Analysis of ‘In Bruges’

In Bruges is a 2008 British/American black comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

As the film’s title indicates, the story is set in Bruges, Belgium, where two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson, respectively), are sent by their boss, Harry (Fiennes), on a ‘vacation’ of sorts, until Ken is given instructions by Harry to buy a gun there and kill Ray for accidentally killing a boy while doing a job.

The film earned Farrell the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, while Gleeson was nominated in the same category. McDonagh won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines] Ray: After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through. “Get the fuck out of London, youse dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was. [pause] It’s in Belgium.

“Bruges is a shithole.” –Ray

“I like it here.” –Ken, to himself, at the top of the tower and overlooking the city

Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?
Ray: Yeah… yeah, it’s rubbish.
Overweight Man: It is? The guide book says it’s a must-see.
Ray: Well you lot ain’t going up there.
Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?
Ray: I mean, it’s all winding stairs. I’m not being funny.
Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?
Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? Youse a bunch of fuckin’ elephants.
[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around but quickly grows tired]
Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!
[the overweight women calm down the overweight man]
Overweight Woman #2: [to Ray] You know you’re just the rudest man. The rudest man!
Ken: [coming back from the tower] What’s all that about? [Ray shrugs] They’re not going up there. [to overweight family] Hey, guys. I wouldn’t go up there. It’s really narrow.
Overweight Woman #2: Screw you, motherfucker!
Ray: Americans, isn’t it?

“What are they doing over there? They’re filming something. They’re filming midgets!” –Ray

Canadian Guy: I don’t care if this is the smoking section, all right? She directed it right in my face, man! I don’t wanna die just because of your fucking arrogance!
Ray: [thinking the tourist is American] Uh huh, is that what the Vietnamese used to say?

[beating the Canadian guy, whom he believes to be American] “That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!” –Ray

Ken: You from the States?
Jimmy: Yeah. But don’t hold it against me.
Ken: I’ll try not to…Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.

Jimmy: There’s gonna be a war, man. I can see it. There’s gonna be a war between the blacks and between the whites. You ain’t even gonna need a uniform no more. This ain’t gonna be a war where you pick your side. Your side’s already picked for you.
Ray: And I know whose side I’m fighting on. I’m fighting with the blacks. The whites are gonna get their heads kicked in!
Jimmy: You don’t decide this shit, man.
Ray: Well, who are the half-castes gonna fight with?
Jimmy: The blacks, man. That’s obvious.
Ray: What about the Pakistanis?
Jimmy: The blacks.
Ray: What about…Think of a hard one. What about the Vietnamese?
Jimmy: The blacks!
Ray: Well, I’m definitely fighting with the blacks if they’ve got the Vietnamese. [pause] So, hang on. Would all of the white midgets in the world be fighting against all the black midgets in the world?
Jimmy: Yeah.
Ray: That would make a good film!
Jimmy: You don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off of black midgets, man.

Ken: [looking at a surreal Bosch painting] It’s Judgment Day, you know?
Ray: No. What’s that then?
Ken: Well, it’s, you know, the final day on Earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they’ve committed and that.
Ray: Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that.
Ken: Yeah. And what’s the other place?
Ray: Purgatory.
Ken: Purgatory…what’s that?
Ray: Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham. [pause] Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?

Ken: And at the same time, at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.
Ray: Who was that?
Ken: This fellow Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. But he came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.

“The little boy…” –priest, after having been shot by Ray

“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, and all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?” –Harry, to Ken on the phone in the hotel

“I know I’m awake, but I feel like I’m in a dream.” –Ken, pretending Ray has said it

“Do you know what that is? Yeah, I know you know it’s a train. Do you know what train? Well, it’s a train that Ray just got on, and he’s alive and he’s well, and he doesn’t know where he’s going and neither do I. So if you need to do your worst, do your worst. You’ve got the address of the hotel. I’ll be here waiting. Because I’ve got to quite like Bruges, now. It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.” –Ken, at the train station, on the phone with Harry

Natalie: [Harry gets angry and is destroying the phone; his wife approaches him, saying:] Harry. Harry! It’s an inanimate fucking object!
Harry: [to wife] You’re an inanimate fuckin’ object!

“When I phoned you yesterday, did I ask you, ‘Ken, will you do me a favour and become Ray’s psychiatrist, please?’ No. What I think I asked you was, ‘Could you go blow his fucking head off for me?'” –Harry, to Ken

“You’ve got to stick to your principles.” –Harry, before shooting himself in the head

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” –Ray, last lines

Central themes in this film are sin, grace, and, legalism, or the demand to measure up to moral standards, the failure to do so resulting in punishment (e.g., death). Added to these themes is the dialectical relationship between sin, grace, and legalism.

More dialectics are seen in how Bruges, a quaint, “fairy-tale” kind of town, full of old churches, can be seen to embrace elements of both heaven and hell. Frequent references are made to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch on such subjects as hell and the Last Judgement.

Ray’s one hit job is to shoot a priest in the confessional. Ironically, Ray gives his confession before killing his confessor. After putting bullets through the chest of the priest, who is staggering out of the confession box, Ray hears him say, “The little boy…” before dropping down dead. Once on the floor, the priest no longer is obscuring Ray’s vision: one of his bullets has grazed a boy’s forehead.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which conveys the image of “missing the mark.” The irony in Ray’s sin is in his hitting the mark all too well. One of the bullets has gone right through the priest’s body, then flies past and hits the boy. In grazing his forehead, it has ‘missed the mark’ (i.e., not gone through the middle of his head), but hit him well enough to kill him. In killing the innocent, Ray has sinned.

This missing the mark vs. hitting it all too well should also be understood dialectically, for it symbolizes the dialectical relationship, discussed above, between sin and theological legalism, the strident demand to fulfill lofty moral standards. Recall that in ancient Greek tragedy, hamartia also means ‘tragic flaw,’ which in Harry’s case refers to his proud insistence that killing a child, even accidentally, is punishable only by death…even if he were to commit the sin himself.

Sins of all shapes and sizes are committed in quaint, churchy, fairy-tale Bruges. These sins range from the mildest (rudeness, four-letter words, etc.) to the harshest (murder and suicide), and everything in between (anger, fighting, racism, tactlessness towards dwarfs, drug use and trafficking, soliciting prostitutes, theft, etc.).

Ray, guilty of most of these sins, finds Bruges to be a “shithole,” even to the point of imagining an eternity in the town to be the very definition of hell, as he muses at the end of the film. It’s only natural that he’d think that way: all those churches have been reminding him of his sins.

St. Paul, in Romans, chapter seven, wrote of how the Mosaic Law inevitably leads to sin, since no one can reasonably be expected to follow the Torah to the letter all the time. This excess adherence to the Law, or hitting the mark all too well, inevitably leads to missing the mark, as described above when Ray has literally hit the mark by killing the priest, and has metaphorically missed the mark by killing the boy in the church, the bullet grazing his forehead.

As I’ve stated in many posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and its coiled body is a circular continuum between those opposites. Excessive adherence to legalism, or hitting the mark too well, is the serpent’s biting head, which shifts over to the bitten tail of missing the mark, sinning, accidentally killing a boy, or a dwarf, leading to suicidal ideation, if not committing it, the unforgivable sin of despair.

Ray and Ken go to the Belfry of Bruges, the top of which gives a beautiful, heavenly view of the town. Ray isn’t interested, so Ken goes up alone. Three obese American tourists ask Ray about the building; but he advises them not to try going in and up the narrow, steep staircase, bluntly saying they’re too fat to fit inside. The man among the three is infuriated, and he pathetically swings punches at Ray, who of course can easily dodge them; then the man quickly tires. In his anger at Ray’s rudeness, he has missed the mark.

Now, going up those stairs reminds me of Milton‘s words: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 432-433) While it is unfair to judge the overweight by claiming that their obesity is merely because of indulgence in the deadly sin of gluttony (there is the factor of a genetic predisposition to obesity, or overeating could be a manic defence against facing one’s unhappiness), we can see the obesity of these three tourists, unable to climb that staircase “that out of hell leads up to light,” in terms of the movie’s theme of sin.

Later, Ray notices some people making a film, and one of the actors is a dwarf. Ray is fascinated, almost fixated, on the dwarf. He imagines that, because of the difficulties dwarfs face in life, that they must have a high suicide rate; he cites Hervé Villechaize as an example.

The dwarf, Jimmy (played by Jordan Prentice), as can clearly be seen by the end of the movie, is a double of the boy Ray has accidentally killed. He has transferred his guilt feelings towards the boy onto Jimmy, by on the one hand suggesting a concern that Jimmy might one day kill himself (Ray would try to stop Jimmy from dying, since he cannot bring back the boy he killed), and on the other hand annoying him by tactlessly dwelling on the subject with him and making him self-conscious (i.e., going from hurting the boy by killing him, to hurting a dwarf by reminding him of his condition). By discussing suicide with Jimmy, Ray is also projecting his own suicide ideation onto him.

Among those on the movie set, someone else has caught Ray’s eye, a young Belgian woman, Chloë (played by Clémence Poésy), whom he finds attractive. Since she sells drugs and robs tourists sometimes with her ex-boyfriend, Eirik (played by Jérémie Renier), she is a fellow sinner, so Ray can feel all the more comfortable with her. Iniquity loves company.

The very nature of having a job as a hitman is inherently alienating; and as I’ve discussed many times before, the mafia can be seen as symbolic of capitalists. Harry, Ray’s and Ken’s mob boss, wants the latter to kill the former, thus reinforcing their sense of worker alienation; but Chloë’s entrance into his life can be a cure to his estrangement from society…and to his suicidal ideation. (While we’re on the subject of Harry representing the evils of capitalism, there’s a deleted scene in which we learn the reason for him wanting Ray to kill the priest: he was opposed to a housing project Harry was working on, so killing him would help the business go through unobstructed.)

Being judgemental of others typically leads to more sin, as we see in the restaurant scene, when Ray gets into a fight with two Canadians over Chloë’s smoking, then Ray mistakes the Canadians for Americans by collectively judging the latter nationality for the killing of Vietnamese…and John Lennon.

Unless one becomes as little children, one shall never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3. Children are the innocent, the angelic, and therefore inviolable, as Harry sees them. This in part is surely why the only time in the film that we see the bad-tempered mob boss actually smiling is at his children at home.

Jimmy, though a double of the boy Ray killed (see above), doesn’t share children’s innocence the way he shares their short stature, as is revealed in his bizarre, racist prediction of a war between blacks and whites…in which, of course, all people of colour, including Asians and even those partly white, are lumped together with “the blacks.” In his physical association with children (especially in that schoolboy uniform we see him in towards the end of the film), and in his not-so-innocent attitude, we see another dialectical unity between sin and grace.

As unapologetically uncouth as Ray is, he is tearfully remorseful over his killing, however accidental, of the boy in the church. Here we see a dialectical relationship between penitence and impenitence, and thus between sin and grace once again, since it is penitence that leads the sinner to grace. To “sin boldly,” as Luther advised, is to admit to oneself how badly one needs the redemption of Christ.

In this connection, we can see Ken as a Christ figure. First, Ken defies Harry’s order to kill Ray, thus repudiating his boss’s legalism (‘capital punishment’ for Ray, as Harry would see it, but murder to everyone else, hence we see dialectics in Harry’s ‘illegal legalism,’ if you will). Ken doesn’t go through with shooting Ray, just as the latter is about to shoot himself, then gets upset at the sight of the gun in the former’s hand! Ken then takes away Ray’s gun, and later puts Ray on a train to leave Bruges so Harry can’t find him; for Ken wants Ray to have a chance at redemption, to try to live a good life.

As Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

When Harry arrives in Bruges, he argues with Ken over whether Ray should be forgiven. One is reminded of Portia‘s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained…” Ken is prepared to be shot and killed by Harry; at the top of the belfry, Ken won’t pick up a gun and try to stop Harry from killing him. He’s shot twice by Harry, in the leg and in the neck, but he isn’t killed…Harry hasn’t hit the mark he wanted to (he also compares Ken to Robert Powell in his portrayal of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth). Harry begins helping Ken down the staircase.

When Harry is tipped off by Eirik as to where Ray is (just outside with Chloë), Harry runs out of the belfry. Ken limps his way back up that difficult, narrow staircase, reminding me of the flagellation of bleeding Christ in His passion, when He wears the crown of thorns and struggles to carry His cross during the Stations (in particular, 2, 3, 7, and 9). Ken returns to the top and lets himself fall off the edge, so he can warn Ray in time about Harry. Like Christ, Ken dies so a sinner can live.

Harry chases Ray back to his hotel, which is co-owned by a pregnant woman named Marie (played by Thekla Reuten). She refuses to step aside and let Harry run up the stairs and shoot Ray in his room. We should note that the story is set near Christmas: in an earlier scene, Marie is seen decorating a tree.

Since it is taboo for Harry to harm a child, he cannot force his way past Marie. Here we see more Christian symbolism: she is like Mary, pregnant with the Christ-child, soon to give birth to the Saviour who will redeem us from the harshness of religious legalism. Even a “cunt” like Harry won’t brutalize a pregnant woman. (In keeping with Marie’s association with the Virgin, we never see the father of the unborn baby.)

Ray escapes the hotel by jumping onto a boat going down the nearby canal. Harry runs out, sees Ray on the boat, and fires, hitting Ray just below his heart. Harry has hit the mark all too well…but Ray isn’t dead.

He gets off the boat and staggers over to the film set, where a dream sequence is being filmed using costuming inspired by imagery from Bosch’s paintings of hell and the Last Judgement. Recall Ken’s remark about Bruges being like a dream, claiming that Ray said it; recall also Hamlet‘s words, “To die, to sleep;–/To sleep, perchance to dream,” when the Dane is contemplating suicide.

Harry follows Ray to the film set, and fires a few more bullets in Ray’s back. Ray echoes the priest’s words, “The little boy,” only he’s looking at Jimmy in that schoolboy uniform…with his head blown to pieces from one of the dumdums that ‘dumdum’ Harry got from Yuri (played by Eric Godon).

Because Jimmy’s head has been blown apart, Harry doesn’t know that he’s accidentally killed a dwarf instead of a little boy. When Ray killed the boy in the church, the bullet grazed his head: Ray almost missed the mark; actually and ironically, he missed missing the mark. Harry’s shot has hit the mark all too well–if only he’d missed it! Again, we see the dialectics of sin and innocence.

Harry’s moral legalism about killing kids is his undoing, his tragic flaw, his hamartia, his missing of the mark by hitting it all too well. He can never forgive himself for what seems to be the killing of a boy, and so he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger before Ray can get a chance to tell him he’s killed a dwarf…actually, one lacking in innocence, as we’ve seen above.

Harry’s rash judgement of himself is illustrative of the cruel nature of the moralistic superego, which gives us all a merciless inner critic. Kleinians consider the superego to be a split-off part of the ego, with a projected death instinct as well as a life instinct. If not modified and integrated with the rest of the personality, the superego can grow from being very severe to being associated with extreme disturbance and even psychosis. Such pathology can be seen in Harry, who imagines his morality to be superior in wanting child-killers to be killed, even those who don’t mean to kill children…but he’s also OK with killing priests who oppose his business interests.

As Ray is carried off on a stretcher, he imagines Bruges to be the very definition of hell (all those Bosch-costumed actors do nothing to dissuade him from such a conclusion). Yet he also sees Chloë and Marie, two angelic figures that should remind him of how Bruges is actually the dialectic dream of the “sleep of death,” a marriage of heaven and hell. Like “in-betweeny” Purgatory.

He ought to have Marie pray for him now, at the hour of his death.

The Three Unities

I: Introduction

At the start of almost every day, before I get out of bed (unless I don’t have time to), I practice a meditation of at least fifteen minutes (sometimes as long as half an hour). I lie on my back and start with several slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths. As I do this, I pay attention to how all the parts of my body feel while relaxing them, starting with my feet, then my lower and upper legs, my pelvic area, my stomach, back, and chest, my hands and arms, up to my shoulders, neck, face, and head.

I’ll feel a tingling, vibrating feeling all over, relaxing me. Then I’ll imagine the waves of the ocean all around me and passing through me, for I imagine myself to be a part of that oceanic water. As the waves move up and down through me, as it were, my body moves slightly to and fro with those undulations. I try to keep my body fully relaxed the whole time, not letting my legs, for example, tense up as I feel myself swaying with the ‘waves.’

If I do this meditation/auto-hypnosis correctly, not letting myself be distracted by other thoughts (e.g., not ruminating on past pain, or keeping intrusive thoughts out of my mind) and keeping myself focused on those ‘waves,’ over time I start to feel the benefits. This is a mindfulness meditation, keeping me focused on the eternal NOW, what I like to call The Unity of Time (more on that below). A soothing vibration is felt all over my body, calming me.

The benefits of this meditation are felt gradually, cumulatively over time, as long as I continue to do it regularly, without any long breaks of not doing it for weeks, which would cause me to go back to my original angry, tense, impatient C-PTSD self. The benefits are far from having made me into some kind of Buddhist saint, of course, but they have calmed my raging spirit to a notable extent.

I’d like to explain now my theory, behind which I believe I gain benefits from this meditation, a theory that I call The Three Unities. I got the words from a 16th century interpreter of Aristotle, but I don’t use them to describe how a well-written drama should be presented. For me, they describe the reality of the world behind its surface differences. They are The Unity of Space, The Unity of Time, and The Unity of Action. I’ll start by describing the first of these.

II: The Unity of Space

Everything inside and outside of us, everywhere in the universe, is one, down in its particle and wave properties. The Hindus call this unity Brahman, that aspect of which is Atman inside each of us, and we must realize that unity and identity of Atman and Brahman inside and outside ourselves. The meditation of waves of water flowing through us and around us symbolizes that unity of Atman and Brahman, the infinite ocean that is everything and everyone.

Each of us–as infants–has no sense of a self that is separate from others until we see ourselves in the mirror for the first time. Prior to that, we’re awkward, fragmented beings that have little sense of where ourselves ends and “not-I” begins. The problem, as Lacan and the Buddhists observed, is that the whole idea of an ego, a self, is a lie. No thing has a permanent, fixed reality. There’s just the universe, of which each of us is a small drop of water in its infinite ocean, its waves flowing into crests of brief existence and troughs of brief non-existence, or crests and troughs of any pair of opposites.

Just as we’re alienated from each other, so are we alienated from ourselves, from our reflection in the mirror, be that the literal, specular image, or the metaphorical mirror reflections of our parents’ faces looking back at us, or any face looking back at us. The specular image gives the illusion of a united, clearly defined totality, creating an idealized self-image we wish we could live up to, but ultimately never will. The reflected image shows ourselves, but being apart from us in space, looks like someone else.

Just as the reflected image in the mirror is an illusion, so is the metaphorical mirror image of other people facing us an illusion. The whole notion of division between the self and others should be understood dialectically; there’s a bit of the self in other people, and vice versa, as I discussed the idea here. The more we realize that we are all interconnected, the more empathy we’ll feel for each other, the less isolated we’ll feel from each other, and the more inner peace we’ll feel.

The object relations theorists have an excellent way of helping us understand how there’s a little of us in other people, and a little of others in ourselves, that the line separating ourselves and others is blurred. We carry internal objects of each other in our minds all the time. To see how this is so, we must understand to what extent we project onto others, and introject energy from other people.

When I speak of projection, I don’t limit it to imagining others possessing our own, projected personality traits; I refer to projective identification, a coinage of Melanie Klein‘s that describes actually making other people internalize one’s projections so they will manifest these internalizations in their behaviour, attitudes, etc.

Wilfred R. Bion extended Klein’s concept to refer to a back-and-forth exchange of projective identification, starting with the mother/infant relationship as a pre-verbal form of communication. A baby doesn’t yet know how to process agitating external stimuli, because he hasn’t developed the needed thinking apparatus; so he projects those irritating excitations, those ‘thoughts without a thinker,’ onto his mother, who as his container introjects and internalizes them, the contained. She processes these feelings for him, then sends a detoxified version of them back to him, which he can now endure. In time, he’ll learn how to do this detoxifying and processing himself, without need of help from her. (Read here for more thorough explanations of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic ideas.)

When dealing with psychotic patients, Bion found himself having to play the role of mother in their treatment, detoxifying their upsetting external stimuli, since his patients’ mental illness had made them regress to the role of infant. Anyway, in a larger sense, we all play the roles of mother and infant with each other to some extent, trading energies and detoxifying for each other when we can’t do it alone. In this sense, there’s a bit of ourselves in each other, being traded back and forth.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the personality should be understood in a relational sense, not as an isolated entity. To get back to the core of who and what we are, we should de-emphasize the Freudian idea that libidinal satisfaction is about drives (i.e., pleasure-seeking), but rather that libido, as WRD Fairbairn observed, is object-directed (by objects, I mean other people with whom the subject–oneself–has relationships of friendship and love).

We tend to get broken off from other people as a result of insufficient parental empathy, that is, childhood emotional neglect. The frustrated child engages in splitting as a defence mechanism, regarding people as either all-bad or all-good, instead of an integration of both good and bad. This splitting is what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), while the integration of good and bad she called the depressive position (D). These positions arise in infancy, but we all oscillate back and forth between them throughout life, an oscillation that Bion notated as PS<->D.

All of life is an oscillation back and forth between dialectically-related opposites, an undulation back and forth between crests and troughs: PS<->D, self and other, good and bad, projection and introjection, etc. Such is the nature of dialectical monism, or unity in duality, yin and yang, the ouroboros‘ biting head and bitten tail, the extreme ends of a circular continuum (the serpent’s coiled body).

When we’re cut off from ideal relationships with real people, connections that Fairbairn called the Central Ego (approximate to Freud’s ego) connected with the Ideal Object, we develop two split-off, subsidiary egos: the Libidinal Ego (similar to Freud’s id) connected to the Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego (somewhat comparable with Freud’s superego) connected to the Rejecting Object. The former of these two subsidiary egos tends toward pleasure-seeking, the manic defence (the Exciting Object being such people as pornographic models/actresses, prostitutes, teen idols, rock/pop/movie/sports stars, etc.) against feelings of sadness and guilt; the latter subsidiary ego rejects and hates people, judging them (and the self), imagining one doesn’t need them, and imagining they all reject the self (i.e., a projection of the self’s contempt for others).

As we can see from Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure (meant to replace Freud’s), it is in our nature to relate to others. If we can’t do so in the ideal way, that is, with real people (Central Ego and Ideal Object), we’ll create fantasy relationships of either a pleasurable kind (Libidinal Ego and Exciting Object) or fantasy relations of a hostile kind (Anti-libidinal Ego and Rejecting Object). Either way, in our alienation from other people, we’ll relate to something of some kind, because we’re always connected in some way; it’s just a question of whether or not these connections are healthy.

Lack of parental empathy, even (or especially) to the point of abuse, can lead to an even more serious personality problem: pathological narcissism. Healthy levels of narcissism are restrained with a reasonable level of humility–again, those undulating crests and troughs. Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self is another example of how the personality should be conceived of as relational, for the two poles consist of narcissistic parent/child relationships: the grandiose self and the idealized parental imago, two exaggerations of the worth of one’s self and of others, originally, one’s parents. Traumatic damage to one pole can be compensated for by the other, but damage to both poles leads to self-hate, leading in turn to the danger of psychological fragmentation, a danger dysfunctionally averted by pathological narcissism.

Instead of the healthy swaying up and down between pride and humility, as seen in normal, mature levels of narcissism, in the pathological form, we see a splitting of extreme self-love (as publicly displayed in a narcissistic False Self) and extreme self-hate (the repressed or disavowed, projected True Self). Instead of shades of lighter and darker grey, we have only black and white.

Even desire itself, that first cause of selfishness, links us with other people. As Lacan explained, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other.” That is, we desire recognition from others, and we desire to be or have what others desire. However well we behave, or however badly, we’re still connected with the world. And we always desire more and more, making the fulfillment of that desire hopeless.

We link with others, as Bion observed, through Knowledge (especially), Love, and Hate–his K, L, and H-links. When knowledge of the truth gets too agitating, those traumatizing things-in-themselves he associated with O, we refuse linking with them, the attacks on linking resulting in -K, a rejection of knowledge. To connect with the All, the Unity of Space, we must try to allow all linking to happen.

Now, whatever is within ourselves is also without; so the black-and-white splitting that occurs inside ourselves as a defence mechanism also occurs outside, in other people, split-off and projected onto them. To return to the more peaceful, greyish state of integration of good and bad, this must be perceived in both the inner and outer worlds–hence the need to grasp the reality of the Unity of Space. We’re all one, flowing up and down in waves.

III: The Unity of Time

There are really two parts to this unity: the eternal NOW, as mentioned above, and the cyclical nature of time, as symbolized by the ouroboros, a symbol of eternity.

Time–that is, past, present, and future–is just a man-made construct that we use for practical reasons; but this construct is a lie, an illusion, just like the ego, the self. There is only ever NOW: the past no longer exists, and the future doesn’t yet exist; sill, we treat them as if they exist, in our ever-worrying, ever-ruminating minds.

The Unity of Time also expresses itself in cycles, as pointed out above: after every ending is a new beginning, the ouroboros’ head biting its tail, and its coiled middle body representing a new time-cycle. This cyclical reality is seen not only in the obvious examples of the seasons, and of night and day, but also in such things as Nietzsche‘s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, and in the Hindu concept of the yuga. Those up-and-down undulations of the infinite ocean of Brahman symbolize the cyclical Unity of Time. Focusing on those metaphorical waves while meditating can keep one focused on the present moment, mindful of the eternal NOW.

IV: The Unity of Action

All phenomena that appear around us and in us, however random and chaotic they seem on the surface, can be interpreted in terms of dialectics, which resolve contradictory opposites into unities. These resolutions of contradictions can be of the Hegelian, idealist sort, or of the Marxist, materialist sort. Contradictions arise and resolve, the resolutions becoming new contradictions to be resolved, throughout history, in endless cycles.

The working-out of dialectical contradictions is a complex one, but for convenience’s sake I’ll break it down to the well-known, three-part schema that is Fichte‘s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (words that Hegel neither used nor liked). More accurate words for Hegel’s dialectic would be the abstract (a hypothetical idea to be tested out), the negative (an opinion that opposes the abstract), and the concrete (a resolution of the two opposing ideas, resulting in a new, refined and improved hypothesis, which becomes a new abstract to be negated and concretized all over again).

I prefer the words thesis, negation, and sublation to refer to this three-part simplification of the dialectic, this last word–in its original German–having such paradoxical meanings as “to lift up [to a higher level],” “to abolish,” “to preserve,” “to transcend,” and “to cancel [each other out].” I use the ouroboros as a symbol of a circular continuum to show the relationships of these three parts to each other. The thesis and negation occur where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and the sublation is anywhere and everywhere along the serpent’s coiled body, everywhere doing combinations of some sort of the thesis and negation, in an attempt to resolve them. Thus, the ouroboros symbolizes how all the infinite complexities of action in the universe can be seen to be unified.

I’ve already written up a number of blog posts that give examples of how this ouroboros symbolism can be applied to politics (from a Marxist perspective), to psychoanalysis, to film, literary, and myth analyses, and even to show how one can recover from narcissistic and emotional abuse.

In the larger philosophical scheme of things, we should remember Heraclitus‘ famous words, “Everything flows.” This idea must be interpreted correctly, like yin and yang, not so obtusely misunderstood as meaning, “Everything bad is good at the same time,” or some nonsense like that. Good flows into bad, and vice versa, like the crests and troughs of the ocean.

I bring this point up in reaction to a comment that a woman made on a FB page (“Narcknowledge”); she for some mysterious reason hated my presence on that page, and she began trolling me for every blog post I shared there. In reaction to my Everything Flows post, which has the yin/yang symbol among its pictures, she commented, “I hate that whole yin/yang thing…What good comes out of leukaemia?”…etc.

Leukaemia, the coronavirus, TROLLS, the oppression of the Palestinians and Yemenis, income inequality caused by neoliberal capitalism, and US imperialist wars–among countless other possible examples–are all unqualified evils. Good, however, can flow as a response to these evils, in the form of opposition to them: getting medical help, showing solidarity with the victims, socialist revolution…and not feeding the trolls. That’s how to think of ‘that whole yin/yang thing.’

V: Conclusion

Anyway, to conclude: meditation on these three unities–contemplating them all simultaneously by visualizing oneself as part of the flowing water of the universal ocean, staying in the present moment, and feeling the crests and troughs as symbolic of the cyclical ups and and downs of life–can give us peace by helping us intuitively grasp the deeper mystical truth of the world.

Analysis of ‘A Cure for Wellness’

A Cure for Wellness is a 2016 psychological horror film written for the screen by Justin Haythe and directed by Gore Verbinski, based on a story they wrote together. It stars Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth.

Haythe and Verbinski were inspired by Thomas Mann‘s novel, The Magic Mountain, which also features a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. This inspiration in turn suggests the influence of Nietzsche‘s having spent many summers in Switzerland, often hiking in the Alps, in the hopes that the climate and fresh air would be therapeutic for his ill health.

The film got mixed-to-negative reviews because of its perceived-to-be excessive length, and its ending, which some deemed disappointing–though its visuals and performances were generally praised. Perhaps if one thought of it less as a horror film, and more as a drama with thought-provoking, philosophical themes, one would see more value in it, as I hope to demonstrate. Indeed, there seems to be the potential for the film to become a cult classic.

Furthermore, though this film came out in 2016/2017, a reconsideration of it (as of this post’s 2020 publication) would be timely, given the current coronavirus outbreak. The American response to the crisis has been markedly inferior to that of China and Cuba: on the one hand, not enough is being done in terms of helping the overworked, underfunded health services; and on the other hand, too much fear-mongering seems to be going on in the media, often motivated by governments with authoritarian agendas. The film deals with similar issues: the capitalist world cares too little about the sick, while Dr. Volmer (Isaacs), director of the sanitarium in which the story is set, seems overly solicitous of patients’ health…and for not-so-noble reasons.

This analysis is dedicated, and with a shout-out to, my Facebook friend, Gunnar Angeles, who, as a fan of the film, has been eager to have me write something up on it. I hope you like it, Gunnar.

Here are some quotes:

“There is a sickness inside us. Rising like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats. It’s there in every one of you seated around the table. We deny its existence until one day the body rebels against the mind and screams out, ‘I am not a well man.’ No doubt you will think only of the merger. That unclean melding of two equally diseased institutions. But the truth cannot be ignored. For only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure. I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again. Sincerely, Roland E. Pembroke.” –Lockhart (DeHaan), reading Pembroke’s letter while sitting at a boardroom table

“Dad? Dad!” –9-year-old Lockhart (Douglas Hamilton), on seeing his father jump off a bridge

“You ever have a twelve inch black dick in your ass? Prison, Mr. Lockhart.” –Hollis

“No-one ever leaves.” –Hannah von Reichmerl (Goth)

Pembroke (Harry Groener): Is that why you came all this way? Ambition? Then you have it worse than any of us.
Lockhart: What’s that?
Pembroke: The sickness. Your father saw the truth long before the rest of us. The pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things…[submerging into the pool water]

“There’s something in the water. There’s something in the fucking water!” –Lockhart

Hannah: You made me believe I could leave here one day.
Lockhart: Why would anybody wanna leave?” [brainwashed, and grinning with dentures]

“I’m not a patient!” –Lockhart (repeated line)

Volmer (Isaacs): For the human physiology, the effect of the water can be quite toxic…unless, of course, it is properly filtered. The baron devised the process, using the bodies of peasants that belonged to his land. He managed to distill the water to its life-giving essence. Of course, he paid a terrible price for his ingenuity. His only mistake was to use subjects who were unwilling. Luckily, times have changed. The last two hundred years have been the most productive in human history. Man rid himself of God, of hierarchy, of everything that gave him meaning, until he was left worshipping the empty altar of his own ambition. That is why they come, men like you. You’re quite right, Mr. Lockhart: no one ever leaves. What you fail to understand is that no one wants to.

Pembroke[brainwashed] I’ve never felt better.

[last lines]
Hollis (Lisa Banes): [as Lockhart begins cycling away with Hannah] Are you insane?
Lockhart[last line of the film; with a crazed grin on his face] Actually… I’m feeling much better now![Lockhart continues biking into the night]

The film’s paradoxical title already introduces a theme before the story has even begun: the dialectical relationship between illness and health. (Recall Dr. Volmer’s words: “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure.”) Put another way, sometimes those who would harm us the worst are those who claim to be most concerned for our health.

The protagonist, a young American businessman named Lockhart, is aptly named, for his name sounds like a pun on ‘locked heart.’ Indeed, the trauma he suffered as a child, watching his father commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, when combined with his experience of the cutthroat world of capitalism, has closed his heart from enjoying close relationships with other people. His ‘locked heart’ will be opened soon enough, though, when he meets Hannah.

The board of directors of his company want him to go to the Swiss Alps to find and bring back a fellow executive, an elderly man named Pembroke, who is desperately needed by the company to help sign a merger and deal with a criminal investigation of malfeasance–something that’s Lockhart’s fault, but something they plan to make Pembroke take responsibility for.

The only half-decent relationship Lockhart has with anybody is with his mother, and even this relationship is tenuous. She makes a figurine of a ballerina who “doesn’t know she’s dreaming,” and gives it to him. Just before his trip to Switzerland, his mother dies, something he recalls in a long dream during, ironically, the one good, long sleep he’s had in ages.

His giving of the ballerina figurine to Hannah is symbolic of his love of his mother transferred onto the girl. His growing relationship with Hannah–from his having a beer with her in a pub, to her giving the now “awake” figurine back to him (a return of that love, which in turn breaks him out of his mad acceptance of the “cure” that Volmer has, through gaslighting, manipulated him into taking on)–unlocks his heart and makes him want to rescue her from her rapist father.

The true cure to illness has always been, and always will be, loving relationships…but back to the beginning of the story.

Pembroke is staying in a large sanitarium, a castle-like building with a strange history, as Lockhart’s driver there tells him. A baron who lived there several centuries ago, in order to preserve a “pure” bloodline, wanted to marry his sister. She was infertile, and so he tried to create a kind of medicine to cure her. His experiments involved killing off local peasants by using their bodies to filter out toxins from water in a local aquifer, water that otherwise has life-extending properties; the peasants grew so enraged at him, after finding all the poorly-hidden corpses, that they rose up against him. They cut out the baby from the woman’s now-fertile womb, they threw it in the aquifer (though it survived!), they burned the woman at the stake, and they burned the baron’s castle to the ground.

Already in this story of incest among nobility do we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health. Throughout history, from ancient Egypt to the Habsburgs and later, royalty has rationalized inbreeding among them to preserve a ‘pure bloodline.’ Yet everyone knows, as all of these royals should have, that inbreeding results in birth defects, producing the opposite of a perceived ‘pure bloodline,’–instead of getting the healthiest, ‘noblest’ offspring, one gets the least healthy of them.

Pembroke has written a letter to the New York company, saying he won’t return because his aspiration to be ‘cured’ renders insignificant his aspiration for more wealth. This wish to find a ‘cure’ to what ails him is like a religious experience; indeed, one interpretation of the health centre is that it’s a metaphor for a religious cult. Recall Jesus’ words: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31)

That no one who enters the sanatarium ever leaves should give us pause about this ‘paradise.’ Recall the sign over the entrance to Dante‘s hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” (Canto III, line 9) This hope is a hope of leaving the world of suffering, the hope of getting well. There’s no exit, Sartre‘s hell of other people, where one’s self-concept is trapped in the opinions of others. The ‘ill people’ in the sanitarium can never see themselves as well if Volmer doesn’t say they’re well, and so, they can never leave. In this relationship between heaven and hell, this dialectical unity of opposites, we also see the unity between sickness and wellness.

Accordingly, Pembroke never gets better, nor does anyone else in the sanatarium. People there drink lots and lots of water, but they become…dehydrated, more unity in opposites. The aquifer water, toxic to humans, nonetheless causes the eels swimming in it to extend their lives–dialectical unity of life and death. Anyone who has read enough of my posts knows by now know that I use water, with its dialectically flowing waves, to symbolize a nirvana-like state, a kind of heavenly eternal life. But bliss is only one aspect of this ineffable state of being, and this film presents water in its blissful and traumatizing aspects, heaven and hell, health and sickness, eternal life and death.

This two-sided nature of Ultimate Reality is something I’ve noted in the ocean in my Moby-Dick analysis, as it’s been noted in Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, in Lacan‘s Real Order, and in primordial Chaos as I’ve interpreted it here.

So the sanatarium is a Spenserian bower of bliss for the elderly patients: they seem to enjoy a blissful life of having their ‘ailments’ cured, they amuse themselves on the front lawn by playing badminton and cricket, by doing t’ai chi, or by doing crosswords, as Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie) does. None, except her and Lockhart, suspect that something insidiously evil is going on.

The fact that most of the patients, except special-case Hannah, are elderly is interesting. They are all senior citizens; she is mentally even younger than her physical, teen years. Their naïve, uncritical acceptance of the ‘cure,’ as well as hers suggests a dialectical relationship between her being so young and their being so old, something aptly expressed in Shakespeare’s As You Like it:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Act II, Scene vii, lines 163-166)

So, the gullibility of the elderly patients is a dialectical match for the sweet innocence of Hannah, who we eventually learn is Dr. Volmer’s daughter. He is in fact a kind of father figure to all the patients of the sanatorium; he takes on a paternalistic attitude to Lockhart, too. He rarely gets angry from Lockhart’s rebelliousness, but the doctor typically shows a subtle condescension to him, in his insistence that Lockhart, the identified patient who’s always acting up, isn’t well.

Hannah hates being holed up in Volmer’s ‘castle,’ as evinced by her constant frowning and pouting, like an annoyed little girl. When Lockhart challenges her always only doing what she’s “supposed to do,” she finally gets the courage to rebel; so her riding with Lockhart on her bicycle down the mountain is like her experiencing adolescent willfulness.

Rebelling against her father–who, as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “should be as a god” to her–is like Nietzsche saying, “God is dead!” Thus begins Hannah’s down-going.

This rebellious adolescent phase is intensified when she and Lockhart enter a pub patronized by a gang of antisocial teens. She has her first beer and dances to music on a jukebox while one of the boys dirty dances with her, hoping to do the obvious with her.

Prior to this dancing, she goes into the girls’ washroom. The girls of the gang ask her for a tampon; she seems a “freak” to them for not responding. She doesn’t even seem to know what a tampon is, implying that she hasn’t had her first period yet. We eventually learn that the distilled liquid in the small blue bottles lengthens one’s life by slowing the aging process…hence her infantilized state, both physical and mental.

She does, towards the end of the film, finally have her period, while standing in the swimming pool, her blood attracting a swarm of eels. She’s terrified by all the blood, and she goes to get help from Volmer. Her fearful ignorance of menstruation reminds us of Carrie, whom I described in my analysis of the novel as a psychological baby in a teen’s body. Hannah, too, is such a baby, and Volmer is like a secular Margaret White to her–overprotecting, domineering, emotionally abusive.

Volmer’s ending of a fight between Lockhart and the boy who’s been trying to seduce Hannah in the pub shows the doctor’s authoritarian dominance; for everyone in the pub, including those nasty teens, is intimidated by him, just as the naughtiest son often is by his father. This is how we should think of the sanatorium’s director: as a domineering father whose religious-cult-like authority must never be defied or challenged.

Lockhart’s continued defiance, however, constantly gets him in trouble with Volmer, causing him at one point to have one of his upper front teeth pulled out in an agonizing way reminding us of that scene with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

This tooth-pulling also reminds us of Trelkovsky’s predicament in The Tenant. In my analysis of that movie, I associated the loss of his tooth with castration, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis is symbolic of any bodily mutilation, or of lack, giving rise to desire.

Lack as the cause of desire leads to what the eels can be seen to symbolize, especially since they swim around in that water, that ‘healing’ water I associate with nirvanic bliss, or the eternal life of heaven. The water is life-extending for the eels, but toxic to humans; so the advantage it gives the eels is a human lack covetously desired by Volmer. Since the water is dialectically both immortalizing (as it were) and killing, the eels swimming in it can be seen to represent this destructive, hellish aspect; for theirs is an immortality denied to us.

The eels, as I see them, are symbolic castrated phalluses. This phallic association is especially apparent when one considers scenes with them in which erotic elements are juxtaposed (Consider also how young Freud did research attempting to find the location of male eels’ sexual organs!). When Lockhart is in the tank and sees the giant eels swimming around him, a man supposed to be supervising him has a sexual encounter with a nurse who bares her breasts while he masturbates; she also feeds him drops of that life-extending fluid. In another scene, Lockhart dreams of naked Hannah in a bathtub with eels slithering around her body.

The castrated phallus symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire, which in turn causes suffering and perpetuates samsara, the negation of nirvana. In this sense we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health, between heaven and hell. Though Nietzsche spent all those years in the 1880s in the health-affirming Alps, by 1889 he still had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

Since the long-living eels swimming in the aquifer water are crucial for Volmer in proving its life-extending properties–prompting him to filter it with human bodies to create the fluid for this “mad immortal man” who “on honeydew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” last two lines)–we see that his “cure for wellness” involves a regression from an ill state (or just a seemingly ill one) to an even worse one. The human filters regress from ‘illness’ to death.

We see many manifestations of regression in this film. The elderly patients regress to a dependent state similar to childhood (see the Shakespeare quote above). We see in infantilized Hannah a regression from her physical teen years to her being mentally like a little girl (recall the reference to Carrie above).

Elsewhere, we see in all those CEOs in the sanatarium taking “an enforced vacation” a regression from modern-day capitalism to–symbolically speaking–feudalism, since we learn that Volmer is actually the baron of two hundred years ago (whose family, the Von Reichmerls, were the owners of the land on the mountain where the sanatarium is), kept alive all this time with the fluid.

Under feudalism, serfs (e.g., peasant farmers, etc.) worked for their feudal lord on his land in exchange for his protection. Everyone knew his place, and no one questioned this class system. The absolutism of the Church and of kings and queens thrived under this system until such revolutions as those in France overthrew the feudal lords and monarchies and replaced them with a new set of class masters, the bourgeoisie. In this film, however, the revolutionary change of masters has regressed…gone backward.

Capitalism is an economic system desperately needing to be overthrown, but feudalism (even in the symbolic sense that I’m describing it in this film) is no improvement. What’s worse, not only are these aged ex-capitalist human filters working–as it were–for their feudal master, the baron who calls himself Volmer, by letting him kill them in their filtering of the aquifer water, the now-purified of which is his “milk of paradise,” so to speak; but they are letting him do this in all willingness. His sanatarium, his “stately pleasure-dome” (Coleridge, line 2) is also like a feudal Brave New World, and his water is the soma his patients all get high on. People enjoy their oppression too much to revolt.

He has them drink his water, which dehydrates them, makes their teeth fall out, and ultimately kills them. The patients’ bodies filter the toxins in the aquifer water, distilling it so he can drink only its healthier aspects, his liquid of (potential) immortality. This exchange of drunken liquids is symbolic of the narcissist’s manipulative use of projective and introjective identification. The abuser’s bad parts are projected out onto his victims; he keeps only the good parts. He doesn’t merely imagine that his victims embody his vices: he manipulates them to internalize his bad projections and to manifest them in real life, as symbolized by Volmer’s patients drinking his water. They believe the lie that he is selling, his ‘cure.’

Remember Pembroke’s words to Lockhart as the former is in the pool? He says, “It’s our fluids that must be purified.” Pembroke seems spiritually enlightened early on in the film, in the letter he’s written to the company; but these words of his in the pool remind us of those spoken by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove: “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” The cure for wellness is madness, as we see in Volmer’s near driving of Lockhart mad with the cure.

Just as there is a disproportionately large number of narcissists and psychopaths in the capitalist class, so were there far too many of them among feudal lords, monarchies, and ancient slave-masters. Royals’ and nobles’ tendency towards inbreeding reflects narcissism both in their arrogant wish to maintain a ‘pure bloodline’ (i.e., not ‘contaminating’ it with the blood of the ‘inferior’ classes), and in their belief that indulging in incest was a privilege permissible only to them. After all, Uranus procreated with his mother Gaea, Cronus slept with his older sister, Rhea, to bear the Olympian gods, and Zeus married his older sister, Hera. The kings of heaven could commit incest, so why not allow the kings of earth to do so, too?

For narcissists like Volmer, man is something to be overcome. Volmer will teach us the superman.

The baron’s wish to commit procreative incest with both his sister and his daughter, Hannah (who he notes, with delight, even looks like her mother), reflects his narcissistic wish to procreate with a lover as close to being himself as possible. He’d procreate asexually, if he could.

The removal of his false face to reveal his ugly burns symbolizes the contrast between the narcissistic False Self and the True Self. His claim that he’s done all for Hannah’s sake is, of course, a lie and reaction formation: he’s done everything for himself (just as the abusive parent who imposes Munchausen Syndrome by proxy on her child), for she is just a metaphorical mirror of his narcissistic self. His love for her is just Narcissus pining away at his reflection in the pond, his ideal-I.

The baron ties Hannah’s arms to the upper bedposts, then tears her top open, exposing her breasts. As she struggles to get free, he speaks of how her mother, his sister, “was also somewhat resistant” to have sex with him “at first,” then “she grew to like it,” a typical rapist’s rationalization. That he must have also tied up his sister before raping her is a safe assumption.

Lockhart helps rescue her, then she returns the favour when the baron almost kills him. By cracking her father’s skull open with a shovel, Hannah is being the phallic woman, demonstrating her newfound strength, as contrasted with all of his symbolically castrated patients. Lockhart burns the building down, one of many examples in this film suggesting Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, as expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There are many examples of the eternal recurrence implied in the film; I’ll give a few examples.

At the beginning of the film, we hear that “Delaware” is “dead,” but then Lockhart says it’s “resurrected.” One of his parents died, then the other does. The patients were literal children decades ago, now they’re experiencing a “second childishness.” The baron killed off his peasants to make the “cure,” and now he is killing off a new, capitalist kind of ‘peasant.’ He committed incestuous rape with his sister, and now he at least attempts to do so again with Hannah. His castle was burned down centuries ago; it’s burned down again.

Pembroke writes a letter describing his ‘religious experience,’ and not wanting to return to New York; Lockhart writes a similar letter, if less willingly. Lockhart has gotten away from his New York bosses early into the film; he gets away from them again at the end of the film. He and Hannah ride on their bike down the mountain in the middle of the film; they do so again at the end.

Also, the baron renounced God so he could marry his sister, much to the dismay of the Church; Lockhart and Hannah, in killing him and burning down the sanatarium, have renounced Volmer, the God of the “cure” so they can be free of him, much to the dismay of his staff and the rest of his ‘cult.’ As Lockhart rides down the mountain with Hannah, grinning his grin of dentures, he can proclaim, “Volmer is dead.” The narcissism of man is something to be overcome.

Thus begins Lockhart’s down-going.

Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

In this analysis, I plan to say little about the Oedipus complex, because–apart from what a cliché that has turned into–I’ve already written so much about it that doing so here again would be irritatingly redundant. Instead, I’ll focus mostly on other aspects, themes, and symbolism of the myth.

These themes and symbolism centre around the dialectical relationships between knowing and not wanting to know (what Wilfred Bion called the K and -K links, respectively), which in turn are symbolized by seeing and blindness. Also, there’s the dialectical unity of resisting fate vs. succumbing to it. There’s the dialectic of family love and family hate, too, leading to the next theme.

That theme is male-on-male violence: Laius raping Chrysippus, Oedipus killing Laius, his accusatory threats against Tiresias and Creon, his blinding of himself, and his cursing of his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who in turn kill each other. Finally, could Oedipus’ killing of his father and marriage to his mother represent an attempted shift from matrilineal to patrilineal succession?

II: Sin and Punishment

The story all begins with King Laius having committed a terrible sin to offend the gods. Some scholars think that his homosexual passion for the beautiful youth Chrysippus, leading to his abduction and rape of the boy, was a later addition to the overall story, so I imagine earlier versions must have had Laius angering the gods in some other way.

In any case, Laius’ punishment will involve not only shaming him, but his entire family, too. Belief in such extensive divine punishment seems to have been common in the ancient world, given how close-knit the family was back then, as if all members shared the same identity, thus making the entire family as guilty of the sin as the original sinner was. Recall what Yahweh said to Moses: “for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” (Exodus 20:5)

Laius does everything he can to prevent the terrible prophecy that any son he has by Iocaste will one day rise up and kill him; hence George Devereux‘s invention of the term, ‘Laius complex.’ The king refuses to sleep with his queen, Iocaste, but the constant attempts at defying his fate ultimately lead to its fulfillment, for the gods will have their way, no matter how hard we try to thwart their will.

Iocaste, annoyed at never being fulfilled in the bedroom (see Graves, 105, page 371, paragraph a.), gets Laius drunk one night, and he lies with her, getting her pregnant. As I’ve discussed many times before, I use the ouroboros to symbolize a circular continuum where opposites meet and phase into each other dialectically, where the serpent’s head bites its tail.

Laius’ attempts to prevent the prophecy from coming true, at the serpent’s bitten tail, are his movement along the coiled length of its body, away from its tail and toward its head, where perfect safety from the prophecy’s fulfillment would be. But the further he goes away from the tail and toward the head, the more sexually frustrated Iocaste becomes, since she’s being made to suffer a longer and longer period without any fulfillment of her desires. So instead of just reaching the serpent’s biting head and stopping there, she makes him go past it and over to the bitten tail, getting her with child.

III: Oedipus Is Born

To Laius’ even greater horror, the child born is a son. Since the prophecy also involves the boy marrying her and sharing her bed, Iocaste agrees to have the baby exposed.

In an attempt to accelerate the baby’s death, by keeping it from crawling away from danger, Laius puts a pin into its feet. The resulting injury to the baby inspires its name, “Oedipus” (“swollen foot”). Iocaste can’t bear to kill her own child, so she has a servant, a shepherd, take the baby away to be exposed. He, too, can’t bear to let the baby die, so he gives it to another shepherd, one in Corinth. This shepherd, in turn, gives Oedipus to childless King Polybus.

Polybus’ shame at not being able to have a child of his own leads him to pretend that Oedipus is his biological son. Oedipus thus believes this king of Corinth, and his queen, Merope (or Periboea, depending on the source), are his true parents. When doubts are raised of his true parentage, Oedipus consults the Delphic oracle, who tells him the prophecy instead of confirming or denying whether the king and queen of Corinth are his parents. So thinking still that Polybus and Merope are his biological parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth and heads in the direction of…Thebes!

Here we see how oversolicitude of the prophecy coming true pushes Oedipus past the ouroboros’ biting head, where a safe prevention of its coming true lies, to the bitten tail of its surely coming true.

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

What we note about Oedipus is his constant travels…on those ‘swollen feet.’ This use of injured feet can be seen to symbolize how his movement from here to there always involves pain of some sort. He’s had to leave Thebes and any hope of getting love from his real parents. He’s had to leave Corinth and the love of his assumed parents. And his trip back to Thebes will involve his unwitting fulfillment of the first part of the prophecy…he kills Laius.

At a place where three roads meet, Oedipus encounters a chariot carrying a wealthy older man and his servants. Neither Oedipus nor the old man has the patience or humility to make way and let the other pass, so a fight begins. Oedipus kills everyone except one servant, who manages to run away and tell the tale later. The killed rich old man is, of course, Laius.

Oedipus continues on his journey in the direction of Thebes, and just before the entrance to the city he encounters the Sphinx, a monster with the head and breasts of a woman, a lion’s body, an eagle’s wings, and a serpent’s tail (the description varies, of course, depending on the source). Whoever cannot answer her riddle will be strangled and eaten by her…everyone who has tried, so far, which is odd, given how easy to answer the riddle actually is.

V: The Riddle

There are variations on how the riddle is asked, but perhaps the best-known version is, “What animal goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Another version is, “What creature of one voice has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?”

This second version relates well with Oedipus’ experience, since he as a baby had the pin swelling his little feet, and he as a blind old man, shamed and in despair after learning of his unwitting fulfillment of the prophecy, has not only a walking stick, but also his daughter/sister, Antigone, to help him go everywhere. As I said above, everywhere he walks, he is in pain.

The idea that the Sphinx’s riddle is difficult to answer shouldn’t be taken literally, since as I said above, it’s actually ridiculously easy to answer: man is the animal, crawling as a baby on all fours ‘in the morning’ of his life; walking on two legs as a young man during the ‘noon’ of his life; and needing a walking stick as an old man during the ‘evening’ of his life. The point of the ‘difficulty’ of the riddle–as I see it–is that it was fated for Oedipus…and Oedipus alone…to answer it, for it is about him knowing himself, something few people really do.

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

Having a special knowledge of the arcane matters of life is a province of the unusual people of our world, the perverse and unnatural ones, even. Such monstrosities as the part-human, part-animal Sphinx (suggesting a conception by bestiality), and incestuous patricides like Oedipus alone will know life’s darkest secrets. Nietzsche commented on this special insight-from-the-unnatural in The Birth of Tragedy (Section 9, pages 68-69), and we should see Oedipus’ ability to answer the riddle in terms of his drive toward self-knowledge, as we’ll see when examining Sophocles‘ play.

The Sphinx kills herself in shame and despair over someone knowing the answer to her ‘enigmatic’ riddle, and Thebes is saved from her. Since the Theban people have lost their king to, as the story goes, a gang of robbers rather than a sole man, and since Oedipus–a stranger in town [!]–is the city’s hero, he is made their new king. His marriage to Iocaste thus fulfills the second part of the prophecy.

Their marriage, of course, is by no means Platonic. He gets his mother pregnant and has two sons/brothers (Eteocles and Polyneices) and two daughters/sisters (Antigone and Ismene) by her. If Freud was right, one can imagine the nights that Oedipus shares in bed with Iocaste to be by far the most enjoyable times of his whole wretched life. Not only is he enjoying his mother with neither guilt nor a paternal rival, but he is the honoured hero of his city.

His pride, accordingly, is puffed up. Then the plague descends on Thebes, and our discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus begins.

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

Oedipus’ hubris first demonstrates itself in his outward show of concern for his people. He speaks of how his pain is greater than that of his people, feeling each individual’s suffering as well as his own, and his not being able to sleep at night.

Oh, really, Oedipus? You, a king in all your finery, have it worse than the poor multitude? You feel each person’s individual pain, plus your own, but they don’t feel each other’s, the pain of their families, of their neighbours? Only you are gifted with such a magnanimous compassion?

He has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult the Delphic oracle to find out what must be done to rid Thebes of the plague. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that they must find the murderer of Laius, who is still in the city [!].

Oedipus also has the blind seer Tiresias reveal who the killer is. The king praises Tiresias for his gift of prophecy, but the blind old man considers his special abilities to be a curse, since knowing the truth can be painful, and can cause others great pain.

Tiresias, like Oedipus and the Sphinx, has gained access to esoteric forms of knowledge through unnatural means. When Tiresias was younger, he was made a woman for seven years as punishment for having beaten a pair of copulating snakes. With this experience, he knew which sex derived greater pleasure from lovemaking; and in telling Zeus and Hera that it is women who enjoy sex far more than men, the goddess was indignant and made him blind…but Zeus compensated for this by giving him the gift of foresight.

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

Tiresias is averse in the extreme to telling the Theban king what he knows, since the pain for Oedipus will be overwhelming. This refusal to promote knowledge is what Bion called -K, and this psychoanalytic angle on the Oedipus myth was detailed in Bion‘s book, Elements of Psychoanalysis (in chapters 10, 11, and 14 especially).

Oedipus, however, is driven to know the truth (K) at all costs, so he angrily provokes Tiresias to give it up by accusing him of complicity in Laius’ murder. What’s interesting about this exchange between the king and the prophet is how it can be paralleled with the interlocution between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The monster has asked Oedipus a riddle to which only he knows the answer; Oedipus (a monster of another sort) asks Tiresias something only he can answer. The Sphinx kills herself on hearing Oedipus’ correct answer; Oedipus’ self-destruction begins on hearing Tiresias’ correct answer.

We’ll note the dialectical relation between knowing and wishing not to know (K vs. -K) when Oedipus, having pushed for an answer from Tiresias, now rejects the truth upon hearing it. This is the biting head of the ouroboros (K) phasing over to its bitten tail (-K). Instead of accepting the painful truth that Oedipus killed Laius, the shaken king fantasizes that Creon, supposedly coveting the crown, has suborned Tiresias to lie about Oedipus being Laius’ murderer.

What reinforces this dialectical K vs. -K relationship is how Oedipus should already know, or at least suspect, his own guilt. He knows of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother; he hasn’t been certain that Polybus and Merope are his true parents; he’s killed a wealthy old man on a road near Thebes; and he’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. Denial and projection are his only defences against Tiresias’ increasingly probable revelation.

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

Bion conceived of our growing in knowledge (K) as originating in the baby’s interactions with its mother. Since the baby doesn’t yet have a thinking apparatus for processing the external stimuli that agitate him, his mother must do this processing for him, in the form of soothing the baby and pacifying him. Then those agitating feelings can become tolerable thoughts for the baby once they’ve been processed and detoxified by his mother; they are then returned to him.

She is a container of his anxieties and frustrations, feelings that Bion called the contained. Her containment of her baby’s agitations–reassuring him that everything is OK, and returning his feelings to him in a tolerable form–helps him to develop his own ability later to do the containing for himself and thus grow in K, a link between himself and other people involving an exchange of emotional experiences through projective identification (read here for more information on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts).

To relate all this to the play, since Oedipus was given to a shepherd to be exposed on Mount Cithaeron, he was never given that needed containment from Iocaste. In fact, he experienced negative containment from Laius, through the pin that pierced his feet, a traumatic experience causing a nameless dread that has adversely affected Oedipus’ development into adulthood.

Bion used a masculine symbol to represent the contained (implying phallic symbolism), and a feminine symbol to represent the container (implicitly yonic). This suggests the erotic symbolism of copulation in his theory of containment. Such associations are significant considering Oedipus’ relationship with Iocaste. His lack of soothing, pacifying containment as a baby has led to its dialectical opposite: excessive, erotic containment with her when he has become an adult; this is a shift from the serpent’s bitten tail of negative containment to the biting head of ‘erotic containment.’

We go from the lack of shared, exchanged emotional experiences between baby Oedipus and Iocaste (the ouroboros’ bitten tail) to excessively shared, exchanged emotional experiences between adult Oedipus and Iocaste, in the form of their incest (the serpent’s biting head). From -K to forbidden K.

Similarly, we go from the symbolically phallic pin (Laius’ contained) making the symbolically yonic wound in baby Oedipus’ feet (the container), to Oedipus’ literal phallus (his contained) put in Iocaste’s literal yoni (her container). From negative to taboo container/contained, from -K to carnal K.

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

Aristotle, in his Poetics, said that tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the audience, as well as the catharsis of those emotions (Aristotle 6, p. 348). Pity and fear are better “aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play” than through spectacle (Aristotle 14, page 358). For Aristotle, Sophocles’ Oedipus is an ideal example of such a play.

What must be remembered is that we all know the Oedipus story; the ancient Greek audiences knew that Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry and commit incest with his mother. The magic of watching the play, or even just reading it, as Aristotle observed, is in sympathizing with poor Oedipus as he learns, little by agonizingly little, that he has fulfilled the prophecy. As he continues his compulsive investigation, he peels away every hope of his innocence, peels away every doubt that he is guilty. Each peeling away, one by one, is torture for him, and for us as we feel the pain with him.

We are shaken with Oedipus when we hear Tiresias say that the prophecy has been fulfilled, but we feel temporary relief in how we empathize with the king’s illusory belief that Polybus and Merope are his parents. When Iocaste mentions Laius having been killed where three roads meet (about line 716), then that Laius looked much like Oedipus (about line 744), we feel his surges of agitation, even though she has been trying to relieve his fears by demonstrating the supposed falsity of prophecy.

When Oedipus takes heart in the account that Laius was killed by a group of robbers rather than by one (about lines 890-894), we enjoy feeling his relief even though we know the report to be wrong. Again, the report from a shepherd/messenger from Corinth that Polybus is dead (about line 985) gives Oedipus hope, for he can’t kill a father already dead. Though we know his father isn’t the Corinthian, but the former Theban, king doesn’t matter: we empathize with Oedipus, so we feel his relief, and enjoy it. We wish with him that it could be true.

This relief is ephemeral, though, for we’re soon to feel Oedipus’ dashed hopes when the shepherd explains that he gave baby Oedipus to Polybus and Merope, having received the baby himself from a Theban shepherd! Oedipus is inching closer and closer to the terrible truth, and we as an empathizing audience feel his growing fears as if we were discovering it all with him.

This mounting fear is like the suspense felt in a horror movie, the secret to such a film’s success. Oedipus sends to have the Theban shepherd brought before him to tell him the truth. He clings to the feeble hope that he isn’t Laius’ abandoned son, but rather that of a Theban slave (about lines 1092-1093), which is nowhere near as shameful. We share his agitation in clinging to that tiny hope, knowing he’ll soon lose even that.

XI: Hamartia

One way to think about the tragic flaw of the hero of an ancient Greek drama is to see it as a comment on the faults of a society’s political leaders, to exhort them to improve on their governance.

As we’ve noticed in Oedipus, his flaw is his hubris. He is puffed up with pride over having saved Thebes from the Sphinx by correctly answering her riddle. But as I pointed out above, the riddle isn’t particularly difficult to solve; his being the only one able to answer it seems more to do with it being about his own life than about it being difficult to solve.

What’s more, he’s no real hero of Thebes: he killed their king over a petty squabble, because he was too proud to give way to Laius’ chariot. He is the opposite of a saviour, and only his willful ignorance (-K) delays his acceptance of the truth.

Vanity has been a serious fault in leaders throughout history and legend, from Caligula and King Lear up to many (if not almost all) of our heads of state today. They want to be flattered rather than hear needed criticisms. In other words, they’re narcissists.

What is the origin of pathological levels of narcissism? Heinz Kohut discovered it in a lack of parental empathy. He conceived of two poles on which a child builds a healthy sense of self and restrained, moderate levels of narcissism: the grandiose self, and the idealized parental imago. In being abandoned by Laius and Iocaste, given over to a shepherd to be exposed, baby Oedipus was deprived of both poles of healthy, psychological structure: small wonder he grew up proud at the first moment of his life that he was ever meaningfully appreciated.

To cut the wound even deeper, though he was raised and cared for by King Polybus, who never even let on that he was adopted, Oedipus was forced to give up his parental idealizations to avoid shaming them through fulfilling the prophecy. Committing incest (as he imagined he would be) with Queen Merope would destroy his grandiose self, still something he fears the possibility of even after hearing of Polybus’ death (about line 976); and killing the Corinthian king would have meant the killing of his idealized parental imago. With both poles gone, he’d be destroying himself.

Lacking parents to idealize, Oedipus would need to overcompensate with the grandiose self in order to salvage whatever psychological structure he could muster. Small wonder he felt narcissistic rage when that rich man on the chariot demanded he give way on the road, and small wonder he’s been basking in the adulation of the Thebans since his delivering of them from the Sphinx.

It’s fitting, then, that the universal narcissistic trauma children suffer is called the Oedipus complex (to make my one reference to it in this article). Oedipus never had his true mother’s love, that maternal love that a little boy selfishly wants to hog all to himself and never share with his father. Hence, Oedipus’ incest with Iocaste as a long overdue overcompensation for that infantile deprivation. On the universality of this childhood trauma, recall Freud’s quote from Sophocles’ play:

“For many a man hath seen himself in dreams
His mother’s mate, but he who gives no heed
To suchlike matters bears the easier life.” (Freud, page 162)

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

Oedipus’ discovery (anagnorisis) that he has, in fact, fulfilled the prophecy leads to his reversal of fortune (peripeteia), the climax of Sophocles’ tragedy. The peripeteia, as Aristotle explained it in the Poetics, involves a complete switch from one state of fortune to its opposite: in Oedipus’ case, from overweening pride to overwhelming shame, from being an honoured king to being a pitied exile; and Aristotle deemed Sophocles’ Oedipus to be the exemplary tragedy.

Yet this switch from one state of affairs to its opposite should be seen as a dialectical unity of opposites, for the anagnorisis is so causally linked with the peripeteia, the one so immediately following the other, that they seem almost to coincide, to be at one with each other. And Oedipus’ ‘discovery’ is really just something he’s always known, deep down, to have been true. The truth has just been buried in his unconscious, and now it’s returned to consciousness.

He knew the prophecy back when he was in Corinth, and he surely knows that the will of the gods is not something easily thwarted. He learned of the prophecy after already having the parentage of Polybus and Merope put in doubt. Oedipus killed a rich man old enough to be his father where three roads meet. He’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. And Tiresias, a famed, honoured prophet, explicitly tells him he has fulfilled the prophecy. What is there to discover later on?

It’s not that Oedipus has discovered the shameful truth; it’s that he now knows he can no longer deny that truth. He has been using denial, projection, and repression to shield himself from the truth, even as he’s been investigating it unflinchingly. Here we see the dialectical relationship between K and -K. And since his discovery of the truth is a foregone conclusion, so is his reversal of fortune.

It’s ironic that a blind old man tells seeing Oedipus the harsh truth, he who has been wilfully blind to the truth. Then, when he can no longer deny, project, or repress the truth into a conveniently faulty memory, he removes pins from the clothes of Iocaste–whom he’s just seen having hanged herself–and stabs them into his eyes.

Tiresias is thus a kind of double of Oedipus, his judgemental ego ideal, yet also his mirrored ideal-I facing him and articulating the truth he dare not say about himself. Though blind, Tiresias is more complete, more whole, than is the metaphorically blind Theban king. Accordingly, Oedipus would rather deny and project his guilt onto his personified mirror, Tiresias, claiming the blind old prophet is conspiring with Creon to dethrone him, than acknowledge that he himself has already dethroned his own father…and should already know it, or at least suspect it.

Just as the contrast between not knowing and anagnorisis is dialectically unified, so is the contrast between his fortunes as a king and his ill fortune as an exile. His loss of a kingly throne at the end of the play is not his first time to be thrown out. He was an exile of Thebes from birth, after Laius’ thwarted attempt to expose him. Then he exiled himself from Corinth upon hearing the prophecy. Being regal has been more the exception than the rule in his life of wandering; and even his rule as king has been insecure the whole time, with that prophecy looming like a shadow over his head.

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

His feet have been swollen his whole life, from doing far more homeless travelling than resting.

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

A common element in ancient myth has been the killing of an old sacred king, to be replaced by a new king. The queen, in being the wife of both kings, is keeping the royal bloodline intact through matrilineal succession. This pattern has been noted by such writers as Frazer in The Golden Bough and the other ritualist theorists of myth from a century ago.

As Northrop Frye noted in The Great Code, meaning in ancient times was predominantly conveyed through the metaphorical and allegorical phases of language, as opposed to the modern-day, prosaic descriptive phase. Phenomena weren’t usually expressed in words describing what they literally were, as they typically would be today; they were far more often compared to, analogized with, and “put for,” other things (Frye, page 7). So a retelling of the killing of the old king through human sacrifice was given metaphorically and allegorically through a mythic narrative, as we see in the Oedipus story. (I discuss such mythic distortions of ancient ritual in this post.)

In this particular myth, however, a prince kills his father-king and succeeds him, resulting in a patrilineal succession, which largely replaced the matrilineal kind in the ancient Middle East/Mediterranean world. Does this story, through metaphor and allegory, express a conflict-laden transition from mother-kin to father-kin? Such a speculation was made by Robert Graves in his two-volume Greek Myths (Graves, 105, note 7, page 377). AeschylusOresteia also seem to represent such a conflict in the trial over Orestes‘ murder of his mother (I cover this issue in more detail here).

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

Oedipus’ hubris, his self-conception as a great king and saviour of Thebes, is his narcissistic False Self, a manifestation of his grandiose self. The other of the two poles of his sense of self, personified in Iocaste, is his idealized parental imago; since he doesn’t yet know (or consciously admit to himself) that she’s his mother, this other pole would seem to be a transference of that parental idealization. The shame he feels, from the realization of his incest and patricide, has destroyed his grandiose self; her suicide has destroyed his (now-understood-to-be) idealized parental imago. Both poles are destroyed: his narcissistic defences against fragmentation are destroyed; his mutilating of his eyes is thus symbolic of this fragmentation.

The play ends with the Chorus proclaiming that no man is happy until he dies. This observation seems an echo of the story of Cleobis and Biton, who showed great filial devotion to their mother. She in turn wished Hera would grant her sons the greatest of gifts; the brothers immediately died (they fell asleep in Hera’s temple and never woke), since only in death is there true happiness.

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

The disgraced king wasn’t immediately exiled as of the end of Oedipus Rex, but as of the beginning of this play (actually the third chronologically written of Sophocles’ Theban plays, written just before he died and produced posthumously…and therefore inconsistent with the other two Theban plays), he has been a wandering exile for some time, guided by his faithful daughter/sister, Antigone.

An interesting theme of Oedipus at Colonus is his relationship with the land: at some times, he’s a curse to it; at other times, he’s a blessing. Naturally, there’s a dialectical relationship between this blessed and cursed state, too.

His incest and patricide caused a plague on Thebes, making him a curse on that land. This is interesting when seen in the light of his having been the temporary lord of that land. As E.F. Watling says in the introduction to his translation of the Theban plays, “king” doesn’t exactly convey Oedipus’ status over Thebes, though the word seems close enough. Oedipus “was probably something more like a wealthy landowner. All that is necessary for the play is that he should be recognised as a ‘great one’ in virtue of his own power of command and, it may be, of the election of his townsmen.” (Watling, page 18)

The ruling classes throughout history have been not only rich, but also owners of land, be they ancient slave-masters, feudal landlords, or today’s bourgeois owners of private property. In exploring the hamartia not only of Oedipus, but also of Laius, Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, and of how their flaws make us question their worthiness as lords over the people, we begin to wonder about the very validity of the 1% having ‘property rights,’ as against the 99% not having such rights. Given the enormity of our lords’ faults, what makes them any better than we are?

Antigone has led blind old Oedipus to Colonus, a village near Athens. She’s led him to rest on a stone in an area sacred to the Erinyes; a villager there says his presence has profaned the land, and he must leave. That Oedipus now knows that this place is sacred to the Erinyes is actually good news. (It’s also dialectically ironic that he, an incestuous patricide, would be a blessing here, since the Erinyes are personifications of guilt and vengeance.)

He tells the locals that a prophecy from Apollo says that he will die in a place sacred to the Erinyes, and being buried there, he will be a blessing to the people of the area. In fact, the Thebans have learned of such a prophecy since his exile, and Creon wants to bring Oedipus back home, so that his burial in Colonus won’t benefit another city at Thebes’ expense.

Oedipus, in his rage against disloyal Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, refuses to go back. He will, however, respect the wishes of the Chorus of villagers of Colonus, and be led by Antigone off the Erinyes’ sacred land. He will also have newly-arrived Ismene do the expiatory rites to eliminate any curse he may have unwittingly brought by sitting on the stone on the Erinyes’ sacred ground.

So, he’s both a blessing and a curse to the land. Such relationships to the land determine our perceived worthiness as people; such a reality is as true today, if only in a secular sense, as it was then. Consider our cruel treatment of the homeless today (‘anti-homeless’ architecture on the ground and on park benches; laws against feeding the homeless). Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Trump, Zuckerberg, et al are the god-kings of our time; one representative of them, French president Emmanuel Macron, is practically an Oedipus himself!

The moment of Oedipus’ death is an interesting one: the blind old man can, without his daughter’s guidance, find the place where the gods would have him buried…he walks there unaided (about lines 1543-1551)! His close connection with the gods, knowing his burial will be a blessing to Athens, combined with his age and blindness, makes him all the more of a double of Tiresias. He is as much of a blind old prophet as the one who so reluctantly told him he’d killed his father and married his mother. Though this play, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex aren’t consistent in plot-line, they are so in terms of theme.

XV: Antigone

Oedipus’ curse on his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, for not coming to his aid in his exile, has led the brothers to kill each other over who would rule over Thebes. Creon, the current king of Thebes, is angry over the wickedness of Polyneices, and refuses to bury his body.

In dialectical contrast to the hatred and rancour felt among all these other members of this cursed family, Antigone wants to show love for and duty to her dead, unburied brother. She’d disobey Creon’s order never to bury Polyneices, and risk the king’s wrath. The ouroboros’ bitten tail of fraternal hate has phased over to the serpent’s biting head of sisterly love.

Hegel was touched by Antigone’s self-sacrificing love. As Walter Kaufmann noted in Hegel: a Reinterpretation, “in the Phenomenology, Hegel celebrates the brother-sister relationship as the highest possible ethical relationship. He twice mentions and quotes Antigone in this context, and no attentive reader can fail to notice that the whole discussion revolves around Sophocles’ play.” (Kaufmann, 6, pages 17-18; see also 30, pages 125-127) The passages in the Phenomenology that Kaufmann refers to are in Part VI: Spirit, section A, a. and b. (Hegel, pages 267-289) Hegel considered Antigone’s love to be an example of Sittlichkeit. She would die out of love for her brother.

XVI: Conclusion

So, in the Theban plays, we see dialectical relationships not only between seeking the truth (K) and resisting it (-K), but also in one’s relationship with the land. One is at the ouroboros’ biting head as the lord of the land, then one passes over to the bitten tail when one’s presumptuous arrogance, one’s tragic flaw, results in one being a landless, swollen-footed exile.

We also see such dialectics in the love/hate relationship between family members. We go from attempted filicide, as well as successful patricide and fratricide, at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; then to sisterly love and Sittlichkeit at the serpent’s head, and then to forbidden love, mother/son incest, where the head bites the tail, leading from extreme virtue back to extreme vice.

These are universal themes, far beyond Freud’s mommy issues. The dialectical presentation of these themes makes them all the more universal, for everything is made up of dialectical contradictions, in the material world as well as that of ideas. This is what makes the Oedipus myth great, and worthy of examining over and over again. It affects all of us, from ancient times to today.

Further Reading

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), The Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1947

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

W.R. Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, London, 1963

Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufmann, translator), The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Vintage Books, New York, 1967

Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: a Reinterpretation, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1965

G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977

Aristotle (W.D. Ross, translator), The Pocket Aristotle, Washington Square Press, New York, 1958

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Penguin Books, Toronto, 1983

Analysis of the Ancient Greek Creation Myth

I: Introduction

As is typical of Greek myth in general, there are conflicting versions of the stories of the primordial deities and the roles they play in the creation. I’ll be basing most of this analysis on Hesiod‘s Theogony, with some references from sources like Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes as well.

I am less interested in presenting an ‘accurate’ account of the creation (What is an ‘accurate account’ of it? It’s myth, not science; and as I said above, there are contradictory versions of it.) than I am in exploring possible symbolic and allegorical meanings in it. This is my interpretation of such meanings, for what that’s worth. I’m no expert in mythography or anthropology, so take what I’m writing with a generous grain of salt.

The narration may unfold with the passing of time, that is, from generation to generation in the family tree of the gods; but this allegory here is not about presenting events in a temporal sense. It’s more about understanding the relationships and contrasts between different states of being. Also, I’m not bringing up every single god and goddess, Titan and Titaness; there are simply too many names to enumerate here, and I’m more interested in the direction the narrative takes, and the symbolism and themes I see in it, than I’d be in going over every single detail found in Hesiod, etc.

II: The Nirvana-Void

Hesiod begins, after the customary invocation of the Muses, with Chaos, which in modern English would be better rendered as the Chasm, a void of formless nothingness, the ground from which everything comes. Note the dialectical relationship between nothing and everything (or being), which Hegel sublated as becoming in his Science of Logic (Hegel, Chapter One, ‘Being,’ pages 82-83).

A comparison with other religious and mystical traditions is useful. The void of nothing/everything in Hinduism is Brahman, a union with which is salvation, or liberation from worldly suffering, to the Hindu. It’s interesting in this context to compare the ancient Greek concept of Chaos with the Hindu creation myth, from the Rig Veda, 10.129; both consider everything to have paradoxically arisen from a void (“nothingness was not, nor existence”), resulting in darkness, “unillumined cosmic water,” then “desire descended on [the One].”

For Buddhists, this nothing/everything is the Dharmakāya (“the body of reality”), the Buddha-nature existing in everything; and the void of liberation from samsāra is nirvana. For Taoists, the dialectical interrelation of yin and yang is the Tao.

To return to ancient Greek traditions, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said that “everything flows“; so the basic unifying principle behind everything, those particles of which everything is composed and which can also be regarded as waves–Chaos, Brahman, the Tao, Bion‘s O (the thing-in-itself), or in a sense, even Lacan‘s Real Order, can be symbolized as the waves of an infinite ocean.

Small wonder Homer, in Book XIV of The Iliad, had Hera say that all the gods descended from Oceanus: “I go now to the ends of the generous earth, on a visit/to Okeanos, whence the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother/who brought me up kindly in their own house, and cared for me/and took me from Rheia, at that time when Zeus of the wide brows/drove Kronos underneath the earth and the barren water.” (Homer, page 299, lines 200-204) Recall also that the gods are personifications of everything, including abstract concepts, hence polytheism‘s tendency towards pantheism.

Now, this oneness behind everything isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There is no sentimentality to be found here. Bion’s O, and especially Lacan’s Real, have traumatizing aspects, too. The visionary ego death that Aldous Huxley wrote about in the use of drugs in Heaven and Hell has, as his essay’s title suggests, both blissful and terrifying aspects, depending on one’s physical, or especially mental, health (Huxley, pages 88-91). The ocean in Moby-Dick has both good and bad aspects, too, and Melville warns the pantheists not to ignore the dark side of the infinite seas (‘The Mast-Head,’ 35).

So, pantheism is best qualified with dialectical monism in order to avoid a sentimental oversimplification of the truth. The All should not be so naïvely seen as it is in Wordsworth‘s “Tintern Abbey“; Kubrick‘s vision of Chaos (as I interpret it in my analysis) at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is much more accurate. This is the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2, the “waste and void” state of the world when God creates heaven and earth.

III: Darkness, Light, and Desire

In keeping with the darker side of Chaos, it gives birth to Erebus (“darkness”), Tartarus (“hell”), and the goddess Nyx (“night”). This begetting of negativity is comparable to Otto Rank‘s notion of birth trauma, after which the frustrated baby experiences psychological splitting as a defence mechanism against a scary world of suffering it cannot understand.

This splitting will in turn result in the antitheses of those dark deities, namely Aether (“light,” “upper sky”) and Hemera (“day”). According to a passage in Aristophanes‘ comedy, The Birds, Nyx laid an egg in Erebus, giving birth to Eros (“love,” but more accurately rendered “desire”):

“First, Void, and the Night. No glimmer of light pierced Tartarus’ boundless dominions;
Nor Earth nor Air nor Firmament there. Then Night of the ebony pinions
Brought forth in her nest within Erebus’ breast an Egg, by the Whirlwind sired;
From whence was born, as the months rolled on, great Eros, the ever desired,
With wings on his shoulders of scintillant gold, as swift as the storm in his flying,
Who mated with Space in a darkling embrace, in the bosom of Tartarus lying.
‘Twas thus that our breed was engendered, the seed hatched out by this epochal union,
No gods were above us till turbulent Love had effected a cosmic communion.
From mystic espousals, atomic carousals–a vast, cataclysmic commotion–
Arose the Divinities, Heaven’s infinities, Earth, and the billows of Ocean.
So, nothing can be as primeval as we. Our sonship to Eros, moreover,
Is proved by our flight and our constant delight in befriending a passionate lover.”
(Aristophanes, The Birds, starting from about line 690, pages 255-256)

Soon comes Gaea, the earth-mother goddess who gives birth to Ouranos (“heaven”). Mother and son become wife and husband. This incestuous union, seen in light of my analogy of the above-mentioned gods of darkness and light with a baby’s use of psychological splitting, can thus also be seen as analogous with the fulfillment of the infantile Oedipal fantasy.

The point of all my allegorizing is to show how this creation myth can be seen to represent changing psychological states. We go from the peace of mind of the Chasm, that restful embryonic state in the dark womb, what Romain Rolland called–in his correspondence with Freud–the “oceanic feeling” of bliss, to the trauma of entering the physical world–birth.

The dark deities can also be seen to represent the unconscious, with Chaos representing the collective unconscious. The mythographers’ and poets’ narrations can thus be seen as dramatizations of unconscious urges and strivings, feelings that can be traced back to primal, archaic, infantile emotional states.

The splitting into dark vs. light, night vs. day, etc., all these separations indicate a lack, in one half in a realm, of the other, opposite half (as opposed to the original unity in Chaos), a lack (manque à être) that gives rise to desire, as Lacan observed, a desire personified by Eros.

Note how the descendants of Nyx tend to be of dark, gloomy, negative things–not all of them, of course, but most of them, in varying degrees: Moros (“doom”), Thanatos (“death”), Momus (“blame,” “reproach,” “disgrace,” “satire,” and “mockery”), Oizys (“pain,” “misery,” “anxiety,” “grief,” and “depression”), Nemesis (“retribution”), Apate (“deceit,” “fraud”), Geras (“old age”), and Eris (“strife,” “discord”). The rest of Nyx’s offspring are mostly neutral, at best; only Philotes “(“love,” “affection,” “friendship”) is positive.

Eris’ offspring in turn are also generally negative: Ponos (“hardship,” “toil”), Lethe (“forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” “concealment,” “unmindfulness”), Limos (“starvation”), the Algea (“physical and mental pains”), the Hysminai (“battles,” “conflicts,” “combats”), the Machai (“wars”), the Phonoi (“murders”), the Androktasiai (“manslaughters”), the Neikea (“quarrels,” “arguments”), the Pseudea (“lies”), the Amphillogiai (“disputes”), Dysnomia (“lawlessness”), and Atë (“ruin,” “mischief,” “delusion,” “folly”).

IV: Lack and Desire

As we can see, things go from a blissful (or at least relatively blissful) state to a hellish one rather quickly. It’s like the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros: where the serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and the coiled middle of its body is every intermediate point on a circular continuum. We thus could see the biting head as blissful Chaos, the bitten tail as the hellish existence of most of Nyx’s and Eris’ children, and the coiled middle, going in the direction towards the head, as the other gods’ and Titans’ striving, through desire, to replace the lack and attain happiness once again.

Now, the nature of the desire felt between Gaea and Ouranos in their sexual union is a transgressive desire (i.e., mother/son incest). Such transgressive indulgence in pleasure is what Lacan called jouissance. It’s transgressive in its excess, a kind of ‘surplus-value‘ of pleasure (to borrow a Marxian term), enjoyment for its own sake.

To use my ouroboros symbolism again, this excessive pleasure is the serpent’s head biting its tail, leading to enjoyment’s extreme opposite, the pain of the bitten tail. The offspring of Gaea’s and Ouranos’ thrilling sexual union are the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus), Cyclopes (who will give Zeus his thunderbolt), and Hecatoncheires (“the hundred-handed ones”)…these latter two trios being an ugly bunch, so Ouranos hates all his children and imprisons them in a secret place in Gaea’s body, angering her.

The earth-mother goddess gives her Titan son, Cronus, a flint-sickle knife with which to attack Ouranos, since Cronus is the only Titan willing to get revenge on his wicked father. Cronus uses the knife to castrate his father: he throws the severed genitals into the sea; a foam grows around them in the water, and Aphrodite emerges nude from the foam.

Is there a more vivid representation of Lacanian lack, through the image of castration, giving rise to desire (as symbolized by the birth of Aphrodite), anywhere in myth, art, or literature? In an interesting reversal, instead of the father threatening the Oedipally-minded son with castration, the son does so to the father.

V: From Blessedness to Suffering

My allegorizing of the mythic narrative here, though, isn’t concerned with time sequence. In fact, I see the process of creation here as happening in reverse order to its allegorical meaning–that is, if that meaning is to be understood as a progression from sinful desire to spiritual liberation. We go from the perfect blessedness (as I interpret it) of Brahman-like Chaos to the world of suffering because, as Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

In the Greek narrative, we’re moving away from nirvanic bliss and deeper into the suffering of physical life–in ‘reverse order,’ as it were–so it would seem appropriate to have sons castrating fathers instead of vice versa (an Oedipal wish-fulfillment, with castration anxiety projected onto fathers; and Ouranos, lacking a father as a rival, shares a bed with his mother, Gaea, so we have even more Oedipal wish-fulfillment). Thus, we have the Laius complex instead of the Oedipal one. (I explored these ideas in my analysis of Eraserhead.)

With the beauty and desirability of nude Aphrodite emerging from the foam around Ouranos’ severed genitals, we must juxtapose a dialectical opposite: the vengeful Erinyes, or Furies, which have come from the blood of those genitals, as have the Giants and the Meliae. Desire comes from lack, pleasure comes with pain, and desire causes suffering.

VI: Family Feuding

With Cronus’ ascent to the throne as the new king of heaven comes the same hostility to his children as Ouranos has had. The intergenerational conflict returns in cycles, so we’ll see a wickedness in Cronus similar to that of his father…much worse, actually; for instead of merely imprisoning those who are a threat to his power, or who are a source of loathing and disgust to him, Cronus decides to eat all of his newborn children! Recall the shocking paintings that have depicted this atrocity.

His wife and older sister, Rhea (note the incest parallel with Gaea and Ouranos, and later with Zeus and his older sister, Hera…more transgressive jouissance), is as upset with his devouring of their children as Gaea has been with Ouranos’ imprisoning of their children; so Rhea, too, plots with her youngest son, Zeus, to get revenge on Cronus and free the eaten children (by feeding Cronus an emetic and making him throw them all up). Another parallel with the revenge on the first-generation father, noted by Freud (page 469) and John Tzetzes (as Robert Graves noted), is Zeus’ castration of Cronus, often censored from Greek creation mythologies.

So, what we’ve had since the creation of Eros is a whole lot of procreation (since the ancients believed that all things are created through intermingling in the form of sex), leading to a whole lot of family strife, power struggles, and ultimately, war. For in order to depose Cronus and establish Zeus as the new king of heaven, there must be a ten-year war (the Titanomachy) between the Olympian gods (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, those just regurgitated by Cronus, and Zeus) on the one side, and Cronus and the Titans (including Atlas) on the other side. (Themis and Prometheus are the only Titans who fight on Zeus’ side.)

Zeus gets help from the Cyclopes through their giving him lightning as a weapon, and from the three Hecatoncheires, whose three hundred arms hurl huge rocks at the Titans, ultimately burying them. They’ll all be imprisoned in Tartarus forever (though some accounts say Zeus eventually frees them).

Next comes the Gigantomachy, Zeus’ and the Olympians’ battle with the Giants. Typhon, a huge whirlwind, a serpentine giant, and–according to Hesiod–the son of Gaea and Tartarus (from whom we get the Romanization of the Chinese taifeng>>>typhoon), is the next to challenge, and to be defeated by, Zeus.

VII: Stability and Authority

So Zeus is now the king of heaven, and his brothers–Poseidon and Hades–are respectively the kings of the sea and the underworld, the lower levels of the flat, tiered cosmos as imagined by the ancients. But Zeus has the same fear of being deposed, a fear projected from his own unfilial attitude to Cronus, who in turn has been equally unfilial to Ouranos. Zeus’ solution to the problem is to carry it further than just eating his children. His wife at the time, the wise Titaness Metis, is pregnant with their child, so he eats both child and mother!

This eating of threats to one’s power, this imprisoning of them, is symbolic of repression of unwanted or unacceptable feelings into the unconscious; but as psychoanalysts know, the repressed always returns, though in an unrecognizable form. In Zeus’ case, that return of the symbolic repressed will come in the form of Athena, coming out of his aching skull fully-grown with her armour and weapons. He needn’t fear, though, for she is all for the father, representative of the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal forms of societal organization. Read the Oresteia to see my point about that shift. The following passage from The Eumenides, spoken by Apollo, should clarify it:

“The mother of what is called her child is not its parent, but only the nurse of the newly implanted germ. The begetter is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, doth but preserve the sprout, except God shall blight its birth. And I will offer thee a sure proof of what I say: fatherhood there may be, when mother there is none. Here at hand is a witness, the child of Olympian Zeus–and not so much as nursed in the darkness of the womb, but such a scion as no goddess could bring forth.
“But for my part, O Pallas, as in all things else, as so with this man; for I have sent him as suppliant to thy sanctuary that he might prove faithful for all time to come, and that thou, O Goddess, mightest win him as a new ally, him and his after-race, and it abide everlastingly that the posterity of this people maintain their plighted bond.” –Apollo, Eumenides, pages 335, 337)

All of the myths leading up to Zeus’ accession to the throne have reflected matrilineality: goddesses sometimes bear children through sexual union with a male, other times through parthenogenesis, reflective of the prehistoric ignorance of the male role in reproduction. Since succession is matrilineal at this point, Gaea is free to take on more lovers than just Ouranos; so she has mated with another son of hers, Pontus, a god of the sea (more transgressive, Oedipal pleasure [according to Hesiod, Pontus has no father]!), and has these children: Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. Furthermore, god-kings are humiliated, castrated, and deposed, while queen goddesses–though furious with the wickedness of their male consorts–remain bodily intact.

But now that Zeus is king of the heavens, having married his older sister, Hera, he can freely do as he pleases without fear of direct retribution against himself, while he hypocritically judges the wickedness of others, especially that of mortals. This reflects the new patrilineal way, and the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. Zeus is incestuously married, he has castrated and deposed his father, and much to Hera’s annoyance, he seduces and ravishes pretty mortal maidens.

Yet, “he’s the greatest god of all,” as Claudius observed (here at 33:32).

VIII: Conclusion–The Creation as an Allegory for Our Times

We can see, through this narrative, just how far we’ve erred from the blissful, oceanic state of the beginning. From the formless, peaceful oneness of the Void, we’ve gone to the dualism of splitting into the dark and light, then to transgressive indulgence in pleasure leading to jealousy and hate, and from there to violence, war, and the imprisonment of the humiliated and defeated.

Finally, stability is established, but through authoritarian rule, and with all the double standards that allow the ruling classes–be they the masters of slaves in the ancient world, as I described in my Caligula analysis, or the feudal landlords of 500 to 1,000 years ago, or the bourgeoisie today–to indulge in all manner of sinfulness, for which we, the small people, will be punished as soon as we are caught.

How do we regain that primal bliss? I don’t have any definitive answers, of course, but for what it’s worth, I imagine that going backwards in the narrative I just analyzed is going in the right direction. I don’t mean physically or literally going in that direction, of course; I’m talking about revisiting the psychological traumas that the various points in the narrative symbolize. Efforts have been made to reverse the patrilineal double standards against women–efforts far more successful in the socialist states than in the capitalist West, though socialist progress has since been thwarted by imperialism. I would advise reviving that progress.

Added to the sociological healing must also come the needed psychological healing. Optimal frustration (as Heinz Kohut called it) of the narcissistic tendencies (those linked with Oedipal traumas) must be coupled with integration of the split parts of the personality, a shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. Bliss is actually a marriage of heaven and hell, of dark with the light.

When heaven and hell are ‘divorced,’ so to speak, as in the case of psychological splitting, one tends to project the hellish part outward in order to avoid a pain we must face. We must feel our trauma if we’re to heal it.

Many would rather escape to a world of pleasure than face that pain. The resulting manic defence means indulgence in sex, drugs, etc., that is, the transgressive, excess pleasure of jouissance, which is a pleasure that spills over into pain, for no two opposites, including pleasure and pain, are permanently, decisively separated.

The Olympian gods of our ruling class may, however, separate pleasure (reserved for themselves alone) from pain (to which only the poor are subjected). The acquisition of wealth is a zero-sum game, coupled with extremes of poverty. In this connection, it’s useful that Lacan was inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value in expounding on the surplus-pleasure of jouissance, or excess pleasure for its own sake. This pleasure, spilling over into pain, is exploitative.

Zeus rapes maidens, just as the Epsteins and Weinsteins of our world, as well as some Catholic priests, sexually assault the innocent. The oligarchs of today are our gods, living up high on the Mount Olympus of their wealth and power, while we struggle at the bottom of that mountain.

Those up on Olympus must be brought down. Those traumas of ours, repressed and imprisoned in the Tartarus of our unconscious, must be freed by being acknowledged, or else they’ll sneak out, often in surprising and unwelcome forms. The lack that gives rise to desire, that symbolic castration of Ouranos and Cronus, must also be acknowledged, or else desire will fly out of control, leading to more conflicts and wars, both political and psychological.

The blissful Chasm is a world of unified dark and light, lacking and having, a communion of free-flowing people, interconnected, integrated, communicative…peaceful. Let’s go back to the beginning.

My Classical Music Compositions

Back in the mid-2000s, I got my hands on some music-composing software called Finale. With it, I was able to take musical ideas I’d had floating around in my mind and physically manifest them, all at the click of a mouse. I could also print out the sheet music.

Now, I’m in the running for the worst keyboardist in the world, but I know enough about music notation and theory that I could use this software to click notes on sheet music shown on my computer screen and thus compose music.

As of my getting the software, I’d already composed three pieces the hard way, by writing them out on paper and having a professional musician record them for me. These compositions were a harpsichord sonata, a solo piano piece, and a divertimento for strings.

Now, with this software, I could redo these pieces and make them sound more accurately how I wanted them to sound than how the musician had recorded them. And, of course, I could write new pieces…more complex ones, with more varied instrumentation, thanks to all the synthetic musical sounds that Finale offered.

Before I discuss the later compositions, I’d like to describe these first three. My Harpsichord Sonata #1 in C Major, being my very first stab at classical (I’d previously written, or attempted to write, rock and pop songs at the guitar or keyboard), is my simplest and most naïve-sounding piece. It’s a kind of autodidactic piece–I was learning how to put together a kind of bare-bones composition using all the traditional forms. Accordingly, it has a neoclassical style, imitative of Baroque and Rococo music.

When I’d written it out, the left hand was largely single notes (reflective of my actually mediocre abilities at the keyboard). When I redid it with the software, I changed those single notes, generally, into chords. The four movements are: I) Allegro; II) Adagio; III) Menuetto e trio: moderato; and IV) Presto.

The first movement is in sonata form, mostly in 6/4 time, with one bar of 4/4 thrown in the first subject group of the exposition, just to be a little tricky, and with a few time changes at the very end of the coda. The second movement is a slow one in binary form, largely influenced by Scarlatti‘s harpsichord sonatas.

The third movement is a minuet and trio, the middle ‘trio’ section being three contrapuntal melodies meant to sound a little like Bach (it is NOT a fugue, but I did include the BACH notes [B-flat, A, C, and B-natural] in measure 223); the ‘trio’ also has a number of time changes. The fourth movement is a fast rondo.

Allegro bizzarro, the title inspired by Bartók‘s Allegro barbaro, is in sharp contrast to the conservatism of the harpsichord sonata. This solo piano piece is a twelve-tone work, using Arnold Schoenberg‘s system, so it’s atonal. The melody and harmony are based on this tone row: A-flat, F, B, E-flat, G, D, A-natural, B-flat, C, D-flat, E-natural, and G-flat. It isn’t “bizarre” because of the atonality and dissonance: it is so because of the wide interval leaps and the sudden jumping from one idea to another. The loud tone clusters heard first in measure 24 were influenced by Cecil Taylor‘s Indent.

The Divertimento for Strings is a kind of sublation, if you will, between the traditionalism of the harpsichord sonata and the modernism of Allegro bizzarro. In this piece, there is a mix of melodious tonality and dissonance, the former appearing especially at the beginning. It’s in three movements: i) allegretto con moto; ii) andante misterioso; and iii) presto furioso.

The happy opening theme is a bit of a parody of the music of a mainstream Hollywood rom-com, or something like that; it’s also inspired by the main theme of the old Magma song, “Üdü Wüdü.” Then these happy themes meander into something eerie. The first movement is meant to give off the feeling of things going normally, then they get stranger and stranger, the slimy underbelly of normal everyday life being exposed, rather like in a Hitchcock movie. Other musical influences include Bartók (at about 2:55), a bit of Beethoven (at about 1:41), Nelson Riddle‘s soundtrack for Lolita, a bit of Hans Werner Henze (this tense chord, at the very end), and more Magma at the end.

The second movement, in binary form and suggestive of a drug trip, makes use of parallel quintal and quartal harmony. The opening was influenced by something that Frank Zappa wrote for the 200 Motels soundtrack, and the haunting melody in the contrabasses is influenced by the opening of The Firebird and the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. The second half turns the themes more or less upside-down.

The third movement is an aggressive rondo influenced by ELP‘s version of the fourth movement of Alberto Ginastera‘s Piano Concerto No. 1. I use much octatonic scale in this movement; there are also reprises of themes from the first two movements, though given here in a darker form.

As for the pieces I wrote while using the Finale software, I started with two: a Piano Quintet, and a piece originally intended as a gift for my widowed sister, J., dedicated to her husband who had just passed away from terminal cancer. This piece is called Kevin Brown’s New Home, implying that he’s in heaven now (not that I believe in that kind of thing anymore). The piece was deliberately kept simple and accessible because I know that J. has no love for complex, experimental music. It was meant to sound sweet, a little sentimental, and emotionally cathartic, to help her process her grief.

The Piano Quintet, written in a kind of neoromantic idiom, is in four movements: i) andante tempestoso; ii) tema con variazioni; iii) scherzo e trio; and iv) presto agitato. In the first movement, you can hear the influences of Händel, the chromaticism of Wagner (<<in this YouTube video, starting at about 4:30), and a bit of Tchaikovsky (in this recording, at about 0:28; in my piece, this influence is heard in the cyclical theme that is heard in all four movements).

Recall that all of this music is just me clicking a mouse to put notes on a staff on a computer screen; the piano and string quartet notes (as in all my other compositions here) are MIDI–it’s not my playing at all. There’s no way in hell that I could ever play piano with the speed you hear in this piece!

The slow second movement is a theme and variations. The third movement is a scherzo and trio, this latter part in the middle being fugato (violin, viola, and cello). The last movement is a fast rondo.

Next, I wrote a Wind Quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet in B-flat, French horn in F, and bassoon). It is in four movements: i) allegro vivace ma non troppo; ii) adagio dolce e cantabile; iii) scherzo e trio; and iv) rondo: allegro vertiginoso. The first movement is a jaunty piece influenced by the Gentle Giant song, “Proclamation.”

The slow second movement is one of the musical moments I’m proudest of. Sure, it has lots of those verboten parallel fifths, but what the hell…

Influences include a little bit of Frank Zappa’s “Little House I Used to Live In” (here from about 13:39-14:50). There are also subtle, almost imperceptible Balinese and Japanese musical influences. On top of that, there’s a chord progression from a Diane Tell song, and a bit of Stravinsky, too (the very, very ending of this symphony).

The third movement, after its pointillist, hocketing, Klangfarbenmelodie opening, has a bit of a King Crimson influence (<<at 4:12). The trio middle section (flute, oboe, and bassoon) is also fugato. The last movement is heavily, even shamelessly, influenced by King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III.”

My next piece was a Piano Sonata whose melody and harmony are all based on equal divisions of the octave: the tritone, the notes of the augmented triad and diminished seventh chord, the whole-tone scale, and of course the twelve semitones. The three movements are i) Allegro africano; ii) Andante arpeggiato; and iii) Allegro sinistro.

I created scales out of the equal octave divisions by adding paralleled notes to them. So, I used the two octatonic scales for the diminished seventh chord, and as for the augmented triad, I’d make artificial scales with notes like, for example, C, D-sharp, E, G, G-sharp, B, C; or C, C-sharp, E, F, G-sharp, A, C. With the tritone, I’d make artificial scales like B, C, C-sharp, F, F-sharp, G. As for the twelve semitones, I felt free to use the traditional diatonic scales, but I’d do parallel harmony with them, as well as quartal and quintal harmony, to prevent the music from sounding too much like traditional tonality.

The first movement, as the title implies, is influenced by African rhythms. My use of other cultures’ musical ideas is fully respectful as well as recast in a way that makes it totally unlike stealing, so I’ll ask those listeners of an SJW nature to refrain from shouting “cultural appropriation,” OK? There’s a bit of an influence from Messiaen‘s Catalogue d’Oiseaux (at about 7:33), too, as well as one from a track from the Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew.

The second movement, as the title indicates, is all arpeggios (except for the very ending). I got the idea for the main theme from having played a quintal chord of C, G, D, A, E, and B on an old Korg synthesizer I owned in Canada back in the early 1990s. It was set to arpeggio when I played the notes, rendering more or less the theme that you hear, based on how I remembered it. As for the chord progressions, I derived one from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Louange à l’éternité de Jésus“). The third movement, a rondo, was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith‘s soundtrack to Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

My next compositions were a second harpsichord sonata, a percussion piece (with contrabass), and a symphony. The Harpsichord Sonata # 2 in D Major is in three movements: I) Les Noirs; II) Les Femmes; and III) Tambourin.

Les Noirs is a celebration of originally black American musical styles: funk, blues, and jazz. You can hear the influence of Narada Michael Walden‘s “Play With Me,” from Jeff Beck‘s Wired album, right at the beginning. Other influences include the Mahavishnu Orchestra‘s “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis).” It’s in sonata form (sort of), the second subject group of the exposition being a 12-bar blues reprise of the opening chords, but with a ‘walking bass line,’ if you will, in the left hand playing.

Les Femmes is a kind of homage to that old Genesis sound, with the 12-string acoustic guitars all playing arpeggios together; thus, you will hear the influence of songs like “Entangled,” “Ripples,” “Stagnation” (<<starting at about 2:10), “Can-Utility and the Coastliners,” and “The Musical Box.” Tambourin is a fast rondo combining themes from the first two movements.

Music for Percussion and Bass is in five movements: i) Allegro alla marcia; ii) Allegro insidioso; iii) Andante–ninna nanna; iv) Allegro balinese; and v) Rondo: allegro frenetico.

The short first movement was influenced by Frank Zappa’s “Uncle Meat Main Theme.” The jazzy second movement has a lot of octatonic scale. The third, a kind of lullaby, is influenced by Javanese gamelan music, as the fourth is by Balinese gamelan music. The last movement, another fast rondo, is influenced by the complicated riffs of jazz fusion, the middle section suggestive of the labyrinthine middle percussion section of Gentle Giant’s “Design.”

Next came my Symphony In One Movement. Actually, it’s more like eight movements all run together into one. These eight sections are a short introduction, a sonata-form section, a slow section in binary form, a scherzo, a theme and variations (also in binary form), a kind of “mirrored” section in which the themes are played in forward and reverse order, a rondo, and a short recap of the themes from the previous seven sections. The piece begins and ends with birdsong.

In the seventh section, if you listen carefully, you’ll note that the middle section was inspired by, or more accurately, is a variation on a quote from, the middle section of Gentle Giant’s “Interview.” The scherzo middle trio section is another fugato (B-flat trumpet, French horn, and trombone).

My final two pieces were a “choral” work called Hymn (actually, the singing sounds are MIDI synthesized musical sounds from Finale, as usual), and a string quartet.

The themes of Hymn are meant to symbolize aspects of, for example, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist mysticism, all as compared and contrasted with a recurring theme symbolizing my dialectical ouroboros philosophy. Melodically and harmonically, much of it is influenced by Messiaen (i.e., the use of the octatonic scale and the harmonic resolutions with the major sixth chord).

The String Quartet once again makes use of equal octave divisions (and the above-mentioned scales) as a basis for melody and harmony. It is in four movements: i) Largo lugubro; ii) Fugue; iii) Allegro con moto; and iv) Presto veemente.

The, indeed, lugubrious first movement is influenced by the first movement of Bartók’s first string quartet, especially the beginning. Structurally, it symbolizes the circular continuum, ouroboros philosophy I’ve discussed so many times before: the themes start slow, then are played faster and more densely (i.e., simultaneously) until the end cyclically returns to the beginning.

The fugue second movement is influenced by Glenn Gould‘s string quartet. The third movement is in sonata form, and the fast last movement, another rondo, is influenced by the fifth movement of Bartók’s fourth string quartet.

All of this music was originally published on Jamendo, under my original name, Martin Gross. I have no access to the website for some unexplained reason, so I’ve had to repost my music here. If any of you are interested, I also have three pop music albums published on Jamendo, but under the name Mawr Gorshin.

Analysis of “Midsommar”

Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. It stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter. It is considered one of the best horror films of 2019, with its unconventional way of disturbing and unsettling the audience.

Normally, a horror film thrives on the use of darkness to evoke the creepy mood. With this film, most of the horrors occur in broad daylight, as the film’s title suggests. Much of the film actually has a sad tone–unusual again for a film full of sunny skies–since the story is essentially about the slow but sure breakup of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

The disturbing aspect of this breakup, though, is how it’s actually being manipulated and aggravated by a pagan cult. It’s equally obvious that Pelle (Blomgren) is drawing Dani Ardor (Pugh) away from Christian Hughes (Reynor) as it is that Maja (played by Isabelle Grill) is drawing Christian away from Dani; but I suspect the cult has been orchestrating this breakup to a far greater extent than is assumed by the average viewer of the film.

Here are some quotes:

[in Swedish] “This high my fire. No higher. No hotter!” –Siv

“He’s my good friend and I like him, but…Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” –Pelle, talking to Dani about Christian

“He draws, and we, the Elders, interpret. You see Yosh, Ruben is unclouded by normal cognition. It makes him open, for the source.” –Arne

“Ruben was – a product of inbreeding. All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding.” –Arne

“I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” –Christian, of Maja

[in Swedish] “I can feel it! I feel the baby!” –Maja, right after having sex with Christian

“Christian?” [snaps fingers twice] “Christian… Hi. Hello! There you are! Listen: You can’t speak. You can’t move.” [smiles] “All right?” [smiles] “Good.” –Ulla

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Siv: On this, the day of our deity of reciprocity, we gather to give special thanks to our treasured Sun. As an offering for our Father, we will today surrender nine *human* lives. As Hårga takes, so Hårga also gives. Thus, for every newblood sacrificed, we will dedicate one of our own. That is: four newbloods, four from Hårga, and one to be chosen by the Queen. Nine in all, to die, and be reborn, in the great Cycle.

Stev: The four newbloods, have already been supplied. As for our end, we have two already dedicated…And two who have volunteered. Ingemar and Ulf. [they step forward] You have brought outside offerings, thus volunteering your own bodies. You will today be joined in harmony with Everything. And to Pelle, who has brought new blood, and our new May Queen, you will today be honored for your unclouded intuition. And so, for our ninth offering. It is traditional that our fair Queen shall choose, between a preselected newblood, and a specially ordained Hårgan.

**********

The shifting of the seasons, from the dead of winter to the sunny skies of midsummer is important in terms of symbolism. It represents the dialectical relationship between opposites, one of unity in duality, as seen in the gradual transition from one opposite extreme to the other. We shift from the death and cold of winter to the renewed life and warmth of summer. As observed in my analysis of A Christmas Carol, we see here a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’…only here, the seasons are reversed.

What should be noted here is that, just as there’s a shift from the winter’s death and cold to summer’s life and warmth, so is there a shift from the life and warmth…well, relatively speaking, of course…of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship, to the death and absolute cold of the relationship’s official end in summer–to say nothing of Christian’s winter life and midsummer death. Here again we see the unity of opposites.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, most of the killing (and discovery of it) happens under sunny skies (except for the murder of Josh [Harper]); while the dark moments deal mostly with Dani’s fears or realizations of abandonment (her sister’s suicide/murder of their parents, more a tragic than horrific moment; Dani’s drug trip experience in the dark bathroom, with her hallucinating the sight of her dead sister in the mirror; her dream of her ‘friends’ driving out of the commune at night and leaving her there).

Her sister Terri suffers from bipolar disorder, the cycles of excitement and depression being symbolically paralleled here with the bright highs of summer and the black lows of winter; so it’s fitting to start with both the extreme cold and dark night of winter, along with the extreme depths of Terri’s worst depressive episode ever. In Terri’s scary email to Dani, she types, “everything’s black.”

Dani is already extremely vulnerable emotionally, her anxiety being such that Christian finds it hard to cope. She takes Ativan to soothe her anxieties, and she’s afraid that all her emotional baggage is pushing Christian away; whereas if he were a decent boyfriend, he’d be much more compassionate than he is.

Of course, Christian’s friends are hardly inspiring of compassion for Dani. Mark (Poulter), a particularly insensitive ass, bluntly tells Christian that he should dump her. Then, there’s Pelle…

Right from the film’s beginning, we see Pelle–the Swede who’s inviting the group to his commune’s midsummer celebrations, and who is the only one who’s happy, even excited, to have Dani tag along–sitting with Christian, Josh, and Mark, when they’re telling Christian he should break up with Dani. Pelle doesn’t say much about the souring relationship at the time (except mentioning the beautiful Swedish women Christian will meet in Hälsingland–i.e., Maja), but given what we know of his motives by the end of the movie, we now can see that it’s obvious his mind is turning already.

Knowing the pagan commune’s use of spells, I speculate that Pelle, right from the beginning, may have been using magic (i.e., the pictures he draws, including the one of Dani) not only to accelerate the couple’s breakup, but also even to drive Terri to the murder/suicide, orphaning Dani so he can ’empathize’ with her, bring her into the cult…and finally have her.

The worst of Dani’s fears of abandonment are realized when she learns that Terri has wiped out their entire family by flooding the house with carbon monoxide while their parents are sleeping. The premeditative nature of this killing, how Terri must have planned it, is almost like a human sacrifice (!). Dani is all alone in the world…except for her doing-the-bare-minimum boyfriend.

But with the onset of winter comes the birth of the sun god; that is, the sun is farthest away from the northern hemisphere, and it will be coming back, slowly but surely, until midsummer, when it’s at its closest. This slow return symbolizes the slow return of hope for Dani, who, though still traumatized, is little by little learning to put her life back together, if in the dubious form of joining a cult.

Christian’s aloofness isn’t helping, though. When he originally intends to go to Sweden with Pelle, Josh, and Mark, he hopes to blow off Dani and have fun in bed with beautiful Swedish girls. It’s only after seeing Dani sob (in an extended scene from the director’s cut, deleted from the theatrical release) that he reluctantly invites her along, lying that he’s meant her ‘last second invitation’ as a “romantic” surprise.

His inviting of Dani has made things awkward for the two of them, as well as for Mark and Josh (though Pelle, of course, is thrilled she’s coming). She can feel the annoyance of the former three men, who–apart from Josh’s work on his thesis–have been hoping for a buddy trip, chasing skirt. This awkwardness is indicative of the alienation in modern society, which will be sharply contrasted with the communal closeness felt among the pagan cult in Hårga…a closeness that will feel too close.

Indeed, part of the cult’s manipulation of its visitors will be a dividing of the four of them through triangulation, and this divisiveness is already beginning because of Pelle’s influence. We often see him drawing: for her birthday, he gives her a drawing of her wearing a wreath; I’m convinced that these drawings are spells, Pelle’s visualizations of such things as her as the next May Queen…which, indeed, is what she’s fated to become.

There’s a dialectical relationship between this growing alienation among the four visitors and the all-too-close bond Dani is developing with the cult, which actually is enmeshment. Similarly, the coming together of her and Pelle, the coming together of Christian and Maja, and the slow breakup of him and Dani, are also dialectically related–more unions of opposites.

To develop this theme further, it’s interesting how the visitor who has been traumatized by a murder/suicide in her family is the only one to be able to adapt to the death cult ways of the commune. The one who has viewed death with the greatest horror is also the one who becomes most accepting of it at the end. What’s more, it’s interesting how, of the four visitors, it’s Josh–the only African-American among a cast of people of European descent–who is by far the most passionate about learning about Scandinavian pagan traditions.

[NOTE: please don’t misinterpret my meaning here. I’m not trying to say that it’s somehow ‘odd’ or ‘out of place’ for a black person to be interested in European culture. Far from it! We should all, regardless of ‘race’ or colour, be encouraged to learn about cultures outside of those of our ethnic background. For indeed, many blacks have been famous for not only loving, but also excelling, at presenting various aspects of ‘white’ culture. A few examples, off the top of my head, include Jessye Norman in opera, Wynton Marsalis when interpreting Haydn, and Paul Robeson playing Othello and singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”]

My only point in speaking of Josh’s thesis in terms of the ethnic difference between him and Scandinavia is to give another example of this film’s theme of the unity of opposites: in terms of ethnic and cultural background, Josh, of the four visitors, is furthest away from Nordic tradition, yet he’s nearest to it in his emotional investment. It’s not about whether African-Americans ‘should or shouldn’t’ be interested in European culture (Why shouldn’t they be interested?); it’s that, technically speaking, he is passionate about it, making him, in this sense, more Nordic than Dani, Christian, and Mark could ever be; and in this we see a sameness in difference…as there should be a unity and harmony between all cultures, including those (actually or only seemingly) most dissimilar. I’m not prescribing what cultures one is ‘supposed’ to be interested in; I’m only exploring theme.

In contrast to Josh’s love of all things Scandinavian, white Christian, who also wants to do his thesis on the Hårga, is totally half-assed in his interest in the culture; worse, he is leeching off of Josh’s passion, justifiably angering him. In fact, Josh’s fascination goes so far as to have among his research books one involving the Nazi use of the Uthark (seen in an extended version of the scene of the car ride into Hälsingland)! Pelle claims that Josh carries the book around only to annoy him, but one would think that Josh himself would be annoyed to have it around. Once again, opposites attract.

Yet another example of the union of opposites is in Christian’s attitude towards Dani. He’s a bad boyfriend, to be sure, but not completely bad. He’s conflicted about her: part of him wants to end the relationship, but part of him wants to hang onto it. He expresses fears of regretting dumping her, and then not being able to get her back. He’s emotionally distant, yet tries…however clumsily…to be considerate. This ‘to be or not to be’ her boyfriend is thus another paradoxical unity of opposites.

Even when he is offered Maja for mating, he asks to watch the sex ritual instead of participate in it (in another deleted extension, that of his scene with Siv). And after he comes inside Maja, he runs out of the building naked, full of fear and remorse. He’d still be with Dani, yet not be with her.

When the visitors arrive in the Hårga community, pretty diegetic music is heard playing on flutes as they walk through a huge, yellow circular entrance designed like the sun. It’s a quaint, charming scene, and the people living here seem sweet. The charm is superficial, though, since we’ll see soon enough what will happen to Mark, Josh, and Christian, as well as to UK visitors, Simon and Connie.

One can debate whether or not ancient Norse pagans actually committed any or all of the shocking acts seen in the film (senicide, blood eagles, skinning of human flesh, and human sacrifices); but staying within the framework of the story of the film, we need to wonder about a community in the modern world doing things they know that no one outside would ever accept.

Such extreme acts, deemed understandable only in a pre-scientific world–where human sacrifice, rather than such things as modern agricultural practices, is believed to ward off bad luck and ensure good harvests–when combined with the pagan cult’s superficial charm, can only mean that the Hårga commune is collectively sociopathic and narcissistic. They fancy their ways to be superior to those of the modern scientific world; they arrogantly think they have the right and duty to manipulate and end human lives. Yet, on first meeting them, we find them so charming and sweet.

Again, we see here a meeting of opposites: so sweet, kind, and gentle, yet so cruel and merciless. This is a collectively narcissistic community. Membership (enmeshment, actually) has its privileges (e.g., being the May Queen, a kind of golden child), but being outside of the inner circle only brings death. Horrors happen under sunny skies.

Normally, when we think of sexual predation, we think of lecherous men prowling after pretty, nubile young women. Indeed, Mark–who’s such a jackass, he can’t even refrain from engaging in locker-room talk in Dani’s presence…so inept around women, and probably a virgin–is all eager about chasing Swedish women. But when one of the Hårga women (Inga, played by Julia Ragnarsson) shows an interest in him as a mate, he gets scared, not just because he’s such a dork, but because he can sense the predation.

Maja, of course, is especially predatory, what with the spells she uses on Christian (the runic charm she puts under his bed, and her pubic hair in his food), and the unsettling way her eyes are always on him. This sex role reversal is another union of opposites: men chase women, but women hunt after men. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Simon and Connie cannot hide their shock at the senicide, so when they say they want to leave immediately, not only is their murder necessary to silence them and protect the cult from the police; it’s also revenge for the narcissistic injury the cult feels after Simon and Connie make them lose face by his calling the senicide “fucked!”

Mark’s pissing on the ancestral tree, another loss of face for the cult, is more narcissistic injury requiring his death, as is Josh’s forbidden taking of photos of the cult’s holy book. The visitors have no respect for the commune’s traditions, so they must die.

That tense scene of the four visitors sitting together at the dinner table exemplifies another union of opposites, that of social alienation vs. enmeshment. Resentment builds between Dani and Christian when she says she can imagine him leaving without telling her (as Simon has done to Connie) because of a “miscommunication.” Mutual resentment builds between Christian and Josh over the former leeching off the latter’s thesis. Mark fears being murdered because of his pissing on the tree. All four feel alone, divided from each other…and yet they’re surrounded by a commune of people so together, they all share one will.

…and Dani, quite soon, will be part of that one will.

As part of his slow seduction of her, Pelle comforts Dani, after her shock at the senicide (which reminds her far too much of Terri’s murder/suicide–the death of their aged parents), by mentioning his own parents…who died in a fire (!). We must remember this fiery death in light of the sacrifice at the end of the film, a ritual murder Pelle fully, willingly participates in. He would tell her of his parents’ death to have her believe he empathizes with her, that he would hold her in a way Christian never will…yet Pelle is using her pain to lure her in; and as I speculated above, he may have used a spell to kill her family.

Pelle is the central villain of the movie. He has used his slick charm to engineer all the major events of the story. His plan from the beginning has been to break up Dani and Christian so he can have her, and so his sister Maja can have Christian. Maja has liked him ever since Pelle sent her a cellphone picture of him back when Pelle and the four were still in the States. The human sacrifice, killing Pelle’s “American friends,” was planned from the start, too. Pelle has the charm and sweetness Christian lacks, but Christian is the central victim, and Pelle is the central victimizer. Opposites, here of good and bad, are united again.

Dani’s aloneness–no family, an emotionally uncommitted boyfriend, and Josh and Mark, who resent her tagging along–makes her a perfect choice to join the pagan cult. She has no one else, but the people of Hårga are happy to have her. She dialectically shifts from being the social reject to being all lovingly accepted as May Queen–note the love-bombing she gets when she wins the Maypole dance. Note especially the passionate kiss Pelle gives her; having been drugged, she calls out “Mom?” when seeing a hallucination of her mother among the love-bombers, the only one who isn’t happy for her…but they are all her family now. She can leave behind her painful old world.

On many occasions, I’ve used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail represent the meeting, extreme opposites on a circular continuum that in turn is represented by the snake’s coiled body, where every intermediate point between the extremes is. Dani is shifting from the bitten tail of loneliness to the biting head of inclusion in the cult. Christian, on the other hand, has been slipping from the head of acceptance among his buddies, along the length of the serpent’s coiled body towards the tail as his friends are killed, to the bitten tail of being the new outcast, where Dani was, now that she has been crowned May Queen, and is loved by the cult, while he just stands by alone and watches.

Christian is the lonely, vulnerable one now. The cult doesn’t even want him to marry Maja: they just want his sperm to impregnate her. The combination of this fact with the cult’s accepting of Dani, the only survivor of the visitors being female (Ingemar was hoping to mate with Connie, but her sticking with Simon has sealed her fate.), makes me believe this cult must be matrilineal. Males are more expendable here than females (just as we know that in the patriarchal family, the sexes are reversed in this regard). Hence, seven out of the nine sacrificial victims are male; in fact, strictly speaking, the only ones burned alive are male (Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf), for the other victims (including Connie and the elderly woman who jumped from the cliff) were already killed long before.

This is an upside-down world (recall that upside-down shot during the car ride to Hälsingland), where sex roles are often reversed, moments of emotional dark occur during sunny brightness, and extreme opposites are intermingled. The only solution to social alienation that the movie offers is total enmeshment in a cult. This enmeshment is perfectly symbolized by Reuben, the deformed ‘oracle’ who is a result of inbreeding. A healthy society is a balance of closeness with independence: not too close, yet not so apart as to result in alienation. Dani is going from one extreme to the other.

As for Christian’s ‘moment of truth’ with Maja, we cannot afford to be so naïve to think that, just because he gets to enjoy her, that this means he’s really enjoying her. He has always been reluctant about it; part of him, even if just a small part, still wants to be with Dani. The only reason he has sex with Maja is that he’s being manipulated into it. Men’s greatest weakness by far is lust.

Drugged with aphrodisiacs and psychedelics that, frankly admitted by Ulla, will break down his defences, Christian enters the room where the fertility ritual is to take place. Maja is lying naked and beautiful in a bed of flowers, surrounded by naked older women who sing a hypnotic tune in B major, with two sets of three harmonies (which, if I’m hearing them correctly, are based on triads of I vi[a first inversion 6th chord] I, I II[major] I); an eerie instrumental variation of the tune is heard earlier in the film whenever Maja is working her love magic on Christian.

This scene perfectly exemplifies erotic horror, one of the best fusions of the sexy and the scary that I’ve ever encountered. Maja is so tempting, so exciting…and yet, so terrifying for those very reasons. (Now we can understand why Mark changes his mind about Inga, the Hårga girl he’s been so attracted to–the one intelligent thought he has anywhere in the film.) Maja is luring Christian into a trap. She takes the femme fatale to a whole new level. Omne animal triste post coitum. And this fusion of pleasure and terror is yet another union of opposites.

Such books as Frazer‘s Golden Bough, Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths, and Hyam Maccoby‘s Sacred Executioner discuss ancient pagan rites of human sacrifice, later distorted into myths, which included orgiastic fertility rites. (I briefly discussed these in Part V of this post.) This is exactly what we’re seeing happening to Christian: he has a fuck, then he goes up in flames.

Now, we wouldn’t hesitate to describe as sexual assault a man giving a woman alcohol and drugs, then taking advantage of her while she’s wasted; but is that not exactly what’s being done to Christian? He has been thoroughly manipulated and drugged into having sex with Maja, and he has clearly demonstrated reluctance. During the sex, his agape eyes show no sign of pleasure: he’s all in a state of doped-up shock. Let’s dispense with the sexual double standards, look at what’s happened to him with an open mind, and take the following point seriously.

There should be no surprise that naked Christian runs out of the building disoriented and scared: what has happened to him can be seen as a kind of rape. It doesn’t matter that he orgasmed inside Maja; when women are raped, they sometimes orgasm–coming doesn’t make these women any less rape victims. The only reason we assume Christian ‘wanted it, so it isn’t rape’ (a particularly cruel thing to say to female rape victims just because they’re dressed provocatively) is because we stereotype men as lechers, and society assumes that sex is something only men do to other people, especially to women, instead of something done to them, especially when done by women to them.

When I say the above, I’m not trying to claim any kind of solidarity with woman-hating MRAs. I only bring this up, once again, to explore the theme of an upside-down world in which opposites are unified. Normally, we think of male sexual predation on women; here, the sexes are reversed.

Christian’s running outside, frontally nude and totally exposed to anyone looking, underscores his vulnerability. Ascendant Dani was emotionally vulnerable; falling Christian is now physically vulnerable (especially when he is drugged into mute paralysis). He has given up his usefulness to the cult in impregnating Maja. In the language of narcissism, he has gone from idealized to devalued…and he’ll soon be discarded.

At the end of Dani’s initiation as May Queen, the women accompanying her take her to a place within earshot of the sex rite. The empathic chanting of the women surrounding Maja and Christian make the rite especially audible to Dani. This must be deliberate. One of the women supposedly tries to dissuade Dani from going over and seeing what’s going on, but this ‘dissuasion’ is clearly reverse psychology: the women want her to see Christian ‘cheating’ on her; they let her walk over there.

Throughout the film, Maja’s moves on Christian have been public and therefore easily made known to Dani. Her suspicions have been growing the whole time; before she looks through the keyhole and sees her boyfriend fucking Maja, she’s already 99% certain that her suspicions have been correct. You can see it on her frowning face as she approaches the building.

After seeing the betrayal, she runs into the sleeping area, bawling in a jealous rage and feeling the triggering of her trauma of abandonment. The other women follow her. As Dani is bawling, the other women face her, and in the collective form of a symbolic mirror, they empathically reflect her bawling and pain back to her. This ritualistic empathizing, however, shouldn’t be mistaken with real empathy, or with Bion‘s psychotherapeutic notion of containment; the women aren’t properly soothing her. They are manipulating Dani, channeling her jealousy and pain, validating it so she’ll have a motive strong enough to betray Christian as a sacrificial victim, which of course she does.

Midsummer is the highest point at which the sun god rises, before his descent and death in fall and winter. Such gods as Balder were killed in midsummer, as Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf will be. Capital punishment has been deemed by many to be the secular equivalent of human sacrifice, and such ceremonial murder is also correlated with social hierarchy, a ladder that narcissists like to ascend. Christian is being executed for the crime of unfaithfulness (as Dani sees it). Being discarded by the cult, he is also the scapegoat, dressed in a bearskin, just as May Queen Dani is the golden child, adorned in a dress of flowers.

Dani has relived the trauma of Terri’s murder/suicide in viewing the ättestupa, and now she’ll have to relive it again by watching the burning building, with a front row seat, so to speak. (Ingemar’s and Ulf’s volunteering as sacrificial victims makes this into a kind of murder/suicide, too.) Her surname, Ardor, means ‘burning passion,’ which is appropriate, for watching the burning yellow building, shaped like the capital A of her surname, is like her looking in a mirror. It’s an agonizing passion for her to watch at first, but it’s ultimately cathartic–hence, her smile at the end.

The ’empathic’ wailing of Pelle, Maja, and all the others in the cult should now be seen for what it really is: not only is it fake, but also psychopathic. This commune is a case of group insanity. Narcissists are deficient in empathy, but they can fake it; what’s more, they kid themselves into thinking their empathy is real–hence, the cult’s wailing, meant to assuage their guilt.

So, what will become of Dani? Has she finally found the love and belonging she has so craved her whole life? It may seem so for now, but our feelings change with the seasons. Given time, that smile of hers will change into a frown, just as the sun, at its height, will wane as fall and winter come. It’s only a matter of time before she grows disillusioned with this death cult.

She has been idealized; she may, in time, be devalued and discarded, just as Christian has been. She, too, may slide from the ouroboros’ biting head (idealization), along the length of its coiled body (devaluing), down to its bitten tail (discarding). Four years ago, she and Christian were in love; that love faded away. She will mate with Pelle…the summer of their love may fade away into another winter of emotional distance.

After Pelle has fathered a few children by her, and she in her anxieties wants to get out of the cult, she won’t be able to…not alive, anyway. She is in a trap. She has exchanged alienation and loneliness with enmeshment. Pelle’s parents died in a fire…Christian has died in a fire…will Dani, too, die in a fire, one midsummer’s day…or midwinter’s night?

Bringing Us All Together

The ego, understood as a separate, isolated entity that develops apart from others, is an illusion. The human personality is constructed only through its relationships with other people. These relationships can be of the two-way kind, that is, a narcissistic, dyadic relationship in which two people mirror each other (Jacques Lacan‘s other with a lower-case o); or they can be a communal sort (Lacan’s Other), involving many people who interact and share, but also respect each other’s autonomy.

Everyone who is healthy goes from the dyadic, one-on-one relationship (i.e., parent/child) to the communal sort, with varying levels of success, depending on how well one can get over the traumatic transition from the child’s primary narcissism (ego love) to object love, or love of other people. Those who fail to get over this trauma are in danger of developing secondary narcissism (the pathological kind that upsets so many of us), or they suffer a psychotic break with reality, a fragmenting of the personality. These failures, in their mild to severe forms, are part of the basis of social alienation.

In previous posts, I have written about the problem of social alienation, in its socioeconomic and psychological forms. I have also written about how the development of the personality is based on its relations with other people, and that there is a dialectical relationship between self and other.

I have compared the healthy and unhealthy relationships between self and other (or Other), as well as the traumatic, fragmentary state of alienation, to different points on a circular continuum that I symbolize with the ouroboros. The biting head and bitten tail of the serpent represent the meeting extreme opposites on the circular continuum, while the coiled length of the snake’s body represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate tints and shades of grey between black and white.

The unhealthy relationship between self and other, placed at the biting head of the serpent, is of the Oedipal, dyadic, one-on-one sort commonly seen between parent and child, who look lovingly into each other’s eyes as if no one else existed. Their looking and smiling at each other is like a mirror reflection, for both of them are narcissistic extensions of each other. This is Lacan‘s Imaginary, a world of literal and metaphoric mirrors, respectively the mirror stage and the dyadic parent/child mirroring.

The healthy self/other relationship is that of the individual with society in general, where the individual acknowledges, recognizes, and respects the individuality and autonomy of every other person he or she encounters. Here, the Other is not a mere extension of one’s narcissistic self. This healthier area is represented all along the coiled length of the body of the ouroboros; the healthier the relationships, the closer one comes to the head (without reaching the narcissistic biting teeth), while the more dysfunctional they are, the closer one comes to the bitten tail. The whole length of the serpent’s body, preferably towards the head, of course, is Lacan’s Symbolic register, the realm of language, culture, and society.

The most dysfunctional realm, the traumatic one, is at the bitten tail, where reality is too painful to bear, and one attempts to escape the pain through a psychotic break from reality and enter a world of fantasy. This is the undifferentiated world of Lacan’s notion of the Real, a state of being that cannot be processed because it cannot be symbolized or put into words; there are no differential relations in the Real, as there are in the Symbolic. The healthy escape from this traumatic state is through talk therapy, a putting of trauma into words, a moving from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body towards its head.

Note how this traumatic realm is right next to the narcissistic, dyadic realm, where the serpent’s head bites its tail; this is where, originally, parent and child mirrored each other, a kind of Oedipal Garden of Eden, if you will, as I’ve described that mental state elsewhere. My point in describing all of this, metaphorically in terms of places on the ouroboros’ body, is that there is a point where happiness, pleasure, and ‘good health’ go too far. Sometimes, happiness is too happy, and fulfilled is too fulfilled. It’s Spenser‘s bower of bliss.

To be truly happy, one has to allow oneself to be at least a little unhappy. Happiness and sadness must be allowed to coexist, to be brought together, to flow into each other like the waves of the ocean; if we don’t allow this unity, this intermingling of opposites, they will come together in another way, typically one for which we aren’t prepared; for one way or the other, the serpent’s head is always biting its tail.

The excess of pleasure that one gets in the dyadic, narcissistic relationship comes from enjoying the self-other dialectic in the form that Heinz Kohut described as the grandiose self mirrored by the idealized parental imago, which is the original, Oedipal parent/child relationship, but whose idealized aspect can also be transferred onto a lover, a spouse, a therapist, or even a political demagogue. One wishes to see, mirrored in the other, an idealized version of oneself.

Needless to say, it isn’t healthy to use another person to reflect one’s grandiosity onto oneself, to use another as an extension of oneself, as narcissists do in order to defend themselves against the fragmentation that is so dangerously close to the narcissistic state. This perilous proximity is symbolized where the snake’s head (narcissistic, illusory paradise) bites its tail (Sartre‘s hell of other people, whose critical glances and remarks imprison one’s self-concept in a never-ending need for external validation and approval).

The ego is formed through illusory mirror reflections, literal ones or metaphorical ones as described above. One strives to be the ideal-I one sees in the reflection, an ideal that one loves and hates at the same time, precisely because it’s an unattainable ideal. Through all of this striving, though, one forgets that the ideal isn’t a real representation of oneself–it’s an illusion.

Similarly, the idealizing of the metaphorical mirror reflection–that of, say, the parent a child smiles at and who mirrors the smiles back at him or her–the idealization of this parent, or the objet petit a (as manifested in the lover, spouse, therapist, political demagogue, movie, sports, or pop star, or the pornographic model) who is a transference of the originally, Oedipally-desired parent, is also an illusion, a projection of the ego’s narcissism.

When both poles of Kohut’s conception of the child’s self–the grandiose self and idealized parental imago as described above, these two poles that say, “I am great, and I need you, O perfect Mom and Dad, to validate my greatness”–break down because the parents and general social environment fail to empathize with the child’s needs, he or she is at that dangerous area of fragmentation, symbolized by the bitten tail. The child either builds a narcissistic False Self to be protected from psychological disintegration, or the person falls apart emotionally.

Children need their parents’ love and empathy to help them grow and thrive in the social world, but they need to have their narcissistic sense of omnipotence let down and frustrated in tolerable amounts, too. This gradual, bearable letting down is symbolized by a sliding down from the Edenic head of the ouroboros to the upper middle of its coiled body. Traumatic, extreme disappointments will make the child slide in the other direction, from biting head to bitten tail.

A crucial part of this tolerable frustration of the wish to fulfill the dyadic, Oedipal parent/child relationship is what Lacan called the nom, or Non! du père, that is, the demand of the other parent for the child to end his or her fantasy of eternally having the Oedipally-desired parent all to him- or herself. This frustration, if dealt with well, brings the child out of the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship and into the larger social world of interacting with many people, who aren’t seen as mere extensions of the self, but who are recognized as independent entities in their own right. This is a shift from the unhealthy to the healthy self-other dialectic.

My point in describing all of this, if my overbearingly academic choice of words isn’t giving you too much of a headache, Dear Reader, is that we must promote as much societal togetherness as we can. This may be a point so obvious as not to need making, but the purpose of the psychoanalytic concepts used in this post (click here for a fuller explanation of them) is to explain the psychological mechanisms that can shed light on how relationships go sour, how people revert to narcissism, become alienated, or lapse into psychosis instead of resolving their conflicts.

The narcissistic, dyadic relationship leads to envy and jealousy if a third party interferes with the duo; if not resolved properly (i.e., if the Name of the Father, in its literal or metaphorical senses, isn’t accepted by the child), we can have, at worst, the kind of scenario depicted in Psycho when Norman poisons his mother and her lover (a symbolic father). To avoid facing his guilt over the matricide, Norman has his internal object of his mother take over half, if not all, of his personality. He never escapes the one-on-one, parent/child relationship; she may be physically dead, but she lives on in his mind.

Part of the building up of a healthy personality in a child is encouraging his or her wish to seek out knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s K) in the social context of interacting with people, or in making links (hence, Bion’s K, L, and H-links, standing for Knowledge, Love, and Hate–K being the most important link). Attacks on linking are a major problem to be resolved, for the resulting -K, a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge through connecting with other people, when taken to extremes, leads to psychosis, as does Lacan’s notion of foreclosure, a refusal to let the non/Non! du père take one out of the dyadic relationship and into society.

Bion states that a thought is an emotional experience, something a baby doesn’t yet have the thinking apparatus (alpha function) for processing, so its mother must do its thinking for it, until it has built up its own thinking apparatus and can thus do its own thinking. Thoughts, understood as emotional experiences, start off as external stimuli (beta elements) that assail the consciousness; if they can’t be processed and used for thought (beta elements transformed, by alpha function, into alpha elements), they are ejected.

A baby ejects these overwhelming beta elements, and its mother receives and contains them for it; as a container of her baby’s agitated response (the contained) to the rejected beta elements, the mother soothes her baby through her capacity for reverie. Her comforting communication with the baby is a sending back of those elements, now alpha elements that are tolerable for the baby to receive.

This sending back and forth of beta and alpha elements between baby and mother is done through projective identification, which goes beyond projection‘s mere imagining of one’s own traits to be in another person, but involves actually pushing those traits and elements that are inside oneself onto the other, making him or her manifest them in reality.

Not only do babies and their primary caregivers engage in projective identification‘s trading back and forth of psychic energy, but so do patients (especially psychotic ones) and their therapists, respectively in the roles of baby and mother; for psychotics, as Bion observed, lose their grip on reality by rejecting beta elements to such an extreme extent, such an extreme level of -K, that they lose their ability to process external information properly. Their ejection of beta elements creates a beta screen that blocks off reality.

It’s this blocking off of the external, social world that is the source of mental ill health, willful ignorance (-K), and social alienation. A bringing together–union, integration–is the solution.

The blocking off is a characteristic of splitting into absolute good and bad objects, what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). The integrating tendency, and bringing together of the good and bad aspects of an object, is characteristic of the depressive position (D). One tends throughout life to waver back and forth between splitting and integration, or as Bion notated it, PS<->D.

Since everything is interconnected, whether we like it or not, this means that whatever goes on without goes on within, too, in one way or another. So if we split external objects and reject the bad parts, we split their internalized equivalents, too, and eject these split-off bad parts. Hence, the attacks on linking, -K, and ejection of beta elements, leading to the erection of a beta screen.

The social isolation resulting from this splitting results in the kind of psychosis seen in Pink in The Wall, the wall he builds around himself being essentially a giant beta screen.

The beta screen that refuses to let in any new experiences, knowledge, or social connections, and the fragmentation that results from the ejected, split-off parts of the self, results, in turn, in the creation of bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts. What we look at or listen to seems to be watching and hearing us, too. This is another example of the psychotic break with reality that is caused by the breakdown of society.

A shifting back and forth between PS and D is inevitable, to an extent. The unity of everything will always be qualified by duality, hence dialectical monism, yin and yang. One must nonetheless strive to minimize PS, which is situated where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and try to maximize D, along the coiled middle of the body of the ouroboros.

As selfish as desire is, even it is oriented towards objects, or other people. WRD Fairbairn replaced Freud‘s drive theory with an object-seeking libido, or a desire to have relationships with other people, as over mere pleasure-seeking. Lacan said that desire is of the Other, a desire to be recognized by the Other, a desire for what (one thinks) the Other desires. So again, even in selfish desire, we exist in relation to others.

We never exist in isolation, as isolated as we may want to be from others. If we reject others, as Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego reacts to the Rejecting Object (Fairbairn‘s replacement and approximation of Freud’s superego), we’ll still fantasize about imaginary, internalized people, as the Libidinal Ego does with the Exciting Object (approximating Freud’s id). We need to get out of this splitting mindset, and get back into the real world, engaging the Central Ego with the Ideal Object (approximating Freud’s ego), since being in real relationships with real people is the ideal of mental health.

We must allow the flow of energy in and out of ourselves, to grow in K, to contain beta elements and turn them into alphas. We must tear down the walls, or beta screens. We must replace narcissistic, dyadic, mirrored relationships with social ones. We must regard the ego as a drop in an infinite ocean of humanity, not a separate, walled-off entity.

The Ouroboros of Psychoanalysis

In a number of posts, I have used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and every point on the length of its body, coiled into a circle, represents a median point on a circular continuum between those dialectically related opposites. Therefore, any extreme can phase into its opposite, and vice versa.

I believe such a dialectical relationship between opposites can be demonstrated in the field of psychoanalytic theory. I will make such a demonstration below. I have already done so, to an extent, in my post, The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse. I’d like here to expand on that.

The extremes of frustration and hostility felt by a baby towards its non-breastfeeding ‘bad mother‘ during the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), which is at the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros (i.e., the extreme opposites, side by side, indicate the black and white, all or nothing, thinking behind splitting), lead to a fear that the baby has annihilated its ‘good mother’ in unconscious phantasy, or has provoked a retaliation in the ‘bad mother.’

The seeming destruction of an external object results in a fear of the destruction of the internal equivalent of that object, for there is a dialectic of the self and other, too. There’s a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

For these reasons, the baby passes over the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros (as manifested in PS) and, passing over the head to the serpent’s upper body, the baby reaches the depressive position (D), wanting reparation with the mother (and the internalized object representing her) that it now realizes is both good and bad. The thesis (‘bad mother,’ that is, the ouroboros’ bitten tail) and negation (‘good mother,’ or the biting head) are sublated (the good and bad aspects are integrated into one complete human being, represented by the serpent’s coiled middle body).

The self-other dialectic, as seen, for example, in the Kleinian concepts of introjecting objects and projecting unwanted, split-off portions of the subject (via projective identification), was expanded on by Wilfred R. Bion in his description of the mother/infant relationship. He saw that the establishment of a baby’s thinking apparatus was made through this dyadic relationship, through a mother’s containing of her baby’s ejections of intolerable external stimuli.

For Bion, thoughts are emotional experiences coming from the outside world–“thoughts without a thinker.” These stimuli (beta elements) assail the baby, who doesn’t yet know how to cope with them. It needs its mother to do its thinking for it; so when it ejects the intolerable beta elements, she receives and contains them, and through using the alpha function the baby hasn’t yet learned how to use, she converts the agitating beta elements into tolerable alpha elements, and sends these latter elements back to the baby.

[Click here for a more thorough explanation of psychoanalytic concepts.]

This process (maternal reverie) of a mother helping her baby to process unacceptable external stimuli, this trading back and forth of energy through projective and introjective identification, is how an infant gradually develops an ability to do the mental processing by itself. In other words, this is how an infant learns how to think.

The use of alpha function to convert beta elements into alpha elements is something we do all the time, because our mothers helped us acquire this skill when we were infants. The agitating beta elements, hitting us from the outside world, are the emotional experiences of being at the ouroboros’ bitten tail. When we process the feelings, we slide along the coiled length of the serpent’s body, using alpha function, until we reach the biting head, when the experiences have been fully assimilated and have become alpha elements.

Babies cannot do this yet, so their mothers do the processing for them, then send the fully-converted elements back to their babies. The babies are thus able to go from bitten tail straight over to biting head, without any trauma.

If, however, a mother doesn’t do this containing properly for her baby, or if other agitations occurring later in life, for some reason, cannot be processed and converted into alpha elements by the affected person, he or she may be stuck in the ‘bitten tail’ area of the ouroboros for an unacceptably long period of time, and the agitation may turn into a nameless dread.

This nameless dread may, because of the lengthy experience of PS, result in the affected person splitting off large chunks of his or her bad internal objects, projecting them outward and creating hallucinatory bizarre objects. In other words, the affected person has a psychotic break with reality.

For there to be mental health, PS must shift over to D. The process of developing alpha function for oneself, that sliding along the length of the serpent’s coiled body, from its tail to its head, is done through the K-link, a growing of knowledge through object relationships, the self-other dialectic of inter-personal communication.

So, mental growth and learning comes from tolerating and processing unpleasant emotional experiences, and such growth is best done in an exchange of feelings between people. This exchange of feelings is done through empathic mirroring. This mirroring is originally between a mother (or primary caregiver, male or female) and her infant.

When I speak of the self-other dialectic, I refer to the close bond between two people, the blurred boundary between them, since projections and introjections of psychic energy are passing back and forth between them. Since a young child is going through primary narcissism, and one hopes he or she will soon mature past ego-libido into object-libido, empathic mirroring between the child and his or her parents, at least one of whose internalized objects will be an idealized parental imago, is vital for the child’s health.

These mirrored relationships and idealized parental imagoes are what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, or internalized relationships a child has with his or her primary caregivers that help the child to build stable and healthy psychological structure. If the child’s narcissism isn’t dealt with tactfully by his or her parents, if the child’s fantasied omnipotence isn’t let down in small, tolerable amounts, the lack of needed empathy will result in a split sense of narcissism, of repressed and disavowed narcissism vs. a feeling of low self-worth, a placing at the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros.

In other words, healthy people have a proper mix of pride and humility, somewhere in the middle of the serpent’s body, between the extremes. Pathological narcissists, on the other hand, have wild grandiosity as a mask to hide self-hate, where the head bites the tail.

So, during these early years, a child uses his or her parents as both an ideal and a mirror for him- or herself. Parents are seen, to at least some extent (the depressive position, D, notwithstanding), as extensions of the child’s self.

And here is where the Oedipus complex fits in.

The child’s relationship with his or her idealized parent–be this the opposite-sex parent of the classical Freudian version, or the same-sex parent of the negative Oedipus complex–is a narcissistic one, a dyadic, one-on-one mirroring that coincides more or less with such things as the establishment of an illusory ego in the mirror stage. The idealized parent corresponds to the ideal-I in the specular image.

The clumsy child sees him- or herself in the idealized specular or parental image looking back…but that other person isn’t really the child. He or she is alienated from the image, from him- or herself, from the idealized parent looking back. The biting head of the ouroboros is connected…united…with the bitten tail, but the two are opposite ends.

The tip of the serpent’s tail can be seen as symbolically phallic, as the ouroboros’ mouth can be seen as yonic. The union of the two can thus be seen as symbolizing the unconscious phantasy of incestuous union between parent and child. The union needn’t be literally lustful; it can simply represent the wish to have that one parent all to oneself…not shared with siblings, or, God forbid!…the other parent. Hence, this is a narcissistic love.

Before the other parent comes along and breaks up this dyadic, mutually mirroring relationship, the child feels him- or herself to be in an Oedipal paradise of jouissance, that transgressive excess of pleasure that leads to pain (going past the ouroboros’ biting head to its bitten tail), though the receiver of these paradoxical sensations still wants them.

I like to allegorize this Oedipal state with the myth of the Garden of Eden. In this scenario, Adam represents the child, Eve is the mother rather than the wife (for she is “the mother of all living,” Genesis 3:20), the serpent is the ouroboros of the growth of Bion’s K, and Yahweh Elohim is the father. (I touched on this allegorizing in the psychoanalytical aspect of my analysis of mother!)

Please note that I’m assigning these roles in a metonymic sense: the child (Adam) could be male or female; the mother (Eve) could be either parent, as long as he or she is the Oedipally desired one; and the father (God) could be either sex, as long as he or she is the one breaking up the Oedipal union.

The rib coming out of sleeping Adam, which is then shaped into Eve, represents how the child sees the parent as an extension of him- or herself. No sense of the difference between what Winnicott called me and not-me has yet been made by the child. Adam wakes, sees her, and says, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23)

Bion saw (pages 45-49), in the Oedipus myth, the importance of the growth of knowledge (K). Oedipus would know the truth even if it destroyed him, while Tiresias, who already knew, warned Oedipus not to seek it out. Knowledge is desired, but having it can be painful.

Similarly, Yahweh Elohim warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge: this is the Name of the Father (le nom, or le Non! du père), the nom suggesting the nomos, or law, and the Non! being the prohibition against enjoying the (often understood to be carnal) knowledge that the forbidden fruit offers.

Nevertheless, the serpent, subtler in K than all the other animals, tempts Eve to eat of the fruit. Her offering of it to Adam, and eating it with him, represents the container/contained relationship between mother and child, the building up of a thinking apparatus for the infant, its ability to use alpha function, its growth in K.

Bion used a feminine symbol for the container, suggesting a yoni, and a masculine symbol for the contained, a phallus; so container/contained symbolically suggests copulation. I’ve already associated the yoni with the ouroboros’ mouth, and the phallus with its tail. This is how the subtle serpent in the Garden represents the ouroboros’ growth in K.

In enjoying the taste of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6), Adam and Eve are experiencing the transgressive pleasure of jouissance. The child is enjoying the Oedipally-desired parent’s love and attention, but this one-on-one relationship can last only so long. Even the child can feel surfeited by the pleasure, and want to escape it. No wonder Lacan called the excess “plus-de-jouir,” a kind of surplus-value of pleasure that is beyond what is acceptable.

Remember, the yonic serpent’s mouth has teeth. Its union with the phallic tail leads to the threat of castration. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. The child has gone from the excess of pleasure (jouissance) of the ouroboros’ head to the extreme of pain in the bitten tail.

The dyadic, mirrored relationship of the Imaginary must be transcended to allow entry into the social world of the Symbolic. The other (who was Mother) must now be the Other of all people, who cannot be narcissistic extensions of the self; they must be understood as independent subjects in their own right. The pain of paradise lost is the endless search for someone to satisfy the objet petit a, a replacement for Mother.

The objects that are found to satisfy the objet petit a can do so only temporarily, for there is never a complete fulfillment of desire. Desire stretches beyond need; it always wants more…there is never enough. Desire is also the desire of the Other: one wants what others are seen to want; so again, we see a manifestation of the dialectic of the self vs. the Other.

One begins with manque, the lack that is the cause of desire, symbolized by castration at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; one seeks out an object to satisfy the desire, a movement from the tail along the coiled middle of the serpent’s body; and when one finds a temporary satisfaction, one reaches the head…but the satisfaction results in a moving past the biting head back to the bitten tail of lack, and the cycle must begin again. It thus goes round and round, ad infinitum.

The realm of communication parallels the cycles of desire in how each word in a signifying chain only temporarily holds meaning, the signified. No one word can decisively contain a meaning, since a word can house many meanings, whichever meaning it may house, at a given moment, depending on the context, or on whatever words are positioned before and after it in the signifying chain.

The flow of meaning can be compared to a river whose current moves under a continuous plane of broken ice, this ice being all of the signifiers. One follows the current, passing by each crack in the ice which represents the space between words. Meaning is fully grasped only if one continually reads or hears word after word, never stopping. The ultimately unfulfillable search for absolute, complete meaning is thus like the never-ending quest to satisfy desire.

My ouroboros metaphor can also demonstrate this idea. One seeks meaning by beginning to read, or to hear a speaker utter, the first word (the bitten tail). One reads/hears that word, grasping its meaning (the biting head). Then one leaves that word to come to the next (the coiled length of the serpent’s body, or the Aufhebung of the previous thesis and negation).

Lacan literally used the word Aufhebung in describing the experience of each signifier. I prefer to translate the German noun as “sublation,” but he translated it as “cancellation.” Such is the transitory nature of how meaning is held in a word: it’s here one moment, gone the next, as we move on to the next word in line.

Understanding grows in this cyclical manner, through communication in society’s shared signifiers, culture, and customs. It’s the growth in K, but here it’s in the Symbolic Order rather than the dyadic, mirrored mother/infant relationship of the Imaginary.

K grows through pain, originally in the form of receiving beta elements that a baby needs its mother to help it cope with, helping the baby develop the ability to think. The child recognizes him- or herself as a distinct ego in the mirror reflection, and le nom/Non! du père breaks him or her away from Mother and introduces him or her to developing the K-link through a shared language. K continues to grow through pain, in the seeker of an object to replace Mother (objet petit a) finding people to communicate and bond with. Temporary satisfaction, returned manque, and resumed seeking.

A similarly cyclical process happens with repression, which doesn’t involve burying anxiety-provoking feelings in the unconscious forever, because those emotional experiences bounce back into consciousness, only in a new form, safely unrecognizable to the person agitated by those feelings. Such anxiety-provoking feelings are thus new beta elements being ejected.

There’s the anxiety-provoking feeling (the bitten tail), the repression of that feeling (the biting head), and the transformation and resurfacing of that feeling in a manner unnoticed by the person feeling it (the movement along the length of the serpent’s coiled body).

The above are but some of the many ways that the dialectical nature of reality, as symbolized by the ouroboros, can be manifested in psychoanalytical concepts. It’s further proof of the unity in duality, and of the dynamic, wave-like swaying between only seemingly contradictory phenomena.

This oneness that is experienced behind the veil of language’s differential relations, known only when one abandons memory, desire, and understanding, is Bion’s O, and Lacan’s Real Order. It can be traumatic, but it can also lead to a kind of mystical state. It’s the marriage of heaven and hell, the giving up of the fraudulent ego of the Imaginary, and the embracing of intuition that transcends the ever-elusive meaning behind the signifiers of the Symbolic.

Properly accepted, this terrifying Moby-Dick in a transcendent, mystical infinite ocean of Brahman can put an end to the quest to satisfy desire, which only leads to more suffering. It’s like the bodhisattva who, having attained nirvana (the ouroboros’ tail), returns to samsara (the biting head) to help sufferers, for he has sublated the two (the middle of the serpent’s body).

I make the comparisons to Buddhism and mysticism because psychoanalytic technique is used to help us better understand the mind, in the hopes of healing various forms of mental illness and emotional pain. Lacan spoke of unfulfillable desire, and Buddhism and mysticism aim at ending desire and the suffering it causes.

I’m no Buddhist or mystic, and I’m certainly no expert in psychological matters of any kind. But I like to write about such matters, relating them to dialectics, in the hopes that I can make some kind of contribution, however small and amateurish, to an understanding of ourselves, our desires, our suffering, and how to end the latter two. Perhaps someone better educated than I am on such matters can find a use in what I’ve written here, and apply it in a way far better than the one I’ve so cryptically expressed.

Analysis of ‘mother!’

I: Introduction

mother! is a 2017 psychological horror film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (who also did Black Swan). It stars Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, with Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. It is about a wife (mother) and husband (Him–Bardem) whose idyllic home is intruded on by increasing numbers of guests, whose outrageous behaviour drives the agitated wife into madness and despair, causing her to burn down the house that the guests are treating more and more disrespectfully.

The story is an allegory of how the human race is slowly destroying our ability to live on Earth. The house represents the Earth, mother is the goddess of the Earth, and Him (the only character whose name is capitalized) is God. The Biblical parallels continue with man (Harris) representing Adam, woman (Pfeiffer) representing Eve, their two adult sons representing Cain (Domhnall Gleeson) and Abel (Brian Gleeson), and the infant son of Him and mother representing the Christ child.

These two allegories resulted in a polarized reaction from audiences, some of whom praised the environmental message, while others found the Biblical parallels and violence offensive.

II: Quotes

“Baby?” —mother, after waking up (first line of the movie)

“I wanna make a Paradise.” —mother

“My wife *loves* having company.” —Him

mother: Stop, they’re ruining everything!

Him: These are just things. They can be replaced.

[to Mother] “The inspiration! Where have you been hiding?” [to revolutionaries] “Finish her.” –herald

“Make them go!” —mother, to Him

Him: I’m his father.

mother: And I’m his mother!

[to the followers of Him] “Murderers!” [to Him] “Murderer! It’s time to get the fuck…” [scratches his face as his followers gasp] “…out of my house!” —mother

mother: *What* are you?

Him: Me? I, am I. You? You were home.

mother: Where are you taking me?

Him: The beginning. [pause] It won’t hurt much longer.

mother: What hurts me the most is that I wasn’t enough.

Him: It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was. And I have to. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And now I must try it all again.

“Baby?” –next mother, after waking up (last line)

III: So Much Allegory and Symbolism

Since the ecological allegory has been discussed so many times before, I don’t have all that much to add to it. Instead, without denying the ecological interpretation, I’ll be doing a different one, since this movie is so rich in symbolism that many overlapping, intersecting, and even contradictory interpretations can coexist. And if you, Dear Reader, are familiar with my writing, you’ll know of my dialectical treatment of contradictions, making all interpretations valid, since any one interpretation can flow into the other, then back again.

Because the characters’ generic-sounding names will make the distinction between them difficult, I’ll usually be calling them by different names, those indicative of who the characters represent. Hence, mother is “Gaea,” Him is “Yahweh,” man is “Adam,” woman is “Eve,” the oldest son is “Cain,” the younger brother is “Abel,” and the baby is “Jesus.” This renaming will remind us of the original allegories, helping us see how those ones intersect with mine to uncover new meanings.

IV: In the Beginning

“Yahweh” smiles as he places a crystal object on a mantel, which causes his and “Gaea’s” home, previously burned down by his ex-wife, to be instantly and miraculously restored. “Gaea” wakes up in bed, noting that he isn’t lying beside her. She calls out, “Baby?”

What’s interesting about her saying this, referring to Him (the first and last word said in the whole film), is how it contrasts with their ages. “Yahweh” is old enough to be her father; “Adam” (who, incidentally, is just barely old enough to be the father of Him) later will mistakenly think she is “Yahweh’s” daughter.

Yahweh is a storm and sky-father god like Zeus and Uranus, the latter being Gaea‘s son and husband. Uranus was also castrated, which corresponds with “Yahweh’s” sexual impotence early in the film, a symbolic castration that prevents Him from getting “Gaea” pregnant.

This symbolic swapping of the ‘parent/child’ relationship introduces the theme of the dialectical unity of opposites in the film. Another example of this swapping can be seen in how, usually, the sky is a father god and the earth is a mother goddess; but in ancient Egyptian myth, Nut is the sky goddess and Geb is the earth god. Since, in Biblical myth, God will destroy all life on Earth when the apocalypse comes, and “Gaea,” having already spoken of preparing for the apocalypse, burns down the house at the end of the film, mother can thus be seen in this way as a sky mother goddess.

“Gaea” looks around the house for Him, reaching the front door, opening it, and looking out at the Edenic scenery surrounding the house. She’s wearing see-through bedclothes, with her nipples showing; this suggests Eve’s unashamed nakedness, which leads me to my next point about the swapping of opposites.

Since this married couple are the first man and woman we see in this Edenic setting, “Yahweh” and “Gaea” can also be seen to represent Adam and Eve, every bit as much as man and woman do. The creators swap roles with the created. This parallel between the two married couples continues when we see the sons of both violently killed. “Abel” is killed by jealous “Cain,” and “Jesus” is an Abel in his own right, killed by the Cains of the crowd of “Yahweh’s” fanatical followers; were they jealous of the love of Him toward his newborn baby, and in ingesting its mutilated body in a ghoulish variation on the Eucharist, are they hoping to be similarly loved…by being “Jesus”?

V: Hell is Other People

When “Gaea” is startled by Him, behind her at the front porch, we can see a foreshadowing of her anthropophobia, her fear and intense dislike of people. She would be only with Him and their future baby, not with anyone else.

Her anthropophobia leads to the central conflict of this movie, something sidestepped in the ecological interpretation. Her life with Him is Eden, a paradise…heaven; but as Jean-Paul Sartre observed, hell is other people. In this movie, Sartre’s dictum applies in both its correct and incorrect interpretations. The popular misconception of Sartre’s meaning is shown in how, the more that people intrude on “Gaea’s” life, the more hellish it is; but the correct meaning, the hell of never escaping from how others’ perceptions of us shape our self-concept, is present in the film, too.

People throughout the movie say disparaging or invalidating things to “Gaea,” and they give her dirty looks, all to depreciate her worth. They don’t listen to her or respect how she feels. This makes her dislike herself so much that she burns herself with the house and all the other people. The split external object becomes the introjected split internal object.

VI: The Other as a Mirror of the Self

Her growing dislike of herself is necessarily linked to her dislike of the others, because other people looking in our faces are metaphorical mirrors of ourselves. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the structural growth of the personality is relational with other people; there is a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

“Gaea” would rather remain in a one-on-one, dyadic relationship with Him than engage with society in general, because her interactions with Him–that is, she and “Yahweh” looking into each other’s eyes lovingly–are, metaphorically, a narcissistic mirroring of each other that she can’t replicate with the world.

She is stuck in the Imaginary Order with Him; “Yahweh” is her symbolic mirror, a (non-visual) kind of counterpart for her who reflects her narcissism back to her (and his narcissistic vanity, as we know, is off the charts!). Since he’s old enough to be her father, her relationship with Him can be seen as symbolically Oedipal.

VII: The Need for More People

This symbolic Oedipus complex can be seen in reverse, too, since “Gaea” calls out to her son/lover Uranus at the beginning and end of the film, saying, “Baby?”; but “Yahweh” wants to break free of the limitations of the dyadic relationship with her, since he can’t use language and write poetry while stuck in the Imaginary. He must enter the Symbolic Order‘s world of language, its shared signifiers, customs, and societal laws.

To do so, he must bring people into the house.

So, with this idea that characters’ roles can be reversed–the ‘parent/child’ relationship between “Gaea” and “Yahweh” (or Uranus), and the creator/created relationship between ‘the gods’ in the house and the “Adam” and “Eve” visitors–now we can see that the arrival of man not only symbolizes God creating Adam, but also that man represents Yahweh “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8), beginning the chain of events that will bring about the Fall, symbolized by the coming mayhem in the movie.

So “Adam,” whose stories inspire Him, is also in this context the Name of the Father (le nom, or Non! du père–recall that man is just old enough to be the father of “Yahweh”), whose nom gives “Yahweh” the words he needs to write again, but whose Non! forbids “Gaea” to keep “Yahweh” all to herself.

Lacanian psychoanalysis explains how the Name of the Father dissolves the Oedipus complex, taking boys out of the one-on-one relationship with Mother (and girls out of the dyadic relationship with Father) as symbolized with the ‘parent/child/marital relationship,’ if you will, of “Gaea” and “Yahweh”/”Uranus,” and thus freeing them of the constraints of the Imaginary to bring them into the social world of the Symbolic. [For a more thorough explanation of Lacanian and other psychoanalytic concepts, click here.]

VIII: Rejecting Society Leads to Madness

“Gaea,” however, doesn’t want to leave the dyadic, symbolically Oedipal world of the Imaginary. In her refusal to accept the Symbolic, its society, signifiers, and language, she expels, or forecloses, the fundamental signifier of the Name of the Father, and this Lacanian foreclosure will lead to her having a psychotic break with reality. Her psychosis explains the increasingly surreal, hallucinatory attacks on her house that we see later on in the film. We see them because, in seeing the film entirely from her perspective (camera shots show either her face, her point of view, or what’s seen over her shoulder), she hallucinates them.

Before any serious disruption of her peaceful life with Him by all those people has even begun, we see hints that she is already mentally disturbed. She notices a heart beating within the wall: it’s the heart, we eventually learn, of the previous “Gaea” who burned down the house at the beginning of the film. Her identification with her predecessor in the wall suggests a connection between mother! and Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “Yellow Wallpaper,” a first-person-narrated short story about a Victorian-era woman slowly going mad.

Environmentalist and Biblical allegories aside, mother! shouldn’t be taken too much at face value. One should give serious consideration as to how much of what we see is just “Gaea’s” imagination running wild. After all, this isn’t the first of Aronofsky’s films to feature a woman going insane. “Gaea” may be upset about all of the damage being done to her house, but she’s also the one who burns it down to the ground.

Sometimes, in her growing social anxiety, “Gaea” drinks a yellow powder mixed in water, which gives at least some relief to the shakiness and nausea that result from her anthropophobia. I’m guessing that this medicine is, or at least represents, a kind of psychiatric drug that, while not outright eliminating her hallucinations, at least makes them manageable.

When she knows she’s finally pregnant, she seems to think she doesn’t need the drink anymore, so she flushes it down the toilet. As we soon learn, though, when all those people arrive to celebrate “Yahweh’s” new poem, her hallucinations fly out of control.

IX: Eve

Having “Adam” sleep in their home makes “Gaea” uneasy enough as it is, but the arrival of “Eve” makes her all the more agitated. It doesn’t take long for “Eve” to reveal herself as nosy, prying, and obnoxious.

Still, let’s reconsider woman‘s personality in light of what we know about “Gaea,” whose perspective is all we have telling the story. We sympathize with “Gaea” because all the events are given from her point of view, making her into the main victim; but the increasingly surreal nature of what we see through her eyes must be hallucinations and delusion, thus making her an unreliable narrator.

So, objectively speaking, is “Eve” really as irritating as “Gaea” perceives her to be? The same legitimate question can be asked of mother‘s perception of Him, “Adam,” “Cain,” “Abel,” and all the other intruders of her home. I’m not saying that “Gaea” is completely in the wrong, and that all the others are beyond reproach; it’s just that she must be exaggerating what’s wrong with them in her mind, as well as portraying herself as blameless.

X: Knowledge

So, with all these considerations in mind, we can now see “Eve” in a whole new light. Since the Biblical Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (“Good and Evil”tov wa-ra, being a merism reflecting everything from the best to the worst; therefore, it’s a tree of the knowledge of, potentially, everything), and she in turn tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit of the tree, we can see not only “Eve’s” nosiness, but also her giving “Gaea” the glass of lemonade (the forbidden fruit drink, if you will) as instances of her wanting to share knowledge and have knowledge shared with her.

Recall in this context the swapping of ‘parent/child,’ or ‘creator/created’ roles: “Eve” is old enough to be “Gaea’s” mother, just as “Yahweh” and “Adam” are old enough to be her father. With this mother/daughter roleplay in mind, we can see how “Eve” is like a mother to “Gaea,” seeking to give and receive knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s notion of the K-link) by connecting socially with her ‘daughter,’ so to speak. “Gaea,” however, rejects such a communal exchanging of knowledge (-K) because she doesn’t like socializing.

“Gaea” says she’s uncomfortable talking to “Eve” about her relationship with Him, which on the surface seems like a perfectly reasonable objection, given “Eve’s” forward, prying questions; but how much of this questioning is truly inappropriate, and how much of it is hallucinated, a product of “Gaea’s” paranoid imagination?

According to Bion’s expansion of Kleinian object relations theory (again, click here for more info on Bion‘s, Klein‘s, and other psychoanalytic concepts if you’re unfamiliar with them), a baby develops an ability to think by learning how to process emotional experiences with its mother, who (through maternal reverie) processes the agitating external stimuli (beta elements) first, then sends them back to her baby in a tolerable form (alpha elements). The baby thus gradually grows in K, learns how to process and relate to the external world for itself, and grows to be a mentally healthy person.

But if–either through bad parenting, or through one’s aggravated refusal to accommodate external excitations–one won’t accept this indispensable need to grow in K through linking with society (a problem explained, in Lacanian terms, as foreclosure–see above), external stimuli are projected outwards with split-off pieces of one’s personality; and these pieces become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of one’s psychotic inner state. This degenerative process explains what’s happening to “Gaea”: the hostility and violence she sees all around her is a projection of her own misanthropy.

XI: The Fall

“Eve’s” meddling in the private affairs of the house extends to “Adam” when they enter “Yahweh’s” room and accidentally cause his crystal to fall from the mantel and break. He is so upset that he yells, “Quiet!” at the chattering couple. Since this crystal, we later learn, was in the heart of the previous “Gaea,” we realize that “Yahweh,” being as upset as he is about the broken crystal, must have really loved her. She was more than someone he was merely using; which is not to say he never mistreated her (or that he isn’t mistreating the current “Gaea”), but that he isn’t as wicked as he seems. In spite of his obvious flaws, “Yahweh” sincerely loves the current “Gaea,” too, as he will love future “Gaeas.”

She opens a door and, to her embarrassment, stumbles upon “Adam” and “Eve” making love. Since they are her symbolic parents, seeing them this way represents the childhood trauma that Freud called the primal scene. Later, “Gaea” returns to tell them they have to leave, but uncooperative “Eve” opens the door to reveal herself in her bra; like Biblical Eve, she is “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25)

XII: The Downward Spiral

So far, we have seen a slipping-away from “Gaea’s” paradise, which–understood in the terminology of Hindu cosmology–would be called the Satya Yuga, a Golden Age from which would begin a decline to progressively corrupt and wicked ages, ending in the Kali Yuga, in which–according to Hindu thinking–our sinful world is now, close to total destruction and a cyclical rebirth to a returned Golden Age.

I would describe this cyclical decline, from Edenic paradise to fiery Armageddon, in the symbolism of the ouroboros, as I’ve done many times before. The serpent’s biting head is the Satya Yuga, its bitten tail is the Kali Yuga, and “Gaea” and “Yahweh” are, as of this point in the movie, just behind the serpent’s head, at the end of the Satya Yuga. They will continue to slide down the length of the ouroboros’ slippery circular continuum of a body, till they get to that bitten tail…then to the biting head again, at the very end.

XIII: Brotherly Hate

The shit really hits the fan when “Cain” and “Abel” barge into the house, fighting over what “Cain” believes is “Adam’s” unfair will favouring “Abel” over him. “Cain” hysterically shouts that “Adam” and “Eve” don’t love him. The brothers fight, and we all know who kills whom.

This sibling rivalry and jealousy parallels the jealousy “Gaea” feels whenever “Yahweh” neglects her in favour of their guests. As I’ve said above, “Yahweh”–about twenty years older than her–can be seen as a symbolic father of hers. Her jealousy of the guests can thus be seen as Oedipal. She wants Him all to herself, and doesn’t want to share. “Cain” feels the same way about “Adam” (as Biblical Cain felt about God and His favouring of Abel’s sacrifice over his), and he is so upset about what he perceives is a favouring of his younger brother that he kills him. “Gaea,” at the end of the film, will kill all the “Abels” in the house.

The Oedipal Eden is the dyadic parent/child relationship: one child and his or her opposite-sex parent, or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, one child and his or her same-sex parent. The point is that one wants to live in an ideal world of oneself with one idealized other as a mirror of one’s own narcissism, this other being an extension of oneself in the Imaginary Order.

“Yahweh,” however, wants the radical alterity of the Other, or a society of many other people in the Symbolic Order. So he leaves the house with “Adam,” “Eve,” and the corpse of “Abel,” while “Cain” leaves the area alone with a bloodied forehead.

“Gaea” is traumatized from having witnessed the murder, and she’s terrified of being alone in the house, without Him. On the surface, it appears that “Yahweh” is being insensitive to her by leaving her alone; she later accuses Him of having “abandoned” her. But without “Cain” around to help carry the body (he would be too ashamed even to show his face), “Yahweh” feels obligated to help. He is being negligent to her, to be sure, but she is exaggerating his negligence in her mind.

With her alone in the house that night, there is a moment of relative calm. “Cain” briefly returns, frightening her (after all, he “did the first murder”–Hamlet, Act V, Scene i). “Yahweh” returns, and things seem better for the moment.

XIV: The Treta Yuga

The second quarter of the movie begins, representative of the Treta Yuga, a decline from the Satya Yuga. These Yugas may not be paralleled point for point with their four counterparts in the film, but neither are the Biblical parallels. That things are clearly changing for the worse, quarter by quarter, until there begins a repeat of the cycle at the end (as a previous cycle ended at the very beginning of the movie), is justification enough to compare the four quarters of mother! to the Yugas.

A kind of funeral gathering is held in the house for grieving “Adam” and “Eve.” “Yahweh” tries to comfort them with a poetic speech, saying that, in a way, one never really dies. He says, “there’s a voice crying out to be heard, loud and strong. Just listen.” [The guests, especially “Adam,” weep out loud.] “Do you hear that? Do you hear that? That is the sound of life. That is the sound of humanity. That is your son’s voice.” He means that their weeping is “Abel’s” weeping…thus, he is still alive.

The growing number of guests entering the house makes “Gaea” extremely uncomfortable. A young man and woman plan to use “Gaea’s” and “Yahweh’s” bedroom to have sex, reminding us of when the sons of God lay with the daughters of men. “Gaea” kicks the lovers out of her room.

“Gaea” has her yellow-powder drink, and tells some other guests not to occupy the upstairs to chat. The man and woman who were going to have sex in her bed are now painting the walls of the first floor of the house; “Gaea” tells them to stop. A man tries to pick her up, and calls her “an arrogant cunt” when she rejects him. She begs guests not to sit on the unstable kitchen counter by the sink.

How much of the above is really happening and how much is hallucination, is hard to say (her yellow drink seems less effective; perhaps, because of overuse, she’s building a tolerance to it?). Presumably the more outrageous things that happen are more her imagination than reality. In any case, the sink breaks down because those sitting on the counter won’t respect her wishes; the spraying of water everywhere symbolizes the Great Flood. “Gaea” can’t take the guests anymore, and screams at all of them to leave the house.

She argues with “Yahweh” over how he’s been neglecting her in being over-accommodating to the guests. He insists he needs them to help Him write, as I’ve explained above with the Lacanian interpretation. She taunts Him over his impotence; this symbolic castration is their shared manque (recall, in this connection, how she, as Gaea, is symbolic mother to Him as her lover, Uranus). Her taunt drives Him to grab her, and they finally have sex.

Thus ends the Treta Yuga, and we have another moment of temporary calm. She soon discovers that she is pregnant, with no need of any tests: she just knows, and she’s right. “Gaea,” the earth mother goddess has become the Mother of God; for with “Yahweh” as the baby’s father, her intuitive prescience of her pregnancy suggests an Immaculate Conception, a coming miraculous birth.

XV: The New Testament–New Words, New Desires

So, with “Gaea” as Mary, we begin the Dvapara Yuga, or the New Testament, as it were. And the New Testament is symbolized by the new poem that “Yahweh” writes; and since their baby symbolizes Jesus, “Yahweh” can now be seen as God the Father. He has an explosion of inspiration: the words just flow from his pen.

Since there isn’t the limitation of a two-person relationship anymore, that of the mutually mirroring world of the Imaginary, but now a three-person relationship (that three being representative of all of society’s people in general, the many-peopled Other instead of the two-person other), “Yahweh” can exploit the language of the Symbolic. He can finally write.

Now, the signifier (i.e., the word) takes precedence over the signified (the meaning) because one cannot express meaning without something visual or auditory to represent it (think of looking up an obscure word in the dictionary, only to find it defined by other obscure words that now have to be looked up, too!). The chain of signifiers is like a long surface of cracked ice over a flowing river of signifieds; meanings (and potential future meanings) flow under that chain of signifiers that we’re compelled to follow. This following is expressive of human desire, because we always want more…we’re never satisfied.

The urge to keep that meaning flowing, from signification to new signification, is the basis of the idolatry of the many followers of “Yahweh.” A kind of priest representing Him blesses them, saying, “His words are yours.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Him, and the Word was Him. Accordingly, “Yahweh” blesses his followers with a mark, a brown smudge on their heads, that mark being a kind of signifier.

XVI: The Beginning of the End

With idolatry comes zealous loyalty to Him, hence the religious wars that are symbolized by the fighting, violence, and destruction we see when the next group of guests comes. Before they come, “Gaea” reads the new poem and weeps, knowing the tragedy that is prophesied; when the writing ends, the signifier chain of desire ends, with nothing more to fulfill it, and that’s the end of the world. Before even reading the poem, she has already said that she’ll prepare for the Apocalypse…and recall her flushing the yellow powder down the toilet, the only thing that will keep her hallucinations under control.

Her embrace of fatalism shows that something much larger than “Yahweh” merely manipulating “Gaea” is happening. He must do what he’s doing, or else he can’t write. She must have a baby, or she won’t be mother; also, she must allow herself to lose her mind, for such is the drama of history as set in the poem. Creation must be for there to be destruction, and vice versa; the same goes for life and death. All opposites are dialectically linked.

Marx once said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” As we see our world dying from the ravages of imperialist war and global warming, do we want to sit back and be fatalists, or do we want to do something about it?

Since “Yahweh” is a poet, a writer of verses with a large, fanatical following, we can see Him not so much as representing God, but as representing the manipulative religious authorities who pretend, with their pretty writing, to have the moral answers to all our spiritual problems.

XVII: If I May Digress for a Moment…

Similarly, “Gaea” doesn’t so much represent our mother Earth (that would be the house and surrounding trees and grass, which she burns to a crisp at the end) as she does the liberal Hollywood establishment that preaches about the dangers of climate change, but does little, if anything, about it. These green capitalists don’t have the answers.

I’m sure that Greta Thunberg is a sweet girl with a good heart and the best of intentions; but the green capitalists are leading her by the nose. The greatest pollutant threatening our ecology is imperialist war…all those bombs being dropped. The green capitalists have nothing to say about this problem, because they need to continue generating profits to build, for example, electric cars using the lithium they can steal from Bolivia.

The liberal rails away about how insane the business leaders are when they pollute the air, water, and land. A radical Marxist analysis, however, recognizes the diabolical logic, the evil intentions, behind these businessmen’s schemes. Knowing this logic leads to a real answer to our problems, that will to change history instead of merely interpreting it: not with the violence of war, but of socialist revolution.

XVIII: Gaea’s Baby, Gaea’s Madness

Back to the movie. “Gaea’s” pregnancy, her preparations for the birth, and her growing paranoia about the new flood of guests to come into her house remind us of Rosemary Woodhouse and her nosy neighbours, the Castevets, who drive her to near madness with their conspiracy over her baby. Recall how the heartbeat of the previous “Gaea” through the wall, as well as the ‘bleeding’ yonic mark on the wooden floor, agitates her, suggesting the growing madness of the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. “Gaea” is having a psychotic breakdown. We sympathize with her, but we mustn’t rely on her perception of events.

When I say we she’s an unreliable narrator, am I saying that the environmental allegory is invalid? Am I agreeing with the right-wing climate change deniers? Of course not. I’m simply saying that the bourgeois liberal reaction to the problem is hopelessly wrong-headed: in fact, her burning down of the house at the end implies that even Aronofsky knows that the liberal reaction is wrong. This is why, in spite of its wrong-headed nihilism, I still consider mother! to be a great film. As I’ve argued in a number of my other film analyses, there is an undercurrent of truth to be discovered in these films…if one looks carefully enough behind the bourgeois Hollywood covering.

XIX: Narcissism

Narcissism expresses itself in a number of ways throughout this film, not just in the overt way in which we see “Yahweh” basking in the adulation of his fans, while generally neglecting “Gaea.” It’s also expressed in the group narcissism of his fans, who idealize and identify with Him. He displays the grandiose self, while they have done a transference, making Him, “Yahweh” as God the Father, into their symbolic idealized parental imago.

Then there’s the third manifestation of narcissism: the timid, covert form exhibited by “Gaea” herself. She wants “Yahweh” to mirror her narcissism back to her in a dyadic relationship; when she gives birth to “Jesus,” she’ll want to replace Him with the child. As Robert Graves once said, “Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man’s dependence on her for life.” (Graves, page 110)

Covert narcissists often make themselves out to be victims, and this self-pity is much of the basis for “Gaea’s” hallucinatory exaggerating and catastrophizing of the presence of “all these people.” To be fair to her, “Yahweh” is ego-tripping and focusing on his fans at her expense…to an extent. Similarly, at least some of the guests are probably doing some inappropriate things…again, to an extent. But I am convinced that her paranoid imagination is making up the rest of the problems.

XX: Hallucinations and Trauma

Allegory aside, are we really supposed to take seriously the idea of police and army raids on the house, with gunfire, explosions, tear gas, and flames everywhere? Are we expected to believe that a religious cult will grow around a popular poem? “Gaea” is hallucinating!

Speaking of religion, I suspect that the real reason she is seeing and hearing all these Biblical references is that she, as a child or teenager, was sexually abused by Catholic priests, maybe even gang-raped by them, in the manner described in Sade‘s Justine. This would provide the traumatic basis of her social anxiety. After all, the environmentalist allegory is about the rape of the Earth.

All those people pouring through the doors–front, back, and sides–and breaking through the windows symbolizes a gang rape of the house she identifies with, multiple penetrations of the vagina, mouth, and anus. Her hallucinating of such aggressive entries suggests a reliving of PTSD trauma.

XXI: I Am Not What I Am

She identifies with the house, but she isn’t the house. This méconnaissance is symbolically an example of the self-alienation felt in the mirror stage (i.e., the house walls and bleeding floors, where she senses the presence, the heartbeat, of the previous “Gaea,” are a metaphor for her reflection in a mirror, her self-perception through externality), the disparity between the ideal-I that she is facing and her imperfect self facing the ideal.

“Yahweh,” of course, has his méconnaissance, his narcissistic ideal-I, too, as the God-like poet, versus his real, imperfect, vain self, whose neglect of his wife is precipitating her growing madness. He does show some caring for her, though, even if it is woefully inadequate. He helps her find a place alone and safe, his boarded-up study, where she can go into labour, and she does, ending the Dvapara Yuga. We have another moment of calm.

She holds and guards baby “Jesus” like the Madonna. Now that she has her son, he can fulfill her need for a one-on-one, mirrored relationship. As an extension of herself, “Jesus” is all-important to her…”Yahweh,” not so much now. In fact, “Yahweh” is becoming inimical to her, especially since he wants to show “Jesus” to all his loyal followers, whom she so intensely fears and hates.

In their arguing over whether or not he can take the baby and show it to his followers, his appeal to her as the baby’s father is easily rebuffed by her far more sacred status as his mother, so “Yahweh” must respect this…at least while she’s awake. His taking of “Jesus” from her arms while she sleeps, and taking him out of the study to show to his cult thus begins the most horrifying Yuga of them all: the Kali Yuga, named after the demon, not the consort of Siva (who is also known as the Divine Mother, and the Mother of the Universe)…though the mother goddess’s burning down of the house is certainly in keeping with Siva‘s and Kali’s destructiveness.

XXII: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

“Gaea” wakes up and frantically races after “Yahweh,” demanding to have “Jesus” back. The hallucinatory nature of this scene is obvious in how absurd it is to imagine a religious cult passing around a baby over their heads, the way fans at a rock concert would carry a rock star after he did a stage dive.

Probably what has really happened is that “Yahweh” wanted to show their baby to some guests, a perfectly reasonable thing that any proud new father would want to do; but “Gaea’s” anthropophobia forbids it, and so she hallucinates the horrific scene that we see. Perhaps, in reality, a guest has been clumsy with the baby, dropping him, his death caused by his head having hit the hard floor; but instead, “Gaea” hallucinates an act of cannibalism, a gory parody of Holy Communion…and she explodes.

After she attacks a few of “Yahweh’s” followers, she’s hit on the head by the priest (who has echoed the words of the eulogy “Yahweh” gave for “Abel”: “a voice still cries out to be heard,…” etc., thus further paralleling his death with that of “Jesus”). Then the crowd of fanatical “Yahweh” worshippers beat on “Gaea” in such an obscene way, tearing at her clothing and exposing her breasts, that it can be symbolically associated with a gang rape.

Again, I see this attack as another hallucination, a reliving of the gang-rape trauma I speculate as the basis of her fear and hatred of large groups of people. That the priest hits her with the first blow reinforces my speculation that priests were her gang-rapists, hence the association of Biblical concepts with the rape-like attacks on her house/Earth.

“Yahweh” intervenes and stops her attackers. I believe he is feeling sincere, though feebly expressed, love for her in his tears, apologies, and angry demand, “What are you doing?”. His Christian wish for her to forgive them for the–as I speculate–accidental killing of “Jesus” pushes her over the edge, given how she has hallucinated about the cannibalistic eating of their baby. She sees Him now as being as evil as all of them: she projects her psychosis onto all of them.

XXIII: Apocalypse

After burning down the house, as he carries her, she says that what hurts her the most is how she can’t be enough for Him. Such is Lacanian desire, to have the recognition of others: one wants what one imagines others must want, out of a wish to be acknowledged by them. Desire is of the Other. This is true of “Yahweh,” too: he, wanting their recognition, desires what his readers desire, so he gives to them as best he can, giving “Adam” and “Eve” accommodations, helping carry “Abel’s” body, and eulogizing him.

This desiring what others desire, recognition, something ultimately unfulfillable, is linked to Sartre’s dictum, “hell is other people.” We cannot fulfill our desire in fulfilling theirs, we won’t get the recognition we want, and so their judgement of our inadequacies is our hell, our fiery inferno, for we can’t escape judging ourselves based on their judgements.

Desire is the fire that Buddhists blow out with nirvana. Our endless quest to satisfy that unfulfillable desire, however, spreads the fire that ultimately destroys everything.

“Yahweh” removing the crystal from her heart–which I believe is a continuation of her hallucinating, even to the point of being a wish-fulfilling dream (i.e., she wants to die, and the green capitalism that she personifies leads to more destruction, not less)–is the ultimate evil of the ending of the Kali Yuga. “Yahweh” at this moment is like those capitalists who tear up the Earth to enrich themselves with her natural resources.

His toothy grin, seen when he puts the new crystal on the mantel, looks wicked in the extreme, given the context of what just preceded. But this is the beginning of the next Satya Yuga, the superlatively joyful beginning of a new Golden Age: what else would “Yahweh” be doing but smiling?

The restoration of the house, and the appearance of a new “Gaea,” waking and calling out “Baby?” is really the same woman reliving the trauma all over again, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” what is painful, a manifestation of the self-destructive death drive. She doesn’t look like the previous “Gaea” because she is alienated from herself, with her heart buried in that wall.

XXIV: Alienation and Capitalism

She is alienated from herself, just as she is alienated from humanity, hence her fear and hate of all those around her. This alienation is something most, if not all, of us share, because the real root of the problem of ecocide is the same as that of alienation: capitalism.

Those liberals who think we can solve the problem of climate change merely by ‘reforming’ capitalism are fooling themselves, and they are doing so at everyone’s–and the planet’s–peril. War is the greatest polluter of them all; the green capitalists ignore this. When Thunberg meets and greets Obama, whose administration was responsible for bombing seven countries in 2016, that should tell you something. Trump has been even worse.

War is big business, making profits for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, etc. If you want to solve climate change, end all these wars. Defund the Pentagon. The powers-that-be, of course, won’t let the people do that, which is why the US can never get even a moderate progressive to have a shot at being elected president. We can’t legislate the super-rich out of their wealth. Only revolution will stop them from destroying the planet.

Conservatives, of course, ignore the ecological problem entirely, imagining that all the fuss is just part of an agenda to bring more ‘intrusive government’ into our lives, while they cheerfully and hypocritically support right-wing governments that do plenty of intruding into people’s lives. It doesn’t occur to the climate change deniers (assuming they aren’t outright lying) that the real political agenda is to avoid paying taxes and taking responsibility for the mess that their endless quest for profits has caused.

XV: Conclusion

At the same time, though, we’ll never solve the ecological crisis in a spirit of misanthropy. “Gaea” is no more in the right, when she rejects people and pushes them away, than “Yahweh” is, in his narcissistic addiction to being worshipped by his fans, all the while ignoring her emotional needs.

We must acknowledge a mixture of good and bad in both “Gaea” and “Yahweh,” to see them both as basically well-intentioned, but also as seriously flawed; not to see one as all-good and the other as all-bad, which is the essence of splitting, an inhibiting of healthy object relationships that is the cause of alienation. First, we must mend our relationships with others, having a healthy sense of ambivalence in people (that ability to see both good and bad in everyone); then we can all rise up in solidarity and defeat the capitalist class, who always put profits over people and the planet.

Only then can we save our home from the fire.