Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: From Doubt to Certainty

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

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

IV: Hegel and Marx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V: Schopenhauer

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

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

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

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

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

VII: Conclusion

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

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

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

Atman = Brahman = anātman

Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio Cortázar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

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

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with Cortázar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed–this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in Cortázar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In Cortázar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj Zižek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (Zižek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In Cortázar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.

The Ouroboros of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall

In the third volume of Capital, Marx explains, using a formula, how there’s a tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The numerator is the surplus value (s), and the denominator is the total capital (C) invested. This total capital is the sum of variable capital (v), or wage labour, plus constant capital (c), or money spent on the means of production (machines, equipment, raw materials, etc.–Marx, page 317). The quotient of s over C (or s over c + v) is the rate of profit. If constant capital rises, the denominator rises while the surplus value doesn’t, and there is a fall in the rate of profit.

Sometimes, in order to gain a (however temporary) competitive advantage, a company will invest in higher technology (i.e., new machines) to boost production. This means a rise in constant capital as against surplus value, resulting in a lower rate of profit.

Since value in a commodity comes from the socially-necessary labour time put into it, having a greater involvement of machinery in production means less human labour is going into it, so less value and a lower price. The lower price means people buy this company’s commodity more than that of the competition, hence this company’s competitive advantage.

Still, this advantage is only temporary, since the competition will learn of the new machinery/technology and will soon be compelled to use it in their own production, and the price of all commodities in this branch of industry will go down. With the lowering of the cost price will come a fall in the rate of profit.

Now, the fall in the rate of profit is only a tendency, happening gradually over a period of decades. It isn’t a straight, diagonal drop; there are many small bumps upward that accompany the overall drop. These upward bumps are caused by countervailing factors in the capitalist class’s attempts to reverse the fall in the rate of profit. These countervailing factors include such things as opening up branches in foreign countries, particularly in the Third World, for the sake of exploiting cheap labour.

Nonetheless, the fall in the rate of profit is never fully reversed, and the result of the unemployed and underemployed (because machines are gradually replacing them) not having the money to buy so many commodities means there is overproduction. This problem snowballs into the economic crises that plague us every ten to fifteen years.

Though Marx predicted that one crisis too many would result in a socialist revolution, crises don’t stop capitalists from being capitalists. For all of the blather we hear from right-wing libertarians that the “free market” is antithetical to the state, we Marxists know that the capitalist (not the “corporatist“) class always has used and always will use the state to further their interests. Hence, the bailing out of the banks by Bush, Obama, and Trump, and Keynesian economics‘ use of government intervention and spending to prevent or mitigate economic crises from 1945-1973.

So in these crises, we see a rise in the money of the ruling class along with the further immiseration of the poor. Along with that contradiction come others: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) can be accompanied by a rise in the mass of profit; and the TRPF results from the temporary rise in profits as a result of those boosts in production from the early improvements in machinery/technology.

Thus, the rising vs falling of profits, as well as the accumulation of wealth vs immiseration of the poor, are to be understood in terms of dialectics. If, Dear Reader, you have been following my posts on the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail to represent dialectically meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, which in turn is symbolized by the serpent’s coiled body.

So, as profits go up temporarily with boosts in production for particular businesses against their competition, we see a movement along the serpent’s body towards its head. We see similar movements towards the head when companies try to offset the TRPF by keeping wages down, intensifying worker exploitation, ensuring a sizeable reserve army of labour, imperialist inroads into foreign markets, etc.

Still, the reaching of the serpent’s head biting its tail will inevitably come, and the bitten tail of an economic crisis will come. The working of our way to an economic recovery is the movement from the bitten tail to the middle of the coiled body of the ouroboros; then the irresistible temptation to raise profits through increases in constant capital will lower the value of products through a lesser proportion of variable capital, and a move toward the biting head will come again. The cycle, a downward cycle leading to worse and worse crises, always repeats itself.

So, when is that ‘one crisis too many’ going to happen?

The socialist revolutions of the twentieth century happened in backward, pre-industrialized, Third World countries, not in the developed West of Marx’s predictions, where the flourishing of the productive forces were supposed to bring forth such abundance that communist society would be possible. Instead, the scheming capitalist class has figured out ingenious methods to adapt capitalism and help it survive even the most apocalyptic of crises.

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

With the Great Depression came FDR’s New Deal and the beginning of the dominance of Keynesian government interventions to save the capitalist system from itself. Many desperate people at the time were considering communism. A lot of people confuse the ensuing post-war capitalist accommodations (strong unions, high taxes for the rich, extensive state regulation of the economy) with socialism (rather than associating it with social democracy and welfare capitalism). On the contrary, the idea was to keep the Western working class from sympathizing with Marxism-Leninism by making capitalism seem ‘more comfortable.’

At the same time, a ruthless anti-communist propaganda campaign was going on during the Cold War, manifested in such varying forms as the spurious writing of ‘historians’ like Robert Conquest, books like The Black Book of Communism, the CIA‘s infiltration of the media, Ayn Rand‘s hack writing, and the Austrian School of economics.

So many people don’t realize how thoroughly they have been brainwashed with anti-communist propaganda, and this is especially true of those who grew up during the Cold War years, having heard, as naïve, impressionable children, about how ‘evil’ and ‘tyrannical’ the Soviet Union and Mao‘s China were. It’s gotten so bad that many today equate any kind of political corruption with some form of communism.

The political right extended their notion of ‘toxic socialism’ to include any form of government intervention, particularly those involving social programs and welfare, but in the context of a capitalist state. Hence such right-wing libertarians as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, etc., started recommending a rollback of those left-leaning programs in favour of the “free market” around the time of the oil crises of the 1970s.

Whenever times are difficult, one tends to want to change from the hitherto dominant system; in the case of the 70s, it was a change from the Keynesian/welfare capitalism to what would become our neoliberal nightmare today. Sadly, far too few people were well-versed enough in history to know that what Rand, Friedman, Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek were espousing was simply a return to the Gilded Age capitalism that had started the chain of events that ultimately led to the Great Depression in the first place.

The changes were small at first, since the focus of the 1970s and 80s was dissolving the Soviet Union and making all the socialist states return to capitalism. Reagan busted unions in the form of firing striking air traffic controllers, and he and Thatcher cut taxes for the rich and deregulated the economy. None of this constituted the ‘small government’ that libertarians fetishize, since Reagan bloated military spending at the same time. It’s not ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government; it’s government for the rich vs for the people.

Meanwhile, the Soviet/Afghan War that Brzezinski, during the Carter administration, had goaded the USSR into fighting was bleeding the Soviet economy dry. This problem, combined with the weakness of Gorbachev, means the Western imperialists knew what was coming; hence George HW Bush’s speech on September 11th, 1990, that we were entering a “new world order”…not that of the conspiracy theorists, since “new world order” can mean many things to many people, but the heralding of our post-Cold War, neoliberal, “free market” era.

Funny thing: around this time came another recession, which should have reminded us of the unstable nature of capitalism, and of the TRPF. But the fall of global communism was seen as a triumph for ‘freedom and democracy’ over ‘tyranny and totalitarianism,’ even though Russians unsuccessfully tried three times to save/restore the Soviet system, first through a brief coup ousting Gorbachev, second through an uprising against the Russian parliament, repressed by Yeltsin’s tanks, and third through an attempt to elect the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in 1996, but through the Clinton administration’s machinations, the extremely unpopular Yeltsin was reelected.

Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing?

Polls have since consistently shown that not only Russians but also East Europeans and East Germans, in large numbers if not majorities, have been nostalgic about the socialist systems of government that they lost over three decades ago. While things were generally bad throughout the twentieth century (and obviously throughout all of history, for that matter), if you were paying attention, Dear Reader, you’d have noticed that things started to get really…really shitty around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Without much of a major socialist alternative in the world to challenge global capitalism, the neoliberals knew they could do anything they wanted…to anybody. Accordingly, Clinton introduced NAFTA, he gutted welfare, ended the Glass-Steagall legislation that many think was a huge factor causing the 2008 financial crisis, enacted the Telecommunications Act that allowed mergers and acquisitions in American media, leading to most of it being owned by only six corporations, and had NATO bomb Kosovo, leaving a huge US military base there.

9/11 was a dream come true to defence contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin, since the US needed a new enemy, after the fall of communism, to justify the inflated budget of the military-industrial complex. Such is the logic, however diabolical, of capitalism: production and sales have to be kept up to counteract the TRPF. World peace? Ecological health? Social justice? All of these things be damned if they disrupt the steady flow of profit. Opposing those good things, for the sake of profit, may be evil, but it isn’t irrational.

The promotion of perpetual war, against Al Qaeda and ISIS, and threats of war against Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, has come to such a point that the American army has become a huge refuge for the unemployed, all for the sake of keeping defence contractors’ profits up. Not that the ruling class cares about the needs of the unemployed, of course.

What is particularly galling about not only the 2008 financial crisis–the worst since the Great Depression–but also the current financial crisis, surely an outright economic meltdown, is that while millions of people are being plunged into poverty, homelessness, and despair, the ruling class is doing better and better. The billionaire class grew tremendously in the 2010s, while for the rest of us the economy only ever so slowly pulled itself out of the mire. The same has been happening over this past year.

This is what I mean when I speak of the ouroboros of the TRPF: the problem moves in an endless downward spiral. There’s the reckless, unrestrained pursuit of profit, whose rate falls, resulting in a crisis (movement along the serpent’s body to its biting head). The crisis plunges us all into misery, but the capitalist class is bailed out by the bourgeois state instead of punished for its excesses, so it’s free to resume its rapacious pursuit of profit (movement from the serpent’s bitten tail along its coiled body towards its biting head once again). There is no learning from mistakes, only continued, unchecked greed.

This lack of learning, however, doesn’t mean the capitalist class isn’t getting nervous about the rising anger of the people. Our overlords have used one devious tactic after another to distract us and goad us into fighting with each other instead of fighting them. These tactics range from resorting to fascism (Bolsonaro, the far-right in Ukraine, Anez in Bolivia, Trump’s tendencies, etc.) to exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to isolate (lockdowns) and alienate people from one another (social distancing) on the one hand, and to generate profits from it (the sale of masks and repeated vaccinations) on the other.

Regardless of where we, as leftists, stand on the coronavirus controversies (yet another way for the ruling class to divide us)–Do we believe it’s real, or a rebranding of the flu?–we should at least agree that the capitalist class and their media are exploiting the issue for their own private gain. From Pharma man to ‘farmer,’ Bill Gates, who has no background in medicine, way too much money, and therefore way too much influence over the WHO, CDC, etc. shouldn’t be trusted. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are losing their jobs (and with that, their already-shitty-as-it-is medical insurance), their homes, and their already teetering mental health.

Are we going to allow yet another movement along the ouroboros’s body until it reaches its biting head again? Will this or the next crisis lead to “the Great Reset” of what suspiciously sounds like a return to some form of feudalism, or will it lead to a socialist revolution? This bullshit stops when we all put our feet down and say, “Enough!”

My Last Five Pop Songs

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

That wonderful friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, who helped me gain access to most of my pop song recordings and classical music compositions from the Jamendo website (which won’t let me play or download them, for some reason), has pulled through for me again. She emailed me those last five songs I didn’t have as of my last post of pop songs, so now I have them all at last! Thanks again, Gerda! I owe you big time!

In fact, she sent them to me just after I’d published my blog post of most of the rest of my pop songs. I could have simply updated that post to include the five songs, but I decided to publish them separately instead, in order to stretch out and extend interest in my music a little further.

As I mentioned in my last post, four of these pop songs were originally published on my second Jamendo album, Meeting Places. These were “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy.” The fifth track was originally published on my third Jamendo album, Infinite Ocean. It was “Moonlit Strolls.”

The album title, Meeting Places, was in plural because, if you were to hear all the tracks of that album in order, you’d notice common musical ideas, or ‘meeting places,’ that linked the first track to the second (an electronic synth sound), the second to the third (the gamelan-like sound I discussed in my previous song post), the third to the fourth (recorders and tuned percussion sounds), etc.

The song “Meeting Place” is in the singular because it’s about finding the one common unifying idea in the entire universe. Does such a unifying principle (Brahman, the Tao, the “Infinite Ocean“) exist, or is it just a figment of my imagination?

Musically, the song combines the electronic synth and drums dance sound of “Blow” with the gamelan imitation sound of songs like “Grateful,” “Freedom,” and “Regrets?” To expand my musical range, I added recorders and a harmonica solo at the end.

Better” has me playing ascending melodies to symbolize a striving for self-improvement. I do this tone painting in my singing and playing of the recorder. In the lyrics, I make an allusion to the Beatles song, “Getting Better.”

Throughout the recording of Meeting Places, I had difficulty keeping the recorders in tune. I’m not 100% sure about the last recorder notes I play on “Better,” so I hope, Dear Reader and Listener, you’ll forgive me if those notes sound a bit off.

‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” is a satirical song in 5/4 time about people who marry for superficial reasons (sexual attraction, money, social status), then get divorced soon after. The music was inspired by a Nonesuch recording of an African tribal wedding song, though I added the gamelan imitation sound, bongoes, a steel drum sound for a keyboard solo, recorder, and an acoustic guitar solo. The juxtaposition of lyrics about superficial, loveless modern marriages in the West, with music inspired by that of a traditional African wedding (presumably for marriages that are far more enduring) was meant to be ironic.

Lethargy,” also in 5/4 and immediately following “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” on Meeting Places (and therefore, in sharing the same time signature, have this in common as their ‘meeting place’), is a 12-bar blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar. The song is about my constant drowsiness and lack of energy, something that’s predictably gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

I added piano and harmonica licks at the beginning and ending of the song, as well as a jazz electric guitar solo and an electric piano solo, the former of which I’m particularly proud, even if I do say so myself.

Moonlit Strolls” is a sentimental song composed at the acoustic guitar in an old-fashioned, 1930s and 1940s jazz style, like “The Happy Song,” which it follows on Infinite Ocean. The chord progressions make extensive use of the diminished seventh chord as a passing chord.

Lyrically, the song is about walks at night that I used to take with my then-girlfriend, now my wife, about twenty years ago. I have pleasant memories of that simpler time in my life, which I tried to give a sweet kind of expression to in this song.

The one thing I don’t like about this recording is my annoying falsetto, meant to represent her voice as a stereotyped imitation of a woman talking. I hope you, Dear Reader and Listener, won’t be as irritated by it as I am.

Anyway, that’s all five of the last songs. I hope you like them and will be more forgiving of their imperfections than I am. Cheers!

Most of the Rest of My Pop Songs

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

Thanks to a wonderful friend of mine, a really kind Dutch woman named Gerda Hovius, I finally have access to most of the rest of the pop song recordings I published on the Jamendo website, where for some reason I cannot listen to or download them. She, having access to the Luxembourg website, emailed the recordings to me, so I could download them and post them on another music site called SoundClick. Thanks a million, Gerda!

On Jamendo, I had posted these songs in albums by the names of The Human Element, Meeting Places, and Infinite Ocean. There are only five songs I need to have emailed to me: “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy,” from Meeting Places; and “Moonlit Strolls,” from Infinite Ocean.

In my previous posts, My Classical Music Compositions and Some Pop Songs I Wrote, I discussed all the other music I saved from Jamendo, music which can be found on SoundCloud, MixCloud, ReverbNation, and Jango (“Let Me Come In”). Now, all my pop songs–except, for now, the five mentioned in the previous paragraph–can be found on my page on SoundClick.

On all these pop song recordings, I sang all the vocals, played all the instruments, and did all the recording, mixing, and mastering. Please, Dear Reader and Listener…don’t hold this against me.

I’ll discuss these newly-saved songs in the order in which they appear on those three Jamendo albums. After “Let Me Come In,” the first track off my first pop album, The Human Element, came the song, “Resilient.” Like the song before it, “Resilient” has a synth/electronic drum background. It’s a song about being determined at self-improvement, despite the discouraging words I heard from my family and from classmates when I was a kid.

Grateful” is the first of a number of songs in which I, trying to find a distinctive sound, experimented with the influence of Balinese gamelan music. Instead of using the Indonesian metallophones, however, I used synthetic imitations, which I played on the keyboard, of xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. Instead of bass and drums, I used a synthetic bassoon sound and played bongoes.

Unfortunately, when I recorded the songs for the first two albums, I didn’t really know what I was doing, as far as mixing and mastering is concerned (I was particularly clueless about compression); what’s worse, I no longer have the original master recordings (for reasons I won’t go into), so I can’t go back to them and correct my mistakes. What you hear is what you get, I’m afraid. I just hope, Dear Reader and Listener, that you’ll be patient and indulgent of the recordings’ many imperfections.

I didn’t mix my lead vocal track of “Grateful” well, so you’ll have difficulty making out the lyrics (except for the chorus and bridge, maybe); the song page has the lyrics printed out, though. Anyway, the song expresses my gratitude for being able to leave Canada and find work in East Asia, and for finding the woman I love and am married to. I’m doubly grateful for having distanced myself from my emotionally abusive Canadian family.

Freedom” is also about my gratitude in getting away from that abusive family, and it also has the gamelan-influenced sound, though it’s a more energetic song than “Grateful.” It is also inspired musically by King Crimson‘s “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” and it has a bassoon sound instead of bass, bongoes instead of drums, and Chinese temple blocks which I played in a 5/4 cross-rhythm to the 4/4 of the rest of the instrumentation.

Life Is a Dream (This Naïve Spell)” is a Latin-jazz tune composed at the acoustic guitar, similar to “Without You With Me.” Lyrically, it’s about the foolishness of idealistic dreaming about a perfect world. It’s mostly in 4/4 time, with a brief passage of two bars in 5/4 after each verse, the first bar being a fast single-note run on the guitar (doubled on the piano), and the second bar being harmonics (and electric piano).

The last two songs on The Human Element are “I Lie Alone” and “She Was a Funky Girl,” both of which I described on my previous post about my songs. So this leads me to a discussion of the songs on my second pop album (and my personal favourite, despite its imperfect mixing and mastering), Meeting Places.

The first track on that album was the electronic dance song, “Blow” (discussed previously), and the second track was “Meeting Place,” which as I mentioned above, I don’t have downloaded yet. This leads me to a discussion of the third track, “Regrets?

This song also has the gamelan-influenced sound, but it’s also inspired by a live version of “Once In a Lifetime,” by The Talking Heads. The tuned percussion sounds are in 6/8 time, in a cross-rhythm against the 4/4 played by the rest of the instrumentation (vocals, electric guitar, bassoon sound, recorders, harmonica, and percussion).

“Regrets?” is about the conflict that often exists between conservative parents, who want their kids to get high-paying jobs, and their kids, who’d rather pursue their dreams and become, for example, professional musicians. Where are the regrets–in being financially successful, but suffering in a soul-crushing, conformist job; or in being poor, but artistically fulfilled?

After “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy” (none of which I’ve downloaded yet) comes “Blues for the Abused,” a blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar, which is about my mourning over not having the loving family I needed as a child. The opening and ending chord progressions were inspired by Django Reinhardt‘s closing chord progression on “Souvenirs,” and the body of the song is inspired by a combination of Robert Johnson blues and the Queen song “Dreamer’s Ball.”

She Moves Me” is a love song I wrote for my wife. It’s partly inspired by the Queen song “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos),” and was composed at the acoustic guitar. I wish I’d sung it better, to be perfectly frank; I overdid the vibrato, making my pitch wobbly and unstable in the bass range.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” is about the exploitative internet porn business. In F-sharp major, it’s musically inspired by the Wham! song “Everything She Wants,” and Queen’s “Body Language.”

My third pop album, Infinite Ocean, opened with the naughty dance song, “Lucille,” followed by the more serious “Angelic Devils” (both songs were discussed in my previous post). After that came the album’s title track, which of course inspired the name of my blog.

The song has the gamelan-inspired tuned percussion sounds again, playing notes that ascend and descend, like the waves of the ocean. Recorders are played in 4/4, and the bassoon sound is in 5/8. These winds play pairs of rising and falling notes, also like the waves of the ocean. Their conflicting cross-rhythms are meant to symbolize cycles of life that each have different durations.

A high-pitched two-note phrase I played on an ocarina (an instrument I haven’t a prayer of mastering!) is heard during the chorus. I played a classical guitar during the bridge, and I did an electronic piano solo at the end.

The song is about the Brahman-like, pantheistic All that is the unity of the universe. The waves of the ocean, crests and troughs representing the thesis and negation of the material dialectic (the rising and falling representing the sublation), symbolizes the flowing back and forth of yin and yang.

My Cold Heart” was composed at the electric guitar, the 7/8 strumming of seventh chords in which thirds alternate with seconds (or ninths, if you prefer). The opening and middle instrumental sections have saxophone sounds playing a melody over paralleled minor seventh chords. The song is about my feelings of alienation from other people, brought on by the emotional abuse I suffered as a child. I wish I could be close to others, but I can’t.

Tribal Victory March” is a song whose lyrics express my anti-war sentiment ironically through the perspective of the leader of the victorious tribe (understood as a metaphor for any imperialist government of today). He says his army has vanquished “all of my,…our foes” (that was no error in my singing). The leader, or demagogue, representative of any president of today’s world (Bush, Obama, Trump, whoever you like), celebrates the violence and rape inflicted on an enemy he deems to be his nation’s enemy, rather than only his own and that of the ruling class. His people slavishly repeat his words, since they’re unable or unwilling to think for themselves.

Musically, the song was inspired by an African recording of a solo male voice alternating with a group of singers repeating his words; the singing is followed by the sound of a plethora of horns over a pounding rhythm. My song imitates these musical ideas in principle, but with my own harmonies (based on equal octave divisions [whole tone scale, octatonic scale, augmented triad, and the tritone], as in a number of my classical music compositions), my soloing on an acoustic guitar and on a recorder (in a whole tone scale).

The Happy Song” is probably my least successful song. I’m not happy with my singing on it (I’m bordering on, if not lapsing into, straining). I also attempt a scat-singing vocal solo that I’m not 100% sure of. Apart from that, the song imitates a 1930s/1940s jazz style, and it preaches a philosophy of happiness I don’t think I’ve practiced in any capacity. I include the recording here only for the sake of completeness, and I hope, Dear Reader and (at your own risk!) Listener, you’ll be kind in your judgement of it.

After “Moonlit Strolls,” the last of the five not-yet-downloaded songs, comes “Nothing to Fear,” which is musically influenced by soft, slow gamelan music, and is lyrically influenced by the quasi-Hindu mysticism of “Infinite Ocean.”

I’m Hip” is the one straightforward rock song I’ve recorded. I’m affecting a rock singer’s voice here, though I’m not sure if I succeeded. I back this up musically with distorted electric rhythm and lead guitars, harmonica, and bass and drum sounds I played on a keyboard. Lyrically, the song is about my escape from the mental imprisonment of my emotionally abusive past, so I need no longer think of myself as ‘less cool’ than other people.

Anyway, that’s all for now, musically speaking. If I can get someone to email me those other five songs, which I consider to be among the better ones, I’ll write up a blog post featuring them, with the recordings published (presumably) on SoundClick.

Analysis of ‘Seven Samurai’

Seven Samurai is a 1954 Japanese epic film directed by Akira Kurosawa, and written by him, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. It stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, and Daisuke Katō, with Keiko Tsushima, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Minoru Chiaki.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, having a great influence on innumerable films after it. The Magnificent Seven is a 1960 cowboy adaptation of it. The assembling of the team of men to fight the villains, having originated in Seven Samurai, is a trope used by many films since, including even Marvel‘s Avengers. The climactic fight in torrential rain has been imitated in films like Blade Runner and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Quotes from Seven Samurai in English translation can be found here.

Though few will doubt the greatness of this film, many will find its length, almost three-and-a-half hours, daunting; and non-Japanese viewers may be bored with having to read the subtitles of a black-and-white film set in feudal Japan. So how can we help a young, Western audience used to the flash of contemporary action and superhero films appreciate this old classic? How can we get the current generation to relate to the predicament of its protagonists, peasants from a world long gone?

I believe we can achieve this by doing a Marxist allegory of the conflict between bandits and peasant farmers, who enlist the aid of samurai to stop the bandits from taking their food, as a conflict between capitalist imperialists, who invade Third World countries, and the oppressed poor of those countries, who need the aid of a revolutionary vanguard to stop the imperialists.

After all, what are the imperialist countries of the US and NATO, if not bandits who invade, bomb, and steal resources from other countries, as they have in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria? If the American imperialists don’t steal by direct means as these, they’ll do so through orchestrating coups d’état, as they have in countries like Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or the ultimately failed coup in Bolivia in 2019-2020.

Only through the organization of a vanguard political party could the Soviets have succeeded in repelling the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and in the Red Army‘s defeat of the Nazis during WWII. The peasant farmers in Seven Samurai are powerless against the bandits, who are armed not only with swords but also with muskets; just as the global proletariat is helpless against the imperial war machine, armed with state-of-the-art weapons technology…and with nukes. The proletarians of the global south need the leadership, training, weapons, and encouragement of a vanguard.

The film begins with the thundering hooves of the bandits’ horses as they approach the village of the peasants. Civil War in late 16th-century Japan has left the land lawless. Since Japan in my allegory is representative of our world today (recall that the film was made in 1954, when US imperialism was a big enough problem even then [e.g., the total destruction of North Korea during the Korean War, something Japan herself had experienced not quite even a decade before] to justify my allegory), the civil war can be seen to symbolize the current state of perpetual war, and its lawless disregard for the sovereignty of nations.

A peasant overhears the bandits discussing the plan to return to the village and steal the farmers’ barley once it’s harvested many months later. The peasant goes to tell the other villagers of the future danger, and they all plunge into grief and near despair.

The fear of a future attack can be compared to how Russians today must feel, with NATO activity near the Russian border; or to how Chinese must feel, with not only American military bases virtually surrounding their country in the shape of a giant noose, as John Pilger has described it, but also the US-backed provocations of the Hong Kong protestors, the American navy in the South China Sea, and the sale of over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan.

On top of this are the starvation sanctions imposed on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, and the continuous threats to their countries, as well as the economic embargo on Cuba and its recent labelling by Mike Pompeo, who freely admits to being a liar, as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Back to the film. While Manzō (played by Kamatari Fujiwara) suggests simply giving in to the bandits and hoping enough food will be left over so they’ll have enough to survive, one hot-headed peasant named Rikichi (Tsuchiya), angry because of a particular outrage (to be revealed later) done by the bandits against him the last time they attacked, wants to fight back. The willingness to acquiesce to the bullying bandits parallels how many today passively accept rising income inequality, endless wars, surveillance, and the piecemeal removal of all of our freedoms, while Rikichi’s hunger for revenge is comparable to those of us who know that revolution is the solution to today’s ills.

Other, more despairing peasants complain of land taxes, forced labour, war, droughts, and a useless, unsympathetic magistrate, and now there are bandits! These peasants wail that the gods never help them, and they wish just to die. Here we see parallels to today’s world, in which the middle classes are taxed up the kazoo rather than the rich; the government, which works for the rich, doesn’t care about the poor, and religion increasingly shows itself inadequate in giving us comfort.

The peasants decide to ask Gisaku (played by Kokuten Kōdō), a wise elder of the village, what he thinks they should do. He knows of a time when samurai saved peasants from a bandit attack, so he suggests finding samurai to help them. His declaration of the effectiveness of this plan is like a prophecy: thus he is like Marx, foreseeing the revolutionary uprising against our rich oppressors.

The peasants have no way of paying the samurai, though. All they have of value is their food. The old man suggests, therefore, that they find hungry samurai. We today must also find leaders who are as desperate as we are to help us free ourselves from oppression.

Millions of Americans find themselves jobless and in danger of being thrown out on the street; meanwhile, the wealth of the billionaire class continues to rise. They are today’s bandits, making peasants of us all.

Rikichi, Manzō, and their scouting party leave the village and go to a city in search of samurai, several of whom can be seen walking about with their sheathed swords. The peasants try asking a few for help, but are rebuffed by the arrogant samurai, who think it galling that lowly farmers would ask to hire men of their higher social class.

Since I consider the seven samurai who will help the peasants to represent the vanguard, these unwilling samurai can be seen to represent those more snobbish leftist academics and intelligentsia who would rather talk the Marxist talk than get their hands dirty and be in touch with the working class. Similarly, Trotsky didn’t think much of peasants, as contrasted with the sympathetic attitude of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao toward them.

And since we learn, later in the film, that samurai have actually attacked peasant villages, we can compare these arrogant samurai to the class traitors among the would-be vanguard, like Trotsky, Khrushchev, etc. This arrogance leads us to a discussion of one of the central themes of Seven Samurai: pride/honour vs. humility/shame, and the dialectical relationship between the two.

The peasants’ fortunes change when they encounter an aging rōnin willing to rescue a boy being held hostage by a thief in a small house. This samurai, named Kambei Shimada (Shimura), cuts off his chonmage (deemed a shocking degradation for a samurai) and dresses in a monk’s robes to trick the thief into thinking Kambei won’t hurt him.

Upon killing the thief and saving the boy, Kambei wins the admiration of all witnessing the rescue. He’s humbled himself by shaving his head and pretending to be an unassuming monk, but in doing so, he’s also raised his status among his onlookers to such a point that not only do the peasants hope for his help against the bandits, but the young son of a samurai named Katsushirō (Kimura) bows before him and begs him to let the boy be his disciple.

We see more of the dialectical unity of opposites when, after Kambei–humbly denying his greatness as a warrior (i.e., he’s typically lost battles)–refuses to be Katsushirō’s master, we see proud, buffoonish Kikuchiyo (Mifune) claim he’s a samurai; then Kambei, not wanting the boy to be influenced by such a fool, becomes his master.

At this point, it is apposite to explore how the characters compare and contrast with each other. These are fully-rounded characters, each with his or her share of faults, but still sympathetic and likeable.

Kambei is wise, reserved, and humble, but still able to laugh and be merry. Katsushirō is naïve, inexperienced, and eager to find men to look up to and idealize, and the handsome boy’s youthful passion allows him to be distracted by the charms of Manzō’s pretty daughter, Shino (Tsushima); but he has a noble heart, and he fights bravely.

Kikuchiyo may be a loud-mouthed ass who acts impulsively and earns the ridicule of the samurai far too often, but he also earns our sympathy when we learn that he was a peasant who lost his family in a samurai raid; and when he fights bravely and sacrifices his life to kill the leader of the bandits in the final battle, he earns our respect.

Rikichi is quick to anger, especially when the samurai tease him about needing a wife. He takes offence to these taunts because, as we learn later in the film, during the previous raid, the bandits abducted his wife (played by Yukiko Shimazaki) and made her their concubine.

Manzō is absurdly over-protective of Shino. Fearing she’ll be a target of samurai lust, he insists on cutting her hair short (making her feel dishonoured in a way comparable to how one would think Kambei would feel after his shaving of his head) and making the samurai think she’s a boy. Manzō’s patriarchal pride turns to shame when he sees his greatest fears realized: Katsushirō has seduced her. The shame is Manzō’s, though, not the young lovers’, for Katsushirō doesn’t see her as a mere plaything…he’s in love with her, and her foolish father doesn’t want to accept it.

So in these, and in all the other protagonists, there is a humanity that inspires sympathy in us and justifies the length of the film, for we learn to care about them. When we consider who these characters represent in my allegory, our caring for them can inspire us to care about the poor all over the world. These characters all have their needs, desires, hopes, fears, and pain, just as the global proletariat do, however invisible they may be to us in the First World.

Our introduction to the stoic master swordsman, Kyūzō (Miyaguchi) is another opportunity to see the dialectical relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō tests his abilities with another man in an open area, but they use lances. Kyūzō says he struck first, while the other man insists it was a tie, and he is so offended with the pride he projects onto Kyūzō that he challenges him to a swordfight.

Kyūzō warns him not to be foolish, but the proud opponent won’t take no for an answer. They fight with swords this time; Kyūzō’s opponent is loud, blustery, and ostentatious in his aggression, as against Kyūzō’s quiet poise and calm. Predictably, Kyūzō strikes first and kills the man.

Kambei and the peasants would have such a skilled swordsman join their cause, but he joins them only after a period of time to consider it. Kambei’s old friend and comrade, Shichirōji (Katō), joins them, as does good-natured Gorōbei (Inaba) simply because he finds Kambei an intriguing fellow samurai to work with.

Another example of nobility in humility is when Gorōbei meets Heihachi (Chiaki), a samurai of moderate ability who is willing to chop wood for an elderly man in exchange for food. These are the kind of people one wants for a vanguard: not careerists or opportunists who will drop us at the first sign of promotion or higher pay, but who understand the nobility of helping the poor for its own sake.

Near at hand is Kikuchiyo, who has been following the samurai and insists on joining them. His pride shifts dialectically into shame when he produces a scroll purportedly of his samurai lineage, though the name “Kikuchiyo” on the scroll indicates someone who’d be thirteen years of age as of the time of our story, not the actual thirty-something samurai wannabe.

Nonetheless, he is accepted into the group, if only because his asinine behaviour amuses the others; and so the group of seven samurai is complete. Indeed, when it is announced to the villagers that the samurai have arrived, and the villagers–under the paranoid, anti-samurai influence of Manzō–are afraid to come out of their huts and meet their seven visitors, Kikuckiyo sounds the village alarm, suggesting a bandit raid, and the villagers come out, begging the samurai to protect them. He has thus shown his usefulness.

Three samurai look over a map of the village and surrounding area, planning how they will defend it from a bandit attack. Shichirōji will have a fence made to block the western entry point, the southern entry will be flooded, and a bridge will be destroyed to prevent entry from the east. This use of tactics is paralleled by the use of theory by Marxists: without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement, something many on the left fail to understand.

The vanguard is also typically not appreciated by many on the left, just as the samurai aren’t initially appreciated by the peasants. Many on the left, if not most of them, sadly, believe the bourgeois lies and propaganda vilifying Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, failing to put the problems of the years of their leadership in their proper political and economic contexts; it’s assumed that the vanguard are the same as any other power-hungry group of politicians and demagogues.

Similarly, the villagers, having listened to Manzō, are afraid their daughters will be used by the samurai for their sexual sport, or are afraid that these seven samurai are no better than the typical, arrogant, predatory samurai. These forms of dissension are as bad for the peasants as is the danger of the bandits; just as the anti-communist left is as bad for the global poor as the capitalists are.

Another difficulty the samurai must deal with is their inability to defend the three outlying buildings. The core twenty in the centre are the priority, but those villagers living in the outlying areas don’t want to accept having to give up their homes and move into and crowd the centre.

In fact, while Kikuchiyo tries to raise the morale of the villagers by joking about the men giving their wives some loving that night, those villagers from the outer areas get angry and try to walk out. Kambei scolds them and, threatening them with his sword, makes them return.

Here we learn an important message about solidarity. We can’t repel imperial invasions and capitalist plunder without a unified working class and peasantry helping each other. Dissension among the various factions of the Soviets in the early 1920s, during a dangerous time when capitalist encirclement threatened the end of the USSR, forced the vanguard to be authoritarian.

Still, most of the Soviets backed their government, and poll after poll since the USSR’s dissolution has shown that a majority of Russians consider life under the Soviet system to have been a happier one than the current capitalist one in their country. Similarly, in the movie, the peasants come to love and appreciate the protection they get from the samurai.

After the intermission, we see the peasants harvesting the barley in the fields, and Kikuchiyo is eyeing the young women workers lustfully. Rikichi gets offended at some banter from Heihachi about getting a wife. That night, Heihachi talks to Rikichi about what’s troubling him and tries to get him to open up, which he won’t do, for he’s too ashamed to let the samurai know his wife has been abducted to be used to satisfy bandit lust.

Still, part of solidarity is the need for open communication among comrades, something difficult to achieve when there’s so much alienation caused by class conflict. Though the world depicted in Seven Samurai is that of late 16th century feudal Japan, the class conflict of such a world is easily compared with that of the modern world of capitalism. For as Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The conflict between feudal lords and peasants is clearly paralleled with the conflict between bourgeois and proletarians. Poverty and want compels many to commit theft in order to live, hence the bandits, as well as all the crime we witness in modern capitalist society. Providing for people’s basic needs–food, shelter, health care, education, employment, etc.–would reduce the compulsion to commit crimes to a minimum…except that the capitalists, who exploit workers and get rich off their value-producing labour, are the greatest bandits of all, and won’t allow for the needed provision.

Back to the film. Three bandits are spotted in the hills and, later, looking through the fence onto the village. Kikuchiyo opens his big mouth, endangering the village by revealing to the bandits that samurai are there to defend it. Kyūzō, Kikuchiyo, and Katsushirō are tasked with leaving the village and catching the three bandits before they can tell the others.

Kambei instructs Katsushirō only to watch the other two men catch the bandits. He lies hiding among the flowers while Kikuchiyo is up in a tree, ready to pounce on a bandit, and Kyūzō is sitting at the foot of the tree, hiding behind it and meditating as the three bandits approach.

In his meditation, Kyūzō is demonstrating No Mind, or wuxin. By emptying his mind of all distracting thoughts, he is embracing the void that dialectically encompasses nothing, or No-thing, and the Brahman-like everything, or what I would call the Infinite Ocean. This focus gives Kyūzō the connection to divinity needed to be ready to strike and kill without missing his target. The wise, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone, as it says in the Tao Te Ching.

When the bandits appear, Kyūzō strikes down and kills two of them, while Kikuchiyo falls on and captures the third, who–bound–is taken back to the village and forced to disclose the location of the bandits’ hideout. The villagers want to kill him, something to which the samurai are opposed; but an old woman whose son has been killed by the bandits wants her revenge (as does Rikichi, of course), so the samurai reluctantly allow her to have it.

Now Rikichi, Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyūzō go off to find the hideout. It’s burned down, with many bandits killed, but Rikichi discovers his wife-turned-concubine there, too; too ashamed to return with him, she runs into the flames and dies. In an attempt to rescue Rikichi, Heihachi is mortally wounded in the fighting, and his death compounds Rikichi’s grief.

Immediately after the burial and mourning of Heihachi, the bandits attack. It is discovered that they have three muskets, so the samurai and peasants must be careful. Kikuchiyo foolishly taunts the users of the muskets, and he’s lucky not to be shot by any of them.

Those who own the three outlying houses are not so lucky, though, for the bandits burn down those houses in revenge for the burning down of their hideout. The old man, Gisaku, is too stubborn to leave his house, so he dies in the fire. A mother who has been speared stays alive just long enough to save her baby. Kikuchiyo takes the child and wails in grief, for he is reminded of how he and his family suffered the exact same fate when he was a child.

In the context of my Marxist-Leninist allegory, the bandits’ reprisal, as well as the suffering it causes, is a symbolic reminder of the constant danger of counterrevolution, that with every small victory can come new threats from those who would try to restore the oppressive, predatory old way of doing things. This danger is what forces socialist states to take harsh measures to defend themselves.

The three muskets represent a superior form of technology (in today’s world, that would be nuclear weapons) that must be appropriated–not for attack, but for self-defence. People in the West often decry the ‘danger’ that the DPRK supposedly poses with its nuclear weapons programme, while hypocritically oblivious to the double-standard that indulges Western possession of such weapons (England, France, surely Israel, and the one country to use them to kill people, the US). Socialist states like the USSR and Mao’s China needed nuclear weapons to deter a Western attack, not to attack the West, as is popularly assumed.

Similarly, the samurai know that they need to get their hands on those muskets, so Kyūzō runs off to get one. His success awes Katsushirō, who gazes in admiration at a swordsman so humble that he doesn’t even seem to understand why the boy is idolizing him so much.

Later, Katsushirõ tells Kikuchiyo about how impressive he finds Kyūzō; the fool pretends he couldn’t care less, but he secretly envies the swordsman, and in his pride, Kikuchiyo goes off to the bandits to steal another musket. He too succeeds, having disguised himself as a bandit and tricking one who has the second firearm. When Kikuchiyo proudly returns to the village with the musket, though, Kambei’s reaction to his recklessness is only anger.

Here again we see the film’s dialectical presentation of the relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō gets a musket, but not for his own personal glory; he does so out of duty. Hence, he is admired by Katsushirō. Kikuchiyo covets that admiration, and in doing the same thing as Kyūzō, though with selfish motives, he is shamed.

With each ensuing battle, many bandits are killed, and we see Kambei paint Xes in the circles representing the bandits on a sheet of paper. He does so with a mix of satisfaction and sadness, for with these killings of bandits, there have also been deaths on their own side, in particular, the deaths of Gorōbei and timid, simple old Yohei.

Despite having been verbally abused as stupid and weak throughout the film, Yohei dies (with an arrow in the back) honourably, having bravely helped defend the village as best he could. (Earlier, we see Yohei, having speared a bandit, in an absurd pose of paralytic shock, his mouth agape at its jaw-cracking widest.) Again, humility/shame and pride/honour are dialectically united.

Also, the deaths on both sides can be seen to symbolize, on the one hand, the progressive erasure of class differences (the bandits, understood as personifying the predatory bourgeoisie), and on the other, the withering away of the state, as personified by the seven samurai as vanguard.

The samurai must prepare for the final confrontation with the remaining bandits, which will happen on a morning of heavy rain. The night before, tensions are high in anticipation of the morning’s danger, and a furious Manzō has discovered his daughter in a tryst with Katsushirō.

Manzō beats her and publicly shames her, but the other samurai try to get him to forgive her, explaining that the tensions of the moment can provoke reckless behaviour. Rikichi scolds Manzō, saying there’s nothing wrong with being in love; at least Shino wasn’t raped by the bandits, as Rikichi’s wife was.

In this night of wild emotions, we see the opposite of the wuxin mindset that is ideal for preparation for battle. Instead of emptying one’s thoughts to find one’s connection with the divine, one is overwhelmed with one’s preoccupations, leading to confusion and raising the level of danger.

The rainy morning of the battle, however, finds the samurai and peasants in a focused mindset; it’s as if the passions of the preceding night have purged them of preoccupations, causing a dialectical shift from extreme distraction to extreme focus; it’s as if they’ve all learned from the foolishness of Manzō’s anger. (Recall his previous worries about Shino being seduced by a samurai, and Gisaku telling him how foolish it is to fear for one’s whiskers when one’s head is to be cut off.) One might think a torrential downpour would be irritating and distracting, but our protagonists don’t allow themselves to be swayed by such discomfort in the least.

The bandits are clearly losing, one of them having fallen off of his saddle and being dragged in the mud by his horse. Still, the leader of the bandits has the last musket, and like a coward, he hides in a house with the screaming women of the village, whom he threatens to kill if they make more noise.

He shoots and kills Kyūzō, enraging Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo, the latter racing after the villain in the house and getting mortally wounded himself. Still, the dying man proves his worth in the end and stabs the bandit before falling to the ground himself. Kambei tells Katsushirō they’ve won; all the bandits are killed. The boy wails in anguish, though, for he never got his chance to avenge Kyūzō.

On a pleasant, sunny day afterwards, we see the peasants planting crops in the fields and playing celebratory, victory music, with Rikichi–smiling, for a change–chanting and playing a drum, and Manzō playing a flute. The three surviving samurai–Kambei, Shichirōji, and Katsushiro–are standing by the burial area of their fallen comrades and frowning. Shino passes by and snubs Katsushirō, for the patriarchal influence of her father has made her too ashamed to continue her romance with him, however much he sill loves her, and doesn’t care about their class differences.

Kambei sadly observes that the victory belongs to the peasants, not to the samurai. In the context of my allegory, this makes sense, for in spite of the anti-communist slanders about a vanguard’s supposed hunger for power, the vanguard–as symbolized by these seven samurai–really want to have the power to end hunger. The battle was never about glorifying the higher-caste samurai; it was about liberating the peasants, as is the vanguard’s intention for the working poor of the world.

This understanding should be our response to critics’ allegation of Kurosawa’s ‘elitism.’ Though it is more than safe to assume that Kurosawa was nowhere near being a communist, making my Marxist allegory seem out of place, he was a more progressive writer/director than he seemed. Having seen only Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran, I can’t speak with any measure of authority on most of his films; but in the case of this one, the presentation of social class and sex roles isn’t meant as a defence of the old traditions, but as a critique of them.

Remember that his heroic samurai are the exception, not the rule, in this film. Most of the samurai are arrogant, and it’s known that they are often the attackers, rather than the defenders, of peasants, who are regarded most sympathetically, in spite of how bumbling they are often portrayed. For these reasons, I consider the critics’ charging of Kurosawa of elitism to be invalid, at least with regard to Seven Samurai. In any case, his one non-Japanese language film, Dersu Uzala, was partly Soviet-financed, so I doubt that he was all that inimical to the more egalitarian leanings of socialism.

The analysis and interpretation of a film needn’t strictly conform to what its auteur has said about it, since–as I’ve learned from psychoanalysis–unconscious meaning can be expressed through parapraxes, revealing intent far removed from what the creator has explained in interviews. Therefore I stand by my leftist interpretation, especially since I believe it can inspire new viewers of Seven Samurai to apply its notions of heroism and sacrifice to today’s problems.

Analysis of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

Johnny Got His Gun is a 1938 anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo, published the following year, and adapted into a 1971 film, which was also written and directed by him (with an uncredited writing collaboration from Luis Buñuel). The film stars Timothy Bottoms, with co-stars Kathy FieldsMarsha HuntJason RobardsDonald Sutherland, and Diane Varsi.

The book was temporarily taken out of print several times, when such wars as WWII and the Korean War broke out; for the book’s anti-war sentiment was deemed inappropriate at those times. Having been a member of the Communist Party USA during WWII, Dalton agreed to the non-printing of his novel, as long as the Soviet Union remained allies with the US against the Nazis during the war. As for the far right, isolationists among them sent Trumbo letters asking for copies of the book while it had been out of print. He reported the letter-writers to the FBI, but it turns out the FBI was far more interested in him, a leftist, than in the rightist writers.

The novel tells the story through a third-person subjective, or limited, narration, meaning we get the story from the protagonist’s point of view, that of Joe Bonham (played by Bottoms in the film). This means that the perspective of the medical staff is given only in the film adaptation. Other differences between novel and film include the rearrangement of some scenes into a different order, and the inclusion of scenes in the film with Christ (Sutherland) generally having been written by Buñuel (assuming IMDb is trustworthy here), although the scene of Christ playing cards with Joe, the redhead, the Swede (played by David Soul), and the other soldiers is in the novel (Book II, Chapter 16), and around 27-30 minutes into the film.

The film was originally a modest success, but became a cult film after Metallica‘s video for their songOne,” which included scenes from the film, revived interest in it. In fact, Metallica bought the rights to the film so they could use scenes from it in their video without having to pay royalties on it.

Links to quotes from the film can be found here.

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in WWI, has been severely injured from the blast of an artillery shell, rendering him limbless, eyeless, deaf, and without a nose, tongue, or teeth. To make matters worse, the army medical staff taking care of him, not knowing who he is (three minutes into the film), and mistakenly thinking he’s decerebrated from his injuries, assume that he feels no pain or pleasure, and that he has no memories or dreams; so they keep him alive for medical research.

Joe gradually comes to the horrifying realization that all that’s left of him are his torso, genitals, and mutilated head (from Chapter 3 onward), with only the sense of touch left to link himself with the world, and with his consciousness intact to realize the virtually hopeless state that is the remainder of his natural life. This is alienation in the extreme, as only war can cause it.

The medical staff are keeping him alive so they can study him, the rationalization being that such study can be a help to future injured soldiers. When he realizes fully what’s been done to him, he’d like to kill himself by cutting off his own breathing, but he can’t, because the staff have him breathing through tubes directly connected to his lungs (Chapter 5, pages 28-29).

So, the overarching theme of the story is loss, lack. Joe has lost not only all the body parts that can make him useful, help him to enjoy the company of other people, or give his life meaning; not only has he lost his will to live and his faith in God (especially by the end of the story); but he has lost the very ability to end his life.

Normally, desire is aroused by a stimulation of the senses, so we’d think that a lack of those senses might cause one to be able to resist the sensual temptations of the world and attain peace, nirvana; but Joe is someone used to the physical pleasures of the world, to the enjoyment of relationships with other people, so being deprived of all of that, all of a sudden, is something he cannot accept. His is a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire: a desire to be useful to others, to be recognized and acknowledged by others, to be wanted by others (e.g., his girlfriend, Kareen [Fields]).

How can he be worth anything to anybody (other than that impersonal medical staff who are exploiting him for their own purposes) in his mutilated state? As a quadruple amputee with his face blown off, he’s been symbolically castrated, though, ironically, his genitals are still intact (Joey’s got his gun), they being the symbol of desire par excellence. Instead of letting go of his desires, which would lead to nirvana, he has them all the more, trapping him in a symbolic samsara. His is a living death: note how the novel is divided into two books, called ‘The Dead,’ and ‘The Living.’ It’s as if he’s dying (despair), then living again (new hope), then dying again (frustrated hope), then living again (revived, if feeble, hopes), a symbolic reincarnation into a world of endless suffering, of hell.

His hell is the undifferentiated world of what Lacan called the Real. He cannot tell day from night, dream from waking life, or fantasy from reality (especially with all the sedatives he’s getting). He cannot measure time with any degree of accuracy, though he certainly tries very hard to.

Communication borders on impossible for him, except towards the end of the story, when a nurse uses her finger to spell “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on his bare chest (Chapter 17, page 86); and when he uses the Morse Code, tapping the back of his head on a pillow, to communicate with the army brass, only to have his wishes rejected. Therefore, his connection with the Symbolic Order, the therapeutic world of language, culture, and society, is a tenuous one.

The paradoxically terrifying/beatific world of the Real, or to use Bion‘s terminology, O, is one beyond the senses, a suspension of memory and desire. James S. Grotstein says, “A transformation in ‘O’ is attainable only by the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” Such a place could be heavenly, like nirvana, if Joe could just let go of his ego and the world he’s lost; but of course, he’ll never do that, so he can only experience the hellish aspect of O, the Real, which is dialectically right next to the heavenly aspect (consider my use of the ouroboros, which symbolizes a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites [i.e., the serpent’s head biting its tail], to get at my meaning), depending on whether or not one clings to desire.

Trumbo’s novel begins with memories of sounds, like the sound of the telephone ringing. His hearing is the first thing he discovers he’s lost, and ironically, he has a ringing sound in his ears, reminding him of the telephone. Added to this, he remembers a sad phone call at work in the bakery: he must go home, for his father (Robards) has died. More of the theme of loss.

Other sounds Joe remembers are of music, his mother’s singing (beginning of Chapter 2) and piano playing (Chapter 1), something he’ll never get to enjoy again. In subsequent chapters, Joe remembers other sensory pleasures, like his mom’s home cooking (Chapter 2), a listing-off of various delicious foods (her baked bread, her canned peaches, cherries, raspberries, black berries, plums and apricots, her jams, jellies, preserves, and chilli sauces; the sandwiches of the hamburger man on Fifth and Main, etc.), all foods he’ll never get to taste again. He describes the aches and pains in his arms and legs, doing hard physical labour, in the hot sun, to the point of exhaustion (Chapter 4, pages 19-21).

He describes going to bed with Kareen (Chapter 3, page 15; and about nine minutes into the film), their one and only intimate time before he’s shipped off to fight the war, an indulgence her father allows, amazingly. All of these vivid sensual descriptions are here to underscore, for the reader, all that Joe has lost.

The film symbolically reflects the difference between what he had (and what he wishes he still had) and what he’s lost by showing his memories, dreams, and fantasies in colour (the dreams and fantasies being in saturated colour), and showing his current, hellish reality in the hospital in black and white. Indeed, all he has left are his memories and fantasies.

All these memories of his reinforce in our minds that Joe is a human being, with a heart and feelings, with dreams, hopes, and desires, like everyone else. He’s more than just a guinea pig for the medical staff to study and experiment on.

This understanding is the anti-war basis of the story: soldiers aren’t just pieces of meat (like the piece of meat that Joe has been reduced to) for the army and ruling class to use for their selfish purposes. Of course, these selfish purposes–the imperialist competition to control the lion’s share of the world’s land and resources–are cloaked behind rationalizations of keeping the world “safe for democracy.”

Now, what is meant here by “democracy” is not really the power of the people, but what is properly called the dictatorship or the bourgeoisie, or the rule of the rich. Boys like Joe are recruited to kill and die to protect and serve the interests of the capitalist class. This story’s setting during WWI is significant in how Lenin at the time wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, a polemic against the war (understood as an inter-imperialist competition among the great powers of the time for land and resources), which was very unpopular in Russia. And as soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they worked to get Russia out of the war.

If only American communists could have been so successful.

The novel’s defiant, anti-war tone reaches its highest pitch at the ends of Books I and II, in which Joe speaks contemptuously of that old lie about the “fight for liberty.” As Joe says on page 49, “What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?” His response to the importance of liberty is “my life is important” (page 50). As for Joe’s defiance of the war machine and what it has done to him, hear Donald Sutherland’s reading of passages from the end of Book II (pages 103-104).

Now, since Joe has realized what a big mistake he made believing the bourgeois imperialist lie of ‘fighting for democracy,’ we should try to understand what originally drove him to buy into that lie. It was his love of his father and his wish to identify with him, to win his father’s love. Though his father cynically realizes that ‘defending democracy’ is really just about “young men killing each other,” Joe as a naïve little boy just goes along with the apparent virtue of such a fight. After all, as his father says, “Young men don’t have homes; that’s why they must go out and kill each other.” (Recall, in this connection, the fourth line in the bridge to the lyrics of the Black Sabbath song, “War Pigs,” which came out close to the same time as the film.)

Joe deems his father a failure who has nothing but his phallic fishing pole to give him distinction (not even Joe has distinction, apparently, as his father frankly tells him), but this is the only father little Joe has. Joe manages to lose that fishing pole one day when fishing not with his dad, but with his friend, Bill Harper (Chapter 9, and at about 1:16:30 into the film). The loss of the fishing pole is another symbolic castration. Joe’s memories of his father hugging him, and wanting to receive a hug from him, are–I believe–wish-fulfillments of Joe’s (the line separating his actual memories and how he wishes to remember his past is a hazy one). His father’s death, and the loss of the fishing pole, goad Joe–through guilt feelings–into being willing to do what “any man would give his only begotten son” for…kill and be killed for democracy.

This choice of words, “only begotten son,” is intriguing. It reminds one of John 3:16. Joe’s father would give his only begotten son to die for an ideal, freedom, which sounds like God the Father giving His only begotten Son to die for our sins, so sinners can live in an ideal world, heaven, which is freedom from sin and death.

This comparison leads us to the understanding that Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is comparing himself, however obliquely, to Christ. He is suffering in an excruciating manner similar in a number of ways to how Jesus suffered. In his state of living death, Joe is harrowing Hell, so to speak, as Christ did.

The two books of Trumbo’s novel, recall, are named “The Dead” and “The Living.” The reverse order of these names suggests resurrection. On the other hand, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). This understanding gives depth to Joe’s dreams and fantasies of conversing with Christ, for it gives meaning–and a sense of grandeur–to Joe’s suffering.

His dream of a rat biting into a wound behind a bandage on his side, or his chest (something he, at first, can’t tell from waking reality–Chapter 7, page 41; and 45 minutes into the film) suggests the spear in Christ’s side. The loss of Joe’s limbs is analogous to the stigmata in Christ’s hands and feet; recall how he believes the doctors have amputated his arms and legs–for example, he feels the pinching and pricking of sharp instruments when they remove the bandages from where his left arm would have been (Chapter 3, page 13). And the mutilation of Joe’s face parallels Christ’s crown of thorns, the digging of those thorns into His head.

The mutilation of Joe’s body, and the mental disorientation he feels as a result, symbolizes and literally means that he is in danger of suffering psychological fragmentation. Pathological narcissism–in Joe’s case, the covert kind in which one sees oneself as a grandiose victim–is an effective–if dysfunctional–defence against such fragmentation. In Joe’s case, this narcissism expresses itself by his comparing of his suffering to that of Christ.

In the film, when Joe is with Christ in one of his fantasies (46-50 minutes into the film)–when Christ is doing His carpenter work–and Joe is speaking about his fears of having the rat nightmare again, the two are looking in each other’s faces as if Joe were looking into a mirror…that is, the narcissistic mirroring of the self in the other. As a dream, the scene is a wish-fulfillment for Joe in which he hopes to find a solution to the rat nightmare problem, which of course Christ can’t solve, because Joe’s problems are material, not spiritual, ones: Joe has no mouth with which to yell himself back into consciousness, he has no eyes to open, and he has no limbs with which to knock the rat off of him. This must have been a scene that atheist Buñuel wrote, for Christ is no help to Joe, and He Himself acknowledges that no one really believes in Him.

Joe remembers his Christian Science preacher from childhood telling him that God is Spirit (35 minutes into the film), as is man in his true nature, which makes Christ vaguely comparable with Joe, who barely has a body anymore, and barely has any sensory contact with the physical world. Joe, like Christ on the Cross, feels “forsaken” (Chapter 20, page 101) by the medical staff, who refuse to grant him his request to be taken around in a glass box and presented as a kind of freakish icon to teach people about the horrors of war.

To be taken all over the US and displayed thus, as an anti-war icon, is comparable to Christian missionaries traveling the world and spreading the Word of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). Joe’s message of saving lives, though, is the salvation of physical lives, not that of spiritual ones. “He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be.” (Chapter 20, page 103)

As we can see, this association of Joe with Jesus is far more apparent in the novel, especially towards the end, than in the film. And if he is like Christ, we can find Mary parallels, too.

First, when Joe realizes the extremity of his predicament, he feels as helpless as a baby in the womb (Chapter 7, page 37), and he–in his thoughts–calls out to his mother for help (Chapter 5, page 25). This association of limbless Joe with a baby in the womb can also be linked with his recollection of his mother’s telling of the Christmas story, with Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to find an inn in Bethlehem to spend the night (Chapter 17, pages 88-90).

Without his mother to know of his mental cries for help, Joe must rely on the care of the nurses, on whom he transfers his Oedipal feelings, which have resurfaced as a result of his regression to an infantile state, this being part of his coping mechanism.

Having transferred feelings of Oedipal love from his mother onto the nurses, Joe finds one nurse in particular–as noted especially in the film (Varsi)–whose tearful compassion for him is receptive to that love. Accordingly, she masturbates him (Chapter 14, page 72); about an hour and fifteen minutes into the film). Remember, though, the blurred line between his fantasy world (i.e., wish-fulfillment) and his reality. How much of her massaging is real, and how much is his imagination?

Since the Oedipal transference is sent to her, and since it is she who writes “MERRY CHRISTMAS” with her finger on his chest, this nurse can be seen as the Mary to his Jesus. The tears in her eyes over his suffering make her a kind of mater dolorosa, Our Lady of Compassion.

Now, these Christ and Mary parallels do not mean that Trumbo was trying to present a Christian “prince of peace” kind of anti-war story. Such symbolism only serves to express the gravity of Joe’s suffering through the use of familiar religious imagery. This is no story about “faith, hope, and charity“: on the contrary, it is about bottomless despair, which is especially apparent at the end of the film.

Joe’s pitying nurse would be an exterminating angel, were one of the doctors not to stop her from cutting off Joe’s air supply to euthanize him. The doctor, whose “stupidity” is bluntly noted by the chaplain in the film, would keep Joe alive in that hellish state so he can continue to be studied. For this is the whole point of war: the exploitation of young men to kill, to be killed, and to be otherwise used as a kind of commodity for the benefit of the powerful.

Unable to kill himself, unable to live in any meaningful way, unable to communicate and be listened to (i.e., to re-enter the social world of the Symbolic; our libido seeks other people’s company, as Fairbairn noted), and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness because of the sedatives the doctors keep giving him, Joe is trapped in the undifferentiated void of the Real. If he could only let go of his attachment to his ego, that illusory self we all have from our contemplation of our mirror reflection, the Imaginary, then he might find peace.

But his was never a Buddhist or Hindu upbringing, of course: it was a Christian one, from which he derived his narcissistically amplified ego by identifying with Christ. And since even the religious systems of the Far East typically hold up the authoritarian and class basis of their respective societies, they would be of little help to him, anyway. His predicament is a material one, not a spiritual one. The eternal death of his Hell is not being able to choose when he can die.

He might see himself as Christ-like, as a fisher of men, but he lost his father’s fishing pole…just as he’s lost everything else. And just as Joe’s father is dead, so is God the Father dead…hence, there’s no Christ to wake Joe out of his nightmare.

Analysis of ‘The Birds’

The Birds is a 1963 natural horror film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Evan Hunter, based on the horror short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and costars Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, and Suzanne Pleshette.

The film is so completely different from the short story that the only two things they have in common are the title and the premise of birds violently attacking people, the attacks being interrupted by pauses, rests of several hours each. Everything else–the setting, characters, and the incidents–is completely reworked to the point of the film being an utterly different story from du Maurier’s version.

In 2016, The Birds was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Here are some quotes:

Melanie: Have you ever seen so many seagulls? What do you suppose it is?
Mrs. MacGruder: Well, there must be a storm at sea. That can drive them inland, you know.

Mitch[deliberately mistaking Melanie for a sales clerk] I wonder if you could help me?
Melanie: Just what is it you’re looking for, sir?
Mitch: Lovebirds.
Melanie: Lovebirds, sir?
Mitch: Yes, I understand there are different varieties. Is that true?
Melanie: Oh yes, there are.
Mitch: Well, these are for my sister, for her birthday, see, and uh, as she’s only going to be eleven, I, I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative.
Melanie: I understand completely.
Mitch: At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof either.
Melanie: No, of course not.
Mitch: Do you happen to have a pair of birds that are just friendly?

Mitch: Doesn’t this make you feel awful… having all these poor little innocent creatures caged up like this?
Melanie: Well, we can’t just let them fly around the shop, you know.

Mitch: We met in court… I’ll rephrase it. I saw you in court… Don’t you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate-glass window?
Melanie: I didn’t break that window. What are you, a policeman?
Mitch: No, but your little prank did. The judge should have put you behind bars. I merely believe in the law, Miss Daniels… I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag. What do ya think of that?
Melanie: I think you’re a louse.
Mitch: I am.

Mitch: Well, small world…How do you know Annie?
Melanie: We went to school together – college…
Mitch: So you came up to see Annie, huh?
Melanie: Yes.
Mitch: I think you came up to see me.
Melanie: Now why would I want to see you of all people?
Mitch: I don’t know. You must have gone to a lot of trouble to find out who I was and where I lived.
Melanie: No, it was no trouble at all. I simply called my father’s newspaper. Besides, I was coming up anyway. I’ve already told you that.
Mitch: You really like me, huh?
Melanie: I loathe you. You have no manners, you’re arrogant, and conceited, and I wrote you a letter about it, in fact. But I tore it up.

“I’m neither poor nor innocent.” –Melanie

Annie[after birds attack the children at a party] That makes three times.
Melanie: Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it? The gull when I was in the boat yesterday. The one at Annie’s last night, and now…
Mitch: Last night? What do you mean?
Melanie: A gull smashed into Annie’s front door. Mitch – what’s happening?

“I wish I were a stronger person. I lost my husband four years ago, you know. It’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone. I’d love to be able to relax sometime.” –Lydia

“Oh Daddy, there were hundreds of them… Just now, not fifteen minutes ago… at the school… the birds didn’t attack until the children were outside the school… crows, I think… Oh, I don’t know, Daddy, is there a difference between crows and blackbirds?… I think these were crows, hundreds of them… Yes, they attacked the children. Attacked them!” –Melanie, on the phone

“Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.” –Mrs. Bundy

“It’s the end of the world.” –drunk

“I think we’re in real trouble. I don’t know how this started or why, but I know it’s here and we’d be crazy to ignore it… The bird war, the bird attack, plague – call it what you like. They’re amassing out there someplace and they’ll be back. You can count on it.” –Mitch

“Look at the gas, that man’s lighting a cigar!” –Melanie, as she sees a man lighting his cigar as gasoline is leaking around him

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” –mother in diner, to Melanie

Cathy: Mitch, can I bring the lovebirds in here?
Lydia: No!
Cathy: But Mom, they’re in a cage!
Lydia: They’re birds, aren’t they?
Mitch: Let’s leave them in the kitchen, huh, honey?

Cathy: Mitch, why are they doing this, the birds?
Mitch: We don’t know, honey.
Cathy: Why are they trying to kill people?
Mitch: I wish I could say.
Cathy: I-I’m sick, Melanie.

There is no apparent reason for birds of all kinds to be suddenly swooping down on and attacking people, pecking and clawing at them. I find the best way to find meaning in these attacks is to see them as symbolic of something else…a different attacker from the skies.

To determine what, or who, this other attacker could be, I recommend a reading of du Maurier’s short story. Hints can be found in such things as the different setting. In her story, the bird attacks occur not in California, but in England; they also occur not in the early 1960s, but just after WWII.

When one considers the destruction Nazi Germany’s bombings of England caused, as well as the trauma they caused the survivors, we can see how du Maurier’s The Birds can be seen as a near pun on the Blitz, and therefore also be symbolic of it.

So the birds, in her story and–by extension–Hitchcock’s film, can be seen to symbolize bomber planes. Nat Hocken, the farmer and protagonist of the short story, believes it’s the colder weather that’s making the birds so aggressive. Later on in the story, a farmer claims it’s “the Russians” who have somehow incited the birds to attack by poisoning them (page 9 from the above link). Mrs. Trigg, the wife of his boss, wonders if the cold weather is coming from Russia (page 4).

Given that du Maurier’s story takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War, and therefore at the beginning of the Cold War, we can now see what the colder weather and reference to Russians are hinting at: the attacking birds represent a paranoid fear of a Soviet invasion.

A few bird attacks on Nat, a WWII veteran, would trigger PTSD responses in him, making him fantasize about bird attacks happening all over England, symbolic of airstrikes. Since the story is essentially–though not exclusively–from his point of view (even though it isn’t a first-person narration), we can easily view the story as a hallucinatory fantasy in his mind.

With these insights from the short story, we can gain an understanding of what’s going on in the film. Hitchcock spoke of how the birds are getting revenge on man for taking nature for granted; instead of birds being caged, they force people to cage themselves in houses, restaurants, telephone booths, etc.

The changing of the setting to California (in the coastal town of Bodega Bay, about an hour-and-25-minute drive from San Francisco) is instructive in this regard of birds’ revenge on man. If their attacks symbolize aerial bombardments (kamikaze-like in the short story, with birds dying upon hitting the ground), we could see this revenge as symbolizing that of those countries the US had so far bombed: Japan and North Korea; also, there was the US-supported coup in Guatemala in 1954, which included air bombings of Guatemala City and the threat of a US invasion. The birds’ attacks thus can be said to symbolize a fear of other nations bombing the US in revenge for having been bombed.

This theme of revenge first appears right at about the beginning of the movie, when Mitch Brenner (Taylor) enters a pet store where birds are sold on the second floor, and pretends that he thinks Melanie Daniels (Hedren)–who has played a practical joke leading to a broken window and a legal case that he, a lawyer, knows of–works in the store. He plays this trick on her in retaliation for her practical joke, which caused such annoyance to those affected by it.

He asks her about buying a pair of lovebirds as a gift for his younger sister, eleven-year-old Cathy Brenner (Cartwright). Annoyed at the comeuppance she’s received, yet also finding him attractive, Melanie wants to spite Mitch by, on the one hand, delivering a pair of green lovebirds to his home personally, and on the other, writing a note to him that she hopes the birds would “help [his] personality”…though she tears up the letter.

It’s interesting in this connection to note that, for pretty much the remainder of the film, she is dressed in a distinctive green outfit. A green ‘bird’ is giving Mitch green birds. This ‘bird’ also played a practical joke resulting in a broken window, just like the many broken windows caused by the bird attacks, which have begun since her arrival, in that green outfit, in Bodega Bay. Indeed, a hysterical mother in a diner blames Melanie for bringing the bird attacks to the town.

So we shift from lovebirds to violent ones, suggesting a dialectical relationship between love and hostility. This dialectical tension is sublated in how Mitch and Melanie are themselves two lovebirds who, in spite of how annoyed they are with each other at first, are attracted to each other.

Film critic and historian Andrew Sarris noted how complacent and self-absorbed the main characters are: Mitch, Melanie, Annie, and Lydia. Such self-absorption and egotism suggest the effects of alienation in a capitalist society, one about to be attacked in symbolic revenge for the attacks of imperialism on other countries. One manifestation of contradiction in dialectics is that of attack vs. counterattack, or revenge; another such manifestation is action vs. passivity, or resting. In the short story, Nat speculates that the birds attack at high tide (thesis), and at low tide (antithesis), the birds rest (page 12 of the above link).

The first major bird attack and the climactic last one are on Melanie (the bird nips at Mitch’s fingers and ankle at the very end are so brief as not to count for much). This is her karma–birds attacking a bird, the dialectic of attack vs. counterattack.

Another thing to remember about Melanie is that she is a bourgeois. Her father owns a newspaper, and she drives into Bodega Bay wearing a luxurious fur coat over that green outfit. So as the deliverer of the green lovebirds to Mitch and Cathy, Melanie–as an embodiment of capitalism and a personification of the birds–is symbolically bringing the avian aerial bombardment on the town. This linking of capitalism with aerial bombing is brought to you courtesy of imperialism. The hysterical mother in the diner is right to blame Melanie for all the mayhem.

The US bombed Japan and North Korea. Due to racist immigration policies, only limited numbers of Asians had been allowed to live in California by the time of the filming of The Birds. Melanie tells Mitch her family is sponsoring a Korean boy, but her charity won’t come near to compensating for the imperialist destruction she personifies, or the racism of the government that supports her class interests: those bird attacks are symbolic of, in part, an Asian, avian revenge.

This 1963 film came out at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came inches close to nuclear war. During the previous decade, there had been the McCarthyist Red Scare, the fear of which I dealt with in my analysis of The Manchurian Candidate.

The bird attacks can thus be seen to represent a repressed fear of a communist invasion, a revenge bombing for all the American imperialist bombings and coups that went on between the end of WWII and the early 60s. Now, what is repressed will return to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form: thus, bomber planes resurface in the conscious mind in the form of birds.

This is the fear of a socialist revenge on capitalism, a repressed fear, since bourgeois Hitchcock would never have seen it as such in his own film; he’d instead speak of caged birds getting revenge on man, their cagers and polluters of the air. Recall the amateur orinthologist, Mrs. Bundy (played by Ethel Griffies), speaking of how peaceful birds usually are, and that it’s man who makes life unliveable for all. Those who have a historical materialist understanding of the world can easily translate “man” as ‘the capitalist.’

Now, just as capitalism (personified here in rich bitch Melanie Daniels) destroys everything around it (symbolized in her arrival in Bodega Bay with the lovebirds, followed soon after by the bird attacks), so will capitalism ultimately crumble under its own contradictions, as Marx predicted in Capital, Vol. 3, in his discussion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (in the film, symbolized by the birds attacking Melanie, ‘the bird,’ at the end, almost killing her).

Another issue capitalism raises is alienation, shown symbolically in the film through the love/hate relationship of not only Mitch and Melanie, but also that of him and his mother (Tandy), who sabotaged his relationship with Annie Hayworth (Pleshette), his previous girlfriend. On top of this is Melanie’s estrangement from her mother, who ran off with another man.

To get back to Lydia, who disapproves also of her son’s budding relationship with Melanie and tries to sabotage it by telling him of a scandal involving Melanie falling naked into a fountain, his mother fears his commitment to a woman will result in him abandoning his mother. Mitch’s father died several years before the beginning of the film, so Lydia is afraid of having to carry on life alone.

This fear of loneliness, coupled with difficulties forming healthy relationships, is often a consequence of alienation under capitalism. Dialectically speaking, this clinging love of Lydia’s, which spoils Mitch’s love life, is another sublation of the film’s theme of the love/hate opposition, which is symbolized by the green lovebirds and Melanie in her green outfit on the one hand, and the attacking birds on the other.

One interesting contrast between the short story and the film is how, in the former, the first of the bird attacks happens on page two of the link provided above, but in the latter, we must wait about fifty minutes until a group of birds attacks children at Cathy’s birthday party. Prior to that attack, there’s only the one gull that hits Melanie on the head, the one that crashes into Annie’s front door, and the ominous hovering and resting of birds on several occasions throughout the film.

Because all that matters to imperialists is the controlling of other countries, the ruling class gives not a second of thought to how their bombs not only kill people, but also traumatize and disrupt the lives of the survivors. The lengthy process of developing the main characters, prior to the birds’ first major attacks, humanizes them for us in a way that the East Asian or, more recently, Middle Eastern victims of bombings are never humanized.

We see the traumatized reaction of Lydia when she sees her neighbour’s eyeless corpse, and we sympathize with her. We rarely contemplate the trauma of the surviving Japanese after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We imagine North Koreans to be neurotically servile to the ruling Kim family; we never consider how the North Koreans’ collective trauma, after the US bombed their whole country, drove them to look up to the strength of the Kims to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.

We see the terror of the children attacked by the birds at Cathy’s party, then later as they run from their school. We seldom consider, for example, the Yemeni children killed in a school bus after being hit by an airstrike. The only way many of us in the West can contemplate such horrors is if they’re inflicted on us, but with the bombs replaced with birds. Recall how, in the diner scene, the bird attacks are sometimes referred to as a “war” being waged against man.

Speaking of the diner scene, a tense discussion of the bird attacks there brings up responses as varied as the denials of Mrs. Bundy, the hysterics of the mother of two children, and a drunk Irishman proclaiming doomsday. His insistence on it being “the end of the world” makes me think of Biblical allusions other than his to Ezekiel, though.

Recall how this all more or less started not only with Melanie’s buying a pair of lovebirds, but also, just before her entrance into the pet store, hearing a boy on the sidewalk whistling at her, all while we hear the cawing of a huge flock of black birds in the sky; the boy’s and birds’ sounds are similar enough to suggest that the whistling may not have been from him, but may have actually been one of the birds screeching. It’s as if the birds were the ones making the pass at her.

These associations symbolically suggest the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4, who are sometimes identified as angels (i.e., winged ones!), looking down from heaven onto the daughters of men (e.g., Melanie) and wishing to mate with them. This unnatural love union led to the sinfulness of the world that led, in turn, to the Great Flood, another ending of the world. Here again we see the birds’ dialectical linking of love and violence. (Recall also how Nat, from the short story, theorized that the birds’ attacks coincided with the high tide, a rising of water that can be associated with the Flood.)

Another way the bird attacks suggest “the end of the world” is how they symbolize avenging angels, coming down to earth with Christ’s return and bringing about Armageddon (Matthew 16:27).

To return to the airstrike symbolism, a closer linking of the birds with bomber planes is suggested when–after a bird attacks a man at a gas station and causes him to drop the fuel dispenser of a gas pump, spilling gasoline all over the ground–a man parks his car by the spillage and, unaware of the gas, lights a cigar. His dropping of a match causes an explosion, killing him and causing a huge fire in the area. Bird-bombers, as it were, have caused explosions and a fire, however indirectly.

The disruption of people’s lives continues when we learn that Annie, Mitch’s original flame, has been killed by the birds, her corpse lying out by the stairs in front of her porch and traumatizing poor Cathy, who looks on from inside Annie’s house. We rarely think, however, of how bombings cause the same kind of suffering in those countries victimized by imperialism.

The self-absorption and narcissism we have seen in the main characters, especially in Melanie, have abated now that the terror of the birds has forced everyone to work together, help each other, and sympathize with each other. Since bourgeois Melanie–bringer of the lovebirds and, symbolically, the bird attacks–represents capitalism, her subsequent helpfulness should be seen to represent how capitalism sometimes tries to make accommodations to appease the working class, as was seen in the welfare state from 1945-1973. Nonetheless, accommodations to the labour aristocracy of the First World are never good enough to compensate for the wrongs done to the Third World.

Holed up in the Brenners’ house, Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy are safe for the moment. Cathy would like to bring her lovebirds into the living room, but Lydia won’t tolerate even those birds, as harmless as they are in their cage. These two birds are the dialectical opposite of the violent ones, though, so there’s no need to fear them.

No one knows why the birds are trying to kill people; neither, I imagine, do many of the poor people in the humble, provincial villages of the Third World understand why drones fly over them and kill innocent civilians there. Especially ignorant of the reasons for this violence against them are their children…just like Cathy.

More bird attacks come, even after Mitch’s efforts to board up the windows. Melanie goes up to the attic, and she experiences the climactic bird attack. Just as she’s learned “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag,” now she learns what it’s like to experience an extreme, life-threatening bird attack, just as eyeless Dan, Lydia’s neighbour, and Annie have. Luckily, though, she barely survives.

Imperialists sometimes treat their bombing atrocities as if they were as trivial as practical jokes, the way Hillary Clinton cackled at the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi. Sooner or later, though, all empires fall, as the American one is expected to do within the next ten to fifteen years or so. Just as birds attack Melanie, so will the ‘practical joker’ US/NATO one day get their comeuppance, perhaps in the form of a bombing.

If and when that happens, it truly will be the end of the world…the world of capitalism, that is, since many have speculated that the latest economic collapse could very well be the self-destruction of capitalism that Marx predicted, symbolized in the film by the near-fatal attack of birds on the green-suited bird.

After the attack on her, the birds are at rest. Now would be a good chance to get Melanie to a hospital in San Francisco; Mitch and the others would be putting themselves at great risk of being exposed in their car to another bird attack, but Melanie’s injuries are so severe that her life depends on getting her to a doctor.

As Mitch gets the car ready for Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy, he hears a radio newscast mentioning the possibility of involving the military. Naturally: the bird attacks symbolize a foreign aerial invasion. Indeed, as Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy get into the car, we see the tense enveloping of the area with resting birds. The sight of so many birds suggests the occupation of a foreign army…or air force. In this symbolic sense, Americans can get an inkling of what other countries must feel when they have US military bases in them.

So the ending of the film is an ambiguous one: how much longer will the bird attacks continue? The short story’s ending seems more pessimistic, as we find Nat smoking a cigarette–like a man condemned to a firing squad–as he awaits the next bird attack. He seems resigned to his fate. Many victims of US imperialism must feel the same resignation when confronted with endless air strikes.

The hope that Mitch et al must feel, as they drive Melanie to a San Francisco hospital, would symbolically reflect the Western hope of reviving from a vulnerability that other countries have felt, courtesy of the US/NATO alliance. As we witness the geopolitical shift from a unipolar world to a multipolar one, Westerners may find their hopes dwindling.