Some Preliminary Thoughts on ‘Joker’

Arthur Fleck is my hero.

Sorry, I’m a bit of a joker sometimes…HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!

I finally got around to seeing Joker today. Wow! What a powerful film. Though set in the early 1980s, it’s as relevant to today’s times as any movie can be. Indeed, it’s the first Hollywood movie in a long time (to my knowledge, at least) that has genuine balls.

Contrary to what some of the knuckleheads in the mainstream media have either said or implied, Joker very much has a message. And no, that message is not for sexually frustrated, right-wing men to go out doing mass shootings. The film’s message is firmly left-wing: all out war against the bourgeoisie, and that’s what the ruling class–for whom the mainstream media works–feels truly threatened about.

No, I’m not advocating everyone wearing clown masks going on mass murder rampages, and busting things up. I believe in an organized, well-planned revolution that will result in giving people like Arthur Fleck what they need: decent medical and psychiatric care, guaranteed employment, etc. In short, I seek to eliminate the class system that deprives the have-nots, and which causes the alienation that causes so much of Fleck’s suffering.

I can’t do a proper analysis of this film until it comes out on DVD; then I can watch it twenty to thirty times or so, and savour every detail of this masterpiece, mining it for themes and symbolism. Until then, these preliminary remarks will have to do: after all, so much has already been said about the film in newspaper articles and videos.

Go see the film if you haven’t yet…no, chances are, you won’t become a murderer.

Analysis of ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Reservoir Dogs is a 1992 crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, and Lawrence Tierney. A neo-noir film, it is to a large extent inspired by The Killing by Stanley Kubrick.

With Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs helped cement Tarantino’s reputation as a fresh, new talent. This is especially so with respect to his scriptwriting, given its rapid-fire dialogue–that is, the pornographic profanity, the breaking of politically-correct taboos (i.e., Tarantino’s fetishizing of such slurs as “nigger”), as well as the embracing of gratuitous violence, and the plethora of pop culture references.

Here are some quotes:

“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.” –Mr. Brown (Tarantino)

“Shit, you shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” –Mr. White (Keitel)

*************

Nice Guy Eddie (Penn): C’mon, throw in a buck!

Mr. Pink (Buscemi): Uh-uh, I don’t tip.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t tip?

Mr. Pink: I don’t believe in it.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t believe in tipping?

*************

Mr. Blonde (Madsen): Nobody’s going anywhere.

Mr. White[about Mr. Blonde] Piss on this fucking turd! [To Mr. Pink] We’re outta here.

Mr. Blonde: Don’t take another step, Mr. White.

Mr. White[screams] Fuck you maniac! It’s your fuckin’ fault we’re in so much trouble.

Mr. Blonde[calmly to Mr. Pink] What’s this guy’s problem?

Mr. White: What’s my problem? Yeah, I gotta problem. I gotta big fuckin’ problem with any trigger-happy madman who almost gets me shot!

Mr. Blonde: What the fuck are you talking about?

Mr. White: That fucking shooting spree in the store, remember?

Mr. Blonde[shrugs] Fuck ’em. They set off the alarm. They deserved what they got.

Mr. White: You almost killed me! ASSHOLE! If I had any idea what type of guy you were, I never would’ve agreed to work with you.

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?

Mr. White: What was that? I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Would you repeat it?

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite? [throws away his drink]

*************

Joe (Tierney): Here are your names… [pointing to each respective member] Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink: Why am I Mr. Pink?

Joe: Because, you’re a faggot, alright?! [Mr. Brown laughs]

*************

Mr. Brown: Yeah, but Mr. Brown? That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.

Mr. Pink: Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy.

*************

“I’m hungry. Let’s get a taco.” –Mr. White, to Mr. Orange

“The man you just killed was just released from prison. He got caught at a company warehouse full of hot items. He could’ve fuckin’ walked. All he had to do was say my dad’s name, but he didn’t; he kept his fucking mouth shut. And did his fuckin’ time, and he did it like a man. He did four years for us. So, Mr. Orange, you’re tellin’ me this very good friend of mine, who did four years for my father, who in four years never made a deal, no matter what they dangled in front of him, you’re telling me that now, that now this man is free, and we’re making good on our commitment to him, he’s just gonna decide, out of the fucking blue, to rip us off? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?” –‘Nice Guy’ Eddie, about Mr. Blonde

I see this film as an allegory of the contradictions between different facets of capitalism, similar to my analysis of The French Connection. The LAPD cops represent the state-regulated version of capitalism; and Joe Cabot, his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie, and the six men hired to rob a jewelry store of diamonds, represent the deregulated, “free market” version. Both groups are after a coveted commodity, and both groups use violence to get it. Recall that I see the mafia (criminal businesses) as symbolic of capitalism, and the police, of course, protect the bourgeois state.

The story takes place in the early 1990s, around the time of the dissolution of the USSR (not that Tarantino, filming in 1991, would likely have known that that dissolution was coming, of course, but it’s still an interesting coincidence). Pop culture references are made to music from the 1970s (i.e., the nostalgic K-Billy [KBLY] radio station) and the 1980s (Madonna songs), as well as to 60s and 70s movies (with Lee Marvin and Pam Grier) and TV shows (Get Christie Love! and Baretta). The 70s and 80s were a time when regulated capitalism in the US was beginning to cede to the “free market.” Nostalgia going as far back as the 60s suggests a desire to go back to a happier time.

Along with this symbolism of the economic shift to the right is a cultural shift in that direction, heard in the characters’ casually racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is described by Mr. Brown exclusively in terms of macho phallicism, when the actual metaphor for the song is the hymen (or rather, the simile for the song is virgin). Madonna herself wrote to Tarantino in response to his amusing, but ultimately wrong, interpretation of her song: “Quentin, it’s about love, not dick.” While it’s certainly entertaining hearing Brown talk about how the “fuck-machine” apparently felt vaginal pain during sex with the “John Holmes motherfucker,” the fact that she sings, “Feels so good inside” doesn’t exactly help Brown’s argument.

This macho rejection of a “sensitive,” “nice fella” represents a moving away from the cultural ideals of the 1960s and 70s, which was in its beginning stages in the 1990s, but would soon balloon into the aggravated hyper-masculinity of people like Roosh V today.

An early example of the casual racism of these thieves is how Mr. White gets annoyed with Joe about his old address book and talking about a Chinese girl named “Toby”; White calls her “Toby Jap I-don’t-know-what,” ignorant of any differences between Chinese and Japanese.

Now, this kind of off-colour language may have been humorous and understandable on some level at the time, that is, as an inevitable reaction to the strident political correctness prevalent in the late 1980s and early 90s; but when allowed to slide as it has since then, it’s a slippery slope from the mere verbal naughtiness of back then to the blatant, shameless white nationalism and neofascism of today, as seen in the recent shootings and the rise of the far right in the US, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere.

Next, Mr. Pink discusses why he doesn’t tip. He says he doesn’t tip “automatically” just because “society says [he has] to,” but he will “give them something extra” if the waitresses “really put forth the effort.” This is the essence of the bourgeois attitude to the worker: try to get as much work out of the proletariat as possible, but also pay them as little as possible.

Granted, all the other men at the table (save Mr. Orange, who we don’t yet know is an undercover cop), personifying “free market” capitalism in my allegory, argue in favour of tipping; but this variation only goes to show you how, as Ha-Joon Chang argued in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, there is no one objective definition of the “free market.” There are as many different lines to draw where ‘legitimate taxation and regulation’ (i.e., to limit profitability) ends as there are market fundamentalists.

Furthermore, the whole concept of tipping has historically been a ploy used by bosses to keep hourly wages as low as possible, especially for blacks and women, so even the ‘generosity’ of the other tipping men isn’t as altruistic as it might seem. Mr. Pink is simply the extreme version of the right-wing libertarian, who in his saying “society says you have to [tip waitresses]” sounds as though he means ‘socialism says you have to pay workers more.’

Pink is annoyed that, as a former minimum-wage worker, he had a job not “deemed tip-worthy”; so instead of showing solidarity with shafted workers, he’d rather support a “free market” version of the same capitalism that’s shafted him and waitresses. Indeed, he imagines that, just because the waitresses are making minimum wage (which, incidentally, can be as low as $2.13 an hour!), “these ladies aren’t starving to death.” Not taken into account is the fact that wages have stagnated since the 1970s, while the cost of living has steadily risen since then. What’s worse, Clinton would kill welfare several years after the making of this film.

Libertarian Pink is opposed to how “the government fucks [waitresses] in the ass on a regular basis” by taxing their tips, but he won’t “help out with the rent.” (Pink has missed out on his true calling: he should have been a landlord.) Note how, in Pink’s opinion, it’s government, and not the capitalists who control the government, that is at fault–a typical libertarian argument.

Mr. Orange, as an undercover cop who–in my allegory–represents the state-regulated version of capitalism, is “convinced” of Pink’s argument and wants his dollar back; here we see how blurred the line is between so-called corporatist and “free market” ideology.

As the men walk outside the restaurant and go off to commit the robbery in that iconic slow-motion scene, we hear the song “Little Green Bag,” by George Baker Selection. The song is about the wish to acquire American dollars, not weed! (“Lookin’ back on the track for a little greenback,” etc. One is “Lookin’ for some happiness” of the kind that money is believed to give people.) So, properly understood, this song is a perfect soundtrack to a movie about an attempt to acquire diamonds.

The thieves would steal diamonds to exchange them for greenbacks, another exchange value. Commodities as exchange values are what capitalism is all about: one produces commodities for profit and accumulation, not to provide use-values for people, this latter goal being what we socialists want.

And just so we’re clear, the jewelry stores that acquire and sell diamonds aren’t exactly innocent, either; nor are the police who protect the interests of the owners of those stores. All too often, diamonds are mined by African slaves, those “damn niggers” the thieves keep denigrating.

We see the preparations for the robbery. We see its aftermath: but we never see the robbery itself. Capitalism, in its regulated or deregulated forms, similarly conceals such things as theft of wages (e.g., tipping, or lack of tipping, to allow bosses to overwork and underpay workers in the service industry), imperialist plunder of resources in the Third World (e.g., those diamonds in Africa), and concentration of wealth upwards to the 1%.

Mr. Brown dies with blood in his eyes from a gunshot (a similar fate happens to Clarence Worley, who dies with blood in his eyes, in the original script for True Romance [p. 128], Tarantino having identified with Clarence [p. x]). At the end of the film, Joe says Mr. Blue is “dead as Dillinger,” a role played by a young Tierney in 1945.

Mr. Orange is dying from a gunshot in the belly. Mr. White tries to comfort him as he drives him to the rendezvous, a warehouse Joe owns. White lays Orange on the floor in the warehouse; Orange is bleeding profusely, but White doesn’t even attempt to clean or dress the wound by making an improvised bandage out of, say, his shirt. Granted, we may not expect a thief to know how to make a proper bandage, but Mr. White could at least try to make one!

Instead, White says he can’t do anything for Orange, but as soon as Joe appears, White promises he’ll urge their boss to get a doctor for Orange. Since these characters represent neoliberal capitalism in my allegory, their pitifully inadequate response to Orange’s dying can be seen to represent the utter failure that is the American healthcare system, the only non-universal healthcare system in the First World.

Pink storms into the warehouse, already convinced that someone has set them up by informing the police of the planned heist. The ensuing inability of the thieves to trust each other is symbolic of the alienation that capitalism causes: instead of trying to help each other (the “solidarity” that, ironically, Pink pleads for, but which neoliberal politics will always preclude), everyone is fighting.

When we see police in their uniforms enforcing the law, we see a quasi-fascistic authoritarianism imposing its will on us. In the case of the thieves, however, we see a similar, if not even greater, uniformity and rigid following of rules: the six men wear identical black suits, with white shirts, thin black neckties, and black sunglasses–in effect, a uniform; furthermore, they must refer to each other only by their colour names. Not only must they never reveal their real names, the six mutual strangers must never reveal any personal information about themselves.

These personifications of libertarianism and neoliberalism, ironically, are more rigid and oppressive with rules that most of us are, even cops; they’re also more mutually alienated from not being allowed to get to know each other. Bosses Joe and Eddie are free to wear whatever they want, to be addressed by their real names, and to discuss whatever they want, but then again…they’re the bosses, not the grunts doing the difficult work and heavy lifting.

Pink and White discuss the violent excesses of Mr. Blonde, who we learn is a trigger-happy psychopath who has shot and killed a number of innocent bystanders at the jewelry store, his reason being that the alarm was set off by one of them. When Pink is contemplating which of the men could have tipped off the police, he’s sure that Blonde can’t possibly be the rat, since he’s “too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops” (an odd observation to make, given how trigger-happy way too many cops are). Furthermore, it’s telling how Pink, personifying an extreme version of libertarian capitalism in my allegory, considers a psychopath to be on the level.

Indeed, Pink outdoes the other thieves in their callous attitude toward dying Orange by adamantly refusing to help White (the only thief who halfway cares about Orange) take him to a hospital, all because White went “against the rules” by telling Orange his real name (Larry) and where he is from.

As we’re drawn into the world of these characters, from Orange’s injury to Pink’s fears of a set-up, then to the introductions to the backgrounds of White, Blonde, and Orange, and finally to Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) pleading for his life when Blonde–having slashed his face and cut off his ear–prepares to burn him alive, we find ourselves actually sympathizing with these men.

As with the temptation to sympathize with D-FENS (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to sympathize too much with these thieves and murderers, as charming as they may be in their idiosyncrasies and their wit. For that’s the thing about the whole resurgence of the right ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: there’s a charismatic appeal to notions of ‘individual liberty,’ something that actually translates to licence, which in turn is used for selfish ends.

Since I allegorize Reservoir Dogs as a conflict between the regulated (cops) and deregulated (thieves) versions of capitalism, I find the film cleverly lures us into caring for these criminals and cops, these symbols of oppression in the world (as does Falling Down with D-FENS). Not that it’s these films’ intention to do so, of course; I imagine the writers and directors are trying to do a kind of psychological experiment on the audience, to see where our loyalties truly lie.

This leads to a discussion of the major themes of this film: loyalty and betrayal. White has been trying to show loyalty to Orange by insisting that Eddie call a doctor to help Orange, all the time not knowing that Orange, an undercover cop, has betrayed them all.

Joe and Eddie are touched by Mr. Blonde’s loyalty when he, “caught in a warehouse full of hot items,” never betrayed Joe and Eddie, “no matter what [the cops] dangled in front of him.” Again, psychopathic Blonde, or “Toothpick Vic,” is deemed “a good fella” by his capitalist mafia bosses.

If, Dear Reader, you think my allegorizing of the conflict between the cops and thieves, as representing the contradictions of capitalism, is just me imposing a Marxist agenda on the film, consider the thieves’ extensive use of language related to capitalism: job, “do some real work,” business, boss, professionals, etc. As with The Godfather, I equate the mafia with capitalists; that the police, in protecting bourgeois private property, protect the capitalist class, should be too obvious to need elaborating on.

Nostalgia not only for 60s and 70s music, movies, and TV, but also for comic books that originated in the 1960s (The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer), represents a wish to escape the ugly realities of today, to go back to a time before neoliberalism took root.

Mr. Orange, or Freddy Newendyke, meets with Holdaway, the only black person in the whole movie, to discuss the plan to slip Freddy in with the thieves and set them up. Holdaway is wearing a Maoist cap and a red Che Guevara shirt: I’m not about to say that he represents communism, as tempting as that would be.

He’s a left-leaning liberal dressed that way to look edgy, as far as I’m concerned. His involvement with the police set-up is not even symbolically like a socialist revolution; in helping the police, Holdaway is on the side of those I allegorize as representing the regulated version of capitalism. Holdaway represents reform, not revolution. Lots of moderate leftists (e.g., social democrats) work within the system to curb its excesses without making the fundamental changes needed, all while posing as radicals.

While Holdaway is posing as a radical in those clothes, so is Freddy posing in front of Joe and Eddie, pretending to be a thief with an amusing anecdote about selling a bag of marijuana and almost being caught with it by police in the men’s room. This being of one political persuasion, while acting as if being of another, represents how slippery all reactionary politics are. In order to preserve the class structure of society, the liberal will on one occasion pose as a radical progressive (Holdaway), and on another occasion pose as a libertarian (Freddy as Mr. Orange). Betrayers by definition pretend to be loyal.

In this reactionary world, people other than white males tend to be marginalized, as we see in a movie with an almost all white male cast. The only two women we see, in exceedingly brief roles, are in cars–one stolen by Pink, the other by White and Orange–we don’t even really see the women’s faces (in a deleted scene, a woman named Jodie works with Freddy and Holdaway–pages 80-82 in the script).

The police in “the commode story” prove to be every bit as crude and offensive in their language as the thieves (i.e., the cop who mentions the “sexy Oriental bitch”; this same cop threatens to shoot her boyfriend “in the face”). In my allegory, regulated capitalism (the police) isn’t much kinder than the deregulated variety (the thieves).

Now, the blurry distinction that I see between regulated and deregulated capitalism is seen as much more sharply distinct from the point of view of the people in these opposed pairings. Hence, as Orange watches, with a pained expression, White shooting the cops in the car pursuing them, Orange feels as though he is betraying those cops because he can’t blow his cover and shoot White. Blonde’s torturing of Nash, however, pushes Orange over the line. He must show at least one instance of loyalty to the cops, and so he shoots Blonde.

When Eddie, Pink, and White return to the warehouse at the end of the movie, Orange has to fake loyalty by making up an excuse for killing Blonde by claiming he was going to kill them all and steal the diamonds. Eddie, knowing Blonde’s tested and true loyalty to him and his father, knows Orange must be lying, and therefore Orange is the one who has actually betrayed the thieves.

Here we see the conflict and contradiction between loyalty and betrayal, all coming to a head. White, feeling responsible for Orange’s having been shot, can’t accept the idea that he is the traitor. With Joe now among them and pointing a gun at Orange, the ensuing Mexican standoff of White pointing a gun at Joe and Eddie pointing a gun at White, underscores this extreme contradiction of loyalty and disloyalty.

White wants to stay loyal to Joe (“Goddamn you, Joe. Don’t make me do this.”), but not at Orange’s expense; this tension goes double for Eddie and his loyalty to his father over his friendship with Mr. White (“Larry, it’s been a long time, a lot of jobs. We’ve been through a lot of shit. You respect my father and I respect you, but I will put bullets in your heart if you don’t put that fucking gun down now.”).

After all three shoot each other (Joe having shot Orange), Orange must admit to his hitherto protector, now-wounded Larry, that he’s really Freddy…a cop. The betrayer must admit his guilt to the man who is about to stop being loyal to him.

The movie ends with a novelty song by Nilsson called “Coconut.” The lines, “Doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take…to relieve this belly ache?” remind us, as a form of black comedy, of Mr. Orange’s bullet in the gut. The song’s story is of a “silly woman” who mixes lime in a coconut, drinks it (to treat a stomachache), and feels worse instead of better; then in the middle of the night she calls an exasperated, reluctant doctor for help, getting him out of bed. He prescribes the very lime in the coconut drink to treat the stomachache that it causes. Thus, the song reminds us of how Orange never gets the medical help he needs…just as how so many poor Americans never get it.

Consider the following: the intermixing of police with criminals (Freddy’s undercover work); the police’s knee-jerk shooting of people (Freddy’s immediate shooting of the woman who’s shot him; the cops shooting Larry immediately after he’s shot Freddy), showing that the homicidal cops are in principle no better than the criminals they’re chasing; the cops’ use of crude, offensive language (Holdaway referring to “that invisible bitch“); and finally, all this struggle over diamonds (mined either by African slaves, or in all likelihood at least, by an exploited, overworked, and underpaid Third World proletariat; that is, the full fruit of their labour has been stolen from them).

The ‘legitimate’ capitalists that the cops work for, therefore, are no less thieves than Joe’s criminal gang. The cops fight one group of thieves to protect another group of thieves. All these considerations show how blurred the distinction really is between, essentially, two capitalist mafia organizations–those who obey and enforce bourgeois laws, and those who disobey them. Still, people imagine there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals: believers, respectively, in the deregulated and regulated versions of capitalism.

The obeyers (cops and their capitalists) and disobeyers (Joe’s men) in this film thus can easily be compared, respectively, to the kind of left-leaning’ Keynesian capitalist who regulates the economy to curb the excesses that an unbridled market results in, and that very right-wing, unregulated “free market” that leads to the chaos, violence, alienation, suffering, and death that has resulted after this latter form of capitalism really came into its own–right around the time of Reservoir Dogs‘s release in January, 1992.

Clowns to the “left” of us, jokers to the right: here we are, stuck in the middle with them.

Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, Faber and Faber, London, 1996

On Ideological Theory vs. Practice

There’s this irritating refrain we leftists hear from time to time, coming from those on the right side of the aisle, so to speak. Whenever critiques of capitalism are made, a response often heard from the right-wing libertarian crowd is that what is being criticized isn’t ‘real capitalism.’ Instead, the problems of the world (and of the US in particular) are being caused by ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism.’ Only the ‘free market’ is ‘real capitalism.’

I have already debunked this nonsense in previous posts, on many occasions, so the reader can go to those if he or she is interested; I don’t wish to go through the annoyance of rehashing those arguments in detail here. The point is, as far as this post is concerned, that there is a huge difference between the ‘free market’ in theory and how it works out in practice.

Of course, the right-winger will retort by saying, ‘Well, what about communism and socialism, you hypocrite? Those ideas all sound good on paper, but when put into practice, one hundred million people were murdered by power-hungry dictators! Everybody knows that socialism has been a failure everywhere it’s been tried!’

Oh, sure. Do you know what else? Iraq really possessed WMDs, Gaddafi really oppressed his people and thus had to be removed, Assad really bombed, killed, and gassed his own people, Russia hacked the 2016 US election, and Iran‘s bellicosity must be stopped through an invasion.

Really, all of the above is true! I know because the mainstream media told me. They know the facts because the CIA, that paragon of truth-telling, has been enlightening the West ever since the days of the Cold War.

But seriously, all sarcasm aside, there are many leftists, many of them anarchists or other left-libertarians, who argue in a manner paralleling right-libertarians and their twaddle about ‘real capitalism,’ that the USSR, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc did not, and still do not, practice ‘real communism,’ and for the same reason as that of the right-libertarians–that these Marxist-Leninist states were just that…states. (I used to think that way, too.)

The right-wing libertarians’ idealized abstraction, which they call “free market” capitalism, involves a belief that, without the corrupting influence of the state, capitalists will have a ‘level playing field’ allowing them to compete fairly. (As I’ve stated above, I have refuted these arguments elsewhere.) The idealized abstraction of the left-wing libertarians (or anarchists), on the other hand, involves a belief that a socialist revolution can be more or less immediately followed by full communism: no class distinctions, no centralized state authority, and money is replaced by a gift economy.

More moderately left-wing libertarians would allow for the temporary existence of a state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would wither away once all signs of capitalist counter-revolution have been thwarted. No classes, no state, no money.

I have tended towards this more moderate version, though I have in recent years grown even more patient than that. The reason for this need of patience is that thwarting counterrevolution is easier said than done: look at the lessons of the twentieth century to see my meaning.

Ultimately, the achievement of the goal, the idealized abstraction of communist society, should be understood as a process, a gradual flowing ever closer towards the ideal, rather than an immediately achieved utopian stasis.

The objection will still be raised: “But the socialists never achieved anything but tyranny and murder!” Now, I must give such readers a history lesson, free of bourgeois propaganda and lies. (Again, a full debunking of the whole communist death count thing is beyond the scope of this article, so click here for that. For the short explanation, here it is: blame Yezhov and famines, not Stalin or Mao. Furthermore, consider the capitalist death count.)

Remember what Russia was like before the revolution of late 1917. The tsar and capitalists were holding the industrial proletariat and peasants down under a feudalist and bourgeois boot. The provisional government following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II improved things a bit, but the people were still stuck in an unpopular war the provisional government didn’t want to get out of. Lenin, however, got them out of it.

The USSR enshrined equal rights for women in their constitution early into its existence, allowing equal rights in education, employment, access to high-ranking positions in the government, and paid maternity leave. All of these rights had been established by the 1930s, light years ahead of such improvements in the capitalist West.

Improvements were made to aim at affordable housing for everyone. Granted, these homes weren’t exactly palatial, but so what? Even the worst quality homes were much better than the epidemic of homelessness seen today in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Dublin, or Toronto, often with people living in tents.

Full employment was provided, as well as free education up to the university level (sure beats student debt, doesn’t it?), and free healthcare. With such benefits as these, it’s easy to see why majorities of not only Russians, but also other east European countries look back at their socialist pasts with smiles, and generally tend to regret the switch back to capitalism.

Benefits similar to these given to citizens of the USSR were also given to people in all the other socialist states, benefits that already, and all by themselves, justify the left-wing revolutions that occurred, even without the withering away of the state that those in the libertarian camp (right and left) so fetishize. But what was so impressive about the USSR doesn’t stop there.

Returning to my point above about what Russia was like before the revolution of over a hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks inherited a largely agrarian society, with mostly peasant farmers living off the land, at the mercy of Mother Nature. If there were bad harvests (which often happened), people would starve.

The implementation of Stalin’s three Five Year Plans in the 1930s changed all that. Rapid industrialization (in large part to prepare for a Nazi invasion), collectivization of agriculture (to end the exploitive rule of the grain-hoarding, wealthy, land-owning kulaks), which included getting the mechanized farming equipment needed to end the famines (which, by the way, makes nonsense of the absurd Holodomor hoax), and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (in defence against the American nuclear threat) all brought Russia from being a backward nation to a modern nuclear superpower in a matter of not much more than two decades! Impressive.

Next, we need to remember who the real heroes of WWII were: not so much the late-arriving US and Britain, as mainstream history books would have you believe, but Stalin’s Red Army. Their commitment to justice is what saved the world from fascism, not the mere inter-imperialist conflict of Hitler and Mussolini on one side, and FDR and Churchill on the other.

Jump ahead almost two decades later, and we have even more impressive Soviet feats: the first man in space, the first woman in space, and even the first dog to orbit the Earth. Also, the Soviets did the first spacewalk. So, what is all this nonsense about socialism ‘not working‘? Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to believe that when people cooperate, work together, and help each other, they will achieve a lot more than all those mutually alienated people competing with each other under capitalism.

This leads me to my next point: right-wing libertarians like to believe that an unregulated market–somehow, by the magical waving of an invisible hand–regulates itself and makes life good; and therefore a state-planned economy lacks the rich growth and innovation of the “free market.” Again, the USSR’s history debunks this claim.

As I said above, the Soviet Union went from being a backward agrarian society to a fully industrialized, nuclear superpower in a matter of a few decades. The Western capitalist countries went through this process much more slowly (i.e., starting from the Industrial Revolution). When the Soviet Union began industrializing around 1928, Western countries like the US and UK were already fully industrialized, so it isn’t fair to compare the USSR’s development to that of the USA. A comparison of the USSR to most of the rest of the non-Anglo-American, non-European world would be more apropos.

Over those few decades between the late 1920s and the early 1950s, the USSR shot ahead of the Third World. Though behind the West economically, the USSR was catching up. The West was feeling threatened, especially with the loss of face the US felt when the Soviets beat them into space. Indeed, the US took a few leaves from the Soviet book and started using more government-funded forms of technological innovation (e.g., NASA, DARPA) and social welfare–though in a capitalist context, of course–to save face and resist the threat of communist revolution in the West.

Economic growth was slowing down in the USSR during the Brezhnev years, but it was still happening. There were fears that, if left unchecked, the USSR would soon overtake the West economically. So by the 1980s, the Carter/Reagan administrations’ strategy was, through the arms race, the Soviet-Afghan War, etc., to drain the Soviet economy.

It worked. The USSR was forced into focusing its budget on the military when they’d have much preferred to continue building socialism. The USSR didn’t “collapse” in late 1991; it was dissolved, thanks to schemers inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Here’s the thing: if socialism ‘doesn’t work,’ why did the West (and why does it, vis-à-vis Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK, continue to) put so much effort into draining the socialist states of their lifeblood through economic sanctions, sabotage, etc.? Why not just be a little patient and let these ‘failed’ economic systems self-destruct of their own accord, over a presumably short time?

Despite the crippling sanctions and economic embargoes, the DPRK and Cuba are, within reason, still surviving…and that’s all the way from the wholesale destruction wrought by US imperialism during the Korean War, and from such things as the over six hundred attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, to the present. If the “free market” is so superior to state planning, how did China go from being a Third World country to the second largest economy in the world in a mere four decades?

So we see here that, even though the ideal of communist society–a classless, stateless society without money–was never attained, the progress made towards that ideal in the building of socialism is proof enough that it’s worth striving for. The practice of developing the socialist mode of production, and the benefits obtained, justify the effort even if the theoretical end wasn’t attained.

As for the failures and difficulties that inevitably were a part of this process, many, if not most, of these problems can be blamed on imperialism. The capitalist class has been ruthless in its attempts to thwart the development of socialism, right from the Paris Commune up to the present day. Such things as the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, properly understood as an invasion by several capitalist countries to help the Russian bourgeoisie restore their rule, put pressures on Lenin’s government that forced the Bolsheviks to become authoritarian.

Similar pressures were exerted on Maoist China, the Eastern Bloc, and the other socialist states, necessitating authoritarian rule, the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. And who was–and still is–doing the pressuring? All those forces that regard the ‘freedom’ of capitalism as their ideal. If, according to right-libertarian thinking, the US isn’t–and has scarcely, if ever been–‘truly capitalist,’ then why were they so adamant about stopping the spread of communism during the Cold War?

Let’s now look at how the abstract ideal of the “free market,” though never perfectly attained, of course (because it never can be–even some right-wingers admit this!), has nonetheless been approached, step by step, in the process including tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, deregulation, and cuts to social programs and welfare.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused many at the time to believe that Keynesian economics–a form of capitalism with intensive government interventions whenever there were economic crises–had run its course. Economists like Milton Friedman argued for minimal state involvement in the economy, as had Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, etc. Pinochet‘s government, which in 1973 forced “free market” capitalism on Chile, by the way, was portrayed in right-wing media as having brought about prosperity for the country, when in fact only the ruling class was doing well.

This kind of ‘prosperity’ encouraged the market fundamentalists to apply their dogmas to Western countries, in which the ruling classes were growing weary of paying high taxes and having regulations limit their profits. The stage was set for Reagan, Thatcher, et al, who busted unions and cut taxes for the rich. The process of gradually moving towards a “free market” had begun.

Reagan, of course, claimed ‘government is the problem,’ though even more obviously he did not shrink it. He deregulated and cut the rich’s taxes, to be sure, but his increase of defence spending only bloated the US government. This bloating, all the same, doesn’t disprove the existence of capitalism in the US, for this was the bloating of the bourgeois state. Note that in capitalism, there is deregulating and re-regulating, depending on the convenience of the capitalist. (And incidentally, in the US, there is private property; in the US, businesses produce commodities for profit; ergo, the US is a capitalist country…even if it isn’t the kind of capitalism the right-libertarians prefer.)

Right-wing libertarians have this absurd notion that the state per se is socialist, when in fact the state has been used by people of all political persuasions to further their agendas: fascists, “free market” capitalists (yes, them too!), social democrats, conservatives, liberals, and actual socialists.

Americans have been so indoctrinated by bourgeois propaganda that they think that all of the Orwellian things we’ve seen plaguing the US (the media as propaganda arm of the government, the state helping the rich get richer and leaving the poor to get poorer, the endless wars, the militarized police, surveillance, etc.) is the result of “communists” infiltrating the US. Oh, would that it were true!

What right-wing libertarians don’t understand is that capitalism is not the utopia they think it is. It’s an inherently contradictory, unstable economic system, given to financial crises about every ten years (indeed, we’re due for another one any time now, I contemplate with a due sense of exhaustion and dread).

Though the USSR’s economy stagnated during the Brezhnev years, their economy had soldiered on through the 1930s, just as the capitalist world was mired in the Great Depression. Similarly, as we in the West reeled for years after the 2008 global financial crisis, only ever so slowly crawling out of it, China–with its state-planned economy–bounced back and has continued to grow into the powerhouse it is today.

In sum: the ideological theory of socialism was meant to lead to a communist society that never materialized; still, in practice, the building of socialism in the twentieth century had successes that, outside imperialist interference, outweighed its problems, and therefore, socialism in practice was justified.

As for the ideological theory of the “free market,” that stateless capitalist utopia has never been, and will never be; while in practice, what is properly called neoliberalism has very much happened, and the appalling income inequality, imperialist wars, and all the other attendant miseries have shown how bankrupt that right-wing ideology is.

So, the left’s solution to current problems is, “More socialism!”, which, if carried far enough, might one day actually lead to the withering away of the state. Their ‘solution,’ on the other hand, is, “More free market!”, which will, if carried far enough, lead to the withering away of our Earth as we know it.

I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the free marketeers that their invisible hand isn’t seen because it isn’t there.

Analysis of ‘The Tempest’

The Tempest is a play Shakespeare is believed to have written around 1610 or 1611; it is therefore probably the last play he ever wrote alone. It isn’t easily categorized: it’s part comedy, part fantasy/romance, part semi-autobiographical (in a metaphorical sense), and part allegory on the European colonization that was current at the time.

A number of interesting film adaptations have been made of The Tempest, including the BBC TV adaptation with Michael Hordern as Prospero, the homoerotic 1979 Derek Jarman adaptation with Toyah Willcox as Miranda, and Julie Taymor‘s 2010 adaptation with Helen Mirren as a female Prospero…’Prospera.’ Other adaptations include the 1991 film Prospero’s Books, with John Gielgud in the title role, and Aimé Césaire‘s Une Tempête, a stage adaptation set in Haiti.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Ferdinand, 
With hair up-staring, — then like reeds, not hair, — 
was the first man that leapt; cried Hell is empty, 
And all the devils are here.
” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 212-215

“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, 
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, 
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me 
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how 
To name the bigger light, and how the less, 
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee, 
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle, 
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile. 
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms 
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! 
For I am all the subjects that you have, 
Which first was mine own king.” –Caliban, I, ii, lines 331-342

“Come unto these yellow sands, 
And then take hands; 
Curt’sied when you have and kiss’d, 
The wild waves whist, 
Foot it featly here and there, 
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 375-380

“Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes; 
Nothing of him that doth fade, 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
Ding-dong. 
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 396-404

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, 
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, 
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak’d, 
I cried to dream again.” –Caliban, III, ii, lines 130-138

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and 
Are melted into air, into thin air; 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on; and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.” –Prospero, IV, i, lines 148-158

“But this rough magic 
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d 
Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — 
To work mine end upon their senses that 
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, 
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound, 
I’ll drown my book.” –Prospero, V, i, lines 50-57

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I; 
In a cowslip’s bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry. 
On the bat’s back I do fly 
After summer merrily. 
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, 
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” –Ariel, V, i, lines 88-94

“O, wonder! 
How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!” –Miranda, V, i, lines 181-184

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown, 
And what strength I have’s mine own, 
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, 
I must be here confin’d by you, 
Or sent to Naples. Let me not, 
Since I have my dukedom got 
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell 
In this bare island by your spell; 
But release me from my bands 
With the help of your good hands. 
Gentle breath of yours my sails 
Must fill, or else my project fails, 
Which was to please. Now I want 
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; 
And my ending is despair, 
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer, 
Which pierces so that it assaults 
Mercy itself, and frees all faults. 
As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
Let your indulgence set me free.” –Prospero, Epilogue

Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was stripped of his dukedom and banished with his daughter Miranda twelve years before the play’s beginning. Gonzalo, a kind and optimistic giver of counsel, gave them provisions so they’d survive on the seas, ultimately arriving on the island where the two have been living since.

His usurping brother Antonio, along with King Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, Stephano the drunken butler, Trinculo the jester, and the king’s son, Ferdinand, have been sailing on a ship at the beginning of the play. They find themselves in the middle of a tempest that Prospero, a sorcerer, has created to cause their ship to crash-land on his island, for he wants to right the wrongs done to him.

In this wrong done to Prospero, we see the main theme of the play: disenfranchisement. Now, his disenfranchisement doesn’t give him the right to do the same to others, which indeed he does. He uses his magic to control a number of spirits, Ariel in particular, who expresses his displeasure at it and demands his freedom (I, ii, lines 242-250). Prospero offers a weak justification for making Ariel his servant by reminding him of how he freed him from a spell the witch Sycorax put on him, having caged him in a tree.

Sycorax, banished from Algiers and subsequently the first colonizer of what’s now Prospero’s island, was undoubtedly cruel in her treatment of Ariel; Prospero’s freeing of the spirit, however, in no way absolves him of similar colonizing and enslaving. Such an absolving would be like saying that the Spanish Empire’s brutal treatment of the natives (of what is now Latin America) makes US imperialism’s subsequent treatment of ‘America’s backyard’ negligibly oppressive–a truly absurd argument.

Mention of Sycorax brings us to a discussion of her son, the deformed Caliban, another native of the island forced by Prospero into servitude. Caliban is a near anagram of cannibal, and a pun on Caribbean; such associations give us a vivid sense of how he is a victim of colonialism, a native denigrated by his oppressor as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savage.’

Indeed, Prospero rationalizes his enslaving of Caliban by claiming originally to have been kind to the grotesquerie, that is, until his attempted rape of Miranda, which he gleefully admits to. Not to excuse Caliban for his scurrilous behaviour, but the degradation of slavery, often with torturous punishments for being slack or slow in service, nevertheless seems a bit much. After all, Prospero’s denigration of Caliban’s bestial nature reminds us of the racism colonialists have used to justify their dehumanizing of the natives they subjugate.

Indeed, for all his faults, Caliban has his virtues, too. He speaks poetically sometimes, as in the above quote from Act III, scene ii, lines 130-138. This quote shows how he is sensitive to the poetic, reminding us of the creativity of indigenous people; colonialists like Prospero make little of natives’ artistic gifts, but kinder souls like Gonzalo show their appreciation of what’s good in people like Caliban. Recall his words in Act III:

“If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?  
If I should say, I saw such islanders—
For, certes, these are people of the island—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note
Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of
Our human generation you shall find  
Many, nay, almost any.” –Gonzalo, III, iii, lines 26-34

Prospero, hearing Gonzalo’s words, agrees with them, but only insofar as they describe the Neapolitans present, whom he describes as “worse than devils.” (III, iii, line 36) He makes no mention of agreement that the natives have virtues. He should also consider including himself among the Neapolitan devils; recall Ferdinand saying that Prospero is “compos’d of harshness.” (III, i, line 9) What must be kept in mind is how Prospero prospers by using others. Wealth causes poverty, and this is especially true of imperialists and neocolonialists in relation to the aboriginals they exploit.

Prospero’s magic exploits nature, e.g. the tempest, to bring Alonso’s ship ashore; this symbolically can remind us of how big business today degrades nature for their gain. Prospero openly admits that he exploits Caliban: he says of his slave, “he does make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/That profit us.” (I,ii, lines 311-313)

Prospero uses his magic on Miranda, putting her asleep (I, ii, lines 184-186); in this way, he controls her sleeping and waking moments to limit her acquisition of knowledge. She and Ferdinand don’t merely fall in love; her father manipulates their meeting, for in their future marriage he hopes to consolidate his power as the restored Duke of Milan. Prospero may be giving up his magical powers, but in return he wants political power.

It can be argued, in fact, that he has never been truly worthy of being a duke; since during the time that he ruled the dukedom, prior to Antonio’s usurpation, he was so absorbed in his books (I, ii, lines 68-77, 89-93) that he cared little for his people. He admits this when he speaks in gratitude of Gonzalo’s help: “Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnished me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” (I, ii, lines 166-168) Note here that “prize” is in the present tense: Prospero admits he still loves his books more than the people of Milan; remember this Freudian slip when we consider his later promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book.”

Yes, he promises to renounce his magic (which we never see him physically do!), and so as the reinstated Duke of Milan, he’ll presumably focus on the needs of his people; but he says that in Milan, his “every third thought shall be [his] grave,” (V, i, line 311) suggesting he’ll still be too self-absorbed and retiring to think about his people.

So, Prospero enslaves and exploits the natives of the island, always promising to free them in the end (though we never see him use his magic to unbind them, so for all we know, these promises could be empty); he manipulates his way back into power, assuming he deserves this reinstatement (though the above two paragraphs put this worthiness in doubt); and he uses his daughter to make a political alliance with the king, manipulating her emotions to make her fall in love with whom he wants her to love.

Thus, in Prospero we see not only an exploitative colonialist, but also a man taking advantage of the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. His cunning is contrasted with the naïveté of his daughter, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Where Prospero is artful, these latter four are artless. Indeed, where there’s a dialectical relationship between wealth and poverty, as noted above (i.e, the one causes the other), there is also such a relationship between ability and inability, between cunning and innocence.

Consider the sweetness and innocence of Miranda. She sees the good in everyone indiscriminately. She has compassion for all the sailing sufferers of the storm; she’s oblivious to how her wicked uncle Antonio is one of the men on the boat. In her naïveté is kindness, in Prospero’s worldly-wisdom…not so much kindness.

Having seen so few people in her life, and assuming goodness in all humanity, she is delighted to see all those men before her at the end of the play (V, i, lines 181-184), rather than mindful of the possibility that a few of them (Antonio and Sebastian) aren’t so “goodly.”

Her artlessness is outdone by the outright stupidity of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. In his drunken stupor, Stephano can’t recognize supine Trinculo’s legs sticking out from underneath Caliban’s gaberdine (being the court jester, Trinculo is presumably wearing distinctive motley colours); instead, he imagines the supine monster Caliban has four legs. Trinculo, having originally assumed that Stephano died in the tempest, later looks the drunken butler in the eyes and has to ask him twice if he’s “not drown’d” (II, ii, lines 100-105). Finally, Caliban, after drinking Stephano’s supposedly divine wine, thinks the drunkard is a god!

In their foolish simple-mindedness, the trio think they can kill Prospero and rule the island. They can’t even avoid falling into a smelly pond, though, Trinculo later complaining of smelling “all horse-piss.” (IV, i, line 199)

Later, once they reach Prospero’s abode, Stephano and Trinculo can’t help but be distracted by the sorcerer’s “frippery.” (IV, i, line 226) The two fools try on Prospero’s clothes while Caliban warns them to focus instead on the plan to kill his hated master. They don’t listen, and Prospero has Ariel chase the fools away with hellhounds.

The way alcohol and fashionable clothes can make fools of people is paralleled today in how such distractions prevent revolutionary action. We today have every bit as much as, if not more than, an imperialist ruling class that mesmerizes the common people with foolish trifles. We’d all usurp the rule of our hypnotizing politicians and rich overlords…except we keep letting ourselves get hypnotized.

Along with the class conflict between rich land-owners and the poor, between the First and Third Worlds as symbolized in the Neapolitans on the one hand, and the island natives and spirits respectively, there’s also conflict between different factions of the ruling class. This latter conflict is evident when Alonso and Gonzalo are put to sleep by Ariel, then Antonio convinces Sebastian to make an attempt on the king’s life.

Later, this group experiences a sensual distraction that is comparable with the wine and finery that dazes the three drunken fools. An illusion of a table covered with a delicious feast is put before the nobles’ eyes. Sweet music is heard. The men prepare to eat, but Ariel appears in the form of a harpy and makes the feast disappear; the scene reminds us of the one in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, when King Phineus of Thrace was tormented with a feast that got ruined by attacking harpies.

This depriving the nobles of a meal reminds one of a modern equivalent in Luis Buñuel‘s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Tantalizing Alonso et al with a meal is punishment for what the king and Antonio deprived Prospero and Miranda of. The illusory meal, as a distraction from important political matters, is also–like wine and “frippery” for Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban–an example of bread and circuses.

The ‘bread’ aspect of Prospero’s distractions was noted in the mirage feast table; the ‘circuses’ aspect, if you will, can be seen in the masque with the singing goddesses (Iris, Ceres, and Juno; IV, i, lines 60-138) presented to Ferdinand and Miranda. Recall how their falling in love has been engineered by her father, who is using their marriage to solidify his power as the reinstated Duke of Milan.

He takes advantage of her scant knowledge of men to make her fall for handsome Ferdinand, “the third man that e’er [she] saw; the first/That e’er [she] sigh’d for.” (I, ii, lines 445-446) Prospero’s test of the boy’s virtue, by enslaving him and making him do essentially Caliban’s work (fetching wood), is a weak test–as if mere diligence were enough to prove Ferdinand’s worthiness of her. It’s ironic how making Ferdinand play the role of Miranda’s would-be rapist should prove him a good husband. Prospero even says to her, “Foolish wench!/To th’ most of men this is a Caliban” (I, ii, lines 479-480).

At the beginning of Act V, Prospero has his disenfranchisers brought near his abode (that is, his “cell”), and he immobilizes them so he can upbraid Antonio and Alonso for their collusion in the usurpation of the dukedom, as well as the former and Sebastian for having conspired to kill Alonso. Prospero speaks kindly of his “true preserver,” Gonzalo, of course; and he recognizes that forgiveness is “rarer” than taking vengeance, so he says he forgives his “unnatural” brother, though we can’t be sure if his heart is in his words.

This making of the nobles to “stand charm’d,” just like Prospero’s making Miranda fall asleep and his ‘bread and circuses’ distractions of everyone again shows the dialectical relationship between his power and the powerlessness of all the others. Prospero promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book” (V, lines 54 and 57), but should we believe he’ll keep his promises? As a duke, he is a kind of politician, and politicians who keep their promises are the exception rather than the rule.

If, Dear Reader, I seem to have too judgemental an attitude towards Prospero, consider the alternative: surely he is aware of the danger of giving up all his powers; one shouldn’t assume he’ll never again be the victim of a conspiracy once “what strength [he has is his] own” (Epilogue, line 2). Antonio and Sebastian are probably still plotting.

Of course, the fact that Shakespeare identified himself, the magic-making playwright, “such stuff/As dreams are made on,” with Prospero suggests that the promise to “abjure” his magic will be kept; after all, the Bard was about to retire from “the great globe itself” shortly after the first performances of The Tempest.

So my next question is: since Prospero represents, on the one hand, the colonialist/imperialist and exploitative/manipulative politician, and on the other hand, the magic-making playwright, what relationship can we see between these two otherwise contrasting representations?

Marx wrote of a base and superstructure that keep the class structure of society intact. The superstructure is composed of such things as the media, religion, and the arts. Now, Marx was describing modern capitalist society, as opposed to the feudalist one Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays in; but the seeds of modern capitalism had already been sown in his day, and feudalism was as much a form of class conflict as capitalism is.

Shakespeare’s plays tended to justify class hierarchies by glorifying kings (the deposition scene in Richard II, so offensive to Elizabeth I, being one of the noteworthy exceptions) and the imperialistic plunder of other countries (Henry V). Contrast this with his tendency to portray poor workers as not much more than buffoons (consider Falstaff, Bardolph, et al in the Henry IV plays, or the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as two sets of examples, to see my point). The tragic flaws of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, etc., ennoble them by inspiring Aristotle’s pity and terror; the faults of the poor in these plays generally inspire our contemptuous mirth.

What I’m saying here, of course, is not true in an absolute sense: there is a considerable grey area between the white of the nobility and the black of the peasantry in the Bard’s plays. Osric, who “hath much land,” is foppish in the extreme. Falstaff has much depth of character, and his passing is grieved most touchingly by his friends at the Boar’s Head Inn; still, he’s also mercilessly ridiculed in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Christopher Sly‘s transformation from drunken tinker into a lord is a mere prank. Malvolio, with his cross-gartered yellow stockings and ridiculous grinning, is the lady Olivia‘s subordinate, her steward. In The Comedy of Errors, the twin Dromio servants are constantly being abused and picked on by their twin Antipholus masters, a form of slapstick humour. The two gravediggers in Hamlet are referred to as clowns in the script.

My point here is that the grey area of relative equal worth between upper and lower classes doesn’t disprove the black and white of the hierarchy that Shakespeare affirmed as a truth in the world. His plays never fundamentally challenged class antagonisms. For all the many faults of the nobles in Shakespeare’s plays, even when they are outright wicked, they have a dignity far elevated above that of even the best of the poor.

In these ways, Shakespeare as Prospero could be seen as part of the superstructure of Elizabethan times, reinforcing notions of the ‘superiority’ of the landowning ruling classes as against the ‘inferiority’ of the poor labourers and peasants of his time. His portrayals of Caliban and Sycorax as monsters and fiends were probably inspired at least in part by the biases of the time, namely, the notion of Christian superiority over the ‘devil-worshipping’ heathens of the rest of the world (i.e., the worship of Setebos by Caliban and Sycorax).

Still, as much as I have issue with the politics of Shakespeare at times, I’ll continue to love and admire his art, as we all should. Many talented artists in remote and more recent history (Shakespeare, Dali, Frank Zappa, etc.) are people with whom we may have issues as regards their political stances. In this way, my judgement of Prospero can be seen, in a symbolic sense, as ambivalent rather than unilaterally condemning.

My leftist worldview must be more forgiving of what I see as politically lacking in the Bard. His aim as a playwright wasn’t mainly to promote a certain political agenda; it “was to please.” Therefore, let my indulgence set him free.

Analysis of ‘Barton Fink’

Barton Fink is a 1991 period film produced by Ethan Cohen, directed by Joel Cohen, and written by both of them. It stars John Turturro (in the title role) and John Goodman; it costars John Mahoney, Judy Davis, Steve Buscemi, Michael Lerner, and Tony Shalhoub.

The film is about, essentially, writer’s block, since the Cohen brothers themselves had been going through some writing difficulties when working on Miller’s Crossing. Barton Fink is a New York playwright who fancies himself a writer championing “the common man,” but when he has an opportunity to write a Hollywood screenplay for a movie about a wrestler (the kind of the story “the common man” would have found entertaining at the time), he can barely type a word.

Here are some quotes:

Garland Stanford: The common man will still be here when you get back. Who knows, there may even be one or two of them in Hollywood.

Barton Fink: That’s a rationalization, Garland.

Garland Stanford: Barton, it was a joke.

**********

“I run this dump, and I don’t know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? ‘Cause I got horse sense goddamit, SHOWMANSHIP! And also I hope Lou told you this, I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. Did you tell him that Lou? And I don’t mean my dick is bigger than yours, it’s not a sexual thing. You’re a writer, you know more about that. Coffee?” –Jack Lipnick (Lerner)

**********

Charlie Meadows (Goodman): And I could tell you some stories…

Barton Fink: Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and…and…So naturally their work suffers and regresses into empty formalism and…well, I’m spouting off again, but to put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phoney as a three-dollar bill.

Charlie Meadows: Well, I guess that’s a tragedy right there.

**********

“Honey! Where’s my honey?” –Mayhew

“I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain.” –Fink

“Me, well, I just like makin’ things up.” –Mayhew (Mahoney)

“I’m buildin’ a levy. Gulp by gulp, brick by brick…” Mayhew

“That son of a bitch! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine writer.” –Fink, of Mayhew

“Never make Lipnick like you!” –Ben Geisler (Shalhoub)

“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind…There’s no roadmap for that territory…And exploring it can be painful.” –Fink

**********

Detective Mastrionotti: Fink. That’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?

Barton Fink: Yeah.

Detective Mastrionotti: Yeah, I didn’t think this dump was restricted.

**********

[at the USO club] “I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator! [points to his head] This is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!” –Fink

**********

Detective Deutsch: You two have some sick sex thing?

Barton Fink: Sex?! He’s a man! We wrestled!

Detective Mastrionotti: You’re a sick fuck, Fink.

**********

“Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!” –Meadows

**********

Barton Fink: But Charlie–why me? Why–?

Charlie Meadows: Because YOU DON’T LISTEN!

**********

[last lines]

Beauty: It’s a beautiful day.

Barton Fink: Huh?

Beauty: I said it’s a beautiful day.

Barton Fink: Yes. It is.

Beauty: What’s in the box?

Barton Fink: I don’t know.

Beauty: Isn’t it yours?

Barton Fink: I don’t know. You’re very beautiful. Are you in pictures?

Beauty: Don’t be silly.

Fink has just written Bare Ruined Choirs, a play whose title is inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73: “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Choirs aren’t the singers, but rather the places where choirs sing in churches (or in the case of the sonnet, where the birds sang, on leafless tree branches). The point is that the lack of singers, in the context of the movie, represents the lack of inspiration, no poetic singing coming from blocked Fink.

Fink is loosely based on Clifford Odets, a socialist playwright who had been a member of the Communist Party back in the mid-1930s, and who had to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s. The physical and superficial similarities between Fink and Odets are obvious; but beyond their ‘championing of the common man,’ they haven’t much more in common. Odets was a leftist; Fink is a liberal.

Odets was actively involved in socialism; Fink merely talks of wanting to write about “the average working stiff.” It quickly becomes apparent that he’s not all that interested in the working man. His play is the toast of Broadway, enjoyed by a largely bourgeois audience as pretentious as he is.

Phoniness is a recurring theme in the movie. Fink affects modesty at the success of his play, claiming it’s “merely adequate.” Hollywood producer Lipnick (Lerner) claims “the writer is king” in Capitol Pictures, when it turns out the writer’s contract makes him into a virtual slave. Charlie Meadows seems a friendly, unassuming insurance salesman selling “peace of mind”; we later learn he’s “Madman Mundt,” a serial killer (or is he even that?…see below). W. P. Mayhew, loosely based on William Faulkner, supposedly “the finest novelist of our time,” is really a “souse” whose “secretary,” Audrey Taylor (Davis) has written much, if not most, of his great work, scripts and novels alike.

Fink is offered a job to write scripts for Hollywood, an opportunity he snobbishly balks at. When his agent, Garland Stanford, says he might see some of “the common man” in Hollywood, Fink dismisses this as a rationalization, when Garland really meant it as a joke, showing how little he and Fink really care about working people.

Having arrived in Hollywood, Fink is surrounded by examples of the common man. In his seedy, rundown hotel, there’s the bellboy Chet (Buscemi) and his neighbour Charlie. There are the sailors at the USO hall (where buffoonish Fink does the nerd-dance of the century). Fink has no interest in these people’s lives whatsoever. He should be up to his armpits in inspiration; but he can’t get anything, outside of literary inspiration, for this wrestling movie script he has to write. So much for championing the common man.

The movie is more interested in the small and insignificant than Fink is: the hotel bell rings out in a decrescendo until Chet puts his finger on it, just before the fade to absolute silence. We see closeups of a sinkhole, a drain, typewriters, and the bell of a jazzman’s horn. When Charlie frees Fink from the metal foot rails of the bed-frame a cop has handcuffed him to, a small steel ball rolls from one of the broken rails and along the floor, up close to the camera, a small thing growing into a big thing before our eyes.

Fink represents liberalism, but Jack Lipnick represents the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog capitalist. Now, bear in mind how congenial he appears to Fink at first. This represents the superficial charm of the narcissistic capitalist, who pretends to be friendly and generous while secretly scheming and planning to lure the employee into wage slavery, here represented by Fink’s ball-and-chain contract with Capitol Pictures.

Lipnick is a fast-talking loudmouth, a red flag already warning us of his predatory capitalist nature: “I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. Did you tell him that, Lou? And I don’t mean my dick is bigger than yours, it’s not a sexual thing, although you’re the writer, you’d know more about that. Coffee?”

Still, Lipnick pretends to idolize the writer who gives him “that Barton Fink feeling,” even kissing his feet after Lou Breeze (Jon Polito)–who represents Lipnick’s True Self–tells Fink in all frankness that “the contents of [his] head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” Lipnick, in his narcissistic False Self, fires Lou…though in the next scene with Fink in Lipnick’s office (in which the producer rants about how much he hates Fink’s script), Lou is in the room with them, proving how much of an act the firing was, and how phoney Lipnick’s high regard of Fink has always been.

Charlie Meadows is largely friendly, a true representative of the common man whose work in insurance is meant to help people. We later learn from Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch (who, as their surnames imply, respectively represent Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) that Charlie is really Karl Mundt, a pun on Karl Marx.

So this means that Charlie represents communism. His violence (both real and imagined) represents that of revolution and the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. The cops’ labelling of him as a serial killer is something one shouldn’t be too credulous of, given that they represent fascism, and it is by no means proven (but rather assumed to be true) that “Madman Mundt” actually killed all those people, so the cops’ characterization of him can be seen to represent right-wing demonizing of socialism.

Furthermore, the film is set in 1941, the same year the Axis Powers invaded the Soviet Union, an attack paralleled in the movie by the cops’ entering the Hotel Earle to arrest Charlie. Charlie’s shooting of the cops thus represents the Soviet victory over fascism: his saying, “Heil Hitler” before shooting Detective Deutsch is mockingly ironic.

Since Charlie, or Karl, represents communism, and Fink represents liberalism, consider the nature of their ‘buddy-buddy‘ relationship. Sure, they’re friends, but when Charlie “can tell [Fink] some stories,” Fink interrupts him, speaks condescendingly to him, and prates on and on about the contemporary state of American theatre, something from which Charlie “can feel [his] butt gettin’ sore already.” Fink, a typical liberal, rejects all opportunities to learn about the real common man, treating their stories like Wilfred R. Bion‘s rejected beta elements, raw sense impressions that are not allowed into the mind, processed, and made into thought. Fink does no learning from experience.

Instead, he hopes his literary hero, W.P. Mayhew, will help him figure out how to write the wrestling picture, but he only grows increasingly disillusioned with the “souse.” Ironically, it’s only Mayhew’s status as a major man of letters that interests Fink, while his alcoholism, a common symptom of the alienation of the working man, disgusts Fink.

At a picnic with Fink and Audrey, Mayhew drinks, speaks obnoxiously, and even slaps her after finishing a piss by a tree. As indefensible as his behaviour is, this crudity is but a symptom of the sufferings of the oppressed proletariat, for which snobbish Fink has no sympathy.

In his inebriated state, Mayhew wanders off among the trees singing “Old Black Joe,” an old Stephen Foster song about a black American slave. Though a white man, Mayhew has been made a slave of sorts by the contract he has with Capitol Pictures. His wandering off, singing, and drinking represent his attempt to escape his miserable existence, a manic defence against his sadness and inability to write.

Fink pretentiously speaks of writing “from a great inner pain”; he’s posturing as the ‘suffering artistic genius.’ Mayhew’s more honest about what makes him write, and about his pain. He likes “making things up…escape.” And when he can’t write, he finds that, apparently, the bottle “will sometimes help.”

Fink will find himself increasingly wanting to escape, but in a different way: through fantasy. Whenever he’s stuck at his typewriter in his hotel room, not knowing how to begin the story for the wrestling movie, he looks up at a picture on the wall of a beautiful young woman sitting on the beach, watching the water with her hand over her eyes to block the sunshine.

He often stares at the picture, admiring the beauty of the woman and the scene. This is his conception of heaven: those waves washing on the shore are his relief from the fiery hell of Hollywood, with its capitalistic degrading of creativity for profit. The beach picture reminds us of the relief and joy of the Greek soldiers in Anabasis when they behold “the sea! The sea!

There is a dialectical relationship between the hell of Hollywood and the heaven of the City of Angels, the former being within the latter, as is the case of the paradise picture of the girl on the beach in Fink’s room in the hellish Hotel Earle–yin and yang. The aspiring writer who has sold his soul to Hollywood tries to escape to the heaven of fantasy. For Fink, the flames of hell are quenched by the water on the shore; for Mayhew, they’re quenched–so it would seem–by firewater.

Some have claimed that where Fink is water, Charlie is fire; and so, if the burning Hotel Earle–Charlie’s home–is hell, then Charlie must be the Devil. I find this to be a simplistic interpretation of a much more complex character. Charlie has a raging fire of pain in him, but he has a lot of good, too.

It is assumed that he is a serial killer, that he kills Audrey out of a rage of sexual jealousy because Fink has chosen beautiful her over fat Charlie as his Muse and his lover. I’m sure Charlie has heard them making love, as earlier and elsewhere in the hotel, he’s been able to hear “those [other] two love-birds next door drivin’ [him] nuts,” and thus he feels hurt that his obesity makes him unattractive to anyone.

None of this, however, conclusively proves that he killed her: his jealousy isn’t necessarily strong enough for a motive for murder. If so, why not kill Fink instead? Their homoerotic wrestling suggests Charlie has wanted Fink, so his betrayal with Audrey should make Charlie want to kill him instead. If killing her was meant to get revenge on Fink by hurting him–traumatizing him–why help him dispose of the body afterwards, in an attempt to protect him from the cops? For all we know, Mayhew–in an uncharacteristic moment of sobriety–could have sneaked in the hotel and killed her.

The detectives call “Madman Mundt” a serial killer, which he could very well be: but why should we trust the claims of those two obnoxious, bigoted personifications of fascism? I find it ironically fitting that Charlie, whom I equate with communism, would–in the eyes of the Hollywood liberal that distributes films like this–symbolize Satan.

The one time we see Charlie actually kill people is in the scene in the burning hallway in the hotel. The inexplicability of the fire, especially when combined with the non-urgent reaction of everyone to it, forces one to conclude that it’s a fantasy in Fink’s head. Where the fantasy begins and ends, however, is hard to determine for sure: is only the fire a fantasy, or is Charlie’s shooting of the cops also one? After all, he casually enters his room, one surrounded by flames, instead of fleeing the scene of the crime.

The final scene of Fink with the beauty at the beach can only be fantasy. It is absurdly improbable that a woman in real life, identical to the girl in the picture, would assume the exact same pose, too. So there is much fantasy in this film, fantasy that’s blatantly obvious towards the end, but not necessarily fantasy only at the end. A legitimate question is, how much of the whole film is Fink’s fantasy, and how much of it is real?

Lipnick’s original sucking up to Fink is symbolic of a kind of capitalist con game, as I outlined above; but is it also a hallucinatory projection of Fink’s mammoth ego? There’s Lipnick’s phoney geniality and there’s Fink’s false modesty; but since phoniness is one of the main themes of the movie (symbolized by the peeling wallpaper to reveal the seediness of the hotel behind its thin mask of a decor), phoniness applies not only to the characters, but also to the visuals in general.

Are there real mosquitoes in Fink’s hotel room, or are they figments of his imagination? Are the cuts on his face from mosquito bites, or are they from him having too harshly scratched itches from imagined bites? Recall Geisler telling him that “there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles. Mosquitoes breed in swamps–this is a desert.”

Fink’s ‘inspiration’ to write the wrestling screenplay most definitely comes from a hallucination; he certainly doesn’t get his idea from having observed the common man, whom he’s been constantly ignoring. His hallucination comes from reading the first chapter of Genesis. God’s Creation becomes Fink’s creation: his inflated ego equates him with Yahweh.

This is the essence of Fink’s phoniness, his egotism: he fancies himself a moral guardian of the little man, yet he really imagines himself as, so to speak, homoousios with the Big Man Himself. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Fink, and the Word was Fink.

His inspiration consistently comes from the written word, from literature, not from the blood and sweat of the working man, as he’d have us believe. Bare Ruined Choirs, as noted above, gets its title from a Shakespeare quote. When he opens the Gideon Bible in his hotel room, he fortuitously opens it to the Book of Daniel, chapter two, in which there is mention of Nebuchadnezzar‘s dream of four kingdoms.

The title of one of Mayhew’s novels, incidentally, is Nebuchadnezzar. The king as portrayed in the Bible says, “if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces,…” (Daniel 2:5); the connection between these two facts lends credence to my theory as to who the real…author…of Audrey’s murder could be. Recall in this connection how, earlier, Mayhew is repeatedly screaming, “WHERE’S M’HONEY!!” when she is merely chatting with Fink for the first time; imagine the bloodiness of his rage to think she’s with Fink in his hotel room.

Fink’s script, it is safe to assume, is essentially a rewriting of Bare Ruined Choirs, in which it seems that fishmongers are largely replaced with wrestlers: “We’ll be hearing from that crazy wrestler. And I don’t mean a postcard,” is an ending much too imitative of that of the original, “We’ll hear from that kid. And I don’t mean a postcard.” Lipnick hates his script for being too “fruity” and artsy-fartsy; we should dismiss Fink as a one-hit-wonder.

Finally, we should consider Fink’s mental health, and the cause of his hallucinations. I find the insights of Wilfred R. Bion useful for this purpose.

Above, I mentioned Fink’s rejection of any of the stories of the common man, new ideas that could help him in his writing of the script for the wrestling movie. I referred to those rejected ideas as beta elements, Bion’s term for sensory data from the external world that aren’t taken into the mind and converted (by alpha function) into thoughts (alpha elements) that can then be used in dreams and unconscious waking thoughts.

Bion explains: “The attempt to evade the experience of contact with live objects by destroying alpha-function leaves the personality unable to have a relationship with any aspect of itself that does not resemble an automaton. Only beta-elements are available for whatever activity takes the place of thinking and beta elements are suitable for evacuation–perhaps through the agency of projective identification.” (Bion, page 13)

When large amounts of beta elements aren’t being processed and turned into thoughts that one can learn from (as is obviously what’s happening with Fink), a beta screen is formed from this unprocessed accumulation, a mental wall blocking out learning; and over time, these beta elements–which, though expelled and projected, never really go away–can become bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections from oneself.

Hence, the walls of Fink’s hotel room symbolize his beta screen of rejected outside influence (the resulting isolation of which reminds us of two films that influenced Barton Fink, namely, Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion and The Tenant, from his Apartment Trilogy); so instead of feeling genuine concern about what Charlie is laughing–or weeping–about in the neighbouring room, Fink complains to Chet about the noise.

The burning hotel and the picture Fink has a conversation with are two of his bizarre objects, hallucinations that indicate his growing psychotic break with reality. Bion dealt with many psychotics in his clinical practice; he noted that they didn’t dream or have unconscious waking thoughts (recall sleepless Fink in this connection, or his projected Nebuchadnezzar, who didn’t know his dreams or their meaning), because they wouldn’t convert beta elements into alpha elements. Raw sensory data were never invested with meaning, to become thought. Unprocessed beta elements thus become bizarre objects.

Fink, in his narcissistic sense of superiority to the world, not only won’t link with other people through Knowledge (what Bion called K), but he actually rejects and pushes away Knowledge (-K). Bion explained it thus: “…any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality…is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority.” Fink thus can be seen, to paraphrase Bion slightly, to be “asserting [his] superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is [his] hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed.” (Bion, page 98)

Instead of learning anything, Fink takes the elements around him and “these elements are stripped of their meaning and only the worthless residue is retained.” Recall how Fink complains to Charlie (after interrupting him and not letting him get a word in edgewise) about how theatre that is cut off from the common man “regresses into empty formalism”; Fink is projecting his own writing vices onto other writers.

Fink is surrounded “by bizarre objects that are real only in that they are the residue of thoughts and conceptions that have been stripped of their meaning and ejected.” (Bion, pages 98-99) Fink’s disturbed alpha function won’t convert those beta elements, so his rejection of learning (-K) leads to an accretion of bizarre objects that drive him mad.

His accelerating psychosis is propelled by the traumatic incidents that disappoint or shock him. First, he feels that writing for a ‘lowly’ wrestling movie is beneath such a talent as he is; he can’t write the screenplay because he simply doesn’t want to. Second, his literary hero, his idealized Mayhew, traumatically disappoints him by revealing himself as a “souse” and, worse yet, a fraud who hasn’t written anything of his own in years…maybe he has never written anything. Finally, there’s the traumatic shock of seeing Audrey’s bloody body next to him in bed…which leads to my next speculation…

It’s assumed that Charlie killed her, of course (and that package may give today’s viewers of Barton Fink eerie recollections of the box at the end of Se7en). I’ve speculated above that Mayhew could have killed her. But here’s an idea: what if Fink killed her, and then in his psychotic state, erased the crime in his mind (as Norman Bates did his mother’s murder)? I’m sure Fink sincerely believes he’s innocent, but the memory of that murder could easily be more evacuated beta elements, projected onto Charlie.

Other rejected beta elements for Fink would be the realization of the rise of fascism in Europe and the hell his fellow Jews would be suffering there. (Jewish Lipnick doesn’t seem to care about them, either, assuming his attitude isn’t another Finkian projection; the profit-driven producer, in his colonel costume, is only concerned with “the Japs.”) Also, are those two detectives, whose symbolic fascism is manifested in their antisemitic and homophobic remarks, more projections of liberal Fink’s disregard for others?

The point is that all that is hateful to narcissistic Fink, hateful things inside himself, all those things are projected onto the world. He unconsciously considers himself too perfect to have any faults of his own, so he projects them onto other people, real or imagined. Also, he considers himself too perfect to introject anything from the outside world, to learn anything, so he rejects the beta elements.

One crucial symptom of narcissism is envy, envy of others’ virtues as well as the perception that others envy the narcissist. Of particular interest is Bion’s use of the Kleinian conception of envy, which originates in the baby’s unconscious wish to spoil the contents of the good breast. In Fink’s case, he wishes to spoil the contents of those whom he unconsciously envies, while projecting that very envy onto them, too.

…and who does Fink envy, and project his envy onto? The common man. As a bourgeois liberal, an educated, literate, middle-class man, he unconsciously wishes he had the simple virtues of the working man. He wishes he had their pain so he could be sympathized with, instead of being the privileged man he really is.

So when he “finds nobility in the most squalid corners and poetry in the most calloused speech,” he’s really bastardizing workers, spoiling their simple purity by making it baroque and literary. This is what Lipnick means when he complains about how “fruity” Fink’s script is; it’s not supposed to be fancy, it’s supposed to be real and down to Earth.

Fink knows this…everybody knows this. He just doesn’t want to comply because he’s too snobbish to. He makes the writing all poetic to show how much ‘better’ he is than the common man. In this way, Fink’s envy spoils all that is good in the worker, ironically, by ‘ennobling’ him. He ‘ennobles’ the working class because he imagines their “brute struggle for existence [, which] cannot quite quell their longing for something better,” is laden with envy of his higher status as one of the intellectual middle class.

Still, Fink’s envy of the working class’s simple purity is why he rejects all opportunities to learn from their experience. His refusal to obtain knowledge, -K, is based on Kleinian envy. As Bion wrote, “one wonders…why such a phenomenon as that represented by -K should exist…I shall consider one factor only–Envy. By this term I mean the phenomenon described by Melanie Klein in Envy and Gratitude.” (Bion, page 96)

Envy is also why Fink could have been Audrey’s murderer: knowing she was the one with the writing talent, rather than Mayhew, could have made him want to spoil her goodness…and her physical beauty, too. (On the other hand, the murder could be more phantasy on his part, the mutilating of her chest representing his unconscious wish to spoil the contents of the good breast.) Though Se7en was made four years later than Barton Fink, I still find it serendipitous that maybe both films involve a package hiding a severed head, and that John Doe’s murder of Tracy Mills was also motivated by envy.

Fink’s phoney extolling of working people masks his unconscious contempt for them, a typical liberal trait. Added to all the traumas he’s already suffered, the narcissistic injury he feels from Lipnick telling him his “story stinks” pushes him over the edge. His narcissism has already been but a fragile defence against psychological fragmentation; but after all that’s happened, he has no other choice but to fall apart. He’s in Mayhew’s shoes now, trapped under contract with people who have no appreciation for his “fruity” creativity. Where else can he go but onto a beach of fantasy, and hear a talking picture?

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen, Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, Faber and Faber, London, 1991

Analysis of ‘The Thing’

I: Introduction

The Thing is a 1982 science fiction/horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Like the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, it was an adaptation of the 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, written by John W. Campbell (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart); actually, though, the 1982 film is much more faithful to Campbell’s novella than the 1951 film was.

The Thing stars Kurt Russell, with A. Wilford BrimleyT. K. CarterDavid ClennonKeith DavidRichard DysartCharles HallahanPeter MaloneyRichard MasurDonald MoffatJoel Polis, and Thomas Waites in supporting roles. Though the film garnered praise for its special effects, it was poorly received on its release; some even considered it one of the worst films ever made. Its critical reputation has since improved, though, and it’s now considered one of the best sci fi/horror films ever made.

Here are some quotes:

[talking into tape recorder] “I’m gonna hide this tape when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. The storm’s been hitting us hard now for 48 hours. We still have nothing to go on. [turns off tape recorder and takes a drink of whisky. He looks at the torn long johns and turns it back on] One other thing: I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over. Windows found some shredded long johns, but the nametag was missing. They could be anybody’s. Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait… R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot, US outpost number 31.” [turns off recorder] –MacReady (Russell)

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” –MacReady

[the Thing roars at MacReady] “YEAH, FUCK YOU TOO!!!” [throws stick of dynamite] –MacReady

[after passing the blood test] “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot. But when you find the time… I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” –Garry (Moffat)

************

MacReady: I don’t know. Thousands of years ago it crashes, and this thing… gets thrown out, or crawls out, and it ends up freezing in the ice.

Childs (David): I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.

Palmer (Clennon): Childs, happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?

Childs: You believe any of this voodoo bullshit, Blair?

Palmer: Childs, Childs… Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.

*************

Blair (Brimley): [showing the remains of the dog-thing to the entire camp] You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

Norris (Hallahan): Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

*************

MacReady: Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By Spring, it could be all of us.

Childs: So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

*************

MacReady: How you doin’, old boy?

Blair: I don’t know who to trust.

MacReady: I know what you mean, Blair. Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what – why don’t you just trust in the Lord?

*************

Childs: The explosions set the temperatures up all over the camp. But it won’t last long though.

MacReady: When these fires go out, neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well… what do we do?

MacReady[slumping back] Why don’t we just wait here a little while? See what happens.

**************

[from teaser trailer] Some say the world will end by fire. Others say it will end by ice. Now, somewhere in the Antarctic, the question is being settled forever.

[from theatrical trailer] Twelve men have just discovered something. For 100,000 years, it was buried in the snow and ice. Now it has found a place to live. Inside. Where no one can see it. Or hear it. Or feel it.

The main theme of this film is paranoia, distrust of others, based on the fact that “The Thing” is an alien able to imitate other life forms to perfection, thus making it next to impossible to be sure if any of the men in the research base in Antarctica is really a man, or an alien imitation waiting for its chance to change the other men into imitations.

This ability to pretend to be human or animal, not just in physical but in mental form, too, is also in Who Goes There?, unlike the 1951 film, which is essentially just a monster movie. The alien can slip in undetected and seem to be one of the men, knowing their memories and personality traits down to the last detail. Hence, “Who goes there?” implies the next, and even more relevant question: “Friend, or foe?”

II: Unity of Opposites

This friend/foe duality is merged in how those who seem friends are often really foes…and vice versa. This merging and juxtaposition of opposites is seen in other forms, too, as in the extremes of fire and ice, both of which end and preserve lives (i.e., the flame thrower and the blowing up/burning down of the research base, which kill alien manifestations and save the men; this burning happens in the freezing cold temperature of a winter in Antarctica, which can kill the men and preserve the alien in a state of hibernation…“to die, to sleep”). Also, there are the literally polar opposites of Antarctica versus Scandinavia (i.e., the Norwegians whom MacReady confuses with Swedes, so, the Arctic); then, there’s the 1951 movie’s moving of the setting from Antarctica to Alaska.

Another opposition in the film is in its implied anti-woman versus anti-male attitudes. There isn’t even one actress in the entire film (save Adrienne Barbeau‘s voice-acting of the “Chess Wizard” computer game, which sexist MacReady calls “baby,” and a “cheating bitch” before pouring his glass of booze into its inner circuitry, because he can’t accept losing a chess game to a ‘woman’), something to annoy any feminist. On the other hand, this very lack of females is ironically itself a criticism of masculinity, since the point of the film is the relative lack of empathy, cooperation, and friendship among the characters, virtues more stereotypically associated with femininity.

III: Who Were Our Real Friends and Foes During the Cold War?

The more germane question of the movie, however, is what does this alien represent, this “Thing” that causes so much alienation and confusion among the men? One allegorizing of the film is of the Cold War (indeed, the story is a literal cold war), representing the antagonism between the NATO and Warsaw pacts, and the danger of provoking MAD.

Some might see the alien as representing the Soviets, and therefore its spreading imitations of humans as the fear of the spread of communism; while the paranoid, bickering men represent such right-wing curmudgeons as those in the GOP (and since this is a Hollywood film, all of this hostility between the two extreme sides is best neutralized with a ‘balanced’ liberal mindset [!]).

Those of you who have read enough of my blog posts will know that I have no intention of interpreting this film’s meaning through either conservative or liberal lenses. I, contrarian that I am, plan to flip conventional analysis of this film on its head. So what follows will be, in part, a Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the story.

Though the men fighting off the thing are Americans, and at the beginning, Norwegians (that is, members of two countries that were founding members of NATO, and therefore ideological opposites to the Soviets), I see them as symbolic of any socialist state fighting off the forces of capitalist reaction. US vs USSR, friend vs foe, fire vs ice, all men vs no women: all dialectically related opposites, the one side merging and interacting with the other. Because of the dialectical unity in all contradictions, we can see an interesting irony in Americans representing their ideological foes.

Consider what The Thing can do: taking on any shape or form, it sneaks up on unsuspecting people, attacks them, and replaces them with imitations of them; then those imitations do the same to others, again and again, until–theoretically, at least–the entire Earth has replaced all life with alien imitations. It’s rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, actually.

This spreading of a kind of cancer, if you will, wiping out all life and replacing it with the infection–is this not like what capitalism does? Modern capitalism grew out of the mercantilism and merchant capitalism that were dominant in the modernized parts of Europe about five centuries ago. Those two, as well as feudalism, transitioned into capitalism as the new form of class conflict, which then spread around the world.

Capitalism also causes alienation between workers, like the estrangement felt among the paranoid men in the film. It causes alienation from one’s species-essence, symbolized in the film by the contradiction between the False Self of the alien imitation and the True Self of the original man who is imitated.

The alien imitations pretend to be the men’s friends, just as capitalism is made out to be the friend of humanity, according to bourgeois propaganda, liberating us from Bolshevik state tyranny, eliminating poverty, and bringing about economic prosperity. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, especially since the disastrous dissolution of the USSR, has shown what lies these notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘poverty elimination‘ and ‘prosperity’ are, just as when we are shocked to learn that Norris and Palmer are aliens.

So in this context, the US research station in lonely Antarctica can be seen to represent any of the socialist states, past and present, that have been economically isolated by sanctions and embargoes. The Americans’ struggle to defeat The Thing represents the aggravation of class struggle under socialism, as manifested in the Great Purge and the Cultural Revolution. Stalin and Mao knew there were bourgeois traitors hiding among them and pretending to be fellow socialists (just as The Thing hides among the Americans in the film), and allowing them to gain the upper hand would have lead to the defeat of socialism, the actual achievement of which, as we have seen since the 1990s, has lead to the egregious wealth inequality, the constant threat of US imperialist war, and destruction of the earth that we’ve seen and are still seeing.

Now, as we recall, a lot of nastiness occurred in the USSR in the 1930s, and in China during the late 1960s, just as there is nastiness among the Americans in the movie as they try to eliminate the alien: MacReady shoots Clark (not an alien) in the head. Of all the men MacReady–threatening them with dynamite–has tied up, only Palmer is an alien; the men freak out, tied up and helpless, as the Palmer-Thing reveals itself and infects Windows, forcing MacReady to kill them both with the flamethrower. These problems are comparable with the innocent Soviets imprisoned and executed (the fault of Yezhov, not of Stalin), and with the violent moments of the Cultural Revolution.

The film begins with a sled dog (man’s best friend?) running in the snow towards the US research station, with Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing it and shooting at it. The Norwegian with the rifle shouts frantically about the danger the dog poses; since he isn’t shouting in English, the Americans have no idea what his problem is. Because of his constant shooting at the dog, and accidentally wounding Bennings, he seems crazy (Dr. Copper [Dysart] speculates that the “stir-crazy” Norwegian got “cabin fever”)…and dangerous himself; so Garry gets a pistol, points it out the window, and kills the man.

Communists are similarly seen as crazy (as are the victims of narcissists) when warning the world about capitalists (who, especially in the upper echelons of power and wealth, tend to be narcissists); they’re vilified and often killed, as is the Norwegian. My point is that we leftists, like the Norwegians, see a real danger that most other people don’t.

Later, we see that sled dog looking intently, ominously, out a window at the Americans’ helicopter returning after investigating what happened at the Norwegian base. Ennio Morricone‘s keyboard soundtrack was playing when the dog was chased by the helicopter, with an eerie bass synth ostinato highlighting a pair of loud notes making us think of a heartbeat…the alien’s heartbeat? The dog isn’t man’s best friend, but his worst enemy.

When the dog is caught in the middle of making another dog into an imitation, Blair (Brimley) examines the internal organs of the imitation and realizes how indistinguishable those organs are from a real dog’s organs. He is so horrified by the implications of this alien ability (i.e., that it can imitate humans) that he goes mad and violent, and then has to be sedated and confined, separate from the other men.

The imitation is both internally and externally perfect, and so the alien can take on all kinds of shapes and forms. Recall what happens to Norris’s body when Dr. Copper does the defibrillating; a huge mouth opens up from Norris’s chest, with huge teeth that bite off Copper’s hands, killing him. Then Norris’s head rips off the body and grows what look like an insect’s legs and stalks with eyes on the top of each; hence MacReady’s correct observation that The Thing’s body parts, right down to drops of blood, can be complete life forms in themselves. Copper’s mutilation symbolizes the injuries the worker under capitalism often suffers, often without compensation.

Capitalism, too, can adapt and imitate many aspects of leftist ideology, in ways so convincing that many people confuse real leftism with phoney versions of it, for example, mainstream liberalism, social democracy, identity politics, social justice warriors, “democratic socialism,” etc. Tiny parts of capitalism existing within ‘socialism’ are still cancerous capitalism, and thus must be rooted out. Capitalism’s ability to adapt is remarkable, as David Harvey noted in a quote I’ve used in other blog posts, but it’s relevant to reuse it here, too:

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

So, with all this shapeshifting and adapting that The Thing does, who are the men’s friends, and who are their foes? Much suspicion is put on Clark, Windows (Waites), Garry, and MacReady, all of whom, it turns out, are not aliens (though we can’t be too sure about MacReady at the end of the movie). Windows in particular has a menacing look on his face as he waits in the shadows for MacReady to dip a hot wire into a sample of his blood, only to prove his innocence.

Similarly, who are the friends, and who the foes, of the working class? Is communists’ preoccupation with the imperialist plunder of the Third World a legitimate concern, or does this concern just make us ‘tankies‘ whose ‘over-solicitude’ is used to justify ‘dictatorship’? Will a few left-leaning reforms, giving the Western working class some free stuff, be sufficient, while we not only ignore but aggravate the exploitation of people in developing countries? Is getting rid of Trump and the GOP all we need to do, or is there something more fundamental that needs to be fixed in American politics?

As I mentioned above, this alien doesn’t need a full body to reproduce itself in imitations: a mere drop of its blood is enough, hence the efficacy of MacReady’s blood test with the hot wire (also used in the novella). Since I see the alien as symbolic of capitalism and imperialism, we should consider what the drops of blood–these ever-so-small parts of the alien’s body as fully-functioning, independent units of existence, each a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the whole Thing–imply about the danger of the existence of even the smallest manifestations of capitalism, that eerie alien (and alienating) heartbeat that never dies.

Social democracy incorporates strong unions, a welfare state, free education and healthcare, among other benefits for working people, all within the context of a market economy. Yugoslavia under Tito pursued a market socialist economy and remained independent of the Eastern Bloc; some say Yugoslavia‘s non-alliance with the Eastern Bloc gave Western imperialism an advantage, helping them defeat communism by the 1990s, thus ushering in the current neoliberal hell. Recall that Lenin’s NEP was only meant as a temporary measure. Stalin put an end to it after a mere eight years.

Even the smallest amounts of capitalism–just like even the smallest amounts of The Thing–can’t be allowed to live and thrive. The microcosm is no less evil than the macrocosm.

IV: The Narcissistic Thing

While discussing the tinier manifestations of evil as seen in The Thing, consider how narcissism or psychopathy (seen in ambitious, exploitative individuals) are the microcosm of the macrocosm of capitalism and class war. People with Cluster B personality disorders will slip in among the crowd of normal people, pretend to be as normal as the latter, and will treat them as extensions of themselves, just as The Thing does to the Americans.

Non-psychopathic and non-narcissistic people will be falsely accused of having either those pathologies (i.e., through projection) or similar ones, as Clark, Garry, Windows, and MacReady are suspected of being alien imitations. Not only will the Cluster-B-disordered one accuse the innocent, but so will his enablers (even the unwitting enablers), as is the case when the non-assimilated men accuse each other of being ‘Things.’

The narcissist or psychopath is, like The Thing, selfish, wishing only to survive, even at the cost of betraying his own kind (this selfishness is noted especially in the novella with respect to “the monster”–Chapter VIII). A game of divide and conquer is played, making the victims hostile to each other instead of to the victimizer. We see this antagonism in The Thing, in the exploitative relationship between narcissists and their victims–that is, on the microcosmic level–and in class relations (i.e., big corporations vs. small businesses and workers) on the macrocosmic level. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Still, the narcissist needs other people to give him narcissistic supply, and the capitalist always needs new supplies of profit to offset the TRPF; just as The Thing always needs a new supply of life forms to assimilate. If the narcissist’s True Self is exposed, he goes berserk with narcissistic rage, feeling the danger of psychological fragmentation; just as the alien goes wild and physically comes apart when Palmer is exposed as an imitation.

Heat will expose the alien, and fire will kill it. It can, however, hibernate in ice. The narcissist, as well as the capitalist, has an icy heart–cold is his home. The Thing, narcissist, and capitalist can all hide in human warmth, though, pretending to be a friend even as they plot our destruction.

V: The Thing-in-itself

So, to recap, The Thing could be seen as symbolizing the threat of the spread of communism, as conservatives and liberals would see it. In my Marxist interpretation, the alien invader represents capitalist imperialism, the microcosm of which (that is, The Thing’s blood) is the narcissistic or psychopathic personality. But this all depends on one’s sense perceptions.

What is The Thing, in itself?

Thanks to Kant, I’ve just answered my own question.

The Thing appears to be a sled dog at the beginning of the film, thanks to the limitations of the Americans’ sense impressions. When they see the thing-in-itself, that is, in mid-transformation into other dogs, they realize their senses have deceived them. The men continue to have this sensory deception throughout the film, as do we, the viewers, right up to when MacReady and Childs share the bottle of scotch and begin freezing to death.

In this sense, The Thing represents the source of human problems, whatever that source really is; it is what it is, in spite of the limitations of our sensory impressions, those of our world view, those of our political biases. Conservatives’ and liberals’ biases would call that source communism, or something similar. Marxists like me would call that source the capitalism that conservatives and liberals defend (in its ‘free market‘ or ‘kinder, gentler‘ forms, respectively).

So, which is the friend, capitalism or communism, and which the foe? According to John Carpenter, one of the two freezing men sharing the bottle is an alien assimilation: is it Childs, or MacReady? Which is the friend, and which the foe? Is the friend the man who–suspected of being a foe–‘Stalinistically’ [!] had most of the other men tied up, and yet exposed Parker; and is the foe Childs, who was opposed to imperious MacReady’s blood testing, yet at the end of the film shows no light reflection in his eyes, and whose breath isn’t visible?

As for the thing-in-itself, some, like Wilfred Bion in his mystical conception of O, might associate Kant’s idea with God, or Ultimate Reality. O is to be understood intuitively through the abandonment of memory, desire, and understanding–no use of deceptive sense impressions. Bion didn’t sentimentalize his mystical idea, though; he acknowledged that O results in moments of ominous and turbulent feelings…feelings the alien certainly provokes in the Americans…feelings that cause one to lose one’s anchor of security in everyday reality.

If The Thing, as thing-in-itself, is some form of Divinity, again we must ask: is God friend, or foe? Is Ultimate Reality a comforting…or a terrifying…reality? Recall that Christians (Protestants in particular) often embrace capitalism, believing that God is rewarding their work ethic, seen as an expression of their religious faith, with financial success. Thus, God is a friend to the capitalists–to the rest of us, not so much.

During the end credits, we hear Morricone’s funereal organ tune and its alien heartbeat bass synth line; a fusion of life and death, more dialectical unity in opposites. The killing alien is still alive. The defeat of communism is a joy to the capitalists, but a catastrophe to us Marxists, who see imperialism‘s continued destruction of the rest of the world, just as The Thing will surely continue to assimilate other humans when a rescue team comes and finds the American research base.

When Childs and MacReady freeze, the human will die and The Thing will hibernate until that rescue team comes and thaws it out. Which man is real, and which is fake? It’s been said that all the men whose eyes show a reflection of light are real, and those without that reflection–like Palmer, Norris, and Childs (at the end)–are imitations. But that’s just the opinion, the sense perception, of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who deliberately provided a subtle illumination to the eyes of uninfected characters, something absent from Childs, with his conspicuously invisible breath, at the end. 

Cundey created that sense impression in the characters’ eyes, just as we all create our own sense impressions of the world through our personal biases. Does light in the eyes symbolize ‘seeing the light’ of human truth, or do we just interpret the symbolism that way? Is the light in our eyes just the limitation of our own sense perceptions?

If, Dear Reader, your senses perceive it to be disturbing that I would consider the communists our friends, and the capitalists–of every conceivable stripe–our foes, remember that The Thing is a horror movie. That’s the whole scary thing about the film: we don’t know who our friends and enemies really are, including our ideological friends and foes; and in spite of the persuasiveness of the light-in-the-eyes theory, we don’t know for sure which man–Childs, or MacReady–is The Thing.

The two freezing men will just have to wait there a little while, and see what happens.

Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.