Analysis of the Echo and Narcissus Myth

I will be basing my analysis of this myth largely on the poetic narrative in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. Though Ovid uses the Roman names for the gods, I’ll be using the Greek names.

Echo and Narcissus represent two extremes of the human personality. Echo is all for other people, to the detriment of herself, and Narcissus is all for himself, to the detriment of others…and of himself.

As the personification of excessive ego-libido, though, Narcissus isn’t the only character in this story who is tainted with this vice. Zeus and Hera, in their own ways, are excessively egotistical and exploitative, too, being the king and queen of heaven, and having all the privileges and arrogance of a ruling class.

Zeus’ presumptuous arrogance lies in, among other things, his belief that he is entitled to enjoy any pretty young mortal woman or nymph he likes. He jumps them and ravishes them without any consideration for whether or not they consent to his lustful acts.

Of course, Hera doesn’t approve of his affairs, but no part of her anger comes from any consideration that Zeus is a rapist; rather, her wrath comes from the narcissistic injury she feels at not being enough to satisfy his lust. (Recall, also, that she is his elder sister as well as his wife, and she would proudly deny that women enjoy sex as much as a man; accordingly, she is annoyed when Tiresias tells her women enjoy it much more than men do.) Instead of feeling any compassion for Zeus’ rape victims, she punishes them for tempting him away from her, thus blaming the victim.

As for Echo, the Oread is merely obeying Zeus’s command by distracting Hera with her long-winded stories, giving the nymphs he has enjoyed time to get away, so he’d not be caught in the act of adultery with them. Echo may be talkative, but this in itself is a minor fault. Hera’s punishment, forcing Echo never to say anything other than the final words of anyone speaking immediately before her mimicking, is too much to bear.

Hera’s punishment, an excessive one motivated by narcissistic rage against someone who couldn’t refuse Zeus’ command, is a form of emotional abuse. Echo’s loquacity is a fault, but one’s right not to have to suffer emotional abuse should not be dependent on one not having any significant faults.

Taking away Echo’s ability to speak her own words, making her only repeat those of others, is tantamount to taking away her very individuality, her identity. To exist as a person is dependent on one’s ability to express what one feels inside. Talking is, in itself, a kind of psychotherapy.

Just as narcissism is derived from Narcissus, so is “Echoism” derived from Echo. Coined by psychoanalyst Dean Davis and popularized by psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, Echoism is the polar opposite of narcissism. Echoists are extreme codependent people-pleasers. Just as narcissists live in a solipsistic world in which other people are mere extensions of themselves, Echoists are so much extensions of others that they have no sense of themselves at all.

Small wonder Echo–in her pining away, in her despair over Narcissus’ rejection of her love–disintegrates…her body vanishing, her only remaining existence being her voice, never even speaking its own words, but only imitating the words of others. The Echoist’s personality is engulfed, swallowed up, by the personalities of other people.

As for Narcissus, we see not only his ego-libido (self-love)–in the form of what Freud called secondary narcissism, a regression from the object-libido (love of others) one is supposed to develop after outgrowing the ego-libido of infantile primary narcissism–but we also see malignant traits in him, directed towards other people. His contempt for others is shown in the cruelty with which he rejects not only the love of Echo, but that of all of the admirers–male and female–of his good looks.

Narcissists are known for their viciousness and cruelty to others, and their namesake is, of course, no exception. Ameinius, a man who feels an unrequited homosexual passion for Narcissus, kills himself out of grief, but not before praying to have his cruel love-object understand the pain of never being able to have the object of his desire. According to Ovid, Nemesis hears his prayer; according to Robert Gravesversion of the narrative, Artemis answers it (Graves, page 287).

And so, Narcissus goes for a drink from that fateful pool of water. His admiration of his reflection is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, only Narcissus’ experience is an extreme version of the self-alienation we all as infants first experience on at least some level.

He sees his ideal-I in the watery reflection; it’s him, yet it isn’t him. Infants develop a sense of an ego when they first see themselves in a mirror, the reflection showing a unified, coherent totality of a self, as opposed to the awkward, clumsy, fragmented self the baby feels himself to be. One feels oneself to be so incomplete, yet the specular image seems so whole, so together, so perfect…and so over there, not here, even when the reflection is as close to oneself as it is to Narcissus. So close, yet so far away.

The ideal of perfection seen over there is something one strives to equal for the length of one’s life, just as Narcissus aches to hold in his arms the body he sees in the watery reflection, but can’t hold (Mary M. Innes translation, page 92). He can’t, just as none of us can attain the ideal we see in the mirror, that fantasied self-image, for the ego we see over there is a lie.

The lie that Narcissus sees in the water is his narcissistic False Self; his True Self is the wretched young man looking down into the water. As Tiresias has prophesied, Narcissus will live to an old age…if he never comes to know himself. Too late for that; the boy was better off vainly admiring his seemingly perfect False Self, never knowing the limitations of his True Self.

As Narcissus suffers from a love that will never be returned to him, so does Echo. Yet where her identity fades into nothingness, all that’s left being a voice imitative of others, his death is really a transformation into another pretty object to be admired–the narcissus flower of white petals and a yellow centre (Innes, page 94…though, in Graves’s version, he plunges a dagger into his chest, and the narcissus flower springs up from his blood soaked on the ground–page 288).

Her disintegration symbolizes how the codependent victim of narcissistic abuse is slowly chipped away at, caused to erode, to lose one’s sense of self to one’s domineering environment, only repeating the feelings of others, never one’s own feelings. His transformation into a flower symbolizes how, even in death, a narcissist can still be loved and admired, even by such victims of his as Echo (who mourns for Narcissus to the end), as well as by his flying monkeys and enablers.

Echoism and narcissism thus represent two uncomfortable extremes on a personality spectrum. A balance between ego-libido and object-libido (love for other people) should be striven for. One must have neither too much nor too little a sense of self. There must be neither all-I nor all-you…but we.

Of course, this split between extreme self-love and self-hate might not be so pronounced in our society if the ruling class–each Zeus and Hera of today’s world–weren’t so vain themselves. For it is their self-absorption that causes the alienation resulting, in turn, in the pathologies of the masses.

The Three Unities

I: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

II: The Unity of Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: The Unity of Time

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

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

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

IV: The Unity of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V: Conclusion

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

Analysis of ‘A Cure for Wellness’

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pembroke[brainwashed] I’ve never felt better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus begins Lockhart’s down-going.

Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: Sin and Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

III: Oedipus Is Born

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

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

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

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

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

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

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

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

V: The Riddle

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

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

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

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

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

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

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

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

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

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

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

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

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

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

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

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

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

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

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

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

XI: Hamartia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

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

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

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

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

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

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

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

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

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XV: Antigone

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

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

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

XVI: Conclusion

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the Ancient Greek Creation Myth

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: The Nirvana-Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Darkness, Light, and Desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Lack and Desire

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

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

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

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

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

V: From Blessedness to Suffering

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

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

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

VI: Family Feuding

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

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

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

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

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

VII: Stability and Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of “The Tenant”

The Tenant (Le locataire) is a 1976 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski, starring him, and written by him and Gérard Brach. It is the third film of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy,’ after Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The Tenant is based on Roland Topor‘s novel, Le locataire chimérique (The Chimerical Tenant).

Though generally considered a good film, this last one of the trilogy is the weakest, since Polanski–I’m sorry to say–is nowhere near as good an actor as he is a director, and the scenes of Trelkovsky (Polanski) dressed as a woman have an absurdity that detracts from the tension. Melvyn Douglas, Isabelle Adjani, and Shelley Winters all have supporting roles in the film.

Here are some quotes:

Trelkovsky: These days, relationships with neighbours can be…quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean?
Stella’s Friend: No, no I don’t. I mind my own business.

Stella: Why don’t you take your tie off? You look like you’re choking to death.
Trelkovsky: I found a tooth in my apartment. It was in a hole.

“If you cut off my head, what would I say…Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me?” –Trelkovsky

[talking to himself after opening a box and taking out a pair of shoes] “Oh! My! Where did you find these? They are beautiful! A size 68? I had *no* idea!” –Trelkovsky

[while looking at himself in the mirror] “Beautiful. Adorable. Goddess. Divine. Divine! I think I’m pregnant.” –Trelkovsky, in women’s clothes

[to child] “Filthy little brat!” [slaps child] –Trelkovsky

“I am not Simone Choule!” –Trelkovsky

Trelkovsky is a foreigner and French citizen renting an apartment in Paris. His growing sense of social isolation in the apartment is something Polanski, a French-Polish Jew, must have identified with, hence his decision to play the role himself. Trelkovsky’s feeling of being trapped and persecuted by the others in the apartment building–a theme seen, obviously, in the other two ‘Apartment’ films–would have echoed Polanski’s childhood experiences in the Kraków Ghetto during the Nazi persecutions.

Trelkovsky is a polite, mild-mannered fellow asking about a room for rent in an apartment building owned by M. Zy (Douglas). Neither the concierge (Winters) nor Zy is particularly friendly to Trelkovsky, which should be an ill omen to him, but he wants to rent the room all the same. His predecessor, a tenant named Simone Choule, has thrown herself out of the apartment window for no apparent reason, another ill omen that he doesn’t think of as much as he should.

He is curious enough about her, however, to visit her in the hospital; for while she is severely injured, she isn’t dead…yet. In fact, he finds her in her hospital bed, her head all wrapped up in bandages, making her look like a mummy. Her ‘mummification,’ as it were, is significant in that Trelkovsky later learns that she is something of an Egyptologist.

He approaches her bed with another visitor, Stella (Adjani), who is in tears over Choule’s inexplicable suicide attempt. Choule is also missing one of her upper front teeth, a lack symbolically associated with castration, as we’ll see later. On seeing Trelkovsky, Choule lets out a hoarse, almost masculine-sounding yell. The significance of this will be seen at the end of the film.

Another dimension of the problems Trelkovsky must face is representative of the power imbalance between landlord and tenant, respectively, the owner of private property vs. the one needing to rent that property to have a place to live. The landlord, Zy, exercises that power over Trelkovsky by always complaining about the noise he makes, whether actual or imagined noise, as well as his apparent bringing of a woman into his apartment (when actually, it’s been Trelkovsky in women’s clothes).

So, there are the power imbalances of locals vs. a foreigner, a landlord vs. his tenants, and finally, perpetrators vs. victims of emotional abuse…all interrelated imbalances, as we’ll soon see.

Other interrelationships should be noted between all three of the ‘Apartment’ films. All three involve an individual in an apartment who feels isolated, in some sense, from other people. All three involve the protagonist growing paranoid. To what extent this paranoia is internally or externally caused, however, varies between the three movies.

In Repulsion, Carol’s psychosis is internal, the result of traumas that affected her long before the story begins; it is strongly implied that her father raped her when she was a child. In Rosemary’s Baby, the title character really is a victim of persecution by Satanists, though it seems to everyone, Satanist or not, that she’s going mad. In The Tenant, however, Trelkovsky’s madness is partly the result of his neighbours’ and landlord’s bullying and complaining, partly his own hallucinated experience.

Just as Carol in Repulsion fears her body being once again violated by a man, and just as Rosemary really is raped by Satan and impregnated with the Antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby, Trelkovsky feels his own body is being violated, taken over, and lessened…reduced.

There’s a dialectical relationship between life and death in The Tenant. Choule doesn’t die right away in the hospital, but she’s in a coma, and even when awake, she’s experiencing a kind of living death. After she dies, she is resurrected, so to speak, in Trelkovsky, gradually emerging in his consciousness as she takes over his body, compelling him to wear a wig, makeup, and her black, flowery dress.

Trelkovsky attends her funeral service in a church, where a priest speaks of how Choule will be with Christ in heaven (an odd thing to say about a suicide); but then, he speaks of the stench and filth of her rotting corpse, scaring Trelkovsky out of the church.

Here is what the priest says: “Simone Choule, the Lord has taken thee to His bosom, just as the shepherd brings in his sheep at the close of day. What could be more natural, of greater consolation? Is it not our fondest hope that we shall one day rejoin the flock of holy ones? Hope of eternal life, the true life, shorn of all worldly cares, face to face in eternal blessedness with Almighty God, who through His servant, our Lord Jesus Christ, died for us on the Cross, who deigns not to look down upon us poor mortal creatures, full of love, infinitely merciful, the sick, the suffering, the dying.” Very kind words, and consoling.

But then, he says this: “The icy tomb. Thou shalt return to the dust from whence thou came and only thy bones remain. The worms shall consume thine eyes, thy lips, thy mouth. They shall enter into thine ears, they shall enter into thy nostrils. Thy body shall putrefy unto its innermost recesses and shall give off a noisome stench. Yea, Christ has ascended into heaven and joined the host of angels on high. But not for creatures like you, full of the basest vice, yearning only for carnal satisfaction. How dare you pester me and mock at me to my very face? What audacity! What are you doing here in my temple? The graveyard is where you belong. Thou shalt stink like some putrefied corpse lying on the wayside. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt never enter into my kingdom.”

Has Trelkovsky hallucinated this last part of the priest’s words? In any case, we can see the dialectical relationship between life and death in the afterlife, for here is where the two meet.

Speaking of the afterlife, there’s Choule’s interest in ancient Egypt, where mummification was practiced out of a belief in its supposed efficacy in preserving the body for its new life after death. The bandaging of her head, and of Trelkovsky’s whole body at the end of the film, making them both look like mummies, reinforces this idea of life in death, since Choule’s life is repeated in Trelkovsky…then his life will recur, one assumes, over and over again in an endless cycle.

Mummification as a preserving of the body is also a defence against the loss of body parts, the protecting of the integrity of the body as a totality. Along with the loss of Choule’s tooth (and later, the loss of one of Trelkovsky’s teeth, in the same, upper front area) is his discovery, twice, of a tooth in a wall in his apartment.

Recall the cracks in the walls that trouble Carol so much in Repulsion, and how in my analysis of the film, I interpreted the cracks as symbolic of tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim. Trelkovsky’s toothed wall, consistent with my interpretation of walls in the ‘Apartment’ films as in this sense vaginal, can be seen as Choule’s vagina dentata, symbolically castrating him so he will be a she. (Recall also how, in Rosemary’s Baby, the wall separating the Woodhouses’ apartment and that of the Satanic Castevets is so thin that Rosemary can hear much of what is happening on the other side; and they can sneak into her apartment through the secret passageway. She can feel the danger of her neighbours as being much too close to her.) Walls in the Apartment Trilogy are oppressive, invasive.

So there is a sublation between the dialectical contradictions of life and death in The Tenant, as there is between male and female. There’s also a sublation of the contradiction of having and losing body parts: symbolic mummification, the preoccupation with ancient Egypt, is part of that sublation. Trelkovsky’s wearing of a wig and makeup is an attempted adding to his body, an attempt to reverse the losing of body parts. (Recall how he, in drag for the first time, imagines he’s pregnant.)

He is preoccupied with how all his intact body parts are an expression of his identity. He is his body. If he loses an arm, a tooth, his head, his stomach, his kidneys, or his intestines, are they still a part of him, or are they something separate? Do these dismemberments make him less of who he is? He says to Stella, “A tooth is a part of ourselves, isn’t it? Like a…bit of our personality.” As I said above, his transformation into Choule is a symbolic castration (small wonder he can’t have sex with Stella!). This is a Lacanian lack–giving rise to desire, the unattainable objet petit a, the wish to have the symbolic phallus, to be it–which causes him so much pain, it drives Trelkovsky mad.

His identity, understood as his body being an intact, unified totality, is opposed to the feeling of one’s body as fragmented, the way an infant feels his or her body to be prior to experiencing the mirror stage, which introduces the Imaginary Order. His ability to enjoy human company–as seen when he socializes with his coworkers (in his housewarming party, etc.), with Stella, and when he consoles Georges Badar (Rufus) after telling him that his beloved Simone is dead–indicates his full participation in the Symbolic Order of language, social custom, etc.

But Trelkovsky’s growing alienation in his apartment, combined with his feeling that he’s losing his body, that it is being taken over by Simone Choule, is his experience of the Real, a traumatic world of no differentiation, no way to express his pain in words. A hallucination of hieroglyphics in the shared toilet room mocks this inability of his to express his feelings with signifiers.

In the Real, as Trelkovsky is experiencing it, there is no differentiation between life and death, nor between male and female, nor between having and lacking. This inability to make sense of his world is what’s driving him mad. This lack of differentiation extends to the increasing frequency of his hallucinations, no distinction between fantasy and reality.

Zy and the neighbours complain that he is making too much noise (even if he isn’t), that his presence is encroaching, impinging on their personal space; when if anything, they are encroaching on his. His room is broken into, some of his possessions stolen, but neither Zy nor the neighbours take note of the intrusion, only of his apparent intrusion on their ears.

He isn’t the only one persecuted: a lady, Madame Gaderian (Lila Kedrova), and her disabled daughter (Eva Ionesco) are being bullied by the neighbours, falsely accused of causing trouble and scapegoated as much as he is. One crabby woman, Mme. Dioz (Jo Van Fleet), wants him to join in signing a petition against the Gaderians, but he refuses. This refusal to join the gang of bullying neighbours will cost him, as he’ll see soon enough.

He has been noticing strange goings-on in the shared toilet room: he’ll see one neighbour or another just standing there motionless, doing nothing, as if in a trance, a state of living death. Each of these people–facing his direction as he watches each of them with binoculars from his apartment window–is like a mirror reflection of himself; since he’s experiencing such a living death himself. He’ll even go into the toilet room one night, look back at his own apartment window, and see himself looking back at him with the binoculars, then see ‘mummified’ Choule, without the tooth, his future identity!

So, there’s no differentiation between self and other for him, either. This can happen when experiencing emotional abuse, since the abuser(s) see the victim(s) as extensions of themselves rather than as individuals in their own right. And the victim’s trauma of no differentiation, the inability to verbalize the disorienting, painful experience, is the essence of the Real.

A few friends of his give him some kind of emotional support. A loud, aggressive male coworker, Scope (Bernard Fresson), is one of Trelkovsky’s friends at the housewarming party. Scope is so annoyed with a neighbour (Claude Piéplu) complaining about the noise, he tries to inspire Trelkovsky to “counterattack” by deliberately playing a record of loud marching music with a piercingly high-pitched horn part to annoy his own neighbours. When a neighbour complains, Scope refuses to turn his music down. Such an assertion of one’s own existence is beyond Trelkovsky’s meek, unassuming nature; he won’t press beyond his own self, so he lets others press into his world.

Another source of emotional support is Stella; her friendship with Simone should be foreshadowing as to Trelkovsky’s own fate. His growing mental instability leads him to hallucinate, while staying in her apartment, that an elderly male visitor knocking on her door is M. Zy, causing Trelkovsky to believe she is a false friend, in on the plot to persecute him. He does a “counterattack” of his own, vandalizing and ransacking her apartment in revenge (and with particularly bad acting by Polanski, I’m sorry to say).

So there’s impingement of others on his world, and vice versa (this latter often imagined as a form of gaslighting, in the form of the neighbours’ and landlord’s complaints). This is a mirroring of the self and other, a blurred line of distinction between them. This reciprocal impingement is symbolic of how the foreigner is seen as encroaching on the locals of a country (as Nazi Germany perceived the Jews and Roma to be doing), the latter then really encroaching on the former. This same reciprocally impinging relationship can be seen between landlord and tenant, in the former’s raising of the rent, for example, and in the latter’s breaking of the rules of the apartment.

Just as Rosemary‘s apartment is evil (with her Satanist neighbours), and as Carol‘s apartment is evil (her being left alone in it, with only her rape trauma to keep her company), so is Trelkovsky’s apartment evil (with Choule’s ghost haunting it, so it would seem, and slowly coming to possess his body, her being his body’s ‘tenant’). This notion of an evil building, causing the dweller to go mad, would inspire Stanley Kubrick‘s version of The Shining.

But what does Trelkovsky’s evil apartment symbolize? Consider his threefold victimhood as a foreigner living in France, as a tenant living in Zy’s building, and as a man living in…Simone Choule’s body? Consider the interrelationship of these three forms of victimhood. In all three cases, he dwells in something that ought to be his, but isn’t.

As a proletarian internationalist, I don’t believe people are illegal. I don’t believe in countries, which are really just social and political constructs: I’m a Canadian living in East Asia–I’m a foreigner myself, technically, but I consider myself a citizen of the world. The locals here occasionally treat me as if an oddity, but I can’t really complain; Latin Americans caged by ICE and separated from their children for being ‘illegal’ have had it much worse, because…MAGA!

In the classless, stateless, and money-less society I regard as ideal (if you don’t like the word ‘communist,’ call it ‘pancakes‘ instead–there, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?), it wouldn’t matter what part of the world one was born in; contribute to society here, and you can live here. Similarly, without private property, there’d be no landlords, so no need to pay rent (especially Zy’s exorbitant demand of 5,000 francs premium, then 600 a month), for your home is, just that–yours, for as long as you decide to live there; there’d be no need to fear being kicked out onto the streets, as has happened way too often recently in the US, for example. And no capitalism means no more alienation of one’s species-essence, as symbolized in the film by Trelkovsky’s losing of his body to Choule.

Emotional abuse forces one to play a societal role, to assume an identity, one alien to oneself. The family scapegoat is brainwashed into believing he or she is the embodiment of everything wrong in the family–an idea every bit as absurd as it is unfair, untrue, and hurtful. Trelkovsky’s forced assuming of Choule’s identity, through projective and introjective identification, symbolizes this brainwashing. His effeminate behaviour in that dress and wig looks absurd (especially with Polanski’s acting!), but in a way, the absurdity is appropriate, given the silly communication style (i.e., emotional dysregulation) that sufferers of C-PTSD (like me) often have. Trapped in that apartment, Trelkovsky is experiencing small but repeated traumas from which he cannot escape, a problem typically resulting in C-PTSD.

His hallucinations get worse. He imagines Mme Dioz choking him. He, in drag, sees his decapitated head (more symbolic castration) kicked like a football up to the height of his apartment window; he looks down from there and sees the victimization of Mme. Gaderian and her daughter, the latter of whom looks up and points at him while wearing a mask of his face, thus passing the scapegoating onto him; then he blocks his door and window with furniture to keep the approaching victimizers out, but he sees a hand trying to get in through the window, so he uses a knife to hack at the hand and keep it out. When an elderly driver, with her husband, accidentally hits Trelkovsky as he steps out onto the street, he hallucinates that they’re Zy and Dioz, so he tries to choke her.

This last incident occurs after Trelkovsky’s failed attempt to procure a gun in a pub, angering the staff. This attempted acquisition is him trying to regain his symbolic phallus after losing it from Choule’s takeover of his body.

He can’t even escape his world of emotional abuse through suicide: in Choule’s clothes, he jumps from the window twice, breaking through the pane of glass below as she did, recreating that hole of jagged glass that symbolizes another castrating and castrated vagina dentata. The repeated jump, just like the cyclical repetition of Trelkovsky transforming into Choule, represents what Freud called a “compulsion to repeat” traumatic experiences.

Zy, Dioz, the concierge, et al seem to want to help him as he crawls back up to his apartment for his second fall, but he hallucinates that they’re all practically demonic…or is their attempt at helpfulness the deception? Emotional abuse and gaslighting can be that confusing for the victim.

In the final scene, he’s wrapped up in bandages on the hospital bed, looking like a mummy and lacking a tooth. Under those bandages, would Trelkovsky or Choule be seen? It would seem to be the latter, for he and Stella come to visit, exactly like at the beginning of the film, thus starting the cycle of doom all over again.

That hoarse yell is heard again. There are no words, because this is a trauma that cannot be verbalized, the trauma of the Real. Injured Trelkovsky sees himself standing with Stella, all healthy and normal, the ideal-I of a metaphorical mirror reflection, so he’s alienated from himself; but he knows he cannot stop the cycle of doom from being perpetually repeated. He will lose that body he sees looking back at him; he will lose himself, again and again and again, like a decaying, rotting, foul-smelling corpse, living an eternal death.

Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

In his book, Learning From Experience, Bion explains: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

Analysis of “Repulsion”

Repulsion is a 1965 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski and written by him, Gérard Brach, and David Stone (these latter two having written the screenplay). It is the first of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ of films, the second being Rosemary’s Baby and the third being The Tenant. Repulsion is considered one of his best films.

It stars Catherine Deneuve as Carol Ledoux, a socially withdrawn Belgian living in London with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is suffering from the effects of psychological trauma, the cause of which is never explicitly stated, though one finds it safe to assume that she’s been raped, in all likelihood during her childhood, the abuser having been her father.

Because of this trauma, she feels a repulsion towards men, especially those with a sexual or romantic interest in her. When Helen leaves with her boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), on a vacation to Italy, Carol–all alone in her apartment–spirals into madness.

Here are some quotes:

Mrs. Rendlesham: Have you fallen asleep?
Carol: Oh, I’m sorry.
Mrs. Rendlesham: I think you must be in love or something.

“We must get this crack mended.” –Carol

Carol: I’m having dinner with my sister.
Colin: Is she a good cook?
Carol: I never even thought about it.
Colin: Well, at least it can’t be any worse than fish and chips.
Carol: I think we are having rabbit.
Colin: Rabbit? Oh. I thought they’d all been killed off.
Carol: No. She has a friend.
Colin: A rabbit?
Carol: No, I think the friend has rabbits.
Colin: Poor bunny.

“Just the sound of his voice makes my flesh creep! Money! Money! Money! That’s all he ever thinks about.” –Helen, after hanging up the phone with the landlord

“I better go and see what that old bitch wants. Now, you go back to work. I’ll talk to you later. And, Carol, do something about your hair.” –Madame Denise

“I wish I could find the proper words to say. They just keep going around and around in my head. I just – I want to be – to be with you – all the time.” –Colin

“There’s no need to be alone, you know. Poor little girl. All by herself. All shaking like a little frightened animal.” –landlord, to Carol

[Convent bells heard ringing] “I could be a very good friend to you, you know. You look after me and you can forget about the rent. Come on. Come on. Just a little kiss between us. Huh? Come on.” –landlord, to Carol

Carol works as a manicurist for a beauty salon. Added to this, she’s very pretty (with the young Deneuve playing her, beauty is unavoidable). When we consider her repulsion towards men’s sexual advances, we might wonder why she makes no attempt to spoil her looks through, for example, intentionally gaining weight (though her hair is a bit disheveled at times); we also might ask why she has chosen to work in a place that would be a daily reminder to her of the pressure put on women to be beautiful.

Perhaps part of the answer to this riddle is in how many rape victims carry in their minds the badge of ‘sex object’ or ‘slut‘ as part of their trauma; such labels can accompany the compulsion to repeat the traumatizing states as part of an attempt to process the pain. So her staying beautiful can perhaps be seen as a moderate position on the trauma continuum, at the more extreme of which some rape victims would engage in promiscuous sex.

On the other hand, the decision to have a job helping other women to be beautiful could be part of an attempt to project her ‘sex object’ status onto other women. Furthermore, her manicures (which include cutting fingernails) could represent an unconscious wish to castrate symbolically phallic fingers, a point that should be obvious in the scene when she injures a woman’s hand (here at 57:20).

She often has a dazed, far away look in her eyes, almost as if she were in a catatonic stupor. Such dissociation is common with trauma victims: these people are typically living in their heads rather than in the physical moment, either going over traumatic memories, again and again, in an attempt to process them, or they’re trying to find a mental escape from the pain.

The woman she’s serving at the beginning of the film assumes she’s daydreaming because she’s in love: oh, how wildly off the mark our assumptions can be! As for Colin (John Fraser), the man Carol is ‘dating,’ she completely forgets a date with him, and she would do anything to get rid of him. (After he kisses her, she’s so grossed out that she rushes into her apartment and frantically brushes her teeth.) Carol can’t even stand Helen’s boyfriend Michael. She hates the sight of his toothbrush in her glass in the bathroom (symbolic of a phallus inside a yoni), so she throws it in the garbage. The sound of him and her sister making love in the other room is intolerable to Carol. She will, however, find a use for (Michael’s?) phallic razor…

The three of them plan to have rabbit for dinner, but Michael and Helen decide instead to go out to eat. Later, we see the unsightly remains of the hairless, uncooked animal. It can remind one of a rape victim, in a way: a sweet, innocent living thing uncovered and ruined, all for the satisfaction of one’s appetite; then, once discarded after no longer serving any use, we see the remains. Small wonder Carol carries the rabbit’s head in her purse later in the movie. She can identify with its victimization.

She can’t stand being bothered by people, especially men, but she feels a strong attachment to, a need for the company of, her sister, who isn’t always particularly nice to her. Everybody needs at least one person to relate to, a kind of metaphorical mirror reflecting a face back to oneself, reminding us that we exist. Carol’s sister provides this for her, to anchor her in the real world.

But when Helen and Michael leave for Italy…

For such an emotionally fragile girl, even a mere week or two of being alone in her apartment can feel like an eternity; it can feel like total abandonment.

For Carol, Helen is thus a transference of their mother, who when available is what Melanie Klein called the ‘good mother.’ The unavailable mother, as transferred onto and symbolized by Helen on her trip to Italy with Michael, is the frustrating ‘bad mother.’ And if Carol’s older sister has become her replacement mother, then Helen’s boyfriend has become Carol’s replacement father, again, a Kleinian ‘bad father,’ which is all the easier to see, given Carol’s feelings towards her actual father, as seen in that family photo, with her as a child staring at him in a kind of fixated hostility.

The feeling of abandonment she feels from her ‘mother’ and ‘father’ leaving her for Italy puts Carol in the paranoid-schizoid position, where objects (i.e., other people as represented in one’s mind) are split up into absolute good and bad (and she is experiencing only the bad here), and where she feels extreme persecutory anxiety, the threat of being raped again…even though now it’s all in her head.

She stays in her apartment for an extended time, missing work for three days and worrying her boss. She’s been seeing cracks in the walls of the apartment, including shocking hallucinations of them. These cracks symbolize two things: first, they represent tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim; second, they represent what Wilfred Bion called beta elements, or external sensory stimuli that assail the brain and must be processed, through alpha function, in order to become normal thoughts, or alpha elements (see here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts). Carol rejects these excitations as intolerable intrusions into her mental life, and so the accumulated beta elements form a beta screen, as symbolized by the walls.

This constant rejecting of Knowledge, of new experience (beta elements, Bion’s K), this building up of walls around herself (the beta screen), is–needless to say–unhealthy. For as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a dialectical unity of self and other. Just as Carol is rejecting other people, so is she ejecting–splitting off–parts of herself.

Bion wrote (<<pages 47-48 here) of how the constant ejection of beta elements, building a beta screen from them, and the splitting-off of parts of one’s own personality–the bad internal objects–leads to the creation of bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts of the self.

Whenever Carol hallucinates of cracks in the walls, of men suddenly appearing in her apartment, of men raping her, and of men’s groping hands coming out of the walls and grabbing her, these are all examples of her bizarre objects. These hallucinations are manifestations of what Fairbairn called the return of bad objects (<<<see Part 5). On the first occasion of her hallucinating of a man’s presence in her apartment, it’s in the mirror reflection, a clear sign of a bizarre object projected from inside her.

Colin seems like a nice enough man; there’s nothing in his manner to suggest that his interest in Carol is merely lecherous. His two teasing male friends in the local pub note that he must be in love. What is it about Carol that could possibly make Colin fall in love with her, apart from her beauty? There are many other beauties the handsome young man could fall for…why this icy cold, rejecting androphobe? Could he be sensing her inner pain? Could he be empathizing with her, even without knowing what’s happened to her (i.e., the presumed child sexual abuse)? Does her pain make her all the more beautiful to him?

Even inside her apartment, she doesn’t feel safe. A woman speaks abusively to her on the telephone, driving her to cut the landline cord with the straight razor. Indeed, that razor will give her a special power, making her a kind of phallic woman, as we’ll see below.

Colin, unable to bear her rejections anymore, goes to her apartment and rings the doorbell. She gasps audibly at the thought of him entering; he, now knowing someone’s at home but won’t open the door, rams into it and breaks it open. It doesn’t matter that he’s really a nice guy; it doesn’t matter how many times he says he’s sorry. His breaking open the door and entering the room, where those cracked walls are–those torn vaginal walls–is a symbolic rape, triggering her traumas.

With an old lady neighbour outside, watching them from down the hall like a personified superego, neither of them can do much. His closing the door is like a disregarding of the morality of the superego; this allows Carol, holding a phallic candlestick, to sneak up behind him and club him to death with it.

She disposes of his body in a bathtub that she’s previously filled to the brim with water, having absent-mindedly left it (the full tub is a symbolic yoni filled with symbolic semen she’s neglected for what by now should be obvious reasons); then she barricades the door in an attempt to keep more potential rapists (real and imagined) out, to keep out those agitating beta elements.

At various points during the film, she looks out the window and sees either nuns in a convent tossing a ball about, or she sees a trio of elderly male buskers walking on the sidewalk together and playing music. Her noting these harmless, male- or female-only groups seems to suggest her preferred way for society to be: a peaceful sexual apartheid, a Herland for women, and a Himland for men.

Because Helen has been late with the rent, the landlord (Patrick Wymark) has been a nag about it. He rings the doorbell and has to fight his way past Carol’s barricade to get in. This forcible entry is another symbolic rape. Add to this the fact that the building is his private property, and as I’ve said above, the walls of her apartment are symbolically her vaginal walls, we can see what a threatening presence he is to her, as the man with all the power, intruding on her private world, her ‘privates.’

He is shocked at the mess he sees in her place, which is legally his place. The uncooked rabbit, that symbolic rape victim, arouses his disgust in particular, though not his empathy. He’s happy to get the rent at last, but he’d be willing to forget about it in exchange for a sexual favour from the pretty girl.

He’s chosen the wrong woman to make moves on. She has that phallic razor hidden in her hand; and while he’d like to give her a phallic entry, she ends up doing a phallic entry (symbolically speaking) on him, by first cutting the back of his neck with the razor, then slashing at him, over and over again, until she’s killed him.

Bion’s theory of containment, normally applied either to the soothing of a baby or the treatment of a psychotic, can also have a negative version, allied to K (Bion, pages 95-99), the refusal to grow in Knowledge through human relationships, as is happening with Carol, leading not to soothing or a therapeutic cure, but instead to a nameless dread. Bion used the feminine symbol for the container and a masculine one for the contained, implying, respectively, yonic and phallic symbolism.

This sexual symbolism for the negative container/contained relationship is perfectly expressed in Carol’s PTSD reaction to having been raped. The trauma of her agitating beta elements must be ejected, especially when a man is trying to have his way with her, a man who–as her landlord–has all the more power over her. It’s only natural that she’d want ‘to rape him back,’ so to speak, by digging that phallic blade into his skin, making ‘yonic’ wounds in it. She wants to reverse the negative container/contained relationship and make a man feel a pain men have made women feel over the millennia.

(In this connection, it’s ironic that one of the creators of this story, presumably made sensitive to women’s victimization, would twelve years after making this film be charged with sexually assaulting a minor in the US; he then left the country and has never returned, out of a fear of facing deportation and imprisonment, for having plea bargained with an admission of statutory rape.)

Carol’s lashing out at and killing Colin and the landlord, of course, has given her no catharsis, for her bad internal object (her presumed rapist father) remains, haunting her mind like a ghost. Her continued hallucinations of hands grabbing at her from walls, and of men raping her, are the PTSD reliving of her trauma, a pain that, outside of psychotherapy, will never go away.

In her psychotic state, Carol acts in ways that, apart from their absurdity, would seem to be feminist parodies of a wife’s household duties. She is seen ‘ironing’ a shirt, but the cord isn’t plugged in, a Freudian parapraxis suggesting an unconscious defiance of the traditional roles of the patriarchal family. Soon after, she puts on lipstick, but sloppily, and then she just goes to bed, rather than going out and being sociable; again, this implies an unconscious refusal to be pretty for men’s pleasure.

Earlier in the film, Michael has noted that something’s wrong with her, and he tells Helen that Carol should see a doctor. Helen, averse to the social stigma of mental illness being associated with her family, is offended at Michael’s suggestion. When the couple return to her flat, and she sees the state that Carol has left the place in (not to mention the two bodies), hyperventilating Helen must now realize that she should have listened to her boyfriend.

Trauma must be confronted; it cannot be remedied through the usual defence mechanisms of repression or splitting. When repressed, trauma resurfaces in new and unrecognized forms; for Carol, the trauma of having been raped by, presumably, her father, resurfaces as a general androphobia. When bad internalized objects are split off and projected outwards, they can return as bizarre objects, as we see in Carol’s hallucinations of rapists and groping hands.

We don’t heal trauma by trying to erase it from our minds; we heal it by facing it, by feeling it, then telling the inner child in us that what happened to us was not our fault. It was the fault of the perpetrator…100% his fault.

Whenever anyone–Carol’s boss, for example–asks her what’s wrong, she cannot put her trauma into words. All she can do is sit and stare, as she does when a little girl in that old family photo, her staring at her presumed rapist father. It was all his fault…yet she cannot come out and just say it, when talking about her trauma is crucial to curing it. She can only relive it in her mind, and feel repulsion at any male reminder of what happened to her.

Analysis of “Él”

Él is a 1953 Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel and based on the novel, Pensamientos, by Mercedes Pinto. Él is ‘him’ in Spanish; in the US, though, the title of the film is This Strange Passion.

The film stars Arturo de Córdova as the insanely jealous Francisco Galván de Montemayor, a wealthy, middle-aged bourgeois who falls in love with young Gloria Vilalta (Delia Garcés), steals her away from her fiancé, Raul Conde (Luis Beristáin), and marries her, only to be paranoid that other men are trying to seduce her and steal her from him.

The film begins in church during a foot-washing ceremony, at which both Francisco and Gloria are present. Francisco watches as Padre Velasco (Carlos Martinez Baena) washes and kisses the feet of a fair-haired boy. Francisco’s eyes wander over to the high-heel-clad feet of Gloria, and his eyes move up to see her pretty face, one expressing discomfort at his gaze.

His gaze at her feet and/or at her high heels, as seen here and in later scenes, suggests that he has a foot fetish. (He is seen putting her shoes away in a hotel during their honeymoon; at dinner at home in a later scene, he looks at her feet under the table. Soon after both instances of contemplating her feet/shoes, he flies into wild jealous rages.)

A Catholic foot-washing ceremony is meant to be a humble imitation of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:14-17). Francisco’s fetishizing of Gloria’s feet, however, doesn’t inspire him to be her humble servant; instead, his fetishizing leads to his possessiveness. He treats her feet, and therefore all of her, as a commodity to be jealously guarded, just as a traditional patriarchal husband invidiously watches over his wife.

The source of his foot fetish can be found when connected with another preoccupation of his: his wish to reclaim land and property once owned by his grandfather–land, where feet and shoes come into contact. This land was his family’s land, and he wants it back. His jealous possessiveness of Gloria can thus be linked to his jealous possessiveness of his family’s land and property; and in this way, she can be linked symbolically to his family.

Right after being upset with his lawyer for not being helpful enough in his suit to reclaim his land, prudish Francisco gets upset with his servant, Pablo (Manuel Dondé), for being involved in an indiscreet sexual encounter with a pretty young maid in Francisco’s employ, Martha, whom he demands that Pablo dismiss immediately. The quick juxtaposition of these two sources of Francisco’s frustration suggest a close connection between them in his unconscious: the possession of his family’s land and property; and the sexual possession of one of his female employees. Combine these with his wish to have Gloria all to himself, and you might be able to guess where I’m going with this.

When he calms down, he lies on his bed and looks up at a picture of the Virgin Mary. He tells Pablo to straighten it. She, as the Mother of God, is his maternal ideal, and he’d never want her looking bad in any way. The juxtaposition of this with what immediately preceded also links it symbolically with those earlier concerns.

We never learn anything substantial about Francisco’s family apart from his grandfather’s land and property. All we know is that Francisco is obsessed with getting his hands on it, as he wants to get his hands on Gloria. People (even family) and things are just possessions to him; nobody but he can have them. He wants them so badly that he’s willing to take them from others…but how dare they try to take them from him!

He sees Gloria at the church again, and appropriately, we hear the fugue section of J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor playing on the organ. The word fugue literally comes from Latin words meaning “to flee” (fugere) and “to chase” (fugare). So we have a fitting soundtrack–with counterpoint following after, or chasing, the original, fleeing melody–for Francisco’s chasing after fleeing Gloria.

When he learns that Raul, an engineer, is engaged to Gloria, Francisco immediately begins scheming to take her from his friend. He invites the couple to a dinner party at his home, with such guests as the padre, a kind of good father substitute for Francisco. Raul and Gloria will come with her mother, who will insist on coming; Francisco says he’ll court the mother, Doña Esperanza Vilalta (played by Aurora Walker; the English subtitles of my DVD actually say, “make love with the mother”). After marrying Gloria, he’ll have her mother as both his mother-in-law and as his symbolic good mother, too, as we’ll see later.

At the dinner table, Francisco speaks of his idea of falling in love. To him, this passion is “nurtured from infancy” [!]; as the years go by, one grows up and sees many women pass by, but that one woman destined to be his will be found, and his love will shoot straight at her like an arrow. She must be his, willing or no.

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

Up until Francisco’s taking of her away from Raul, the latter man has had no moustache, as Francisco has (and a moustache is often seen as a symbol of manliness). Raul seems to have given her up without much of a fight…which is rather odd. Now, no longer having her, Raul has a moustache, and he continues to have one throughout the film, as do all the men Francisco is afraid will take her away from him. Now-moustachioed Raul is seen at a construction site, the machines and vehicles working on the land.

Buñuel’s films typically have surrealist elements, which means there’s a sense of the unconscious mind influencing the visuals and the story. One unconscious association humanity’s had in its mind for centuries is the notion that the land is our Mother Earth. The unconscious represses any desires deemed forbidden, but those desires are never eliminated–they reappear in new forms, though.

Raul and his construction workers, digging into the earth with their shovels, trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, are symbolically penetrating Gaea…they “make love with the mother.” He, with his moustache now, looks more like a man, a father.

Francisco, so much older than Gloria, has chosen a woman so much younger out of a reaction formation against choosing a woman of, say, her mother’s age, an age I suspect he’d unconsciously much prefer. His paranoia of other men taking Gloria away from him is really him projecting his own guilt over having taken her away from Raul.

When he takes her by train to Guanajuato for their honeymoon, Francisco is already demonstrating his possessiveness, that of her and of the land he wants back. They look over the city where his family’s property is; he says he likes looking at it from on high. It’s as if doing so makes him feel superior to it and the people living there. He wouldn’t humbly serve the land, as Jesus would humbly wash the feet of those walking on it: he’d subjugate and dominate it, even if he no longer has any legal right to it. He’d similarly possess Gloria.

As all of his fits of jealous rage go on, Gloria is desperate for help. Since Francisco has a spotless reputation (a narcissistic False Self all too often believed by enablers to be the true one), no one believes her when she complains of his abuse. Not even her own mother believes her.

Indeed, while he unjustly accuses Gloria of being a “tramp,” he has a pleasant relationship with her mother. The two women are split objects in his mind: the former is a bad object, the latter, a good object. Similarly are the men in Francisco’s life split into absolute good and bad objects–the padre is good, and all the young men (Raul, Ricardo [played by Rafael Banquelis], the lawyer Gloria dances with), with their moustaches and slicked back, black hair, are bad objects.

When Gloria tries to get help from the padre, not only is he as unsympathetic to her plight as her mother is, he also reveals an eye-opening secret about Francisco: prior to his marriage to Gloria, he has never had sexual relations with a woman.

She is shocked to hear this: surely a man of his age–handsome, wealthy, and charming (if only superficially so, which should be enough for him to get laid)–has lain with a woman at least a few times! Her mother, at that dinner table before he seduces Gloria, has said it should be easy for him to find a woman; her mother can’t imagine a single girl resisting him. (Now, imagining her mother thinking so highly of him is a wish-fulfillment. So much of this story is really just a dramatization of Francisco’s unconscious.) What could have been stopping him from having sex for all of these years?

As noted above, he has said, at the dinner table before seducing Gloria, that his love is something that has been “nurtured from infancy.” His love is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unfulfillable object-cause of his desire. Now, what is that object-cause?

This desire, having been “nurtured from infancy,” is something Lacan traced back to the mother’s breast, a Kleinian part-object. In other words, Francisco’s “strange passion” is derived from an unresolved, but repressed, Oedipus complex.

Dear Reader, if you’ve read enough of my analyses, you’re probably getting sick and tired of me harping on about all that Freudian hooey; but consider when Buñuel made this film–in the early 50s, when notions of a man unconsciously having a thing for his mother was still in vogue, so this kind of interpretation, as dated as it is now, is nonetheless appropriate for a film of the time. Besides, I do believe I’ve provided a reasonable amount of evidence so far…and more evidence, especially persuasive evidence–I believe–will be revealed towards the end of the movie.

So to recap, Gloria and her mother respectively represent transferences of the bad mother and good mother, these being internal objects in Francisco’s mind; and the padre is a transference of the good father internal object, while every moustachioed young man that Francisco is jealous of represents his bad father internal object.

I suspect that the reason of Francisco’s seeing Gloria, as love at first sight, is that she physically resembles his mother when she was a young woman. Gloria’s mother would resemble his mother as an older woman, and all those young men with moustaches and slicked-back hair resemble his father as a young man. This will make more sense when we come to the end of the film.

What’s curious is that, during the entirety of his marriage to Gloria, he never gets her pregnant. In fact, one suspects they’ve never once had sex. Part of his sexual prudishness seems to be sexual dysfunction. Small wonder he shoots her with a pistol full of blanks: the gun is an obvious phallic symbol whose ejaculations are ineffectual. He is sexually inadequate, and he knows it: he cannot be the Lacanian phallus for his symbolic mother. This is why he’s so paranoid that she’s seeing other men, the symbolic bad fathers of his psyche. That whacking of the stick against the posts of the handrail on the stairs fittingly suggests the symbolism of a guilty teenage boy’s masturbating; the only way he can have sex is with himself.

I consider the Oedipus complex to be the root of his problems because, as Don Carveth argues, it is a universal narcissistic trauma. Francisco wants to have Mother (in the symbolic, transferred forms of Gloria and her mother) all to himself: he wants her as a narcissistic mirror reflecting his entire world all back to himself, because he wants everything to be about him.

This narcissism is important in how it links with his bourgeois wish to reclaim his grandfather’s old land and property. The bourgeoisie are narcissistic by nature, imagining themselves entitled to all the land, property, and means of production they steal and hog to themselves, never sharing it with the global proletariat. Even when his lawyers tell him he has no way to prove he has a legal right to that land, Francisco throws temper tantrums and childishly fancies he has documentary proof that he actually lacks.

Many people mistake capitalism as being, in its essence, about markets. To be sure, the market is extremely important as a generator of profits for the accumulation of capital, but capitalism’s essence is about ownership of private property–factories, office buildings, apartment buildings, farmland, foreign lands gained by imperialist conquest…land. Just as Francisco’s possessiveness of Gloria and his grandfather’s old properties and land are interrelated, so are the capitalist’s possessiveness of private property and the patriarchal husband’s jealous clinging to his wife interrelated. And the psychological root of this jealous possessiveness is the child’s narcissistic Oedipal relationship with his or her desired parent, whom he or she doesn’t wish to share.

If we follow the symbolism of the film as I’ve interpreted it, we can see all three of these strands–ownership of land, possessiveness of one’s wife, and the narcissistic Oedipal relationship with the mother–played out in the scene when Francisco takes Gloria up to the belfry and they look down on the people walking in the streets of the city. Just as he has earlier expressed his contempt for the common “morons” one sees in the cinema or at the race track, he, from the belfry, looks down on those people below as if he were God judging them from the heavens. She calls him “self-centred,” which of course the narcissistic man is.

He thinks it’s “marvellous” to be up with Gloria in the belfry, where we see a huge bell and its clapper above their heads. A comparison I’ve made elsewhere, in my analysis of Belle de Jour (another Buñuel film), is that a bell symbolizes the vagina, and the clapper the hymen. So his ideal is to be above human mediocrity, with his wife as immaculate a virgin as Mary. As I said above, the Madonna is his maternal ideal, and he wants Gloria to embody this ideal; hence, she must be as chaste as he, and he must jealously guard her virtue from other men. She would be the perfect symbolic mother of his repressed, narcissistic Oedipal fantasies, and he would be lord over her life and over the land, which is our Mother Earth. Hence the connection between capitalism, the traditional patriarchal family, and narcissistic, Oedipally-minded child.

So afraid is Francisco of his wife getting any phallus other than his own, he attempts one night to infibulate her. If he succeeds, though, he won’t be able to penetrate her any better than any other man will. This would prove his sexual impotence, since if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want even the possibility of another man having her.

She wakes and screams, and it is only natural that she leaves him the next day, running off with Raul. In a panic, Francisco goes after her. He has several hallucinations, each increasing in intensity: he imagines a maid laughing at him; he thinks he sees Raul on a street corner buying a newspaper; he sees Gloria in a car putting on lipstick; and he thinks he sees her and Raul entering the church of the film’s beginning.

He goes in and finds them at their pew; but when he’s about to confront them, the young man and woman are actually two different people. Then, after hearing the cough of an old man walking behind him, Francisco imagines all the churchgoers laughing at him…even the altar boy and the padre!

This last man, who hitherto has been Francisco’s chaste, paternal ideal, is now no better than all the ‘bad fathers.’ With neither symbolic parent to be his ideal parental imago (i.e., both have traumatically disappointed him), and with his grandiose self (his narcissistic False Self exposed as such) abased and humiliated, the structure of his bipolar self has been destroyed, he undergoes psychological fragmentation, and he goes mad. He attacks the priest, is subdued by the churchgoers, and will be taken away…eventually to be put in a monastery.

Raul and Gloria, now married and with a fair-haired son of about 8-10 years old (who looks rather like the boy whose feet the padre washes at the film’s beginning), visit the monastery years later and ask about Francisco. We learn that their boy’s name is also Francisco! Why would Gloria want to name her son after a man who has caused her so much suffering? Why would Raul, who loves her in a way her former husband has never ben able to, be so insensitive to her as to want to name the boy after her former tormentor?

To me, the only logical answer to why the boy has this name is to regard the whole story as a particularly subtle use of surrealism on Buñuel’s part. As I see it, this boy is the real Francisco (and his resemblance to the boy whose feet are washed by the priest at the film’s beginning suggests a narcissistic wish-fulfillment to have his symbolic good father be subservient to him), and the older version of him is an unconscious wish-fulfillment, a dream of him having the age, manly moustache, and financial success necessary to win his mother away from his father.

The head monk asks them if the boy is their son, to which Raul gives no answer. The Wikipedia article for Él interprets his silence as implying that he may not be the father: I dispute this, for I see no reason to think Gloria has had the boy by any other man, especially by impotent Francisco. Raul’s silence probably comes from the tension he must feel from his son’s still-unresolved Oedipal attachment to Gloria (normally, a boy of his age should be going through the latency period).

(With regards to her name, I’ll mention in passing that, with the entrance of Iocaste in Stravinsky‘s 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the men’s chorus sing “Gloria, gloria, gloria!” at the end of Act One.)

Finally, we see old Francisco as a monk, after the family has left the monastery. He no longer has his moustache: he’s lost his manliness, a symbolic castration. In giving up his symbolic mother, Gloria, and adhering to the nom, or Non! du père, Francisco is now the personification of the moralistic superego. He must remain chaste for the rest of his life.

Will he be happy doing so? He claims he’s found true peace, but the frown on his face gives us doubts. Repressed desires always resurface in one form or another. His zig-zagging walk down that path to the dark doorway, an implied inability to stay on ‘the straight path,’ reinforces our doubts.

Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

Joker is a 2019 supervillain origin story film directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Though based on the DC comic book character, this film takes many liberties with the story material by creating a background for the Joker that has hitherto been kept deliberately mysterious.

The notion of him starting out as a failed comedian comes from Batman: The Killing Joke, but other elements come from two Martin Scorsese films starring Robert De NiroTaxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This origin story nonetheless can be reconciled with the comic book canon somewhat in that, given how the story is told from the Joker’s point of view, and given his psychotic penchant for mixing fantasy with reality, he is an unreliable narrator; so it hardly matters if events in the movie contradict those of the comic books.

Phoenix’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar. For her plaintive, brooding cello soundtrack, Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Best Original Score. The film itself has also been praised (with nominations for such Oscar categories as Best Picture and Best Director), in spite of such controversies as the baseless fear that its sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-ill loner, who shoots people, would inspire incel murders. Actually, the film–despite Phillips’s denial of having intended any political message–is clearly presenting a drama of class war.

II: Quotes

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” –Arthur Fleck/Joker

[written in notebook] “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” –Arthur

[written in notebook] “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” –Arthur

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” –Arthur, to his therapist

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” –Arthur

“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug, ‘Dad,’ maybe just a bit of common fucking decency!” –Arthur, to Thomas Wayne

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.” –Arthur

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy…but now I realize…it’s a fucking comedy.” –Arthur, to his mother before killing her

“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” –Arthur, to Murray Franklin

Murray Franklin: Okay, I- I think …I might understand it. You…did this to start a movement? To become a-a symbol?
Joker: Come on, Mur-ray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Murray: Alright. So that’s it, you’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men?
Joker: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [the crowd boos and jeers] (growing frustrated) Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys?! If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me! But these guys… What, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?!
Franklin: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne?
Joker: Yes, I do! Have you seen what it’s like out there, Mur-ray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!!

You’re awful, Murray.” –Arthur, coldly

Joker: How about another joke, Mur-ray?
Franklin: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Joker: What do you get…
Franklin: I don’t think so.
Joker: …When you cross…
Franklin: I think we’re done here now, that’s it.
Joker: …A mentally-ill loner with a SOCIETY THAT ABANDONS HIM AND TREATS HIM LIKE TRASH?!?!
Murray Franklin: Call the police, Gene!
Joker: I’ll tell you what you get!
Franklin: Call the police.
JokerYOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!! [pulls out his gun and shoots Murray in the head, instantly killing him]

[Joker, in a police car, is laughing and chuckling at the chaos being spread to Gotham City]
Cop 1: Stop laughing, you freak. This isn’t funny.
Cop 2: Yeah, the whole fucking city’s on fire because of what you did.
Joker: I know… Isn’t it beautiful?

[Arthur is laughing loudly during a psychiatric examination at Arkham Asylum. He soon settles down, but still laughs]
Psychiatrist: What’s so funny?
Arthur[laughing and chuckling some more] I was just thinking…just thinking of a joke. [shot of a young Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents as the camera pulls back and Arthur’s laughter is heard]
Psychiatrist: You wanna tell it to me?
Arthur[softly whispers] You wouldn’t get it.

III: Mirrors

The story is set in 1981, as the film’s use of the old Warner Bros. logo of the time suggests. We hear the news on the radio describing a garbagemen’s strike in Gotham City, resulting in pileups of garbage bags all over town. Just as M.A.S.H., set during the Korean War, was meant as an allegory of the Vietnam War, so can Joker, set in early 80s Gotham, be seen as an allegory for our neoliberal time (in fact, because of the general strike in France, garbage is piling up there, too). The earlier time in which the film is set is a mirror to our present time.

Already we see, in this garbagemen’s strike, an indication of class war: if the workers’ demands would simply be respected, the mess would be cleaned up. The filth in the city, and the fears of it leading to the spread of disease, shows how little the rich care about the poor. The pileup of filth is a mirror to the political and economic corruption of our world.

We see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror. He puts his fingers in his mouth, stretching it upwards and downwards to make smiles and a frown (and remember that a ‘smile is just a frown turned upside-down’).

What’s established in this scene are two themes: the psychoanalytic symbolism of mirrors, and the dialectical relationship of opposites. These themes can also be fused in the form of the self-other dialectic, in which we can see the self in the other, and vice versa. One thing mirrors its opposite.

Fleck’s mirror is Lacan‘s mirror: the man looking in the reflection is Arthur’s real, socially awkward self; the reflection is his ideal-I, the successful comedian he wishes he could be. In his attempts to be that great comedian, to smile and make others smile and laugh, he finds himself constantly failing…hence, frowning.

The idealized image in the mirror is a lie, for the very formation of an ego–as opposed to the awkward, fragmented self one really is, lacking a clear definition between oneself and the outside world of other people–is also a lie. Hence, Arthur is alienated from the ‘self’ he sees in the mirror; that ‘self’ is really someone other than himself.

Similarly, he idealizes other people, such as Murray Franklin (De Niro) on the TV, whom Fleck sees not only as his idol as a comedian, but also as a kind of father figure, since he doesn’t know his real father. Seeing Murray’s face on the TV is thus like looking into a metaphorical mirror for Arthur.

Indeed, there are a number of such metaphorical mirrors, or idealizations of other people seen as reflections of one’s narcissistic self. Apart from Murray, these ideals include Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy; his idealization of her is Oedipal), Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen, Wayne is idealized by both Flecks, who imagine the billionaire to be Arthur’s father), and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whose finger gunshot to her head is imitated…mirrored, by Arthur. Charlie Chaplin, the comic tramp that penniless [!] Arthur sees mirrored on the silver screen, is another ideal.

Those are the idealized reflections, but then there’s the real Arthur looking at the literal or symbolic mirror reflection. The real Arthur is coming apart; he is experiencing psychological fragmentation, and a narcissistic False Self, as dysfunctional as that may be, is an effective defence against fragmentation. Hence, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker.

IV: Opposites Attract

The Clown Prince of Crime (a perpetrator of it), as we see in this film, starts out as a victim of crime: he’s beaten up by the kids who’ve stolen and broken his sign over his face; he’s docked pay for the sign, whose theft and breaking weren’t his fault…not that his boss, agent Hoyt Vaughn, wants to listen (this is tantamount to wage theft); and he’s assaulted by the three Wayne employees on the train, making him snap and kill them.

The dialectical unity of opposites is best symbolized in Arthur’s involuntary laughing, a result of pseudobulbar affect. His pained laugh, which he–in his embarrassment–desperately tries to control, looks like a cross between laughing and weeping; the sad aspect is especially apparent when we see it typically happening whenever something bad happens to him. Smile, though your heart is aching…

All Arthur has ever wanted is recognition, an acknowledgement that he exists. To make a kid laugh on the bus, such a happiness is the mirrored reflection of a smile Arthur’s own wounded inner child yearns to be able to do, but for real, for a change.

Lacan said, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that is, we feel desire in terms of other people. We desire what we imagine others desire, and we desire recognition from other people. Arthur imagines that, in making others laugh, he’s fulfilling their desires; and in doing so, he’s fulfilling his own desires by getting people’s recognition. Once again, we see the self defined in terms of the other.

While watching the Murray Franklin Show on TV with his mother, Arthur fantasizes that he’s sitting with the studio audience. This scene establishes the fact that not all we see and hear in this film is really happening. In fact, a lot more of it could be fantasy. Could all of it be fantasy?

Even if all of it is, the themes of class war and of alienation–social, worker, and inner alienation–are real enough to deserve examination. People like Arthur Fleck have existed and continue to exist; their problems of loneliness, mental illness, and exploitation by the ruling class countervail the Joker’s ‘fake’ origin story so many times over that the Arthur Fleck story might as well be 100% true.

I will argue that the Joker is Arthur’s False Self, his narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation; on the other hand, the Joker (the only version of him that is ‘real’ to us, i.e., that we have seen in the comic books and in previous movies) could be imagining Arthur as a fake version of his past self in order to win people’s sympathy. Which version of him is real, and which is fantasy? Here we see how the opposites of fantasy and reality attract, as do those of the self and the other.

Arthur fantasizes that Murray would give up all his fame and wealth just to have Arthur for a son. As an aspiring comedian, Arthur wishes to identify with his idol, Murray, just as any son, upon the dissolution of his Oedipus complex, identifies with his father.

V: Comparisons With Other Films

Some interesting comparisons can be made between films in that De Niro is playing Murray; he also played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Arthur is both the fantasizing, failed comedian counterpart of Pupkin and the journal-writing psychotic counterpart of Bickle. Similarly, Murray is the TV show host equivalent of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy. In this use of De Niro, we see a further identification of Arthur with his TV-mirror reflection and father figure, Murray Franklin.

And since Arthur is an unreliable narrator, who may have killed fewer people than we see him kill (Does he kill Murray, or is that scene as much a fantasy as is his scene sitting with the studio audience? And what about the excessive number of shots fired from his gun on the three yuppies on and off the train?), Joker could be seen as the proletarian version of American Psycho. And this leads to an interesting inter-film coincidence: Christian Bale played both Patrick Bateman and Batman, the latter of whom would “complete” Heath Ledger’s Joker!

Fleck’s mother always calls him “Happy,” imagining that “he’d always been such a happy little boy”; but his ‘happiness,’ linked with his involuntary laughing and his failed attempts at comedy, is just a reaction formation against dealing with his profound sadness, a form of manic defence against depression. In this, we see the unity between the opposites of happiness and sadness, as when he–taking care of his mother–has seen his life as a tragedy, then–smothering her with the pillow in the hospital–sees his life as a comedy.

VI: The Love Gun

Randall, a clown colleague of Arthur’s, gives him a gun for his protection against any future attacks from punks like the teens at the film’s beginning. This pistol is a symbol of the Lacanian phallus, which is itself symbolic of the thing we lack, and therefore desire. Arthur’s lack, as mentioned above, is a feeling that he doesn’t exist (Lacan’s manque à être), which shifts into symbolic castration (manque á avoir, ‘lack of having’), the powerlessness he feels as a poor, struggling clown/comedian.

It’s around when he gets the gun that he begins to fantasize and obsess about Sophie. He dances in his living room holding the gun, imagining he’s talking to her and that she’s impressed with his dancing. His erotic pelvic moves emphasize the phallic nature of the gun, and when he accidentally shoots a hole in the wall, and his mother complains about the noise, it’s as if she’s caught her boy masturbating. Apologizing to her, he feels ashamed. Later, when he fantasizes about Sophie at his door, and she asks him about his having followed her, and hopes he’d “come in and rob” her in her apartment (obvious sexual symbolism), he playfully mentions the gun he has…more sexual and phallic symbolism.

When he performs for the hospital kids and the gun falls out of his pocket and onto the floor, we see another symbolic castration, his loss of power (he gets fired, and thus can no longer be the ‘happy’ clown he imagines his mom wants him to be…”to spread joy and laughter”). Ironically, it’s his dancing about that causes the gun to fall out. Actually, Arthur has missed his calling: he should be a dancer, not a comedian. Dancing is natural for him: he doesn’t even seem to need lessons.

He regains his power when killing the three men on the train with that ejaculating, phallic gun (a comparison I made in my Taxi Driver analysis, too). He escapes to a public washroom and does another of his therapeutic dances. Using the gun to kill his tormentors, projecting his pain onto them, is therapeutic and empowering, as is his dancing, perhaps the purest art form of all, since it involves the direct, instinctive movements of the body to express oneself (‘express,’ to press outward, to project outside what has been bottled up inside, to take what’s in the self and put it in the other).

VII: Thomas Wayne

Unlike the kind Thomas Wayne of Batman Begins, this one is an unsympathetic, Trumpish sort. Accordingly, his attitude towards the angry poor is offensive and condescending–he calls them “clowns,” yet he hypocritically claims that, if elected mayor of Gotham, he’ll help the poor, even though really doing so would be against his class interests as a billionaire.

Yet aptly-named Penny imagines Wayne will save Gotham, as many poor Americans believe their incumbent–who has cut (or at least proposed to cut) food stamps, taxes for the rich, and funding for healthcare and education, yet has also sought to boost military spending into the billions–actually cares for them. She idealizes Wayne, just as Arthur has idealized images of Murray, Sophie, and Wayne in his head, mirror images that don’t reflect the truth.

There’s more fantasizing when Arthur imagines Sophie at his door asking about his having followed her (something no woman in her right mind would be happy about); then he imagines himself dating her, with her enjoying his disastrous standup comedy routine, and her with him in the hospital with his mother. One wonders: have the fantasies increased now that he isn’t getting his medication? Is the rest of the movie especially unreliable?

This leads back to the discussion of class war: the cuts in funding that cause Arthur to lose both his therapy sessions and his medication. Problems like these underscore how a movie set in 1981 (before Reagan had really begun to force ‘small government,’ and ‘free market‘ capitalism on the US) is actually a parable for our much worse times. The cops accuse the Joker of causing the social unrest at the end of the film, instead of taking responsibility for protecting the capitalist system that has really caused the unrest.

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

But what is the thing that makes Arthur totally lose it? Not so much these problems mentioned above, not even Murray humiliating him on TV, but that archaic, narcissistic trauma that–in all of its variations–is universal: his love/hate relationship with his parents.

Heinz Kohut‘s theory of the bipolar self posits that we all get our sense of self, as children going through primary narcissism, through the grandiose self on one side (which says, “I’m great, and I need you, Mom and Dad, to mirror my greatness back to me!”) and the idealized parental imago on the other (a mental internalization of one’s ‘godlike’ parents that says, “You, Mom and Dad, are the greatest, and I get my greatness from your love!”). Lacking this validation, a person is in danger of either pathological narcissism or fragmenting into a psychotic break with reality.

Such fragmenting, with only a narcissistic False Self as a defence against it, is exactly what’s happening to Arthur. When his mother plants the seed in his head that his rolling-stone papa is billionaire Thomas Wayne, he naturally wants to idealize the man as much as she does.

When Arthur meets young Bruce, the two facing each other with the gate of class difference separating them, I suspect that Arthur is fantasizing about touching the boy’s face and curling it up into a smile. No child would tolerate a stranger touching him like that without at least some resistance, especially a rich child raised to believe that the lower classes are ‘inferior.’

Arthur’s wish to make Bruce smile, as with the boy laughing and facing him on the bus, represents his own wish to smile by having happiness mirrored back to him. It’s his wish for recognition, just as he’d have Thomas acknowledge him as his son.

But as always, his wishes keep getting frustrated. In the public washroom with Thomas Wayne, Arthur sees both of them in the mirror reflection, himself juxtaposed with his idealized father, another kind of ideal-I. Not only does Wayne, however, deny that he’s his father, in an even more devastating blow, he claims that Penny adopted Arthur.

Arthur claims that Thomas resembles him (“Look at us,” he says. “I think you are.”): is this a fact, or is it wish-fulfillment? Thomas’s denial of paternity could easily be part of a cover-up to avoid publicizing a scandalous adultery with a former employee, complete with documents forged by the unscrupulous Dr. Benjamin Stoner. On the other hand, especially with regards to Arthur’s unreliable point of view presenting the story, we must also consider how far-fetched it is to believe that he and Bruce Wayne are half-brothers.

Arthur’s visit to Arkham State Hospital seems to confirm his worst fears: his mother’s medical documents seem to confirm that Penny adopted him as a child. What’s worse–and this seems to be real–he reads of her having allowed her then-boyfriend to abuse him when a boy. The physical abuse little Arthur suffered included blows to the head that must have caused his pseudobulbar affect; the ex-boyfriend also chained him to a radiator and left him deprived of food.

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

Those who prefer leaving the Joker’s past a mystery, leaving it “multiple choice,” seem to be reinforcing, intentionally or not, the idea that criminal psychopaths are just “fucking crazies,” as Detective Mills calls them in Se7en. I prefer to go with the trauma model of mental disorders, and I believe that Arthur’s reading of his mother’s medical records has triggered repressed childhood memories, forgotten traumas. People aren’t just ‘born crazy,’ they are made to be mentally ill.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself, explains how, in a general sense, one becomes evil rather than is innately so: “If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life-destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.” (Fromm, page 162, his emphasis)

Worse than having triggered the memory of Arthur’s repressed childhood traumas, regardless of whether or not the medical documents have been faked, the seed of doubt has been planted in his head: is Penny not his biological mother? Are both of his parents unknown? Did both parents abandon him when he was a child? Does nobody love him?

He has experienced traumatic disappointments on both poles of his personality (in Kohut’s sense): his grandiose self has been shattered with humiliations and rejections, and his parental idealizations have proven false to him.

He’s had a bad day.

Only transforming into the Joker will keep him from falling apart.

With both parents having abandoned and betrayed him, Arthur will perceive them as only bad internal objects in his mind. This is Melanie Klein‘s notion of the bad mother and bad father, causing him to experience what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, a splitting of internalized objects into absolute good and bad, and a paranoid fear that the bad objects will harm him. (Click here for a more thorough elucidation of psychoanalytic concepts.) There are no good objects for Arthur…only bad ones. Now, he will feel an urge to kill his parents, both biological and symbolic.

X: Metamorphosis

After smothering Penny (whose very name he hates) in the hospital, Arthur returns home; having learned (or, as I suspect, fantasized in his narcissistic imagination, leading to a fantasy of murderous revenge) that Murray wants him as a guest on the TV show, Arthur is seen looking in a mirror as he dyes his hair green. This is him constructing his False Self as the Joker, looking at his ideal-I in the Lacanian mirror and striving to live up to that ideal.

Murdering Randall helps further cement Arthur’s new identity as the Joker, so his transformation is complete. Hearing the music from, thankfully, only the largely instrumental section of Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll” (speaking of sickos…and Glitter will get no royalties for the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack, so don’t worry about that), we see Arthur enter the elevator and leave his apartment all decked out in Joker garb and clown makeup.

In several scenes, we’ve seen sad Arthur climb that interminably high staircase up to his apartment as the evening sun is going down. I’m reminded of a passage from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Now as the Joker, though, he joyfully dances his way down the stairs. Instead of struggling his way up in search of heaven, he’s dancing down to hell.

Two cops chase him into a train filled with his followers, the anti-Wayne protestors in clown masks. These people, who regard him as a hero for killing the three Wayne employees, are each a mirror reflection of him, giving him the recognition he’s always craved. To help him escape from the cops, he even steals and dons a clown mask to mix in better with the crowded protestors, and to cause a fight among them to stop the cops from being able to continue their pursuit. His wearing of the mask reinforces the false nature of his Joker persona; he’s making himself mirror his fans.

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

As I said above, I believe his appearance on the Murray Franklin Show is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as his first appearance in the studio audience. (At the very least, the producers of the show would have cut to commercial and gotten rid of him as soon as he began flaking out on live TV, long before he’d have had a chance to take out his gun.) In the first fantasy, Murray is Arthur’s symbolic good father, a transference from his unknown father onto Murray; in the second fantasy, Murray is the symbolic bad father who, like bad mother Penny, must be killed.

Note how, during his rant on the show, the Joker complains of how we must suffer and “take it like good little boys.” This sounds like a child suffering from an abusive father, authority figure…or Penny’s abusive ex-boyfriend, another substitute father for little Arthur. In his fantasy, he kills symbolic father Murray and gives a long kiss to the elderly woman sex therapist, Dr. Sally, who could be considered a symbolic mother transference (recall how he says he loves Dr. Sally). How Oedipal.

I’m guessing he fantasizes about killing Murray while actually still in his apartment, where he’s similarly fantasized about shooting himself, this suicide ideation being a recurring idea throughout the film. In imagining he’s shot Murray, he’s really shot that mirror image of his idealized self, his identification with the idealized parental imago that he now hates, and has replaced with his new ideal-I…the Joker. So this is yet another example of the self mirrored in the other, and vice versa.

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

He is delighted to see all the rioting and violence on the streets of Gotham, all those people in clown masks hating Wayne and the other rich of the city. Their anger mirrors his own, even though he insists he’s apolitical: recall his words to Murray, “I don’t believe in anything,” echoing the nihilism of the Germans in The Big Lebowski. Arthur finally has the recognition he’s craved; the rioters want what he wants–chaos and destruction. Accordingly, he does another dance, this time for his fans on the police car. He puts his fingers in his bloody mouth, pulls them upward, and unlike his frowning before the mirror at the beginning of the film, this time he makes a genuine, if gory, grin.

Now, we can sympathize with the anger of these people and their wish to destroy the current, corrupt social order. Revolution cannot, however, end with only violence; one must build a new world after the destruction of the old, and return to stability. The Joker and his clowns don’t want to rebuild.

It’s interesting how the Trotskyist Left Voice largely praises Joker for its insurrectionary message, while this Marxist-Leninist blog is critical of the film for its stopping at the violence and chaos. These two strands of socialism respectively advocate either violent, permanent, worldwide revolution, or the building up of socialism, be that building-up in several countries, or even just in one, if continued revolutions elsewhere aren’t possible for the time being.

Though the Joker imagines that a life of chaos is the only one for him, and that his current, laughing madman self is the real him, remember what I said above: his Joker persona is a narcissistic False Self that keeps him from psychologically falling apart. A rebuilding of society, on socialist principles, would restore the cut funding to social services, giving Arthur back his psychotherapy and medication. Socialism would also work to end the alienation he suffers.

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

It’s interesting how both Arthur and Bruce have lost their parents by the end of the film (be they Arthur’s actual or imagined parents), and in the loss of both people’s parents, both a supervillain and a superhero are being born. In this we see a mirroring of the Joker and Batman, of the one completing the other, the self-other dialectic…there’s a bit of one person in the other, and vice versa.

The one scene in the film not ‘narrated’ by Arthur (i.e., he isn’t in this one scene) is when Joe Chill shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne. Arthur, in Arkham, laughs about that moment, presumably having read about the murders in the newspapers and imagining a private joke. In contrast to the first scene of him laughing/weeping during a therapy session (also, just to reinforce the parallels, with a black female therapist [as was fantasized Sophie, in a way, a therapist for him], but now we’re in a white room instead of the dark room of the beginning), this time he’s really enjoying the laugh.

His therapist may not get the joke, but I think I do: he, in having inspired the clown protestors, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Bruce’s parents; because Chill, in the clown mask, is a metaphorical mirror of Arthur. This makes Arthur like young Jack Napier of the 1989 Batman film, to note yet another interesting coincidence between films. Traumatized Arthur knows young, traumatized Bruce will want revenge on him, just as he’s wanted revenge on the whole world.

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

It would be interesting to see a sequel to Joker, with Batman–the bourgeois superhero par excellence (Tony Stark ranking a close second)–fighting the permanently revolutionary Joker. What a complex, morally and politically ambiguous story that would be, where such dialectical opposites as hero and villain intermingle, as do the self and the other, happiness and sadness, and bourgeois and proletarian heroism and criminality.

If I, in my flight of ideas, have left you confused, should I explain further?

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.