‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Eleven

Wait a minute…no. I cannot have attained enlightenment. That would be far too easy, especially for a dope fiend like me.

I haven’t attained nirvana…I’m just really fucking high.

No, I’ll just have to work hard to attain it like everyone else, with discipline, like that old man meditating under the tree. That man I see over there…wait a minute. He’s gone! Oh, I wanted to ask him for guidance!

Oh, well. I’ll just have to look for him, or someone like him, to teach me how to gain that peace of mind I saw on his grinning face, that impressive grin I saw while hearing the bombs and gunfire all around me. I’ll float up and fly in the air in search of him, airborne by ketamine.

I’m flying as if lying on my side, as if reclining on the ground. Am I? I’m traveling high in the air, but I feel as if I’m not at all moving.

I see all these Asian faces looking at me in wonder and awe, amazed at my superhuman flying ability. I see a mix of wonder and worry, as if they think I’m having health problems. Am I? All I know is that I need to find that wise old man, or any wise old man, to guide me to enlightenment.

I see Asian gurus in robes advising me to use extreme discipline and self-denial. They tell me that I must learn to endure extreme pain and discomfort, including fasting.

One of them says to me, “The evil is inside of you, Sid! You must expel it! Vomit it out of your body!”

So I do.

My puke smells as awful as it looks, a pink ooze pouring out of my mouth and onto the stony ground that my head is using as a pillow. I hear voices in Chinese saying, “How disgusting! This foreigner needs a doctor.”

My stomach is empty…so empty. I need food…No! I must be disciplined and resist the urge for material comforts.

I’m getting dizzy. Everything around me is spinning. Apart from that, I feel nothing, as if I have no body.

I hear someone say in Chinese, “Is he dying?”

I’m scared.

Am I dying?

Hey! Was that an explosion in the sky? I thought I saw a huge fireball.

I hear machine gun fire. Since I don’t know where my body begins and ends, and I feel an ache in my…stomach?…I wonder if the bullets have hit me.

I feel a black hole growing in my centre. Is it a bullet hole? Is it my growing hunger? It hurts.

Am I going to throw up again? That puke stink is still all around me.

Wait…now I see only black all around me.

Am I dead? Have I become a huge black void? Is that what the black hole in my centre has grown into? A black everything?

Oh, my God…help me! Wait, I don’t believe in God.

I smell…food. Some kind of…rice pudding? Milk? I still see only black.

Something soft and mushy is going in my mouth…I think. Am I eating the rice pudding? I taste milk.

Hey, that feels better. Still, I’m really wasted. That smell of vomit is still nearby. I wish someone would clean it up.

The black void around me is gone. I’m floating in the air again, still on my side, as if I were lying on the ground.

I see groups of men in army uniforms. Some speak of liberation, some of revolution, others of “restoring order.” All of them are speaking in Chinese. Many are arguing.

Still floating in the air above, I look down and see all of these soldiers from a bird’s eye view. Some are anarchists, dressed all in black and carrying Molotov cocktails. They would overthrow the government immediately and replace it with the ideal world they want, or so I hear them shouting.

Some are wearing PLA uniforms, demanding loyalty to the Beijing government, their rifles pointed at the anarchists and the soldiers of the third group, who are in camouflage, their rifles also pointing at the anarchists and PLA men. This third group is shouting about wanting to restore order to the island.

Shots are fired. Molotov cocktails are thrown, breaking some windows in the neighbourhood buildings. I see a few more fireballs bursting in the night sky, breaking up the darkness.

Several of the men, one or two from each of the three groups, are lying on the streets and sidewalks by my apartment, bleeding. Those that aren’t dead are wailing and moaning in pain from their injuries.

I agree that revolutionary change must happen, to eliminate poverty and end this war; and I agree that some kind of restoration of order must come, so our lives can at least go back to normal. I don’t, however, want to see needless infighting among the revolutionaries, and I don’t want the restoration of order to be so repressive and violent.

These agitators, therefore, are not my kind of people. I’ll float away to some other part of town, one where I can hope to find either that wise old man, or some other guru, one not so extreme in his quest for nirvana, or some other revolutionaries to help me bring down this oppressive power structure we’re all forced to live under.

Buoyed by my ketamine high, I’m flying away from my home.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Ten

Having just snorted my second line of K, I’m feeling an urge to go outside, as foolish an idea as that is. I felt no numbness from the last line; maybe I won’t feel numb from this one. We’ll find out.

I get up and stagger to the door.

My sparkling, dazzling ecstasy high is so powerful that I want to share my love with the world.

I walk out of my apartment. Did I close and lock the door? Who cares? It’s the world I must take care of, not myself!

I plod my way down the stairs, almost stumbling and falling a few times. It’s a good thing I’m holding onto the hand rail. I get to the ground floor, then begin staggering towards the front door.

I’m outside.

Not just outside my apartment building.

I’m…outside…my…body…

Am I floating?

Am I up in the air?

Am I one with my surroundings?

It sure feels that way.

I see that old man sitting under the tree with his eyes closed and his toothy grin. He looks so peaceful, with the sound of bombs and gunfire all around us.

I want to be him so badly.

A fuzzy, wave-like feeling is permeating my whole body, or this whole, vague presence where I am, be it in or outside of my body. There’s no sense of where I physically begin and end. Is there a boundary between that old man and me? There doesn’t seem to be.

I see him sideways, as if I’m lying on my side on the ground. Am I? I didn’t feel myself fall.

Everything…everything…feels fuzzy, wavy, vibrating…

I am that old man!

I am the great, wise one! Or at least, I’m going to be him.

I am Sid Arthur Gordimer, spiritual leader of the people! I will lead us all to enlightenment! Follow me, my disciples!

I am prince of the realm of Sakia, and I renounce my throne-to-be!

No, Father, I will not be the next king! You and that horrible stepmother of mine, the queen, can argue with me and yell at me all you want! I won’t continue the regal family line! I am leaving home, in search of enlightenment, and salvation for my impoverished people, those you have impoverished, Father, through your neglect!

I don’t want my inheritance, not one gold coin of it. Give it all to my wife, Jessie, and to our son, Raoul. When he comes of age, he can inherit your throne, if he wishes to have it!

As for me, I am leaving the palace! I am seeking liberation for myself and for all of our starving, oppressed people! When I attain my goal, I aim to be reclining on my side on the ground (as I am now?), in a state of perfect bliss and peace, with all of my followers standing and sitting around me, gazing on me in love.

Perhaps I’m already there, floating up to heaven, at the gates of nirvana-like perfection. It looks that way, with all these Asian faces looking at me (Indeed, I hear Chinese whispers of…is it…”Crazy foreigner”?…”On drugs”?…”needs a doctor”? I’m not sure; the voices aren’t clear.)

Nirvana isn’t to be actively sought out, anyway…is it? We already are there…we just need to wake up and recognize it, don’t we?…the Buddha-nature already within, the Atman that is already at one with Brahman. I feel no dividing line between my body and all that’s around me. I must have already attained enlightenment.

Haven’t I?

Analysis of ‘A Passion Play’

A Passion Play is a 1973 concept album by Jethro Tull, their sixth album. This album moved the band further in the direction of progressive rock, a move started with their previous album, Thick as a Brick.

Both albums have the format of continuous music spread over two sides of the original vinyl releases; but with A Passion Play, the music became much more elaborate and complex. Also, while Thick as a Brick has been largely well received critically, A Passion Play was panned by the critics, who soundly thrashed bandleader Ian Anderson for his perceived self-indulgence (i.e., the over-the-top “Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”) and pretentiousness.

Nevertheless, the album sold well, reaching No. 1 on the charts in the US and Canada. It also sold well in Germany, Norway, and the UK. Though I agree that the “Story of the Hare” is little more than outright silly, I feel it’s unfortunate that the album has such a bad rap, for musically it’s among Tull’s most accomplished, with Anderson expanding on his already considerable multi-instrumentalist abilities to include soprano and sopranino saxophones. He does some fine acoustic guitar playing here, too; and John Evan‘s keyboards and Barriemore Barlow‘s virtuosic drumming and percussion add lots of musical colour.

Here are links to the lyrics, and here is a link to the album.

When I bought my copy of the LP as a teen in the 1980s, it didn’t have the gatefold inner sleeve with the lyrics and the drama masks (let alone the six-page programme included in the original album to tell us the characters, etc.). All I had was the outer cover, with the pictures of the ballerinas. As gleaned from just the lyrics, the story is quite unclear.

Indeed, what do they mean by “a passion play”? The story of the album isn’t a dramatization of the suffering and death of Christ, so the title is obviously a metaphor…but of what? Here’s where everything is open to interpretation–so here’s mine.

A “passion play” is a metaphor for life. Instead of Christ, our protagonist, as indicated in the programme, is “Ronnie Pilgrim,” an everyman whose death at the beginning of the story, and whose progress through the judgement of his life, then through heaven and hell, and back to corporeal existence (rebirth), is an ironic cross between passion plays and a variation on John Bunyan‘s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Now, the story is full of Christian imagery, though Jesus is only briefly and occasionally referred to. On the other hand, since passion here has its original meaning of “suffering,” rather than “ardent emotion,” and play refers to life, as in “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players,” then “a passion play” as a metaphor for life means a life full of suffering, which sounds more like the Buddhist concept of dukkha. After all, the first of the Four Noble Truths is that all life is suffering. Furthermore, Pilgrim ends his progress by being reincarnated.

Whether Anderson consciously or unconsciously intended A Passion Play to have a Buddhist subtext hidden under Christian concepts is ultimately irrelevant; my point is that such a subtext can be found in the story.

Another irony is how a story about the suffering of life is mostly presented in the afterlife, causing one to wonder if this “afterlife” is literal or metaphorical. Indeed, how does one go from being accepted into heaven, then opting for hell, and finally coming back to physical life if this is all understood to be literally happening? After all, when entering hell, aren’t we all supposed to “abandon all hope” (i.e., of leaving hell)?

I’d say the Pilgrim’s “death” is really either a coma in which he, dreaming, mistakenly believes he’s dead, and from which he eventually wakes; or, the death, heaven, and hell experiences are just temporary psychological states between incarnations. Whatever the answer may be, let’s dive into the music.

Side One begins with a fade-in during which we hear Evan’s synth imitating a heartbeat. This is mixed with various other instruments, including the organ and Anderson’s sax; it has a trippy, psychedelic quality, suggesting a dream-like state, as if Ronnie Pilgrim is merely imagining the whole story.

Barlow’s drums kick in with the rest of the band, and we hear them playing a brief instrumental fittingly called “Lifebeats.” It has an almost march-like rhythm in triple time, until there’s an interruption in 9/8 (subdivided 2+2+2+3), first played only on organ, then with added acoustic guitar, whistling, and tritones on Martin Barre‘s guitar and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s bass.

This brief 9/8 passage ends with a ritardando of the synth-heartbeat, which also lowers in pitch, indicating that Pilgrim is dying. A crashing sound then indicates that he is now dead, as Anderson sings, beginning the narration of the predicament of our protagonist. “The Silver Cord,” which ties mortal flesh to the spirit, now “lies on the ground”…and so Pilgrim is dead. Evan’s soft and pretty piano accompanies Anderson’s singing.

Pilgrim sees his friends all attending his funeral, though they’ve arrived too late by taxi. “A hush in the Passion Play” means that death is the silence when life ends.

Pilgrim meditates on the good and bad moments in his life, though the “rich attainments” are “all imagined,” and “sad misdeeds in disarray” seem more prominent. Such is the essence of life as an experience of sorrow, or a “passion play” that we all must go through. To compare the suffering of life (e.g., aging) to music, we could speak of “melodies decaying in sweet dissonance.”

“The Ever-Passion Play,” or eternal life of suffering, with death conceived as an integral part of this eternal experience, suggests the cyclical suffering of samsāra. Since the Passion of Jesus ends with His harrowing of hell (as Pilgrim will do on Side Two) and resurrection, Pilgrim’s ‘resurrection’ could be seen as symbolic of reincarnation.

An instrumental section interrupts the narration, starting with a reprise of that 9/8 tune, now played slower on the organ and with Barlow’s marimba and the tritones on the guitar and bass. After this, a jazzy passage is heard in 11/8 time, featuring a sax solo by Anderson. Then there’s a return to the narration, with Evan’s dainty piano playing.

An angel descends to meet Pilgrim, and “a band of gentlemen” escort him out of Limbo. An instrumental “Re-Assuring Tune” comes next, including an acoustic guitar solo displaying Anderson’s skill on the instrument. This leads to “Memory Bank,” in which we find Pilgrim in “the viewing room,” where he’ll watch video of his entire life. They have him taped; he’s “in the play” of life, which will now be judged.

We’re coming into what is perhaps the most musically tense part of the album, and fittingly so, since this is the moment that determines whether Ronnie Pilgrim will go to heaven or to hell. Still, this issue is resolved with him going to heaven by the end of Side One. Pilgrim’s real issue isn’t whether or not he’ll be saved, but rather if he even likes it in heaven, or if he likes the afterlife in general.

In contrast, the pilgrim of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (the protagonist fittingly named “Christian,” for the purposes of Bunyan’s allegory) has to go through an ordeal of temptations and dangers of being led astray, and therefore he’s in danger of not being saved. Of course, Christian passes all the tests and makes it to the “Celestial City,” or heaven. Ronnie Pilgrim’s “progress” is about contemplating the vey nature of the afterlife, and making up his mind whether it’s worth venturing into at all…or would one rather just stay in this material world.

An instrumental passage in 11/8 leads to a reprise of that jazzy section originally with the sax solo, but this time instead of the sax, we hear the album’s major showcasing of Anderson’s trademark breathy flute soloing. Though there is, of course, lots of flute heard on this album before and after this particular passage (on which Anderson overdubs two solos), since Jethro Tull in general is more or less synonymous with the flute, by Tull standards, A Passion Play has far less of the instrument highlighted.

“Memory Bank” ends with the judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life and noting some of those ‘rich attainments’ of his (“Captain of the cricket team,/Public speaking…” and “a knighthood…”), I must wonder if he really did attain these honours, or were these attainments “all imagined,” as stated above. In any case, this section segues into “Best Friends.”

Apparently, Pilgrim never stopped chatting on the phone with his best friends. Rain coming through a tear in his old umbrella, rain like tears, seems to represent old sorrows of his; still, “the rain only gets in sometimes,” and the sun, which seems to represent his fiery passions, never left him alone, as we’ll judge soon enough.

The next section is the particularly dark, heavy, and tense “Critique Oblique,” which opens with an ostinato of six notes (G, A, B-flat, D, D-flat, and C, each with an inverted parallel fifth below these tonic notes) that starts slowly on the organ and is repeated accelerando. These six notes (and their inverted fifths) will form the basis of the riff for this whole section, backed by Barlow’s pounding drums.

The judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life seem to be judging him here for a sexual indiscretion of his, which has resulted in an illegitimate child. As a comment on this sin, we hear comically melodramatic voices singing an example of the album’s fatuous infatuation with puns: “The examining body examined her body.”

After a judgement of Pilgrim’s moral imperfections, we have one on the limitations of his intelligence. Since life is a passion play, we who live life are the actors, and Pilgrim is one “of the low IQ.” Not only was his sexual indiscretion sinful, but it was also foolish, leaving the illegitimate child’s mother “faded,” that is, her life ruined.

Still, in spite of his errant ways, the judges “won’t cross [him] out.” Pilgrim is loved like a son, or like the Son (John 3:16). Indeed, the only way Pilgrim could be saved is through Christ’s blood on the Cross, because of “how absolutely awful [he] really [is],” awful the way Lucifer is awful, as we’ll learn on Side Two, the way the state of unredeemed sin makes us awful.

In any case, Pilgrim is admitted into heaven, and the blissful state of the celestial paradise is reflected in “Forest Dance No. 1,” which leads to “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” ending Side One and beginning Side Two.

It’s curious how “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” is sandwiched in between the two ‘Forest Dances’ of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven. As we will discover on Side Two of the album, he becomes disenchanted with heaven when he finds its inhabitants all reminiscing about their lives on Earth rather than simply enjoying eternal life (indeed, at the beginning of “Forest Dance No. 1,” we hear that synth heartbeat of life again).

The story, narrated by Hammond-Hammond in an over-the-top, affected Lancashire accent, seems a mixture of Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf (i.e., the music), Peter Rabbit (i.e., the hare), Winnie-the-Pooh (i.e., the kangaroo and rabbit), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (i.e., not only the rabbit but also the extensive use of puns). As pretentious, self-indulgent, and generally annoying as this story is as an interruption of Pilgrim’s story (I used to skip this part when listening to my LP, and when I taped it, I omitted the story), in a sense it could be considered a fitting inclusion, in that, as a children’s story placed in the middle of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven, it represents how one must be a child to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:17).

The hare losing his spectacles sounds like someone who has lost his vision, lost his way. This is an odd experience to have when in heaven…unless the whole point is that heaven was an illusion from the beginning. We all fantasize about a perfect world that can never be, and in that fantasizing we grow myopic, if not outright blind.

Or perhaps the point is that in heaven, our troubles are only slight. The hare loses his spectacles, yet has a spare pair, so his problem is quickly solved. Heaven is thus perceived as a charming children’s world, with the cute hare, a kangaroo, an owl, a newt, and a bee. (Here is a link to a video dramatizing the story.)

During the course of the story, we hear a number of puns on the animals’ names: “Bee…began,” “Owl…scowling,” “Kangaroo…hopping mad…” and “…can guru,” “Newt knew too…”, and Hare did have a spare pair/A-pair.”

After this nonsense we hear the heavenly “Forest Dance No. 2.”

In “The Foot of Our Stairs,” Pilgrim expresses his astonishment, incredulity, and surprise at how disappointing he finds heaven to be. Instead of enjoying eternal bliss, the saved just remember their old lives on Earth. Apparently, our life here in the physical world, in spite of all its suffering (“a passion play”), is the only life worth having. Indeed, dukkha as the Buddhists understand includes even the mildest of unpleasant feelings, like disillusionment, or the foreknowledge that even the best of parties have to come to an end sooner or later.

Pilgrim, in fact, is so disappointed with heaven that he’s decided, as AC/DC would observe years later, that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” (though he’ll regret his decision soon enough). He tells God that his “is the right to be wrong,” and requests to be sent to the Other Place; for the reward of heaven is just “Pie in the sky.”

Could “Jack rabbit mister” be a link to the hare who lost his spectacles? In any case, “The last hymn is sung, and the Devil cries, ‘More’,” suggesting that the Devil has all the best tunes. What we note in this qualifying of heavenly bliss vs. hellish torment is that the two places aren’t as black and white as we’ve been told; that as in life, there’s a considerable grey area in both heaven and hell, and that ultimately we never really escape suffering as long as we keep existing.

After an instrumental passage with a sax solo, Pilgrim carries on in his qualifying and relativizing of heaven and hell by singing of “that forsaken paradise that calls itself ‘hell’.” Pilgrim’s decision to leave heaven for hell is made all the more ironic with his allusion to Christ’s healing of a paralytic (Mark 2:9) by singing “Pick up thy bed and rise up from your gloom smiling,” since Christ spoke of how much easier it is to forgive sins (i.e., deliver a sinner from hell and admit him into heaven) than it is to cure paralysis.

Anyway, Pilgrim has left heaven and gone to hell, where in “Overseer Overture,” we are given Satan’s perspective, him being “the overseer.” One would expect music depicting the hellish experience to be of the gloomiest, most hopeless and evil sort; oddly, what we get instead is music of a mostly merry sort, with a bouncy rhythm in triplets. There’s even a joining “round the maypole in dance.”

The only exception to this merry tune are two brief, dissonant moments with synthesizer arpeggios and groaning. These appear before the lyrics “Colours I’ve none…” and “Legends were born…” These are the only truly musically infernal moments in this part of the story. These brief moanings put among larger passages of musical merriment reinforce the sense that heaven and hell are not meant to be understood here in the classical, Christian sense of being absolute opposites. Again, I suspect that Pilgrim either hasn’t really died, but is merely mulling over the idea of the afterlife in his mind, or he’s experiencing a temporary, relative heaven and hell before being reincarnated.

So his dissatisfaction with hell is really just like his dissatisfaction with heaven and everything else–all is dukkha.

In “Flight From Lucifer,” the Devil being “an awful fellow” sounds like extreme understatement for describing Satan, once again reinforcing the relativity of hellish torments as felt in Pilgrim’s experience of the place. Though the Devil is “icy,” a reference to Dante‘s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, in which Lucifer is trapped waist-deep in ice, he is called by his original name, Lucifer (“Light-Bringer”), back when he was once held by God to be fairest of the angels before his pride became his infernal undoing.

The musical structure of the louder, more rhythmically pounding verses of this section is interesting in its trickiness. (I refer to the verses beginning with “Flee the icy Lucifer,” “Here’s the everlasting rub” [an allusion to Hamlet, perhaps?], “Twist my right arm in the dark,” “I would gladly be a dog…”, “Pick me up at half past none,”and “Station master rings his bell.”) In the first, third, and fifth of these verses, we have 4/4, 2/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/8, and three bars of 4/4. This pattern happens again in the second, fourth, and sixth of these verses, but instead of the bar in 5/4, it’s one in 6/4, with a pounding of Barlow’s tympani providing the added beat.

In Pilgrim’s regret over coming to hell, he realizes he’s “neither…good nor bad.” He wants to come back to physical existence; it’s “Time for awaking,” or coming back from the sleep of death. He politely says he’d like to stay, but his (angel’s, or devil’s?) “wings have just dropped off.”

Another pounding of the tympani, as well as some organ, fades out and segues into the next section, an instrumental passage called “To Paddington,” on which we hear overdubs of sweet acoustic guitar playing by Anderson in 5/4.

Next comes “Magus Perdé,” with a scratchy, angular electric guitar riff by Barre, including quickly strummed harmonics, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs. Anderson’s flute joins in, along with shaken tambourine from Barlow and Evan’s synth.

Pilgrim, “voyager into life,” wants to come back to the material world. He’s with “The passengers upon the ferry crossing, waiting to be born”; normally, Charon would be taking them in the opposite direction, to Hades. There is an instrumental section in 7/8, then a tricky passage with jumps, starts, and interruptions before a restating of the main guitar riff, and the final verse.

Here, reincarnation is given the metaphor of resurrection. Christ’s in particular is alluded to in “son of man” and “Roll the stone away.” Note that in the Old Testament, “son of man” (ben-‘adam), lacking the definite article, refers to humanity in general; whereas in the New Testament, Christ tends to refer to Himself as “the son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου, or ho huios tou anthropou). So this last verse, while linking reincarnation metaphorically with resurrection, is also linking man in general (and Pilgrim in particular) with Christ.

In the “Epilogue,” we hear a brief reprise of the soft piano melody from Side One and Anderson singing about “the ever-passion play.” The word ever was heard repeatedly in the verses of “Magus Perdé,” namely “ever-dying,” “ever-burning fire,” “ever-door,” “ever-life,” and “ever-day.” In all of these “evers,” we have the eternal sense of recurrent death, pain, and movement through the (as it were) doorway of changing states of life experience, as well as the eternality of existence in the light of day. In this sense, we move away from Christian symbolism to the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth…samsara.

So Pilgrim returns to physical life, and we hear that synth heartbeat again, as well as what would seem, at first, a reprise of the Forest Dance of heaven as heard at the end of Side One, just before “The Story of the Hare.” Both of these sections begin with the “passion play” reprise of the soft piano and Anderson singing “play,” ending the word in falsetto, suggesting a conceptual link between the reprises.

So, coming back into the physical world, despite its suffering, is the closest we’ll ever come to anything like heaven.

Why do people believe in an afterlife? A simple fear of death, which is of course unavoidable, but we feel a yearning for at least some kind of existence afterwards. Belief in hell satisfies our wish for justice against the evildoers of the world, but that belief also carries with it the negative trade-off of a fear that we ourselves may be included among the wrong-doers. The afterlife, as a solace against the fear of death, becomes a cause for an even greater fear of death.

The conclusion of A Passion Play is that we should focus on this material life here, with all of its pain and contradictions (as symbolized in the fadeout of Side Two, with its dissonant, startling organ chords, etc.). Instead of fantasizing about a utopian heaven for our narcissistic selves (as parodied in the absurd “Story of the Hare”) to enjoy, and an infernal concentration camp for those we hate, we should do what we can to improve our material conditions here as best we can.

Instead of admiring and imitating a resurrected Christ who has suffered a passion for us, we should be like the bodhisattvas, who swear off entering into the blissful state of nirvana to return to the physical world and help all of humanity to end suffering. Instead of emulating the passion play of life, one should end the passion of it (i.e., life’s suffering), liberating us all to enjoy the play.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Seven

In my mind’s eye, I see a grassy field and a nearby forest. I look up and see a cloudless blue sky.

I open my eyes and see, on a shelf of DVDs by my TV, a photo of my smiling cousin, David, back when he was in his mid-twenties.

I close my eyes and see that field of grass and those nearby trees again. I’m riding a horse, feeling the bumps as it walks. I look behind me and see my father’s palace. I see him and my stepmother out there in the yard.

I also see David, about his age as in the photo (meaning I’m about that age, too, since our births were within weeks of each other). He’s behind me, riding his own horse and smiling at me, again, the same way he did in that photo.

He’s taking me hunting; I’ve never done it before, so he’s teaching me how.

An odd thing about our weapons: sometimes, they’re bows and arrows; sometimes, they’re rifles.

I look back at our home. Instead of seeing a palace this time, I see a rich man’s estate. I continue with David towards the forest…this time, not on horses, but in a car.

We reach the edge of the forest and get out of the car. I look back at our home and see the palace. Instead of rifles, we have bows and arrows again. Instead of a car, I see our horses, tied to a tree.

We look up at that beautiful blue sky and see two birds flying overhead.

“Now’s our chance, Sid,” David says, pointing his rifle up at them. “Shoot! Let’s see who hits one first.”

I raise my rifle up and shoot, as does he. We see two arrows flying up at the birds; we have bows in our hands again.

His arrow misses the bird he was aiming for; my arrow goes right through the chest of my bird. It falls to the ground, a few feet in front of me. We run over to it.

“Good shooting,” David says coolly, with what I suspect is a hint of envy. “Beginner’s luck.”

I look down at the dead bird, and instead of seeing an arrow through it, I see a bloody hole where a bullet pierced it. My shaking hands are holding a rifle, not a bow.

I see the beauty of the bird and remember its pretty singing before I shot it. I frown and feel a tear running down my cheek.

“My goodness, you’re a sensitive one, aren’t you, Sid?” David asks with a sneer. “Quite an emotional guy.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” I tell him, almost sobbing, and now holding the dead bird in my hands. “Let’s go back inside. I don’t want to kill anything anymore.”

“I didn’t come out here for nothing, Sid,” he says, now pointing a bow and arrow up in the air. I see him aiming again at that bird he missed.

“No, David!” I shout, grabbing at his arms, so when he shoots, the arrow misses.

“Hey, Sid!” he shouts, scowling at me. “What’s the matter with you! If you don’t wanna hunt, go home. I don’t care. But let me target what I wanna hit, OK?” He has a rifle now.

“No,” I insist with teary eyes. “One should be a targeter of enlightenment, of bliss, of happiness, not a targeter of animals.”

David laughs at my softheartedness, aims, and shoots at the bird.

(I hear a loud shot, open my eyes, and remember the civil war outside my window. The fighting must be getting closer to my home. I close my eyes in fear, in spite of my drugs’ numbing of it.)

David has hit the bird, and we see it fall to the grass just before our feet. It has an arrow through its chest.

I pick up the bird. With two dead birds in my hands, I feel even more tears flowing from my eyes.

“What a saint you must be, Sid,” David says with another sneer.

I open my eyes and look at his photo on my shelf. Then I look down at my coffee table, with the marijuana, my glass of bourbon, the ecstasy pills, and lines of ketamine all over it.

The shooting and bombs dropping outside, which indeed seem louder and closer, continue.

“The last thing I am is a saint,” I muse in slurred words.

So Undeserving

In spite of how logically indefensible as the belief in a just world is, in spite of how high the evidence is piled against believing in such an absurdity, many people out there still believe in it.

The reasons for having such a belief range from the religious, or a notion of philosophical idealism (the mind, or soul, determines how the world is), that ‘God’ is watching over everything and therefore He in His infinite wisdom will set everything right sooner or later, to the emotional need to feel safe and comfortable in such a disordered and scary world. If I’m good, nothing bad will happen to me, and if it does, with a little patience, I’ll see the wrong turned to right.

If not, then I must have deserved the wrong.

Here is where belief in a just world is not only logically indefensible, but morally indefensible, too, for victim-blaming is about as despicable as despicable gets.

In a previous post, I wrote about how wrong it is to think it’s cowardly and weak to say that we aren’t where we want to be because of other people’s thwarting of us in some way. There may be individual instances when it’s nobody’s fault but our own, but one would be amazed to find out how often our misery is caused at least partly, if not wholly, by others.

Similarly, the individualist capitalism of our day all too often attributes the great successes of those in our billionaire class to their own individual talent, while saying little (if anything at all) about the many people who helped those fat cats get so fat. Little attention is given to the people who were stepped on as those billionaires made their ascent to success, too.

The idea that the global poor ‘deserve’ to be as they are in ‘God’s just world’ because they are ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’ is itself an intellectually lazy–and therefore stupid idea. The poor work very hard because they have no choice but to do so…otherwise, they’d starve. If they seem ‘stupid’ to you, consider the fact that they typically don’t have the money to get a proper education.

That the rich supposedly deserve to own millions or billions of dollars, while paying minimal if any taxes, because they ‘work so hard’ is also a dubious argument. There are only twenty-four hours in a day: how much ‘hard work’ can be done in a day for someone like Jeff Bezos…justifiably…to make $321 million per day?

It’s elementary Marxism (a materialist philosophy, as opposed to the idealism of the just-world fallacy) to know that capital is accumulated through the exploitation of labour, that is, the overworking and underpaying of workers–the talent and hard work of the capitalist, however present they may be, are if anything, more of a detail than a central element of his success, which is typically being born into at least some degree of affluence. Consider, on the other hand, the slavish suffering of Amazon workers, who have to piss in bottles so as not to be late with deliveries, and so Jeff could go up into space in his cock-rocket.

So undeserving, on both sides.

Did so many get plunged into poverty, often even greater poverty, over the past two years because they were ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid,’ or was it because of ill-advised lockdown policies and the exploitation of the pandemic (whose danger many of us still insist has always been exaggerated) by the capitalist class, causing the wealth of men like Bezos and Gates to go through the roof?

So undeserving, on both sides.

So many of us have lost work, going from fully employed to underemployed or completely jobless, and facing the danger of no longer being able to pay our rent or other basic necessities. Is this our fault? Not at all. The capitalist class–with its crises of overproduction and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, problems we have known about and been able to foresee happening for decades if not centuries–are the ones to blame, as they are for the exacerbation of this problem with their exploiting of Covid as described in the paragraph before my refrain:

So undeserving, on both sides.

The capitalist class thrives, while the rest of us suffer. These economic problems have been further exacerbated by the backfiring sanctions on Russia, and the refusal to allow Europe to use Nordstream 1 and 2, just to kowtow to the US imperialists in their anti-Russian agenda, means Europeans will have to endure a winter without gas, or to buy the much more expensive American gas. This, even though Putin is willing to boost gas supplies to Europe after repairs (following sabotage that, in all likelihood, was caused by the US).

[These macrocosmic, global injustices have their parallel on the microcosmic level, in families and other social groups tainted with narcissistic abuse. The narc enlists flying monkeys and other enablers to assist in bullying and scapegoating the chosen victim, typically a highly-sensitive person who sees through the falsely altruistic veneer of the narc, calls him or her out for it, then suffers the consequences, being publicly shamed for merely telling the truth. Meanwhile, the narc continues to be admired and is never suspected.]

So undeserving, on both sides.

Now, we can see, as I observed in my post, The Toxic Family of Imperialism, how the global media celebrates political villains while scapegoating political victims, as is happening with the dangerously escalating war between Russia and Ukraine, one that–contrary to popular belief–was anything but “unprovoked.” Many of us have been trying to tell the uninformed and propagandized that Russia’s intervention had been thoroughly provoked for a period of eight years since a 2014 US-backed coup d’état replaced the democratically elected, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military that includes Russian-hating Neo-Nazis. They make up small percentages, but they’re politically very influential.

These Ukrainian fascists have been discriminating against, physically attacking, and killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for eight years. Putin has tried to establish peace negotiations, first with the thwarted Minsk Accords, then in April of this year (thwarted by an intervention by BoJo), and recently with the Zelenskyy and American governments, both of which have refused to talk to Putin. Meanwhile, everyone demonizes Putin for merely trying to protect his country.

Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian Nazis are celebrated and regarded as heroes, and the US and NATO are perceived as ‘defending freedom and democracy,’ while they use this ridiculous slur on their scapegoat: “Putler.”

So undeserving, on both sides.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t regard Putin as any kind of political ideal. He’s a bourgeois, reactionary politician who assuredly has his own secret, ulterior motives for wanting Russian control over the newly-annexed, formerly Ukrainian territories. But I see no reason not to regard the referenda results, of the people living there who mostly voted to join Russia, as legitimate. (I don’t trust the Western media bias against the Russian referenda; the West refused to legitimize them before they even got the results, as they were biased against the Crimea referendum.)

A great many of the people living there are ethnic Russians, and most eastern Ukrainians speak Russian (a language the Ukrainian Nazis wanted to prevent them from speaking): why would they want to stay in a country unprotected against Russophobic fascists? In any case, whatever faults are to be found in Putin are minuscule compared to those of the US/NATO warmongers (who have military bases all over the world, and are stealing oil and wheat from Syria, of which they’re controlling a third), who are pushing us all to the brink of WWIII and nuclear annihilation…all because the American ruling class refuses to accept the emerging multipolar world.

None of us is deserving of being killed in a nuclear holocaust.

Now, some of you who have read my posts on what I call The Three Unities, those being the Unity of Space, of Time, and of Action, may be thinking that, as they read this little rant of mine, I’m being hypocritical and self-contradicting. My discussion of The Three Unities, as well as my post, Beyond the Pairs of Opposites, in no way necessitates a belief in a just world. I’m not saying that the ups and downs of life are somehow equalized, and therefore ‘just.’ On the contrary, I stressed that the evils of the world “are all unqualified evil.” Good can flow from those evils as a dialectical response to them (and through human effort), though it far too often doesn’t.

Our negative belief systems (e.g., the illusion of a separate ego, black-and-white thinking, capitalist apologetics, bigotry, etc.) cause our problems to a far greater extent than the external difficulties of life. My Three Unities are an attempt to remedy those bad beliefs, not to deny the existence of evil.

Indeed, the belief in a just world is one of those very negative beliefs. The paradox of such a belief is that it leads to less empathy, or to no empathy at all, for those who suffer (i.e., victim blaming). Granted, to be fair, such a belief doesn’t absolutely lead to no empathy or to victim-blaming, but it does tend toward such an attitude.

On the other side of the coin, acknowledgment of the many injustices of the world tends to prod people towards trying to right those wrongs…again, I mean this as a tendency, allowing for many exceptions.

So, what should we think about the idea of a ‘just world’? It shouldn’t be conceived as already existing; it should rather be something to strive for, with all our hearts.

Don’t see a just world…make a just world!

Analysis of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’

I: Introduction

Charles Ives‘s Two Contemplations (1908) are his Central Park in the Dark (1906) and The Unanswered Question (1908), though Central Park in the Dark has also been grouped with his Hallowe’en and The Pond in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question embody many of the avant-garde musical ideas that Ives famously toyed with, independently of the European experimentation that took place often in the years following the completion of these two compositions.

In fact, Ives’s own innovations had precedent in the curious musical experimentation of his father, George Ives, who was fascinated with the clash of harmony heard in, for example, the polytonal effect of two marching bands playing completely different pieces while passing each other on the street. Young Charles picked up on his father’s then-highly-unusual open-mindedness about the different possibilities of musical expression, and he incorporated these ideas in his own compositions.

Indeed, independently of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, Ives made use of polytonality and polyrhythms. Before Bartók, Ives composed agonizing dissonances. Before Henry Cowell, Ives used tone clusters. Without any cognizance of such pieces as, say, Schoenberg‘s 1906-7 Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ives used quartal and quintal harmony (in Central Park in the Dark, as we’ll see). Independently of Alois Hába, Ives composed music with quarter tones. And before Stockhausen, Ives experimented with spatial effects.

The first of these two pieces I’ll be looking at was originally called A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”. In contrast, the second of these was originally called A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question. Ives wrote detailed notes explaining the programmatic meaning of these pieces. As to whether either of these pieces deal with matters that are or aren’t serious, I’ll give my opinion on that later.

Both pieces are scored for chamber orchestra, allowing for at least some degree of variation in the instrumentation: for example, the two pianos in Central Park in the Dark can be a player piano and a grand piano; while in The Unanswered Question, the woodwind quartet can be all flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet. Both pieces have string sections, each playing a repeated progression representing “silence,” a kind of static music that hovers in the background, while the other instruments (in The Unanswered Question, the four woodwinds and a solo trumpet; in Central Park in the Dark, piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat (B-flat) clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and the two pianos) play independently of the strings, and to a great extent at least, independently of each other, culminating in a huge chaos of dissonance.

So, though the two pieces are understood to be programmatically opposed to each other, there is actually much that is paralleled between them, suggesting (in my opinion, at least) that the opposition of “Serious” and “Nothing Serious” is a dialectical opposition.

Here is a link (with the score) to Central Park in the Dark, here is a link (also with the score) to The Unanswered Question, and here is a link to Samuel Andreyev‘s analysis of The Unanswered Question.

II: Central Park in the Dark

Ives’s programmatic notes for the piece are as follows:

“This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

and

“The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.”

As much as Ives’s notes insist that the story, if you will, of this piece is of something trifling and even pleasantly amusing, I can’t help hearing in that string arrangement, “the night sounds and silent darkness,” an eerie, foreboding quality, as if dangers are lurking in the dark. Indeed, that string arrangement is a brilliantly experimental progression using dissonant, non-triadic harmony.

The string progression is, for the most part, in parallel motion, with a number of notable exceptions, some of which I’ll point out. Both the cellos and contrabasses are playing a sustained A-flat for two bars before going up to a B-flat, then the cellos tend to follow the intervallic structures of the upper strings, often moving in parallel motion with them, while the contrabasses stick to B-flat for three bars, then go down to F-sharp for three bars, then to E-flat for the final two bars of the cycle before going back to A-flat.

The first and second violins and the violas play, for the first two bars, stacks of pairs of augmented triads, starting at the bottom with a stack of D and F-sharp and B-flat, and on top of it, E, G-sharp, and C. All of these notes together, along with the A-flats in the cellos and contrabasses (enharmonic with the G-sharp), make up the whole-tone scale.

These violins and violas move up and down by minor thirds in parallel motion over the course of these first two bars, thus returning to the notes I mentioned in the previous paragraph before switching from augmented triads to stacks of perfect fourths, going from the third measure to the end of the fifth measure.

The cellos join the violins and violas in making these stacks of perfect fourths, going mostly in parallel motion until the sixth measure, when the intervals change to eerily dissonant stacks of tritones, starting with a stack of G-flat and C-natural (cellos), G and C-sharp (violas), and G-sharp and D-natural (second violins), with the first violins playing a high A. Each pair of tritones is also a minor ninth apart from the one above or below it, creating especially sharp discords.

These tritones of second violins, violas, and cellos move mostly in parallel motion, culminating in a chromatic ascension topped with the first violins of F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and A-natural that resolves to stacks of perfect fifths in the ninth bar, starting with a stack of E-flat (contrabasses), B-flat (cellos), F (violas), C-natural and G-natural (second violins), and D-natural and that A in the first violins that was tied over from the previous bar.

The perfect fifth stacks continue for the ninth and tenth bars, in mostly parallel motion without the contrabasses, which sustain the E-flat. The very last high note of the first violin pairing, a D-flat, isn’t a perfect fifth from the note under it, a B, because this D-flat must flow comfortably by a half-step to the C of the first high note of the first violins, to return us to the beginning of the cycle, with the augmented triad stacks.

So what we get in this progression in the strings is generally an expansion of intervals from augmented triads (i.e., major thirds), to perfect fourths, to tritones, and to perfect fifths, then back to the augmented triads to begin the cycle all over again. These strings–which, recall, “represent the night sounds and silent darkness,” notated ppp–in their cyclical expansion of intervals and mostly parallel motion, represent a sense of sameness underneath all the surface changes about to be heard in the woodwinds, pianos, brass, and percussion.

Just as with the stasis of the strings in The Unanswered Question, these strings would seem to represent a spiritual mystery incomprehensible to the senses, or to the noisy, dissonant winds and other instruments that fight for dominance at repeated points in the rest of the piece.

The first of these other instruments is a B-flat clarinet playing a piano melody that seems to be in G-flat major, though if that’s true, we never hear the tonic, and an A-natural, heard when the clarinet decrescendos to pianissimo, would be outside of the G-flat major scale. Therefore, if this clarinet tune is understood to be tonal, its tonality is unclear.

The same uncertainty of tonality is heard in the tune that the next woodwind, a flute, plays–coming after a second tune on the clarinet that is almost the same as the first tune, though it ends differently. As the second clarinet tune ends, the flute begins with quarter notes in C, then B, A, and B again in a quintuplet. The flute tune would seem to be in C major, but again, accidentals make its tonality unsure. The same is true of the next woodwind melody, one played pianissimo on the oboe.

What is sure about all three woodwinds, as well as the lyrical solo violin and bouncy piano parts to appear after a statement of the string progression alone (from the last bar of the perfect fourth stacks onward), is that these added parts are, for the most part, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent of the strings. As we know, Ives liked having clashing, independent instrumental parts heard simultaneously.

In traditional music, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reconciliation of all the different instrumental parts is meant to give coherence and unity to a composition, a sense that all of the parts are conforming to and ‘obeying,’ as it were, the rules to give a piece a single direction to be followed, a collective of tones moving to the beat and tonality of, so to speak, one master. The music of Ives, however, defies this insistence on musical conformity and uniformity, preferring to allow each part to go its own way.

In this ‘going one’s own way,’ we can perceive a kind of individualist philosophy underlying the musical experimentation of Ives. If we understand the woodwinds, brass, pianos, and percussion of Central Park in the Dark (as well as the trumpet and woodwind quartet of The Unanswered Question) to be representative of people, then their clashing independence can be heard to be telling us that we should welcome differences of opinion and habit, rather than frown on them.

Vive la différence! Ives seems to be saying.

On the other hand, the soft string parts of both pieces seem to represent that mystical, subatomic unity underneath all the differences that our senses perceive. To use Hindu concepts as metaphors for my purpose, the string progressions are Brahman, while the clashing, independent woodwind, brass, piano, and percussion parts represent the sensory illusion of Māyā.

To attain spiritual peace, Ives seems to be saying through his music, we must stop trying to force everything around us to follow any one, dominant way of doing things. We must just let things be as they are and tolerate them, like the man sitting in Central Park that summer night, listening to all those clashing, conflicting sounds, accepting the fact that contradiction is a universal reality.

[Now, speaking of contradiction, in case any of the readers of my political posts thinks I’m contradicting myself here, realize that the dominant way of doing things that we today are being forced to follow is that of capitalism/imperialism, which when completely wiped off the face of the Earth will result in the withering away of the state, because the class differences that necessitate the existence of a state (to protect the dominant class’s interests) will be eliminated. The slavish obeying of bosses, worker alienation, and addiction to wealth, social status, and material things are far more destructive to individual freedom than socialism could ever be.]

As with The Unanswered Question, in Central Park in the Dark the independent parts pop up and disappear on and off throughout the work. In both works, the instrumental groups are also to be separated spatially (in the case of The Unanswered Question, the strings are to be “off stage,” if possible, away from the trumpet and woodwinds). These spatial separations reinforce the idea that the music each group plays is to be understood as coming from different worlds (i.e., Brahman vs. illusory Māyā, nirvana vs. samsāra).

Approaching the climax of Central Park in the Dark, we hear ragtime piano tunes, flute, and oboe. We also hear the B-flat clarinet quoting Hello! Ma Baby, which will be heard again on the trumpet (One may recall that old Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing and dancing frog). Apparently, the Washington Post March is also played by the marching band group, though I can’t locate it, buried in the chaos and cacophony of everyone playing together. The climax ends with a huge, dissonant swell in the brass and woodwinds, all playing trills in fff.

We return to hearing just the soft string progression. The clarinet comes in softly soon after (piano), then the flute, both of them playing pianissimo together, then we hear the lyrical solo violin part. The winds and solo violin stop, allowing the string progression to play alone again, from the chromatic ascension at the end of the tritone-stack section to that of the perfect fifths stacks.

The piece ends with just the beginning augmented triad stack of (top to bottom) C, G-sharp, E, and B-flat, F-sharp, D. These whole notes decrescendo from pppp to silence.

III: The Unanswered Question

Now, Central Park in the Dark is supposed to be “a contemplation of nothing serious”; whereas The Unanswered Question is supposed to be “a contemplation of a serious matter.” Recall above, though, how I treated that ‘non-serious’ contemplation as actually being the one that is truly edifying in a spiritual, philosophical sense: we should welcome differences of opinion, and note that these contradictory elements are just the illusion of Māyā, deceptions of the senses that cloak the mystical, unifying reality that the strings represent.

I would argue, on the other hand, that the futility of answering “the perennial question of existence” proves how absurd the very pondering of that question is, let alone trying to answer it. Therefore, such a futile pondering is a truly trivial matter. If the question can’t be answered, why waste one’s time asking it? Put away such distractions, and as Camus would later teach us, accept the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Like Sisyphus, be happy while rolling the stone uphill, as pointless and fruitless as the labour is. Be like the fellow in Central Park at night, hearing the conflicting musical parts: don’t try to make sense of the senseless, and just sit there, receive it all, and be.

Such an understanding is the dialectical unity of the serious vs. non-serious in these two Ives works. Instead of seeing them as opposites of each other, we should see them as paradoxical parallels of each other. Hence, both have ‘silent’ strings looming in the background (or offstage), with conflicting, independent parts clashing with each other and with the strings, these independent parts appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout both pieces.

The musical parallels thus reflect the philosophical parallels I described above.

The strings, which open The Unanswered Question playing a G-major chord, ppp and con sordino, represent “the silence of the Druids–who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” according to the text Ives wrote to explain the meaning of the work. The Druids never recorded their knowledge in written form; we know of it only through the writings of others. I can’t say for sure what Ives meant by the Druids ‘knowing, seeing, and hearing nothing,’ but perhaps the point is that even the Druids, for all their wisdom, had the humility to admit to themselves that in that wisdom, “all is vanity,” hence their refusal to write it down.

So the ever-so-softly played, muted strings represent the ‘silent’ Druids’ reticence, their wise reluctance to describe the ineffable reality of life, a reality too fluid to be captured in the ossification of words, words that would distort our perception of that reality too much to be effective. Each string part is also spaced widely apart from the others, giving them all a hovering, ethereal effect. As Ives further describes the strings, they are “like the eternal music of the spheres“; or as I described them (and those of Central Park in the Dark) above, they represent Brahman, nirvana.

The string progression, to simplify, goes from a G-major chord to a B-minor chord, then to a C-major chord (at first, with a suspension second [D] before the second violins do a retardation to the third [E]). Then we have an A-minor chord, which ultimately resolves back to G-major. This, essentially, is the string progression for the whole piece (with some variations later): I, III, VI (a six-four chord), IV, I (with an added 6th), II, I. Note the conspicuous lack of a dominant (V) chord–e.g., no D-dominant seventh chord. The lack of a V chord reinforces the progression’s sense of stasis, which is fitting, since the strings represent that sense of the eternal–unchanging, unaffected by impermanence of the material world.

Still, there are fools among us who aspire to wisdom, to intellectual preeminence, and must ask the question: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is God’s plan for us?” This question is represented by the trumpet (or English horn, or oboe, or clarinet, according to the score). The tune it plays is without a discernible tonal centre: B-flat, C-sharp, E-natural, E-flat, and C-natural (this last note alternating with B-natural in each reiteration of the tune). Actually, they’re (pretty much) all notes from the octatonic scale.

This lack of a tonal centre is fitting, given the absurdity of trying to receive an understanding of the infinite complexity of life through a straightforward answer, given presumably in the form of a brief sentence. The question itself is pointless, since it can’t be answered.

There are folks out there who aspire to such a stratospheric level of wisdom. Yet as it says in the Tao Te Ching, 56, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” And as Touchstone observed in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (V, i)

Speaking of such talkative fools, the woodwinds (as I said above, either four flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet) attempt an answer to the perennial question. We shouldn’t be surprised to hear how dissonant and atonal their answer is, for after all, which two people will have the same, or even harmonious, answers to such an absurd question? They can only fight with each other for dominance, as religions have done throughout history.

The first of these woodwind answers, marked adagio and piano, is a tentative, cautious, timid attempt, yet ultimately failing. We have mostly tied, held notes, rather than a flurry of them. With each successive attempt, though, the notes are played a bit faster, a bit louder, and with slightly shorter rhythmic values.

Indeed, as the piece carries on, these woodwind answers get more and more frustrated and desperate to get it right, though of course always getting it wrong. By the time of the final attempt at an answer, the woodwinds are frantic, marked molto agitato, con fuoco–a flurry of frenetic notes that botch the answer so badly, they end in a piercing tone cluster.

In the end, the woodwinds give up. The trumpet asks the question one last time, without getting another attempt at an answer. The piece concludes with just the strings holding the G-major chord in whole notes tied over several bars, in a decrescendo to ppp, then to pppp.

IV: Conclusion

So, as we can see, which contemplation is “a serious matter,” and which is “nothing serious,” is at the least a matter of opinion, and at the most the dialectical reverse of each other. Is sitting in a park listening to conflicting tunes “nothing serious,” and is wanting an answer to the meaning of life “a serious matter,” or is it the other way around?

You know my answer; and just for the sake of clarity, my articles on The Three Unities aren’t an attempt to answer “the perennial question,” or to provide life with meaning. Rather, they’re an attempt to provide a sense of organization to the cosmos. Nonetheless, these attempts of mine, too, are more than likely horribly wrong–just more flatulent flutes being dissonant windbags, blowing out fetid, intellectual nonsense.

In sum: don’t take life too seriously. We aren’t getting out of it alive, anyway.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lakes

The water of a lake should be our focus.
Its fluid, moving waves, no firmness,
do not detract from its reality.
Pay no attention to the land:
there’s nothing there.

The universe is watery, all wavy–it’s vibration.
The stoniness of earth is just illusion.
The rocky land just hardens hearts.
The hard earth makes life hard,
but lakes are refreshing.

All life is flowing, fluid change, lakes’ blue beauty.
Sticking with the hard ground causes suffering.
We must learn to drift with the current.
Take note of only peaceful waters.
Be blind to the dirty land.

Jump in the water, take a swim, enjoy the cool.
Don’t let want’s summer heat dehydrate you.
Lakes’ ever-moving waters do enlighten.
Rocky ground makes rocks of brains.
Get yourself all wet instead.

Analysis of ‘Spartacus’

Spartacus is a 1960 epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick (replacing original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting; therefore this is the only film over which Kubrick didn’t have complete artistic control) and written by Dalton Trumbo (who also wrote the novel, and the screenplay for, Johnny Got His Gun), based on Howard Fast‘s 1951 historical novel of the same name. The story is inspired by that of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient, republican Rome, resulting in the Third Servile War.

The film stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, with Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, and John Gavin. Both Fast and Trumbo, being avowed leftists, were blacklisted, the former having to self-publish his book, and the latter being one of the Hollywood Ten.

Spartacus won four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Ustinov, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It had been the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history until Airport surpassed it in 1970.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to a PDF of Fast’s novel.

Spartacus is a hero to communists and leftists in general, for how his slave uprising against the Roman ruling class has inspired the socialists of today to foment revolution against the capitalist class of the modern world. Karl Marx praised him, his namesake was given to the German Spartacus League of 1915-1918, and the failed German communist revolution of January 1919 was called the Spartacist uprising.

Other examples of art and popular culture inspired by Spartacus include a 2004 miniseries starring Goran Višnjić in the title role, and a ballet of the same name, composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1954 and first staged in 1956; some of the music of this ballet was used in the soundtrack to the Penthouse production of Caligula in 1979.

To get back to Fast’s novel and the 1960 film, we immediately notice how differently both treat the subject matter of the story. The characters of Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier), Lentulus Batiatus (Ustinov), Varinia (Simmons), and Gracchus (Laughton) are all shared in both the book and the film, and apart from the basic history of the slaves’ failed uprising against Rome, the telling of the story differs wildly between book and movie.

The novel tells the story of Spartacus in a piecemeal fashion, given from the points of view of the various characters after Spartacus’ death, while the film tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way. The gladiatorial fight between Spartacus and Draba (played by Woody Strode) is generally similar, and the scenes of Crassus and Varinia, him frustrated in his efforts to win her love, and of Gracchus’ plan to steal her and her baby from Crassus and to give them their freedom, are essentially the same, though they differ greatly in the details.

A crucial difference between novel and movie is in the presentation of Spartacus’ death: in the book, he dies in battle (as affirmed by Plutarch, Appian, and Florus, though Appian also reports that Spartacus’ body was not found), whereas in the film, Spartacus is crucified.

Indeed, the sight of Spartacus chained to a rock to starve at the beginning of the film, his punishment for having bitten the leg of a Roman soldier, hamstringing him, is a parallel of his crucifixion at the end of the film. This parallel gives the story a sense that it has come full circle: his suffering is at its greatest at the beginning, with him as a slave lugging heavy rocks on his back from the mines in Libya; just as his suffering is at its greatest also at the end, with him hanging in excruciating pain.

In the novel, in chapter three of Part Two, is a vivid description of hell on Earth, a hell for slaves mining for gold in the unbearably hot desert of Nubia. To make matters worse, children are needed when the veins narrow “deep inside the black rock escarpment.” (One is reminded of Congolese children today, mining for the cobalt we use in our cellphones.) Spartacus is among “one hundred and twenty-two Thracians chained neck to neck, carrying their burning hot chains across the desert…” (PDF, page 55)

The film’s beginning is the equivalent to this chapter, the opening scene only briefly depicting the suffering of Spartacus and his fellow slaves in Libya, rather than Nubia. The chapter captures, with great intensity, the misery and despair of the slaves as they work, virtually without rest, from early in the dawn ’til the dusk. “Their skins are patchworks of black dust and brown dirt…” (PDF, page 57). Many slaves die from these back-breaking work conditions.

There’s a brief moment in the early morning, before the sun is fully risen to beat its oppressive heat on the slaves as they go to work. “In this single hour of the day, the desert is a friend.” (PDF, page 61). But only for that cool hour.

In the film, Batiatus arrives, discovers Spartacus, and saves him from his chaining to the rock to have him trained as a gladiator. Batiatus is a lanista, the owner of a school for gladiators. Spartacus is about to be pampered, a whole new experience for him that includes baths and massages, and a girl for a mate (in the novel, he’s mated to Varinia, rather than merely teased with her and denied her, as in the film; PDF, pages 78-81, 83).

Still, there is no happiness in being trained to kill or be killed for the entertainment of the ruling class. The fighting of gladiators to the death is perfectly symbolic of how the ruling class has always divided the people from each other, making them fight each other instead of fighting their oppressors. Their sense of alienation is well displayed in the scene when Spartacus asks Draba his name, the latter telling the former it isn’t wise to know the names of, or to become friends with, those they will have to kill, or be killed by, in the arena.

Though Draba has said this, he still doesn’t want to kill a fellow gladiator for the sport of rich Romans (who in the film are Crassus, Marcus Glabrus [played by John Dall, who incidentally also played chief psychopathic killer Brandon Shaw, in Hitchcock’s Rope], Helena Glabrus [played by Nina Foch], and Claudia Marius [played by Joanna Barnes]; but who in the novel are two men named Caius Crassus and Marius Bracus). So at the end of his fight with Spartacus, having won, Draba refuses to kill him, to the annoyance of their Roman audience, and instead he hurls his trident at them, only to be speared in the back himself. Nonetheless, Draba’s solidarity with Spartacus has inspired the surviving gladiator.

Added to this sense of solidarity, as a cure for alienation, is Spartacus and Varinia falling in love. She gets naked for him when he first meets her. He doesn’t think of her as a mere sex object, though: “Spartacus saw her and loved her, not for her nakedness, but because without clothes she was not naked at all and did not cringe or attempt to cover herself with her arms, but stood simply and proudly, showing no pain nor hurt, not looking at him or at Batiatus, but contained within herself, contained with her eyesight and her soul and her dreams, and containing all those things because she had decided to surrender life which was worth nothing any more. His heart went out to her.” (PDF, page 80)

In the film, Batiatus and Marcellus, the gladiators’ trainer (played by Charles McGraw) lecherously watch the couple, hoping to enjoy seeing them have sex; but Spartacus, furious at their lack of respect for his and her privacy, shouts at the men that he is not an animal. She, still naked, says she isn’t an animal, either. He naturally agrees with her, unlike the two voyeurs.

The love he feels for her, especially when he learns she has been sold to Crassus and therefore he’ll never see her again, is the final straw that drives him, followed by the other gladiators/slaves, to bring about a spontaneous rebellion. (The sight of Draba’s hanging body is also a major provocation for them.)

In the novel, this rebellion isn’t quite so spontaneous. There is discussion among Spartacus, Crixus the Gaul (played by John Ireland in the film), and Gannicus (played by Paul Lambert in the film) about whether they, as gladiators, should consider themselves friends (PDF, page 111). Thus the seeds of solidarity among slaves have been sown. They know that the Thracians call Spartacus “father” for all the love he’s shown his fellow slaves. He hints at a plotting of a rebellion when he says he’ll fight no more gladiators, and that he, Gannicus, and Crixus “will know what to do when the time comes to do it” (PDF, page 115).

In the film, Spartacus just spontaneously kills Marcellus by dunking his head in a pot of soup and drowning him in it. After having had to endure his trainer’s taunts for so long, he surely relishes killing the man. As we know in the modern world, though, revolutions cannot be so spontaneous: meticulous planning, theory, and organization are indispensable, as is the ability to intuit a revolutionary situation.

To get back to the story, though, more and more slaves join the gladiators’ rebellion, and Spartacus’ plan is for them all to go south to Brundusium and pay to have pirates’ ships take them out of Italy and to their home countries. Along the way, he is reunited with Varinia.

The Roman Senate is growing alarmed at the escalation of events, and Glabrus is to lead his cohorts to fight and subdue the slaves. Meanwhile, Crassus has found himself a handsome boy slave named Antoninus (Curtis), who is gifted at singing and reciting poetry.

In a scene originally censored by the prudish Production Code, Crassus is given a bath by Antoninus. The former asks the latter (with the voice of Anthony Hopkins in the restored version) of his sexual preferences, using indirect, symbolic language. Crassus asks the youth if he eats oysters, symbolic of female genitals; then he asks if Antoninus eats snails, symbolic of male genitals. Crassus considers these preferences a matter of taste rather than of morality; he then confesses his own eating of both oysters and snails, indicating his bisexuality.

The point to be made here is that Crassus is obviously trying to seduce the boy; how many slaves, male and female, were forced to perform sexual favours for their masters? In the scene previous to this one, Gracchus and Batiatus have a discussion alluding to the enjoyment of female slaves, in Gracchus’ case, to the point of him not even wanting to get married.

After Crassus’ bath with Antoninus, the former walks out, followed by the latter, to an adjoining room looking out across the river to the city of Rome. There, Crassus tells Antoninus of the greatness of Rome, and of how how one’s attitude towards her should be.

Crassus, in describing Rome’s greatness, is given a line that is an allusion to Julius Caesar, in which Cassius, complaining to Brutus about Caesar, says, “…he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus…” (I, ii, lines 135-136). In Spartacus, however, Crassus says this to Antoninus of Rome: “There is the power that bestrides the known world like a Colossus.”

What’s interesting in these two variations on the quote is that the first refers to Caesar, while the second refers to Rome, personified as a beloved woman, a man’s mistress. Young Julius Caesar, recall, is in Spartacus, played by John Gavin (who incidentally, in the same year, played Marion Crane‘s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in Psycho). Later in the film, Crassus tells Caesar of his fear of him, an allusion to how Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey would form the First Triumvirate, and Crassus and Pompey would lose to Caesar’s rising power.

Indeed, the fear of republican Rome becoming a dictatorship, something Gracchus will fear of Crassus’ rising power towards the end of Spartacus, is a fear Brutus and Cassius would have of Caesar, which they would use to justify assassinating him. Crassus’ name fortuitously sounds like a pun on Cassius, hence what’s so intriguing about the allusion to Shakespeare’s play as put on Crassus’ lips. He fears Caesar’s rise as Cassius would decades later.

That Crassus’ absolute rule over Rome would come in association with the defeat of Spartacus’ army is also worthy of comment. In the modern world, many right-wing, authoritarian dictatorships came into being after the crushing of proletarian attempts at gaining power: fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, etc. The ruling class makes a masquerade of democracy when times are good; but if threatened, that same ruling class ends the masquerade and rules with an iron fist, as Crassus does.

In his speech on Rome to Antoninus, Crassus speaks as if everyone, including such members of the ruling class as himself, must make himself a slave to his beautiful mistress and goddess, Roma. In implying that he, too, is a slave in this larger sense, Crassus is rationalizing the whole slave system to the youth. He’s also implying that, in serving Rome, Antoninus must serve Crassus all the more faithfully and devotedly.

It is at this point that the boy sneaks away without Crassus knowing. Antoninus, of course, will join Spartacus’ army, eager to learn how to fight. The youth will endure the indignities of slavery no more: Crassus’ designs to enjoy Antoninus for his sexual sport, combined with this mad notion of enslaving oneself to a lofty abstract ideal such as Rome, are too much for him.

In today’s world, the global proletariat has its own political ideals to which it is expected to enslave itself: the “rules based international order,” the “free market,” or simply neoliberalism, are all ideals that we wage slaves are expected to grovel before, never questioning the source of our oppression.

On their way to Brundusium, the slaves enlist the help of a Cilician pirate envoy named Tigranes Levantus (played by Herbert Lom). Gracchus bribes the pirates to get them to take the slaves out of Italy, so that, fearing Crassus’ rise to power, he needn’t fear the slave crisis being exploited by Crassus to justify his making a dictatorship of Rome.

Still, Crassus bribes the pirates better, and they end up betraying Spartacus et al. When Tigranes returns to tell Spartacus the evil tidings, then offers him and the other slave leaders a chance to escape and live like kings in other countries, Spartacus tells him to go away. Opportunism has no place in a sincere struggle to be free.

At an earlier point on the way to Brundusium, Glabrus’ cohorts camp one night and, contemptuously underestimating the slaves, see no need to set up a proper perimeter of fortification around the camp, so the slaves can easily infiltrate it and massacre most of the men in the cohorts. This incident is based on the disastrous military leadership of Gaius Claudius Glaber against Spartacus on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

In Fast’s novel, Varinius Glabrus, as he’s called, is “vain, rather stupid, and politically dependable.” He’s killed with all the other men, all except one frightened, shamefaced soldier, who tells Gracchus and the rest of the Senate about the massacre (PDF, Part Five, chapters iv-vi). In the film, Marcus Glabrus is the one to explain his incompetence to the Senate, and he is sent out, disgraced. Crassus, his friend, leaves with him, pretending to share in his disgrace, but as Gracchus knows, Crassus will return, stronger than ever.

To get back to the part when Spartacus knows that he and his comrades cannot escape by sea, he knows their only way forward is to confront Crassus and his army, and thus to head back to Rome. His army is an impressive one, by the way, including women fighters, as we can see in the movie, extraordinary for one made back in 1960.

Here’s the thing: to be truly free, one cannot just run away from one’s oppressor–one must confront him and fight him. At the end of Fast’s novel, Varinia and her baby escape to live in a village near the Alps; but Roman soldiers go up there to enslave those villagers who can’t pay the high taxes, and her son, after she’s dead, has to fight these Romans just as his father, of the same name, did. (PDF, page 272)

In the film, the final confrontation happens, and it’s a nasty fight, with Spartacus’ army sending out rollers of flames to attack the Roman soldiers with. Much of the violence of this scene, with bloody stabbings and Spartacus’ hacking off of a Roman soldier’s arm, was originally censored out of the film, as with the ‘oysters and snails’ scene, because of the negative reaction of the preview audience.

By the time all of this has happened, Spartacus has already gotten Varinia with child, and when the slaves have been defeated, she has given birth to it. Crassus and Batiatus find her among the bodies of the fallen slaves, and Crassus wants her and the baby to be taken to his home. He especially wants to find Spartacus, to destroy the legend of the slave.

Why is it so important to Crassus to destroy the legend of Spartacus? Because, though the slave leader and his army have been defeated, their brave example will inspire thousands of future slaves to revolt one day. And where Spartacus has failed, any of the subsequent attempts may prove successful. That’s what Crassus is afraid of.

The Romans offer to spare the lives of the defeated slaves if they identify which man among them, living or dead, is Spartacus. They all respond with the famous repeated shout of “I’m Spartacus!” (a quote referenced and parodied in many films, including That Thing You Do!, and even Kubrick’s next film, Lolita), starting with Antoninus, who has prevented the real Spartacus from identifying himself, then dozens of men in his army shout it, in loving solidarity with their leader, who is moved to tears by their love.

This surviving love and solidarity is what is so threatening to Crassus, then the richest man in Rome. The slaves know they have lost…for now, but the hope of future success still burns like a flame in their hearts, and Crassus will have to find a way to extinguish that flame.

In our modern world, the Crassuses of today have been hard at work trying to extinguish the flame of hope that a socialist revolution will replace the capitalist hell we live in now. This story, as written by leftists Fast and Trumbo, was meant as an allegory for our times today; the master vs. slave contradiction of Spartacus is meant to represent the bourgeois vs. proletarian contradiction. And just as Crassus wants to destroy the legend of Spartacus, so do the bourgeoisie want to destroy the legend of Marxism-Leninism.

Imagine if, after the crushing of the Communards and the Paris Commune, that socialists had just given up! Of course they weren’t going to do that: instead, they worked hard to understand and learn from the errors that the Communards made.

Similarly, though a ruthless campaign of anti-communist propaganda (which I refute here, as in other posts) was doused here, there, and everywhere to extinguish the fire of socialism in the twentieth century, and that propaganda was a huge factor in the defeat of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc, we today shouldn’t listen to the capitalist lies that “socialism doesn’t work” and “TINA.” Instead, we must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century and revive the hope that yes, another world is possible, that there is an alternative to neoliberalism.

To give a sense of how Crassus can be seen as an ancient version of a capitalist, in Fast’s novel, there’s a scene with him giving some women a tour of a perfume factory he owns. The scene at first hardly seems relevant to the life of Spartacus, but at the end of it, we can see Fast’s intentions (PDF, Part Six, chapter x).

Crassus speaks of how he makes much more of a profit with such businesses as his perfume factory than he could ever make in such wars as the Servile War. Furthermore, his workers in the factories aren’t slaves, so he needn’t feed or house them. Since they are free, he imagines he needn’t fear an uprising among them (PDF, page 221).

The bourgeoisie today, right-wing libertarians in particular, are fond of saying that if workers don’t like their jobs, they are free to quit, leaving their ‘poor, suffering’ bosses to have to find replacements. It may be relatively easy to quit when the economy is good, but not so when the economy is bad, as it is now, the worst it’s been since…forever, it seems.

Fast often refers to Romans as being on the dole, but this doesn’t change the fact that Rome was as brutal an empire as any. As an allegory of today’s world, his novel depicts Roman imperialism as paralleled (though assuredly not equal) with British and American imperialism. Romans being on the dole is to be paralleled with the welfare capitalism of the UK and US of the prosperous postwar years when the novel was written and the film was made. Welfare capitalism–at a time when the US and UK overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, to stop him from nationalizing Iranian oil, or when the US overthrew the government of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 for the sake of the United Fruit Company–is still capitalism…it’s still imperialism.

To get back to the story, though, Crassus has Varinia and her baby live with him. He’s captivated by her beauty, as well as puzzled with why such a beauty would remain in love with a lowly slave like Spartacus. None of Crassus’ wealth can lure her heart away from the father of her child and over to the man who has defeated him. But of course, Crassus’ defeat of the man she’s loved will ensure that she’ll never love Crassus…except that narcissistic Crassus will never accept her attitude.

What’s significant about the scene with him and her at dinner at night, in his attempt to woo her (recall that this scene is in Fast’s novel, too–Part Seven, chapter v), is that we see a kind of reversal of the roles of slave and master. He serves her food: squab and honey, a piece of melon, and a cup of wine, He has her wear a heavy necklace, once owned by a Persian queen. He doesn’t command her to eat–he invites her.

This reversal of roles suggests Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic, in which each tries to achieve self-recognition through the other. We’ve already seen the death struggle in the form of the battle in which Crassus’ army has defeated that of Spartacus.

Now, if all of the slaves are killed, then self-recognition through the other cannot be. The “I’m Spartacus!” shout of so many of the slaves, ensuring their collective crucifixion to a man, is nonetheless troubling for Crassus, not only because their defiant spirit will inspire other slaves, but also because their collective death means none will be left to give him and their other Roman masters the recognition they crave.

Crassus tries to get that recognition through Varinia, who coldly refuses to give it to him. Lacan said that man’s desire is the desire of the Other: to have the Other desire him, and to be recognized and acknowledged by the Other. Crassus’ desire is Varinia’s recognition, which she will never give him.

In Hegel’s myth, after the master has achieved dominance over the slave, a contradiction arises in how all of the slave’s work, producing so many things, gives their creator the recognition he craves, meaning he no longer needs it from his master; on the other hand, the master, having grown dependent on all of the slave’s productions, becomes subordinate. In Varinia’s case, her baby can be seen to symbolize the slave’s creations; similarly, her insistence that she nurse her own baby without the need of a slave-nurse to do it for her shows her self-emancipating agency.

Crassus’ frustration grows when he brings up Spartacus, who she insists was just a simple man, not a god. That she can love such a humble man is wounding to Crassus’ pride in the extreme. His implied threats to her baby’s life show, ironically, how defeated he really is. Since he owns her, he could simply rape her; but he wants her to love him, and he can never make her do that.

Another fascinating paradox occurs later, when Spartacus and Antoninus are made to fight each other to the death, the victor to be subsequently crucified. Since crucifixion is one of the worst, most painful ways to die, a death by stabbing is far preferred. So both men would kill each other…out of love…to spare the loser of the fight from suffering the agony of the cross.

Spartacus wins, and though neither history nor Fast’s novel have him die by crucifixion, the film has him die this way. Such an alteration naturally makes him into a Christ-figure, one who dies so future generations may live, that is, his sacrificial death will make of him a martyr who will inspire future slaves–including present-day wage slaves–to continue the struggle and, we hope, liberate us all for good.

Now, Fast’s novel gives extensive discussion of all those slaves crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, where Batiatus has trained the gladiators. One gladiator/slave rebel whose crucifixion is given especial focus is a Jew named David. As he hangs in agony and despair on his cross, he ruminates over his mostly unfortunate life. (PDF, Part Six)

Fast divides David’s life into four parts: first, “a happy time of not knowing,” then, a time “full of knowledge and sorrow and hatred,” next came a “time of hope…when he fought with Spartacus,” and finally, a “time of despair,” when “their cause was lost” (PDF, page 212).

The difference between the times of not knowing and of knowing weren’t really those of happiness vs. unhappiness, but rather those of naïvely not knowing of the evils already present in the world, back when David was a child, and of when he became a man, had his eyes opened, saw the difference between the rich and the poor, and finally realized the world’s evil (PDF, page 190). Such a realization would have been especially poignant for David when he saw his father crucified for his involvement with the Maccabean rebellion (PDF, page 192).

Though Fast, having published Spartacus in 1951, wouldn’t have known at the time of the growing despair of socialists since the dissolution of the USSR (in fact, sadly, he came to believe the lies Khrushchev spoke about Stalin in his “secret speech,” and broke away from communism), still, David’s despair on the cross, and the length of his unhappy life, can be seen to allegorize the despair of any leftist revolutionary whose cause has failed, including the fall of the Soviet system.

We leftists in today’s world were once wide-eyed and naïve, like David as a boy, blissfully ignorant of the evils of the world. Then we grew up, put away childish things, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, and underwent our Fall into a knowledge of those evils; and accordingly, we felt the pain, the sorrow, and the hatred of those evils. Then there were those of us who were old enough to remember the era of the Soviets, and how their influence even softened the blow of capitalism with the welfare state; we experienced a time of revolutionary hope, like David’s hope as he insists on standing beside Spartacus in battle (PDF, page 200). And finally, our time of despair has been from the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, and the ensuing rise of neoliberal capitalism from then to the present day.

The suffering of David on that cross, one of the longest and most painful ways anyone can die, is a perfect metaphor for the long, drawn-out pain we on the left have felt as we watched Clinton gut welfare, Dubya start the “War on Terror,” Obama continue and expand Dubya’s policies, Trump lower the already-low corporate tax rate even further, and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices so Roe vs. Wade could be overturned, and Biden provoke Russia and intensify nuclear brinksmanship.

We’ve watched this slide into imperial tyranny (as did Cicero of republican Rome degenerating into the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus; Cicero, who appears in Fast’s novel as an ambitious, upwardly-mobile writer of a monograph on the Servile Wars [PDF, Part Four, chapter i], but not as a critic of the power structure that would eventually have him killed), and we see no way out of the present situation. But recall the end of the movie, when liberated Varinia shows crucified Spartacus their now-freed baby. This child personifies our hopes of a revived revolution, which just might happen as the Western empire is crumbling.

We hang on the cross in agony, like Spartacus, but that baby of hope is alive and free. Instead of letting our heads droop down in despair, let’s keep our eyes on that baby.