while also thanking God–another sky-father–for the parapsychologists’ protecting of her from the entity (she also thanked God for the death of Billy’s father, recall), suggests the splitting of ‘Father’ into absolute good and bad objects. (I’m also reminded of the last line in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy“: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”)

So, anyway, we now go from investigating Carla’s problem from the internal perspective (Sneiderman) to the external one (Dr. Cooley and her associates, who are as careful as possible in their assessment of Carla’s story, trying to be scientific about it). Sneiderman dismisses them as superstitious “schmucks,” though some today regard his Freudian analysis as being the superstition. Sneiderman does all he can to thwart the parapsychologists, imagining he’s the one who has the scientific authority to deal with Carla’s problem properly, when really it’s just a matter of his sexual jealousy.

Her boyfriend, Jerry, goes to her home one night, only to find her being raped by the entity. Again, we see that prosthetic body being felt up. It’s interesting to note that the prosthetic is used only later in the film, when she is doubting Sneiderman’s notion that her problem is internal, or ‘all in her head.’ As I said above, the unreality of the prosthetic body can be seen to symbolize the perceived falseness of the internality interpretation.

Now, it’s the parapsychologists’ turn to prove the externality thesis, being the negation of the internality thesis. They plan to prove that the entity has mass by freezing it in liquid helium. If they can capture the entity, they’ll prove its physicality and show it isn’t just a “psychic projection.”

The parapsychologists, with Dr. Cooley in the centre.

The dialectical battle between the internality thesis and the externality negation of Sneiderman’s interpretation is symbolized by his struggle to convince Carla to give up on her reliance on Dr. Cooley et al. He fears the parapsychologists are indulging her delusions, making them worse. While his countertransference is clouding his judgement, though, there is a legitimate argument to be made that Cooley is exploiting Carla in order to promote and validate parapsychology.

The entity appears in the parapsychologists’ controlled environment, made to look like Carla’s home. In this place, Carla is being used as bait to lure the entity into being frozen in the liquid helium. They capture it in a mountain of ice, awing every observer; but the entity breaks free, depriving them of their coveted proof. Though Sneiderman’s associate, Dr. Weber, witnesses the phenomenon, he refuses to admit that it’s explicit proof of paranormal activity, which angers Cooley. (Technically, other explanations are possible.)

So, neither the internality thesis of the psychoanalysts nor the externality antithesis of the parapsychologists have demonstrated conclusive proof of their theories; both, however, have presented persuasive cases, to at least a large extent. So, what shall be our conclusion?

A sublation of the internality/externality contradiction seems the best answer. The entity symbolizes an externally-produced trauma introjected into the victim. Thus, Carla’s trauma is in her head, but not born there.

The source of her trauma is both inside AND outside her.

The worst thing anyone can say to a trauma victim is, “It’s all in your head. Get over it!” No: something real and evil was imposed on the victim, though most of us can’t see the cause, which is symbolized in the movie by the invisible entity raping Carla. A study of object relations theory can reveal how we all internalize imagos of our parents; these internal objects become blueprints, as it were, for all of our subsequent relationships.

The abuse Carla suffered from her father became a blueprint for all her future failed relationships: her teen husband and father of Bill; the father of her daughters, the man who left her; and Jerry, who couldn’t tolerate living with a woman being repeatedly raped by an incubus. The entity can represent any, or all, of these men as her internalized objects.

The best way to understand the human personality is not as one isolated from the world, but as one related to other people, with whom we all project and introject positive and negative energy and influences. Thus, what we are is both internal and external energy flowing into and out of us, over and over again throughout our lives. This passing of energy in and out of us, back and forth between people, is well expressed in Bion‘s elaborations on projective identification, what he called container and contained. The container receives projections, which are the contained.

The weeping, frustrated infant projects its hostility onto its patient and loving mother, who receives its energy while soothing it. Bion called this attitude of the mother a state of reverie; in taking the baby’s negative energy and transforming it into good, the baby can then receive it back and find peace. Similarly, a therapist can be a container for a psychotic patient, receiving and tolerating his hostility and attacks, helping him to be calm.

Sneiderman and Carla.

Appropriately, the container is the feminine symbol, the yoni, and the contained is a phallic, masculine symbol. Thus, the entity’s rapes of Carla are a vivid symbol of a violently extreme version of this movement from the external to the internal. The transference and countertransference between Carla and Sneiderman also reflect container/contained, especially since his desire for her makes him yet another entity to be feared by her.

As her therapist, he should be her container, receiving and accepting all of her projections, anxieties, and frustrations. He should be patient and forbearing, so all that fear and frustration can be transformed, tamed, and returned to her, healing her. Instead, he lets his countertransference interfere with his capacity to help her effectively, thus exacerbating her problem and alienating her from him. She doesn’t need to hear classical Freudian hooey…she needs his empathy, to have her experiences validated.

Sneiderman won’t be her container, but the parapsychologists all too eagerly want to be the entity’s container…though the aggressiveness with which they go about it causes them to lose it. Carla touches on a possible solution when she’s arguing with Sneiderman about whether or not to be committed to a mental hospital: she says she’ll cooperate with the entity.

Now, obviously, cooperating with a rapist is never defensible; but if we see the rapes as symbolic of the container/contained relationship between inner and outer reality, between subject and object, self and other, we can begin to understand why, after the movie ends, the attacks on Carla become fewer and fewer. By containing the entity’s projective identifications, by tolerating them, she can tame them and return its hostile energy back to it, calming it.

So at the end of the movie, when she walks into her house and hears the entity say, “Welcome home, cunt” (note the juxtaposition of its last two words, as indicating the house as a symbolic yoni), we see a look of resigned acceptance on her face. She knows that the only way to defeat the entity is to play its game, with a dynamic interplay of container/contained, a shifting back and forth between internality and externality (symbolized by her entry into the house, then exiting it soon after).

She can have victory only through surrender–winning through losing. As with the mother and her bawling baby, Carla must be in a state of reverie, as when she orgasmed during her erotic dream, to calm the rage of the entity. Her submission to a spectral rapist, though, is what gives The Entity such a frightening ending; for what woman in her right mind would ever be willing to submit to such traumatic horror?

The Psychoanalysis of Capital

In order to overcome the hegemony of the capitalist, we must cultivate an understanding of his inner mental state. I believe that psychoanalysis can help us gain insight into the mind of not only the bourgeoisie, but also all of us who are in their thrall.

I discussed much of this already in such posts as The Self/Other Dialectic, The Narcissism of Capital, and The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse; if you read those posts, this one will be easier to follow. Here, I will reorganize and add to those three posts’ ideas by directly following the course of history of psychoanalytic developments, starting with Freud (dwelling only a little on him, though, since he was wrong much more often than he was right, and since his theories are of little help in promoting socialism, for which he had little more than criticism), and ending with Lacan (again, briefly dwelling on him, since his obscurantism and verbosity are of little help to anyone, especially the working class).

Of Freud’s ideas, the superego is probably the most useful, if not the only useful one; for in the superego, we find the cruel, unforgiving inner critic, an internalized object representing our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other authority figures who berate us and chide us for failing to measure up to the unattainable ego ideal.

The shame that we feel from our failures, be they moral, financial, or career ones, drives us to over-compensate by an appeal to shame’s dialectical opposite: pride. If that pride can’t be felt through success and having power over others, which is the goal of the capitalist, it can be felt through ego defence mechanisms (fully systematized by Freud’s daughter, Anna). If these mechanisms won’t give the capitalist pride, he can at least use them to fend off feelings of shame, often by simply shaming others.

Freud and his daughter, Anna, who both elaborated on defence mechanisms.

Feelings of moral pride can be felt by the capitalist in the form of reaction formation: he won’t admit that his preferred economic system results in unaccountable private tyranny, including prison slave labour in the US; instead, he’ll prate about how capitalism promotes ‘freedom‘ (i.e., the deregulation that frees Big Business to overwork and underpay labourers, and to accumulate more and more wealth for himself, at everyone else’s expense), contrasting this ‘freedom‘ with the spurious history of ‘tyrannical’ socialist states.

The capitalist often takes pride in his identification with authority figures. The fascist–a hyper-capitalist, really–narcissistically identifies with leaders like Hitler and his in-group, a regime propped up by Big Business; as I’ve said many times before, associating the Nazis (just because of their name, ‘National Socialist’) with the left is sheer idiocy. As we can see, Anna Freud’s notion of identification with the aggressor can be seen as one of many capitalist defence mechanisms.

The capitalist may engage in fantasy, using, for example, his religious beliefs to give him a false sense of moral pride. He may imagine that all his sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ, and that his rigid faith in a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity (as opposed to those ‘wishy-washy liberal,’ or–egad!–Marxian interpretations, like liberation theology) makes his ‘moral’ position all the more justified.

The fantasy of this Christian faith could be Catholic or conservative Protestant, whose work ethic, clearly in the service of capitalism, results in a financial success strongly implying God’s favour and reward with grace. Thus, instead of helping “one of the least of these my brethren,” he can rationalize his abandoning of the poor by saying their ‘failure’ in life comes from a slothful loss of faith, and thus proves their non-elect status.

The capitalist can further rationalize his class status by giving to charity, which, apart from giving him a sweet tax break, also gives him an illusory cleaning of his conscience. Oh, he gave a little money to the poor…what a kind philanthropist! Never mind that the scraps given to charity do little of substance to pull the starving millions in the Third World out of poverty.

The capitalist routinely engages in denial about how his pet economic system leads to terrible wealth inequality, political corruption, and imperialist war. He claims that “taxation is theft” (i.e., taxing the bourgeoisie to give financial aid to the poor), but denies that overworking and underpaying labourers (which includes paying less than the minimum wage) is actual theft. Similarly, he blames political corruption and war on the state, ignoring the bourgeoisie’s role in maintaining the state apparatus.

Part of this denial expresses itself in displacement, as we could see in the above paragraph, by shifting the blame for the world’s woes from capitalism–the rightful blaming of which would cause him unbearable cognitive dissonance–onto the state alone. He could, however, displace the blame onto other scapegoats: immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, or anyone else seen as opposing his interests, or those of Church orthodoxy.

Another part of this blame-shifting is expressed in projection, a pushing out of inner guilt onto other people, other organizations, or other political institutions. The capitalist is responsible for the millions who die every year (especially children under five) of malnutrition and starvation, when the entire world could be fed, provided we disregard the profit motive and spread the food around properly while keeping it fresh; yet the capitalist blames communism for ‘creating‘ famines in the Ukraine, China, and Cambodia, without properly researching the history behind those problems, or examining how Bolshevism largely ended Russian famines.

The capitalist projects his hunger for power onto communists by falsely equating them with fascism, an ideology not only far closer to capitalism than it could ever be to the left, but also a menace defeated far more by Stalin‘s Red Army than it was by the Western Allies, who joined in the fight only at the last minute, and sacrificed far fewer lives. Communists, on the other hand, want the power to end hunger.

The fundamentalist Christian capitalist will project his hunger for global domination onto any group (not just the communists) who deny that his world vision is exclusively the correct one. A large part of the motive for European countries to colonize the world in previous centuries was to make the whole world Christian, by force if necessary. They also wanted to dominate the global market. Therefore, losing such dominance, both religious and economic, is most upsetting to them.

Groups like the Jews, Freemasons, and the Illuminati denied the ‘exclusive truth’ of the Church, whose black-and-white worldview considers such an inclusive position to be anti-Christian, therefore Satanic. It isn’t a far leap to go from these ‘Satanic’ beliefs to a paranoid fear that these groups wish to spread this ‘Satanism’ worldwide. The secrecy of the Freemasons, coupled with the spread of secularism over the past two hundred years, makes it easy for the paranoid fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorist to project his own wish for global domination onto these ‘Devil worshippers.’ Ditto for the imagined leftist global dominance.

This projection is coupled with the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (i.e., fundamentalist Christians and ‘free market’ capitalists) and absolute evil (i.e., ‘Devil worshippers’ and socialists). With their black vs. white worldview, people with right-wing thinking can’t deal with ambiguity, or the possibility of a grey area in between.

Melanie Klein, who wrote much about splitting.

This dichotomous thinking is psychologically, unconsciously rooted, according to Melanie Klein, in the baby’s relationship with its mother, when she is perceived only as a part-object, namely, the breast. When it gives milk, it’s the “good breast“; when it doesn’t, it’s the “bad breast.” This part-object is perceived to be an extension of the baby.

Later, the baby comes to realize the breast is part of a complete human being, separate from the baby–a whole object, its mother. When she satisfies the baby’s needs and desires, she’s the “good mother”; when she frustrates the baby, she’s the “bad mother.” The same applies to its father in his good and bad aspects.

The baby’s irritation with the “bad mother” causes it to use splitting as a defence mechanism, resulting in the paranoid-schizoid position. The baby’s hostility makes it want to harm its mother in unconscious phantasy. Later, if the baby doesn’t see its mother for a lengthy time, it wonders if its hostility has either killed its mother or provoked a vengeful attitude in her. Now, it’s in the depressive position, longing for reparation with her, and soon seeing the “good” and “bad mother” merged into one person.

These two positions aren’t experienced only in infancy. They reappear again and again throughout life; we feel a swinging back and forth between the two, like a pendulum, all the way to our deaths, but instead of feeling them only for our parents, we can feel them for anybody or any organization of people we encounter in life.

The paranoid-schizoid position, or splitting as a defence mechanism, is like the confrontation of the thesis with its negation, where the ouroboros bites its tail on a circular continuum at which extreme opposites meet. The depressive position, where one learns to appreciate ambivalence, is the sublation of the dialectical contradictions, the circular middle of the serpent’s body, every intermediate point on the continuum, between the extreme opposites. This middle area is where contradictions are reconciled.

With their dualistic theology, fundamentalist Christians can’t grasp any reality other than where the serpent’s teeth are biting into its tail: God vs. Satan. Consequently, any belief system other than their own is seen as being of the Devil: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) Furthermore, any capitalism (Keynesian, social democratic, New Democrat-oriented) other than that of the “free market” variety is really just a variation, it would seem, of socialism! You’re with us, or you’re the enemy.

We Marxists, on the other hand, aren’t so black and white in our thinking as the average Christian fundamentalist or neoliberal capitalist. For, as opposed to capitalism as we are, we nonetheless acknowledge its place in our materialist conception of history. The bourgeois French Revolution, for example, was a necessary development away from feudalism, though its results were far from our communist ideal.

Similarly, Lenin’s NEP was an acknowledgement of the need for a temporary “state capitalism” to resolve the problems of the USSR in the 1920s. Yugoslavia’s Titoism was also a market socialism. China‘s and Vietnam‘s bringing back of the market, albeit in a heavily state regulated form, is yet another example of the socialist’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; and while I have my doubts about the validity of the extent to which this attempted reconciliation of the market with Marxism-Leninism has gone, we must nonetheless acknowledge that many Marxist-Leninists are capable of such ambivalence about what we’re ideologically opposed to.

Capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have the same level of ambivalence towards socialism. While such social democratic systems as the Nordic Model have adapted their market economies to accommodate the needs of workers, and have free education and healthcare, they are nonetheless forms of capitalism, they have retained the class character of society, and they plunder the Third World as rapaciously, if not so much in a military sense, as the more overtly capitalist countries. Their concessions to the poor are meant to stave off communist revolution, not to encourage it.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s drive-oriented id/ego/superego personality structure with an object-seeking one.

WRD Fairbairn made a more systematic study of splitting. He replaced Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure with one in which libido is object-directed, not drive-directed. For Fairbairn, Freud’s ego became the Central Ego, linked to an Ideal Object, since having relationships with real people is the ideal for mental health. (Here, ‘object‘ = other people.)

Inevitably, though, and in varying degrees, depending on the severity of our parents’ lack of empathy for us, we feel portions of our Central Ego/Ideal Object break off and split into a Libidinal Ego, which is linked to an Exciting Object (approximately paralleling Freud’s id), and an Anti-libidinal Ego, linked to a Rejecting Object (vaguely corresponding to Freud’s superego).

With the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, we find ourselves replacing relationships with friends and family, with mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, sex, money, etc.). The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration causes us to be nasty, alienating, and rejecting of other people. The viciousness and rudeness in today’s world seems an epidemic.

Herein we can see a link with capitalist alienation. The lack of kindness and empathy in the early family situation inhibits the development of proper human relationships, the Central Ego and its Ideal Object, which are replaced by internal ego/object relations that are divorced from reality.

Fairbairn pointed out that explicit pleasure-seeking indicates a failure of object-relationships, since for him, the libido is aimed at relationships with people, not things like money [Fairbairn: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (p. 139-140)].

I’ve written in other posts about characters in fiction and film whose social alienation results, on the individual level, in either miserliness or violence…on the social level, we find it ballooning into extreme income inequality and imperialism.

Heinz Kohut, who investigated and treated narcissism.

The lack of empathic parenting can also lead to pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation. Heinz Kohut did a systematic study of narcissistic personality disorders, as well as how to treat them with empathy in the idealizing and mirror transferences. Treatment of narcissism is important for socialists, as this pathology attracts its sufferers to positions of corrupting power.

The lack of empathic parents to look up to as idealizing role models, coupled with a lack of empathic mirroring of a child’s own narcissism, causes the child to fail to develop mature, restrained narcissism, which is supposed to be let down in bearable, gradual steps. Instead, narcissism balloons into a bloated, unhealthy state, and the afflicted individual looks for others to idealize, such as political demagogues with similar narcissistic tendencies. A narcissist identifying with another of his ilk will feel narcissistic injury and rage if his idealized leader is criticized.

I’ve been subjected to such rage whenever my readers come across passages in which I point out Trump’s narcissism, a point so obvious it hardly seems controversial. Added to the narcissistic identification with, and idealization of, Trump, is the black-and-white thinking of splitting. And the Trump supporters aren’t the only ones who have that problem: he’s God-appointed (absurdly) to his supporters; and to the liberals who oppose him, he’s the Devil incarnate (also an absurd position–his faults are of the standard bourgeois type), and Hillary is idealized instead (even more absurdly).

Again, we communists have a more nuanced, ambivalent take on Trump. Yes, he’s awful, but we can give credit where credit is due: he opposes war with Russia, which should be a no-brainer for liberals. His pulling American troops out of Syria (and maybe Afghanistan) is something we see as in itself a good thing, though I question his motives for doing so (boosting his popularity, saving government revenue by having other countries–and mercenaries–do the fighting for the US…in other words, the wars are not ending!…while having kept military spending needlessly bloated [does he mean it when he calls this spending ‘crazy‘?] instead of using that money to help the American poor).

Liberals refuse to acknowledge him doing anything right for the same narcissistic reasons that Trump conservatives refuse to admit he’s ever done anything wrong. Thus, pussy-hat-wearing liberals support equally narcissistic Hillary Clinton, whom they idealize instead. It’s all splitting, and identifying with him or with his antithesis.

So, as I’ve said, the cure to all of this alienating and splitting is to cultivate more empathy in the family situation, and in our interpersonal relationships in general. That will mean focusing on what unifies us over what divides us.

Such unifying thinking is perfectly harmonious with Marxist thought, as dialectical materialism is all about reconciling contradictions. Part of reconciling the contradiction between rich and poor will involve reconciling psychological splitting, replacing the black-and-white mentality, or us vs. them thinking, with WE thinking, replacing alienation with solidarity.

D.W. Winnicott.

I believe an understanding of object relations theory can help us in this regard, for Klein, Fairbairn, and DW Winnicott–among the other theorists in this psychoanalytic school–demonstrated how our relationships with others are based on our original relationships with our early caregivers. Whatever is going wrong in our current relationships is probably based, at least to a large extent, on our faulty relationships with our parents; for the faults in those early experiences create a kind of blueprint for what ensues.

Authoritarian parents, especially religious ones, tend to cause us to choose authoritarian leaders and forms of religion, as well as authoritarian economic systems like the boss vs. wage slave hierarchical relationship in capitalism. This latter relationship causes one to have what Erich Fromm called the “having” (as opposed to “being”) way of living.

This “having” mentality causes one to base one’s happiness on how much stuff one owns, gaining narcissistic supply (and thus, a False Self, too) from conspicuous consumption; whereas a “being” way of life focuses more on how to be happy by being one’s own True Self, with a happiness coming from enjoying object relationships (family, friends, community, etc.). Togetherness with others is how we all were meant to be, not living just to help a boss make profits.

We’ll go from capitalist materialism (via dialectical materialism) to this state of community life by, as I’ve argued elsewhere, going beyond the pairs of opposites, noting the unity between self and other, and putting all the pieces together by realizing how everything flows from one dialectical opposite to the other.

Erich Fromm.

On the ‘having mode of existence,’ in Fromm’s own words: “[The] dead, sterile aspect of gold is shown in the myth of King Midas. He was so avaricious that his wish was granted that everything he touched became gold. Eventually, he had to die precisely because one cannot live from gold. In this myth is a clear vision of the sterility of gold, and it is by no means the highest value…” (Fromm, p. 61)

And, Fromm on the ‘being mode of existence’: “There is more: this being-in-the-world, this giving-oneself-to-the-world, this self-transformation in the act of life, is only possible when man loses his greediness and stinginess and abandons his self as an isolated, fixed ego that stands opposed to the world. Only when man abandons this self, when he can empty himself (to use the language of mystics), only then can he fill himself entirely. For he must be empty of his egotistical self in order to become full of what comes to him from the world.” (Fromm, p. 65)

Furthermore: “Joy, energy, happiness, all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people, and not to experience them as abstractions that we can look at like the commodities at the market. Secondly, in this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I, who is related to the world. I become one with the world in my relatedness to the world, but I also experience myself as a self, as an individuality, as something unique, because in this process of relatedness, I am at the same time the subject of this activity, of this process, of relating myself. I am I, and I am the other person, but I am I too. I become one with the object of my concern, but in this process, I experience myself also as a subject.” (Fromm, pages 66-67)

Finally: “In this state of experience, the separation of subject from object disappears, they become unified by the bond of human active relatedness to the object.” (Fromm, p. 67)

To raise children in this healthier way needn’t require anything even approaching ‘perfect’ parenting–after all, what is ‘perfect parenting‘ anyway? All that’s needed is what Winnicott called good enough parenting, to help infants make the transition from the paranoid-schizoid position, one also where the baby makes no distinction between self and other, to the capacity for concern, as Winnicott called it, where the baby recognizes both good and bad in its parents (and, by extension, both good and bad in all people), as well as acknowledging the parents (and, by extension, all other people) as not an extension of itself (realizing ‘me’ vs. ‘not-me’).

We paradoxically recognize our togetherness, yet also our individual integrity, so that we’re united enough to feel mutual empathy, yet also distinct enough from each other to realize we don’t have the right to exploit others, out of a misguided belief that others are extensions of ourselves.

So, by fixing the psychological splits, alienation, and fragmentation in ourselves, we can begin to fix what’s broken in society. By not narcissistically identifying with an idealized, but illusory and self-alienating, mirror (as Lacan observed), and replacing these false images (including idealized self-images projected onto demagogues) with the communal symbols of language (i.e., real, meaningful communication), we can cultivate mutual love.

…and from love, we can create a revolutionary situation, toppling the narcissists and psychopaths at the top of the social and economic hierarchy, and thus create a community of equals. As Che Guevara once said, ““The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Erich Fromm, The Essential Fromm: Life Between Having and Being, Continuum, New York, 1995

Analysis of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

In the Court of the Crimson King: an Observation by King Crimson is a 1969 progressive rock album by King Crimson, the band’s debut. Its dark, lugubrious, and portentous sound, combining woodwinds and the Moody Blues symphonic sound of the Mellotron with rock, helped define the art rock genre that would soon be represented by such bands as Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett era), Jethro Tull, ELP (whose L was Greg Lake, King Crimson’s original bassist/singer), Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Pete Townshend endorsed the album, calling it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and while it initially got a mixed critical response, it was commercially successful (making an unusually good ranking, for a King Crimson album, on the charts), and it’s now considered a classic.

Here is a link to all the lyrics.

The cover, a painting by Barry Godber (1946–1970), shows a closeup of a terrified face, reminding me of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream. The inside cover, a dominant blue to contrast the dominant pink of the outer cover, shows a face with an evil grin to contrast with the outer face.

The album was released in October 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was at its height. I’ve always thought, mistakenly, that “King Crimson,” coined by lyricist/light-show man Peter Sinfield, was meant as a synonym for the Devil; apparently, a ‘crimson king‘ is historically understood to mean a ruler mired in blood, one governing during a period of great civil unrest and war. Somehow, though, the Devil metaphor doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Certainly, US imperialism was, and is now even more so, a devilish crimson king for our time.

The first song on the album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is prophetic to us now, from its title alone. “Schizoid” should be understood to mean the fragmented character of the modern personality. We’re all split, not in the schizophrenic or split personality senses, but in the sense of dividing the inner representations of our objects (e.g., other people in relation to oneself, the subject) into absolute good and bad–friends and foes, rather than the actual mixes of good and bad in each of us and them.

This dichotomous attitude, taken to an extreme, has led us to all of these horrible wars–the Vietnam War of the time of the album’s release, and all the wars we’ve had in this schizoid 21st century. The psychological fragmentation of modern man is symbolized in these lyrics–disjointed, standalone images of violence: “Cat’s foot, iron claw…Blood rack, barbed wire…Death seed, blind man’s greed.”

Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoia’s poison door.” I suspect, given the song’s focus on “paranoia” and being “schizoid,” that neurosurgeons is meant more metaphorically than literally. This seems especially plausible, since Freud shifted from neuropathology (via a study of neurosis) to psychoanalysis. Hence, for neurosurgeons, read psychiatrists, who have often forsaken their duty to their patients for the sake of profit. Also, there has been all that psychiatric complicity during the ‘War on Terror.’

“Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocents raped with napalm fire” is an obvious reference to the Vietnam War, though of course the use of napalm can equally apply to any modern war from WWII till Nam, and a number of wars fought since this album was made.

The fast middle section of the song, mostly a change from 4/4 to 6/8, is called “Mirrors.” Given how Lacan‘s mirror gives us a falsely unified sense of self, to the point of alienating oneself from the reflected image, the title of this frantic, dissonant (i.e., Ian McDonald‘s alto sax solo) section–and with its awkward time changes during the fast-picked, alternating 4/16 to 6/16 “down-up” guitar part, doubled by the sax, towards the section’s end–reflects that spastic alienation from oneself, as “I Talk to the Wind” (the following track) reflects alienation from other people (more on that later).

The last verse demonstrates the root cause, the “Death seed,” of all this madness, killing, and suffering: “blind man’s greed,” also known as capitalism. The blindness of these greedy men comes from the capitalist’s denial that his economic system is responsible for the woes of the world–typically blaming the problem on the state, while proposing a ‘free market‘ solution instead…as if we haven’t had enough deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as it is. “Poets starve” because the profit motive has no use for art unless it can make money, thus cheapening art and turning poetry into the titillating superficiality of performers like Nicki Minaj.

Imperialist war makes “children bleed”: consider what happened to Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or what’s happening to Yemeni children now, to see my point. The super-rich have so much money, they don’t know what to do with it; so on the one hand, they avoid taxes by putting their money into offshore bank accounts, and on the other, their addiction to money drives them to cause more wars for the sake of profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, et al. Hence, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.”

Because of all these horrors, the song’s chaotic, dissonant ending shouldn’t surprise anyone: ever-increasing neoliberal, capitalist imperialism will inevitably lead to barbarism. Small wonder guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp once introduced the song in a 1969 concert, dedicating it to Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a live version of the song, done by the Cross/Fripp/Wetton/Bruford lineup of 1973, which I really like. 

The very title of the second track implies social alienation. “My words are all carried away,” and not listened to. Capitalism brought the madness expressed in the first song because it also brought the alienation described in this song. While I prefer a more uptempo version sung by Judy Dyble, the sadder, slower version on the album seems more thematically appropriate.

Where has “the late man” been? He’s “been here” and “there” and “in between.” He hasn’t been with “the straight man”: he was late. He didn’t care enough about his commitment to meet the straight man to arrive on time. Alienation causes this apathy.

It also causes one to be “on the outside, looking inside,” seeing “confusion…[and] disillusion.” Those who alienate us “don’t possess,” “don’t impress,” “can’t instruct…or conduct” us…they just “upset” us and waste our time.

Epitaph,” with its “March for No Reason,” evokes such things as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is an allusion to Macbeth, and to that crimson king’s famous speech, upon learning of the death of his queen, when he speaks of the meaninglessness of life, and our day-after-day misery.

The lyrics of “Epitaph” put our present-day troubles into historical context. The words of the writers of scripture have little meaning for us today, for the wall of their etched words “is cracking at the seams.” “The instruments of death” are historic and modern ones, and the sunlight is our knowledge of such Vietnam War atrocities as the My Lai Massacre.

We’re “torn apart with nightmares and with dreams,” for the latter are rarely fulfilled, while the former all too often come true. Media “silence drowns the screams,” for we know of far too few of the atrocities of war, especially the wars of our schizoid 21st century.

We feel “confusion…as [we] crawl a cracked and broken path” paved by the lies of those who fraudulently got the US into the Vietnam War…and now the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and “I fear tomorrow” Iran, China, and Russia.

Part of what makes this album great, sadly, is that it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was released. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia, with NATO troops along the Russian border (and in the Arctic), ready to fight. The trade war with China could escalate, especially with tensions in the South China Sea. If we can prevent these problems from getting worse, “we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

Fate has “iron gates,” for it seems to have an implacable will. “The seeds of time were sown” between those gates, “and watered by the deeds of those who know”–Lake’s voice seems ironic with that last word–“and who are known.” Those in authority, the ruling classes, have dominated history and our collective fate; we know them all too well. What they know–how to manipulate us, keep us divided, and make us kill each other–“is a deadly friend” without ethical rules. Our fate “is in the hands of fools,” especially today, when MAD is being disregarded in the temptation to use nukes.

The song’s ending is one of the most emotively powerful ones, if not the most powerful, of the whole album, with Lake’s expressive voice, “Crying,” and backed by Ian McDonald’s weeping Mellotron string section tapes, as well as the kettledrum rolls by drummer Michael Giles.

[As a side note, I’d like to mention that these three songs each have their own ‘new versions’ on Side One of King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Fripp wanted to rework the first album his way, with “Pictures of a City” paralleling “Schizoid Man,” “Cadence and Cascade” paralleling “I Talk to the Wind,” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” paralleling “Epitaph.” In fact, on Side Two, towards the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” (adapted by Fripp and Ian McDonald from “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s The Planets), a little bit of the “ah…ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah” singing from “The Court of the Crimson King” can be heard in the background.]

Now, let’s come to Side Two.

Moonchild” begins with “The Dream,” which is the section with Lake’s singing. She is “dancing in the shallows of a river,” “dreaming in the shadows of a willow,” “gathering the flowers in a garden,” and “playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn.” Throughout the darkness of the gloomy night, her frolicking and “waiting for a smile from a sun child” represents our long-held hope for peace and a better world. The long instrumental improvised section, however–with its almost Bartókian night music, seemingly going on for hours in a sad minor key until McDonald’s vibraphone switches to a major key, bringing on a happy daybreak of hope–is fittingly titled “The Illusion.”

The Court of the Crimson King” includes “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets.” A witch casts spells, mesmerizing and transforming those under her spells; fire is desire, craving, attachment, greed, hate, and delusion. Since the Fire Witch is in the court of the crimson king, her spells keep the fire of our desires aflame, and distract us from his evildoing, keeping us ignorant of it. Similarly, the puppets’ dance keeps us mesmerized and distracted, so we’ll ignore the bloodshed, carnage, and oppression the crimson king is responsible for.

The other songs of the album have dealt with the wars, as well as the suffering, greed, alienation, fear, and misguided hope we all feel; this last song deals with the bread and circuses, the entertainment and titillation used by the bloodthirsty ones in power to keep us at bay.

“The rusted chains of prison moons/Are shattered by the sun.” The prison of dark night, of lunacy, no longer keeps us in chains when we see the sunlight of truth. “I walk a road, horizons change”: I explore what’s out there in the freedom of my thoughts, and my whole perspective changes because of this sunny enlightenment. “The tournament’s begun”: the powers-that-be are ready to contest my freedom by attempting to put me back to sleep, back in the “rusted chains” of my former lunacy, a mental illness that comes from being denied the truth. 

To lure me back into hypnotized compliance, the “purple piper plays his tune/The choir softly sing/Three lullabies in an ancient tongue…” The three lullabies seem to represent the Trinity of the authoritarian Church, tricking me into thinking all these wars are for the glory of Christ (e.g., as against Muslims, etc.).

A king’s court is full of servile flatterers, and the contemporary equivalent–the media as part of the superstructure of the ruling class–is no improvement. All this lulling, hypnotizing music of the piper, the choir, and the orchestra symbolizes the deceitful narrative we get in the mainstream media, a problem every bit as real back in the days of the Cold War–with Operation Mockingbird–as it is today, with similar mind games going on to make one wonder if Operation Mockingbird ever really ended.

“The keeper of the city keys,” who controls who can enter and leave, and thus controls us in general, “put shutters on the dreams,” preventing us from realizing them. The “pilgrim” wishes to go on a far-off journey to a far better, holier place than our corrupt city, and “I wait outside” his home, thinking of how I can help him escape, but my “insufficient schemes” can’t get us out of town.

The “black queen” of Thanatos, the death drive that inspires war and lulls us into joining her with her “chants” and ringing “cracked brass bells,” more mesmerizing music to fan the flames of desire and hate, “To summon back the Fire Witch.” We take pleasure in satisfying our desires and in causing death.

The ruling class seems to do good in one place–that is, it “plants an evergreen/Whilst trampling on a flower,” or doing evil elsewhere. Distracted by all this, “I chase” empty pleasure, “the wind” (which I aimlessly talk to, knowing it won’t hear, much less satisfy my yearnings). In Shakespeare’s day, a juggler was a “trickster, deceiver, fraud” (Crystal and Crystal, page 248); lifting his hand, the juggler makes the mesmerizing, “orchestra begin/As slowly turns the grinding wheel” of the empire of bloodshed.

“The Return of the Fire Witch” section has a pretty flute solo by McDonald. We’re lulled in the bower of bliss of our desires, not noticing the death and destruction elsewhere in the world.

The “mornings [, when] widows cry,” are “grey” because the Moonchild’s illusory hope for a sunny morning never came true: the widows’ husbands came home from Vietnam (and the other wars of recent memory) in bodybags. “The wise men [who] share a joke” are the academics of today who are full of witty, clever observations, but are cut off from the common people because they’re all in ivory towers. 

I read the newspaper propaganda, the “divining signs,” because I want to be reassured in my prejudices of what’s going on in the world, “to satisfy the hoax,” and not face the truth. This propaganda is part of what the “jester” does as he “gently pulls the strings/And smiles as the puppets dance”–all part of the ruling class’s control of the media, the minds of the public, and therefore the political direction of the world, pushing us further and further towards even more bloodshed, inequality, and despair.

“The Dance of the Puppets” section, like the “Fire Witch” one, has a sweet melody played by multi-instrumentalist McDonald; again, we’re tricked into thinking all is well, so we never hear the screams of the suffering.

The dissonance heard coming towards the end of the song (including Giles’s magnificently precise and fast drum licks) suggests the pain and sorrow hidden behind the pleasant melodies of the “Fire Witch” and “Puppets” sections. In fact, the song ends almost as chaotically and abruptly as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” fittingly bringing the whole album full circle, and reminding us of the horrors that are hidden, because the crimson king uses silence to drown the screams.