Analysis of ‘Salomé’

I: Introduction

Salomé is an opera by Richard Strauss that premiered in 1905, the libretto being Hedwig Lachmann‘s German translation (with some editing by Strauss) of Oscar Wilde‘s 1891 French play. Wilde’s play, of course, was in turn inspired by the Biblical narratives in the Gospels According to Mark and Matthew.

Wilde transformed the brief Biblical story, making what’s implied explicit, namely how Salomé’s dance sexually aroused the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, elaborating on it as The Dance of the Seven Veils, considered by some to be the origin, however unwitting, of the modern striptease. Wilde also altered certain details, such as when, in the Biblical version, Herodias tells her daughter, Salomé, to demand the head of John the Baptist; instead, Wilde has Salome ask for “the head of Iokanaan” of her own accord.

Both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera caused scandals on their earliest performances, resulting in performances of them being cancelled or banned, for example in London, for many years. Now, Strauss’s opera is considered a masterwork, a regular part of any orchestral or operatic repertoire.

II: Quotes

Here are some quotes from Wilde’s play (some of which are not in Strauss’s opera), in English translation:

“How beautiful is the Princess Salomé to-night!” –Narraboth, the young Syrian, Captain of the Guard

“You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.” –Herodias’ page

“How pale the Princess is! Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver.” –Narraboth

“The Jews worship a God that one cannot see.” –First Soldier

“After me shall come another mightier than I. I am not worthy so much as to unloose the latchet of his shoes. When he cometh, the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.” –the voice of Iokanaan, heard from below, in a cistern

“What a strange voice! I would speak with him.” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

[Approaching the cistern and looking down into it.] “How black it is, down there ! It must be terrible to be in so black a hole ! It is like a tomb. . . . .” [To the soldiers.] “Did you not hear me? Bring out the prophet. I would look on him.” –Salomé

“Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, and to-morrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers I will let fall for thee a little flower, a little green flower.” –Salomé

“Oh! How strange the moon looks. Like the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.” –Herodias’ page

“Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full? Where is he, who in a robe of silver shall one day die in the face of all the people? Bid him come forth, that he may hear the voice of him who hath cried in the waste places and in the houses of kings.” –Iokanaan, having emerged from the underground cistern

“It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons. . . . Do you think he will speak again?” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

“Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me. Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids? I know not who she is. I do not desire to know who she is. Bid her begone. It is not to her that I would speak.” –Iokanaan, of Salomé

“Speak again, Iokanaan. Thy voice is as music to mine ear.” –Salomé

“Back! daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

“Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust. It is like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck. I love not thy hair. . . . It is thy mouth that I desire, Iokanaan.” […] “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.” –Salomé

IOKANAAN: Never! daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never.

SALOMÉ: I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.

“Cursed be thou! daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed!” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

HEROD: Where is Salomé? Where is the Princess? Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded her? Ah! there she is!

HERODIAS: You must not look at her! You are always looking at her! […]

HEROD: I am not ill, It is your daughter who is sick to death. Never have I seen her so pale.

HERODIAS: I have told you not to look at her.

HEROD: Pour me forth wine [wine is brought.] Salomé, come drink a little wine with me. I have here a wine that is exquisite. Cæsar himself sent it me. Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.

SALOMÉ: I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.

HEROD: You hear how she answers me, this daughter of yours?

HERODIAS: She does right. Why are you always gazing at her?

HEROD: Bring me ripe fruits [fruits are brought.] Salomé, come and eat fruits with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit that I may eat what is left.

SALOMÉ: I am not hungry, Tetrarch. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Behold the time is come! That which I foretold has come to pass. The day that I spoke of is at hand.

HERODIAS: Bid him be silent. I will not listen to his voice. This man is for ever hurling insults against me.

HEROD: He has said nothing against you. Besides, he is a very great prophet. […]

A THIRD JEW: God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in all places. God is in what is evil even as He is in what is good.

A FOURTH JEW: Thou shouldst not say that. It is a very dangerous doctrine, it is a doctrine that cometh from Alexandria, where men teach the philosophy of the Greeks. And the Greeks are Gentiles: They are not even circumcised. […]

FIRST NAZARENE, of Jesus: This man worketh true miracles. Thus, at a marriage which took place in a little town of Galilee, a town of some importance, He changed water into wine. Certain persons who were present related it to me. Also He healed two lepers that were seated before the Gate of Capernaum simply by touching them. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN, of Herodias: Ah! the wanton one! The harlot! Ah! the daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and her gilded eyelids! Thus saith the Lord God, Let there come up against her a multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her. . . .

HERODIAS: Command him to be silent.

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Let the captains of the hosts pierce her with their swords, let them crush her beneath their shields. […]

HEROD: Dance for me, Salomé.

HERODIAS: I will not have her dance.

SALOMÉ: I have no desire to dance, Tetrarch. […]

HEROD: Salomé, Salomé, dance for me. I pray thee dance for me. I am sad to-night. Yes; I am passing sad to-night. When I came hither I slipped in blood, which is an evil omen; also I heard in the air a beating of wings, a beating of giant wings. I cannot tell what they mean . . . I am sad to-night. Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech thee. If thou dancest for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: [Rising.] Will you indeed give me whatsoever I shall ask of thee, Tetrarch? […]

HEROD: Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: You swear it, Tetrarch?

HEROD: I swear it, Salomé. […]

SALOMÉ: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]

HEROD: Ah! wonderful! wonderful! You see that she has danced for me, your daughter. Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give thee thy fee. Ah! I pay a royal price to those who dance for my pleasure. I will pay thee royally. I will give thee whatsoever thy soul desireth. What wouldst thou have? Speak.

SALOMÉ [Kneeling]: I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . .

HEROD [Laughing]: In a silver charger? Surely yes, in a silver charger. She is charming, is she not? What is it thou wouldst have in a silver charger, O sweet and fair Salomé, thou art fairer than all the daughters of Judæa? What wouldst thou have them bring thee in a silver charger? Tell me. Whatsoever it may be, thou shalt receive it. My treasures belong to thee. What is it that thou wouldst have, Salomé?

SALOMÉ [Rising]: The head of Iokanaan.

HERODIAS: Ah! that is well said, my daughter.

HEROD: No, no!

HERODIAS: That is well said, my daughter. […]

“You have sworn an oath, Herod.” –Salomé

“Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Iokanaan, I love only thee. . . . I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire. . . Ah! ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me? If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater that the mystery of death.” –Salomé, holding and gazing upon the severed head of Iokanaan

“She is monstrous, thy daughter I tell thee she is monstrous.” –Herod, to Herodias

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood ? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. . . . They say that love hath a bitter taste. . . . But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth.” –Salomé, still with Iokanaan’s head

HEROD: [Turning round and seeing Salomé.] Kill that woman! [The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa.]

III: Themes and Beginning

Recurring themes in the play/opera include these: lust, with gazing/leering/staring at the object of desire, hence objectification; the conflict between, and complementarity of, opposites (love/loathing, spirituality/carnality, desire/disgust, white/black, male/female roles, beauty/ugliness, life/death, victim/victimizer, etc.); and the decadence of the ruling classes, as against the assurances for the oppressed that revolution, redemption, and liberation are soon to come.

The story begins at night, just outside a banquet held by Herod, his wife, Herodias (widow of his half-brother, Herod II), and her daughter, Salomé, along with all their guests in Herod’s palace. The moon is shining, silvery-white and bright. Silvery-white because, as Narraboth says, “She [the moon] is like a little princess…whose feet are of silver,” and “who has little white doves for feet.”

Narraboth, a young Syrian and Captain of the Guard, amorously declares how beautiful Salomé looks. The Page of Herodias wishes he wouldn’t always stare at her, for the Page fears that disaster will come of his passion.

The moon is a pale, virgin, silvery white, as is Salomé’s flesh. The moon looks so pale and white, “She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman,” as the page of Herodias observes.

The princess-moon, with her innocent white feet, can drive men lunatic, as can Salomé’s virginal beauty; as, in turn, the holy purity of similarly-pale Iokanaan drives her mad with love for him. In this play, virginal innocence is dialectically related to the deadly sin of lust: the one opposite dissolves into the other.

IV: Enter Salomé

Salomé leaves the banquet area, finding it disturbing how Herod keeps staring at her with lust in his eyes. Of course, Narraboth is eyeing her similarly, but she will soon be an ogler herself, for she hears the voice of Iokanaan from the cistern below.

He has spoken harsh words against her mother, Herodias, as well as against Herod (i.e., his incestuous marriage with his half-brother’s widow); Salomé knows of this, but instead of being offended by Iokanaan’s words, she’s intrigued. It seems evident that Salomé has hardly any less contempt for her mother than she does for her adoptive father: alienation, including that between family members, is a typical symptom in a world of class conflict, in this case, that of the ancient slave vs. master variety.

Thus, any speaker of ill against Salomé’s family is a singer of sweet music to her ears. Small wonder she’d like to take a look at that mysterious man down in that dark, yonic pit. She looks down into it, awed by its darkness. This blackness, of course, is associated with Iokanaan’s mysticism. An ominous, eerie tritone is heard in the musical background when she looks into the cistern and notes its blackness, near the beginning of scene two.

Let’s compare some images used so far. Pale Salomé is consistently associated with the silvery-white, virginal moon, an ominous orb portending imminent evil. The cistern is black, as Salomé observes, but since it houses a holy man, a celibate man, it could be seen as virginal, too, the yoni of a virgin such as Salomé herself. The cistern’s blackness thus has a dialectical relationship with the silvery-white moon, which phases from white full moon to black new moon, and back again. Iokanaan, like the moon, also portends an evil coming too soon for comfort.

She insists on having Iokanaan brought out so she can see him, to have his mysteries revealed…just as Herod will want Salomé to dance a striptease for him, to reveal her anatomic mysteries. The lecherous, decadent tetrarch, of course, also hopes to make the young beauty replace her mother as his new queen, so her virginal yoni‘s dark secrets can be revealed to him…just as she wishes to have Iokanaan, the secret of the dark yoni of the cistern, revealed to her eyes.

The parallels between Iokanaan’s display and that of her nakedness continue, first with Narraboth’s and the soldiers’ insistence that the prophet not be allowed out (by Herod’s orders), on the one hand, and Herodias’ disapproval of her daughter dancing erotically for Herod. Also, Salomé entices Narraboth with suggestions of her favouring him (offering a green flower and a smile) if he’ll allow Iokanaan to come out, and Herod entices her with an oath to give her anything she wants if she’ll dance for him. Both Narraboth and Salomé are persuaded to do what they’d otherwise never do.

V: Enter John the Baptist

Iokanaan emerges from the cistern, pale, hairy, and filthy, but always shouting his imprecations against the decadent kings and queens of the world, especially Herodias. His holiness inspires Salomé’s passion for him, symbolizing the dialectical relationship between the erotic and the ascetic (something also explored in Hindu myth, as Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty observed in Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, pages 33-36).

At first, Salomé loves Iokanaan’s white flesh, a parallel of the love Narraboth and Herod have for her pale flesh. The prophet, of course, rejects her wish to touch his body; indeed, he can’t even bear to have this “daughter of Sodom” look at him. She’s angered by his rejection, feeling narcissistic injury, no doubt; but his chastity fascinates her all the same.

Salomé is used to having a train of admiring men following her everywhere, leering at her, lusting after her. Such men bore her, annoy her, inspire her contempt; but Iokanaan is no lecherous pig. With him, the sexes are reversed, and the man is disgusted with the woman’s lechery. She’s hurt by his rejection, but she can only admire him all the more for it. This man’s spiritual willpower is as rare as her physical beauty is, and her desire for him is made all the hotter for this.

As soon as he rejects her, she speaks ill of his whitest of white body, which she’s just finished praising. Now she speaks of loving his blackest of black hair; note the immediate juxtaposition of opposites–loved/loathed, beautiful/ugly, and white/black. When he rejects her wish to touch his hair, she’s now repelled by it and begins loving his red lips.

VI: Baiser

She wants to kiss his mouth, saying in Wilde’s French: “Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche.” Baiser, as a verb, originally meant ‘to kiss,’ but it grew to mean ‘to fuck,’ this new meaning starting as early as the 16th or 17th century, having been used this way in, for example, a few poems by François Maynard. This usage began to grow more common by the beginning of the 20th century, prompting the French to start using embrasser to mean ‘to kiss’ instead.

My point is, given the already shockingly erotic overtones of Wilde’s play, as well as in his choice to write it in French instead of his usual English, did he use baiser as a double entendre? Was he suggesting a secondary meaning, a cunnilingus fantasy of Salomé’s, to get head from Iokanaan?

Now Strauss, in using a German translation for his opera, used the word küssen, which only means ‘to kiss.’ Perhaps he was aware of the growing use of the sexual meaning of baiser, and wanted to mitigate the scandal by eliminating that problematic French word. I’m guessing that my speculations hadn’t been discussed by critics back around the turn of the 20th century, given the-then taboo nature of this subject; but this taboo use of baiser has been discussed more recently.

VII: Lustful Staring

Back to the story. The prophet is so shocked by this “daughter of Babylon” that he curses her and goes back down into the cistern. Salomé’s unfulfillable desire has turned into an obsession; speaking of which, Narraboth’s has caused him to implode with sexual jealousy, since he can see she clearly prefers Iokanaan to him. Thus, he stabs himself and dies, fulfilling Herodias’ page’s dire prediction that his obsessive, mesmerized staring at Salomé would bring evil.

Of course, the young Syrian hasn’t been the only one staring at Salomé to the point of such ogling being dangerous. Herod enters with Herodias; he slips on Narraboth’s spilled blood, an obvious omen.

The tetrarch speaks of the silvery-white moon and Salomé’s pale skin, an evident identifying of the one with the other, just as Salomé has identified the chaste moon with celibate Iokanaan. We see more unions of opposites: virginity and whorish objects of desire, in both her and the prophet.

Herodias is annoyed with Herod’s staring at her daughter, with Iokanaan’s insulting diatribes against her, and Herod’s–to her, absurd–belief in omens and prophecies. She is a purely materialist, decadent queen: the moon is just the moon to her.

She wishes he would just give Iokanaan over to the ever-disputatious Jews, who come out and begin a clamorous storm of debating over whether Iokanaan has seen God, whether he is Elijah having returned, and whether this or that dogma is correct. This is another example of wanting to know mysteries, to see secrets.

In all of this arguing among the Jews, we see dramatized the dialectic of contradictory viewpoints. Added to this is the contradiction between the Jewish point of view and that of the Nazarenes, who now come onstage.

VIII: Revolution

Since the Crucifixion hasn’t happened yet, discussion of how the Messiah will save the Jews from their sins is never in the Pauline notion of a Divine Rescuer dying and resurrecting, so that believing in Him will confer God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, salvation for the Jews is understood to come in the form of a revolution against Palestine’s Roman imperialist oppressors. Recall Matthew 10:34.

Revolution! Insurrection! Such words terrify decadent rulers like Herod and Herodias, who naturally don’t want to lose their privileges as members of the ruling class. Thus do we see the dialectic move, from the Hegelian sort we heard among the debating Jews, to the materialist sort that Marx discussed: the contradiction between the rich and poor.

Iokanaan prophesies the downfall of sinful rulers like incestuous Herod and Herodias, as well as the redemption of the downtrodden. As the prophet says at the beginning of Wilde’s play, “the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.”

Such welcome changes can be seen to symbolize revolutionary relief given to the suffering. The blind seeing, and the deaf hearing, suggests the enlightenment of the poor, hitherto ignorant of the true causes of their sorrows. The idea of gladdened solitary places suggests the replacement of alienation with communal love. The suckling child, with his hand on the dragon’s lair, and leading the lions, suggests the end of the oppression of the weak by the strong, replacing it with equality.

Marx similarly prophesied the end of the rule of the bourgeois, to be replaced by communist society. The bourgeois today, like threatened Herod and Herodias, are scared of their imminent downfall, for many believe their days are numbered.

My associating Iokanaan with Marx is no idle fancy, for in 1891, the very same year Wilde wrote Salomé, he also wrote The Soul of Man under Socialism, inspired by his reading of Peter Kropotkin, and in which Wilde considered Jesus to be a symbol of the extreme individualist he idealized. Wilde would also have been aware of the short-lived Paris Commune twenty years prior, which Marx joyfully described as being a manifestation of his notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

IX: The Music

It seems apposite, at this belated point, finally to discuss Strauss’s music. Influenced by Wagner’s musical dramas, Strauss used Leitmotivs (“leading motives”) for each character in Salomé, as well as for many key moments or concepts in the story.

There’s the light, dreamy Leitmotiv heard when Narraboth expresses his admiration for Salomé’s beauty at the beginning of the opera. There’s the Leitmotiv when she sings of wanting “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” which gets increasingly dissonant with her every iteration of the demand for it, to ever-reluctant Herod.

And there are Leitmotivs for Iokanaan and his prophetic abilities, the former being a stately, dignified chordal theme heard on the horns; and the latter melody being a trio of fourths, C down to G, then F down to C, then–instead of another, third perfect fourth–there’s a tritone of A down to D-sharp, then up to E, now a perfect fourth (relative to the previous A). These three sets of perfect fourths symbolize Triune, holy, divine perfection; the tritone, though the diabolus in musica, nonetheless resolves to E, symbolizing a prophecy of sinning imperfection soon to be made perfect, redeemed.

Strauss, as a late Romantic/early modern composer, anticipated many of the revolutionary musical ideas soon to be realized in full by such modernists as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern. Strauss was thus a kind of musical Iokanaan. Strauss, through his extreme chromaticism, pushed tonality to its limits, while not quite emancipating the dissonance, as Schoenberg would soon do. Since some have seen the emancipation of the dissonance as linked with the emancipation of society and of humanity, the music of Strauss–as musical Iokanaan–can be seen symbolically as heralding the coming of that social liberation I mentioned above.

The harsh discords in his score symbolize the contradictions not only in the class conflict between the decadent rulers (puppet rulers for imperial Rome) and the oppressed poor, but also in the conflicts between what Narraboth, Salomé, Iokanaan, Herod, and Herodias each wants. Also, the contrast between these dissonant moments and the prettier, more tuneful sections suggests the dialectical relationships between beauty and ugliness, and love and loathing.

Finally, the choice of ‘harsh‘ (at least from the point of view of English speakers), guttural German–instead of Wilde’s erotically lyrical (if a tad idiosyncratic) French–reinforces the dramatic tension, especially when Salomé demands the prophet’s head on a silver charger.

X: Dance for Me, Salomé

Back to the story. Herod is so obviously troubled, on the one hand by the threats Iokanaan is making against his rule, and on the other by his fear of the prophet as a man of God–which means he can’t kill him–that the soldiers note the tetrarch’s sombre look.

Herod hopes that Salomé will dance for him, to take his mind off his troubles. This escape into sensuous pleasure is an example of the manic defence, to avoid facing up to what makes one so unhappy.

Always annoyed that her husband stares lustfully at her daughter, Herodias forbids Salomé to dance for him. But his oath to give her anything she wants, even to half of his kingdom, puts a sly grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye; so Salome agrees to dance.

Wilde‘s brief stage direction, of Salomé dancing in seven veils, has been made so much of. It says nothing explicitly of a striptease, but why else would she dance in those veils, if not to remove them one by one?

Strauss’s exotic, sensuous music certainly makes much of the dance, starting with a slow, erotic, mysterious aura and building up to a fast, frenzied, and dissonant climax, once almost all (or absolutely all, depending on the boldness of the woman playing Salomé) of the veils have been removed.

XI: Getting Naked

As each veil is removed, more of the mysteries of her body are revealed to horny Herod, just as the mystery of Iokanaan was revealed to lascivious Salomé when he emerged from the vaginal cistern. This story is all about the desire to have secrets revealed, including, as the Jews obsess over, the mysteries of God, through such things as prophecies, as the Nazarenes are concerned with. Mysteries thus may be sensual or spiritual: note the dialectical relationship between these two.

While we usually think of men objectifying women, as Herod is doing with Salomé here, in Salomé the objectifying is a two-way street, since she lusts after chaste Iokanaan. And while it is usual and correct to be concerned with the injuries done to female strippers, sex workers, and pornographic models and actresses, consider how pathetic the men are, those addicted to porn, prostitutes, and strippers, using these as a manic defence to avoid facing their own sadness. Consider their shame at knowing what pigs they’re being (or at least seen as being), each a modern Herod, walking guiltily in and out of strip joints, whorehouses, and the porn sections of DVD rentals.

There are two sides to objectification: the view to destroy, as Salomé does to Iokanaan, and as Herod does to Salomé at the end of the opera; and there’s the view to admire, to worship the beautiful object, as any connoisseur of art understands…and as Salomé and Herod also do to their adored objects. Looking to admire and to destroy are, again, dialectically related. This obsessive urge to look, a pagan adoration of divinity that is–in this opera–thematically related to whether or not the Jew or Nazarene has ‘seen’ God, is also a weakness that can be exploited.

Salomé is certainly using her sexuality to take advantage of this weakness of Herod’s. And since, on the one hand, the tetrarch is objectifying and using her for his pleasure, getting her to strip down to a state of nude vulnerability; and on the other hand, she’s turning his lust against him, we have here a male/female variant of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic, or a dialectic of feminism meeting antifeminism.

XII: Switching Roles

The master (Herod) uses the, so to speak, slave (Salomé) for his own pleasure, but she uses her creativity (her dance) to build up her own mastery over him. Thus, master and slave switch roles, making her especially triumphant, since she’ll cause the doom of two men–decapitated Iokanaan, and the revolutionary toppling of Herod, as it is assumed will happen to him when the Nazarenes (and God!) are so enraged to learn of the execution of their beloved prophet.

Women are perceived to be inspiring of lust and sin (the misogynistic, antifeminist side of the dialectic), yet Salomé and Herodias triumph in thwarting the tetrarch and killing the male religious authority (the feminist side). What’s more, Salomé is all the more feminist in wishing for Iokanaan’s head for her own pleasure, not out of obedience to her mother.

Herod pleads with Salomé to ask for something else. The tetrarch has made himself a slave to his oath, of which she’s the master. He offers her rare jewels, ones even her mother doesn’t know he has; he offers her rare white peacocks. All she does is repeat her demand for “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” each time given more and more aggressively, with increasingly tense music in the background. Finally, he is forced, in all exasperation, to relent.

XIII: The Head

When the executioner is down in the dark cistern, Salomé waits by the hole and listens. Suspense is built when she hears nothing. She grows impatient, thinking she’ll need the soldiers to do the job she imagines the slave who went down with his axe is too incompetent or cowardly to do. Nonetheless, he emerges with Iokanaan’s bloody head. The ruling class’s indulgence of their petty desires always brings about violence of this sort.

Still, there are contradictions even among the desires of the different members of the ruling class. Herod is horrified to see Salomé’s maniacal gazing at the head, but Herodias is pleased to no end. Salomé kisses the mouth, triumphant in having achieved what the living prophet refused to let her do. In her mania, she imagines for the moment that Iokanaan’s eyes should be looking at her, as if the severed head could possibly be alive. She is thus disappointed that the eyes don’t look at her.

She wishes that he could have accepted her love, that if he’d looked at her, that if he’d just let her kiss his mouth, he would have loved her back, for love is a greater mystery than death.

XIV: Decapitation as Symbolic Castration

Since Wilde’s use of baiser has the implied secondary meaning of “to fuck,” and since she says, “Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she is implying that she has a symbolic vagina dentata, which will castrate him when they make love. She compares his body to a column of ivory, a column being a phallic symbol. Thus, ‘fucking’ his mouth with the implied vagina dentata means his decapitation is a symbolic castration.

Herod’s unwillingness to have Iokanaan beheaded is thus an example of castration anxiety, especially since loss of the phallus is a symbolic loss of power. Herod’s fear of Iokanaan’s execution provoking a Nazarene revolution, spearheaded by none other than God, reinforces this symbolic fear of castration. Iokanaan’s “Kopf” is a cock.

XV: Conclusion–Who Wins the Sex War (and the Class War)?

Salomé (and by extension Herodias, since she has wanted Iokanaan’s death from the beginning), having the prophet’s head in her arms, is now symbolically the powerful phallic woman. She, especially in her madness and perversity, is a threat to Herod. Regarding her as “monstrous,” he orders all the torches to be put out. He says, “Hide the moon! Hide the stars!” For the whiteness of the moon and stars resemble her pale skin far too much for his comfort.

Finally, the male/female dialectic sways back in the antifeminist direction, and Herod orders his soldiers to “Kill that woman!” The men surround Salomé with their shields, and crush her to death with them, ending the opera with a barrage of discords.

Still, we know that the days of all decadent kings and queens–as well as those of the tetrarch, it seems–are numbered. Herod is still quaking in fear over the consequences of killing a holy man. The Nazarenes believe the tetrarch cannot stop the march of God through history, just as we Marxists believe the bourgeoisie cannot stop the dialectical movement of historical materialism.

Herod can hide the moon and the stars for only so long. Recall Iokanaan’s words: “In that day the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood, and the stars of the heaven shall fall upon the earth like unripe figs that fall from the fig-tree, and the kings of the earth shall be afraid.”

Furthermore, Salomé may be dead, but her double, that pale moon overhead, is still shining. In his poem, ‘Problems of Gender,’ Robert Graves wondered which gender to assign the moon, asking, “who controls the regal powers of night?” In Salomé, I think we know which sex controls them.

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

Analysis of the Primeval History in Genesis

I: Introduction

Genesis, or Bereshith (“In the beginning”) in the original Hebrew, is the first of the five books (Pentateuch) traditionally ascribed to Moses, the Torah. It’s actually the product of several writers and editors who, over the course of hundreds of years, gave it its final form. According to the persuasive documentary hypothesis, four stylistically distinct narrative strands can be found interwoven throughout the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim–the Law, Prophets, and Writings), or the Old Testament, as Christians call it.

Those four narrative strands are, in approximate historical order, the Elohist, Yahwist (or Jahwist), Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources (E, J, D, and P). In the Yahwist source, God is referred to as YHWH (Yahweh, the Tetragram, translated as the LORD); the Elohist source calls God Elohim (“God,” or “gods,” depending on the context); the Deuteronomist source (“second law”) is to some extent a retelling of much of the law; and the Priestly source, predictably, serves the agenda of the ancient priests, and also has a more developed theology.

Many authors, not just one.

I’ll be examining the first eleven chapters of Genesis, known as the ‘primeval history.’

II: The Yahwist Adam and Eve Narrative

I will start with the Yahwist account of the Adam and Eve story, because its presentation of YHWH Elohim is much more primitive than the transcendental, spiritual depiction of Elohim as given in the Priestly account of the Creation. Indeed, the Yahwist God is both physically and mentally anthropomorphic, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8); He’s also fallible and of limited knowledge, creating all the other animals as prospective companions for Adam before realizing that Eve is truly fitting for him (Genesis 2:18-22). He also needs to ask Adam where he is (3:9), who told him he was naked, and if he ate of the forbidden fruit (3:11), all needless questions for an omniscient God.

YHWH, after creating the Garden of Eden, made Adam out of the dirt (‘adamah, traditionally translated “dust,” Genesis 2:7) of the earth. Later, when YHWH tells Adam he will die for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, He says, “Dust (‘adamah) you are, to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Since Adam’s opposite sex companion has the name of Eve (hawwah, “life”), his equation with the dirt, where all the dead return, thus associates him with death. Opposite sexes represent opposite principles: for the ancients, woman is life; man is death.

The whole reason Adam was created (Genesis 2:5) was to till the garden (Genesis 2:15); in other words, man exists to work. Eve, as the “mother of all living,” was given life in order to give life herself: a great honour, but also a great burden. For the ancients, woman is; man does.

It isn’t my wish to defend these traditional roles and ancient attitudes; on the contrary, I comment on them to critique them, for I’m doing a critical analysis of Genesis to expose its authoritarian aspects. People shouldn’t be compartmentalized into roles, with a few at the top and most at the bottom. I’ll discuss more of that later.

Some have interpreted Adam as being a hermaphrodite prior to the creation of Eve. The removing of a rib from Adam during his sleep thus means that the rib symbolizes the feminine aspect removed from the primordial human being, thus creating separate sexes. Creation by separation is also seen in the Priestly account of the creation: heaven/earth, light/darkness, day/night, water/land, etc. More on that later.

All of this separation into distinct parts is seen as good according to the Biblical writers. I will be arguing the opposite opinion, since separation is used to justify discrimination, authoritarianism, and divisiveness–again, more on that later.

Adam and Eve were naked (‘arummim) and not ashamed, “naked” also implying vulnerable, helpless. Their unashamed, natural state also implies the naïve, innocent way of children, who don’t know much of anything. That the serpent is more subtle (‘arum), cleverer than any other animal, implies a special knowledge.

Thus we see a dialectical relationship between the words in the Hebrew pun, ‘arummim and ‘arum. There is a sweetness in the childlike innocence of allowing one’s secrets (symbolized by the would-be exhibitionism of showing one’s ‘private’ parts) to be known, and a wickedness in being clever, cunning; but there’s also a danger in that vulnerable innocence, and an advantage in having a knowledge that leads to cleverness, shrewdness (see also p. 14, HEBREW BIBLE, notes to Genesis 2:24-25, and 3:1-21). The good of one phases into the evil of the other, and vice versa, like the dialectical unity of opposites as can be symbolized by the tail-biting head of the ouroboros, another serpent I’ve discussed elsewhere.

The serpent tempts Eve by telling her that in eating of the Tree of Knowledge, she and Adam will be like God, or gods, depending on the translation of Elohim, to have the power of knowledge. Since Yahweh has forbidden eating of this tree, on pain of death, one must ask what’s wrong with acquiring knowledge.

Is this an allegorical illustration of how knowledge results in a sad loss of innocence? That’s one valid interpretation. Is this act of disobedience to God symbolic of carnal knowledge, the sex act, resulting in concupiscence? Or is eating the forbidden fruit an act of rebellion against our ‘loving’ Lord, who doesn’t want us to have the power that knowledge gives? Or do freedom and knowledge lead to isolation and fear?

III: From Freedom to Fear

In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm describes how Protestantism gave freedom from the authoritarian Catholic Church, but then left a vacuum of insecurity for Christians like Luther and Calvin, who resolved this problem with a far more authoritarian rigidity: “…while Luther freed people from the authority of the Church, he made them submit to a much more tyrannical authority, that of a God who insisted on complete submission of man and annihilation of the individual self as the essential condition to his salvation. Luther’s “faith” was the conviction of being loved upon the condition of surrender…” (Fromm, page 81, his emphasis)

Similarly of Calvin, Fromm writes, “Although he too opposes the authority of the Church and the blind acceptance of its doctrines, religion for him is rooted in the powerlessness of man; self-humiliation and the destruction of human pride are the Leitmotiv of his whole thinking.” (Fromm, page 84)

The Protestants, as we can see, were the authoritarian heirs of the priests, be they ancient Hebrew or Catholic. Again, instead of allowing the flock to seek knowledge, men like Luther and Calvin wanted the flock to submit to their authority, to see themselves as “naked” and helpless without that authority.

Erich Fromm.

IV: Blame and Punishment

Back to Genesis, where Eve gives Adam the forbidden fruit. Many traditionalists have done a misogynistic spin on this story, blaming Eve unfairly for the Fall, when the text itself clearly shows Yahweh judging and punishing the serpent, Eve, and Adam for the role each plays in the Fall.

John Milton, in Paradise Lost, took pains to soften the blame put on Eve, instead praising her beauty in virtue, in Book IX, lines 896-899: “O fairest of all creation, last and best/Of all God’s works, creature in whom excelled/Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,/Holy, divine, good, amiable or sweet!”

Instead of being tempted by her, Milton’s Adam freely chooses to fall with her, out of love: “Matter of scorn, not to be given the foe,/However I with thee have fixed my lot,/Certain to undergo like doom, if death/Consort with thee, death is to me as life;/So forcible within my heart I feel/The bond of nature draw me to my own,/My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;/Our state cannot be severed, we are one,/One flesh; to lose thee were to lose my self./So Adam, and thus Eve to him replied./O glorious trial of exceeding love,/Illustrious evidence, example high!” (IX, 951-962)

Now Milton was no proto-feminist, of course: he took the traditional patriarchal line that man is “the head of the other sex which was made for him; whom therefore though he ought not to injure,…” (The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Restored to the Good of Both Sexes, page 223); but his kinder attitude towards Eve shows that the misogynist interpretation of her having tempted Adam was far from, and needn’t have been, universal.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil isn’t merely about knowing right from wrong: “good and evil” is a Hebrew merism meant to represent all aspects of knowledge, i.e., from ‘the worst’ to ‘the best.’ Knowing right from wrong is perfectly defensible from a moral standpoint; if Yahweh is a moral God, He should be all in support of allowing Adam and Eve to have such knowledge. No: He’s opposed to Adam and Eve gaining the power of knowledge, for such an acquiring of power would be a threat to His power.

The Christian notion of Adam and Eve being morally perfect before the Fall is illogical, as I described elsewhere: if they were originally without moral faults, they would never have chosen to disobey God. Milton’s rhetorical notion that they were “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III, 99) misses the point. Being “free” to sin alone doesn’t make a morally perfect person want to sin; his perfect morality will make it clear to him that sinning will bring about his destruction, no matter how tempting the act is, and no matter how free he is to commit the sin.

It would make more sense to regard the two naked lovers’ fall from grace in a dialectical fashion, that is, in trying to rise too high in the gaining of knowledge, to become clever (‘arum), they become knowledgeable only of their own nakedness (their being ‘arummim), of their vulnerability and helplessness, a falling to the lowest point. The ascent to the biting head of the ouroboros (powerful knowledge and being ‘arum), going past that point, and phasing into the serpent’s bitten tail of their naked (‘arummim) powerlessness. (Recall how I see the ouroboros as a symbol for a circular continuum.)

The ouroboros, my symbol for a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites. The biting head represents one opposite, and the bitten tail represents the other. One extreme taken too far phases into the other extreme. The coiled length of the body shows every intermediate point between the extremes.

Speaking of serpents, they were revered as symbols of rebirth, fertility, wisdom, and knowledge prior to the polemical pages of Genesis; thanks to YHWH’s punishment of the serpent for tempting Eve, it is now one of the most despised of animals, the hostility especially being between it and her (Genesis 3:14-15). Gaining knowledge is morally wrong, apparently.

Note the wording of Eve’s punishment, with respect to her relationship with Adam: “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” In the New English Bible, this passage is rendered, “You shall be eager [or feel an urge] for your husband,” suggesting perhaps an emotional dependence, or a neediness, leading to his dominance in the family. I suspect the writers were manipulating women’s empathy and love, taking advantage of it, for the sake of reinforcing and justifying the patriarchal family.

Finally, Adam’s punishment: the difficulty and hardship of working in order to survive. I don’t mean to belittle or trivialize the toil that women also endure, especially today, to support their families–far from it; but we shouldn’t assume that the male role as traditional breadwinner is in any way glamorous, or a privilege. Part of ensuring equality for women will include no longer exploiting their “desire,” “urge,” or eagerness for their husbands (if they choose to have them); part of equality will also include eliminating compulsory sex roles, so both sexes can, to an equal extent, be free to be both providers and homemakers.

V: The Birth of Death

Then, while of course both Adam and Eve (and the serpent, for that matter) will eventually die–not the death of their innocence, which has already happened the day they ate the forbidden fruit, but actual, physical death–the death sentence is explicitly said by YHWH to Adam (Genesis 3:17-19). I suspect that this narrative is a mythical distortion, as so many ancient Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern narratives are (read Frazer‘s Golden Bough to see what I mean), of an ancient rite of human sacrifice, the killing of the old sacred king by the new one (many examples of such mythical distortions of such rites can also be found in Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths).

To understand what I mean by the myth distorting the original ritual, as opposed to just plain describing what happened, we need to consider how language in the ancient world expressed history and fact in a poetic, metaphorical way, as opposed to the modern descriptive, prosaic way. Northrop Frye elaborates: “The first phase of language…is inherently poetic: it is contemporary with a stage of society in which the main source of culturally inherited knowledge is the poet, as Homer was for Greek culture…There were technical reasons for this: verse, with its formulaic sound-schemes, is the easiest vehicle for an oral culture in which memory, or the keeping alive of tradition, is of primary importance…the ability to record [i.e., writing it down] has a lot more to do with forgetting than with remembering: with keeping the past in the past, instead of continuously recreating it in the present.” (Frye, page 22)

Poetry, not prose.

Frye continues: “The origins of the Bible are in the first metaphorical phase of language, but much of the Bible is contemporary with the second-phase separation of the dialectical from the poetic, as its metonymic “God” in particular indicates. Its poetic use of language obviously does not confine it to the literary category, but it never falls wholly into the conventions of the second phase.” (Frye, page 27)

So what we get in such characters as Yahweh, Adam, and Eve (as in so many of the other characters in myths of many other cultures of the ancient Middle East) is an alteration by metaphor and symbol of what originally happened in history, a result of the oral passing on of the story before it was finally written down. I don’t mean to show a dogmatic allegiance to the very fallible writing of Graves, Frazer, and the other Cambridge ritualists, for indeed, their ideas are far from universally applicable (and Graves’s ‘scholarship’ is particularly mischievous, to put it as kindly as possible); but I do think their ideas can be applied to these specific mythical narratives, as certain motifs seem to reappear here and there, and thus at least seem to show recognizable patterns.

In my speculation, Adam would have been the old king, engaging in an orgy with Eve (the queen) to promote fertility. The sexual symbolism of the two naked lovers eating forbidden fruit would suffice as the remnants of the original orgy, now mythically distorted (any other participants in the orgy having already been excised from the story). Finally, the new king (now YHWH) walks in the garden in the cool of the day, and kills the old king, something mythically distorted into a mere death sentence.

Another aspect of the rite of human sacrifice that seems to have been distorted and incorporated into the Adam and Eve narrative is the scapegoating and banishing of the one, or ones, who committed the sacrificial murder. I emphasize here that the narrative, as we have it, has distorted what originally happened, since those killed in the sacrifice also double as those banished, namely Adam and Eve.

The killer in the original sacrifice, represented here by Yahweh Elohim, could also, in a way, be the banished one, since His separation from humanity (because of the original sin of Adam and Eve) could be seen as yet another mythical distortion of the consequences of the rite of human sacrifice.

The story of King Oedipus serves as another example of the mythical distortion of the ancient rite of human sacrifice: Oedipus is the new king who murders the old sacred king (distorted into his father, King Laius), marries the queen (distorted into his mother, Iocaste), and incestuously enters her bed (a distortion of the orgia, or fertility rite). He leaves Thebes with his daughter/sister Antigone, a mythical distortion of the scapegoat who is banished from the city to expiate for the sins of the people of that city.

Cain’s murder of Abel, while on one level representing the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one, may also be a distortion based on a rite of human sacrifice, for the sake of founding a new city. For when Cain was banished by God and settled in Nod, to the East of Eden, he founded a city named after his son, Enoch. The Romulus and Remus myth (the former having killed the latter) also seems to be based on a rite of human sacrifice to found a city–Rome, of course. See Hyam Maccoby‘s book, The Sacred Executioner, for more details.

VI: The Sons of God

The opening of Genesis, chapter six, is fascinating. It reads like something straight out of pagan myth; know that the ancient Hebrews started with polytheism like everyone else in that part of the world, then shifted to monolatry (a belief in many gods, but commanded to worship only YHWH, their tribal deity), then finally to monotheism, as expressed in the transcendental, spiritual God of chapter one, from the Priestly narrative). The use of b’nei ha-Elohim (sons of God, or sons of the gods?) reflects this transition.

Whether they’re the sons of God, or of the gods, ultimately doesn’t matter: they’re clearly divine or semi-divine beings (angels? That they’re the descendants of Seth seems to me like a Church cover-up of the obvious paganism.) who have come down from the heavens to make love with “the daughters of men,” resulting in the partially divine Nephilim, giants, great heroes of renown. It reads like Zeus seducing pretty maidens, resulting in men like Heracles! Here we see an example of the Biblical transformation of pagan myth.

The whole p0int, however, of this sexual union of the “sons of God” with the “daughters of men,” leading to the explosion of sin in the world, and in turn leading to the Great Flood, is that according to Biblical morality, you gotta keep ’em separated–namely, the divine and human worlds. An intermixing of the elements separated in the Creation results in chaos, the literal Chaos of the primordial world before the Creation (Mays, pages 88-89).

Tohu wa-bohu…’Let there be light.’

VII: Creation From Chaos

Orthodox Christians insist that God created the universe ex nihilo, but this isn’t borne out in the first chapter of Genesis. When Elohim created “the heaven and the earth” (another merism, here meaning everything, the universe; but with the implied dualism of a separation of above from below, since people in the ancient world viewed the universe as a layer of heaven over a flat Earth, with the layer of Hades at the bottom), everything “was waste and void,” primordial Chaos, an infinite ocean, if you will, of formless, undifferentiated matter.

Milton–one of the best-read of English poets, and a polyglot who knew Italian, Greek, Hebrew, etc.–believed the heresy that God created the universe not ex nihilo, but out of primordial Chaos. Some of his belief may have been influenced by his reading of the Greek myths in their classical sources; but some of it must have been influenced by his understanding of the nuances of the original Hebrew, tohu wa-bohu.

So the ruach of this transcendental God (not the physical, man-like Yahweh who walked in the garden in the cool of the day and asked questions He didn’t know the answers to) moved upon the face of the waters, the waters of a Brahman-like oneness of undifferentiated matter. The “earth” (Genesis 1:2) wasn’t earth as such, since the land wasn’t yet formed by its separation from the oceans, the waters above hadn’t yet been separated from those below, and not even the light was yet formed by its separation from the darkness (choshek, which translated from the Hebrew is darkness, or confusion, this latter being an intermixing), no difference between day and night.

Light and darkness, waters above and below, land and water–creation by separation into opposites.

Everything was just a watery, dark oneness, similar to the Hindu speculations in the Rig Veda, 10.129. Creation in this Priestly narrative is all about separating things into dualistic opposites: first, light and darkness, creating day and night (without the sun!); then, the firmament separates waters above from the oceans below (remember, heaven is a layer above, and the Earth is a flat layer under it, according to the ancients), the second day; and the separation of the oceans from the land, the third day.

Paralleling the first three days, the next three days involve the creation of the sun for the day, and the moon and stars for the night, the fourth day; the creation of animals flying in the firmament versus the sea animals, the fifth day thus corresponding to the second; and on the sixth day, the creation of the land animals, and finally, ha-‘adam, male and female (implying a hermaphroditism that will be separated into sexes later), made in the image of Elohim. (Is “He” androgynous, too? That is, though Elohim has the masculine plural ending of -im, since the masculine is traditionally used as a generic form for both sexes, could the meaning “gods” imply the inclusion of goddesses, too?)

VIII: Separation is Saintly

God looked at his creation, everything separated into opposites, just as the Priestly writers wanted it, and He saw that it was tov, good. (Incidentally, the separation of every living thing after its kind has been used to justify racial segregation.) It is only the intermixing of these opposites, reunifying them, that is considered sinful. Hence the sin of Adam and Eve becoming like gods–“one of us,” God says to the angels (Genesis 3:22), who were once inferior gods in the heavenly, divine council of pagan times–by acquiring the power to know, yada, which also has a sexual connotation, the uniting of male and female, hence the interpretation that the naked couple’s sin was a sexual one.

Cain’s murder of Abel is sinful also because only the divine world has the right to decide when one may die; his killing of his brother thus shows him arrogating himself to a divine status, another forbidden mixing of above and below.

The plan to build the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven and so connect above with below, is once again an attempt to mix the divine world with the human one. Hence, God says to the heavenly host, “let us go down, and there confound their language,” (Genesis 11:7) making a babble of mutually incomprehensible languages.

IX: The Flood as Creation 2.0

So, to return to the deluge story, the divine beings above, making love with the women of earth is another forbidden mixture of opposites, resulting in a grotesque proliferation of sin that causes God to regret His creation of the world. The Great Flood is thus a return to the endless seas of Chaos before the Creation.

The end of the forty days and nights of rain (or is it 150 days and nights, according to the Priestly source?) parallels the Creation’s second-day separation of the waters above and below with the firmament. The slow receding of the waters after the flood parallels the separation of land and ocean on the third day of Creation. Noah’s sending of the raven and the dove to know if the waters have abated parallels the fifth day’s creation of birds. Noah’s family emerging from the ark, with all the pairs of animals, parallels the sixth day. Separations are re-established, all is well again, and God puts His rainbow in the sky. Noah’s sacrifice to God at an altar exemplifies a holy moment corresponding to the holy seventh day that God blessed and rested on.

But just as there was naked wickedness of a sexual sort in the Garden of Eden, so is there in Noah’s tent, in which he gets naked and drunk from the wine he’s made from the vineyard he planted. What does it mean when his son, Ham, sees him naked in the tent? A literal interpretation would have been sinful enough, given the ancient taboo against seeing one’s parents naked; but could Ham have done something worse?

Some scholars have suggested that Ham either raped or castrated Noah; another suggestion is that Ham raped his mother, who, as Noah’s patriarchal property, was thus also Noah’s nakedness, and so Ham was attempting to usurp Noah’s parental authority. Whichever interpretation is correct, we see once again an intermixing of realms (here, father vs. son) meant to be kept separate. It also reads like another distortion of a rite of human sacrifice (Ham = new sacred king; Noah = old sacred king; sex; violence; and banishment, distorted into Noah’s curse…)

Ham is cursed by Noah and regarded as a lowly servant, as his descendants, the Canaanites, will be. Since the descendants of Shem are the Jews and Arabs (Semites), and those of Japheth were once believed to be Europeans, the Hamites (living in parts of Africa [!]) were once regarded by white Christians as inferior; the enslavement of blacks was thus seen as being perfectly rationalized. Again, we see the evil of excessive separation, justified and presented as a false good to the world.

X: From Separation to Authoritarian Rule

The Priestly accounts’ emphasis on separation can be understood as a justification of their authority as representatives of God. They represent the separate, divine world, which mustn’t be mixed with the vulgar masses. The priests are separate, holy, and superior: this is how they get their power over the rest of us. The laity, on the other hand, are seen as inferior, unclean, and sinful–we must be ruled over. This attitude has survived, in different religious forms, to the present day, with–for example–Catholic priests largely unpunished as “sons of God” mating with the, figuratively speaking, “daughters of men.”

I don’t wish to saddle the ancient Hebrew priests with all of the blame for the divisiveness in the world. Obviously, this divisiveness has been the fault of many diverse groups throughout history, and in many cultures. But the priests’ promotion of separation as holy–in the forms I’ve described above, as well as in the notion of keeping the ancient Israelites, God’s chosen people, “pure” from intermarriage with Gentiles–has in no small way contributed to divisiveness and authoritarianism in general.

Major forms of such divisiveness in the world today–identity politics (on the right as well as on the left), the false dichotomy in American politics in the ineffectual two-party system, the apartheid nature of Israel–as well as historical racial segregation, have been reinforced by fundamentalists’ reading of these Biblical passages.

We need to end the dichotomizing of the world, and promote more unity and oneness. I like to compare Brahman to the Chaos before God’s creation-by-separation. I also compare Brahman to nirvana and to the dialectical monism of yin and yang, to dialectical and historical materialism, that which brings us all closer together in love and equality, not that which separates, isolates, and alienates us from each other.

The promotion of knowledge, rather than the forbidding of it–as well as the intermixing of cultures and ethnic groups, and the mixing of sex roles–will help achieve liberation and equality. More knowledge means fewer authoritarians can rule over us. For these reasons, I tend to be the Devil’s advocate. I have sympathy for the serpent, the ouroboros of eternally flowing knowledge.

Further Reading:

James L. Mays, general editor, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper, San Francisco, 1988

The Oxford Authors, John Milton: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991

The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1999

The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 1997

Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1996

Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A New Abridgement, Oxford University Press, London, 1994

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: Complete Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1992

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

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Penguin Books, Toronto, 1990

A work of literature, NOT one of history.

The Ouroboros of the Workers’ State

If the ouroboros of the workers’ state were to be compared to a clock, 12:00-3:00 would be a state of ‘NEP,’ as it were (see below); 3:00-6:00 would be the beginning of a real building of socialism, as Stalin did in the 1930s; 6:00-9:00 would be remarkable progress in that building; and 9:00-12:00 would result in the withering away of the socialist state, and the attainment of communist society.

It goes without saying that one doesn’t go from revolution to full communist society overnight. A process of gradual transformation has to be made, starting with the capitalist structure one has just taken over (recall when Lenin wrote of how “difficult [it would be] to abolish classes”–Lenin/Tucker, pages 668-669), smashing the possibility of it continuing seamlessly from before that takeover, and building socialism step by step, changing every facet of what had existed before, each facet examined one by one.

This process of moving along the continuum from capitalism, through the building of more and more socialism, to full communism can be symbolized by the ouroboros, a circular continuum where the serpent’s biting head represents one extreme, and its bitten tail represents the opposite extreme. The tail is the dialectical thesis of the desired communist society; the head is the capitalist negation of that desired society; and the length of the coiled body is the socialist sublation of the contradiction. In other posts, I’ve discussed this ouroboros symbolism before.

We wish to move in a clockwise direction from the capitalist head (i.e., 12:00-1:00) to the communist tail (11:00-12:00); but a counter-clockwise reactionary movement continually threatens to undo all our progress. Because of this danger, the movement towards more and more socialism must be accelerated, to at least some extent; also, proper protections must be established, and acts of treason must be extirpated with the utmost ruthlessness.

In the early stages of socialism (i.e., 1:00-3:00 along the ouroboros’ body), some concessions to the established order are sadly inevitable, as was the case with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty to get the RSFSR out of World War I, a move Lenin had to make to fulfill part of his “peace, land, and bread” promise, yet also a move that angered the impatient left communists.

Lenin, in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, responded to this anger: “It had seemed to them that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a compromise with the imperialists, which was inexcusable on principle and harmful to the party of the revolutionary proletariat. It was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made.” […]

“The party which entered into a compromise with the German imperialists by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been evolving its internationalism in practice ever since the end of 1914. It was not afraid to call for the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and to condemn “defence of country” in a war between two imperialist robbers. The parliamentary representatives of this party preferred exile in Siberia to taking a road leading to ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government. The revolution that overthrew tsarism and established a democratic republic put this party to a new and tremendous test–it did not enter into any agreements with its “own” imperialists, but prepared and brought about their overthrow. When it had assumed political power, this party did not leave a vestige of either landed or capitalist ownership. After making public and repudiating the imperialists’ secret treaties, this party proposed peace to all nations, and yielded to the violence of the Brest-Litovsk robbers only after the Anglo-French imperialists had torpedoed the conclusion of a peace, and after the Bolsheviks had done everything humanly possible to hasten the revolution in Germany and other countries. The absolute correctness of this compromise, entered into by such a party in such a situation, is becoming ever clearer and more obvious with every day.” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 563-564, Lenin’s emphasis)

Another concession Lenin made was with the NEP, which he himself called “state capitalism” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 511-531) as a temporary measure to deal with the economic exigencies of the early 1920s. Nonetheless, Stalin had already phased out the NEP by the beginning of the 1930s, as it was by then time to move socialism on forward. Indeed, when the concessions are no longer necessary, it’s time to continue clockwise along the body of the ouroboros (i.e., move from 3:00 to, say, 6:00).

In this connection I must discuss China under Xi Jinping, and do so with necessary candour. Nothing would make me happier to believe that the country is going down a genuine path of Marxism-Leninism, but beyond Xi’s rhetoric, I’m sorry to say that I can only see China as being, at best, in a seemingly almost permanent state of arrested NEP development.

China‘s is a mixed economy, partially state-planned and partially private enterprise. This latter part is the beginning of the cancer of capitalism in any country; the small amount of private enterprise allowed in Cuba is enough to make me fear for her future. That there’s so much more free enterprise in China should be enough to make any communist nervous, yet many respectable Marxist-Leninists out there still rationalize what China is doing. I must respectfully disagree with them.

The defences I’ve heard to support Dengism as legitimate Leninism include such arguments as wages have been rising (itself a debatable notion), hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and of course, theirs is a state-planned economy. All of these arguments can be applied to capitalist countries, where at certain points in history, wages have risen (as they did in the West from 1945-1973), ‘millions lifted out of poverty’ has been claimed to have been a capitalist achievement, and state-planning, or state intervention, has existed–to at least some extent–in both fascist and Keynesian forms of capitalist economies.

How have ‘hundreds of millions of Chinese been pulled out of poverty,’ anyway? The poverty line is defined at making US$1.90/day, so any money earned above that, even US$1.91, is considered to be technically ‘above poverty.’ This World Bank definition is applied equally to capitalist boasts of raising people out of poverty as it is to Chinese boasts. Granted, many Chinese today are now doing much, much better than they were back when Deng Xiaoping had just taken over (including today’s hundreds of Chinese billionaires and millionaires!); but in the rural areas–and in some urban ones–many are still very poor.

How many of these Chinese ‘above the poverty line’ in as recent a year as 2015 were making, say, US$2.00/day, or $2.50, or $3.00, or in any case, under $3.20/day? Up to 7%. How many made under $5.50/day? 27.2%, not a trifling percentage, and not much money. As of the end of 2017, Xinhua acknowledged that 30.46% of rural Chinese were still below the poverty line. I don’t think the average Westerner would be happy to make less than US$3.20/day, or less than $5.50/day, then be congratulated for no longer being impoverished!

Need I remind you, Dear Reader, that the ‘state-planned economy equals socialism’ argument is commonly heard among certain quarters outside the China-defending Marxists?…they’re called right-libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists. It isn’t state-planning per se that makes it socialist: it’s how the planning is used. Does it lift the poor out of squalor in a meaningful way, or does it allow–or even facilitateflagrant wealth inequality?

Recently, the Chinese government has cracked down on corruption; but this can happen in capitalist countries, too, if only with modest success. Socialist government is by far the most moral, but at least some virtue in government can be seen elsewhere. Virtue in government alone doesn’t make it socialist.

It’s not my wish to disparage China, or to speak out of malice; China’s growth since the 1980s has been nothing short of impressive. I certainly have no bourgeois agenda against China; these criticisms I’ve made are not the kind you get from anti-communists; nor are they of the infantile disorder one gets from impatient, utopian socialists who want everything perfect all at once. I just want to see China move further clockwise towards the tail of the ouroboros. I’m a patient socialist, but my patience has limits.

I would much rather have China (or Russia, for that matter), far less inclined to waging war, as the strongest country in the world than the eternally bellicose US…and I live as a Canadian in Taiwan! But until someone can provide more convincing arguments that China, having joined such capitalist institutions as the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank, is legitimately socialist, I’ll continue to have my doubts.

Consider the working conditions in China’s (and Vietnam‘s) factories and sweatshops. Consider the legal existence of private property in China, and how Marx and Engels told us, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Consider the evidence of imperialistic tendencies, often reduced, by China’s apologists, to investment in the growth of developing foreign countries.

I think I understand the psychological motive for many to regard China as socialist in spite of its obvious capitalist tendencies: it is depressing to see the great majority of socialist nations having succumbed to neoliberal depredations, and so we’d all like to believe that China isn’t one of those casualties. Until I see a genuine Chinese movement away from the tendencies I outlined above, however, and more muscular efforts to even out the wealth inequality, I’ll find it difficult to support Xi’s government.

But enough of ‘NEP-oriented’ politics. Time to move further clockwise along the serpent’s body, from 3:00-6:00. When the productive forces are sufficiently developed, efforts towards universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare must be immediately undertaken. We’re moving towards the ideal of ‘from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs.’ Part of this means taking the ‘his or her’ part seriously, thus establishing full equal rights for women and a way out of the trap of restrictive traditional roles for both sexes (Lenin/Tucker, pages 679-699).

These developments, along with such ones as promoting tolerance for LGBT people, helping people with physical and mental disabilities, and eliminating racial prejudice, will help move us further clockwise along the ouroboros from its head to its tail, from 3:00-9:00.

Proper defences against the danger of a reinstating of capitalism, a move from 6:00 back to 1:00, must be erected. North Korea has done well in that regard with their development of nuclear weapons, the only thing that has prevented a US invasion. Venezuela must do more to protect herself from imperialist aggression: gusanos like Guaidó should be arrested (at least) for treason; let the liberal media lambast Maduro for being firm with these traitors, for they’ll criticize his democratically socialist government as a ‘dictatorship’ regardless of what he does. To ensure the survival of the proletarian dictatorship, not letting it slip counter-clockwise back to the bourgeois dictatorship of ‘liberal democracy,’ one mustn’t flinch at such measures.

To an extent, some concessions have to be made to ensure against the backsliding into bourgeois ways. But sometimes, those concessions really do result in such backsliding. A delicate balance must be made, like walking a tightrope. Moving too much the one way (as Mao was perceived to have done) or too much the other way (as I perceive Deng to have done) leads to a slipping along the serpent’s tail back to its capitalist head.

And once we reach the tip of the tail of the ouroboros (9:00-12:00)–when all remaining traces of capitalism have been eradicated, mountainous class differences have been lowered to the calmly rippling waves of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” the state finally withers away, and money is replaced with a gift economy–we mustn’t assume our new communist society will be a painless utopia. There will be new challenges to be dealt with, new contradictions of some sort or other. The bitten tail will phase into a new biting head, though not a capitalist one. We’ll have to be ready for those new challenges when they come.

Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975

Analysis of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

A Clockwork Orange is a 1962 dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess that was adapted into a film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. I’ll be discussing and comparing both. The story is narrated by its fifteen-year-old sociopathic protagonist, Alex the Large (DeLarge in the movie, played by Malcolm McDowell, who almost a decade after would play another psychopath, one from ancient Rome), a boy whose interests include drinking drug-laced milk with his “droogs” (Georgie, Dim [Warren Clarke], and Pete), beating people up (“tolchocking,” or “ultra-violence”), gang raping women (“the old in-out, in-out”), and listening to classical music, especially Beethoven.

In this futuristic world, the wayward teens speak a Russian-influenced argot called nadsat (<<If your nadsat is a little rusty, click the link provided [or this one], for I’ll be using quite a few of these words [I’ve italicized them, even in the quotes].). The central theme of the story is the dialectical tension between freedom and restriction, physical or mental, and how one may effectively–or ineffectively–resolve this tension, with or without harming society or the individual.

Here are some quotes:

From the novel: “What’s it going to be then, eh?” (Burgess, page 5)

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. (page 5)

Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name -A CLOCKWORK ORANGE- and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ (page 21)

‘ – The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen – ” (page 21)

So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?’ (page 100)

‘Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?’ –Prison Chaplain, to Alex (page 76)

From the film:

Irish Drunk: Can you spare some cutter me brothers? Go on, do me in, you bastard cowards! I don’t wanna live anyway. Not in a stinking old world like this.”

Alex: Oh? And what’s so stinking about it?

Drunk: It’s a stinking world because there is no law and order anymore. […]

“Ho, ho, ho! Well if it isn’t fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, ya eunuch jelly thou!” –Alex

[While listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

“As an unmuddied lake, sir. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.” –Alex, to Deltoid

“You needn’t take it any further, sir. You’ve proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I’ve learned me lesson, sir. I’ve seen now what I’ve never seen before. I’m cured! Praise God!” –Alex, during the application of the Ludovico technique

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” –Chaplain

In the Korova Milkbar, Alex and his droogs are drinking their “milk plus something else,” laced “with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches,” wondering what to do that night. In the novel, the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” is repeatedly asked. The crimes they commit ultimately derive from boredom and sloth, a lack of purpose or direction in life. The boys also have too much freedom in their lives.

Excessive freedom, as Erich Fromm observed in Escape From Freedom, results in a sense of instability and unsureness, causing an anxiety that authoritarian rule would relieve one of. What are you supposed to do with yourself if you can do absolutely anything? A list of dos and don’ts provides a comforting structure, hence excessively free people (or, at least, people perceiving themselves as having too much freedom) tend to run back to forms of authority like fascism.

The violence of fascism can be symbolically seen in the droogs‘ crimes, as well as in their uniform-like outfits: in the novel, back tights, waistcoats with big shoulder-pads, “flip horrorshow boots for kicking,” and white cravats (pages 5-6); in the film, the iconic white outfits, black hats, codpieces, and black boots.

The ineffectual law enforcement of the government at the beginning of the story results in the droogs’ getting away with so much violence and rape; symbolically, this lax governance corresponds to a failed attempt at a left-libertarian society (Kubrick and other critics considered the society of his film to be initially like a failed socialism–the Russian-like nadsat symbolizes this sovietism, too, as does the pro-worker art that is defaced by graffiti).

In contrast, the later government’s use of the Ludovico technique on Alex, with its strict suppression of his criminal urges, symbolically suggests the rigidity and repression of fascism. The extreme left is not similar to the extreme right (as the horseshoe theory gets so absurdly wrong), but the one extreme dialectically phases into its opposite, as I’ve explained elsewhere.

The dialectic of freedom vs. restrictions is resolved with the idea that my right to swing out my arm, with my hand balled in a fist, ends where your face begins. Alex and his droogs, of course, have no respect for this resolution. Individual freedom to do whatever he wants is all that matters to Alex, even to the point of taking pleasure in hurting others.

Sadean delight in cruelty is shown in the film, not only with Alex and his droogs, but also with Billyboy and his droogs when they strip a beautiful “weepy young devotchka” naked and get ready to gang-rape her while a merry passage from Rossini‘s “Thieving Magpie” is heard in the soundtrack. This enjoyment in causing pain is especially evident during the “surprise visit,” when Alex gets ready to rape the “subversive” writer’s wife while singing “Singin’ In the Rain,” dancing, and slapping her and kicking her husband, forcing him to watch the rape.

In spite of how dreadful a human being Alex is, we nonetheless find ourselves liking and sympathizing with him, not just because he’s our “Friend and Humble Narrator,” but because he’s cultured and witty. His clever use of nadsat incorporates the archaisms of Elizabethan-era English, giving his already silver tongue an almost Shakespearean poetry. Then, of course, there’s his love of classical music–Beethoven in particular.

Normally, we stereotype punks as, for example, punk rockers; we look down on criminals as ‘low-life scumbags’; we think of sadists as brutish, unthinking monsters. That we can’t dismiss Alex in this way makes him all the more disturbing…for psychopaths are known for their dangerous charm. The juxtaposition of sadism with high culture is symbolic of the oppression of the ruling class. Nazis were art connoisseurs…though their reasons for liking or disliking this or that artwork were contemptible ones.

The sociopathic characters in the Marquis de Sade‘s explicit novels are cultured people in the upper classes: before and after their torture-laden orgies, they dine on sumptuous feasts, drink fine wine, wear beautiful 18th-century garments, and live in ornately decorated mansions. Sade’s satirical point in presenting his wicked characters in such finery was to allegorize the ruling class’s oppression of the people.

Alex is no aristocrat, but he has the narcissism of one. It shouldn’t be hard (pardon the expression) to know what he’s referring to in calling himself “Alexander the Large” (especially in the context of his raping the drunken ten-year-old “ptitsas” in his home while listening to Beethoven–page 39). As a pun on Alexander the Great, this moniker of Alex’s also embodies his egotism by comparing his assaults and rapes to the ancient Macedonian’s conquests and massacres. Alexander, ‘defender of men,’ defends individual freedom and culture by destroying those of other people; just as imperialism rationalizes its evil by claiming ‘to civilize the world.’

Alex has no illusions that what he’s doing is in any way moral, though. He knows his criminality is wrong; he does it anyway, because he enjoys it. Sade’s libertine characters also openly admit that they commit crimes, for criminal behaviour adds to their arousal. Deep down, we all like Alex because he dares to do what we’re too chicken to do.

We also have to consider Alex’s possible unconscious motives for committing heinous crimes. He’s obviously intelligent: why is he pressing his luck with the law? Even after Deltoid warns him that he’s getting dangerously close to being arrested (page 33), he still tempts fate…even to the point of antagonizing his fellow droogs (pages 25-27; 44-45), in whom he needs to have an unshakable trust. His wild rashness can’t just be reduced to youthful impetuosity.

Part of Alex’s unconscious is in conflict with his wish to be wild and free: part of him wants to be restricted. Recall Fromm’s analysis of the fear of freedom; people want a sense of structure, of where their place is in the world. Freedom from restrictions doesn’t often lead to a freedom to grow and fulfill one’s potential, to live in love and harmony with humanity. Freedom from, without the to following soon after, leaves a void.

Fascism and repression tend to fill that void. Fromm explains “the dialectic quality in this process of growing individuation. […] one side of the growing process of individuation is the growth of self-strength […] The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. […] When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, pages 28-29, his emphasis)

“We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.” (Fromm, pages 34-35)

Alex is smart enough to know that lashing out at his droogs will give the three of them motive for revenge. He’s been punished by the law before, though he’s “been out of the rookers of the millicents for a long time now” (Burgess, page 33); he has no reason to believe he’ll never get caught again, especially when he has to rely on three frienemies.

In prison, he has his structure, but no matter how much of the Bible he reads (which is just to be entertained by the violent parts), or how much advice he receives from the chaplain (Part Two, chapter 1), he still has no inclination to be good. In fact, Alex quickly tires of the physical restrictions he has around him, and mentally, he’s as free to be as wicked as ever; for prison overcrowding drives him to beat a new cellmate to death, or so is he blamed for it, anyway (Part Two, chapter 2). This, in the novel, is what causes him to be chosen to receive the Ludovico technique.

Despite what he says about wanting to be good (page 66), I’d say he only wants to change the nature of his restricted freedoms, from physical bonds to mental ones. So all of this switching from one kind of freedom/restriction dichotomy to another is just the sublation of the dialectical unity in opposition that Alex is trying to resolve.

Part of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction is how one man’s exercise of such ‘freedom’ (licence, really) is another man’s bondage…to suffering. Alex’s freedom to beat up or rape his victims becomes their bondage to trauma. One opposite offsets the other; thus, they’re balanced in the Brahman of universal oneness.

When Alex has had the treatment turn him into “a clockwork orange,” that is, organic and natural-looking on the outside, but mechanical and inhuman on the inside, making him an automaton incapable of moral choice, he gets a karmic exchanging of the victim/victimizer roles, of enjoyer of freedom vs. victim of traumatic bondage.

From here on, we get the antithesis of all that we had from the beginning, and the opposites are paralleled especially in the movie. Instead of Alex and his droogs beating up a derelict, the derelict and his “droogs,” if you will, beat up clockwork Alex. Instead of him dumping Dim and Georgie into water, they–as corrupt cops–dump him in water (in the novel, Dim and Billyboy are the police who brutalize him–Part 3, chapter 3). Karma.

Instead of Alex terrorizing the “writer of subversive literature” (F. Alexander [another ‘defender of men’], played by Patrick Magee, who–in an interesting twist of irony–played the Marquis de Sade in the film version of Marat/Sade several years earlier) in his “HOME” and destroying his ‘Clockwork Orange’ writing, F. Alexander–Alex’s doppelgänger–sadistically terrorizes the boy by playing Beethoven’s Ninth (in the novel, it’s “the Symphony Number Three of the Danish veck Otto Skadelig”–page 130) and forcing him to hear it in a locked-up room, after the Ludovico technique has conditioned him to feel sick whenever hearing his beloved music. Karma, karma, and more cruel karma.

Instead of unconsciously trying to have himself incarcerated, Alex consciously tries to liberate himself from the hell of life, “the tortures of the damned” (in the novel, he even goes to the library to research how to kill himself painlessly–page 112).

Finally, he’s hospitalized instead of imprisoned, given “the best of treatment” instead of exposed to the tolchocking of cellmates, and had the Ludovico conditioning removed from him instead of put into his body. The self-serving government that made his body a concentration camp for his mind now gives him a job in exchange for forgiving them, so they can hope to be reelected. He’s “cured all right.”

Though the film excluded chapter 21, which the American editions of the novel had also excised until 1986; in a way, the final scene–of Alex fantasizing giving his grinning, willing bride [as I suspect she is] “the old in-out, in-out” in front of applauding onlookers (who, dressed formally, seem like wedding guests to me)–is the implied ending of the final chapter.

Eighteen years old now, and with a new trio of droogs, Alex is inspired by a conversation he has with his old droog Pete and his new wife (pages 145-146), and decides it’s time to grow up and give up on the life of crime. He ought to settle down and get married, too. Will his future son become a criminal, though?

“That’s what it’s going to be then, brothers…”

However lame this final chapter may be to readers who prefer licking their lips over dystopian writing with darker endings, it does make an important point about freedom: in choosing to give up on crime on his own initiative, Alex is demonstrating Fromm’s ideal about freedom to; Alex is going to use his freedom from restrictions, physical and mental, to be free to become a good, productive member of society.

And this is the final sublation of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction: one freely chooses to restrict oneself from doing wrong to others. When I swing my fist, I stop myself from making it meet your face. Instead of a morally lax society that is too lenient on criminals, or one that’s repressively authoritarian, we have a society that understands the need to have a mix of freedoms and restrictions.

As Fromm explains, “submission is not the only way of avoiding aloneness and anxiety [resulting from excessive freedom]. The other way, the only one which is productive and does not end in an insoluble conflict, is that of spontaneous relationship to man  and nature, a relationship that connects the individual with the world without eliminating his individuality. This kind of relationship–the foremost expressions of which are love and productive work–are rooted in the integration and strength of the total personality and are therefore subject to the very limits that exist for the growth of the self.” (Fromm, page 29, his emphasis)

So, the individual still is an individual, but one connected with the world. Limits exist, but for the growth of the self. This is that mix of freedoms and restrictions, the final synthesis of freedom vs. bondage. One isn’t merely free from evil, but free to do good. One is an orange, but sweet on the inside.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, London, 1962

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

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Unscrupulous Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

Sam, played by Dooley Wilson.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

Signor Ferrari, played by Sidney Greenstreet.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Casablanca is a prison.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Crime doesn’t pay, Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre)…if you’re on the wrong side.

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt).

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.

Analysis of ‘Animals’

Animals is a 1977 concept album by Pink Floyd. It was all conceived by bassist Roger Waters, who not only wrote almost all the music as well as all the lyrics, but also sang most of the lead vocals (except for ‘Dogs,’ much of which was sung by guitarist David Gilmour, who also co-wrote the song), and even played much of the acoustic and rhythm guitar [with Gilmour playing bass on ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’ and ‘Sheep‘].

Here are the lyrics to all the songs on the album.

The album’s concept, with its dogs, pigs, and sheep, was loosely inspired by George Orwell‘s Animal Farm; but don’t expect this album to be a criticism of Marxism-Leninism. These dogs don’t represent Stalin‘s secret police; these pigs are not the Bolsheviks; and these sheep, while docile and unthinkingly obedient at first, eventually rise up and crush the real enemy of modern humanity–capitalism.

Again, as with my analysis of The Dark Side of the Moon, I’m writing this as a tribute to Roger Waters, and his principled stance against such current issues as what’s happening in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, Brazil, and now, Venezuela. Though not quite as radical a socialist as I’d prefer him to be, Waters is as opposed to the ruling class now as he was back in the 70s. His socialism is what justifies my doing a leftist analysis of Animals.

Since I wrote my analysis of Animal Farm, I’ve continued my transition away from staunch anarcho-communism and grown much more patient about when the withering away of the state should occur. Because of this change of heart, coupled with my sense of horror at what’s happened to the world since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, I’ve come to view Orwell’s novella in a much less positive light.

This change of heart has made me want to write of Animal Farm in a far more critical way, but without hassling to update my old post. (Remember, Dear Reader: if you want to know my current views on a subject, check the dates of my posts; my views evolve and change all the time, so if my newer posts contradict anything I said in the older ones, you should know which views to judge me by now.) So I’ll be critical of Orwell here, if indirectly.

Tankie readers, I give you my anti-Animal Farm!

The cover colour photo of Animals shows a pig balloon floating over the Battersea Power Station. Black and white photos on the inner sleeve show more of the power station, as well as a bigger image of the pig balloon, a gate, and barbed wire.

So instead of the private property of a farm, which in Orwell’s allegory becomes the so-called state capitalist property of the Stalinist pigs, we have the actual state capitalist property of the bourgeois UK government, whose pigs, gates, and barbed wire seem to say “Keep out!” (as the sign of an owner of private property would say) to the disenfranchised rest of us.

These images are ominous: though state-owned enterprises can be for the public good, they can also be privatized. The cover of Animals seems to be warning us of what will happen to such things as the welfare state if people like Thatcher are allowed to have their way…as, indeed, they eventually would, so many years following the release of the album. Don’t let pigs gain ascendancy over public services!

The ‘Pigs On the Wing‘ songs were written for Waters’s then just-married wife Carolyne Christie, though their message of love can easily be extended to a general sense of comradeship.

If we don’t care about each other, we’ll just “zig-zag our way,” that is, move about aimlessly, with no sense of direction. “The boredom and pain” of alienation and ennui will have us only “occasionally glancing up through the rain,” that is, rarely noticing the cause of our woes.

Note how irregular the rhythm of Waters’s acoustic guitar strumming gets at this point, ultimately switching from its 3+3+2 subdivision of (2 bars of ) 4/4 at the beginning to 3/4 at the end, when he sings of who the cause of our pain is: the “pigs on the wing,” who cause our irregularity, our zig-zagging.

The pigs are flying because they are the ugly beasts at the top of the political and economic ladder, like that pig balloon on the album cover. They’re also “on the wing” because the ideal they represent will come true when pigs fly.

…and what is that ideal? Not full communism, for recall, this album is the anti-Animal Farm. These pigs’ ideal is ‘free market’ capitalism, already championed in the mid-1970s by such people as Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, at the time the Leader of the Opposition. This ideal would quickly degenerate into the ugly reality of neoliberalism, the effects of which we’ve been suffering increasingly for the past forty years.

The dogs in Animal Farm, as I mentioned above, were the NKVD, whose excesses during the 1930s (unjust incarcerations and executions) are blamed on Stalin, but were largely the fault of Yagoda and Yezhov.

The dogs of Animals, however, are the dogs of capitalism, not communism. These bourgeois barkers are those of the middle and upper classes. Those who “can work on points of style, like the club tie, and the firm handshake” are clearly those of the upper classes, who “as [they] get older…in the end [they’ll] pack up and fly down south.” The rest of the lyrics can equally apply to all those from the lower-middle to upper classes.

Since the dogs of Animal Farm are understood to be the secret police of the proletarian state, the dogs of Animals can be seen to represent, at least in part, the police of the bourgeois state, loyal to their upper class masters to the point of fawning, while vicious to, and growling at, the working class.

The petite bourgeois, “when…on the street,” has “got to be able to pick out the easy meat,” that is, find good opportunities in his upwardly-mobile ambitions, and “strike when the moment is right without thinking.” Indeed, not thinking about the workers he’s exploiting. Then, if he’s one of the small minority of petite bourgeois who rise up the ranks of the rich, he “can work on points for style.”

The back-stabbing capitalist has “to be trusted by the people that [he lies] to.” These people include not only the masses of exploited workers, but also the traumatized veterans of imperialist wars, all those people deceived by the corporate media, and also the petite bourgeoisie, whose hopes for advancement are frustrated by the super-rich’s use of the state to keep down the competition. “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, p. 929) Capitalism is a dog eat dog world.

It’s significant that musically, the whole song has a sad tone to it, for the rule of the bourgeois makes sadness, depression, and alienation all epidemic problems. Gilmour’s harmonized guitar leads imitate the sad howling of lonely dogs, who symbolize the alienated people of all classes.

You could be a worker, a petite bourgeois, a cop, or a billionaire, and “it’s going to get harder…as you get older.” And while you may be rich enough to afford to “pack up and fly down south,” your wealth won’t save you from having to suffer what so many of the rest of us suffer, to “hide your head in the sand, just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.”

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall results in financial crises when the capitalist will “lose control” and “reap the harvest [he has] sown.” One day, the crisis will be too great to recover from, and it will be “too late to lose the weight [he] used to throw around. So, have a good drown,” bourgeoisie, “as you go down all alone, dragged down by the stone.” That stone dragging down the self-destructing, suicidal bourgeoisie is tied to the same dialectical wheel that ended feudalism; that echoing “stone, stone, stone,…” symbolizes the cyclical turning of that wheel.

Gilmour has sung so far; now, Waters takes over the lead vocals. He is singing in the voice of one beginning to develop class consciousness, for he’s “confused,” sensing he’s “just being used.” He has to “shake off this creeping malaise” of alienation, and “find [his] way out of this maze,” the base and superstructure created by the ruling class.

He tells all those without class consciousness that they are “deaf, dumb, and blind…pretending that everyone’s expendable, and no one has a real friend.” The pro-capitalist dogs of class war, regardless of their social class or occupation (businessman, cop, soldier), justify their defence of society’s class structure, for they “believe at heart everyone’s a killer.”

The pro-capitalist has this cynical view of the world because he “was born in a house full of pain,…was told what to do by the man,…was broken by trained personnel, [and]…was fitted with collar and chain,” for he’s been a good, obedient dog who never questioned his indoctrination that there is no alternative. As a result, he “was only a stranger at home,” for that’s how deep worker alienation cuts.

And when the capitalist mode of production finally collapses under its own contradictions, the obedient dogs of the bourgeoisie will be “dragged down by the stone” with their masters.

“Pigs (Three Different Ones)” takes on three political influences in England that Waters had, and still has, no love for.

It’s hard to know specifically who Waters had in mind for the first one, a “big man, pig man, ha-ha, charade you are.” As a pig, he’s a politician, by reference to the Bolshevik pigs in Animal Farm; but since this is Waters’s anti-capitalist allegory, and since he’s probably thinking about a 1970s British politician, it’s safe to assume he’s thinking about a right-winger.

Allied to the above is the notion of ‘war pigs,’ an expression that, by the late 70s, was already popularized by the Black Sabbath song. So I’ll venture to guess that, whoever this pig was, he was probably hawkish and imperialistic, hoping to get his filthy hands on the natural resources of an exploited Third World country, hence the pig’s “digging.” “What do you hope to find?” Waters asks, “down in the pig mine.”

The second pig seems to be Margaret Thatcher, who at the time of Animals‘ release wasn’t yet prime minister, but who as Leader of the Opposition was already up to no good. We often think of the rise of neoliberalism as something that began in the 1980s, with her and Reagan; but the precursors of it were already going on in a big way from the mid-70s, after the oil crisis caused many to consider Keynesian economics to have run its course.

The influence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys was already felt in Chile, after the September 11th 1973 coup replaced democratically-elected Salvador Allende with authoritarian dictator Augusto Pinochet. A popular myth claims that the “free market” policies of Pinochet‘s regime revived the Chilean economy, but the only beneficiaries were the ruling class. Their benefit, nonetheless, was enough to encourage ideologues like Thatcher to apply “free market” capitalism to the UK and the rest of the world.

In making Animals, Waters was being prescient in a way I’m sure that today, with neoliberalism having metastasized into a global evil, he would wish he’d gotten horribly wrong.

Many, if not most people, in the UK and around the world would agree that Thatcher was a “fucked up old hag.” As one who wanted to maximize privatization, she is aptly described in the song as a “bus stop [i.e., stop the progressive movement of public services] rat bag” [i.e., the filth and squalor that results from ending those public services]. She radiated “cold shafts of broken glass,” and she did “like the feel of steel” (the term Iron Lady was already being used for her).

Like the first pig, she was “good fun with a hand gun,” for she would soon prove to be an imperialist, too; also, she’s “nearly a laugh, but…really a cry”: we should be laughing at clowns like her, but what they do is so hurtful, we can only cry. The surprise in how these ideologues’ asininity actually hurts is felt in the brief switch from 4/4 to one bar of 3/4 on hearing Waters sing “cry,” then back to 4/4.

The third pig was Mary Whitehouse, an old prude who protested against the growing permissiveness of British society. Again, her wish to restore a repressive sexual morality would have been laughable if not for her later political alliances with highly-placed conservatives like Thatcher. The ruling class wants to control us in every way, including our sexuality.

Today, however, the ruling class controls our desires in the opposite way, by overindulging us through the media and markets, so we’ll be too distracted to think critically about the system we’re all stuck in. Recall my use of the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationship of opposites: as regards sexuality, the serpent’s biting head of repression (Whitehouse) shifts over to its opposite, the bitten tail of such things as addiction to internet porn, strippers, prostitutes, etc. We think about fucking, so we won’t think about how we’re all being fucked.

“Do you feel abused?” Waters taunts Whitehouse, then pants lewdly into the microphone, as if watching a porno. She’d have us “keep it all on the inside.” She’s “nearly a treat,” another sexual taunt at her priggishness, but she, like Thatcher et al, is “really a cry.”

Nick Mason punctuates the beat in this song by hitting a cowbell, an ironic allusion to the cows in Animal Farm, and perhaps another jab at Thatcher and Whitehouse. In the middle section, Richard Wright plays a hypnotic melody on the organ, later adding a synth to it: B-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-B-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-C-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-C-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G…,” etc., suggesting the way these politicians hypnotize us all into going along with their agendas.

Switching roles, lead guitarist Gilmour plays sad bass licks over the sad E minor/C major progression that bassist Waters strums on the rhythm guitar (with a delay effect), and with Wright’s mesmerizing keyboard melody. Elsewhere, Gilmour uses a talk box to imitate pigs’ oinks and grunts as he plays lead guitar licks. It’s so sad being mesmerized by political pigs.

Waters’s “Sheep” aren’t the usual passive type, at least not by the end of the song. They’re like the rebelling animals at the end of the CIA-financed cartoon version of Animal Farm, which was an egregious bit of anti-Soviet propaganda going even further than Orwell had intended. Thus, the irony of this anti-capitalist song, when compared with that cartoon, is a masterstroke for Waters.

At first, the sheep are like most of us, “only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air.” We all suffer the discontents of neoliberalism, but many of us still think that either voting Trump out of office, or pushing for still more “free market” deregulation, or voting in Labour in the UK, or voting in anybody, in and of itself will solve the problem. “You better watch out! There may be dogs about.” Remember to be careful not to let slip the dogs of class war.

Waters has looked over the Jordan River, and instead of seeing the band of angels coming for to carry the evangelical Christian Zionists home, he’s seen the oppression of the Palestinians. This is “what…you get for pretending the danger’s not real.”

When, “meek and obedient, you follow the leader…into the valley of steel”–the steel of the Iron Lady who helped bring about the neoliberalism that has resulted in an epidemic of homelessness in the UK, San Francisco, and elsewhere–you finally have “terminal shock in your eyes,” and you realize that “this is no bad dream.”

Waters warned us about people like Thatcher decades ago. In allowing May‘s ascendancy, we proved we never heeded this warning. The scraping on the dubbed strings of Waters’s rhythm guitar suggests that “terminal shock.”

In the midsection of the song, we hear a bassline and some keyboard harmonizing (based on a D diminished seventh chord) that seem inspired by the Doctor Who theme. Do we need The Doctor to intervene and wake us complacent sheep up?

Also during this section of the song, we hear Waters speaking through a vocoder and parodying Psalm 23, indicating that Church authoritarianism has been used to help the ruling class, that is, people like Whitehouse helping people like Thatcher. Is The Doctor one of those sons of God who, in consorting with the daughters of man, will do the forbidden mixing of the human and divine worlds (symbolic language for sharing the power of the wealthy with the poor), and thus give us the strength to revolt against the ruling class?

The rich would naturally see such a development as a great evil; for when the revolution comes, and we erstwhile timid sheep have fallen “on [the bourgeois’s] neck with a scream,” we “wave upon wave of demented avengers” will have finally replaced the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat.

Then, when “the [capitalist] dogs are dead,” and any petite bourgeois puppies hope to revive the profit motive, we’ll warn them to “stay home and do as you’re told,” for the workers will have power over the rich…for a change. The surviving bourgeois wannabes will have to “get out of the road if [they] want to grow old.”

The song ends with Gilmour strumming triumphant chords high up the guitar neck in the key of E major, then over background progressions of D major and E major (with a bass pedal point in octaves of E), and also E major and A major.

“Pigs on the Wing, Part Two” reaffirms that we care for each other, now that we’ve defeated the capitalists and done away with the attendant alienation. We thus “don’t feel alone, or the weight of the stone.”

Waters also acknowledges that he’s a dog himself, as a wealthy member of a successful 70s band…and as the then-spouse of a British aristocrat! (He thus seems, as a critic of capitalism, to be acknowledging his ‘canine nature’ in anticipation of the old tu quoque retort.)

To be fair, though, we all need a home, even the bourgeois; accordingly, socialists strive to provide homes for everyone. “A shelter from pigs on the wing,” those dangerous ideologues who try to charm us with the empty promises of the “free market,” promises that will come true only when pigs grow wings.

Analysis of ‘The Power and the Glory’

The Power and the Glory is a political concept album recorded in 1974 by British progressive rock band Gentle Giant. While the eccentric, complex (by prog standards!), and dissonant music of this band, for obvious reasons, never resulted in widespread commercial success for them, this album–despite being one of their most dissonant–was an attempt, on some level, to expand their audience in the US.

Sherman Hemsley, having been an accomplished musician himself, was a fan of progressive rock; on Dinah Shore‘s TV show, Dinah!, he apparently danced to ‘Proclamation,’ the rather funky first track on the album. If anyone out there has footage of this holy TV moment, I would be eternally grateful if he or she could present me with video of it.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album, including those for the bonus title track. The songs tell the story of a politician who, at first, seems to want to help the people, but then gets mired in the corrupt system and ends up the very kind of politician he was supposed to be trying to cure the system of…an all-too-familiar problem, making the album as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago.

The studio version of ‘Proclamation’ begins with a roaring crowd of supporters of the rising politician, unnamed because…really…he or she could be anyone, past, present, or future. Then we hear multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear playing a jaunty tune on an electric piano, typically idiosyncratic Gentle Giant. This quirky jauntiness suggests the shaky hope we feel that the politician will deliver on his promises.

Singer Derek Shulman comes in on the off-beat (or at least what feels like the off-beat, at the beginning of the studio version of the song), an example of Gentle Giant’s typical trickiness, but also a suggestion that we already have little reason to trust the tricky politician’s promises to cure the ailing nation.

“You may not have all you want or you need.” May not? Of course we don’t! Politicians, conservative or liberal, always ensure the imperialist, class structure of society while making empty promises of change, for the sole purpose of appeasing the masses and stopping them from revolting.

“All that you have has been due to my hand.” What do we have that’s come from you? Empty promises? Blind hopes? Not what we genuinely need.

“It can change. It can stay the same./Who can say, who can make their claim?” The situation can change only through revolution; voting will keep it the same, with only the outer appearance of change. That’s my claim, for what it’s worth.

“The situation we are in at this time/Neither a good one, nor is it so unblest.” The politician must acknowledge the discontents of the people, yet from his privileged point of view, it isn’t so bad, either. Hence, all he has to make are some cosmetic changes to satisfy the herd, while leaving the same basic structure intact.

“Hail!” the crowd of mindless supporters shouts.

“Unity’s strength and all must be as one.” Solidarity and oneness are what we want, but “confidence in you, hope will reflect in me.” Mr. Politician, you have not yet earned our confidence, nor should we hope too much from you. “You are my people,” the politician says, putting on the charm, but that “there must be no change” is a hint that he has no intention of curing any of our societal, economic, and political ills. This is what he “will say,” this is how he “will make [his] claim.”

Still, the mindless rabble listens uncritically, chanting “Hail!”

The music gets increasingly discordant in the middle section, especially with Minnear’s organ, culminating in “Hail to the power, and to glory’s way!” The loud, dissonant chords emphasize the evil that inevitably results from the kind of blind nationalism and chauvinism that is too often inspired by manipulative demagogues, who lead the masses by the nose.

Next, we hear harmonic resolution (relatively speaking, of course: this is Gentle Giant, after all) behind the words “day by day,” which is repeated under an electric piano in the bass, bitonal in relation to the fading-out singing and organ. This bitonality suggests the two-faced nature of politicians, as well as the discordance between, on the one side, the lying politician, and on the other, the gullible public.

The next part uses a technique frequently used by Gentle Giant, one called hocketing, only with the instruments here rather than voices, so it is rather like Klangfarbenmelodie. It reassembles the fragments of the opening jaunty tune played on the electric piano, yet this time played not only on that keyboard, but also on organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and a high-hat on John Weathers‘s drum kit. This need to reassemble the parts suggests an attempt to heal the collective wounds of the nation…and yet, we end up right back where we started. The song fades out with the roaring crowd again.

The studio version of ‘So Sincere‘ opens with a dissonant counterpoint played by Derek Shulman on sax, his brother Ray on violin, and Minnear plucking pizzicatos on a cello. This dissonance makes it clear that we should note the utter sarcasm in saying politicians’ words are “so sincere.”

“Hear, he’ll do it all for you,” sings Minnear…and so the insincerity begins. “Wise, and knowing what to do.” Knowing what to do…for whose benefit?

“And every word is…” Wait for the punchline…”Lies.”

“He only tells the truth…Means, not anything he says…” Later, “Wrong, he makes his promise right.” Note the proliferation of contradictions: lies/truth, yes/no, wrong/right, full/empty, good/bad. Corrupt politicians confuse us with their contradictory speech, denying what they said earlier, which they now contradict, and never resolving class contradictions–they only perpetuate those…and if you don’t watch carefully, “You’ll never know why.”

The dissonance comes to a head in the chorus, with Derek singing, “So sin-cere!” and ending with the deliberate pun, “So sin.”

Now, the guile and cunning of politicians are one thing, but there’s another side to this problem–the credulity of the public who listen to their revered leader’s bullshit, hoping that finally, this new one is going to make everything right. This is the subject of ‘Aspirations,’ sung by Minnear as he plays the electric piano.

This is probably my favourite song on the whole album, for in this one we can feel the pain and hopes of the people for a better world, sung in a sympathetic melody. “See our dreams all coming true, it depends on you.” (Not if “you” is your average politician.)

The followers already have some vague sense that their faith is “aimless blind,” yet they hope all the same that their new leader’s claims are “really so sincere.” They hope he can “be our guide,” even after they’ve been disappointed so many times before. They never learn. “Make us strong, build our unity, all men as one, it is all in you.” Seriously? All in one man?

“Hopes, dreams, hopes, dreaming that all our sorrows gone…” Apart from noting how ungrammatical this line sounds, I can’t help hearing, “go on,” rather than “gone,” suggesting an unconscious Freudian slip, revealing the death drive behind all these foolish “hopes [and] dreams.”

Playing the Game‘ is interesting when heard juxtaposed with a viewing of the album cover: vying for political power is like a card game–part luck, part strategy, all about trying to win as big a portion of the pot as possible.

Minnear’s marimba opening of the studio version of the song was replaced in live performance by Derek’s strumming a “Shulberry,” a kind of electric ukulele with three strings. Furthermore, instead of playing a violin as he did in the studio version, Ray played a second electric guitar in concert.

The politician has “the key to the back door” of his secret connections, his “hand touching bounds never had before.” He has power for the first time in his life…and he likes it. His games are all “won before they’re played for,” and “no opposition can stage a fight.” He’ll “never, ever lose” at the game of politics.

Corruption no longer seems ugly when it benefits you, with your “thoughts never spoken,” your “silent words left unsaid.” Because of the success that corruption allows you to cheat at getting, the music of the song is upbeat.

The politician may be content, but the masses have finally caught on, and they are furious, as we hear in “Cogs In Cogs,” which opens with intricate counterpoint in Minnear’s keyboards, Ray’s bass, and Green’s guitar, played in alternating 6/8 and 9/8 time. Next, we hear a tricky riff with a bar of 6/8, then one in 4/16; then there’s a brief riff in 9/16, then another brief riff in 7/8 before Derek comes in singing. This structural complexity symbolizes the trickiness of politicians’ unending deceit.

Derek’s voice, loud and aggressive, unlike Minnear’s soft and gentle singing, is apt for a song about the “anger and the rising murmur” of the people over the politician’s every “empty promise.”

“Cogs in cogs” is a vivid image to describe the revolving cycles of hope and disappointment felt with each new politician voted into office. The anger, accompanying disillusionment over the latest in a line of corrupt politicians, should be the thing that “breaks the old circle,” but the cycle soon begins turning again, “the wheel slowly turns around.”

“The air is sour with discontent,” but we never learn; for after this current politician is reviled and removed, a new one comes along to raise our hopes, then disappoint us once again. “The circle turns around, the changing voices calling…” Derek’s overdubbed voice in the studio version, during the bridge (a section played instrumentally live), sings these words over and over again, reflecting this unchanging cyclical reality of hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment…

No God’s a Man‘ expresses more of the sadness and disillusion than the anger felt when realizing the politician is like all the others. Our idealized politician, a “god,” is never the reality, just a man. Hear the sadness in Ray’s and Green’s acoustic guitar doubling; hear it in Green’s bluesy electric guitar licks in the middle of the song, a style that is natural for him to play.

The singing of the first two verses, harmonizing in independent voices (Derek, Minnear, Ray, Green, and Weathers), in a style reminiscent of Renaissance vocal polyphony (a singing technique frequently heard in Gentle Giant’s music), suggests the clamour of disappointed people who, frowning at the face of the corrupt politician, are “now telling him to go.”

The music grows dissonant again in ‘The Face,’ which focuses on the corrupt nature of politics, and how one tries to hold on to power in spite of waning popularity. When the politician’s face is showing, he tries to put his mask back on. “Hide your mask, show the face that is sorry.”

Normally, Gentle Giant’s use of dissonance is more subtle, hidden in the counterpoint; not blatant and obvious, as it is in King Crimson (e.g., the chaotic ending of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ or Keith Tippett‘s piano cluster chords in ‘Cat Food‘) or in Frank Zappa’s modernist orchestral music (e.g., the 200 Motels soundtrack).

In ‘The Face,’ Gentle Giant is blatantly dissonant, too, particularly with Ray’s grating electric violin solo. This dissonance is, again, suggestive of class conflict, between the greed in the leaders and the wishes of the people.

Valedictory‘ is a hard rock variation on themes played more jauntily in ‘Proclamation.’ We’ve come full circle (as in ‘cogs in cogs’), and while the corrupt politician is doing all he can in terms of damage control after all the scandals have exposed him, we know “things must stay, there must be no change.” We’ve come back to the beginning…again.

We start looking for another idealized politician we can follow blindly: “time to rearrange.” The dissonant keyboard music in 5/4 that we heard in the middle of ‘Proclamation’ is heard again (on Green’s guitar and Minnear’s synthesizer), descending chromatic notes that come round and round in circles, culminating, at the end of the song, in a cry of “Hail!…”

…then the tape speeds up and spins out of control, bringing the album to an abrupt end, and implying that nothing’s been learned…

No, nothing at all. (Oops, wrong album.)

But that’s the whole point of the album. We never learn. Will we ever?

Politicians on both sides of the mainstream political fence have made big promises, then disappointed us. This is true of leaders in the remote past, the recent past, and…I prophesy with utmost confidence…the future.

Voting and reform do nothing to change the system, for it was never meant to change anything. It keeps the same class structure intact and placates the masses, with liberals throwing a few bones to the poor to prevent revolution; with conservatives hypocritically preaching about the need to cut costs…while they spend wildly on the military; and with fascists stomping on us with their jackboots if we dare to…dare I say it?…start a revolution.

“Anger and the rising murmur breaks the old circle” [my emphasis]

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

The Persians is a historical tragedy Aeschylus wrote, and which won first prize in the dramatic competitions in 472 BCE. It is his earliest surviving play, and the only one we have of his based on historical sources, rather than on Greek myth. It tells the story of Xerxes‘ disastrous invasion of Greece, Persia’s second humiliating defeat after the failed attempt by his father, Darius I, to invade Greece.

The translation I’ll be basing this analysis on is a brand new one by Mark Will, which can be found here on Amazon. It’s a literal translation that comes as close as possible to paralleling the poetry of the original Greek. It also includes an excellent introduction that not only explains the historical background of the play, but also, in a timely way, relates imperial Persia’s losses to contemporary concerns, making it a kind of cautionary tale about what the US’s current imperialist excesses will most likely lead to.

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

“Oh, wretched me, having met/this loathsome, obscure fate/because a demon savage-mindedly trod upon/the Persian race!” –Xerxes, beginning of Episode 4, page 68, lines 909-912

“My son found sharp the vengeance/of famous Athens, for they did not suffice,/the barbarians whom Marathon destroyed before./Intending to make retribution for them, my son/has caused so great a plethora of calamities.” —Atossa, Episode 1, page 45, lines 473-477

“Groan and mourn,/cry heavy and/heavenly distress!/Strain the sadly wailing,/clamorous, wretched voice!

“Torn by the whirlpool,/they are mangled by the voiceless,/by the children of the undefiled sea!

“And the deprived house mourns/the man of the family, and childless fathers/are demonized by distress,/and old men bewailing/everything perceive pain.” –Chorus, Choral Ode 2, page 49, lines 571-583

Structurally, the play can be divided into four parts: 1) premonitions and fears for the Persian army, as felt by the Chorus of Persian Elders and by Atossa, Darius’ widow queen and King Xerxes’ mother; 2) the calamity of the Persian army’s defeat at the Battle of Salamis, as told by a messenger; 3) the Ghost of Darius’ report of further Persian woe, and counsel not to attempt an invasion of Greece again [lines 790-792]; and 4) Xerxes’ despair when he returns to Susa, his clothes in tatters.

[Bear in mind that my four-way division of the play differs from Will’s, whose Episode 1 combines my parts one and two, as described in the previous paragraph, and his Episode 2 is a speech by Atossa, just before his Episode 3 and my part three, with Darius’ ghost. Each of his Episodes is preceded by a Choral Ode, with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes; whereas I’m dividing the play in terms of thematic contrasts I’ve seen.]

The choral poetry comments on the fortunes of the Persian empire, past and present. We hear of the great glories of Persia’s imperial past, her conquest of Ionia, and the achievements of Darius the Great (Choral Ode 4, pages 66-67).

While it’s more typical in Greek tragedy to start the play with a hubristic character who experiences a sudden reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and a realization (anagnorisis) of some terrible truth, both of these elements propelling the action towards tragedy (e.g., a fall of pride); there seems to be very little of such contrast in The Persians. The flowing of the plot, from beginning to end, seems a sea of undifferentiated sorrow.

Xerxes’ hubris is felt offstage, while he’s creating the pontoon bridges for his army to cross the Hellespont (lines 65-72; also lines 743-750), and when his troops commit sacrilege (lines 809-812) by destroying the images of Greek gods at their temples. This hubris is described by the characters in Susa, where the whole play takes place. Instead of seeing a boastful king, we hear the Chorus expressing their fears, for the Persian army, who at the beginning of the play (lines 8-15, 107-139) have not sent any reports on the progress of the invasion. The Chorus’ pride is only in Persia’s past.

This fear morphs into sorrow from the messenger’s report; then further sorrow from what Darius’ ghost knows of the army’s other misfortunes, coupled with his not-so-comforting advice not to invade Greece again; and finally despairing sorrow on shamed Xerxes’ return. Fear, woe, more woe, and the worst. The whole play is a continuous descent into sadness.

As I’ve said above, Mark Will parallels this Persian woe to the predicted fate of the US’s near future, with–as I would add–the ascent of China and Russia as against American imperialist overreach, with its absurd military overspending and over trillion-dollar debt, a ticking time bomb that will destroy the US sooner than the military-industrial complex expects. Will also asks us to use this play to help us sympathize with Iran (Translator’s Preface, page 11), the modern Persia threatened with invasion from, ironically, the American Persia of today.

While I affirm Mark Will’s parallels to contemporary events as perfectly true and legitimate, I see another parallel between The Persians and the recent past: the decline in Persian might, and its military humiliations, can be compared to those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamartia in political leaders should be understood as a warning to them that “missing the mark” can lead to political catastrophes for the nation. Xerxes’ foolish overconfidence in his army and navy leads to missteps and his huge losses. This missing the mark is easily seen in the military misadventures of the US over the past twenty years, as Will observes. I’d say that a missing of the mark (quite an understatement, given the growing treason in the USSR, especially from Khrushchev onwards) is also attributable to Gorbachev‘s mismanagement of Soviet affairs.

A series of woes befell the USSR that parallel those of Xerxes and his army. The US lured the USSR into a war with Afghanistan, a war that was a major factor in the weakening of the socialist state (this is rather like Xerxes being manipulated into planning “this voyage and campaign against Hellas” by “evil men” [lines 753-758]). The USSR’s loss against the mujahideen, who were proxy warriors (including Bin Laden) for the US, was a humiliating defeat comparable to that of Xerxes.

Furthermore, Xerxes’ listening to the Greeks’ plans to flee at night, and taking them at their word (lines 355-371), is comparable to Gorbachev thinking he could negotiate with the US and NATO over whether to open up the Soviet economy to the West, and to allow the reunification of Germany, breaking down the anti-fascist protection Wall. Xerxes’ gullibility caused his humiliating loss at Salamis, as Gorbachev’s caused not only the USSR’s dissolution, but also the eastward advance of NATO.

The Persian loss is considered a momentous turn of events in Western history; for if the Persians had won, the West, some argue, would likely have been inundated with Persian, rather than Greek, culture. Their loss is assumed to have been a good thing, with Greek democracy triumphing over Persian despotism. Certainly Hegel thought so in his Philosophy of History:

“The World-Historical contact of the Greeks was with the Persians; in that, Greece exhibited itself in its most glorious aspect…In the case before us, the interest of the World’s History hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism–a world united under one lord and sovereign–on the one side, and separate states–insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality–on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in History has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk–and that of no contemptible amount–been made so gloriously manifest.” (Hegel, pages 256-258)

On closer inspection, however, it can be argued that the Persians under the Achaemenid Dynasty were closer to real democracy than the Greeks. Achaemenid-era Persians had far fewer slaves than Greeks, and Persian women enjoyed far better rights than their Greek counterparts.

This point is especially salient when we parallel it with the propagandistic portrayal of American “democracy,” with its history of racism, slavery, genocide of Native Americans, income inequality, and mass incarceration, as against the USSR‘s having considerably fewer of these evils. Certainly, Paul Robeson felt far more at home in the USSR than in his native US.

Paralleled with the end of Persian hegemony over the region, and thus the liberation of Greece, is the notion that the USSR’s dissolution meant the triumph of American capitalist democracy and “the end of history.” Consider how the rise of neoliberalism under the Clintons, coupled with the near ubiquity of American imperialist war, have shown the lie of this democracy.

With the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty came the rise of Alexander the Great, whose imperialism–justified as a spreading of Greek culture and civilization to the barbarians of the East–parallels American neoconservative arrogance.

The Ghost of Darius advising the Persians not to invade Greece again seems to me like the ghost of Stalin wishing to advise the Soviets of the 1980s to revert to Socialism in One Country, rather than attempt to bring it about in other countries like Afghanistan.

The Messenger, by his own admission, describes only a fraction of the misfortunes that have befallen the Persian army and navy. Though they outnumbered the Greeks, they’ve been mostly destroyed. Most of the survivors have perished on their journey back home, through hunger or thirst (lines 482-491).

Darius’ Ghost also informs the Chorus and Atossa of newer woes. This piling up of one misfortune after another is, on the one hand, a warning of the karmic future of US imperialist overreach, as Will maintains; but on the other hand, as I am arguing, this accumulation of woe is also something that can be paralleled with the growing suffering in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

The US and NATO were scheming at how they could bring about the USSR’s downfall. There were shortages of food, which was Gorbachev‘s responsibility. Through the establishment of “free market” economic policies, the traitors in the Russian government privatized and seized state-owned assets, and removed the Soviet social safety net, throwing millions of Russians into poverty and starvation, and allowing the ascendance of Russian oligarchs; and when the people tried to bring back socialism, not only did the US’s puppet, Yeltsin, use violence to stop them, but the US also helped Russia’s extremely unpopular leader get reelected in 1996.

Some have called the suffering of Russians in the 1990s an “economic genocide.” This woe after woe after woe is easily paralleled with Persian suffering in the play. Russians have consistently, in poll after poll, regretted the end of the Soviet system, especially recently. Apart from the lost social services, Russians are nostalgic of when their country was once a great world power; as the Chorus, in their lamentations, reminisce of Persia in Choral Ode 4. Putin is well-known for having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

So when we get to Xerxes’ return to Susa, with his clothes in tatters, we see the final amalgamation of Persian suffering and despair. Back and forth between him and the Chorus, we hear “Ototototoi!” [Philip Vellacott, page 151], “Ay, ay!” [Will, page 76], and “Woe!” during their exodos from the stage. This quick cutting back and forth of brief one-liners, as opposed to the long speeches heard before, symbolically suggests the psychological fragmentation and disintegration each Persian is experiencing.

We may wonder what the ancient Greek response was to Xerxes’ humiliation. For many, it must have been Schadenfreude to see their oppressors finally brought so low, knowing it really happened: remember Xerxes’ words, line 1034, “Distressing, but a joy to our enemies.” (page 76) Similarly, many on the left, including American socialists, are eagerly awaiting the downfall of the American empire, which some experts say may happen by the 2030s.

There’s also a sympathetic reading of the play, though, in which one pities the Persians; and after all, the whole point of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror, as well as to bring about the catharsis of those emotions. At least some Greeks in the audience must have felt that pity for Xerxes and Atossa, or else how could the play have won first prize in 472 BCE?

Certainly, we leftists can pity the Russians, who lost their great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither I nor many leftists agree with Reagan’s projection that the USSR was an “evil empire”; though Maoists, during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, thought it was an empire. I see the USSR rather as a check against imperialism, though a flawed one.

In the end, we can see my paralleling of the play with modern problems, in a dialectical sense, with Will’s paralleling. And his thesis, with my negation, can undergo a sublation to give a deeper message about US imperialism: it destroys any attempts to end its evil, causing oceans of woe; then it will destroy itself, bringing karmic woe on itself.

Evil empire, indeed.

Aeschylus, Persians, a new translation by Mark Will, Cadmus and Harmony Media, 2018