Analysis of ‘Black Sabbath’

I: Introduction and Quotes

Black Sabbath, or I tre volti della paura (“The Three Faces of Fear”), is a 1963 Italian horror film directed by Mario Bava and starring Boris Karloff. It’s an anthology of three horror stories loosely adapted (or so it claims in the Italian credits) from tales by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, ‘Ivan Chekhov,’ and Guy de Maupassant: “The Telephone” (‘F.G. Snyder,’ in all probability a pseudonym for Bava and fellow screenwriters Marcello Fondato and Alberto Bevilacqua; in any case, the story is vaguely influenced by “Le Horla,” by Maupassant), “The Wurdalak” (Tolstoy), and “The Drop of Water” (‘Chekhov,’ but probably based on a story by Franco Lucentini).

The American version of the film moved “The Drop of Water” to the front; I prefer the original Italian ordering, as it gives the film a kind of ABA, ternary form in terms of theme–statement, departure, return. Furthermore, the prudish Production Code, while waning, was still in effect enough to censor the American version of “The Telephone,” removing the hints at a lesbian relationship between Rosy and Mary, and at the fact that Rosy is a call girl, vengeful Frank being her former pimp.

Having seen people lined up at the local cinema to watch the movie back in the late 60s, the heavy metal pioneers decided to name themselves after it (this renaming in English being a fortuitous choice for them, since it bears no relation at all to the film; the renaming was just to lull movie-goers over to it after the success of Bava’s Black Sunday); the band marvelled at how people are willing to pay to be scared. As a result, the band invented heavy metal, with its doom-and-gloom sound, as a kind of rock version of horror movie music, in contrast to the ‘happier’ hard rock of the likes of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Van Halen.

The film didn’t do well commercially or critically on release, but it has since seen its reputation improve. “The Telephone” is an early Bava attempt at giallo in film.

Here are some quotes:

“Come closer, please! I’ve something to tell you. Ladies and gentlemen, how do you do? This is BLACK SABBATH. You are about to see three tales of terror… and the supernatural. I do hope you haven’t come alone. As you will see from one of our tales, vampires – wurdulaks – abound everywhere. Is that one, sitting behind you now? You can’t be too careful, you know. They look perfectly normal, and indeed they are. Except… they only drink the blood of those whom they love the best. Ah… there I go, talking shop again! Let’s get on with our first tale.” –Boris Karloff, first lines

“You have no reason to be afraid.” –Mary, to Rosy

“What’s the matter, woman? Can’t I fondle my own grandson? Give him to me!” –Gorca, to Ivan’s mother

II: Unifying the Stories

So, why did Bava choose these “three faces of fear” in particular? Why these three stores, as opposed to any other three? If they were merely chosen at random, such a choice would seem to detract from the overall quality of the movie, one which is now ranked #73 on a Time Out poll of the best horror films. Surely, these three specific choices, and how they were crafted, have a meaning in itself.

Since the three stories are separated in terms of plot, time, and setting (the first in early 60s France, the second in 19th century Russia, and the third in London in the 1910s), the link uniting them seems to be one of theme.

Indeed, there are several themes that I’ve found uniting the three stories, especially the first and last in this ABA structure. The main theme is the relationship between fear and desire.

Lacan said that desire is “the desire of the Other,” meaning that we desire to be what other people desire (what we think they desire), and that we desire recognition from others. As for fear, Lacan said that our anxieties spring from not knowing what others want–“the sensation of the desire of the Other…Anxiety is the feeling of the over-proximity of the desire of the Other.” Hence, the link between fear and desire.

Is the desire of others a wish to rape or kill us? Is it their wish to absorb our identity into them and to make us one of them? Is it their wish to take from us what they lack? These are “the three faces of fear” that confront us–sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically–in this film.

III: The Telephone

Though a telephone is a means of communication, of connection, it’s paradoxically also a cause of alienation, since we use it to converse from far distances, making face-to-face communication impossible. This is the central problem of Rosy (played by Michèle Mercier), a pretty young call girl who gets a series of threatening phone calls at home one night from a mysterious person.

She hears the voice of a man who claims to be watching her every move in her apartment: knowing when she’s changed into her dressing gown, when she’s exposing her pretty legs, when she’s hidden her valuables. This knowing is an erotic link between fear and desire; it’s Freud‘s Eros connected with Thanatos, for though the caller craves her beautiful body, it’s to kill her, not to caress her.

She learns from the newspaper that Frank (played by Milo Quesada), her former pimp against whom she testified, has broken out of prison, and she understands that it’s he who has been calling her, wanting to kill her in revenge. She calls her former friend, Mary (played by Lydia Alfonsi), to come over to her apartment to help her feel safe; immediately after hanging up, she gets another threatening call, her victimizer knowing she’s just chatted with Mary on the phone.

Little does Rosy know that Mary, a lesbian admirer who’s had a falling-out with her, is the caller. Mary’s terrorizing of Rosy, to pressure her former lover to let her come back into her life–and into her home, which is symbolic of Rosy’s vagina–is a symbolic lesbian sexual assault. (I’ll return to this symbolism in “The Drop of Water,” the returning A of this ABA structure.)

So, the alienating effect of the telephone conversations, as opposed to Mary’s entering of Rosy’s apartment to talk to her face to face, represents the kind of object relations that WRD Fairbairn wrote about: the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration (Mary and Rosy, when face to face), the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration (Mary and Rosy when on the phone, with Mary’s desire to have Rosy again), and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration (Mary’s threats to Rosy, when impersonating Frank on the phone).

Put another way, Mary is torn between feelings of love and desire (her Libidinal Ego) for Rosy (Mary’s Exciting Object), and feelings of hate and resentment (Mary’s Anti-libidinal Ego) for the ex-lover who spurned her (Mary’s Rejecting Object). Mary’s claim of bearing no grudge is thus an obvious example of denial.

Mary has resolved her conflict between the Eros wish to kiss Rosy, on the one hand, and her Thanatos wish to kill Rosy, on the other, by making the threatening calls. On the one hand, Mary enjoys terrorizing Rosy, and on the other, she is goading Rosy to let her come in [!] her home. Mary’s putting of a knife under Rosy’s pillow suggests that Mary knows Frank is really coming over.

There is the ever-so-slight influence of Guy de Maupassant’s horror short story, “Le Horla” on “The Telephone.” The American bowdlerization of “The Telephone,” not only removing the hints at lesbianism and prostitution, but also making Frank into a ghost who sends Rosy a self-writing letter, makes the story a little closer to Maupassant’s, with its sense of an evil presence encircling, watching, and ultimately controlling the protagonist (who at the end attempts to kill his/her tormentor, but ultimately fails); I must say, however, that this alteration comes off as contrived when compared with the vastly superior Italian original, which needed no supernatural trappings of any kind.

The link between the influence of The Horla (loosely translated, “[that thing] out there,” hors-là), who wants to possess the body of the narrator, and “The Telephone” reinforces my interpretation that the encroachment into Rosy’s apartment is a symbolic rape, especially since I see Frank as a projection of Mary; her impersonating of him on the phone represents a wish-fulfillment to attack Rosy.

Mary gives Rosy a tranquilizer. We see Rosy lying on her bed, towards the end of her sleep; and the light of dawn (by which time the threatened killing of her is supposed to have already happened) is coming through a window. Mary is at a nearby desk writing a letter to Rosy, confessing that she was, in fact, her terrorizer: this was the only way she could be with Rosy again. I wonder–while Rosy was out, did Mary enjoy her? It seems unlikely that Mary would have passed up such an opportunity.

Then, Frank comes in and, thinking it’s Rosy at the desk writing the letter of confession, strangles Mary with one of Rosy’s stockings. Since I see Frank as a projection of Mary’s aggressive feelings towards Rosy, this killing can be seen to symbolize Mary’s Anti-libidinal Ego momentarily triumphing over her Libidinal Ego, meaning that it’s Mary who has wanted to kill Rosy after all. Still, that part of Mary that still loves Rosy wins out in the end, for the knife Mary put under the pillow is used by Rosy to kill her attacker, that projection of Mary’s killer instincts onto Frank, which is once again rebuffed by Mary’s Rejecting Object.

IV: The Wurdalak

A wurdalak is a kind of Slavic vampire that feeds on the blood of those it especially loves–its family and close friends. Here again we see the meeting of fear and desire.

This story is the most faithful of the three to its purported literary sources, in this case, Aleksey Tolstoy’s Family of the Vourdalak. Here we see Boris Karloff doing his thing, and hearing his lines dubbed into Italian is the only drawback of Bava’s original version.

Travelling Vladimir Durfe (played by Mark Damon) stops when he sees a decapitated corpse with an unusual dagger stabbed in its chest. Later, he comes to the cottage of a family, having taken the dagger with him. He enters the cottage and sees an empty space on a wall where the dagger is meant to be hanging.

One of the men of the cottage, Giorgio (played by Glauco Onorato), points a rifle at Vladimir and demands he return the dagger to the family. The dagger is an obvious phallic symbol (as is the rifle), and its not being in the possession of Giorgio’s family is thus a symbolic castration, a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire.

The rest of the family present themselves to Vladimir: Giorgio’s wife (played by Rika Dialina) and their little boy, Ivan; Giorgio’s younger brother, Pietro (played by Massimo Righi), and the men’s sister, the breathtaking Sdenka (played by Susy Andersen), with whom Vladimir is immediately smitten. More desire emerges.

A terrible fear is consuming the family: their old patriarch, Gorca (Karloff), has gone off to destroy a wurdalak. If the old man doesn’t return until after five days (ten days in Tolstoy’s story), then he’s become a wurdalak himself, and he must be destroyed, an agonizing task for his family.

Gorca does return, at just about the last moment when such a return would be safe…or has it been just slightly too late? He looks ghastly and pale, and he’s irritable. He also has a gory wound on his chest, a yonic hole, another symbolic castration, a lack leading to desire.

Indeed, he does feel desire: the creepy old man wishes to “fondle” his grandson, Ivan; the family must indulge him. Here we come to the uncomfortable symbolism of the wurdalak‘s craving of the blood of family–it represents incest, both literal and psychological, leading to enmeshment.

Sexual perversity is at the core of Black Sabbath, the merging of fear and desire: lesbian rape (bear in mind that I am not the one making moral judgements against lesbianism here, the film is; in 1963, homosexuality was far less socially accepted–I’m just exploring theme here), the symbolic necrophilia that I see in “The Drop of Water” (see below), and the vampiric incest in this story.

Vampire stories are a form of erotic horror, with phallic fangs biting into flesh and sucking out blood, leaving pairs of yonic wounds. Such attacks can be seen as symbolic rapes, a taking possession of the victims. I demonstrated such forms of erotic perversity as these in my novel, Vamps, and in my analyses of Martin and ‘Salem’s Lot. From this reasoning, I can conclude that the families of wurdalaks, craving the blood of their kin, are incestuous.

This incestuous desire goes way beyond children’s Oedipal desires for their parents, but it shares the same Oedipal narcissism. One regards one’s whole family as a possession to gratify only one’s own desires, never an outsider’s desires, such as those Vladimir has for Sdenka. For this reason, she feels she cannot escape with him, for Gorca owns her.

Similarly, even before Ivan’s mother has been made a wurdalak, she is so attached to him that, knowing he’s a wurdalak, she won’t let Giorgio destroy Ivan; she would kill herself before allowing that to happen. She takes a knife and stabs Giorgio instead, then opens the door to let her vampire son (and Gorca) inside the house, risking the turning of her entire family into wurdalaks. Such extreme, irrational, overprotective love, going beyond even her love of her husband, suggests a Jocasta complex.

Vladimir’s love for Sdenka offers her the hope of escaping this narcissistic, emotionally abusive family. She runs away with him, stopping at an abandoned cathedral, but the wurdalak family–Gorca, bitten Giorgio and his wife–find her there and, biting her, force her to return with them.

The enmeshment of the abusive family is complete: they just have to ensnare Vladimir with a bite from Sdenka when he returns to their cottage.

V: The Drop of Water

This story is claimed to be based on one by ‘Ivan Chekhov,’ though the actual source is “Dalle tre alle tre e mezzo” (“Between Three and Three-thirty”), by Franco Lucentini, under the pseudonym of P. Kettridge. This third part of the movie shares enough thematic similarities, by my interpretation, to “The Telephone” to indicate a return to A in the film’s ternary form.

Helen Chester (played by Jacqueline Pierreux), a nurse in 1910s London, is in her flat one night; just as Rosy, in “The Telephone,” has returned to her apartment, in early 60s France, at night. In both stories, the protagonist is a woman in modern western Europe, at home at night. Both of them receive irritating phone calls at the beginning of the story.

The caller requires Helen immediately to go to the home of an old medium who has just died; the caller, the medium’s timid maid, needs Helen to dress the body and prepare it for burial. Annoyed, Helen goes over there.

The maid is too afraid to go near the body of a woman who has tampered with the spirit world, so Helen must do all the work unaided. The body has a grotesque, eerie grin on its face. On its finger is a sapphire ring that Helen covets.

Since the maid isn’t there to see Helen’s act of petty larceny, the nurse thinks she’s safe in pulling the ring off the corpse’s finger and stuffing it in her blouse. As soon as she wrests the ring off the dead medium’s finger, though, it falls on the floor; and when she goes down to find it, the corpse’s hand drops on her head, knocking over a glass of water and causing it to spill and drip water on a tray. Then a buzzing fly is seen on the finger where the ring was. It’s as if the medium’s soul has passed by metempsychosis from her body into the fly, so it can pester Helen in revenge for stealing the ring.

Now, to be sure, it is a nice ring, but is it nice enough to steal? I suppose; but would the ghost of the medium be so enraged with Helen’s theft as to want to torment her to the point of making her choke herself to death…over a ring?…over something the medium cannot take with her into the afterlife?

I believe the theft of the ring is symbolic of a far worse outrage, and the medium’s involvement with spirits, likely including evil ones, makes such an outrage plausible, if only symbolically expressed. I see the ring as a yonic symbol, the band representing the vaginal opening, and the sapphire representing either the clitoris or the hymen.

Helen’s theft of the ring, her having been under the demonic influence of one of the spirits with whom the medium has made a dangerous acquaintance, thus symbolizes a lesbian, necrophiliac rape. This symbolism would link this last story thematically with the first one (Mary’s presumed having of Rosy while the latter has been tranquilized), and such an outrage on the corpse would give the medium’s ghost sufficient motive for revenge against Helen.

The spilled glass of water, like those glasses of alcohol Helen drinks in her apartment, would thus also be yonic symbols of her sapphic, sapphire desires [!]. We also see in all of this the link between fear and desire; for right after she slips the ring on her finger and admires it, a symbolic vaginal fingering, she starts noting all the strange, frightening occurrences: the pesky fly having followed her home; the sound of dripping water, symbolic of vaginal discharge, heard everywhere; the power outage (indeed, that light outside her window, flashing on and off, can be seen to symbolize the bright fire of never-fulfilled desire when contrasted with the darkness of fear); and the medium ghost’s appearances, all to terrify Helen.

The link between fear and desire here is in Helen’s guilt over her theft of the medium’s symbolic yoni, her symbolic rape of the corpse. Helen goes mad with guilt, what she sees and hears being visual and auditory hallucinations, and in her madness, she chokes herself to death.

The next morning, a pathologist and doctor discuss Helen’s discovered corpse with her landlady (played by Harriet White Medin), who the night before had to break open the door to discover what Helen’s screaming was all about. Just as Mary pays with her life for Rosy’s symbolic rape, the forced entry into her apartment, and her projection of Frank trying to kill Rosy, so has Helen paid with her life for her symbolic rape of the dead medium.

A cut, or bruise, on Helen’s ring finger indicates that the ring has been pulled off. One may assume that the medium’s ghost has taken it back; but as I said above, the ghost has no use for a ring in the afterlife. I suspect that the landlady, having an agitated look on her face when hearing the sound of dripping water, has stolen the ring.

After all, Helen’s corpse now has an eerie grin just like that of the dead medium. A fresh, white dress is laid out on her bed, just as the maid left one out for the medium. All of these observations suggest a passing-on of the evil from victim to victim, suggesting in turn that, while alive, the medium outraged a previous female corpse, taking the sapphire ring while under the influence of an evil spirit; and now the landlady will be terrorized by Helen’s ghost, and when the landlady dies with an evil grin of her own, yet another woman will snatch the ring [!], and so on, leaving a bruise on the landlady’s finger, symbolic of the injured vaginal walls of a rape victim.

Such passings-on of evil have been observed in the other two stories: Mary’s resentment against Rosy is passed, projected onto Frank, and their aggression is passed on to Rosy, who kills him, with his own killing of Mary being symbolic of her self-destructive lust; the evil of the wurdalak is passed onto Gorca, then to Ivan, to Giorgio and his wife, and finally to Sdenka and Vladimir. Finally, the ghoulish lust for the yonic ring is passed on from woman to woman.

All violent forms of sexuality, three faces of fear, merged with three faces of desire.

Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

Pet Sematary is a 1983 supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, the one he considered his scariest (King, page ix) because of a real-life situation in which his toddler son ran off to a road and almost got hit by a truck (page xi). It has been made into two film adaptations, the 1989 one starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, and Fred Gwynne; and the 2019 version starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.

Here are some quotes from the 1989 film, the screenplay written by Stephen King:

“But he’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat… let God get His own if He wants one… not mine.” –Ellie Creed, afraid of her cat, Church, dying on the road in front of the Creed’s home

“The barrier was not meant to be crossed. The ground is sour.” –the ghost of Victor Pascow

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.” –Jud Crandall

Louis: Has anyone ever buried a person up there?
Jud: Christ on His Throne, NO! Whoever would!?

“Today is thanksgiving day for cats, but only if they came back from the dead.” –Louis Creed

“I knew this would happen. I told her when you were first married you’d have all the grief you can stand and more, I said. Now look at this. I hope you rot in hell! Where were you when he was playing in the road? You stinkin’ shit! You killer of children!” –Irwin Goldman, at Gage’s funeral, to Louis…then punches Louis

Louis: I’ll bite, Jud. What’s the bottom of the truth?
Jud: That, sometimes, dead is better. The person that you put up there ain’t the person that comes back. It might look like that person, but it ain’t that person, because whatever lives on the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain’t human at all.

Rachel: It’s okay, Ellie! You just had a bad dream.
Ellie: It wasn’t a dream, it was Paxcow! Paxcow says daddy is going to do something really bad!
Rachel: Who is this Paxcow?
Ellie: He’s a ghost, a good ghost! He was sent to warn us!

“Rachel, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. And now I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again… Never get out of bed again…NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!” –Zelda Goldman

“I’m coming for you, Rachel… And this time, I’ll get you… Gage and I will both get you, for letting us die…” –Zelda, who then cackles

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

The deliberately misspelled title is derived from an actual pet cemetery whose sign had the same misspelling, made by a child (page x). In the story, as in the real pet cemetery (it’s safe to assume), a number of the grave markers of the children’s dead pets have other misspellings; these all give a sense of the innocence of children who must learn to come to grips with loss.

I see another possible interpretation of the “Sematary” spelling, that it is a pun on seminary, or a school of theology. To study God is to study life’s meaning, as well as the mystery of death, the afterlife, and how to cope with suffering and loss. In this connection, recall the surname of the protagonist, Creed (the Christian belief system), and the name of their cat, Winston Churchill, usually shortened to Church. Pets are churches that, through their deaths, teach children about loss.

There are two cemeteries in the story, the good one (the Pet Sematary) and the bad one (the Micmac burial ground). The good one helps children deal with their grief and to learn to accept loss; but the bad one, which resurrects the dead and transforms them into demonic versions of their former selves (because the ground is inhabited by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the First Nations tribes of the area), is for those who cannot accept the loss of loved ones.

So, the Pet Sematary is a kind of seminary, if you will, teaching children how to process the grief they feel after losing their beloved pets. The children can imagine that their pets are going from there to ‘dog [cat, hamster, etc.] heaven.’ The misspellings on the sign and grave markers, as I said above, show us the sweet naïveté of these children in their contemplation of God-like things; for as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pet Sematary is in a forest at the end of a long path from behind the house that the Creed family has just moved into. The religious often speak of following the right path to salvation, and the wrong path to damnation. There’s the path to the Pet Sematary (“It’s a safe path…You keep on the path and all’s well.” –page 39), and there’s also that road in front of the Creeds’ new house, where the Orinco trucks dangerously speed by, often killing people’s pets, thus filling up the Pet Sematary.

The inevitability of these trucks going by, something that happens regularly, is symbolic of the unescapable reality of death. Each truck is a juggernaut–not the actual Jagannath of the Hindus–but the apocryphal interpretation that Western observers made of it centuries ago: the idea that the chariot carrying the Hindu idol went non-stop down the road, and ecstatic worshippers threw themselves on the road to be crushed under the wheels of the chariot, in a rite of human sacrifice.

The name of the company printed on the trucks, Orinco (almost an anagram of the Cianbro truck King saw almost hit his little boy–page xi), sounds like a pun on Orinoco, the South American river whose name is derived from a term meaning “a place to paddle,” or a navigable place. Well, the road is good for Orinco trucks to drive on, since nothing can stop those juggernauts…nothing can stop death. The trucks are one with this road of death, a kind of via dolorosa.

So, the path to the Pet Sematary is a way to get to (pet) heaven, and the road the Orinco trucks drive on is a kind of highway to hell…or at least to Sheol. Then there’s the way beyond the Pet Sematary, the deadfall leading up to the Micmac burying ground, an evil sublation of the thesis–the Pet Sematary leading to eternal life for pets–and the negation of that thesis–the Orinco truck road to death. The Micmac burial ground is a place of living death.

That the Pet Sematary and the evil land of the Wendigo, leading to the Micmac burying ground, are closer together than the former is to the road suggests my ouroboros symbolism for the dialectical relationship between opposites (see these posts to understand my meaning)–the closeness between the Pet Sematary’s heavenly Godliness, if you will, and the devilish hell of the Micmac burial ground.

When Jud Crandall (played by Gwynne in the 1989 film, and by Lithgow in the 2019 one) takes Louis (Midkiff, 1989; Clarke, 2019) past the Pet Sematary and up the deadfall–“the barrier [that] was not made to be broken,” page 161–there’s a further trek of “Three miles or more” (page 164) to the burial ground, but before long one senses a hellish, demonic presence among the eerie animal sounds one hears (pages 166-169)…the Wendigo. They may be a while before getting to the burial ground, but they’re already in a kind of hell…Little God Swamp, or Dead Man’s Bog.

The dangerous climb up the unstable branches of the deadfall represents that meeting place where the teeth of the ouroboros bites its tail (symbolizing the meeting of the opposites of life and death, of heaven and hell), that meeting of opposites where, paradoxically, too much careful and nervous climbing leads to falls and injury, whereas climbing that is “done quick and sure” (page 161), never looking down, results in a miraculously safe and successful ascent.

That barrier is not made to be broken because it is so easy to break. Victor Pascow himself–a jogger hit by a car and killed before Louis can save him (page 89)–breaks the barrier to warn Louis never to break it, in thanks to the doctor for at least trying to save his life.

Jud advises Louis to have Church fixed (pages 23-24) because fixed cats “don’t tend to wander as much,” and therefore the risk of him running across that treacherous road, and getting crushed under the wheels of one of those Orinco trucks, will be lessened. The castrating of the cat, though, does nothing to prevent him from suffering the very fate Louis has tried to prevent. His daughter, Ellie (Berdahl in the 1989 film; Jeté Laurence in the 2019 film), loves Church so much that she will be heartbroken to learn he’s dead.

All of this leads us to a discussion of desire and the inability to fulfill it. Lacan considered the phallus to be the most important of the signifiers, since its lack (through symbolic castration) leads to desire, which can never be fulfilled. For Church, desire means the wish to roam and run about freely, whether fixed or not, whether the fulfillment of that desire is or isn’t excessive, transgressive, or dangerous (i.e., the racing across the road as symbolic of jouissance).

For humans, desire is symbolically expressed in being the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, though we can apply Lacan’s idea more generally–that of desire as ‘the desire of the Other’ (i.e., wanting to fulfill the desires of other people, wanting others’ recognition)–to the desires of the Creed family and Jud. Louis fixes Church in the hopes of keeping him safe, for Ellie’s sake; but when Church is killed, Jud has Louis take the corpse to the burial ground for her sake, too.

Louis, whose father died when he was three and who never knew a grandfather (page 3), has had strained relationships with father figures, particularly with his father-in-law, Irwin Goldman (played by Michael Lombard in the 1989 film). Irwin actually took out his chequebook and offered Louis a sum of money so he wouldn’t marry Rachel (page 146)!

If we see Louis’s love for her as a transference of Oedipal love for his mother, then his hostility to Irwin can be seen as a transference of Oedipal hate toward the father who left this world before Louis could even get a chance to know him. And Irwin’s disapproval of Louis marrying Rachel can thus be seen as a symbolic Non! du père, in turn resulting in Lacan’s notion of the Oedipally-based manque.

Louis has an even better reason to hate Rachel’s parents when he learns that they made her, as a little girl, take care of her sick older sister, Zelda, whose spinal meningitis made her so deformed and ugly that the sight of her traumatized little Rachel…especially when she found Zelda dead in her bed!

But in Jud, “the man who should have been his father,” Louis has found a good father figure, someone onto whom he can transfer positive Oedipal feelings (page 10). So when Jud, influenced by the Wendigo of the Micmac burying ground, has Louis bury Church there, Louis goes along with it, against his better judgement. After all, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he?

Lack gives rise to desire: Church’s castration, meant to keep him safe from the trucks, drives him to run across the road, to the point of him getting killed by a truck after all; “Cats lived violent lives and often died bloody deaths…Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there.” (pages 52, 53) The Creeds’ lack of a cat drives Jud, feeling compassion for Ellie, to have Louis bury the cat in the burial ground, though Jud knows it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do. And Louis, lacking Gage after he is killed by an Orinco truck, is driven to exhume his son’s corpse and–with all the pain and exhausting work it involves–to rebury him in the burial ground. Then he’ll do the same with Rachel after demon-Gage kills her.

All four of these lacks lead to desires, which are excessive wants. The barrier that isn’t made to be broken is, symbolically, the barrier to jouissance, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desire. We all have basic, biological needs, and as we learn language, social customs, culture, etc., in entering the Symbolic Order, we use language to make demands; but demands, especially the demand for love, are never expressed completely through the limitations of language, so some of that need and demand is never fully satisfied.

The residual lack gives rise to desire, an excess that’s never fulfilled. This remainder, incapable of being symbolized in language, is in the realm of the Real Order, a traumatic world symbolized by the frightening, inarticulate animal cries in the land of the Wendigo and the Micmac burial ground…”the real cemetery.”

The Buddhists teach us that suffering is caused by desire, attachment to things in a universe where all things are impermanent. The reality of death is an impermanence too painful for Louis Creed to bear, so his lack of Gage and, at the end of the novel, Rachel, drives him to feel a desire so excessive as to want to use the burial ground to raise them from the dead.

One cannot have the originally desired object–the Oedipally-desired parent, a universal, narcissistic desire, since, as a child looking up into the eyes of that parent, he or she is looking in a metaphorical mirror of him- or herself, a manifestation of the Imaginary Order–so one spends the rest of one’s life searching for a replacement of that object, the objet petit a. This replacement can never be a perfect substitute for the original, so desire is never fulfilled.

The demonic replacements of Church, Gage, and Rachel can be seen to represent the objet petit a, for they, of course, can never replace the originals…though Louis does all he can to have them replace his lost loved ones. When Jud’s wife, Norma, dies, he wisely accepts her death and never even considers burying her in the Micmac burial ground; but its demonic influence drives him to desire to have Church buried there, for Ellie’s sake, since desire is of the other, to wish to fulfill what one believes others want. Similarly, Louis reburies Gage there in part out of a wish to fulfill what he at least imagines is what Rachel would want…to have her little boy back (“She cried his name and held her arms out.” –page 527).

So, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desires, jouissance, symbolized by the demonic resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel, is another example of the dialectical relationship between opposites–pleasure/pain, bliss/suffering, heaven/hell, life/death–as I would represent with the head of the ouroboros biting its tail. In passing into jouissance‘s indulging in transgressive pleasure, one goes past pleasure and suffers pain; whereas in the Pet Sematary, one learns to accept loss.

Young Jud originally buried his dog, Spot, in the Micmac burial ground (page 181); then, when he saw what trouble the resurrected dog was, he came to his senses, killed it, and buried it in the Pet Sematary (page 45). The problem is that the desires kindled by the Micmac burial ground are addictive, like a drug–hence, Jud’s ill-advised taking of Louis there with dead Church.

One always wants more, that ‘surplus value,’ or the plus-de-jouir that Lacan wrote about. When animals are brought back, their demonic nature is usually not so bad as it is with resurrected humans (“…because Hanratty had gone bad, did that mean that all animals went bad? No. Hanratty the bull did not prove the general case; Hanratty was in fact the exception to the general case.” –page 390); again, as with the animals buried in the Pet Sematary, they act as a kind of warning to us not to play around with life and death, especially not with human beings.

There is our attachment to what we can’t keep, what we love; and there’s what we wish we never had, what we hate, yet what we must have at least sometimes in our lives. The Buddhists speak of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed represents all those things and people we want in excess, because we want to keep them, but must one day let go of them–still, we won’t want to let go of them: hence the resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel.

Hatred represents what we wish would be gone, but must have, hence Rachel’s trauma in dealing with Zelda, and her shame at feeling glad her sick sister finally died…but the painful memories live on, haunting her, for she can’t get rid of Zelda until she’s properly processed her pain. Hatred is also in Irwin’s refusal to accept Louis as a son-in-law.

Delusion is the false belief that things can be permanent, hence Louis’s reburying of Church, Gage, and Rachel. Even though he sees how evil resurrected Gage is, Louis still fools himself with the belief that resurrected Rachel will be better, because apparently he waited too long with Gage. “Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel…” (page 556)

So, the message of the novel is that we can’t force our desires onto the world…but we can’t help doing so, even though doing so will only make our suffering worse. We know this, but still do it. “Sometimes, dead is better”…but we refuse to accept it.

The sweetness and innocence of children and animals, as expressed in the Pet Sematary–that seminary, if you will, that teaches us to have the misspelling simplicity of a child entering the kingdom of heaven–turns rotten, into Oz the Gweat and Tewwible (pages 510-511, 513ff), if we try to bend the world to our will. The Wendigo makes all the difference.

As we already know, the Micmac burial ground is a demonic double of the Pet Sematary, with their spirals (pages 386-387, 498) and graves curling like the coiled, serpentine body of the ouroboros; the land of the murderous, greedy, cannibalistic Wendigo that so frightens Louis on his way to rebury Gage, is right where the serpent’s teeth bite into its tail, the abyss where heaven and hell meet.

It’s so easy for the sweet and innocent to phase into their opposite, the Gweat and Tewwible.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary, New York, Pocket Books, 1983

‘Pointy Sticks,’ a Short Prose Poem by Cass Wilson

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, whose work I’ve looked at before, has recently published this new prose poem on her Spillwords page. Let’s take a look at it. Again, I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Pointy Sticks

Incessant pointy sticks, endlessly poked at her through the bars of her self imposed prison.
She grabbed at the earth, pushing it inside the wounds, foolishly thinking if she could fill the holes left by the sticks, then she’d be complete once more.
But one stick was replaced by two. Then four. Then multiplied until she was just a hole herself. Nothing left of her but a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.
The other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee, both simultaneously; just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.

And now, for my analysis.

The “incessant pointy sticks” can be seen to represent a number of things. Since they’ve “poked at her,” they can easily be seen to be phallic, the poking thus symbolic of the sexual abuse (I certainly hope, for the writer’s sake, that this isn’t meant to be literally autobiographical!) of a woman. Her pushing of the earth “inside the wounds,” suggestive of an introjection of the mother goddess in the hopes of healing, is an attempt to heal the injured female of the wounds of male dominance.

Another way to think about the pointy sticks is to think of them in terms of projective identification, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion expanded on through his theory of containment. Normally, in a healthy mother/infant relationship, the mother is a container of her baby’s anxieties, frustrations, etc., taking in those harsh emotions (the contained), detoxifying them, then returning them to the baby in a form it can tolerate, thus soothing it. (Click here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

The container is given a feminine symbol, suggesting a yoni, and the contained is given a masculine, and thus phallic, symbol. So containment, or projective identification as a primitive, preverbal form of communication between parent and infant, can be seen as symbolized by the sex act, with energy passing from one person to the other, then back again.

The problem arises when this containment is negative. Instead of leading to a soothing of one’s anxieties, a processing of trauma, in negative containment, seen in abusive parent/child relationships, the pain is intensified; this is what we see described in this prose poem. The pointing sticks are phallic daggers causing yonic wounds in the poet’s body, a symbolic rape.

Healing from such trauma isn’t a simple matter of appealing to the mythological feminine. One tries to rid oneself of the pain by pretending it isn’t there, and so one never frees oneself from one’s “self imposed prison.” It’s self-imposed because one isn’t doing what one must do to free oneself, even though one knows one must heal the pain by confronting it, by feeling it.

The pointy sticks are like the heads of the Hydra, for when one cuts a head off, it is “replaced by two.” When one cuts the two off, then there are four. Since the sticks are phallic, cutting them off–castration as symbolic of hating men–isn’t the solution, for however justified women’s anger is at the all-too-typical male attitude, hating men leads to an even more intensely misogynistic reaction from them. Whatever we send out there, karma brings back to us.

Please don’t confuse what I’ve said above with victim-blaming; I’m not trying to judge women for being angry with men, something they very, very often have a perfect right to do. This isn’t about passing judgement; it’s about finding real healing.

Ending male dominance must be dealt with more subtly, in a manner that makes an ally out of a former enemy; otherwise, the female sufferer will be nothing but a giant yonic dungeon of her own pain, of her own making, “a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.”

Part of how negative containment intensifies pain, turning anxiety into what Bion called a nameless dread, is the use of projective identification to eject parts of the self out into the external world in an attempt not to have to deal with the parts of oneself that one doesn’t want to accept. These ejected parts are the “other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee.”

If one ejects too many of the undesirable parts of oneself, one feels oneself to be disintegrating, suffering psychological fragmentation, leading to a psychotic break with reality. Narcissism can be a dysfunctional attempt to protect oneself from this kind of fragmentation, the danger of an underlying borderline structure, as Otto Kernberg has observed.

Those ejected parts of herself “just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.” Those ejections, accumulating over time, result in the fading away of the self, a gradual disintegration. The projected parts that float away become what Bion called bizarre objects, or hallucinated objects felt to be in the external world but which are imbued with characteristics of one’s own personality.

One cannot rid oneself of pain by projecting it outwards. The broken pieces must all be put back together. Instead of division and fragmentation, there must be oneness. Splitting must be replaced with integration of one’s good and bad internal objects (e.g., the internalized ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad father’ of the psyche), or reparation–a shift from what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.

The broken-off parts must be freed of their incarceration, from one’s “self imposed prison.” One’s solitude, or hiding from the world, gives an “illusionary safety,” but it will never give one lasting healing. True healing comes from connection with others, from a communal love.

Analysis of ‘Lolita’

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was made into two movie adaptations, the first one (1962) directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a screenplay by Nabokov (of which “only ragged odds and ends” were used in the film [Nabokov, page xii]; in spite of his having been credited with writing the screenplay, it was actually rewritten by Kubrick and James B. Harris). The second adaptation (1997) was directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Stephen Schiff. There have also been stage and musical adaptations of the novel, as well as an opera.

I’ll be basing this analysis on the novel, Nabokov’s screenplay (his “vivacious variant” of the book [Nabokov, page xxiii]), and the two movies. Though the story is controversial for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl, “not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov, page 4).

Here are some quotes:

Lolita

I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, 
Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Foreword, by Dr. John Ray, Jr., PhD.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –Part One, Chapter 1, opening lines

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the deadly little demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. –Part One, Chapter 5

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set… –Part One, Chapter 2

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other… –Part One, Chapter 3, of Humbert and Annabel

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” –Part One, Chapter 5

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time… –Part One, Chapter 5

Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! –Part One, Chapter 8

Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had. –Part Two, Chapter 1

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. –Part Two, Chapter 36

Lolita: a Screenplay

The CAMERA also locates the drug addict’s implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws. –Prologue, page 1, in Quilty’s home

“My mother was an Englishwoman. Her death preceded that of my father by two decades: she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.” –Humbert’s voice, Prologue, page 4

“I loved her more tenderly than Tristan adored Isolde, more hotly than Petrarca desired his Laura, more romantically than Poe loved little Virginia.” –Humbert’s voice, speaking of Annabel, Prologue, page 6

QUILTY: Say, didn’t you have a little girl? Let me see. With a lovely name. A lovely lilting lyrical name–
CHARLOTTE: Lolita. Diminutive of Dolores.
QUILTY: Ah, of course: Dolores. The tears and the roses.
CHARLOTTE: She’s dancing down there. And tomorrow she’ll be having a cavity filled by your uncle.
QUILTY: I know; he’s a wicked old man.
MISS ADAMS: Mr. Quilty, I’m afraid I must tear you away. There’s somebody come from Parkington to fetch you.
QUILTY: They can wait. I want to watch Dolores dance. –Act One, pages 57-58

CHARLOTTE: Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the piazza? Or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?
HUMBERT: Tooth. –Act One, page 69

HUMBERT: Other commentators, commentators of the Freudian school of thought. No. Commentators of the Freudian prison of thought. Hm. Commentators of the Freudian nursery-school of thought, have maintained that Edgar Poe married the child Virginia Clemm merely to keep her mother near him. He–I quote–had found in his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm the maternal image he had been seeking all his life. What piffle! Listen now to the passion and despair breathing in the letter he addresses to Virginia’s mother on August 29, 1835, when he feared that his thirteen-year-old little sweetheart would be taken away to be educated in another home. “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter….My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away….My agony is more than I can bear….for love like mine can never be gotten over….It is useless to disguise the truth….that I shall never behold her again….” –Act One, pages 70-71

HUMBERT: Where exactly did he take you when you gave me the slip?
LOLITA: Yes, that was awfully mean, I must admit that. He took me to a dude ranch near Elphinstone. Duk-Duk Ranch. Silly name.
HUMBERT: Where exactly? What highway?
LOLITA: No highway–a dirt road up a small mountain. Anyway–that ranch does not exist any more. Pity, because it was really something. I mean you can’t imagine how utterly lush it was, that ranch, I mean it had everything, but everything, even an indoor waterfall. You know when Cue and I first came the others had us actually go through a coronation ceremony.
HUMBERT: The others? Who were they?
LOLITA: Oh, just a bunch of wild kids, and a couple of fat old nudists. And at first everything was just perfect. I was there like a princess, and Cue was to take me to Hollywood, and make a big star of me, and all that. But somehow nothing came of it. And, instead, I was supposed to cooperate with the others in making filthy movies while Cue was gadding about the Lord knows where. Well, when he came back I told him I wanted him and not that crowd of perverts, and we had a fight, and he kicked me out, and that’s all.
HUMBERT: You could have come back to me. –Act Three, pages 207-208

Lolita (1962)

Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?

Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn’t have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He’s…
Humbert[Bangs on the table loudly with the paddle] Lolita?!
Quilty: Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares? [Humbert draws a gun] Hey, you’re a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don’t think I want to play anymore. Gee, I’m just dyin’ for a drink. I’m just dyin’ to have a drinkie.
Humbert: You’re dying anyway, Quilty. Quilty, I want you to concentrate – you’re going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.

Charlotte: My yellow roses. My – daughter….I could offer you a comfortable home, a sunny garden, a congenial atmosphere, my cherry pies.
[Humbert decides to rent the room]
Charlotte: What was the decisive factor? Uh, my garden?
Humbert: I think it was your cherry pies!

“Mind if I dance with your girl? We could, um, sort of swap partners.” –John Farlow, to Humbert, about Charlotte, with whom he leaves to dance

“Did you know that you’ve had the most remarkable effect on her. Did you know that?…she’s begun to radiate a certain glow. When you get to know me better, you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded…In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded.” –Jean Farlow, to Humbert

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. –Humbert, voiceover

Lolita: Hi!
Charlotte: Darling, did you come back for something?
Lolita: Mona’s party turned out to be sorta a drag. So I thought I’d come back and see what you two were doing.
Humbert: We had a wonderful evening. Your mother created a magnificent spread.

The wedding was a quiet affair. And when called upon to enjoy my promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity, to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse, daintily running along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. –Humbert, voiceover

Charlotte: Oh Hum, hum-baby, you know, I love the way you smell. You do arouse the pagan in me. Hum, you just touch me, and I-I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

You must now forget Ramsdale and push our lot and poor Lolita and poor Humbert, and accompany us to Beardsley College where my lectureship in French poetry is in its second semester. Six months have passed and Lolita is attending an excellent school where it is my hope that she will be persuaded to read other things than comic books and movie romances. –Humbert, voiceover

I cannot tell you the exact day when I first knew with utter certainty that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. –Humbert, voiceover

Humbert: What happened to this Oriental-minded genius?
Lolita: Look, don’t make fun of me. I don’t have to tell you a blasted thing.
Humbert: I am not making fun of you. I am merely trying to find out what happened. When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita: To New Mexico…to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was, he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there…painters, nudists, writers, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him and he was on his way to Hollywood to write one of those spectaculars, and he promised to get me a studio contract. But it never turned out that way and instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others making some kind of a, you know, an art movie.
Humbert: An art movie?…And you did it?
Lolita: No, I didn’t do it. And so he kicked me out.
Humbert: You could have come back to me.

Lolita (1997)

I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face. –Humbert, voiceover

What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus. –Humbert, voiceover, last lines

Since “Humbert Humbert” (James Mason in Kubrick’s film, and Jeremy Irons in Lyne’s film) is the guilty narrator of Nabokov’s novel, we should be careful with all the information he provides. As an unreliable narrator, he will try to present himself in as sympathetic a light as possible. We should always bear in mind the assessment of him given by his psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray Jr.: “he is a shining example of moral leprosy.” (Nabokov, page 5)

This making of Humbert as a sympathetic character is extended into the two movies, which have the suave, urbane, and debonair Mason and Irons portraying him. What’s more, the films tone down his hebephilia, making only occasional references to his taste for “nymphets” in general, contrasting with his ogling of girls other than Dolores Haze, and his propositioning of an underage prostitute, as given in Nabokov’s novel and screenplay (Nabokov, pages 16-17, 21-23; screenplay, pages 8-9).

He tries to charm us with his “fancy prose style,” showing false modesty when asking if we “can still stand [his] style,” with its puns, French passages, excessive assonance, and its mellifluous, poetic rhapsodizing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by his erudition: this man is a creep.

He tells us of a childhood romance he had with “Annabel Leigh,” whose name is almost identical to that of the girl (and I do mean girl!) in Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem, a girl believed by many scholars to have been Poe’s 13-year-old bride. This love of Humbert’s youth is meant to make his obsession with 9- to 14-year-old girls seem almost legitimate, the tragic result of a childhood trauma (Annabel died of typhus); but her seeming derivation from Poe’s poem gives us the impression that Humbert has made her up.

He’s a child molester. Period.

He murders Clare Quilty (portrayed by Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s film, and by Frank Langella in Lyne’s) for having taken Dolores away from him. Humbert claims, in his narrative, that Quilty (a pun on guilty) is every bit the pedophile pervert he is, even given to enjoying and producing pornography (as well as doing drugs); but since Humbert is the narrator, should we believe his vilifying of the playwright? Is Humbert not just projecting his own sinfulness onto Quilty?

For all we know, Quilty may have innocently worked to rescue Dolores (played by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film, and by Dominique Swain in Lyne’s) from her sexual abuser, and Humbert the madman simply murdered his would-be doppelgänger out of a wish to get revenge. Then he tried to justify his murder by blackening the name of his victim. This speculation is a distinct possibility.

Nabokov leaves the murder of Quilty to the climactic near-end of the novel (Part Two, Chapter 35), while mentioning only that Humbert is a murderer…of whom?…at the beginning. Nabokov’s screenplay begins with Humbert confronting Quilty in his home, and neither man says a word, then Humbert shoots Quilty (page 2). At the beginning of Kubrick’s film, we see the confrontation with dialogue (though censored–i.e., no reference to “erector sets” is heard [note the pun]) taken from the novel’s climax; then we see an abbreviated repeat of the scene at the end. Lyne’s film begins with Humbert having already killed Quilty: he’s driving his car, swaying left and right, with despair on his face while the police are pursuing him; and this scene is an abbreviation of the pursuit at the end.

I’d say, ironically, that Nabokov’s screenplay version of the killing is the weakest one (because, without the dialogue, what’s the point?), while Kubrick’s rewritten version is the strongest, because emotionally it’s the most powerful: for the rest of the film, we slowly discover why Humbert has killed Quilty. It gives Humbert all that undeserved sympathy, since his narration is so unreliable; but as I observed in my analyses of Falling Down and Reservoir Dogs, this provoking of false sympathy in us, the audience/readers, is a moral test of our ability to know with whom we should sympathize.

At the beginning of Nabokov’s novel, a detail is put in, as if in passing: Humbert’s “very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)” [Nabokov, page 10] back when he was three. In the screenplay, her death occurs on the boy’s fourth birthday, with a dramatic screen direction depicting her death, including this sight: “Her graceful specter floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.” (Nabokov, page 4)

Apart from the low likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year, or in one’s whole life, as well as our being given Humbert’s unreliable narration, this death is too absurd to be taken seriously. I do suspect, however, that his beautiful mother did die when he was a child, and when the boy was going through an unresolved Oedipal fixation (Freudians often consider such perversions as pedophilia to have their root in an unresolved Oedipus complex). I also suspect that it was she, and not his likely-fictional Annabel, who died of typhus in Corfu.

This unresolved Oedipal trauma would have been repressed to the point of his mother being the vaguest of memory traces in his mind (“save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory” —page 10). His subsequent desires for nymphets–so young, and therefore with their whole lives ahead of them, far less likely to die on him–can be seen as a reaction formation–a dialectical shift from the far older to the far younger–against his unconscious wish to possess his mother, or any possible adult transference of her. Hence, his revulsion to any “dull adult woman” (Nabokov, page 10). His predictable disparaging of psychoanalysis can also be easily explained away as a form of resistance.

None of this is to deny that Humbert has tried to have normal sexual relations with women, assuming he isn’t lying about his ex-wife, Valeria [pages 25-29], or Rita, the alcoholic he’s involved with after Dolores runs off with Quilty [pages 258-263]. Even if these attempts at having a normal sex life are true, though, they don’t last long. Humbert is a perv.

Nabokov’s Humbert is more honest about his perviness (though dishonest about so many other things) than that of Kubrick or Lyne. When Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, he originally tries to get a lodging in the McCoos’ house, where he’d be teaching French to the family nymphet…as well as indulging in all things “Humbertish” (Chapter 10, page 35). But the house burns down, so he goes to the Haze home instead.

He predictably finds Charlotte Haze repulsive, but when he sees her 12-year-old daughter sunbathing in the backyard (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” —page 40), he claims that he’s seen his Annabel reincarnated (page 15)…though I’d say he’s incarnated his mother in her.

The fact that Humbert would rather refer to Dolores as “Lolita” than by her real name is significant. In changing her name, in characterizing her as the giggling, sexually precocious child that the name “Lolita” is now associated with, as opposed to acknowledging her real name, Dolores (meaning “dolorous,” or sorrowful, as one would expect a traumatized victim of child sexual abuse to be), he is creating a false image of her, an idealized one to contrast with who she really is.

What must be emphasized here is that, from Humbert’s narration, we know virtually nothing about Dolores Haze; “Lolita” is a fantasy concocted in his mind. The novel’s first and last word is “Lolita” (and that includes even the Foreword by Dr. John Ray). The real girl is virtually nowhere to be found in the story.

The giggling, sassy little sex kitten, his fantasized version of her, with her “lovely lyrical lilting name,” (so expressive of the gleeful naughtiness he imagines her to have) is really just a projection of his own wickedness. Humbert writes of a boy at camp, Charlie, having already “debauched” her (Chapters 31 and 32, page 135; also, page 133), of how she tempts Humbert to kiss her in the car on the ride from camp to The Enchanted Hunters hotel (pages 112-113, Chapter 27), and of her having seduced him in the hotel (pages 132-134, Chapter 29). All of these are attempts by him to mitigate his guilt. She ‘wanted it,’ so he wasn’t all that much of a rapist/child molester. The actual, weeping Dolores is nowhere in these pages.

As his fantasized image of the perfect “nymphet,” she, as “Lolita,” is what WRD Fairbairn would have called the Exciting Object of Humbert’s Libidinal Ego (part of Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, which he used to replace Freud’s id). She mirrors back to Humbert what he projects out to her of his own sinfulness.

Normal, mentally healthy people have predominantly what Fairbairn called the Ideal Object interacting with the Central Ego (replacing Freud’s ego); this object is “ideal” because it’s made up of real relationships that one should have with other people, as opposed to the fantasized object relations we all too often have in our minds. Dolores Haze would be an Ideal Object for Humbert’s Central Ego, were he to be a normal stepfather who had no sexual interest in her at all, but only healthy, paternal affection. Instead, there’s only her as a Dolores of the mind: “Lolita.”

As I’ve argued above, “Lolita” and all other “nymphets” are just transferences of his long-lost mother, transformed by reaction formation from that older object to the younger ones that he wishes to possess. Now understood as a kind of inverse Oedipal fixation, or of a mother/son relationship metamorphosed into a daughter/father one, we can see not only his obsession with “Lolita” as his ultimately unattainable objet petit a (i.e., a sought-out replacement for his Oedipally-desired mother), but we can also see why he has such a servile attitude towards her. He’s a slave to her power the way a little boy is because he fears losing Mommy’s love.

There is a third part to Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, and Clare Quilty embodies this part: it is the Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly called the Internal Saboteur), which links with the Rejecting Object. It corresponds only roughly with Freud’s superego, but Quilty can be seen to represent both Freud’s and Fairbairn’s corresponding concepts.

Since Humbert’s narration is unreliable, his depiction of Quilty is as dubious as is his of Dolores. We know little of Quilty, except that he is a playwright and that Humbert has murdered him. Just as “Lolita” represents everything fun, sassy, and sexy in Humbert’s lewd imagination (the Exciting Object), so does “Cue” represent everything repellent in Humbert, everything he hates about himself (the Rejecting Object).

At the same time, though Humbert projects all of his hebephile perversions onto Quilty, his nemesis also embodies his guilty conscience, his superego. His conversation with then-unknown Quilty, with the latter’s taunts (“Where the devil did you get her?” and “You lie–she’s not.”–Chapter 28, page 127; and, of course, Quilty later following Humbert’s car) shows the inner critic of Humbert’s superego plainly personified. The same goes for Peter Sellers’s nerdy cop improvisation with James Mason in the corresponding scene in Kubrick’s movie.

So, both “Lolita” and “Cue” represent opposing tendencies in Humbert’s mind. In turn, these two opposing tendencies have their representations in the novel (and therefore in Lyne’s film too, since it’s far more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s is) and in Kubrick’s film respectively. Consider how Kubrick’s version greatly expands Quilty’s role; and where, as film critic Greg Jenkins noted, the film begins and ends with the word “Quilty,” just as the novel begins and ends with “Lolita.”

Humbert, at his core, is narcissistic, as is clear in his ostentatious writing style. Since, as I’ve speculated above, his hebephilia can be seen as a dialectical turning upside-down of his unconscious, unresolved Oedipus complex, which in turn is a universal narcissistic trauma (i.e., one wishes to hog Mother all to oneself), one can see how sassy “Lolita” is a mirror reflection of his narcissism.

Similarly, Quilty, being overtly narcissistic himself, is a mirror reflection of those dark qualities that Humbert wishes to disavow and project onto others. Recall how, in Lyne’s film, we see Humbert who, having confronted Quilty at gunpoint in his home, is weeping in horror at the plainly confessed lasciviousness of his would-be doppelgänger. But Quilty’s sin is Humbert’s own.

The whole novel is a journey through Humbert’s mind, with “Lolita” and “Cue” as opposing, yet dialectically akin, internal objects floating around in his head like ghosts haunting a house. The naughtiness of the spouse-swapping Farlows and Mr. Swine in Kubrick’s film are just more of such projections of Humbert’s filthy mind.

Now, Nabokov was known for disavowing any allegorical intent with Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita,” page 314), but I’ll give two reasons why I doubt that we should take his words at face value. First of all, he could have made such disavowals in order to prevent any one scholar’s interpretation, however convincing it may be, to be deemed the ‘definitive’ interpretation; in other words, Nabokov’s denial may have been meant to encourage a maximum of possible interpretations.

Second, even if he really meant that he hated allegorizing, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have unconsciously intended one. Certainly, Martin Amis saw in Lolita an allegory of a ‘Soviet rape,’ if you will, of Russia; and Nabokov, a classical liberal, hated communism. (For my part, I find Amis’s use of Robert Conquest‘s work in his research to be dubious in itself, to put it mildly, but I digress…) So anyway, I’d like to try a few allegories of my own.

One allegory we can see in Humbert’s seduction of Dolores (as opposed to his projection of “Lolita” supposedly seducing him; or, a reversal from Freud’s female Oedipus complex back to his seduction theory) is that of the European colonizing North and South America, with the colonizers rationalizing their conquest by claiming an intent ‘to civilize’ the natives. I’m reminded of John Donne‘s poem, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d.” (lines 25-28)

The innocent natives being plundered is symbolized by Humbert’s sexual abuse of Dolores; the converting of those natives to Christianity can be seen as symbolized by Humbert’s attempts to introduce her to culture (e.g., his buying her such books as Browning‘s Dramatic Works, The History of Dancing, The Russian Ballet, and The Theatre Guild Anthology so she’ll have something to read while in hospital [page 242]). Similarly, the white man (Humbert, the “white widowed male”) taking possession of and enslaving black Americans (represented here by Dolores) is another reasonable allegory, since Nabokov was vocal in his opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans.

Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, as symbolic of that of the European and American, is also seen in his comments on American pop culture, as opposed to European high culture. As heard in Kubrick’s film, Humbert speaks disapprovingly of Dolores’s taste for “comic books and movie romances.” He complains of her “eerie vulgarity,” a reflection of the stereotypically cultured European as against the equally stereotypical philistine American, and which can in turn be seen as symbolic of the ‘civilized’ white attitude to the ‘uncivilized’ ways of the natives.

Another allegory of Humbert’s desire for nymphets, especially evident in Kubrick’s film, is the yearning of the older characters (Humbert and Quilty) for a return to youth, as personified in “Lolita.” We see this in Kubrick’s film whenever Charlotte, the Farlows, etc., refer to each other as “kids” or “other young marrieds.” Then there’s that elderly spectator or two, envious of the smooth style of dancing Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom (later, Charlotte), trying to bop along to the music and appear as hip as they can.

But to return to one of my earlier speculations, towards the end of the novel, we find Humbert looking at pregnant Mrs. Dolores Schiller, and finding himself all the more in love with her. At seventeen years old, she’s too old to be a nymphet! As a mother-to-be, she is triggering his repressed Oedipal fixation.

“…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past…but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshiped…I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” (Part Two, Chapter 29, pages 277-278)

His loving of her, older and with another man’s baby, reminds one of a little boy’s Oedipal jealousy over his father’s having of his love-object, jealous of how she will be preoccupied with taking care of his younger sibling-to-be; because the Oedipus complex is a selfish, narcissistic trauma, and his seeing his “Lolita” in this way is bringing back those feelings that have been buried deep down in his psyche. This element, hidden among all the lies of this unreliable narrator, is the core truth of his whole narrative.

Finally, we must confront the “dangerous trends,” the “potent evils,” that Dr. John Ray warns us about in the Foreword. There have been attempts by some in the media recently to normalize pedophile desires; there has also been the growing problem of sexualizing little girls. These are, needless to say, dangerous encouragements to more child sexual abuse. Then there were Epstein‘s escapades, most of the perpetrators of which still seem largely unpunished. For these reasons, we shouldn’t let Humbert’s honeyed words charm us. We should heed Ray’s words instead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1955

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: a Screenplay, Vintage International, New York, 1961

Analysis of ‘Withnail and I’

Withnail and I is a 1987 British buddy film written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical novel, based in turn on his experiences as an actor during such incidents as the filming of Franco Zeffirelli‘s Romeo and Juliet. It stars Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths. It also features Ralph Brown and Michael Elphick.

The film had George Harrison as executive producer through his company, HandMade Films. It has become a cult classic. Withnail (Grant) “and I” (McGann–actually, the character’s name is Marwood as indicated in the script, as well as discovered, by a watchful eye, written on the cover of a telegram, though we’d never know, since he’s never referred to by name anywhere in the film) are two struggling young actors who, after an intense experience of being stoned and drunk over a period of several days and nights, decide to spend a weekend in the country to rejuvenate…only to stumble into other problems.

Here are some quotes:

Withnail[reading from the paper] “In a world exclusive interview, 33-year-old shotputter Geoff Woade, who weighs 317 pounds, admitted taking massive doses of anabolic steroids, drugs banned in sport. ‘He used to get in bad tempers and act up,’ said his wife. ‘He used to pick on me. But now he’s stopped, he’s much better in our sex life and in our general life.'” Jesus Christ, this huge, thatched head with its earlobes and cannonball is now considered sane. “Geoff Woade is feeling better and is now prepared to step back into society and start tossing his orb about.” Look at him. Look at Geoff Woade. His head must weigh fifty pounds on its own. Imagine the size of his balls. Imagine getting into a fight with the fucker!
Marwood: Please, I don’t feel good.
Withnail: That’s what you’d say, but that wouldn’t wash with Geoff. No, he’d like a bit of pleading. Add spice to it. In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. “I’m going to pull your head off.” “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off.” “I’m going to pull your head off, because I don’t like your head.”

“I demand to have some booze!” –Withnail

“Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I’m inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own futures.” –Marwood, voiceover

“Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing. Then all at once those frozen hours melt out through the nervous system and seep out the pores.” –Marwood, voiceover

“Danny’s here. Headhunter to his friends. Headhunter to everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. The only people he converses with are his clients, and occasionally the police. The purveyor of rare herbs and proscribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?” –Marwood, voiceover

“You’re looking very beautiful, man. Have you been away? Saint Peter preached the epistles to the apostles looking like that.” –Danny, to Marwood, who has come out of the bathroom wearing a towel

“I don’t advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.” –Danny

“Ponce!” –Irishman in pub, to Marwood (because he has perfume-smelling boots)

“I could hardly piss straight with fear. Here was a man with 3/4 of an inch of brain who’d taken a dislike to me. What had I done to offend him? I don’t consciously offend big men like this. And this one has a definite imbalance of hormone in him. Get any more masculine than him and you’d have to live up a tree.” –Marwood, voiceover

“‘I fuck arses’? Who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses! Maybe he’s written this in some moment of drunken sincerity! I’m in considerable danger here, I must get out of here at once.” –Marwood

“Oh! you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is a certain je ne sais quoi – oh, so very special – about a firm, young carrot…Excuse me…” –Uncle Monty

“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.'” –Uncle Monty

[They drive past some schoolgirls] Withnail: [leaning out the car window] SCRUBBERS!
Schoolgirl: Up yours, grandad!
Withnail: SCRUBBERS! SCRUBBERS!
Marwood: Shut up.
Withnail: Little tarts, they love it.

“I been watching you, especially you, prancing like a tit. You want working on, boy!” –Jake the Poacher

[Withnail and Marwood are lying in bed together, listening to a man coming inside the cottage. Withnail is cowering under the covers] Withnail: [whispering] He’s going into your room. It’s you he wants. Offer him yourself. [the bedroom door slowly opens and the intruder enters with a torchscrewing his eyes shut in terror, moaning] We mean no harm!
Monty: Oh, my boys, my boys, forgive me.
Marwood: [relieved] Monty! Monty, Monty!
Withnail: MONTY, YOU TERRIBLE CUNT!
Monty: Forgive me, it was inconsiderate of me not to have telegrammed.
Withnail: WHAT ARE YOU DOING PROWLING AROUND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUCKING NIGHT?

“The older order changeth, yielding place to new. God fulfils himself in many ways. And soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumour. Oh, my boys, my boys, we’re at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour. And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” –Uncle Monty

Monty: Now, which of you is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?
Withnail: [getting up] I will.
Marwood: [getting up at the same time] No, I’d better go. I want to see about digging the car out anyway.
Monty: But we have my car, dear boy.
Marwood: Yes, but if it rains, we’re buggered. [realises he’s used the wrong word] I mean…
Monty: Stranded!

“I can never touch meat until it’s cooked. As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.” –Uncle Monty

“If you think you’re going to have a weekend’s indulgence up here at his expense, which means him having a weekend’s indulgence up here at my expense, you got another thing coming.” –Marwood, to Withnail, about Uncle Monty

“I think you’ve been punished enough. I think we’d better release you from the légumes and transfer your talents to the meat.” –Uncle Monty, after having amorously put his hand on Marwood’s arm as he peels vegetables

Monty: Laisse-moi, respirer, longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux. Oh, Baudelaire. Brings back such memories of Oxford. Oh, Oxford…
Marwood: [voiceover] Followed by yet another anecdote about his sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap called Norman who had red hair and a book of poetry stained with the butter drips from crumpets.

Monty: There can be no true beauty without decay.
Withnail: Legium pro Britannia.
Monty: How right you are, how right you are. We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.

Monty: You mustn’t blame him. You mustn’t blame yourself. I know how you feel and how difficult it is. And that’s why you mustn’t hold back, let it ruin your youth as I nearly did over Eric. It’s like a tide. Give in to it, boy. Go with it. It’s society’s crime, not ours.
Marwood: I’m not homosexual, Monty.
Monty: Yes, you are! Of course you are! You’re simply blackmailing your emotions to avoid the realities of your relationship with him.
Marwood: What are you talking about?
Monty: You love him. And it isn’t his fault he cannot love you any more than it’s mine that I adore you.

“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!” –Uncle Monty, to Marwood

Marwood: I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering. And I’ve come in here with the express intention of wishing one on you! Having said that, I now intend to leave for London.
Withnail: Hold on, don’t let your imagination run away with you…
Marwood: Imagination! I have just finished fighting a naked man! How dare you tell him I’m a toilet trader?!
Withnail: Tactical necessity. If I hadn’t told him you were active we’d never have got the cottage.

Danny: The joint I’m about to roll requires a craftsman. It can utilise up to 12 skins. It is called a Camberwell Carrot.
Marwood: It’s impossible to use 12 papers on one joint.
Danny: It’s impossible to make a Camberwell Carrot with anything less.
Withnail: Who says it’s a Camberwell Carrot?
Danny: I do. I invented it in Camberwell, and it looks like a carrot.

“London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees.” –Danny

“I’m getting the FEAR!” –Marwood, while high

“You have done something to your brain. You have made it high. If I lay 10 mils of diazepam on you, it will do something else to your brain. You will make it low. Why trust one drug and not the other? That’s politics, innit?” –Danny, to Marwood

“If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision — let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” –Danny

“I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth… and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air — look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties! …How like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither… nor woman neither.” –Withnail, imperfectly quoting Hamlet

A recurring theme in this film is a sense of ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ This quasi-apocalyptic sense comes in many forms: it’s late 1969, so “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” Associated with the end of the 1960s is the soon-to-come end of welfare-oriented capitalism, that is, the Keynesian post-war economic era that would end with the 1973 oil crisis and be replaced with the neoliberal era inaugurated by such politicians as Thatcher and Reagan. Finally, there’s the end of Withnail’s and Marwood’s partying, boozing, and getting stoned together. England is “coming down from its trip.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the film we see Marwood coming down from a lengthy period of getting wasted with Withnail, looking exhausted. He is also a hyper-agitated sort, given to intense fears of imminent catastrophe (“My thumbs have gone weird! I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose! My heart’s beating like a fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful.”) His preoccupation with survival makes him representative of Eros, the life instinct.

Withnail, on the other hand, is self-destructive in the extreme, not only drinking like a fish and doing drugs to excess, but also drinking toxic substances like lighter fluid or possibly even antifreeze [!] when he’s desperate for more booze. He almost always seems to have a wine bottle in his hand. He’ll drive drunk, not at all caring if the cops nab him. He thus personifies Thanatos, the death instinct, and is Marwood’s opposite.

Since Marwood represents Robinson, who played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and since Robinson at the time of filming had to fight off gay Zeffirelli’s aggressive sexual advances (as represented by those of Montague Withnail against Marwood), the title Withnail and I can be seen as a parallel of Romeo and Juliet, the story of two star-cross’d lovers who tragically cannot be together.

Thus, Uncle Monty is the Romeo (or a Romeo…see below) Montague of this film, and Marwood is the would-be Juliet. In this connection, the made-up surname of Withnail (inspired by an admired childhood friend of Robinson’s, whose name was Withnall, which Robinson misspelt in–as I see it–a Freudian slip), or “with nail,” as some old friends of mine who introduced me to the film mispronounced it, can be seen as a phallic symbol.

That “nail” stabbing, or threatening to stab, into Marwood can be in the form of Monty’s attempted homosexual rape (“burglary”), or in the form of young Withnail’s exasperating personality and behaviour, ultimately making Marwood want to distance himself from the hopeless drunk. Thus young Withnail “and I” are opposites, just as there are many opposites in Romeo and Juliet, as I observed in my analysis of that play.

The two young men are fated never to be together, just as Romeo’s and Juliet’s love is tragically thwarted by fate, because of the conflict between irresponsible, Thanatos-driven Withnail and career-focused, Eros-driven Marwood. Similarly, Uncle Monty can never have Marwood because the latter isn’t gay (or at least isn’t consciously aware of having homosexual feelings…see below). The conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets ensures that Romeo’s and Juliet’s love won’t last in this world, either.

Though Marwood has been getting drunk and stoned with young Withnail, because he knows that the two of them are “drifting into the arena of the unwell,” he is losing his taste for the world of partying. He wants to ‘choose life’ and be straight in a capitalist world that is soon to phase out of its welfare life support system.

As struggling actors, they have a filthy apartment in Camden Town with little food and lots of rats and “matter” growing in the sink. They need to get away and restore their health, but the only means available to them is to take advantage of Withnail’s wealthy uncle, his overtly gay, corpulent, silver-tongued Uncle Monty…who will agree to Withnail’s mooching only if Monty can hope to take advantage of pretty-boy Marwood.

So Uncle Monty, with his cottage out in the country, his money, and all the food and wine he can provide for poor Withnail and Marwood, can be seen to personify the British welfare state, and therefore the liberal wing of the ruling class. Oh, sure, Monty will help out his two boys, but with strings attached. Similarly, the bourgeois state may be generous to the poor if it wants to, but one day it will fuck them.

Bourgeois liberal politicians may create ‘generous’ social programs for the poor (as symbolized in the film by Uncle Monty’s largesse to Withnail and Marwood that weekend), but the same class structure stays intact (wealthy Monty stays wealthy, and the two young men stay poor). That generosity doesn’t last long, either, as it hadn’t between 1945 and 1973, as symbolized by the brief, “delightful weekend in the country.”

Marwood’s only hope for survival, his major preoccupation, is to join the capitalist system, which he does at the end of the film by accepting an acting job to play the leading role in a play, cutting his hair short (i.e., betraying the hippie counterculture), and leaving London (and Withnail, of course) for Manchester. It’s fitting that Marwood is an actor, and a successful one, unlike Withnail; for in order to succeed in capitalism, one must learn how to pretend, to put on an act.

In order to escape from the miseries of the world, the two young men use drinking and drugs as a manic defence; hence their friendship with fellow stoner Danny (Brown), who comments on the “uptight” men of the capitalist system, those “bald” men. As for hair, he notes how capitalists are “selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s.” Just like the selling of Che Guevara T-shirts, capitalism can accommodate and absorb anything, even the counterculture and socialism.

The drinking and drugs seem to be an escape from not only the “hideousness” of modern life, as Withnail calls it in the car on the way to the cottage. I suspect that Withnail and Marwood are repressed homosexuals. In fact, Danny, who sees Marwood in a towel after a shower and calls him “beautiful,” could be doping to escape facing up to repressed homosexuality, too.

To understand my meaning, we have to be sure of what is meant by the ‘repressed.’ It’s not just about suppressing unacceptable feelings while being aware of them; it’s about pushing them into the unconscious, making oneself totally unaware of them. The feelings do manage to be expressed, to come out to the surface, but in ways totally unrecognizable to the person feeling them.

There are many phallic symbols in the movie, apart from the ‘nail’ in Withnail already mentioned. There is the hot dog wiener that Marwood, nude in the bathtub, offers to Withnail. Uncle Monty’s reference to the ‘mystery’ of the obviously phallic carrot (in ironic contrast to the far more mysterious yoni, our uncanny place of birth, symbolized in the film by flowers, “tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.”) should be recalled when we see Danny’s Camberwell Carrot, a huge phallic joint put in one’s mouth to give pleasure.

All those bottles of wine that Withnail puts to his mouth are more phallic symbols; and excessive drinking and pot-smoking can be seen as a fixation of the oral stage. Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot…and sometimes it’s much more than that.

Still more phallic symbols are the sword and shotgun that Withnail recklessly points at Marwood, an expression of an unconscious wish to have sex with his friend. Indeed, Withnail’s telling his uncle to feel free to enjoy Marwood sexually can be seen as a displaced wish to have Marwood himself.

(To return briefly to the Marxist interpretation, Withnail’s betrayal of his friend to his uncle–the two young men representing the proletariat, and Monty representing the bourgeoisie–can be seen to represent class collaboration, a lack of solidarity being the last straw that makes Marwood want to give up on his friendship with Withnail.)

Marwood’s fear of the homophobic Irishman in the pub is also peppered with unconscious homoerotic elements. While pissing, Marwood reads graffiti on the bathroom wall above the urinal (“I fuck arses.”), and imagines it’s the Irishman who has written it, an absurd idea that is better explained as an unconscious wish fulfillment. The Irishman recognizes Marwood’s homosexuality, and supposedly he’d rather fuck his ass than “murder the pair of [Withnail and Marwood].”

It’s quite curious how a number of characters in the film ‘mistake’ Withnail–and especially Marwood–for homosexuals. Not only does that Irishman, but also Jake the poacher (Elphick), who speaks of Marwood as “prancing like a tit,” and, of course, Uncle Monty. And just as Monty consciously makes unwanted advances on Marwood, so are there unconsciously homoerotic elements in the exchange with Jake, who has phallic eels in his pants, takes “a wheeze on [Withnail’s phallic] fag [!],” and says Marwood “want[s] working on.”

When Monty says that Marwood is “a thespian, too,” he pronounces the s and p like a zed and a b, making a word that rhymes with lesbian, another homosexual association. Marwood later makes a Freudian slip in saying he and Withnail are “buggered” if they can’t get their car out of the mud.

Marwood knows from his first meeting of Uncle Monty that “he’s a raving homosexual,” yet he is always grinning at this man who so lusts after him. He continues grinning even when it’s obvious that Monty wants to seduce him. It strains credibility to dismiss Marwood’s grinning as mere politeness: part of him wants to have a gay sexual experience (though assuredly not with roly-poly Monty), while another part wants to repress that urge.

That, in so brief a time, so many characters ‘mistake’ Withnail and Marwood for gays suggests that the former know something about the latter that the latter don’t know about themselves. Why does Marwood use perfume, of all things, to clean his boots after Withnail has puked on them? Why not use something like soap? Why is there perfume, rather than cologne, in their Camden Town flat? There aren’t any girlfriends to give it to, which is in itself a significant observation. The two young men may be poor, struggling actors, but they’re good-looking; if they’re straight, why don’t we see them even try to pick up any women?

When Uncle Monty attempts his “burglary” (interesting choice of words) on Marwood, the latter’s having “barely escaped a buggering” is achieved by having told Monty he’s in a gay relationship with Withnail. Even a non-homophobic man, one not normally given to violence, might find himself having, as a last resort, to hit a gay aggressor to stop him from succeeding in that “burglary.”

In the stress of the moment, one tends to blurt out unprepared, unrehearsed words, the first thing that comes to one’s mind, and therefore something tending to reveal unconscious wishes, like having a closeted gay relationship with one’s friend. It’s less his fear of homosexual rape than it is fear of ‘cheating’ on Withnail that’s bothering Marwood. His ‘lie’ to get Monty to stop his aggressive sexual advances is an unconscious truth, another Freudian slip. Both Withnail and Marwood have told Monty that each other is a closeted homosexual; again, I’m saying that both ‘lies’ are truths.

Still, Withnail’s betrayal makes Marwood want ‘to dump’ him, as it were. Now, Marwood’s wishing of a buggering on Withnail reflects both his conscious anger at his would-be friend’s betrayal, and his unconscious wish for sex with him, displaced onto someone like Monty, just as Withnail, in offering Marwood to his uncle, has displaced his own wish for sex with his friend, as mentioned above.

On their ride out from London to Monty’s cottage (at the beginning of which we appropriately see a wrecking ball being used to raze a building), we hear Jimi Hendrix‘s version of Bob Dylan‘s “All Along the Watchtower,” a song variously interpreted to be about such things as the Vietnam War and the Apocalypse. I tend toward the latter interpretation (though I’m sure many during the late 60s considered that war to be apocalyptic); this film presents the end of the hippie era, the near-end of the Keynesian, welfare-oriented capitalism of 1945-1973, and, most importantly, the end of the friendship of these two young men.

The song seems written for Withnail (the thief) and Marwood (the joker), or rather, the film seems made for the song. Marwood wants to find “some way out of here,” and Withnail tries to tell his friend there’s “No reason to get excited,” since all that matters to him is mooching off of his uncle and conniving at Monty’s attempted “burglary” of Marwood. To Withnail, the bourgeois “feel that life is but a joke,” he and Marwood have “been through that/And this is not [their] fate.”

“Businessmen, they drink my wine”; capitalists enjoy the luxuries of life and don’t “Know what any of it is worth.” This is prophetic of the dawn of Thatcher/Reagan neoliberalism, the effects of which were already being felt in England at the time of the filming of Withnail and I in 1987. “All along the watchtower/Princes kept the view/While all the women came and went/Barefoot servants, too.” The contrasts between these people reflect class differences felt even more sharply now, since neoliberal capitalism has grown like a cancer over the past forty years.

Just as we hear a Jimi Hendrix recording on the way out of London, so do we hear another of his recordings, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” on the way back. Instead of hearing a song about the end of the world as we know it, we hear one about how great and powerful the singer is (a feeling that often comes as a result of being drunk and/or high on drugs): “Well, I stand up next to a mountain/And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”

Since we hear this song while drunk Withnail is driving recklessly back to London, we can interpret it as expressive of his narcissistic personality, something that has been trying Marwood’s patience for the whole length of the movie. Recall Withnail’s scream out on the hills of the countryside earlier: “Bastards! You’ll all suffer! I’ll show the lot of you! I’m gonna be a sta-a-a-a-ar!

The threat of capitalism against one’s ability to survive is evident again when, on returning to their flat, Withnail and Marwood receive an eviction notice from their landlord, making Marwood spiral into another of his hysterical fears of annihilation. Ultimately, it won’t matter to him, as he’s been given the lead role in a play in Manchester. Since his acting career is taking off, he can enter the competitive world of capitalism. Since all Withnail does is get drunk, he won’t ever even enter that world, much less hope to be a star.

Not even going all the way to the train station with Marwood, Withnail knows he’s lost his friend forever. He recites Hamlet’s words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the reason for his unhappiness, not only because he knows, as his uncle did years ago, that he’ll “never play the Dane,” but because he’s lost the man he’s unconsciously in love with.

Robinson originally intended to end the story with Withnail returning to the flat, picking up the shotgun he’d found in Monty’s cottage, pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel, then drinking it and blowing his brains out. Robinson chose to omit this scene because it’s too dark an ending for the film, but I take it as still having happened, even if unseen.

Why would Withnail want to kill himself just over a friend leaving him? Yes, he is self-destructive by nature, but only in the forms of drinking, doping, and reckless driving, not all the way to suicide. He still has Danny and Presuming Ed to hang out with. Yes, he envies Marwood’s greater success as an actor, but surely he knows that his own future as an actor, though dim, isn’t completely hopeless.

As I’ve said above, I believe he has unconscious homosexual feelings for Marwood, whose departure–not even wanting Withnail to follow him all the way to the station–is tantamount to a break-up. A clue is heard in Withnail’s quoting of Hamlet, which isn’t letter-perfect (in itself symbolic of his insufficient acting talent or determination) when he says, “Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither,” he says the part about women twice, whereas in Hamlet, it’s said only once. Women don’t delight Withnail because he’s gay.

This inability to gratify homosexual desire, the inability of any of these men–except Monty, of course–even to give expression to such desires, allied with the male hostility to them (the Irishman’s bigotry, Jake’s taunting of the “tit,” Withnail’s pointing of a phallic shotgun and sword at Marwood), all can be seen as symbolic of the alienation and lack of comradely solidarity between men (I’m using this word in the old-fashioned sense of people, the male sex here being symbolic of all people) as a consequence of capitalism, even in its postwar welfare-oriented form.

The party is over, that is, the 1945-1973 party of welfare capitalism was over, because it was never a suitable substitute for socialism anyway. Life in London as seen in the film can be seen to symbolize the First World, and life in the countryside, where the commons once was, can be seen to symbolize the Third World, a place full of peasant farmers (including Isaac Parkin), poverty, and want.

So Withnail’s and Marwood’s weekend indulgence in Uncle Monty’s cottage can be seen to represent a First World colonizing of the Third World, inhabiting its space and using its resources. Monty provides for his two “boys” the way the welfare state threw the poor a few bones to placate them and stave off socialist revolution, but the stark contrast between the First and Third Worlds has remained, a contrast we see clearly between London and Crow Crag.

We don’t resolve the world’s problems with brief moments of indulgence: getting drunk and stoned, enjoying “a delightful weekend in the country,” etc., then return to squalor and self-destruction. As Uncle Monty observed, “We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.” Even the best of them, the liberals and social democrats who pushed for the welfare state, didn’t make it last long, and then the neoliberals took over, the next gang.

There can be no true (welfare capitalist) beauty without (neoliberal) decay.

‘Experiment,’ a Poem by Jason Morton

Here is another poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve written about a number of times before. Again, as before, I’m putting his poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine:

Shattered symmetry
Breaking every side I thought i held
No longer one
I can’t see through my broken eyes
Everything I once held true
Is no longer real or harmonised
Every lip every kiss
Every touch and every finger tip
Don’t!
Touch!
Me!
I can’t shatter anymore than this
It is so visual
And the high
Is residual
Where Lucifer claims me
I fall where my blood Cascades
And puddles beneath me
In a moment I am but a breath away
From transparency….

And now, for my analysis.

The title ‘Experiment’ may seem at odds with the content of the poem, but when you consider the etymological origin of the word–it comes from the Latin experimentum (‘a test, a trial,’), which in turn comes from experiri, ‘to try, test,’ from ex, ‘out of’ and peritus (‘experienced, tested’), from the root per-, ‘to try, risk’–we can see a plausible relationship between title and poem. The poet has tried things, tested them, had experiences, and has had disastrous results.

The trauma and pain of life’s experiences, tests, and trials has resulted in psychological fragmentation for the poet. Everything has broken apart for him: he is “No longer one.” Normally, the danger of fragmentation is averted by caregivers, lovers, and friends, who empathically mirror and validate one’s feelings and experiences; but in the case of the poet, these would-be empathic mirrors, or what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, have failed him.

So he “can’t see through [his] broken eyes,” which are broken mirrors reflecting those shattered ones that failed to empathize and validate his feelings. Fragmentation can lead to a lost sense of reality. Nothing is “harmonised”; all is discord for him. In the second line, we see a deliberate use of a lower-case i, which symbolically expresses this sense of a broken self.

Those body parts and actions that normally express love and empathy, “Every lip every kiss/Every touch and every finger tip,” he is deprived of them, so he rejects any subsequent attempt to show affection for fear that such attempts are fake. They seem deceptions meant to betray his trust once again. Hence, “Don’t!/Touch!/Me!” Even these three words are broken apart, each given its own, separate line, divided with the exclamation marks of violent shouting.

After being rejected from the outside world, after experiencing frustrations from out there, one tends to respond with the defence mechanism of splitting, of breaking up objects (both internal and external) into black-and-white opposites of absolute good and bad, then expelling the bad halves to protect oneself from the pain. When taken to extremes, this splitting, this rejecting of so many parts of oneself, can result in one feeling as if he has little of himself left, hence the danger of fragmentation. Hence, the poet “can’t shatter anymore than this”.

There is a fleeting pleasure in rejecting, the relief of not having anyone around to hurt oneself, if only for the moment. Thus, “the high/Is residual”. The kind of pain typically felt is the trauma personified by “Lucifer,” the devilish inner critic, Freud‘s overbearing superego. Lucifer (‘light-bringer’), was a beautiful angel before he was cast out of heaven and thenceforth known as Satan. His goodness turned into overweening pride; thus Lucifer is a perfect metaphor for the self-righteous, cruel inner critic.

This inner critic “claims” the poet, making him “fall where [his] blood Cascades/And puddles beneath [him]”. Capitalized ‘Cascades’ suggests (if only unconsciously, like a parapraxis in typing) the many waterfalls in the world, in turn suggesting a huge outpouring of blood, so great is the poet’s pain and loss from so much splitting and projecting of unwanted objects.

“In a moment [he is] but a breath away/From transparency….” Since he “can’t shatter anymore than this,” his fragmentation is approaching disintegration. He is almost transparent because he is about to vanish. Pain and trauma can lead to the extremes of psychotic panic. These problems indicate how imperative it is not to trivialize psychological trauma. Mental illness is on the rise, and for many reasons, including some that I’ve complained about in many blog posts.

Let’s hope the poet can bring the pieces back together, and soon.

Analysis of ‘Salò’

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) is a 1975 art horror film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The screenplay, written by Sergio Citti and Pasolini, was based on the Marquis de Sade‘s unfinished pornographic novel of the same name (sans Salò, or). Pasolini updated the story, moving it from the Château de Silling in 18th century France to the final years of WWII, in fascist Italy, during the time of the fascist Republic of Salò.

The film stars Paolo Bonacelli (who also played Cassius Chaerea in the Penthouse Caligula film), Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, and Aldo Valletti as four wealthy libertines who abduct, sexually abuse, torture, and ultimately murder a group of teenage boys and girls. The cast also includes Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, and Hélène Surgère as three middle-aged prostitutes who tell erotic stories to inflame the lust of the libertines and inspire them to acts of depravity.

Salò was and still is controversial for its shocking depiction of sexual violence against the teenaged boys and girls, at least some of whom are believed to have been underage at the time of filming, though they all look as though they could be 18 or 19 years of age. For these reasons, Salò is considered one of the most disturbing films ever made. It has been banned in many countries.

As a gay communist, Pasolini was trying to make some harsh social critiques in the making of this movie, especially as a critique of capitalism and the atrocities of fascism. He was murdered by bitter anti-communists, who allegedly had in their possession stolen rolls of film from the movie, just after its completion. Still, despite the unsettling subject matter of the film (or rather, because of it), Salò has been highly praised by many critics.

Here are some quotes, in English translation:

[first lines: four men, sitting at a table, each sign a booklet] The Duke: Your Excellency.
The Magistrate: Mr. President.
The President: My lord.
The Bishop: All’s good if it’s excessive.

“Dear friends, marrying each other’s daughters will unite our destinies for ever.” –the Duke

“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.” –the Duke

“Signora Vaccari is sure to soon turn them into first class whores. Nothing is more contagious than evil.” –the Magistrate

“I was nine when my sister took me to Milan to meet Signora Calzetti. She examined me and asked if I wanted to work for her. I said I would, if the pay was good. My first client, a stout man named Vaccari, looked me over carefully. At once, I showed him my pussy, which I thought was very special. He covered his eyes: “Out of the question. I’m not interested in your vagina, cover it up.” He covered me, making me lie down, and said “All these little whores know is to flaunt their vaginas. Now I shall have to recover from that disgusting sight.” –Signora Vaccari

“Homage to the rear temple is often more fervent than the other.” –the President

“On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” –the Duke, singing

“We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we’re masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.” –the Duke

“It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of “the people”. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist. So you wouldn’t aid the humble, the unhappy. In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” –the Duke

“I remember I once had a mother too, who aroused similar feelings in me. As soon as I could, I sent her to the next world. I have never known such subtle pleasure as when she closed her eyes for the last time.” –the Duke

The Duke: [Renata is crying] Are you crying for your mama? Come, I’ll console you! Come here to me!
The President: [singing] Come, little darling to your good daddy / He’ll sing you a lullaby
The Duke: Heavens, what an opportunity you offer me. Sra. Maggi’s tale must be acted upon at once.
Female Victim: Sir, Sir. Pity. Respect my grief. I’m suffering so, at my mother’s fate. She died for me and I’ll never see her again.
The Duke: Undress her.
Female Victim: Kill me! At least God, whom I implore, will pity me. Kill me, but don’t dishonour me.
The Duke: This whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.

The President: [while eating a meal of faeces] Carlo, do this with your fingers. [the President sticks two fingers in his mouth] And say, “I can’t eat rice with my fingers like this.”
Male Victim: [with fingers in his mouth] I can’t eat rice.
The President: Then eat shit.

“It is not enough to kill the same person over and over again. It is far more recommendable to kill as many beings as possible.” –Signora Castelli

“Idiot, did you really think we would kill you? Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” –the Bishop

“The principle of all greatness on earth has long been totally bathed in blood. And, my friends, if my memory does not betray me – yes, that’s it: without bloodshed, there is no forgiveness. Without bloodshed. Baudelaire.” –the Magistrate

[last lines: two young male guards are dancing with each other] Guard: What’s your girlfriend’s name?
Guard: Marguerita.

Four wealthy and politically powerful libertines–a duke (Bonacelli), a president (Valletti), a bishop (Cataldi), and a magistrate (Quintavalle)–discuss plans to marry each other’s daughters (without their consent, of course), as well as to abduct youths and maidens to abuse sexually and torture physically and mentally (and even kill some of them) over a period of four months.

These four libertines obviously represent the ruling class, though in the context of late fascist Italy (i.e., Mussolini and Hitler are about to lose the war), we can see their sadism as representing capitalism in crisis (fascism, properly understood, is a kind of hyper-capitalism). When such a crisis occurs, the gentle, smiling face of the liberal is revealed to be a mask covering the scowling face of fascism. Hence, the four men’s cruelty.

The victims, frequently if not always naked, represent the proletariat: exploited, brutalized, vulnerable, humiliated, and lacking the means to live freely. Recall Hamlet’s use of the word naked (‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), to understand the symbolic meaning of the victims’ nakedness.

The studs, or fouteurs (“fuckers”) in Sade’s story (Sade, page 80), as well as the young male collaborators, or guards (dressed in the uniforms of the Decima Flottiglia MAS) represent the police and standing army of the bourgeois state. They are comparable to the militarized police of today. Without them, the four libertines would have no power, and the same, of course, goes for the state.

These young men are all rounded up to work for the four libertines, and only one of them, Ezio, is reluctant to do so. Indeed, when the guards apprehend the libertines’ daughters, all as members of the bourgeoisie who normally would be used to much better treatment (apart from their fathers’ previous rapes of them, as understood in Sade’s novel), Ezio apologizes to the women, saying he must obey orders. If only all of these thugs could understand that some orders shouldn’t be obeyed, such horrors as those seen in this movie wouldn’t happen.

But how does one get through to class collaborators?

Since capitalism is sheer hell for the poor–as I observed in my analysis of American Psycho, another story involving brutal violence inflicted by the rich–it is appropriate that Salò be divided into sections reminding us of Dante‘s Inferno: Anteinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Abandon all hope, ye proletarians who enter here.

None of the four libertines are named, and the studs and collaborators aren’t often called by name. The three middle-aged prostitute storytellers are named, but the piano player isn’t; and of the victims who are named, most have names equal or approximate to those of the actors portraying them, as if naming them was an afterthought by Pasolini. Thus, we aren’t very conscious of the names of many of the characters. This near-anonymity reinforces the sense of emotional distance, the alienation, felt not just between all the characters, but between them and us, the audience.

Indeed, one of the many reasons that this film is so disturbing to viewers, as has been noted by critics, is how we cannot get close to any of the characters, there being too many of them to focus on any; so it is difficult to empathize with, to care for, any of them individually (except for shit-eating, motherless Renata and the daughter who is tripped and raped at dinner, and these are only a few incidents, not plot points drawn out for the full length of the film), and the ability to empathize with individual characters is crucial for grounding in the story, for being able to enjoy it.

We pity the victims in a general sense, we pity them en masse, but we can’t follow any individual character arcs. There is no sense of anyone growing, developing, or changing; it’s just victims entering a sea of trauma and swimming through undifferentiated torment from beginning to end.

We know the victims are doomed, and that their depraved masters are irredeemable. There’s nothing anybody can do to help the victims, so all that there is here is a sadistic stasis throughout. Lasciate ogne speranza,…

In Sade’s novel, the characters are grouped and categorized in a manner almost like taxonomy: the four libertines, the prostitute storytellers, the libertines’ daughters, the huit fouteurs, the four elderly, ugly women, etc. The numbers of characters are often reduced (e.g., four studs instead of eight) in the film, and Sade generally names the characters, but this sense of ‘taxonomy’ is retained in Salò.

This categorizing of characters is significant in terms of the Italian fascist context of the film, since Mussolini wanted his fascist society to be broken up into corporate groups of people according to the functions they were meant to perform in society (syndicates). When Mussolini spoke of “corporatism,” this is what he meant, not the corporatocracy that we see today, the unholy alliance of business corporations with the state, which is really just the logical extreme that capitalism comes to.

The fact that the libertines allow their daughters to be abused and killed doesn’t in any way detract from them also being symbolic of the bourgeoisie. The daughters are every bit as representative of capitalists–that is, the less fortunate ones–as their fathers are. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Apart from the fact that their fathers’ cruelty to them is a reflection of the patriarchal family, especially cruel in a fascist context, the daughters as victims can be seen as representative of, for example, the Jewish petite bourgeoisie up until the Nazis stripped them of their rights with the Nuremberg Laws. Hence, the daughters being stripped naked and forced to stay naked throughout the four months, humiliated, made to serve everyone’s meals and to endure being spat on by the guards and raped by the studs.

Indeed, the first scene in which the daughters appear as naked waitresses is one that I find to be among the most painful to watch. What we see here is the essence of fascism: the guards and studs, as class collaborators instead of joining in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class, would rather target and bully a select portion of the petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the daughters.

That poor daughter who is tripped and raped by one of the studs, while the others watch and laugh at her–the bourgeois fathers would rather sing a song together than help the girl. This is the essence of the bourgeois family: being more concerned with maintaining power and prestige than even with helping their own children.

Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, wrote of how there is no meaningful sense of family among the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us [communists] with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (II: Proletarians and Communists)

Indeed, with all the teen victims snatched away from their parents (and Renata actually having witnessed the murder of her own mother, who tried to save her), we can see the truth of Marx’s observation. To make matters worse, though, we see this injustice to the family extended to that of the bourgeoisie itself, in the form of the libertines’ abuse of their daughters. The psychopathic and narcissistic libertines have no qualms at all about abusing their own flesh and blood.

The prostitutes, catering on the one hand to libertine lust with their erotic storytelling, and on the other hand being far less vicious to the victims, can be seen to represent the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class maintains its power over us with a kind of one-two punch: the liberal jab, and the conservative right-cross.

When liberals are elected, they give the people the false hope that all will be well with their modest reforms, which don’t really help the people in any meaningful way, but rather exist as concessions that keep us at bay and stave off revolution. Then, when we’re comfortable and complacent, conservatives get elected and create harsher legislation, which we hate but ultimately get used to, so no attempt is ever made, when liberals get reelected, to reverse the hated new laws. One-two punch.

We can see such a situation as symbolized by how, for example, Signora Vaccari holds naked Renata in her arms as a mother would her child. Yet it isn’t long after that that the trembling, traumatized girl is forced into a mock marriage with Sergio during the ceremony of which the Duke fondles a number of the male and female victims; then the boy and girl are pressured to fondle each other, then they are raped by the libertines to stop them from consummating their own ‘marriage.’

Later, at the beginning of the Circle of Blood, the duke, president, and magistrate, all in women’s clothes, growl at the weeping victims, demanding that they smile and laugh during this ‘joyous’ occasion of a mock wedding between the libertine ‘brides’ and the stud grooms. Vaccari and the piano player (played by Sonia Saviange) improvise jokes to make the victims laugh. We all know, however, that this is only a brief respite from the teens’ endless frowning.

Another way that the prostitute storytellers can be seen as symbolic of liberals is in how their lewd stories parody, and thus can represent, our permissive pop culture, with its gratuitous swearing in Hollywood movies and sexually suggestive pop and rock songs. We seem to be liberated with such indulgences, but in our growing poverty, we aren’t.

The scene in which the libertines have the victims, including their daughters, crawl naked on all fours and bark like dogs to be fed is significant. I suspect they have been starved, and the only way they can hope to be fed is to degrade themselves in this way. It makes me think of how capitalists use charity to create the illusion that their philanthropy is generosity rather than just good public relations. Poverty is solved by a socialist reorganizing of society, providing guaranteed housing, healthcare, employment, education, etc., not giving occasional ‘charitable’ dollars to the poor.

When the poor are given alms out of pity, that pity is really condescension coming from the ruling class. And in Salò, when one of the male victims (Lamberto) refuses to be so degraded, the magistrate whips him until he passes out. Later, the magistrate hides nails in some food and feeds it to one of the daughters, who screams in pain on having the nails stab into her mouth. Some charity.

From the Circle of Manias we go to an even more torturous one, the Circle of Shit. It is appropriate that this one be in the middle of the movie, for as film scholar Stephen Barber has observed, Salò is centred around the anus. This is true not only because of the revolting coprophagia that we see, but also in all the sodomy, that is, all the gay sex.

On one level, the coprophagia–at the dinner table in particular–represents our society’s overindulgence in junk food. When you see a fork or a spoon raising a turd from a plate up to one’s ever-so-reluctant mouth, think of a McDonald’s hamburger.

On a deeper level, though–and this is especially evident in the notorious scene in which the Duke defecates on the floor and forces Renata to eat it–the coprophagia can be seen to represent the splitting-off and projection of hated aspects of oneself (understood as internal objects of the negative aspects of one’s parents), to be introjected by others. Melanie Klein observed that a baby, experiencing what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, would engage in projective identification, ejecting unwanted parts of itself and making its mother receive those projections, which in unconscious phantasy often come in the forms of faeces or urine.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s notion of projective identification further, stating that babies and psychotics use it as a primitive, pre-verbal form of communication. Bion‘s theory of containment is normally applied to a mother’s soothing of her distressed, agitated baby, or to a therapist dealing with a deeply disturbed patient. Negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), however, results when a narcissistic or psychopathic parent, or therapist–or in the case of Salò, the four libertines–do the opposite of soothing, worsening the agitation of the baby, patient, or Salò victims, so that the distress changes into a nameless dread.

The container, or receiver of the stressful emotions (the parent or therapist), is given a feminine symbol, implying a yoni; the contained, or projection of those emotions (those of the baby or patient), is given a masculine symbol, implying a phallus. So the process of containment can, in turn, be symbolized by the notion of making love. In Salò, however, the container isn’t symbolized by the yoni, but by the anus.

The soothing of containment as symbolized by lovemaking, therefore, has relevance in Salò only in the context of homosexual sex, hence the homoeroticism in the film shouldn’t be surprising. The only mutually pleasurable sex in this film is between libertines and their willing gay partners (symbolic class collaborators), i.e., the bishop and his stud, and the duke and his catamite (Rino), one of the few boys among the victims who, because of his willing submission, isn’t brutalized. Apart from these oases from abuse (including some lesbian sex among the female victims), there is only rape.

This rape, be it penile/vaginal or anal rape, is all a symbol of the negative containment described above. The libertines, studs, and guards project their viciousness onto their victims, either in the form of rapes, or, using their shit as the contained, they project their cruelty into their victims’ mouths, another container.

The resulting trauma is the victims’ nameless dread. The introjectively identified cruelty is then manifested in the victims when they later betray other victims, or when Umberto, a victim promoted to guard/collaborator to replace Ezio, calls the boy victims “culattoni!” (faggots!)

One doesn’t have to accept Freud‘s theory of anal expulsiveness (i.e., drive theory) to see its symbolic resonance as applied to Salò. Two noteworthy traits associated with anal expulsiveness are cruelty and emotional outbursts, as are seen plentifully among the libertines in this film. Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism are understood to be caused to a great extent by childhood trauma, which is then projected onto others in the negative container/contained way described above. It’s easy to believe that the four libertines were abused as children, then grew up to be abusers themselves; the same goes for the studs and guards.

At the beginning of the Circle of Blood, we shouldn’t mistake the libertines’ cross-dressing for transgenderism. If anything, their transvestitism and gay marriage to the studs is a fascist mockery of the LGBT community. These are the kind of men who would put muscular transwomen into sporting competitions with cis-women to ensure that the latter lose every time. It’s a typical divide-and-conquer tactic that the ruling class uses to keep the people distracted from revolution.

Fascists and Nazis, of course, have never tolerated the LGBT community. Even Ernst Röhm, the gay leader of the SA, was an exception proving the rule. He was only grudgingly tolerated by Hitler until the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazis eliminated all of their potential political enemies, using the very politically powerful Röhm’s homosexuality as a rationale to have him killed (apart from an unsubstantiated claim that he was trying to wrest Hitler from power, the so-called “Röhm Putsch”). So when we see any gay sex or cross-dressing among the libertines, none of it should be understood as an affirmation of LGBT rights: it’s just that those four men can do anything they like, because they can, because they have the power.

The mounting suffering of the victims, and their powerlessness, causes their alienation to grow, meaning–apart from the occasional lesbian sex we see–they never feel any sense of solidarity, togetherness, or mutual aid. So when the bishop comes into their sleeping areas and threatens them with punishment for breaking any of their little rules, the victims promptly betray their fellow sufferers so they can save their own skins. This culminates in the betrayal of Ezio, the only guard who obeys the libertines with reluctance.

He is found making love with a black servant girl, offending not only the libertines’ disgust at the sight of penile-vaginal sex (and the implication that the boy and girl are fucking because they love each other, like the husbands and wives they lampoon with their mock marriages), but also arousing their abhorrence of interracial sex. And Ezio’s final offence is his raised fist: the two naked lovers are then shot.

The lovers’ nakedness shows their proletarian identification with the victims. His bold standing there, frontally nude (before four men with lecherous desires for young male bodies) and raising his fist, emphasizes his defiance of their hegemony.

They hesitate before killing him. Is it their lustful reluctance to waste a beautiful body they haven’t taken the opportunity to enjoy? Is it awe at his boldness, when he has absolutely no means to defend himself or fight back (refer above to Hamlet’s use of the word naked)? Is it shock at his unexpected socialist salute, indicating their unwitting employment of one they’d deem a traitor?

The only other reluctant collaborator among them is the piano player, who upon realizing the full extent of her employers’ murderous designs, jumps out of a window and kills herself. Such is the despair that so aggravated a form of right-wing hegemony can arouse in those who love freedom.

Finally, the libertines choose those victims they’ll have murdered, including all their daughters. Wearing blue ribbons around their arms, they await their doom, the daughters sitting in a large bin filled with shit. The daughter who was tripped and raped by the stud at dinner, imitating Christ on the Cross, shouts, “God, God, why have you abandoned us?” When a parent frustrates his or her children (or in this case, abuses them), their oft-used defence mechanism is splitting the parent into absolute good and bad, with a wish to expel the bad parent and keep the good one near; in this case, God as the good father is gone, while the libertines as all-too-bad fathers are all-too-present.

Not only are these victims murdered, they are killed in the most agonizing, sadistic, and drawn-out of ways. The boy Sergio is branded on the nipple. The daughters are raped one last time, one of them killed by hanging. The boy Franco has his tongue cut out. Renata’s breasts are burned, as is a boy’s penis, and a girl is scalped.

The libertines, studs, and guards are the gleefully willing perpetrators, of course, but each libertine goes inside the house to take a turn to watch the murders, which occur outside, from a window, viewing the cruelty through small binoculars. This voyeurism is comparable to our watching of violence in movies and on TV: we’ve seen so much of it that we’re desensitized to it; the voyeurs’ watching of the violence from farther away symbolizes our emotional distance from such violence when we see it on TV and in film.

The two guards we see at the end of the film, two boys dancing to music–can be seen as another fascist mockery of the LGBT community. One of them has a girlfriend named Marguerita–I don’t think he is bisexual.

The horrors seen in this film should be understood as prophetic, a dire warning of a reality that is more and more apparent each coming year. The film’s sadism only symbolizes that reality, but it’s no less of a reality just because of symbolism. Neoliberal capitalism hadn’t yet come into its own as of the mid-Seventies, but Pasolini knew that all of the imperialist ingredients were already on the table. The fascist shit dishes were going to be made and eaten, and quite soon: he could smell them.

Analysis of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 erotic thriller produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, his last film before he died. It was also written by him and Frederic Raphael, based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. It stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (actually married at the time), who play Bill and Alice Harford, a doctor and his wife who, just before Christmas, struggle with jealousy and temptations to adultery.

The film follows Schnitzler’s novella closely, changing only the setting (from early 20th century Vienna, during the Carnival, to late 20th century New York City, pre-Christmas) and characters’ names (Fridolin to Bill Harford, Albertina/Albertine to Alice, Nachtigall to Nick Nightingale [played by Todd Field], Mizzi to Domino, etc.), and adding more erotic or quasi-erotic content (i.e., more nude scenes). A 1969 German TV movie, with English subtitles, of Traumnovelle can be found here.

Here are some quotes:

“Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” –Sandor, the Hungarian dancing with Alice

“Sex is the last thing on my mind when I’m with a patient.” –Bill, to Alice

Bill: Uh… look… women don’t… They basically, just don’t think like that.
Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!
Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.
Alice: If you men only knew.

“I first saw him that morning in the lobby. He was- he was checking into the hotel and he was following the bellboy with his luggage… to the elevator. He… he glanced at me as he walked past; just a glance. Nothing more. And I… could hardly… move. That afternoon, Helena went to the movie with her friend and… you and I made love. And we made plans about our future. And we talked about Helena. And yet, at no time, was he ever out of my mind. And I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was only… for one night… I was ready to give up everything. You. Helena. My whole fucking future. Everything. And yet it was weird because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever. And… and at that moment, my love for you was both… tender… and sad. I… I barely slept that night. And I woke up the next morning in a panic. I don’t know if I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there. But by dinner… I realized he was gone. And I was relieved.” –Alice, telling Bill about the naval officer she was tempted to have an affair with during the family vacation at Cape Cod

Mysterious Woman: [at the masked orgy] I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, but you obviously don’t belong here.
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry. I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.
Mysterious Woman: [whispering] Don’t be crazy. You are in great danger.

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, come forward. May I have the password?
Bill: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s correct, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password for the house?
Bill: The password for the house…
Red Cloak: Yes?
Bill: I’m sorry. I… seem to have… forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference whether you have forgotten it, or whether you never knew it. You will kindly remove your mask. [Bill removes mask] Now, get undressed.
Bill: [nervously] Get… undressed?
Red Cloak: [sternly] Remove your clothes.
Bill: Uh… gentlemen…
Red Cloak: Remove your clothes. Or would you like us to do it for you?

“If the good doctor himself should ever want anything again… anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.” –Mr. Milich

“Listen, Bill, I don’t think you realize what kind of trouble you were in last night. Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names… I’m not gonna tell you their names, but if I did, I don’t think you’ll sleep so well.” –Ziegler

Bill: There was a… there was a… there was, uh, a woman there. Who, uh… tried to warn me.
Ziegler: I know.
Bill: Do you know who she was?
Ziegler: Yes. She was… she was a hooker. Sorry, but… that’s what she was.
Bill: A hooker?
Ziegler: Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.
Bill: Fake?
Ziegler: Yes, fake.
Bill: Why would they do that?
Ziegler: Why? In plain words… to scare the living shit out of you. To keep you quiet about where you’d been and what you’d seen.

Bill: The woman lying dead in the morgue was the woman at the party.
Ziegler: Yes.
Bill: Well, Victor, maybe I’m missing something here. You call it fake, a charade… Do you mind telling me what kind of fucking charade ends up with somebody turning up dead!?
Ziegler: Okay, Bill, let’s cut the bullshit, alright? You’ve been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours. You want to know what kind of charade? I’ll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted “take me” sacrifice that you’ve been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. Nothing happened after you left that hadn’t happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period.

“And no dream is ever just a dream.” –Bill

Themes pervading both Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle include jealousy, temptation, and the blurry distinction between dream/fantasy and reality. Also, there’s a close relationship between sex and death, between Eros and Thanatos.

One night, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice, go to a Christmas party hosted by his wealthy friend and patient, Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). Both husband and wife are assailed with temptations almost from their arrival: a handsome Hungarian named Sandor makes moves on her, while Bill has two beautiful young models charming him. Already tipsy Alice, while dancing with Sandor, sees Bill with the two women and feels a pang of jealousy.

Soon after, Bill is to be subjected potentially to more temptation when Ziegler needs him upstairs to take care of a beautiful and naked prostitute who has overdosed on speedball. Now, Bill can easily resist thoughts of lust for her, since his love and commitment to Alice is…so far…unshaken by any fears of unfaithfulness from her.

Indeed, the whole time Bill is examining the nude prostitute, he looks only at her face, asking her to open her eyes and look at him. He never gives in to the temptation of looking down at her body. He asks what her name is (Mandy, played by Julienne Davis), showing further that he, as a responsible doctor and family man, has no interest at all in treating her like a sex object.

He tells her that she’s lucky she hasn’t died…this time, but she mustn’t do these kinds of dangerous drugs ever again. To Bill, she’s a human being, though to Ziegler, her rich client, she’s a human commodity to be enjoyed. In this scene, we see the first example of sex juxtaposed with death, or at least the danger of death.

Bill, as a middle class bourgeois, is content with what he has, since he feels no threat of losing it. But when Alice, stoned with him on marijuana the night after the party, tells him of the temptation she had of having an affair with a naval officer while she and Bill were on vacation in Cape Cod the year before, he wonders if she’s told him the whole truth, or if she’s concealing an actual affair she’s had with the man.

Bill’s fear of having been cuckolded is a symbolic castration of him, an unmanning. The resulting lack gives rise to a desire for other women he hitherto hasn’t had. A further unmanning occurs when Bill is walking the streets of New York that night, after making a sudden house call (during which a woman, the daughter of a man who has just died, declares her love to Bill…more temptation for him). A group of college-age men, one of whom bumps into Bill, taunts him with homophobic slurs. Like Fridolin in Traumnovelle, Bill feels like a coward for not challenging them to a fight.

Soon after, as he continues walking the streets, moping, and ruminating about Alice’s suspected adultery, a pretty young prostitute named Domino (played by Vinessa Shaw) comes up to him and invites him up to her apartment. Here we see how his symbolic castration, his wounded sense of manhood, his lack, gives rise to his desire.

Though he doesn’t go through with having sex with Domino (a phone call from Alice ruins the mood), the point is that he has seriously considered the sex. He even pays her the full amount.

Bourgeois, middle class Bill is liberal in his thinking: smoking pot with Alice, respectful to women when they are undressed, and therefore repressing his darker desires. But when the security of his world is threatened, those darker impulses of his start to come to the surface.

In The Liberal Mindset, I described the psychological conflict the liberal has between his id impulses towards pleasure (sex, drugs, etc.) and his superego-influenced sense of morality about responsibility to social justice issues. Since Schnitzler and Freud thought very similarly about sex and psychology (they even exchanged correspondence), it seems appropriate to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to my interpretation of this movie.

Bill, as a doctor and devoted husband (and as a bourgeois liberal), has a strong superego that normally prevents him from indulging in any temptations to adultery or to objectifying women. As long as all that is his is secure, he will be a good boy; but if the security of what is his is threatened, his superego will no longer restrain his id.

Similarly with the liberal, as long as his or her class privileges are safe, he or she will be generous and have a kind attitude towards the disadvantaged. He or she will make endless pleas for peace, and will speak out against such problems as income inequality; but elect the wrong presidential candidate, and the liberal will bang the war drums against any country accused–without a shred of evidence–of having aided said candidate to win, and he or she will have no qualms about voting in a candidate equally right-wing as this wrongfully elected incumbent, no matter how unsympathetic this new, desired candidate is to millennials or to the plight of the poor…as long as he is a Democrat.

The mask of the superego slips off, and we see the face of the id. Speaking of masks…

After the failed encounter with Domino (already proof of Bill’s willingness to exploit the poverty of prostitutes to satisfy his desires), Bill finds a night club where he knows his old friend, Nick Nightingale, is playing jazz piano. The two men chat after the end of the gig, and Bill learns of Nick’s next, far more exciting one: in the mansion of a secret society whose members are masked and cloaked, and where there will also be a bevy of beautiful, nude women!

By the end of the movie, we learn that Ziegler is one of the masked men in the mansion, as is Mandy, according to him, anyway (though she, also masked, and the one who warns Bill to leave immediately, is played by a different actress–Abigail Good). These nude, masked women are obviously prostitutes meant to satisfy the lust of the men of the secret society, men of wealth, power, and influence. By an interesting irony, the men’s masks give them their power, the power of anonymity; the prostitutes’ masks strip them of their power, by making them faceless, robbing them of their individuality, making them mere commodities instead of letting them be human beings.

Bill–the man whose superego kept him from objectifying women before, kept him from ever dreaming [!] of exploiting prostitutes, now, with his suspicions of Alice’s infidelity (and the password to the house is Fidelio!)–is letting his id run wild. He eagerly insists that Nightingale give him the password and address to the mansion.

Given the outrageous nature of the goings-on in the mansion, the pagan, seemingly near-Satanic rituals, and the orgies, as well as how unlikely the members of the secret society would just let Bill in, him having arrived in a taxi cab instead of in a limo, it seems less likely that Bill has really experienced the orgy scene than that he has just dreamed it, or at least fantasized about it.

Traumnovelle means “Dream Story”; Eyes Wide Shut seems to mean “eyes wide open while seeing a dream” (i.e., with one’s eyes shut), or it could mean refusing to see reality, preferring to see one’s fantasies. In other words, one is so preoccupied with seeing the fantasies used to gratify the pleasure principle (id), and is so preoccupied with the accompanying guilt (superego), that one’s eyes are shut to the reality principle (ego).

Along with the controversy of the sexual material in much of Schnitzler’s writing, he was also known to have been a highly sexed man, given to many a dalliance with women. Added to this was his chauvinistic attitude, most prevalent at the time, of course, that his female lovers ought to have been virgins. Only he was permitted to have a multitude of lovers.

There is much of Schnitzler in Fridolin (and therefore also in Bill, though in a more muted form, thanks to Kubrick’s and Raphael’s rewrites), and so his sexual double standards are reflected in the protagonist’s attitude; though, to be fair, Fridolin and Bill have their share of guilt over their sexual venturings. Indeed, on some level, Traumnovelle seems to have been Schnitzler’s purging of his own voracious sexual appetite.

So, has the whole, wild night really happened, is it just Bill’s imagination, or is it somewhere in between? A dream is the fulfillment of a wish, as Freud originally observed; or, as he observed two decades later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with his theories of the death drive and repetition compulsion, sometimes one engages in patterns of self-injury, or acts out unpleasant experiences over and over again. In other words, sometimes one has self-destructive urges, as Bill’s refusal to heed the Mysterious Woman’s warnings of the danger that the secret society poses to him–were it all a dream dramatized in his mind–would seem to indicate.

Recall that Bill has just smoked weed with Alice before going out for the house call. I don’t think his being stoned has detracted from the fantastic aspects of his experiences that night. He could easily have nodded off in his cab a couple of times–the ride to the house call and back–and he could thus have dreamt all, or at least part, of the more extreme experiences.

Certainly his encounter at the costume rental, with Mr. Milich (played by Rade Serbedžija) and his sex-kitten teen daughter (played by Leelee Sobieski), her being caught undressed with two Asian men in that awkward incident, seems wild enough to have been part of a dream. Then again, maybe much of it really did happen, for such is the blurred line between fantasy and reality in this film.

So, when Bill arrives at the mansion, we can interpret the meaning of the ritualistic, orgiastic goings-on inside in two ways: as having really happened, or as a dream/fantasy of his. Let’s consider the former interpretation first.

Like the authoritarian power of priests in ancient religion, we can see the ritualistic elements in the mansion as symbolic of the religious awe one might feel in the presence of such powerful people. In Traumnovelle, the masked men wear monks’ hoods and cloaks, and the masked prostitutes wear nuns’ habits.

As for the orgiastic aspect, the prostitutes’ nudity represents their powerlessness as have-nots (consider Shakespeare’s use of naked, as meaning ‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), as contrasted with the clothed men, the haves, the rich and powerful. Their threat to strip Bill of his clothes is thus to deprive him of his power, too. The women’s powerlessness is a lack of their own, giving rise to the desire for such things as drugs (i.e., Mandy’s speedball), a manic defence against the depression they must feel from always being sexually exploited.

The secret society’s exploitation of the prostitutes reminds us of Jeffrey Epstein‘s and Ghislaine Maxwell‘s prostituting of underage girls to satisfy the hebephilia and ephebophilia of all those implicated in the scandal. Their gargantuan amounts of wealth buy them the power needed to silence or kill anyone who may squeal, just as Bill is threatened by the Red Cloak (played by Leon Vitali).

So much for the interpretation that the mansion scene really happened. Now let’s interpret the scene from the point of view that Bill has imagined, or dreamed, the whole thing. Now, the goings-on in the house are a dramatization of the thought processes of Bill’s unconscious.

What we have here is a dream that is a wish-fulfillment of Bill’s desires (an orgy of anonymous sex), as well as a fulfillment, on some level at least, of his self-destructive urges (the threats). Sex meets death.

Many of the goings-on represent unconscious ego defence mechanisms: denial (Bill’s mask; his pretence that he’s a member of the secret society), projection (the members of the secret society indulging in the naughtiness instead of him), reaction formation (in Traumnovelle, the monks’ and nuns’ clothes, symbolizing the secret society’s wish to seem virtuous rather than sinful; in the original script, they were supposed to be monks’ cloaks, and actually, the cloaks and hoods we see are still rather similar to those of monks), and turning against oneself (Bill is threatened, though he hasn’t indulged in any of the sex: he’s only been watching).

Since much of the ego and superego are unconscious, the defence mechanisms tend to be activated unconsciously, too: “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt in the analytic hour, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

The password, Fidelio, represents Bill’s wish that his wife be faithful to him, even though he, like Schnitzler, wishes he could get away with being unfaithful to her. The fact that he is tricked into thinking there’s a second password means that his id is fulfilled by being allowed in the house, while his superego‘s unconscious wish to be punished for his thoughts of infidelity is also satisfied.

If the mansion scene is all a dream, the Mysterious Woman can easily be Mandy, who can also know that he is Bill, the doctor who helped her get through her OD ordeal, which she can see as him having saved her life. (In his narcissistic imagination, Bill can then think that this nude beauty likes him.)

Her offer “to redeem him,” a perversely Christ-like moment amidst orgiastic activity that some may deem Satanic, can be seen thus as Mandy wishing to repay Bill for having helped her at Ziegler’s Christmas party. If the mansion scene has really happened, though, her willingness to take the punishment (presumably death) for a man she apparently doesn’t know could come from her hatred of her life as an exploited prostitute, a kind of suicide.

As the focal point of Bill’s dream, the secret society is, on the one hand, an intimidatingly powerful, wealthy, influential group, and on the other hand, an envied group whose indulgence in forbidden pleasures is something Bill would love to join. They could, in this sense, be seen to represent the NWO of the conspiracy theorists (many have tried unconvincingly to associate the secret society with such things as the Illuminati), that is, in his imagination, in his dreams, as opposed to reality.

The secret society could also represent–again, in Bill’s imagination only–the “corporatists” that the right-wing libertarians accuse of perverting the “free market.” The corporatist NWO is both feared and unconsciously admired and envied, since they have a power and influence that their detractors would gladly wield, were the detractors as rich and successful.

Bill is conflicted between his id wanting to join the big club we aren’t in and participating in their lewd indulgence, and his superego‘s moral condemnation of their wickedness, hence his leaving the house unscathed and sexually unfulfilled, with a prostitute dying for him. The right-wing libertarian similarly condemns the corruption of the bourgeois state and its super-rich beneficiaries, imagining that this corruption has nothing to do with “real capitalism,” when it is easy to believe that, were he to rise up to the level of the elite, he too would be defending his and their opulence, claiming they’d got there through ‘hard work, gumption, and talent,’ rather than through the merciless exploitation of the working class. Just look at the libertarian Koch brothers to see what I mean.

The liberal has similar repressed desires, including his wish to preserve his class privileges, though his loftier ego ideal would have him pretend to care for the exploited, as Bill consciously does Mandy.

So, a combination of Bill’s jealousy over Alice’s suspected infidelity, his smoking of weed intensifying that jealousy and fogging his mind, his fatigue throughout the night, his presumed napping in the cabs, and his own guilt over his near-succumbing to temptation has all blurred the boundary between fantasy and reality for him.

The stress he has felt–Was the Mysterious Woman murdered by the secret society? Was she Mandy? Did she just OD one too many times? Will the secret society have him and his family killed? Did he just dream/imagine it all?–is at least to a large extent just a dramatization of his own conflict.

Projecting onto a murderous, rich elite helps Bill to forget that he, too, has at least wanted, and has the money, to exploit prostitutes, just as Milich, the owner of the small costuming business, prostitutes his own daughter. Whether petite or grande, bourgeois are still bourgeois.

Bill has the same desires as Alice, who definitely dreams of being in an orgy with men and laughs while dreaming, then weeps about it after waking up. Here we see the difference between the indulgent unconscious and the censorious conscious mind. Bill also has the same desires as Ziegler, whose Christmas party, with the constant flirtation among the guests, is a double of the mansion orgy, as well as its inspiration for Bill’s dream. Alice’s orgy dream is also a double of the mansion orgy dream.

If the mansion orgy is a dream, so is every following scene associated with it. These scenes include Bill’s return to the house gates to receive the warning letter, his fortuitous discovery of a newspaper article about Mandy’s death by drug overdose, his seeing her body at the morgue (his id ogling her nude body like a necrophile, though his superego mourns her death and his ego fears for his and his family’s lives), and Ziegler’s explanation that her “sacrifice” was staged. All of these scenes thus are unconscious wish-fulfillments, expressions of Eros, as well as expressions of the death drive.

Finally, Bill breaks down and cries in his bedroom, waking Alice up, because he sees his mask on the pillow beside her. Is this because the secret society’s muscle have been following him everywhere, or has he, because of all the stress he’s been enduring, hallucinated it? (Alice doesn’t seem to notice it.)

After all, he returned to Domino’s apartment with a gift, hoping to finish what he started the last time; and since she wasn’t home, but her pretty roommate was there instead, he was tempted to cheat with her. The news of Domino being HIV-positive reinforces the sex/death link. Domino’s bedroom walls are also covered in masks, inspiring the mansion dream as well as linking his guilt feelings with seeing (or hallucinating) his mask lying on his pillow.

He tearfully confesses everything to Alice, and the last scene shows them Christmas shopping with their daughter in the toy section of a department store. Their discussion of the matter doesn’t seem to be so much about the threats of a secret society as about his guilt feelings. This would explain why, as a solution, their focus is on loving each other, and why Alice says that, as soon as possible, they should “Fuck.” It’s all about dealing with their temptations to adultery, not a fear of being murdered.

Meanwhile, Christmas lights and decorations have been seen throughout the movie, except for the ‘Satanic’ mansion scene, of course. Christmas in this context should not in any way be confused with the Christmas spirit. In line with the commodification of women (symbolic of the exploitation of the working class in general) seen from beginning to end, Christmas here should be understood only in terms of consumerism, the fetishization of commodities, hence the final scene of the Harfords doing their Christmas shopping.

The point is that ending the elite’s exploitation of prostitutes, and of all of the working class, must include those lower-level bourgeois, like Bill, also no longer exploiting other people. One cannot stop at overthrowing those at the very top; one must overturn the entire capitalist system, and those among the petite bourgeoisie can be a great help, provided they join the workers’ cause. As Mao once said, “Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie.” (Mao, page 7)

Consider the opening of Traumnovelle, when the daughter of Fridolin and Albertine is reading the story in which “brown slaves” row a prince’s galley to a caliph’s palace. The narration’s concern is with the prince meeting the princess once he reaches the shore; the slaves, however, are as faceless, as anonymously disposable, as the nude masked women in the mansion.

Bill has shown all that concern for Mandy, but he has done so from the hypocritical point of view of a liberal. As with his condolences for Domino over her having tested HIV-positive, his empathy for Mandy is a thin disguise–a mask–covering his desire to have both women in bed.

The proletariat is always “ready to redeem” the bourgeoisie, suffering and dying so the rich can continue to live well. “Someone died,” Ziegler says to Bill, referring to Mandy. “It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t.” The eyes of the bourgeoisie are wide open to the pleasures they can see, but shut to the suffering of those they pay to give them that pleasure. Life is a dream story for the wealthy, but a nightmare, a trauma novella, for the poor.

Analysis of ‘RoboCop’

RoboCop is a 1987 science fiction action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. It stars Peter Weller in the title role, as well as Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O’Herlihy, and Ronny Cox.

It is considered one of the best films of 1987, and it spawned two sequels, several TV series (including two cartoons), video games, and a comic book, as well as a remake that got a comparatively lukewarm reception. There is much more to this film than just the usual ‘shoot-’em-up’ action film formula: there is much social commentary on the evils of capitalism, media manipulation, gentrification, and one’s sense of identity.

Here are some quotes:

“I’d buy that for a dollar!” –Bixby Snyder, repeated line from a TV show

Dougy: We rob the banks but we never get to keep the money.
Emil: Takes money to make money. We steal money to buy coke then sell the coke to make even more money. Capital investment, man.
Dougy: Yeah, but why bother making it when we can just steal it?
Emil: No better way to steal money than free enterprise.

Good night, sweet prince.” –Joe Cox, to Murphy after the gang has shot him

Bob Morton: How does he eat?
Roosevelt: His digestive system is extremely simple. This processor dispenses a rudimentary paste that sustains his organic systems.
Johnson: [Roosevelt dispenses the paste into a cup and hands it to Johnson] Tastes like baby food.
Bob Morton: Knock yourself out.

“Your move, creep.” –RoboCop

Reporter: Robo, excuse me, Robo! Any special message for all the kids watching at home?
RoboCop: Stay out of trouble.

“Murphy, it’s you!” –Officer Lewis

Officer Lewis: I asked him his name. He didn’t know.
Bob Morton: Oh, great. Let me make it real clear to you. He doesn’t have a name. He’s got a program. He’s product. Is that clear?

“I dunno, I dunno, maybe I’m just not making myself clear. I don’t want to fuck with you, Sal, but I’ve got the connections, I’ve got the sales organization, I got the muscle to shove enough of this factory so far up your stupid wop ass, that you’ll shit snow for a year!” –Clarence

“What’s the matter, officer? I’ll tell you what’s the matter. It’s a little insurance policy called ‘Directive 4’, my contribution to your very psychological profile. Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown. What did you think? That you were an ordinary police officer? You’re our product. And we can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?” –Dick Jones, when ‘Directive 4’ interferes with RoboCop’s attempt to arrest him

“It’s a free society – except there ain’t nothin’ free, because there’s no guarantees, you know? You’re on your own. It’s the law of the jungle. Hoo-hoo.” –Keva Rosenberg, Unemployed Person

Nukem. Get them before they get you. Another quality home game from Butler Brothers.” –Commercial Voice-Over

Dick Jones: That thing is still alive.
Clarence Boddicker: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dick Jones: The police officer who arrested you, the one you spilled your guts to.
Clarence Boddicker: Hey, take a look at my face, Dick! He was trying to kill me!
Dick Jones: He’s a cyborg, you idiot! He recorded every word you said! His memories are admissable as evidence! You involved me! You’re gonna have to kill it.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, listen, chief…your company built the fucking thing! Now I gotta deal with it?! I don’t have time for this bullshit! [heads for the door]
Dick Jones: Suit yourself, Clarence. But Delta City begins construction in two months. That’s two million workers living in trailers. That means drugs. Gambling. Prostitution. [Boddicker stops, backtracks into the room] Virgin territory for the man who knows how to open up new markets. One man could control it all, Clarence.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, I guess we’re gonna be friends after all… Richard. [Jones tosses Boddicker RoboCop’s tracker.]
Dick Jones: Destroy it.
Clarence Boddicker: Gonna need some major firepower. You got access to military weaponry?
Dick Jones: We practically are the military.

“It’s back. Big is back, because bigger is better. 6000 SUX – an American tradition!” –Commercial Voiceover [caption on screen says “An American Tradition. 8.2 MPG”]

“You are illegally parked on private property. You have twenty seconds to move your vehicle.” –ED-209, seeing RoboCop drive up to the OCP entrance

[last lines] Old Man: [to RoboCop] Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?
RoboCop: [stops and turns around; to Old Man] Murphy. [warmly smiles and walks out]

The sardonic take on the media is apparent right from the beginning, with TV newscasters played by none other than Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons (she having been on such programs as Entertainment Tonight) discussing the shooting of Officer Frank Frederickson, the policeman Murphy (Weller) is replacing in the local Detroit police force. An example of media phoniness is seen when newscaster Casey Wong (Machado) roots for Frederickson to recover from his injuries.

The police are having such difficulties dealing with the rampant crime in Detroit–a problem exacerbated by the plans of megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to privatize the force–that one angry cop suggests going on strike.

As I’ve argued in other posts, I see the mafia, as well as police–and most obviously, corporations like OCP–as representing differing facets of capitalism: the crime gang headed by Clarence Boddicker (Smith) symbolizes the “free market” version; and the cops are, apart from their role as capitalists’ bodyguards, representative of a more government-regulated version of capitalism. How the mafia, cops, and corporations intermingle is made blatantly clear in the movie.

In fact, when Murphy and Lewis (Allen) have chased Clarence’s gang into an abandoned steel mill (the gang’s hideout), we hear Emil (played by Paul McCrane) chatting with Dougy about “free enterprise,” in the form of stealing in order to finance their cocaine business. Capitalism in general is about stealing (the fruits of worker labour in the form of surplus value) in order to accumulate capital.

Capitalists don’t screw over only their workers, though. They also step on each other in the brutal, dog-eat-dog world of competition. As Marx said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) We see examples of this striking down in the rivalry between Dick Jones (Cox) and Bob Morton (Ferrer) over who has made the superior mechanical cop.

Clarence’s gang doesn’t just kill Murphy: they mutilate his body in swarms of bullets. His hand is blown off by a shotgun, then his entire arm before Clarence finishes him off with a bullet in the head. Indeed, there’s quite a lot of mutilation in this film: consider Emil’s fate, his body deformed in a soaking in toxic waste before his body sprays into pieces after being hit by Clarence’s racing car.

Soon after, Leon (played by Ray Wise) is blown up from having been shot by Lewis with the Cobra Assault Cannon, a weapon Jones has supplied Clarence’s gang with to destroy RoboCop. Morton is also blown up by a grenade set off in his home by Clarence; and Jones’s body is riddled with bullets before he falls to his death at the end of the film. People don’t just die: bodies get destroyed.

This mutilation is symbolic of how capitalism alienates us not just from each other, but also from our own species-essence. This is precisely what Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg symbolizes. He, as a cop defending the capitalist class, is reduced to a machine. His quest for the remainder of the film is to reclaim his identity, something all tied up with this alienation from himself, as a cop who exists only as a product of a corporation.

Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg has been compared to the death and resurrection of Christ. His character in general has been so compared; Verhoeven himself has made this comparison, and one can’t so easily brush aside the interpretations of the movie-maker himself.

Still, I must respectfully disagree. Though RoboCop is the hero of the movie, there’s nothing particularly Christ-like, or even Christian, about him. He’s still a cop: (especially American) cops kill, but Jesus saves. A bullet shot clean through Murphy’s hand could have symbolized the stigmata; instead, his hand (and arm) are blown right off.

Even if one were to say RoboCop’s wading in ankle-deep water is symbolically like Christ’s walking on water, the comparison is superficial. RoboCop is wading in the water pointing his gun at Clarence, saying, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” implying he’s going to shoot and kill the mob boss in cold blood. Christ walked on water to help his frightened disciples on a boat in a storm at sea, to teach them about having faith. The meaning between the two moments couldn’t be farther apart.

We shouldn’t always take movie-makers’ interpretations of their films at face value. How they discuss meaning in their films can often have more to do with stimulating interest in the films and making money off them (speaking of capitalism) than in telling us their real intents. Saying RoboCop represents Christ can easily be seen as a marketing trick to get religiously-minded people to want to buy a ticket and see the film.

So instead of comparing Murphy’s metamorphosis into RoboCop with Christ’s resurrection (how does a mechanical body–not easily perishable–represent a “spiritual body“–utterly imperishable?), I would compare it to a rebirth, almost a reincarnation. Bob Morton is the father, and though he’s playing God in his creation of a part-human, part robot policeman, the ruthless capitalist is no Holy Father; Tyler (played by Sage Parker), the female head of the team of scientists who make RoboCop can be seen as his new mother–she even kisses her baby at a New Year’s Day party, her red lipstick supposedly meant to arouse Oedipal feelings in her ‘son.’

Psychologically, RoboCop can thus be seen as a baby…not the ‘babies’ I characterized Carrie and Hannah as, with their waif-like innocence, naïveté, and vulnerability, of course, but in the sense that, newborn, he has no more than fragments of memories of his former life. He has no sense of self, or a meaningful sense of his past; it’s as if he were born yesterday. He even eats baby food.

Morton, as RoboCop’s ‘father,’ wants total prosthesis (i.e., all mechanical limbs) for his new product, so he insists on amputating Murphy’s one good arm. This amputation is a symbolic castration, yet another symbolic example of the mutilation and disempowerment inherent in capitalism.

Along with this, Morton goes over RoboCop’s Prime Directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. These directives represent the Name of the Father: symbolically castrated RoboCop is being introduced by his ‘father’ into the law and customs of society, though his ability to connect with others, and therefore to know himself, has been severely compromised.

How has this stifling of his sense of self and others happened? Consider the screen that has been fitted in front of his eyes. That screen is symbolically like a filter, blocking out the human connection felt between two faces–i.e., two pairs of naked eyes–looking at each other, empathically mirroring each other. It’s another symbolic manifestation of alienation.

His screen is similar to the TV screens people feel themselves glued to, addicted to, watching the news, commercials, or the TV show funnyman who’d “buy that for a dollar!” It’s similar to our experience today on social media, staring at phone screens instead of looking at each other, person to person, in real life.

In the film, we often see characters breaking the fourth wall and looking at us, who see them from RoboCop’s point of view, through that screen, which has an imperfect resolution like that of the TV screen showing Casey Wong and Jess Perkins (Gibbons), with people communicating insincerely and manipulatively.

Since I compare RoboCop to a psychological baby, I find it apt to compare the screen before his eyes to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of a beta screen. Normally, raw sensory data (beta elements, which tend to be agitating) that we receive from the outside world are taken in and processed in our minds (through alpha function) and turned into alpha elements (emotional experiences now made tolerable and usable as thoughts, dreams, etc.). Some beta elements remain intolerable and are never processed; they’re either projected onto other people, or they accumulate on the periphery of our minds in the form of a beta screen. Excessive accumulations of them can result in psychosis.

RoboCop–someone more machine than man, and who is relegated to the form of a mere product working for a mega-corporation (his ‘father,’ Morton, tells Lewis he has no name–he’s a product)–is no longer able to relate to people normally; so he cannot exchange emotional experiences with them in the form of processing beta elements and turning them into alpha elements, a processing that is the basis for growth in knowledge (Bion’s K) and learning from experience. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

These deficiencies of Murphy’s are far from absolute, though. Those fragments of memories still loom in his unconscious mind, for they have already been processed as alpha elements, and so they can be used in dreams. RoboCop has a dream about having been killed by Clarence’s gang; he wakes up, and he’s determined to find his killers. He’s no longer working under OCP’s orders, and this new willfulness of his makes his creators nervous.

Lewis stops RoboCop as he’s leaving the police station, for she knows who he originally was. She stands before him, looks him in the face–attempting genuine human contact and empathic mirroring–and wants to tell him his name is Murphy. With that screen–his symbolic beta screen–before his eyes, though, he can’t process the emotional experience properly. He can only drone, “How can I help you, Officer Lewis?” in the monotone voice of an automaton. He will, however, remember the name ‘Murphy,’ since his programming records everything, as if on tape, so he’ll eventually learn who he was.

Here’s a paradox about RoboCop: he has few human memories, just scattered fragments (he later tells Lewis that he can feel the memories of his wife and son, but he can’t remember them); any new experience, though, is literally videotaped through his programming, and is ‘remembered’ in minute detail.

When learning the names of all the members of Clarence’s gang, RoboCop finds Murphy’s file, is shocked to see the word “deceased” shown on it, and learns of his old home address. He finds the house, which is now up for sale, since his wife and son, understanding that he’s dead, have left. Fragments of memories of them flash in his mind as he looks about the house, in which a TV shows a real estate agent advertising the virtues of the house.

The pain of realizing what he has lost drives RoboCop to punch the TV screen. Screens divide people from each other; capitalism causes mutual alienation.

Meanwhile, Jones wants revenge on Morton for making him lose face with the success of RoboCop over the disastrous failure of ED-209. Morton’s murder reveals Jones’s business relationship with Clarence. This in turn symbolizes certain paradoxes about capitalism: one capitalist may strike down another, but that same capitalist may, at other times, also cooperate with a third capitalist if doing so is in his interests.

Right-wing libertarians like to fantasize that “free market” capitalism, devoid of government influence, is a purified version that will never result in corruption. This is nonsense, and is a grotesque oversimplification of the problem. Capitalism, in any form, cannot exist without at least some state intervention, and the corporatocracy (what libertarians label with the misnomer “corporatism“) that the “free market” is supposed to prevent is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism.

In capitalism, the 99% don’t count: only the 1% do. This means not only don’t workers count, but small businesses don’t, either. As for the 1% of super successful businesses, we see in them the concentration and centralization of capital; the state doesn’t cause this to happen–the capitalists are doing it all themselves. The only role the state plays is in protecting the interests of the ruling class, and this relationship between the state and capital is what we see in RoboCop.

Corporations, the state, and the market are all intertwined; there’s no separating them from each other. We see this intertwining in OCP, the police department, and Clarence’s gang. Because Clarence has connections with Jones and OCP, he feels free to demand the cocaine he buys from Sal and his mafia business for a lower price. One capitalist strikes down another.

Upon arresting Clarence, RoboCop learns of his connections with Jones. But when he goes to arrest Jones, RoboCop learns of a new, fourth primary directive: he cannot arrest a senior officer of OCP. Here we see the main point of having police–they serve and protect the ruling class. Yes, they catch criminals, but it’s always been about protecting private property; this is a historic fact. This is why the criminal activity of, for example, Wall Street bankers is rarely if ever punished.

Jones tries to have RoboCop destroyed, first by an improved ED-209, then by his police force, and finally by Clarence and his gang. When Delta City is set up, a gentrification project pushing the poor out and getting the rich to buy up the homes, Jones motivates Clarence to kill RoboCop by proposing that the crime boss run the poor areas, making it possible for him “to open up new markets” in prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc. Here we see the mafia again as a metaphor for capitalists.

Lewis and a damaged RoboCop hide out in the abandoned steel mill. He removes his helmet and visor, revealing Murphy’s face again, and he can see through his own eyes. He then sees a reflection of his face. Since, as I’ve argued above, RoboCop is like a baby psychologically, his seeing himself is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, helping him establish a sense of self. Though the ego is ultimately an illusion, RoboCop didn’t even have a sense of that before. He is now becoming reacquainted with his humanity and identity.

Now, when Clarence’s gang comes to fight him, RoboCop isn’t going to arrest them because of a computer program: he wants to kill them in revenge for having destroyed his life. This is how he isn’t symbolic of Christ.

When he arrives at the OCP building, RoboCop must again face ED-209, who tells him he’s trespassing on private property; once again we see the real purpose of the police. Fortunately, Murphy is several cuts above mere protectors of private property, so he destroys ED with one of Clarence’s Cobra Assault Cannons.

When RoboCop presents an incriminating video-recording of Jones confessing to the killing of Morton, Jones puts a gun to the head of The Old Man (O’Herlihy) and attempts to take him as a hostage. When The Old Man fires Jones and elbows him in the gut to get free of him, that fourth directive no longer applies to Jones, so RoboCop is free to shoot him.

The contrast between ruthless Jones (the bad capitalist) and the “sweet Old Man” (the ‘good capitalist’) is a reflection of bourgeois liberal Hollywood’s attitude toward capitalism, and this point is my one bone of contention with the movie. In liberals’ opinion, capitalism just needs to be reformed, its excesses kept in check by the state. In my opinion, capitalism must be completely annihilated; there is no reconciling of the market with socialism. Weaning ourselves of the market may take time, eliminating it bit by bit, but it must be done away with, not just extensively regulated.

The difference between the liberal version of capitalism and the hard right-wing version is seen in how The Old Man wants to build Delta City ‘to give back’ to the people; whereas for Jones, Delta City is a gentrification project. That the ‘kinder, gentler capitalism’ of The Old Man is a sham is made clear when his response to malfunctioning ED-209 is to be upset essentially about the loss of millions of dollars, the brutal, bloody killing of Kinney having caused a minimal emotional reaction in him.

On the other hand, Morton’s “contingency” plan, RoboCop, brings a smile to The Old Man’s face, since it may save him that loss of fifty million dollars in interest payments. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned a CEO may be: the preoccupation with dollars and cents is inherent in the system, no matter how much ‘state planning’ is added to mitigate the deleterious effects of capitalism.

This is why, though RoboCop is several cuts above the average cop in terms of doing the right thing, as a protector of the interests of the ruling class, he is still far from being a Christ figure. Police who don’t protect the capitalist class would be more along the lines of the militsiya and the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, that is to say, armed militias, as well as an army of the people. No, these Soviet police were no saints, but they were much better than the kind that keep taking the life and breath out of people because of the colour of their skin.

Oh, and incidentally, a hypothetical Canadian communist RoboCop would not be Jesus, but Murphy.