Analysis of ‘Viridiana’

Viridiana is a 1961 Spanish-Mexican film by Luis Buñuel, loosely based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós, and starring Silvia Pinal in the title role, as well as Fernando Rey, Margarita Lozano, and Francisco Rabal. As usual, Buñuel criticizes the Church and bourgeois society in this film. It is about a novice soon to take her vows as a nun, but who finds it increasingly difficult–due to external pressure, or internal?–to reconcile herself with the moral ideals of the Church.

Viridiana was the co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.

Here are a few quotes in English translation:

Viridiana: I know my own weakness, and whatever I do will be humble. But, however little it is, I want to do it alone.

Jorge: I always knew that you and I were going to end up playing cards together!

Verdiana was the name of a generous, charitable saint who secluded herself for 34 years to focus on her faith. The Viridiana of this film is similarly, if not so extremely, reclusive, but just as generous and charitable. Her name comes from a word meaning ‘green’: I think of an old meaning of green, from back in Shakespeare’s time, meaning ‘youthful, inexperienced, immature’; but also, ‘fresh, recent, new’ (Crystal and Crystal, page 205), strongly implying ‘pure.’ There is, indeed, a strong sense that this novice embodies all of these definitions, in more ways than one.

She also happens to be a beautiful young blonde, most desirable to men; her choice to become a nun seems to be, at least in part, motivated by a fear of sexually predatory men. Her virgin purity makes her all the more attractive to her uncle, Don Jaime (Rey), who finds that she reminds him of his late bride, who died before he could even consummate their marriage.

His preoccupation with her beauty and purity reminds me of Heinrich Heine‘s poem:

Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.

Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
You are like a flower,
So lovely, fair and pure;
I gaze at you and wistful
Melancholy slips into my heart.

It’s as though I ought to place
My hands upon your head
And pray God to ever keep you
So pure, fair, and lovely.

This notion of extreme purity leads to an exploration of the themes of modesty, humility, and every other point on the circular continuum I symbolize with the ouroboros, including the dialectical opposites of pride (the serpent’s biting head) vs. shame (the bitten tail). Viridiana is so particular about her maidenly modesty, it’s a source of narcissistic pride for her. Thus, even the mere suggestion of male physical closeness feels like a violation to her.

This excessive modesty comes from her stern Catholic upbringing, once again Buñuel’s satirical target. She has no interest in visiting her Uncle Jaime, whom she’s met only once; but she’s pressured into visiting him by her mother superior. She’d rather stay secluded and cloistered, suggesting she regards the Church as more of a family than her biological one. I suspect she had an unhappy family upbringing, driving her to the Church for a replacement.

The Virgin Mary seems to be an idealized parental imago for Viridiana, the perfect mother who represents an ego ideal to which she aspires. We get a sense of this when she prays the Angelus with the homeless people. Mary is “full of grace” (κεχαριτωμένη), which the Catholic Church interprets as a kind of purity existing from birth, the Immaculate Conception. Viridiana would thus want to identify with Mary, for narcissistic reasons.

Any man even making a pass at her threatens this purity she so covets, causing her narcissistic injury. Viridiana, I suspect, has transferred her feelings of maternal love to Mary, just as Don Jaime, admiring Viridiana’s beauty and purity, transfers his love of his deceased bride onto her, especially since the two women look so alike. Indeed, transference is a major theme in this Freudo-Marxist film.

Normally, one thinks of transference in the psychoanalytical setting; the patient transfers the feelings of a powerful emotional bond, especially one from childhood, onto the therapist. Viridiana has made this kind of transference onto Mary, her ‘therapist.’ Similarly, Viridiana has become, however unwittingly, Jaime’s ‘therapist.’ They are using their transferences in an attempt to heal, though these attempts ultimately fail.

On the first night of Viridiana’s visit, we see her in her bedroom, taking off black stockings to reveal her delicious legs; Buñuel’s lustful camera does a closeup on them, another example of his irreverence towards Church authority. She unpacks a large wooden crucifix and a crown of thorns. She’s so devoted to her faith, she’d rather sleep on the hard floor, as Jaime’s servant, Ramona, notes.

Now, Ramona is an interesting character to compare and contrast with Viridiana. Jaime’s servant is dutiful, bashful, and modest, but also lacking in the novice’s religious pretensions. This is another of Buñuel’s jabs at the Church. And who, I’m curious, is the father of Ramona’s naughty, nosy daughter Rita? Jaime has been kind enough to take mother and daughter in: is the girl an illegitimate child, as Jaime’s son, Jorge, is? Again, we see Buñuel’s alternative morality to the hypocritical one of the Church.

I suspect that Ramona has a secret love for Jaime, an Oedipal feeling, perhaps, transferred from her father onto her master, but a feeling she’s too shy to express openly. In any case, after he hangs himself and she meets Jorge, she transfers her love from father to handsome son…and feels that love more overtly, this time.

The morning of the second day of Viridiana’s visit, she goes to a servant milking a cow. She tries pulling on one of the cow’s teats; but they are long, even phallic in length. She can’t bring herself to handle them, as doing so, it seems, far too much resembles masturbating a man to orgasm (i.e., the squirting out of the milk). Her pious modesty is so extreme, she cannot do anything even vaguely redolent of sexuality.

Then, naughty Rita agitates her by saying she saw her in her nightgown the night before, having sneaked a peek from a nearby terrace. Viridiana blenches at even having been spied on by a pre-teen girl.

That night, Jaime has been fetishizing the bridal clothes of his deceased wife; he puts his too-large foot into one of her high heels (symbolic intercourse wish-fulfillment), then stands before a mirror while almost trying on her girdle. Apart from the erotic overtones of these actions, we sense his pathetic yearning for his lost love, his unfulfillable wish to be at one with her.

Then he sees Viridiana sleepwalking in that white nightgown, with her pretty bare feet and lower legs exposed. She is doubly vulnerable before him, in a relative state of undress, and unaware of it. The thought of his predatory eyes on her will terrify her when he tells her what he’s seen the next morning.

During her sleepwalking, she’s also psychologically naked and vulnerable, for her unconscious is let loose, expressing her hidden desires, if only symbolically. Kneeling at his fireplace, she empties a basket of yarn and needles into the fire, representing an unconscious wish to be rid of clothing, the antithesis of a nun’s modesty. She has a bad habit, it seems.

Then she gathers ashes in the basket and takes them to his bedroom, then sprinkles them on his bed; the ashes, we learn the next day, are a symbol of penitence…and death. What has she to repent of…secret, repressed sexual desires? Death associated with his bed suggests once again the marriage of the life (e.g., sex) and death drives.

The next day, Don Jaime, so captivated by Viridiana’s beauty, her purity (So hold und schön und rein), and of course her resemblance to her deceased aunt, asks her to dress up in her bridal gown, another shocking thing to do, in Viridiana’s view. The deceased bride, having worn white to the wedding, was in all probability a virgin (especially given the conservative mores of the time); but Viridiana–though complying–still feels uncomfortable doing it, as she feels like a sex object.

She of course is being objectified and ogled by her uncle, who has Ramona drug Viridiana’s coffee. Ramona, wholly devoted to her master, will do whatever he wants her to do, even as wicked a thing as helping him take advantage of his unconscious niece! Why? I suspect because Ramona secretly wishes Jaime desired her in the same way…also, allowing Viridiana to be deflowered–and thus, shamed–would serve Ramona because of sexual jealousy. Hence, she doesn’t mind telling Viridiana of Jaime’s shameful wish to marry his niece. Still, he’s a good man, in Ramona’s mind.

Viridiana is already uneasy enough knowing her uncle is the father of an illegitimate child (Jorge), for such is her lofty moral ideal. Her purity is part of what makes her so attractive to him; she looks so sexy in that virginal white dress…and she knows exactly how he feels about her.

Being in that dress with him at night is, of course, a reenacting of his wedding night with her aunt, when she died of a heart attack before he could consummate the marriage. This lonely, reclusive man has yearned to have that night given back to him, and now he can have it back through Viridiana.

Even before Ramona has given her the drugged coffee, Viridiana can sense her uncle’s lust; wearing that bridal gown strongly implies a soon-t0-be-lost virginity, which is anathema, horrifying to her. By helping Jaime satisfy his desire, though, Ramona can satisfy hers vicariously through Viridiana. Meanwhile, little Rita is frightened by a bull she claims entered her bedroom; the animal represents a sexually predatory male…is this an omen of what’s to come between Jaime and Viridiana?

While sexual assault (of anyone, woman, man, or child) is of course never defensible, especially to a communist like Buñuel, Viridiana’s predicament can be seen unconsciously, symbolically as a wish-fulfillment in that it desecrates the Catholic ideal of sexual purity in a woman. Destroying this impossible ideal by demonstrating its unattainability can liberate women sexually, by making them give up on it. Indeed, Viridiana will be so liberated at the end of the film.

Note that Jaime never carries out his plan to deflower her. While she’s unconscious, and Mozart‘s Requiem Mass is playing (symbolizing a fusion of the libido and death drive), he kisses her on the lips, unbuttons her top to reveal her creamy cleavage, then kisses her there (and naughty Rita spies on them); but moral scruple makes him come to his senses, and he stops. He mustn’t stain such divine purity.

So hold und schön und rein.

The next morning, when he tells her he took advantage of her while she was out cold, even when he later insists he never actually penetrated her, she can’t be certain of which statement is the truth, and which the lie–has he, or has he not raped her? So she, “for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety,” and imagine the worst. But how can she be unsure of what’s happened? Surely she knows that she will feel vaginal soreness, pain from a ruptured hymen, that there will be blood, if he’s had her.

He lies about having intercourse with her while she slept (later admitting he’s lied) so she’ll think her ‘stained’ body will make her unworthy of being a nun, then she’ll have nowhere else to go but to live with him. She’s afraid of male sexual predation to a far greater degree than the average woman, religiously devoted or not—why?

I don’t think we’re supposed to believe she was sexually abused at an earlier period of her life (though she, in all likelihood, has endured men’s leers and groping hands on many occasions throughout her life); for if she was raped, given the strict Catholic morality of her world, she surely would have already considered herself too ‘unclean’ to be a nun.

Now, for her, the meaning of sexual assault is expanded to mean “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Furthermore, given the way rape victims tend to be slut-shamed, especially in Viridiana’s prudish world, she will feel as guilty, however unjustifiably, of having ‘tempted’ her attackers as they are of attacking her.

So her fears about whatever Don Jaime has done while she’s been unconscious are not based on a fear of possibly having been penetrated, nor do they seem to be a kind of PTSD reliving of what may have happened to her sometime before the beginning of this film. His having touched her, kissed her, and partially undressed her are rape enough. 

And how far did he undress her? She has no idea. We know he only unbuttoned her top: he saw her cleavage, but not her whole breasts. Still, how does she know he didn’t undress her further? Does he know what her whole naked body looks like? Did he fondle her nakedness? Taste it? How many of her anatomical secrets does he know of?

Even the few of those secrets that Don Jaime knows would be enough to make any woman cringe, because they have been divulged without consent (consider the complaints against lecherous Bill Cosby to see my point). But for a woman as proud of keeping her secrets hidden as Viridiana is, her uncle’s–however slight–‘breaking and entering,’ as it were, is all the more outrageous and unbearable.

She feels the shame, but don’t forget that he does, too. After all, he’s the sinner, not she…and no one is more aware of his exclusive guilt than he is. He’s so tearfully desperate to get her forgiveness that, when he doesn’t get it, he hangs himself.

What we must remember is that he doesn’t merely lust after her–he’s fallen in love with her (which is not to excuse him for his scurrilous scheming), out of her resemblance, in her looks, her walk, her voice, in every way, to his beloved late bride. He’s transferred that deep passion onto Viridiana.

Buñuel has been said to have valued sex over love: this seems to be a vulgar, bourgeois interpretation of his frank depiction of sexuality in his films, and it’s utter nonsense. Buñuel uses sex to enhance love, to free it from the bourgeois chains of Church morality.

Another theme in this film is that of solitude. Viridiana prefers being cut off from the larger society: if not hidden from it in the convent, then in the outbuilding section of late Jaime’s estate, which he’s left to her and Jorge. Her religious solitude, as I’ve said above, echoes that of the saint who shares her name; but is this solitude out of spiritual conviction, or social alienation?

Jaime’s solitude is certainly out of alienation, for he, as a bourgeois, rentier capitalist, is inevitably affected by the estrangement that capitalism causes. He has some goodness, though, as all the characters in Viridiana are each a mix of good and bad. For example, Jaime has taken in Ramona and Rita, and he even saves a bee from drowning.

His illegitimate son, Jorge, has a sexual interest in Viridiana that bothers both her and his jealous, live-in girlfriend, Lucia, who soon leaves him; but he isn’t the type to rape a woman. The worst he does is to walk into Viridiana’s bedroom without her permission. He kisses Ramona on the lips only because he knows, from the longing in her eyes, that she is aching for his kiss.

Still yearning to be a good Christian even though she feels unworthy of being a nun, Viridiana takes in a group of beggars to live in the outbuilding part of the house. As pitiable as these wretches are, though, they’re far from virtuous; they make one of them, a bald fellow without his upper front teeth, into a pariah because his varicose veins seem to them to be a symptom of leprosy.

Out in the field with Viridiana, they pray the Angelus with her while Jorge’s hired workers are renovating the house and surrounding area; in other words, the first group is engaging in faith, while the second group is actually working. Here is another example of Buñuel taking a jab at the Church, which values grace through faith over good works. She and the beggars are praying a useless prayer to her idol, Mary, while Jorge’s men are making themselves useful–working, because il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One of the beggars, El Cojo (‘the lame one,’ played by José Manuel Martin), fancies himself a faithful Catholic and not only helps Viridiana in leading the Angelus prayer, but also paints a portrait of the Madonna; still, he’s a bad, even violent fellow, for he threatens the ‘leper,’ and later Jorge, with a knife, and even tries to rape Viridiana toward the end of the film. Again, Buñuel demonstrates the emptiness of faith as against good works.

When she, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita leave the house on business (the servants have also left, out of disgust with the beggars), the beggars decide to go in the house and have a party. They’ll clean up after, and no one will be the wiser…or so they imagine.

This party symbolizes a proletarian seizing of the means of production…though it’s a poorly planned ‘revolution,’ more like anarchist Catalonia, or the Ukrainian Free Territory under Makhno, than anything like the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. Accordingly, their ‘insurrection’ doesn’t last.

During their dinner, they take a group photo at the long table. Buñuel deliberately has the actors pose in a manner parodying Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper, with the blind Don Amalio (played by José Calvo) in the middle, in Christ’s place. When Enedina (played by Lola Gaos) takes the photo, her lifting up of her dress is the ‘flash!’

After that, the ‘leper’ puts on a record of Händel‘s Hallelujah Chorus, and he dresses up in some of Jaime’s bride’s clothing, repeating the suicide’s cross-dressing, though in a comical, rather than pathetic, way.  His dancing around to the music is more of Buñuel making fun of religious piety. He tosses to the floor the feathers of a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, he found earlier.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition of these would-be lumpenproletariat revolutionaries with Christian music and iconography represents how the infantile disorder of ‘left’ communism is as unrealistic as is Viridiana’s idealization of Marian Catholicism. Just as there is no way to be a morally perfect woman, there is also no way to have a perfect communist revolution, all in one fell swoop. The beggars have no vanguard to educate and organize them, so their ‘revolution’ is practically still-born.

And so, because these people are, in varying degrees, degenerates, their party degenerates, too. A man takes Enedina behind the sofa and has her. An older beggar, Manuel, who has a penchant for gossip, tells Don Amalio about the screwing around, but he won’t lead the jealous blind man over to the sofa to beat the man for taking his woman; so Don Amalio smashes his cane on the dinner table, destroying the dishes.

As we can see, their ‘revolution’ is a bit too Makhnovist for comfort. Jorge, Viridiana, Ramona, and Rita return early to find out what’s been happening. El Cojo and the “leper” subdue Jorge while Ramona goes off in the car to get the police; this leaves Viridiana to the mercy of El Cojo’s lust. She fights the good fight to get him off of her.

All her efforts to be a good Christian, to show charity and compassion to the beggars and to give them moral instruction, have been for naught. Jorge, however, promises money to the “leper” if he’ll beat El Cojo on the head with a small shovel to stop him from raping her. Though El Cojo is stopped, she, overwhelmed with trauma, faints…just as she was unconscious when Jaime–almost–had her.

Note how, only when unconscious, will she allow any man to touch her. This shows how, only in her unconscious mind, will she allow herself any expression of sexuality. The conscious wish to be an imitator of Christ, of Mary, is clearly a reaction formation against her deepest, most repressed desires, expressed when she was sleepwalking.

The wish to lead a life of chastity rubs against its dialectical opposite, the secret wish to be sexual. Jorge, in contrast, is neither extreme: he accepts the ephemeral nature of sexual relationships, and is none too upset when Lucia leaves him. At the same time, he doesn’t force sex on anyone, unlike El Cojo, the ‘good Catholic.’

Viridiana’s trauma from the attempted rape has, for what it’s worth, one good side effect: she’s been liberated from her attachment to an impossible moral ideal–perfect chastity. As painful as this has been for her, at least she can now get off her high horse and join humanity…and become truly humble, not affectedly so.

She looks at herself in a small mirror, Lacan‘s mirror, as a tear runs down her cheek. That nun she’s seen in the reflection was an illusion, not the real her, but an idealization that has alienated her from herself. Her ability to be ‘pure’ cannot be eternal and unchanging. She must accept this painful truth.

She joins Jorge and Ramona in the main part of the house. He’s pleasantly surprised to see Viridiana at the door. Since Ramona is already his lover, Viridiana’s involvement is implying a ménage à trois, surely to the chagrin of the Francoist censors, but this ending was allowed nonetheless. Instead of listening to pompous religious music, the three would rather hear some fun popular music, Ashley Beaumont’s Shimmy Doll

Their sitting at table together to play cards suggests an equality the beggars couldn’t attain: that of male and female, of master and servant. Jorge’s moderate ‘socialism,’ if you will, is rather like Dengism; one incrementally moves from capitalism to communism, as Xi Jinping‘s government is doing. His sexuality is similarly neither prudish nor overly licentious. No idealistic rushes to extremes here, but rather a cautious creeping ahead.

Jorge doesn’t like the degenerate beggars any more than the other workers in his home. He considers Viridiana’s charitable duties to them pointless; he does, however, tolerate them for a while…until they commit their crimes on him and her. He also takes compassion on a dog, Canelo, and he offers money to the “leper” to stop lustful El Cojo. Though Jorge, representing industrial capitalism, is the bourgeois owner of the house given to him by his father, he’s clearly more generous than the average capitalist.

So, Jorge’s morality is a comfortable middle ground between Viridiana’s Catholic idealism and the reckless anarchism of the beggars. It’s like a Marxist sublation of the Christian thesis of an unattainable moral perfection, and its Makhnovist negation. This is the alternative morality Buñuel is proposing, and it’s a refreshing alternative to all the rubbish we’ve had thrown in our faces for so long.

Analysis of ‘L’Age d’Or’

L’Age d’Or is an hour-long French surrealist film made in 1930 by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dalí. Since Buñuel had a falling out with right-wing leaning Dalí, his collaborator on Un Chien Andalou, leftist Buñuel was now free to finish this new movie by attacking the bourgeoisie and the Church as much as he liked.

The movie’s title, “The Golden Age,” is surely ironic given his attitude towards capitalism, then in a great state of crisis with the Great Depression, as well as with the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and his native Spain, where clashes between right-wing tradition and the left were soon to reach a boiling point.

Though not as famous as Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is nonetheless considered another landmark in surrealist cinema, and because of Buñuel’s liberation from the fascist-tending Dalí, this film perhaps deserves even more attention.

Here’s an interesting quote from the film, in English translation: “I have waited for a long time for him. What joy to have our children murdered!” –young girl, to her lover

As with Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is a set of vignettes that seem unrelated; if seen, however, as a series of free associations and dreams put up on the silver screen, one can play the role of psychoanalyst and link the apparently random visuals to show a coherent chain of themes, revealing the meaningful world of the unconscious.

The film begins with a kind of short documentary on scorpions. These vicious, phallic, predatory arachnids–which attack with lightning speed, are unsociable, and prefer hiding in darkness to being seen in the light of day–set the tone of this film, with its themes of quick, impulsive violence and sudden deaths. Therefore, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an unintelligible opening to the film.

“Several hours later,” we see a beggar-soldier up high on the rocks of an inlet, watching some archbishops chanting among the rocks. (An instrumental rendition of Mozart‘s Ave Verum Corpus is playing; knowing Buñuel, the inclusion of this music, significantly excluding the Latin text, is ironic.) The man goes back to his hideout to tell his fellow beggar-soldiers that the Majorcans have arrived, so their leader (played by Max Ernst) tells them to get up and go fight them. Part of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is played during this scene; scherzo in Italian means, ‘joke,’ suggesting the pitiful condition of these beggar-soldiers.

Here we see a representation of the revolutionary proletariat, starving and weakened, yet ready to fight the bourgeoisie and Church authoritarianism. The archbishops are on the rocks, for the Church was built on a rock.

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [Πέτρος], and upon this rock [πέτρα] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The hardness of the inlet rocks suggest the stony rigidity of Church dogma, as opposed to the mystical peace of the sea, as I’ve described it elsewhere. Indeed, it’s easy for many to go from the heavenly bliss of having been ‘touched by God’ to the hell of being forced to obey the dictates of religious authority…a dialectical shift from freedom to slavery.

This preoccupation with Peter, the Rock and the first Pope, is a statement on the establishment of the papacy, the head of the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church that Buñuel so despised. Hence the use of rocks and rocky ground as motifs in the film, as well as any variation on them and their hardness–mud (a mixture of water with loam, silt, or clay–tiny, granular rocks), dirt (tiny rocks and sand), statues of marble (limestone), brick buildings reduced to rubble, even the hard, rocky background of the warring scorpions. The clergy and bourgeois are our stinging human scorpions.

A fleet of boats carrying bourgeois arrives on the inlet, the people aboard disembark, and they go up and down the rocky hill (symbolically rising and descending a hierarchy) to meet with the chanting archbishops, who are now a group of skeletons. When Nietzsche’s message in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science has reached the ears of the ruling class, they carry on with their ceremonies as if God were still alive. After all, such religious authority is still politically useful.

As the bourgeois are about to begin their ceremony, they suddenly hear a woman’s scream of pleasure. They look over and see her and a man making love in the mud. They go over and separate the two lovers.

The two are fully clothed at the time, so what’s the problem? Oh, yes, we always forget: public expressions of affection aren’t to be encouraged in polite, bourgeois society, especially during a religious ceremony.

Since the man and woman aren’t married, their lovemaking is tantamount to adultery. The repeated frustrating of their attempts to be together reminds one of the myth of those fated adulterers, Tristan and Isolde: indeed, both when they’re separated, then reunited about twenty to thirty minutes later in the film, we hear Wagner‘s Liebestod

This urge to be together in love, a union constantly being thwarted in the film, represents capitalist alienation. Since Church hierarchy helps the ruling class keep the people in their place, it’s appropriate in this film to see the symbolism of the rocky Church juxtaposed with symbolism of the people’s plight.

The ceremony involves a huge brick as a symbol to commemorate the Church’s rule–that brick, a rectangular rock, essentially–a man-made rigidity. The removal of the young woman from the man’s arms is followed by a scene of her at home; then we see a toilet, we hear a flushing, then slimy mud slobbering on the ground, suggestive of diarrhea flushed away, just as his love has been flushed down the toilet by a prudish Church, an ecclesiastical excrement that projects its own filthiness onto others.

The movie narrates the establishment of the rock of the Church of “imperial Rome,” once a pagan dominion, now a Christian one. We communists know what to think about the imperial world, past and present.

The present-day Rome of the movie shows us a number of odd but explicable visuals. A man walking out of a café brushes dirt off his suit jacket: as with the two muddy lovers, capitalist society and Church morality makes all ordinary people feel soiled and unclean.

“Sometimes, on Sunday,” we see the demolition of a few houses on a street. Families’ homes reduced to rubble, to a mess of rock: this is what Peter the Rock does to families and communities with his repressive religious authority, backed by the bourgeoisie. 

Recall Marx’s words: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52)

A man walks on a sidewalk, kicking a violin, then smashing it under his shoe; the profit motive commodifies, cheapens, and ultimately destroys art.

Elsewhere, in a park we see a statue of a man wearing a crucifix, holding a large book (presumably the Bible), and oddly, he has a long, flat, almost rectangular block of stone balancing on his head (reminding us a bit of the rectangular clay cube we saw during the religious ceremony). A man is passing by the statue with an almost identical rock balanced on his head. The rock of the Church rules over idealized religious figures, so naturally that rock will rule over the average man, too.

On the streets of Rome, we see the man being escorted by two agents. Separated from his love, he has already demonstrated an angry, aggressive, even violent disposition (kicking a small dog, stepping on an insect). This viciousness is what we all too often resort to when we’ve been denied love. Class antagonism makes scorpions of all of us.

WRD Fairbairn described this splitting of the personality with his replacement of Freud‘s id/ego/superego structure–a structure of pleasure-seeking drives,–with an object-seeking endopsychic structure. Fairbairn’s approximate equivalent to the id is  the Libidinal Ego, linked to an Exciting Object. In the film, we see this configuration whenever the escorted man stops at the sight of advertisements of such things as silk stockings, etc., which remind him of his lover.

Fairbairn replaced Freud’s ego with the Central Ego and Ideal Object: these are respectively represented in the film by the man and his beloved whenever they are together, for they represent an ideal relationship between two people in the real world. 

Fairbairn replaced the superego with something only vaguely similar, the Anti-libidinal Ego (originally, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object. This configuration is the internalized part of us that hates and rejects others. We see this aspect of the man whenever he’s violent to others.

Lavinia Gomez, in An Introduction to Object Relations, explains that the “anti-libidinal ego is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego, as explained above] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, p. 63-64)

For Fairbairn, a healthy libido seeks objects (i.e., people other than oneself, the subject), rather than seeking mere pleasure (as Freud had maintained); pleasure-seeking becomes a main pursuit only when there’s been a failure in object relationships. In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

When one cannot enjoy loving relationships with others (i.e., the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration), one resorts either to mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, pornography), a province of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object; or one becomes hostile, rejecting, and adversarial, the domain of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Back to the movie. As the man is escorted down the street, he is confronted with, and momentarily mesmerized by, a number of advertisements: apart from their reminding him of his girl, they also represent our being manipulated by the allures of commodity fetishism and the media, a tried-and-true tactic used by the ruling classes to hypnotize us, and make us forget about taking our world back for our own rightful use.

Erich Fromm once said in To Have Or to Be, “The puzzling question why contemporary human beings love to buy and to consume, and yet are so little attached to what they buy, finds its most significant answer in the marketing character phenomenon. The marketing characters’ lack of attachment also makes them indifferent to things. What matters is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable, too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.” (Fromm, page 34)

Back to the film. In the young woman’s home, she and her mother are planning a large party that evening. Some more incongruous, but explicable (in terms of Freudo-Marxism), things are seen. One of them is a cow on the young woman’s bed, which she shoos away. Apart from the cruel commodification of farm animals (especially in today’s world), we can see in the cow a representation of the Third World proletariat, always seen as animals from the bourgeois and First World perspective. We try to ignore their plight, and put them out of our sight…thus, out of mind. 

Other such odd scenes include, during the party, a large horse-drawn wagon going across a large room filled with guests in tuxedos and evening gowns. Later, a maid screams leaving a fire in the kitchen. The guests show no interest in either of these strange occurrences, which represent how the ruling class refuses to acknowledge the very existence, therefore also the suffering (for existence is suffering, according to the Buddhists), of workers and peasants. The girl’s father has flies on his face: the bourgeois pretend to be above us, but underneath it all, they are filthier than we could ever be.

Back on the streets, the man manages to get rid of the two men escorting him by showing them a document proving he’s a member of ‘the international goodwill society.’ We see a memory of his, when he has been assigned a mission from this society to protect the men, women, and children of his ‘Fatherland.’ He speaks of his mission to the two agents in a visibly insincere tone, as if making fun of the mission; this suggests that this is his False Self, a socially acceptable front he puts on so he can mix in capitalist society…however unwilling he is to do it.

The insincerity of his commitment to this mission is evident (as it will be again, later) when he hails a taxi near a blind man, leaves the agents, and just before getting into the cab, kicks the blind man. Here we see a fusion of Freud’s moralistic superego, which inspires hypocrisy, with the antisocial nastiness of Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration.

The man arrives at the party in a clean, new suit, and he’s delighted to see his love there. The Anti-libidinal Ego in him, however, causes him to be rude to some of the other guests, him brusquely shooing them away or grudgingly tolerating them, as he does her mother, for a while. The ruling classes reject the poor, and they often reject each other, so bad is capitalist alienation in our society.

This alienation extends even to family relationships (recall the quote above, from The Communist Manifesto). Outside the house, we see an armed man and his son, a little boy. At first, they seem affectionate, but then a small prank by the boy provokes his scorpion father to shoot him, to sting him with the phallic rifle. Similarly, back inside the house, one would expect the amorous man to want to get the good graces of the mother of the woman he loves; but a mere spilling of wine on his clothes, from a glass the kind old lady gets for him, provokes his Anti-libidinal Ego to slap her. The scorpion in him strikes again!

Finally, he and the girl go outside to have some time alone together (for they are as antisocial as the scorpions), to get away from all the other pesky guests, who go elsewhere outside to hear an orchestra perform the Liebestod…appropriate music for the two lovers.

Their lovemaking includes sucking on each other’s fingers, which are symbolic of genitalia. Indeed, this scene is like a non-pornographic version of the sixty-nine position. This mutual introjection/projection of digits also suggests their wish to be at one with each other, physically and spiritually. In other words, their desire for each other is much deeper than mere lust. 

Yet again, our twentieth century Tristan and Isolde are frustrated in their efforts to be together when a man comes over and tells ‘Tristan’ he has a telephone call. Annoyed, he leaves her to receive the call. 

Meanwhile, she–her Central Ego being deprived of its Ideal Object–begins fellating the phallic toes of a nearby statue, her Libidinal Ego getting off on an Exciting Object. When we lose human relationships, we’re reduced to using things, including things that have an idealized human form, like the statue, or like objectified pornographic models, who today are photoshopped so consummately, we see no bodily imperfections.

‘Tristan’ is in Anti-libidinal Ego mode again, the dialectical opposite of his lover, and on the phone, he’s being barked at by the Rejecting Object, the man from ‘the international goodwill society.’ He’s angry with ‘Tristan’ for his dereliction of duty, for having neglected his mission to protect the people.

When the angry caller, the minister of the interior and head of “the international goodwill society,” is complaining about the deaths of the people, we see an army of people rushing in to a city area and causing the death and destruction. Should we connect this violence with the beggar-soldiers towards the beginning of the film, those weakened men who go off to fight the arriving Majorcan bourgeois? Is this violence, from which ‘Tristan’ was supposed to defend the people, actually a proletarian revolution? Were ‘the people’ actually bourgeois?

As a surrealist film, L’Age d’Or can be considered more dreams projected onto the silver screen, as Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie were. Thus, it can be seen as Freudian wish-fulfillment for Buñuel; and so this violence, which so upsets the bourgeois telephone caller, can represent the insurrection of a strengthened working class, led by a revolutionary vanguard of the kind that defeated the Nazis, rather than the weakened beggar-soldiers from earlier, men who seem more like the anarchists of Catalonia, who weren’t strong enough to fight off Franco’s fascism.

‘Tristan’ no longer wishes to listen to the caller. He yanks the telephone cord off the wall, and so leaves without letting the caller finish the conversation. The screen is black and void for a few seconds, we hear a gunshot; then we see the caller’s shoes on the floor, then his dead body (after having shot himself in the head)…on the ceiling.

As with Hitler’s suicide, this is how those at the top die: never wishing to come down to the level of the people, they destroy themselves, for all they are is a black void of nothingness without the backing of the masses.

‘Tristan’ returns to ‘Isolde,’ and we hear more of the Liebestod. They hold each other, and we can see their love is more than merely physical. Though they’re as bourgeois as all the others at the party, they feel stifled by the capitalist system, too. They don’t want to have to keep maintaining the system; they just want to be together. He shows uncharacteristic tenderness to her, asking if she’s cold; for the moment, he isn’t a scorpion.

They’re now, if only momentarily, in a mentally healthy state. Their Central Egos are enjoying each other’s Ideal Objects, a proper relation with the external world, rather than the unhealthy, inner phantasy world of splitting, the world of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, or that of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Though Fairbairn’s reworking of Freud’s id/ego/superego structure wouldn’t come until about twenty years after L’Age d’Or was made, we can still see how Fairbairn’s theories can explain the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the man and woman.

When she speaks of the joy of having murdered their children, and when we see blood all over his face, as he says, “Mon amour,” we can interpret the ‘murdered children’ and blood as their ridding of, and projection of, their bad internal objects, those ‘children’ they created in their minds, which caused the lovers to replace each other with Exciting Objects to suck on the toes of, or Rejecting Objects to do violence to.

The conductor of the Liebestod gets a headache and has to stop the performance (understandable: he’s been playing the interminable, syrupy chromaticism of Wagner). Holding his head in agony, he walks out of the performing area, leaves the audience, and finds the garden where the lovers are.

The girl sees the aching old man and feels compassion for him; but this is a misguided pity, for it’s directed at someone she doesn’t know, making her abandon her lover, who should have all of her attention at the moment. Fromm had some relevant points about this kind of situation:

“In this situation there is one other thing we do: we are sentimental. Sentimentality is feeling under the condition of complete detachment...You have feelings, but you do not refer really, concretely to something that is the reality. You are sentimental. Your feelings overflow. They appear somewhere…They are stimulation words, which make you weep, which make you howl, which make you do anything, and yet it is a performance in which the feeling is not really related to something with which you are concerned, but which is an empty thing.” (Fromm, page 31)

The young man, overcome with jealousy at seeing his lover go over to the conductor and kiss him, is furious. He gets up and hits his head on an overhanging flowerpot, making him hold his head in pain as the conductor is. We hear drums playing a military beat in triple time, suggestive of wartime aggression, and expressive of his anger. He leaves the garden, goes into the house and into a bedroom on an upper floor. He grabs random things and throws them out the window: a burning fir tree, a bishop, a plow, the bishop’s staff, a giraffe statue, and pillow feathers.

This splitting of the lovers symbolizes the split in the personality when the search for healthy object relations is frustrated. The Central Ego/Ideal Object (‘Tristan’ and ‘Isolde’) configuration gives way to, on the one side, the Libidinal Ego (‘Isolde’) and the Exciting Object (the conductor), and on the other side, the Anti-libidinal Ego (‘Tristan’) and the Rejecting Object (everything he throws out the window, largely phallic symbols–a rejection of his erotic desire to be with her–and symbols of the Church that Buñuel hated so much).

Finally, the last vignette of the film takes us from Rome to Paris, on the last of the 12o Days of Sodom (of which Sade‘s novel, by the way, took place in the Black Forest). We’ve encountered the oppositions between the Libidinal and Anti-libidinal Egos, and between the life (e.g. sex) and death drives (as explored in my two previous Buñuel analyses); now we see these oppositions dialectically fused in the sexual sadism of the four libertines, as graphically depicted in Sade’s most notorious novel.

The duc de Blangis walks out of the Château de Silling (Selliny, as given in the film’s subtitles) on a snowy, wintery day at the end of February. Oddly, his long dark hair and beard, white-robed attire, and ‘pious’ manner make him look like Christ, the dialectical opposite of the sadist of the novel. This is obviously another of Buñuel’s attacks on the hypocrisy and abuses of the Church.

One of the eight female victims of the libertines also emerges from the castle, with blood on her chest (in Sade’s novel, there are eight girls and eight boys as victims, as well as the libertines’ four daughters, who are also sexually abused). Blangis goes back to her, seeming to comfort her (representing the outside display of the Church’s love for its flock), then takes her back inside the castle, the Hell of her torments. We hear her scream (representing the inside, hidden reality of historical Church abuses, including the largely unpunished sexual abuse).

Blangis comes back outside, but now he’s beardless. His beard was a mask of virtue; with it removed, his wickedness is revealed–he has a frown of shame on his face. The loss of his hair also reminds one of Samson‘s lost source of strength; knowledge of the Church’s crimes weakens it. All this time, we’ve heard the banging of military drums, suggestive of war and death…an appropriate juxtaposition with a corrupt Church.

The film ends with the sight of scalps of hair hanging on a cross, blasphemously transforming it into a phallus with symbolic pubic hair. The Church is a stinging, phallic scorpion. The jaunty, merry music heard during this display adds to its absurdity.

Just as Martin Luther advised us to laugh at the devil, Buñuel advises us to laugh at the absurdity of the demonic Church; for there is nothing that makes the Church so angry as when we attack it to its face, and tell it that through dialectical materialism, we are more than a match for it.

How are we more than a match for Church and capitalist authoritarianism? Those scalps, hanging on the cross and blowing in the wind, seem to be those of six of the victims. As the loss of Blangis’s beard suggests a loss of his power, the accumulation of scalp hair, that of his victims, suggests the rise of the oppressed, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but in materialist form. We suffer, we rise, then we conquer. The scorpions that stung before will now be stung. The bourgeois will lie dead on the ceiling of their arrogance.

Analysis of ‘Un Chien Andalou’

Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”) is a 1929 French surrealist short silent film directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dali. It launched the careers of these two Spaniards, though they’d been expecting a scandalized reaction from their bourgeois Parisian audience; Buñuel even had his pockets filled with rocks to throw at an audience he’d thought would be so outraged that they’d want to attack the filmmakers. Instead, the bourgeois audience loved the twenty-minute short.

Buñuel’s and Dali’s intention had been to shock their audience with images of blatant sexuality and violence; Buñuel called the film an “impassioned call for murder.” As a communist, Buñuel despised the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and the Church; accordingly, he went out of his way to expose, ridicule, and offend that sanctimonious establishment in all the films of his career. 

Sadly, Dali went in the opposite political direction of Buñuel, instead following that of fellow Spanish shocker Camilo José Cela, embracing Franco‘s fascism after having had a falling out with Buñuel before they could finish L’Age d’Or, originally meant to be another collaboration, but a movie Buñuel would finish without Dali. What a shame it is when talent is misused for reactionary purposes.

Two of the most famous images in Un Chien Andalou were inspired by dreams Buñuel and Dali had had, the former dreaming of a cloud cutting through the moon like a razor slicing an eye, and the latter dreaming of ants crawling on a man’s hand.

As a surrealist film, it was meant to be only one of random, shocking images with no consciously intended story or meaning. Indeed, if Buñuel and Dali were to come back from the dead and read this analysis, they doubtless would scoff at the meanings my interpretation here will impose on their fanciful flashes of black and white vignettes.

Nonetheless, the unconscious has meanings and intentions of its own, however non-rational and obscure they may be. Surrealism as an art form expresses unconscious meaning, a reality above our normal reality, hence the name of the movement. Since psychoanalysis is centred on an understanding of the unconscious, explored through dreams, free association, and the transference, a classical Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation is not only a possible way of making sense out of Un Chien Andalou: it’s the way, the royal road, even, for understanding the movie. 

Il était une fois, a man (Buñuel) sharpens a razor, then goes out onto a balcony and looks up at the moon. A greyish cloud is about to cut across the full moon, just as his razor will cut through the black iris of a young woman (Simone Mareuil).

The contrast of the black sky surrounding the white circle of the moon is like a photographic negative of her white eyeball surrounding her black iris. The greyish cloud is the silver, phallic razor.

This opening scene establishes the theme of the yin-and-yang-like, dialectical relationship between opposites, here symbolized by black and white, the thesis and negation, and by the sublation of the opposites with the grey cloud and razor. We will see many manifestations of the conflict and interaction between opposites in this film.

Huit ans après,” a man (Pierre Batcheff) is riding a bicycle down a street approaching her apartment building. He’s wearing a nun’s habit, and a box hangs by a strap around his neck. Here we see a fusion of masculinity and femininity, not only through his crossdressing, but also through the yonic symbolism of the box, which dangles like a penis…or a breast.

She goes to the window to watch him. He falls and lies on the curb in front of her apartment building; she empathizes, and rushes down to help him. Back in her apartment, she arranges the nun’s habit on a bed while he, in a dark suit, stands by a door looking at the palm of his hand. The juxtaposition of a nun’s habit on a bed suggests the meeting opposites of piety vs. sexual indulgence (as does her unlocking of the box). We’ll get more of the opposition between piety and lust soon after.

He’s looking at his hand because ants are crawling out of a yonic wound on his palm–more androgyny. The emerging ants suggest a projection outward of what’s wrong with him inside, the myrmidons (Greek: μύρμηξ, ‘ant’) of destruction. His fixed stare at the projection suggests a wish to see the bad inside him get out.

Next, we see her lying on the beach, with a closeup on her hairy armpit, which dissolves into a spherical sea urchin lying on the sand, its roundness reminding us of her eye just before it had been ‘raped,’ as it were, by the phallic razor. The armpit is a yoni, like the eyeball and the cloud-raped moon; the spiny, dark sea urchin is associated with both the yoni and a testicle, suggesting more androgyny, more unity of opposites.

The urchin dissolves into the bird’s-eye-view of the head of a short-haired woman dressed rather mannishly–yet more androgyny. Holding a phallic cane, she pokes at a severed hand, which symbolizes castration, a reminder of the ‘yonic’ wounds of the slit eye and the wound on the man’s hand. With both injured hands, we once again see a unity of male and female through the castration complex.

The androgyny of the man and this woman in the street suggests Freud’s notion of the inherent ‘bisexuality’ of both sexes: ““we shall, of course, willingly agree that the majority of men are…far behind the masculine ideal and that all human individuals, as a result of their bisexual disposition and of cross-inheritance, combine in themselves both masculine and feminine characteristics, so that pure masculinity and femininity remain theoretical constructions of uncertain content.” (Freud, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,’ p. 342)

Let’s now contrast the scenes of both gender-benders on the street, what unifies them and what makes them opposites. He rides a bike alone, but she stands surrounded by people. He has the yonic box, she the phallic cane…though a policeman later gives her the box to put the hand inside–symbolic of sexual union as well as androgyny.

He falls to the ground, causing the woman in the apartment to feel compassion for him and help him; the androgynous woman is hit by a car, while the man in the apartment grins, sadistically enjoying watching her get hurt, possibly killed, and neither he nor the woman with him in the room go down to help the injured woman. Note the merging of pleasure and pain, not only in his sadism, but also her smile of pleasure from having the hand in the box (representing intercourse and androgyny), and this happens just before she’s hit by the car.

Now the man looks lustfully at the woman in the apartment. After having been aroused by the injury/death of the androgynous woman below, he’s now desiring this woman in the room with him. He grabs her breasts and imagines her nude, her breasts dissolving into her buttocks. We go from symbolic rape (the razor slicing the eye) to literal, attempted rape.

Remember that, as a surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou depicts the world of the unconscious, a realm of unbridled id impulses. Here, the pleasure principle rules, an ending of tension or excitation. Now, excitation can be ended by either pleasure (libido) or death, Thanatos. “We have decided to relate pleasure and unpleasure to the quantity of excitation that is present in the mind…and to relate them in such a manner that unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” (Freud, page 276, his emphasis)

The man’s enjoyment of watching the androgynous woman hit by a car is an indication of his death drive, directed outwards, wished on another. His libidinous pawing at the first woman’s breasts suggest a fusion of the life instinct, Eros (of which the sex drive is a manifestation) with Thanatos (his rapist aggression), another fusion of opposites.

In light of this fusion of the life (i.e., sex) and death drives, it is significant that Buñuel chose, in 1960, Wagner‘s Liebestod (“love-death”) as part of the soundtrack for the movie. This was music he’d also used in L’Age d’Or, incidentally. The fused sex and death drives seem to be represented in many of his films, including these two early ones, as well as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (see my analysis for that movie), Viridiana (<<her uncle’s suicide happening so soon after his having her dress in his dead wife’s bridal gown, then drugging her so he could have her in bed), and even Belle de Jour (consider this scene).

Unconscious id impulses are represented in the man’s attack on the woman; unconscious ego defence is seen in her attempt to defend herself with a tennis racquet when he has her cornered. So she, symbolically, is the ego, and he represents the id.

He grabs onto ropes linking Moses’ tablets of the Ten Commandments with pairs of pumpkins, seminarists (Dali himself being one of them), and pianos, each with a bloody, slaughtered donkey lying on the inner strings. These together represent his superego in their attempt to restrain him. He pulls on them and falls, then gets up and pulls again, all that weight slowing him down as he tries to get closer to her in the corner.

Note how the id, ego, and superego are all unconscious here. While the ego and superego are partly conscious, as opposed to the completely unconscious id, much, if not most, of the ego and superego are either unconscious or at least preconscious; so much of their activity is unknown, at least at the time, to the mind controlled by them. To understand the true feelings of the aggressive man here, since this is a surrealist film, we should see his scurrilous aggression thus as unconscious phantasy in his mind, not his actual treatment of the woman.

The decalogue tablets and seminarists represent the ego ideal that he is required by society to approach as best he can. Of course, neither the Bible nor the Catholic priesthood have ever set a good example for preventing rape, as seen in priests’ largely unpunished sexual abuse of children over the years, or in such Bible verses as these: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31: 17-18)

The pianos represent society’s use of culture in taming the beast; their weight slows the man down much better than clergy or tablets could. The slaughtered donkeys represent the killing of man’s bestial nature in order to civilize him. The pumpkins seem testicular to me, perhaps a reminder from society that sex is for procreation, not for mere pleasure, especially not for a man’s pleasure at the expense of a woman.

In any case, she fortunately gets away from him, slamming the door on his hand (a symbolic castration of a phallus) and reopening the yonic would from which the ants emerge, another projective ridding of the myrmidon killer within him…or is it an ejaculation (a fusion of sex with death), a masochistic pleasure from a previously rape-inclined sadist? “A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”  (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, page 73)

On the bed in the room she’s entered is the man, now wearing the nun’s habit and box, and behaving much better. Is this the moralizing influence of religion that’s taming his lust, or is it the feminine inside him, making him more respectful to her?

Speaking of moralizing influences, “around three in the morning,” she hears a door-bell (represented by two hands poking out of holes in a wall and shaking a Martini-shaker–symbolic of masturbation) and lets a man in who, as it eventually turns out, is also played by Batcheff. Wearing a lighter-coloured suit this time, he berates the first man for wearing the habit, demanding that he remove it, then throwing the clothing out the window. This second version of the man, now making the first version of him (in his darker suit) stand in the corner shamefacedly, represents the superego, the inner critic, chiding the dark-suited id.

(Compare the superego-man, making the id-man stand in the corner, to the id-man rapist making the ego-woman stand in the corner. These are, respectively, the conflict between the pleasure principle and the ego ideal, and the conflict between the pleasure and reality principles, intensified with the ego ideal being dragged by the id-man.)

What form of morality is being promoted in getting rid of the nun’s habit? Is it a conservative morality, telling the crossdresser that ‘real men’ never wear women’s clothes? Or is it a progressive morality, telling the man to do away with the shackles, as it were, of the hypocritical trappings of religion? Given Buñuel’s attitude towards the Church, the latter explanation seems more likely.

The lighter-suited man, “sixteen years earlier,” shows an interest in art supplies and books lying on a table, and he gives the darker-suited man in the corner two books to hold in his hands as he stays in the corner. This love of art and culture, like the dragged pianos mentioned above, and its imposition on the man standing in the corner, suggests the use of sublimation as a way of redirecting id drives down more socially desirable paths.

The id-man in the corner, though, would rather be destructive than creative (yet another juxtaposition of opposites), and so the books he’s holding transform into phallic pistols, which he causes to ejaculate bullets at the lighter-suited superego-man, killing him. He falls down dead…but in a forest, his body brushing against the nude back of the woman: another juxtaposition of opposites–the life instinct’s libido and the death drive.

Let’s compare this death with that of the androgynous woman and the fall off the bike of the man in the nun’s habit. In many ways, these first two accidents were mutually antithetical, as described above. This new death is comparable and contrasting to the previous two incidents, suggesting a sublation of the previous two.

This superego-man is played by the same actor, Batcheff, as the id-man, but the superego-man isn’t a crossdresser. The antithetical androgynes are male and female; the third man’s lighter-coloured suit is a bit effeminate looking, though. The first two fall on a street (i.e., a man-made ground); the third one falls on the ground of Mother Nature, in a forest.

Only the woman in the apartment helps the crossdressing man; several people, mostly men, go to help the fallen androgynous woman; and a group of men, including a man with a cane, reminding us of the androgynous woman’s cane, find and pick up the body of the dead third person. The Liebestod is played during all three incidents.

Sublation, or Aufhebung, is a better word to use than ‘synthesis’ to describe how contradictions are resolved in dialectical thinking. One doesn’t merely combine the opposites: one refines one’s originally proposed idea by considering the opposition’s point of view. Some of the original ideas of the thesis remain; aspects of the negation are acknowledged; some contradictory aspects cancel each other out in the sublation. Then the refined idea becomes a new thesis to be negated and sublated, all over again.

This process can repeat itself again and again in a cycle, like the ouroboros: the thesis is the bitten tail, the negation is the biting head, and the coiled body of the serpent is the sublation. This dialectic can be symbolized by these three incidents in the film.

Another thing to note about all the film’s dialectical opposites is their physicality, their materiality. Conflict and contradiction are expressed in the forms of violence (as in The Omen) and sexuality (as in Caligula), a most material expression; so these aren’t the idealist dialectics of Hegel, but the materialist ones of Marx. (“Seize ans avant” suggests an association with historical materialism, too.)

This Marxism is Buñuel’s leftism shining through, though Dali’s right-wing tendencies would limit how far Buñuel could go with his leftism. Hence, there’s very little criticism of the bourgeoisie here. His “impassioned call for murder” (I find it fairly safe to assume that, by “murder,” Buñuel meant communist revolution–that is, killing off the bourgeoisie) fell largely on deaf ears.

In the next scene, the woman that the man tried to rape enters a room and sees a death’s head hawkmoth on a wall. This, a mature creature fully bloomed into life as an imago, but with a marking like a skull on its thorax, is yet another symbol of the merging of the life and death drives.

She sees the man who tried to rape her. He rubs his mouth, erasing it from his face. Disquieted by this, she applies lipstick to herself, as if wishing to draw his mouth back on his face by sympathetic magic, or what Melanie Klein called projective identification. Instead, her armpit hair appears on his face, as if a beard! She sticks her tongue out at him several times, then leaves.

There are multiple possible meanings here. Since she’s resisted his sexual advances, he, annoyed with her, wishes no longer to communicate with her. No longer having his empathy-prompting feminine symbols (the nun’s habit and yonic box), he’s gone from lecher to woman-hating incel. Her applying of lipstick, intended to be a projected drawing of a mouth back on his face, represents a wish to restore communication.

His erased mouth is another yoni, a rejection of the feminine. Her phallic lipstick, applied to her yonic mouth, suggests a wish for sexual union and restored androgyny. Above, I showed how her armpit hair suggests her pubic hair. Instead of projecting a mouth (symbolic yoni) onto his face, she accidentally projects her symbolic pubic hair…and pubic hair can be male or female. In having her hair on his face, he’s mirroring back to her how unattractive he now finds her. Hurt, she rejects him, too.

The removal of her armpit hair and her applying of lipstick suggest something that has upset feminists for a long time: the lofty standards of beauty women are societally expected to attain. (In contemporary pornography, it is standard to remove the models’ pubic hair, too.) In sticking out her phallic tongue at him several times, she’s defying his misogyny while reaffirming androgyny.

In the final scene, she leaves her apartment building not to see the street, but a beach. A handsome young man by the shore turns and sees her; he seems to be her boyfriend, for she grins in delight to see him, and she hangs affectionately on his shoulder. They kiss.

I have elsewhere associated the sea or ocean with a state of nirvana. I’ve also associated a nirvana-like state with the biting head of the ouroboros, yet also with the danger of hellish samsara close by, on the sands of the beach, as when Luther confronts Swan on the beach at the end of The Warriors.

The woman and her boyfriend enjoy walking on the beach together, in each other’s arms; but they find the nun’s habit and box, broken and messy with sand, having washed on the shore after the superego-man threw them out the window. They represent the misogynistic id-man’s rejected feminine side as well as his rejected religious upbringing. The hostility they represent seems a danger to the man, who tosses the things aside so he and the girl can continue their blissful walk along the shore.

Au printemps,” a time of renewed life, shows the two lovers buried almost to their chests in the sand, presumably dead. Again, Eros and Thanatos unite: “these guardians of life…were originally the myrmidons of death” (Freud, page 312). The Myrmidons, incidentally, were created by Zeus from a colony of…ants!

Freud had more to say about the interaction between the opposing life and death drives, that is to say, the pleasure principle on the one hand, and the drive to return to an inorganic state, on the other: “The pleasure principle…is a tendency operating in the service of a function whose business it is to free the mental apparatus entirely from excitation or to keep the amount of excitation in it constant or to keep it as low as possible…it is clear that the function thus described would be concerned with the most universal endeavour of all living substance–namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world. We have all experienced how the greatest pleasure attainable by us, that of the sexual act, is associated with a momentary extinction of a highly intensified excitation…The pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts.” (Freud, 336-337, 338)

As we can see, Un Chien Andalou isn’t just a random jumble of vignettes, even if its creators insisted that it was. Like any great work of art, there are consistent themes to be explored: its surrealism merely means that one must be something of a psychoanalyst to uncover its secrets. Using free association, one looks at the freely given images and associates them to reveal the unconscious meanings within. 

…and what are those unconscious meanings? The interaction and unity of opposites: male/female, life/death, pleasure/pain, sex/violence, projection/introjection. I harp on the interconnection of opposites quite a lot, but that’s because in all this dialectical intermixing, we find a deeper truth, a truth that encapsulates everything. That universal truth is what makes films like Un Chien Andalou so great.

Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (The Pelican Freud Library, #7), Penguin Books, London, 1977

Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology; The Theory of Psychoanalysis (The Pelican Freud Library, #11), Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

Self-Soothing

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Healing from narcissistic abuse, as we know, is far from being a simple, straightforward process of going upwards to a peak of emotional peace. The way up is no straight, diagonal line; it’s rather a jagged, irregular climb, full of ups and downs, great moments of progress as well as setbacks.

When the moments of progress come, it’s easy to lapse back into a state of smug complacence, forgetting about the need to be always mindful of keeping up the work of self-care. Then a setback or frustration comes, without warning, of course, and we find ourselves feeling awful again.

This is why the regular practice of self-soothing is so important, even when…especially when…we’re having good moments. Those feelings of trauma that trigger us are typically hidden deep in the unconscious mind, the residue of old, painful childhood memories we’d rather forget, for obvious reasons.

The problem is that we can’t afford to forget and ignore them, because however hidden they may be, however unseen, they’re still there. The only way to heal this pain is to feel it. We have to bring it out of its hiding place, not pretend it isn’t there just because we don’t immediately see it.

If we’re going to self-soothe, we first need to acknowledge our inner pain.

What I’m saying here may seem a contradiction of what I wrote in this >> post, inspired by the Induction at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew; but what I wrote then should be put in its proper context. That post was meant only to offset our tendency to ruminate and brood excessively over our pain; it wasn’t meant to be used in isolation against other strategies for healing. The ‘Christopher Sly strategy,’ rather, can complement ideas such as this one I’m writing about here: when we think too much of our past, imagine it as a nightmare we’ve woken up from; when we try to ignore our past pain too much, self-soothe.

We need to make lists of all those painful experiences that trigger us and make us emotionally dysregulate; then we must visualize ourselves as children, being soothed by the kind words of those parents we should have had when we were kids.

In previous posts, I’ve written meditations/auto-hypnoses on how we can replace the bad internal objects that came from our abusive parents/families/ex-partners with new, good internalized objects of the kind of parents we should have had. We now can use these good parental imagos to soothe us when we’re anxious.

What will they say to soothe us? Well, we need to go back to those painful moments in the past, confront the situations vividly, then meditate on what our good, internalized parents/guides…whoever they would be for you…would say to us, to comfort us. It’s pretty obvious that they would say more or less the opposite of whatever our abusers said.

Think of those kind words you so deeply need to hear.

Try to imagine what you needed someone to say to you at the time. First, relax yourself as you would to get your mind in the right state for auto-hypnosis, so your mind will be the most receptive to hypnotic suggestion. (In the links I gave above, I described, step by step, how to get your whole body relaxed enough to be in a suggestible state.)

When you’re perfectly relaxed and feeling good, imagine your soothers facing you and looking at you lovingly. These people actually empathize with you, and will say comforting words to you to ease your anxiety and pain.

Here are some examples of what I imagine my good internal objects saying to me in my visualizations:

“Mawr, you aren’t anywhere near as clumsy as those awful people said you are. Everybody gets clumsy once in a while. That’s part of being human. Maybe you get clumsy a little more often than most people, but not all that much more often. It’s just that when you do, you beat yourself on the head about it. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Learn to forgive yourself.

“You are not a loser. You’re special. You’re beautiful, inside and out. You are none of those awful things that family said to you when you were a child. You’re strong, resilient, mature, and responsible. You’re also talented and gifted. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

“You don’t have ‘a bad attitude.’ They had a bad attitude towards you. The way they dealt with your maladaptive daydreaming was a perfect example of their bad attitude, for instead of getting you to stop doing it, their shaming of you only made you do more of it…

They have the problem, not you. Consider the source.

“…All those quirks and foibles of yours? Not at all something they should have been yelling and screaming at you about. You did not deserve to be cursed at for slamming doors, eating all the cereal, accidentally hurting the dog, or being slow to wash the dishes. There are ways to express frustration without behaving like a maniac.

“You are not abnormal. Your behaviour as a child, as problematic as it was sometimes, was actually a normal reaction to a dysfunctional family environment. Your actions were perfectly understandable, given what they were putting you through.

“You weren’t half as badly behaved as they made you out to be. Actually, you were the best-behaved of the family. You didn’t drop out of school and run away from home (my older brother, R.); you didn’t get drunk, drive your parents’ car and crash it into a telephone pole (my older brother, F.); you, as a teen, didn’t have parties, drinking beer and smoking pot, while your parents were away on vacation, nor did you get mixed up–however briefly, as a pre-teen–in shoplifting (F. and my older sister, J.); and you didn’t bring a partner (to your parents’) home for sex (J.).

“The only time you ever did anything that, from the family’s point of view, could be deemed seriously bad was when you refused to call your mother when she was on her deathbed…and even that was understandable, given how much she’d been provoking you, for thirteen years prior to her death.

“A family that subjects a child/teen/young adult to bullying, gaslighting, and other forms of emotional abuse has no claim to moral authority over you, no matter how much they may present themselves publicly as ‘good,’ ‘loving,’ and ‘upstanding.’ The surviving members of your family should get off their high horse, because bullies never have the moral high ground.

“Remember, Mawr, that unlike them, we are here for you whenever you need us. We love you, and we’ll always take care of you. Our collective spirit, as your internal guidance system, is right here inside you; just call on us, remember us, whenever you feel yourself to be in a troublesome situation.

“We know your true worth; they never did, because they never listened to you…but we always will.”

You, Dear Reader, will naturally want to tailor your choice of soothing words to your own, individual needs. I imagine you’ll use some of my words above, though, given how much the tactics and words of abusers have in common.

Along with the soothing words of your good internalized objects, there are other ways you can self-soothe. I recommend meditation: you don’t have to have this…or that, or any set of religious beliefs. The benefits of meditation for quietening the mind are well-known. As I’ve stated in previous posts, I’m fond of meditating on being at one with a cosmic unity I symbolize with an infinite ocean, what the Hindus call Brahman (though I personally am neither a Hindu nor an adherent to any religion). 

Once fully relaxed in the manner I’ve described in the links indicated above, your body vibrating in calm from your head to your toes, you should imagine those vibrations as oceanic waves, rising and falling, passing from one side of your body, flowing through you, and passing out the other side. Imagine your body as merged with, as one with, the universal ocean all around you, what I call the Unity of Space.

The mystical, unifying ocean.

I find those rolling waves to be delightfully soothing. It’s a nice feeling to feel connected with everything around you, no longer isolated and alone. Try to stay in the present moment as you meditate on your oneness with the mystical ocean. The Unity of Time, as I like to call it, isn’t only the eternal NOW, but also the cyclical eternity symbolized by the ouroboros.

That cyclical rhythm of eternity can be felt in the rising and falling waves, the crests of which represent our good times, and the troughs representing the bad. This cyclical movement back and forth, from one opposite to the other, up into crests…then down into troughs…then up into crests again, is what I call the Unity of Action, our reminder that neither good nor bad times last forever, a comforting meditation that we can practice regularly to soothe ourselves whenever we’re upset. 

Analysis of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie) is a 1972 French language surrealist film (with some Spanish) directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Jean-Claude Carrière. It stars Fernando Rey as Rafael Acosta, ambassador of the (fictional) Republic of Miranda. He and his upper middle class friends keep trying to have dinner together, but one form of ill fortune or another keeps thwarting their plans.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and was a hit with filmgoers in Europe and the US. As a surrealist film made by a communist director satirizing bourgeois hypocrisy, it can be seen as an example of a kind of Freudo-Marxism.

Here are some quotes in English translation:

“You’re better suited for making love than for making war.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

“Finally, if you think about it, the only solution to starvation and poverty is in the hands of the army. You’ll realize it in Miranda, when you have to open your pretty thighs to an infantry battalion.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

[the Senechals are preparing to make love. There is a knock at the door]

Henri Sénéchal: What is it?

Ines: The guests are here, sir.

Henri Sénéchal: Tell them we’ll be down. Serve them drinks.

Alice Sénéchal: They can wait five minutes. Come on.

Henri Sénéchal: No, no, not here. We can’t.

Alice Sénéchal: But why?

Henri Sénéchal: You scream too loud. You know it.

Henri Sénéchal: Any news from Miranda?

Rafael Acosta: Yes.

Henri Sénéchal: The situation?

Rafael Acosta: Quite calm.

Henri Sénéchal: And the guerrillas?

Rafael Acosta: There are a few left. They are a part of our folklore.

Alice Sénéchal: You have problems with the students?

Rafael Acosta: Students are young. They must have some fun.

Simone Thévenot: How’s your government treating them?

Rafael Acosta: We are not against the students, but what can you do with a room full of flies? You take a fly-swatter and Bang! Bang!

Colonel: Marijuana isn’t a drug. Look at what goes on in Vietnam. From the general down to the private, they all smoke.

Simone Thévenot: As a result, once a week they bomb their own troops.

Colonel: If they bomb their own troops, they must have their reasons.

Colonel: I didn’t know that chivalry still existed in your semi-savage country.

Rafael Acosta: Sir, you just insulted the Republic of Miranda!

Colonel: I don’t give a damn about the Republic of Miranda!

Rafael Acosta: And I shit on your entire army!

Peasant: Father? I want to tell you something.

Bishop Dufour: Then tell me, my child.

Peasant: I really don’t like Jesus Christ. Even as a little girl I hated him.

Bishop Dufour: Such a good, gentle God? How is it possible?

Peasant: Want to know why?

Bishop Dufour: Let me tend to this sick man first, then we’ll talk.

The opening credits are shown with a shot from the point of view of a chauffeur driving Rafael, the Thévenots, and Florence (Mme Thévenot’s younger sister) to the Sénéchals’ home at night. We see through the windshield the black of night and of the road.

They’re all going to a definite destination (though on the wrong night), driven by their chauffeur (i.e., a proletarian working for them). Contrast this with the sextet of bourgeois protagonists (three men–played by Rey, Paul Frankeur, and Jean-Pierre Cassel; and three women–played by Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran) sporadically seen walking down a lonely country road during the day, with no apparent destination. Without workers to help them, or the luxury of transportation, they seem aimless, almost helpless.

Twice in one night is their plan for dinner together thwarted: the first time because Rafael and his friends visit the Sénéchals on the wrong night, the night before the actual agreed dinner date (Henri is away on business); and the second, because they go to a disappointing restaurant (i.e., cheap food and void of diners, implying poor quality, which gives the five bourgeois no narcissistic supply; I’ve discussed elsewhere how close the link is between narcissism and capitalism) where they hear the moans of mourners for the recently deceased manager, whose body is in the next room. Their appetite ruined by such a disconcerting sight, the five of them immediately leave.

This recurring frustration of their plans to dine together gives them all a taste (pardon the pun) of what it is like to go without food–for the six of them, a brief inconvenience, but for the people of the Third World, this is an everyday reality.

The bourgeois sextet is confronted with the reality of human suffering (hunger, death, disease, aging); but they are never edified. Contrast this with the life story of Siddartha Gautama (how much of the traditional telling of the Buddha’s biography is myth, and how much is history, is irrelevant for our purposes; after all, this movie is fiction, too), who as a prince encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man, and thus was inspired to renounce his life of privilege and search for a way to end suffering.

Even the holy man who joins the six bourgeois is neither an inspiration nor himself inspired to righteousness. As contemptuous of the Church as Buñuel was of capitalism, here he takes every opportunity to show how hypocritical the priest is.

Suffering is seen in a variety of forms in this film, from the mildest inconvenience (as the six typically suffer) to the harshest pain (soldiers’ recounting of moments of the loss of loved ones in their lives…in dream or in reality; also, a woman leftist freedom fighter being abducted, and the six being murdered…though in Rafael’s dream). The Buddhist concept of dukkha encapsulates the whole gamut of suffering, from the mildest to the greatest. The whole problem of class is how the bourgeoisie tend to suffer far fewer of the greatest sorrows, on average, than the global proletariat do.

Buddhism links suffering with selfish desire, craving, or attachment, the fire to be blown out by nirvana. Accordingly, the third get-together to eat is thwarted by the sudden urge of Alice and Henri Sénéchal to have a quickie in their bedroom, and they’re about to get it on right when their guests have arrived. Afraid the guests will hear Alice’s squeals of pleasure, she and Henri opt for the absurd alternative of sneaking out the bedroom window, going into the bushes behind the house, and screwing there.

The two lovers have, in effect, subjected themselves–however briefly–to homelessness, rather like a comical version of what happens to King Lear in the play’s third act. Like the vain, proud king, these two bourgeois–examples of the modern version of royalty–would rather “feel what wretches feel” than be embarrassed before their peers.

They sneak back into their house, with pieces of grass in their hair and their clothes needing a few adjustments (reminding us of the untidiness of the homeless), and they’re annoyed to learn that the other four have left (out of a paranoid fear they’ve been found out by the police to be guilty of cocaine possession, as seen in a previous scene).

The priest appears to the Sénéchals, but dressed as a gardener, because he wishes to do this job for them. Looking like a working class type, he is thrown out of the house; then, back in his priest’s attire, he’s let back in and hypocritically apologized to. The well-off tend thus to judge people by their appearance.

The priest’s desire to be a gardener is an interesting one. He has been inspired by the gardener his late parents had when he was a boy; yet we also learn, by the end of the movie, that it was this beloved gardener who murdered the priest’s parents for having mistreated him while he was in their employ.

The priest’s wish to emulate the man who taught him gardening seems also to be a wish to be like other pious gardeners: Adam, before the Fall, and Candide, who in resisting Pangloss’s absurd attempts to rationalize the capricious ways of the world, knows that “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” We see here the hypocritical false modesty of the priest, who will kill the sick, aging, dying gardener for having killed his parents without ever having been brought to justice.

His change of attitude–from loving and identifying with the man who inspired a wish in him to be a gardener, to hating the man who killed his parents–seems too sudden. The priest must have made a vow, years ago, to kill his parents’ murderer if ever he found him. If my speculation of his commitment to revenge is correct (and this speculation is more than reasonable), it proves the priest’s hypocrisy, for his absolving the dying gardener is nothing more than an outward show of piety.

The choice of name for the fictional country of which Rafael is ambassador–Miranda–is an interesting one. It reminds me of Prospero‘s ingénue daughter, whom he–an imperialist colonizer of Caliban‘s island–jealously protects from the violation of lustful men like Caliban or (Prospero imagines) Ferdinand. Imperialist Rafael is to his country like Prospero: Miranda is like an innocent, virgin daughter being–in one scene–assailed and defiled with, to him, slanders of corruption, wealth inequality, and crime. 

Rafael thus is like any bourgeois who uses nationalism to deflect criticisms of imperialism and class conflict. At the final dinner, he even considers the epithet of ‘butcher’ given to a Nazi found in his country (one Rafael has personally met, also, and considers a gentleman) to be a tad extreme.

The presentation of a number of dreams in the film means we are going down Freud‘s “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious.” Buñuel’s dream, as wish-fulfillment, is clearly to have the bourgeoisie experience, if only briefly, some of the suffering of the poor: hunger, death, wrongs uncompensated for, humiliation, unjust imprisonment, and fury driving one to violence.

Since dreams lead us into the land of the unconscious, we also see, in the dreams of this film, the inner workings of the unconscious, including unconscious ego defence. This is seen when, as stated above, Rafael is pressured into defending the honour of his country from criticism after criticism, each of which gets more and more intolerable, until Rafael curses at, then shoots, the Colonel (Claude Piéplu). 

M. Thévenot, however, wakes from the dream, not Rafael. This doesn’t matter for the purposes of my analysis, since national differences don’t so much matter to the ruling classes: only the protection of their class interests does. Nationalism, as I mentioned above, is only useful as a deflection of our attention from class war. Thus, it doesn’t matter if a bourgeois from Miranda or one from France has had the dream, and has thus been unconsciously using defence mechanisms against criticisms of Miranda. A bourgeois is a bourgeois, no matter who he is or what country he’s from, for all capitalist countries share Miranda’s vices, to at least some extent, and all bourgeois share the same class interests.

There are the dreams of the bourgeois and there are also those of the common man, the soldier, as in the case of the sergeant’s dream, which he describes when the Colonel and his army interrupt the six bourgeois’ dinner. The sergeant dreams of walking about the streets of what seems to be almost a ghost town, its emptiness (save two men and his mother, with each of whom he chats briefly) and shadows suggesting the desolation that war causes. The first man he chats with, Ramirez, leaves him to enter a store to buy something, but when the soldier goes in later, the interior looks abandoned and dilapidated, again suggesting war’s desolation. We also learn that Ramirez has been dead for the past six years, just as his mother has been long dead. War benefits the bourgeois, but it tears away, from us ordinary people, all of those we care about.

The sergeant then goes back out on the streets, searching for (and not finding) his mother. The other soldiers, Colonel, and six bourgeois listening to the narration of the dream all suggest Buñuel’s wish-fulfillment that the ruling classes would actually listen to, and empathize with, the desires and needs of the ordinary working man.

This fulfillment of the wish for people’s pain to be heard and cared about happens at another point, earlier in the film, when a young lieutenant joins the three bourgeois women’s table in a café (where…alas! there’s only water to be served) to tell them his tragic life story. His story involves his Oedipal longing for his mother, who appears as a ghost, and tells him (when he’s an eleven-year-old boy about to be sent to a strict military school) his severe male guardian isn’t his biological father, but actually his father’s murderer. The boy then gets his revenge by poisoning the man’s milk, which he drinks at night, then dies in bed.

Since the soldier has still gone to military school (the boy’s listing from side to side as he goes from the study of his strict guardian to his mother’s bedroom, his hands touching the furniture and walls in the hallway, suggests his dislike of any form of discipline), and since his story of seeing his mother’s ghost sounds improbable, it seems safe to assume that the poisoning is more wish-fulfillment, a variant of Freud’s family romance.

The boy’s writing “Maman, je t’…(aime) with her lipstick on the dresser mirror suggests a fusion of the Oedipus complex with Lacan‘s mirror stage: the boy’s reflected False Self in a military uniform is wished to be an illusion; and his reunion with his mother’s ghost, and his learning that his real father is a different, presumably kinder man (this would be what Melanie Klein called the ‘good father’ versus the ‘bad father’) seem to be illusions. And if the man poisoned was the boy’s real father, then we see in this murder the fulfilled Oedipal wish to remove the father, so the boy can have his mother.

On several occasions, we hear the sound of an airplane flying overhead (also, loud typing on one occasion, and on another, a siren) and drowning out the sound of people speaking. What is said is something the bourgeois don’t wish to be heard (the woman ‘terrorist’ discussing Mao, a corrupt politician explaining to the police why the six bourgeois are to be released from jail after being charged, rightly, with cocaine trafficking). The sounds of the airplane, siren, etc., are surrealistically heard at high volumes in indoor places, again suggesting the wish-fulfillment of the non-rational unconscious in dreams, all for the convenience of the bourgeoisie.

Here again, we see the conscious and unconscious manifestations of ego defence. Ego psychology shows us how defence mechanisms, like denial or splitting, sometimes have to be unconscious to avoid detection during therapy. The guilty bourgeois would especially like to keep their secrets undisclosed…including drug trafficking (of which, incidentally, another character played by Rey, only a year earlier in The French Connection, was guilty).

As explained in Freud and Beyond: a History of Psychoanalytic Thought, “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way…unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

Now, there is the life instinct, Eros, expressed by the six bourgeois’ desire to eat and drink socially (being together is an example of their object-seeking–and Fairbairn insisted we all, at our core, seek objects, that is, other people to connect with–and object-seeking is also what the lieutenant, telling the three bourgeois women in the café about his sad life, is doing), as well as in their libido (Alice and Henri screwing in the bushes; Rafael wanting to screw Mme. Thévenot behind her husband’s back). But there’s also Thanatos, the death drive.

Not all dreams are wish-fulfillments, as Freud finally admitted (Freud, page 304) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he dealt with such issues as the death drive and “the compulsion to repeat” (in the film, there’s the compulsion to repeat the futile attempt to dine together). There’s the urge to put others to death (Rafael, when he shoots the Colonel in M. Thévenot’s dream; the bishop, shooting the gardener; the boy cadet, poisoning his step-father; and Rafael, shooting at the clockwork animal toys of, as well as pointing a pistol at, the leftist woman from Miranda), and there’s also the unconscious drive to bring about one’s own death, as seen in Rafael’s dream of the gunmen shooting all six bourgeois.

Both pleasure and death bring about a relaxation of tension, or of excitation (Freud, page 276), though in opposing ways, like the ouroboros biting its tail, the head and tail symbolizing meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Death’s relaxation of that tension (“To die, to sleep,–/ No more”) is similar to nirvana, a state of bliss that negates all forms of existence, or paradoxically, of non-existence.

The social bourgeois dinner ought to be thwarted: not only so the ruling classes can begin to understand what it is to go hungry; but also because their every get-together is a façade, a performance of hypocritical, sanctimonious morality. It’s theatre, as literally displayed when the six think they’re dining chez the Colonel, but find themselves on a stage. This phoniness–as shown in them giving a glass of champagne to their chauffeur (then sneering at him, a mere uneducated commoner), disapproving of the smoking of marijuana while dealing in cocaine, asking about the maid’s ex-fiancé who dumped her for being too old (as if the six even care), discussing how Rafael’s sun sign, Pisces–Sagittarius ascendant, reveals his ‘virtues’–is the essence of, sarcastically expressed, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

I’m no Buddhist, but I think we can gain a few insights here and there from the philosophy. Instead of our endless ego defence, which tends in a narcissistic direction, we need to be selfless, abandoning the illusion of an ego. To end the suffering of humanity, we need to end the selfish lust not only for sex, but also for money, especially the money that is gained by addicting people to superficial forms of gratification, like porn, or the cocaine in the film. Giving up on the self means especially giving up on the narcissistic False Self, the person we think we see as ourselves in the mirror. 

Instead of aching and griping about our own inconveniences, we need to feel compassion for the sufferings of others, to listen when they try to tell us what’s hurting them, as the soldiers do. But we should really listen, not just pretend to, as the six bourgeois do. When we can do this, we can really break out of the chains the bourgeoisie has put us all in. For compassion, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, is what love is all about.

As Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Love will be a road that we as comrades can walk on together, leading to a definite destination, not as the bourgeois, who look foolish walking along a country road to nowhere.

Consider the Source

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

One of the strange ironies of my life is how the person who caused me the worst psychological damage in terms of subjecting me to an ongoing, lifetime campaign of emotional abuse–namely, my mother–also occasionally gave me invaluable advice.

You see, as awful as she was a mother in general, it would be wrong to say she was awful in an absolute sense. As I’ve argued before, no abuser can afford to be so 24/7, for the victim would quickly wise up, get sick of the abuse, and get out of the relationship. The genuine evil of traumatic bonding is in the abuser giving a cunning mixture of ‘love’ and viciousness.

As I’ve also argued elsewhere, there is a dialectical relationship between opposites, whereby one opposite has a paradoxical way of intensifying the other: I show this relationship through the symbolism of the ouroboros, for me representing a circular continuum where one extreme (the serpent’s biting head) meets its opposite extreme (the bitten tail), and every intermediate point between the extreme opposites lies along the coiled body of the serpent.

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The ouroboros.

Such a relationship is also manifested in the abuser’s occasional moments of kindness, as was the case with my probably narcissistic late mother. If my elder brothers R. and F., my elder sister J., and I gave our mother the narcissistic supply she craved, she would be nice to us; if we failed to give that supply, or dared refuse it to her, she’d give us hell.

A fault of mine (in the context of the dynamics of this family, it could only be deemed a fault) is my tendency to place truth before tact. But even I gave Mom what she wanted sometimes, and she would ‘reward’ me accordingly.

I’ll give a few examples of when I got these ‘rewards.’ Once during a class in high school, I’d been made fun of in front of my laughing classmates, and I complained to Mom about it. She said, “Consider the source,” with a disapproving look meant for the kid who’d mocked me.

She was getting narcissistic supply from being the bearer of good advice, as she had on another occasion when I was working at McDonald’s in my early twenties. The staff and I went out on a group activity involving swimming and other water sports. I, having no interest in such activities, but wanting to be sociable with them on some level at least, chose to be the oddball that I was and bring my acoustic guitar to play. (Since I was terrible at the job and not well-liked as a person there, I wanted them to see that I at least had some ability at something.)

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If your playing is OK, why would your abuser hate it…unless he envied you? His envy needn’t make you doubt your own abilities, however great or small they may actually be.

One nasty fellow among the staff decided that my strumming and finger-picking was  ludicrous to see and hear, so he talked about this scene in Animal House. I continued playing: he imagined I was too stupid to understand his implied threat; actually, he was too stupid to understand my implied defiance of that threat.

Nonetheless, I felt hurt by his meanness, and when I went home, I told my mom about it. She immediately replied by saying he was envious of my musical ability. I felt better instantly, this being one of the minority of times Mom actually said something that made me feel good about myself. Again, I’d been told by my mother to consider the source.

Now, as good as she was to say this to me those two times, consideration should have also been given to her as a source, that is, on the majority of times when her words were anything but a comfort to my sorrows.

Her pointing out his envy of my musical abilities, I believe, was also an indirect indication of her own envy, gladly projected onto him. I’ve discussed her envy, as a manifestation of her narcissism, in this post, in which I also point out that this envy should not be seen as me tooting my own horn about my abilities (which are actually quite minor in the realm of music), but rather her envy of any ability at all in others.

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Your abuser’s disparaging attitude is a reflection of himself, NOT of you.

Furthermore, I have to consider her as a source when contemplating all the awful things she did to me: 1) lying that I have autism, which she, significantly, described using the language of narcissism; 2) indulging R., F., and J.’s bullying of me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood; 3) her explosive anger at me, generally over trifles; 4) continuing the autism lie by fabricating a ‘diagnosis’ of Asperger Syndrome (AS); 5) being selective about when it was ‘OK’ for me to fly from Taiwan to Canada to visit the family…and when it wasn’t OK; 6) bad-mouthing my cousins and claiming one of them might have AS, implying that she’d been bad-mouthing me to R., F., and J. my whole life; 7) refusing to help my other cousin S., when he’d manifested signs of mental instability (implying, as with the AS b.s., that the mentally ill have a vice to be despised–they’re not afflicted people to show compassion for); and 8) telling me a string of seven lies about S. and his mother, the summer before Mom died of cancer, to stir up more rancour between members of the family she was supposed to have ‘loved’ so much.

Indeed, what kind of a mother stirs up so much bad feeling, needless bad feeling, in her own family? Does a loving mother work so tirelessly to divide family members, isolate individual members, and lie so indulgently? Do those occasional words of comfort described above come anywhere close to compensating?

Significantly, the AS lie came up during the early 2000s, when I, having already lived in Taiwan for about seven years, was setting up roots here (i.e., she’d be losing control over me). I doubt that Mom’s timing was a mere coincidence. As the identified patient, the scapegoat, of the family, I’d been set up to lose (so they wouldn’t have to feel like losers themselves); but as a successful English teacher here, about to marry a local girl and get a permanent resident certificate, I didn’t lose. That’s why Mom had to make me believe I have AS, so I could continue ‘to be a loser’ for the rest of my life!

I’m reminded of a scene from an episode from that old TV series, WKRP in Cincinnati, when the DJ, Dr. Johnny Fever, learns that Lillian Carlson–the mean, domineering, and (safe-to-assume) narcissistic mother of General Manager Arthur Carlson–doesn’t want her son’s radio station to make profits (so she can get a tax break). The DJ is shocked at the businesswoman’s reptilian attitude. How would her son feel to know that this is what she was hoping for his career?

My parents owned and managed a pancake house restaurant, Smitty’s, back in the 1980s, and both of them had the same capitalist mentality as Lillian, this mentality being something I’ve linked with narcissism. Along with the tendency to exploit workers is the capitalist’s tendency to alienate people, something my parents excelled at, inside and outside the family. I’ve elsewhere gone into not only how psychoanalysis can give insights into the nature of narcissism (especially parents with the disorder), but also into what I speculate to be the origins of my late mother’s pathology.

An important thing to remember is that you, as an individual, are not some isolated, static, and self-generating entity (narcissistic abusers, in their wish to blame the victim, like to have you believe your problems are self-generated, as opposed to having come from them). You are the accumulation of psychic vibes you’ve gotten from others, just as other people are accumulations of vibes from each other (and partly from you, too, of course). This exchange of vibes comes not only from projection, introjection, and identification, but also from projective identification, a concept devised by Melanie Klein and developed by Wilfred Bion (i.e., his notion of ‘container’ and ‘contained’).

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What the abuser ‘sees’ in his victims is just something internal…and unacceptable…that he throws out, in an attempt to be rid of what he hates to see in himself.

All those despicable traits your abusers have dumped on you are just a projection of their own problems, something they’ve manipulated you into believing is yours, so they can kid themselves into thinking they’ve rid themselves of those problems. Now, you can rid yourself of problems that weren’t yours to begin with, for we victims of emotional abuse have the right to rid ourselves of the impurities put into our minds, those bad internalized objects that should never have been put into us.

Always consider the source.

‘Slutlips,’ a Surreal, Psychological Horror Story: Chapter Seven

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[NOTE: this is the seventh chapter (click here for the first, here for the second, here for the third, here for the fourth, here for the fifth, and here for the sixth) of a psychological horror story based on an audio film of the same name by my musician friend, Cat Corelli, something I wrote up an analysis for; you can learn more about that here. Before you begin reading, though, TRIGGER WARNING: as a horror story, this one has some graphic content of a violent and sexual nature; so if you’re one of my readers with C-PTSD or other forms of psychological trauma, you may want to skip this one. As for you braver souls, though, read on…]

Alice woke up…or did she?

She found herself in the hotel room again. The radio was off.

I don’t remember turning off the radio last time, she thought.

She got up, saw herself in the mirror, and the waves of her ego’s uncertainty flattened–somewhat–when she saw her image in the reflection. She sighed in relief at it.

She turned on the radio. Agent Curtis and Inspector Trudeau were chatting…again, why on a radio program, instead of in a crime lab, or something?

“It seems to be a dead end, Agent,” Trudeau said.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Curtis said. “I’ve got a feeling the killer will show up again.”

“Dropping bodies,” Trudeau said.

Dropping bodies, she thought. Bodies, dropping down rabbit holes, dropping into seas of dismembered body parts, dropping into black, downward spirals…

“Still, we’ll get out of this dead end only if there is another killing,” Trudeau said.

“There will be,” Curtis said. “Killers always drop bodies. That’s what they do.”

“But what if the killer isn’t quite a killer?” Trudeau asked.

Yeah! she thought. Maybe I never killed anyone. Maybe the drugs made me hallucinate the whole thing.

“Interesting theory, Inspector,” Curtis said.

“Right,” Trudeau said. “Very strange world.”

“Whew,” she sighed. “I’m safe.”

“.ecilA, pu ekaW,” a familiar female voice said.

“What?” Alice said with a jolt going through her body. “Am I still dreaming?”

“.ecilA er’uoy kniht llits uoY”

“But I am, aren’t I?” Alice’s vision blurred, then faded. Her body began dropping into that black spiral again.

“.t’nera uoy ,oN”

As those black coils spun around her dropping body, she saw a hole in the left side, a kind of window looking into a mental hospital. She saw Daniel Torrance, strapped to a bed, receiving a sedative from a nurse. He was struggling to break free of his bonds. He was screaming.

“Stop it!” he screamed in his faux German accent. “Stop it!” His body switched back and forth between his and Goebbels’. “Please, stop it! Please!” Then he slumped down on the bed.

“The sedative doesn’t work that fast,” the nurse said to a psychiatrist standing next to her. “Could he have had a heart attack?”

“Could be,” the psychiatrist said. The hole in the side of the spiral closed up.

Alice smiled as she continued falling. Daddy, she thought. Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

“.thgir lla, hguorht er’uoy ,hO”

Lily suddenly woke up, crying. She was lying on a raft with endless water all around her, as far as the eye could see…no land in sight. The waves moved in gentle rises and falls. A fog hovered over her, greying the sky everywhere. She was in her pyjamas, with a blanket over her.

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I…”

“What is it, Lily?” a familiar female voice echoed from the depths of the fog.

“I thought sleep would do it,” Lily said. “To die, to sleep…would help me escape.”

“What’s wrong?” asked the voice.

“I don’t know who I am.”

“You’re Lily.”

“No, I’m not. I’m Alice. I’ll show you. It’s in my purse…wait, where is it?” She looked down at her body, recognizing that of a flat-chested girl instead of that of curvy Alice. “Why…why am I in Lily’s body?”

“Because you are Lily.”

“What about Alice?” Lily looked at herself in the water. She saw Lily’s face distorted in the moving waves.

“There was no Alice. There never was an Alice. She was just a role you played. A false self. You’d played that part for so many years, you forgot it was just a role. You thought you liked being a ‘slut’…to protect yourself from the pain. But you were always Lily.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do, Lily. Deep, deep down inside. You’ve just repressed it for so long. But here’s the thing: you can’t keep the truth away, no matter how hard you try. All of your attempts to present yourself as a ‘metal chick’ and a ‘slut’ are just armour to keep the truth from you.”

“And what is this ‘truth’?”

“‘Alice’ is a role your parents and uncle forced you to play in the series of child pornography videos they were making and selling.”

Lily’s eyes and mouth widened. She shuddered.

“You mean, my…mom…made me do it, too? I don’t remember her at all.” She got dizzy.

“I know,” the Mystery Girl said. “Her betrayal of you was so painful, you had to blot all memory of her out of your mind. The only trace of her remaining was a likeness to the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Lily broke down and cried. “Oh, my God!”

“Your tormentors all played roles, too, in those awful movies,” the Mystery Girl said. “Your father sometimes dressed up in lederhosen with you in a dirndl, sometimes he wore a Nazi uniform while doing a bad imitation of a German accent, sometimes he dressed as a Protestant minister while blaming you for tempting him into sin. Your Uncle Ray sometimes wore a cowboy hat and did an even worse imitation of a southern accent; sometimes he wore blackface and pretended he was Morgan Freeman. It would have been laughable, had it not been so horrifying, what they did to all of us.”

“To all of us?” Lily sobbed. “You mean, you were a part of it?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Daisy, or I used to be Daisy, the girl you saved. I’m her spirit.”

“Wait; if I ‘saved’ you, why are you a ghost?”

“Well, you saved me and you didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“You saved me from being used in their porno films, but they murdered me. Still, you had me die a virgin rather than raped, so that’s saving me enough, as I see it.”

“Wait…it’s all coming back to me…”

A flurry of memories flashed by Lily’s eyes: Donald and Ray Terence (for those were their real names) making teenage Lily get tattoos, dye her hair a devil red, and wear ‘metal chick’ clothes to make her look ‘Satanic’ in the porn films; Donald and Ray becoming ‘born again Christians,’ but keeping their underage porn business alive, as Donald’s wife, Wanda, insisted on keeping the money rolling in from their pervert clients; the ‘born again Christians’ reconciling their would-be faith to their crimes by making scapegoats of Lily and the other boys and girls they raped as Wanda filmed it on her smartphone.

“I remember now,” Lily said with a waterfall of tears soaking her cheeks. “Mommy found you chatting with Bunny about Stan in a café. She said you looked like ‘actress material.’ I know because I was there. Because you and I were classmates at school, I wanted to warn you and stop her, but I couldn’t–they had that much power over me.

“I gave Uncle Roy–er, Ray an overdose of sleeping pills in his bourbon one night several years ago; I wrote a suicide note, imitating his handwriting (for I’d practiced writing in his hand many times on scrap paper, then hid the drafts, for I didn’t dare throw them out; Mommy watched everything going in and out of the house like a hawk).

“In my wish to save your innocence, I now decided to use the same fake suicide plan on Daddy…but Mom found all my drafts, and realized what I’d done and was planning.”

“Yes,” Daisy’s ghost said. “Wanda found all those scraps of paper, with imitations of Donald’s as well as Ray’s handwriting. Your mom and dad were so infuriated, they went wild with thoughtless rage, and got a murderous revenge on you.”

“They gave me a choice: let Daddy rape you on camera, or he’d kill both of us. I figured him raping you was like murder, as I’d died every time he and Uncle Ray raped me,…”

“You chose death for us, your mom shouted, “Off with their heads!”, and we were killed, our bodies dismembered, driven all the way from South Dakota to the Oregon and California coasts, then thrown into the ocean, with the body parts of a few other boy and girl victims.”

“Yes,” Lily sighed, noting a leak in her raft. It started to rain. “I can sense the whole thing now, as if I’d witnessed it in life…I’m in the spirit world with you, aren’t I?”

“Of course,” Daisy said. “You’ve been here the whole time, since your dream about going from your ‘apartment’ to the dance club. Here, in the dreamland of the collective unconscious, where ghosts have access to all the knowledge–however garbled it may be shown to us–of the world, including knowing what happened to us after we were killed.”

“No wonder everything I’ve seen is so fucked up,” Lily said. “It’s all been like a dream.”

“Yeah, and I have to comment frankly on your parents,” Daisy said. “Dumping our bodies in the Pacific Ocean was such a stupid thing to do. The police could easily trace the murders to your parents. In fact, Donald and Wanda are being arrested as we speak.”

“Daddy always was a moron,” Lily said. Her body began dropping slowly into the water. The rain was coming down harder. “So, I’m dead?”

“Yes, Lily. You have to face the facts. It’s time to let go. Let go of your ego, and your suffering will end.”

“I’m afraid.” She was up to her waist in water. The rain was coming down so heavily, there seemed to be more rain than air.

“Don’t be afraid, Lily. The pain will go away as soon as you fully let go of your desire to be alive. Let go, be one with everything, and you’ll finally have peace.”

The water was approaching her shoulders now.

Everything Flows

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Everything flows, like the rippling waves of a river.

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

As I’ve written before here on this blog, in the middle of our healing journey we have a tendency to backslide when times are good (crests of the waves of life), and forget to be mindful in our need to keep on working on our self-care, writing therapy, meditations, etc. Then the bad times flow back, those troughs on life’s waves, and we’re unprepared.

Just as the bad times don’t last, neither do the good times. The good flow into the bad, then the bad into the good, like the waves of the ocean. We have to embrace change, as it exists everywhere, at all times.

Heraclitus, famous for saying, “Everything flows,” was one of many philosophers throughout history, across cultures, who recognized change as an inevitability, as well as the unifying shift from any one opposite to the other.

Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on,/Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in,” said Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching (58). “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,” (Matthew 5:4) says Jesus in the Beatitudes. Fortune and misfortune flow back and forth into each other in a cyclical Unity of Action, as do health and ill health.

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Opposites are unified, like yin and yang. The one flows into the other.

I discussed impermanence, and the crests of good luck flowing into the troughs of bad luck, in my analysis of Moby-Dick. As we try to heal our pain, we must guard against the sentimentality of thinking that there will ever be a flow from sadness to everlasting happiness. There is a never-ending dialectical swing back and forth between all things, including good and bad luck.

There’s also a dialectic between health and ill health. About a week before the publishing of this post, someone read this post of mine and, apparently misunderstanding my meaning when I wrote of being ‘a little too healthy,’ thought what I’d written made no sense. (Another reader stopped at about the third paragraph because she had no idea what I was talking about. I admit, that post was a little too abstract for its own good.)

The quotations around ‘too healthy’ were put there on purpose, for I never meant the idea to be taken at face value. By ‘too healthy,’ I meant the smug overconfidence, complacency, and sense of entitlement we may feel when things are going a little too conveniently for us.

True health is a proper balance of bliss and pain. We all have pain: even the healthiest of people do. Happiness isn’t the absence of pain; it’s having the emotional tools, if you will, to deal with pain. People who are ‘too healthy,’ that is, too comfortable, often aren’t emotionally prepared when the bad times come–then they slip into suffering.

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“Misery!–happiness is to be found by its side! Happiness!–misery
lurks beneath it!” (Tao Te Ching, 58)

So as all opposites are in some sense combined or intermixed, so are emotional health and ill health. The healthiest of people experience pain, sorrow, and unresolved frustrations. The mentally unhealthy also use their delusions to shield themselves from greater pain: this is not to say that using their delusions in this way is a good idea, of course, but just that their disconnect with reality is an attempt–however foolish–to protect themselves; it serves a psychological purpose, however dysfunctional it may be.

To use an example from fiction, Norman Bates deludes himself from the overwhelming, unbearable pain of confronting his murder of his mother, by imagining she’s still alive…even to the point of giving her half of his life, speaking for her, dressing up as her, having her personality in his mind. This delusion in no way cures him of his madness, of course–it only intensifies it in the long run; but the delusion does allow him, at least in the short term, to be able to function socially. In this way, we can see the admixture of ‘health’ (<<note the quotes, please) into ill health.

Sigmund and Anna Freud detailed all the defence mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from anxiety and guilt. Many, if not most of these (repression, denial, projection, reaction formation, fantasy, intellectualization, displacement, turning against oneself, rationalization, etc.) aren’t very mature, and certainly aren’t in themselves healthy. But they do serve a purpose in helping people pull themselves together, and to keep them from falling apart; otherwise, we’d never use them. As hypocritical as most of them make us, we do need them to function in society.

Even something as odious and poisonous as pathological narcissism is a defence against psychological fragmentation and disintegration, a falling apart and losing of one’s mind, as Otto Kernberg pointed out. Certainly, Heinz Kohut believed that, in the transference, a temporary indulgence of narcissistic patients’ grandiosity and idealizations is necessary before ridding them of their pathological aspects, through transmuting internalization.

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Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna, who both wrote about ego defence mechanisms.

We suffer pain because we imagine states of being to persist in more or less permanent forms. We need to be mindful, as the Buddhists are, of the one and only permanent state of being: change. Happiness and sorrow flow into each other like the waves of the ocean.

People indulge in porn, drinking, sexual promiscuity, and drugs as a way to experience a brief high of ‘happiness’ to stave off dealing with their real problem: sadness–loneliness. People gain “neurotic dividends,” as (if I remember correctly) Wayne W. Dyer called them in Your Erroneous Zones, by engaging in dysfunctional behaviour because that’s easier than coping with life. This is the ‘health’ in ill health, the ‘happiness’ in sadness.

I’d like to propose another idea for coping with sadness, an idea I got from Richard Grannon in his “Silence the Inner Critic” course: just make yourself feel good for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Do we need to have a reason for feeling good?

I know, I know: at first glance, this sounds like a silly idea. Hear me out, please.

Say the quote below to yourself regularly, regardless of your actual mood, and say it with vigorous body movements, to help you feel it–because you have to try to feel it as well as say it: “I am assuming control of my physical, mental, and emotional state…and I feel good! I feel good…because I should! I feel good because being in a good psychological state helps me to function better in life, to handle my difficulties and challenges better. Indeed, I feel good for absolutely no reason whatsoever. I feel good because, even though I could be going through the worst of calamities now, feeling good can help me pull out of the trough I’m in, and bring me up faster to a crest of good times. And if I do have reason to feel good now, well, that’s all the easier for me.”

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Striving to go from a long face to a smile, from troughs of sadness to crests of happiness.

Again, I know what you’re thinking, Dear Reader: easier said than done. I sympathize with you, especially if you’re going through Hell right now, and I agree that it’s hard to do this if, say, you’re in hospital, sick as a dog, depressed, going through emotional flashbacks, crying because someone verbally abused you, etc. I’ve been in many bad situations when, had I heard such sunny advice, I’d want to tell the speaker to f— right off, too.

But consider the more habitual reaction to such troubles: seriously, will moping in hopelessness help you any better? Will escaping into drugs, drinking, or porn?

When I say, ‘feel good for no reason whatsoever,’ I’m not talking about deluding yourself into thinking that everything’s fine when it so obviously isn’t; I’m talking about how you choose to react to your troubles. A hopeful mindset will help you deal with those very real sorrows much better than a pessimistic one will, because you’ll be in a better emotional state to think–with clarity–of a solution to your problems.

Consider the philosophy of Epictetus: we cannot control what happens outside of us (including our bodily ailments), but we can control how we choose to feel about it (i.e., we must give up our attachment to material possessions, a good reputation, a reliance on fortunate events, etc.). I’m not saying that by affirming happy feelings, we’ll make all our sorrows magically go away, in the blink of an eye; I’m saying that we can learn to bear what we suffer better by focusing on what we can control–our feelings.

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Epictetus.

As I’ve conceptualized this issue before: the problem is the thesis; the solution is the antithesis, or negation of the problem; and the long and winding road from the problem to the solution is the sublation, the resolution of the contradiction, the unity between the opposites of problem/solution that shows there’s no difficulty that’s utterly cut off from a way out of it.

We cannot solve our problems by getting upset. The best thing to do–to express my proposed solution in another way–is first to regather our forces (what I’d consider to be those good, encouraging internalized objects I wrote about having been put inside our minds through self-hypnosis), then to take a deep, relaxing breath, then to work out a rational solution to our problem (thesis/negation/sublation).

So, the waves go down into a trough (the problem, or thesis), then they rise (sublation) into a solution (the negation of the problem). Now, that sublated solution will dip into a new problem to be sublated again…and this will happen again and again, ad infinitum. These cycles can be compared to the rolling ocean’s waves, or to the cycle of eternity that is the ouroboros, as I’ve written about so many times before.

The point is that whatever is troubling you now–your current trough–is something that will flow upwards into a crest…of some kind or another. So even if this thought experiment (‘feel good for no reason whatsoever’) doesn’t work for you, at least remember that whatever your problem is, this, too, will pass. All troubles come and go, as do moments of joy. Watch those moving waves of fortune, be patient, endure, and in one form or another, the troughs will change back into crests…which in turn will become troughs, then crests, troughs, crests…

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Panta rhei: ‘everything flows.’

C’est la vie.

Analysis of ‘Moby-Dick’

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Mocha Dick, the real-life whale that inspired Melville’s tale.

I) Introduction and Quotes

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The story is about Captain Ahab‘s mad quest for a huge albino whale, which bit off his leg in a previous attempt to kill it by his crew of harpooners. The story is narrated by a young man, the orphan Ishmael, the sole survivor of Ahab’s second attempt to kill the white whale.

Though the novel got a mixed reception on its original publication, its critical reputation grew over the 20th century, and it’s now considered the preeminent American novel, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Moby-Dick deals with such profound philosophical issues as epistemology and the nature of ultimate reality, evil, nature, etc., as symbolized by the whale and the ocean.

Here are some famous quotes:

Loomings (1)

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning…we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

The Spouter-Inn (3)

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The Sermon (9)

“…all the things God would have us do are hard for us to do…if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” –Father Mapple

The Mast-Head (35)

“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer‘s sprinkled pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

The Quarter-Deck (36)

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” –Ahab

“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” –Ahab

Moby-Dick (41)

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.”

The Whiteness of the Whale (42)

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls…with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

The Fossil Whale (104)

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin (109)

“Let Ahab beware of Ahab.”

The Pacific (111)

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

The Chase–Third Day (135)

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” –Ahab

Epilogue

“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.”

“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

II) Search for Truth

 

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Ishmael’s extracts, supplied by a sub-sub-librarian.

There is a preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of everything in Ishmael’s narrative, as we can see from his discussing all matters pertaining to the whale (a pun on whole; and Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the more terrifying aspects of ultimate reality). Recall ‘Etymology,’ which gives a list of whale in various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon (WHOEL), Danish (HVALT), Dutch (WAL), Swedish (HWAL), etc. Note also “Cetology,” chapter 32, as well as Ishmael’s many digressions into philosophical matters.

I believe this search for truth is his reason, in a symbolic sense, for tiring of the land and wanting to return to the sea; for the waves of the ocean represent that fluid reality of rises and dips (i.e., in fortune) that we all experience everywhere in life. Reality isn’t in the things in the water, like the whales that are caught: it’s in the water itself. The preoccupation with catching those things is what causes our suffering…as it does Ahab.

III) Ishmael and Queequeg: From Foes to Friends

Queequeg

Ishmael has to share a room, at the Spouter-Inn, with Queequeg, a Polynesian pagan harpooner. Their meeting at night, with Ishmael sleeping in Queequeg’s bed, is hostile at first, since the latter isn’t expecting a roommate.

Soon, the two become good friends (Chapter 10, ‘A Bosom Friend’), the two even sharing in each other’s form of worship; for Ishmael bows with Queequeg before the latter’s idol (Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend”, pages 67-68), and Queequeg attends Father Mapple‘s church service with Ishmael (Chapter 7–“The Chapel,” page 52; though Queequeg leaves some time before the benediction–Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend,” page 64).

Christian Ishmael and pagan Queequeg are opposites who, though clashing at first, soon learn not only to accept each other’s differences, but even participate in the opposite’s ways. Their relationship thus demonstrates the dialectical relationship between opposites, something Ahab can never learn do with Moby Dick.

IV) Mapple’s Sermon

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The Chapel

During Father Mapple’s sermon, which the preacher gives on a pulpit designed like a ship (for his sermons are his way of edifying his “shipmates,” his steering of the boat on the ocean of life, so to speak), he discusses the events written of in the Book of Jonah.

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), for he didn’t want to obey God and preach to the sinful people of Nineveh. We tend to think of the “great fish” as a whale, though of course a whale–being a mammal–is no fish. Melville’s narrative, while acknowledging Linnaeus‘ reference to, among other distinctions, the whale’s “feminam mammis lactantem,” still insists that a whale is a fish (Chapter 32–“Cetology,” pages 139-140), linking Jonah’s story thematically with Moby Dick; for Ishmael calls upon “holy Jonah” as his authority on the matter.

Jonah’s “three days and three nights” of terror “in the belly of the fish” transform him from a rebellious sinner into an obedient servant of God, a dialectical shift from the hell of the bitten tail of the ouroboros to the heaven of its biting head. Transformative moments like these, like a harrowing of hell, make saints out of sinners. Ahab will never make that change, for he forever hates the white whale, even in death.

V) Melville’s Critique of Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

When Father Mapple says that in obeying God, we must disobey ourselves, Melville is using the preacher as his mouthpiece to criticize the Transcendentalists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, with his essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.” In the former essay, Emerson wrote of the apparent divinity of the individual soul, which should be relied upon to the exclusion of accepting any advice from the all-too-conforming community.

The danger of such self-reliance is how it can lead to egotism, narcissism, and contempt for the rights and feelings of others. Ahab personifies self-reliance taken to such foolish extremes, for he ignores Starbuck’s warnings and criticisms, and gets his whole crew killed (save Ishmael) at the end.

Emerson’s “Over-Soul” gives a philosophical, quasi-mystical rationalization of this self-reliance, for this “self” is seen as divinely similar to Atman. Emerson had read translations of such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita; texts such as these include such doctrines as Atman being equal to Brahman, Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the unifying soul in all life and in all things.

The problem with Emerson’s interpretation of these Hindu ideas is in how, addled by Western tradition’s preconceptions (i.e., Plato’s idealism, the good soul vs. the sinful flesh, etc.), he Christianizes the “self” (i.e., Atman, the individual soul), and imagines individuality to be all good. Such a sentimentalizing was never intended by the Hindus.

Because divinity in Eastern mysticism encompasses everything–or conversely, it’s described in terms of what it’s not (for to describe the divine in terms of what it is would qualify it, and thus limit it)–it mustn’t be thought of as merely ‘good.’ It has both alluring and terrifying aspects. Bion‘s mystical O, for example, is seen as having traumatic qualities. The divine is everything and nothing, both good and evil…and neither/nor.

But Emerson came from a Christian tradition that sees God as all-good; Western translations of Hindu texts often clumsily render Brahman, or the divine, as God, which is misleading; for God is a monotheistic concept, whereas concepts like Brahman are monistic. Not even ‘pantheism‘ really covers what something like Brahman is.

VI) Pantheism, the Ocean, and the Ouroboros

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The ocean as a dark, frightening place.

When one thinks of pantheism, one often thinks of the peacefulness of walking about in the woods, or dwelling dreamily in places like Wordsworth‘s ‘Tinturn Abbey‘, feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (lines 95–97) and the immanence of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (lines 100–103).

Melville, on the other hand, uses the tempestuous ocean as his preferred image of nature to warn us of the danger of sentimentalizing pantheism (see ‘The Masthead’ quote above). I prefer the image of the ocean as a symbol of the dialectical monism that I subscribe to, for the rising and falling waves suggest our ongoing shifts between good and bad fortune.

When I wrote of how a “contemplation combining what I call the Three Unities (of SpaceTime, and Action) will, with repeated practice over a long period of time, bring us closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain, a putting of all the pieces back together,” I never meant that to be some kind of feel-good, New Age sentimentality. “Closer and closer” are the key words there: “no more pain” shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an absolute state.

Indeed, the smug excess of sentimentality is the biting head of the ouroboros, where one is “too healthy,” as I’ve written about elsewhere; this emotional state is one of narcissistic overconfidence, a False Self delusion that can lead, if one isn’t careful, to the madness of fragmentation. This is the danger Captain Ahab is throwing himself into, a danger of slipping past the serpent’s biting head to its bitten tail.

You see, the symbolism of the ouroboros as a unifying of opposites (the serpent’s head biting its tail) shows how we should properly understand ultimate reality: a marriage of heaven and hell, a union of knowledge and ignorance, a fusion of good and evil.

VII) Character Pairings: Unified Opposites

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We see pairings of opposites throughout Moby-Dick. We’ve already seen the pairing of pagan Queequeg and Christian Ishmael; we’ve touched on the opposition of wise, cautious chief mate Starbuck vs. mad Captain Ahab; let’s now consider some others.

Other parings include retired Captains Peleg and Bildad, two Quakers who own the Pequod and sailed in it before giving the helm to Ahab. “Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg–who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those selfsame serious things the veriest of all trifles–Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn–all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest.” (Chapter 16–“The Ship,” page 87)

On the next page, “…old Bildad…seemed absorbed in reading from a ponderous volume.

“‘Bildad,’ cried Captain Peleg, ‘at it again, Bildad, eh? Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge. How far ye got, Bildad?’

“As if long habituated to such profane talk from his old shipmate, Bildad, without noticing his present irreverence, quietly looked up, and seeing me, glanced again inquiringly towards Peleg. […]

“‘He’ll do,’ said Bildad, eyeing me [Ishmael], and then went on spelling away at his book in a mumbling tone quite audible.

“I thought him the queerest old Quaker I ever saw, especially as Peleg, his friend and old shipmate, seemed such a blusterer.” Yet, in spite of Bildad’s apparent Bible-perusing piety, as opposed to Peleg’s “irreverence” and “impenitent” nature, Bildad’s the “stingy” one, offering Ishmael an exceedingly small share of the ship’s profits (the 777th lay), as opposed to “generous” Peleg’s offer of the three hundredth lay (Ishmael has been hoping for the 275th lay). Here we see the mingling of opposites in Peleg and Bildad, the antitheses of pious parsimony and impious generosity. (pages 89-91)

Another pairing is of Stubb, the cheerful, laughing, happy-go-lucky second mate, as contrasted with Flask, the mean, grumpy, nasty third mate. For all of Stubb’s cheerfulness, though, he feels such a hostility to Fedallah, the Parsee who has an evil influence on Ahab, that Stubb imagines the Parsee “to be the devil in disguise,” with a tail he hides in his pocket; and he’d like to throw Fedallah overboard. (Chapter 73–“Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him”, pages 315-317) And for all of Flask’s surliness, and his own suspicion of the Parsee, he isn’t sure of Stubb’s equating of Fedallah with the devil.

In one way, grumpy Flask can be seen as the double of mad, scowling Ahab: “Flask…who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered” (Chapter 27–“Knights and Squires,” page 125); and Stubb–in his fear that “Fedallah wants to kidnap Captain Ahab”–can be Starbuck’s double. Yet in his wish to rip off Fedallah’s “tail,” Stubb’s rather like Ahab in his wish to get revenge on evil; for ripping off the Parsee’s “tail” is a symbolic castration, as is Ahab’s loss of his leg to Moby Dick. Again, characters with opposing personalities find their traits intermingling.

A pairing of particular importance is Ishmael vs. Ahab. Both men are seeking something, obsessively questing for the deepest knowledge. Ishmael demonstrates this in his near-encyclopaedic display of knowledge of all things cetacean. With Ahab, though, there’s only one whale he seeks.

VIII) Knowledge and Ignorance, Black and White

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The whiteness of the whale.

A major theme of Moby-Dick is epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge and how it is attained. Whales symbolize this knowledge that is sought, for knowledge, like whales, is elusive to its hunter; when you come at it, knowledge can hurt, as when whales smash up whalers’ boats.

The white whale is that ultimate knowledge: its whiteness is like the divine light of perfect knowledge…but that white light can also be terrifying (Chapter 42–“The Whiteness of the Whale”). Ahab is mad to want to confront such dangerous knowledge. Ishmael, in contrast, can adapt and change in his search for knowledge; he can flow and shift with the waves of the ocean. Ahab’s monomania keeps him as rigid and hard as Moby Dick’s powerful body; the captain projects his own evil onto the white whale.

We normally think of darkness and blackness as evil; consider the bigoted Spanish Sailor who taunts Daggoo, the African harpooner (Chapter 40–“Midnight, Forecastle,” page 178). These two are another pairing of opposites who are also alike in crucial ways, for while the Spanish Sailor calls Daggoo “devilish dark,” provoking a fight, consider the swarthiness of the average Spaniard compared to whites of North European descent. And when a flash of light in the dark is said by the Spanish Sailor to be “Daggoo showing his teeth,” we see a mixture of black and white in him, another mixing of opposites.

So as we can see, both black and white can be evil…and good. Both knowledge and ignorance can be evil, too…and sometimes ignorance is better–and safer–than knowledge; since some knowledge simply cannot be found or mastered. Ishmael can accept this reality. Ahab can not.

IX) Marine Masculinity and Narcissism

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The sperm whale: a giant phallus in the ocean.

Yet another pairing is Moby Dick, or sperm whales in general, and the ocean. While Melville’s whales are overwhelmingly masculine (more on that below), la mer est la mère. Now, the feminine is conspicuously absent in this novel, or at the very least minimized, even for a story about men at sea. Even on land, all of the significant characters are male: apart from those already mentioned, there are Peter Coffin, owner of the Spouter-Inn, and Elijah, who prophesies the doom of the Pequod.

The sperm whales, whether male or female in reality, are all male by symbolic association. Though there’s no evidence earlier than the 1880s of dick being used as a slang word for penis, it had been used to mean man, fellow, for centuries. Moby Dick is a giant white phallus spouting water (symbolic ejaculation) swimming in Oceanus, a male god of the ocean. Consider also, as Camille Paglia did (Paglia, page 587), “that unaccountable cone,” “the grandissimus,” that is a sperm whale’s penis being lugged by three sailors (Chapter 95–“The Cassock”).

Moby Dick is the rigid thing Ahab wants for having bitten off his leg (a symbolic castration causing him narcissistic injury), whereas the ever-shifting, ever flowing ocean is a nirvana of no-thing-ness, of anatta (no self). Ahab’s peg leg is made of whale bone, his revenge on ‘castrating’ whales. Phallic harpoons stab into the phallic sperm whales, the piercing a kind of circumcising of them, and a rite of passage for novice Ishmael.

Lacan‘s phallus is a signifier, bringing us into the world of language, the Symbolic Order, uniting us with community through communication. Symbolically castrated Ahab is thus cut off from community, from an ability to communicate in a truly human way, in a way that connects with others and exchanges empathy, hence his solipsistic madness and his never heeding Starbuck’s warnings. Intact Ishmael, however, is so linguistically complete that he gives the words of whales in various languages (“Etymology,” page 9), and he quotes Linnaeus’ Latin in “Cetology,” page 139.

Ahab’s narcissism is apparent in his willingness to “strike the sun if it insulted” him. His egotism is the result of too much self-reliance, as Melville warns us all against. Recall “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (Chapter 1–“Loomings,” page 23)

X) Zoroastrian Dualism, and the Deluge

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Fire: Fedallah’s Sacredness, Ahab’s Hell of Desire and Suffering, which can be extinguished only by nirvana, a giving-up of his self.

Next, we must consider Fedallah, the Parsee. His influence over Ahab has been seen as Satanic, if you’ll recall what Stubb has to say about him in chapter 73. In this connection, it’s interesting to note Melville’s allusion to the beginning of chapter six in Genesis (fittingly, in a dialectical sense, at the end of Chapter 50–“Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah”).

Melville calls the sons of God (or sons of the gods, depending on the translation of b’nei ha-elohim) angels, who “consorted with the daughters of men,” which in turn led to the wickedness that caused Yahveh to bring about the Great Flood, which in the ancient, pre-scientific cosmology meant a bringing together of the previously separated waters of the heavenly firmament and the oceans below, a return to the formless Chaos of the beginning of Creation.

Melville also mentions devils having “indulged in mundane amours,” suggesting such a close relationship between Fedallah (a prophetic, heathen ‘son of the gods’) and Ahab (a wicked ‘daughter of men’–i.e., he’s been symbolically castrated), which will result in a deluge-like drowning of everyone (save Noah-like Ishmael) at the end of the novel.

Fedallah, as a Parsee, adheres to the Zoroastrian religion, which has a dualistic understanding of good vs. evil. The religion has an optimistic eschatology, believing Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), God and principle of light, goodness, wisdom, and order, will so thoroughly defeat the devil Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the principle of darkness, evil, destruction, and chaos, that even sinners suffering in Hell will eventually be redeemed, liberated, and brought into heaven.

Such a consummate ‘happy ending’ to sacred history is the kind of thing Melville would have been suspicious of, as we’ve seen in his assessment of Emerson’s ‘self.’ Ahab, in his hopes of killing Moby Dick–the symbol of all that is evil in his world–is searching for that Zoroastrian happy ending, a thorough (Thoreau?) wiping out of all evil–and Fedallah is helping him do that.

So, is Fedallah an angel or a devil…the Hegelian thesis, or its negation? Or is Fedallah a fallen angel…the Hegelian synthesis? Again, we see the merging of opposites, as was the Great Flood a merging of water above and water below, a return to Chaos. And as a Zoroastrian, is Fedallah an agent of Ohrmazd, principle of order, or one of Ahriman, principle of chaos? Is he both principles at once?

Is the deluge-like killing of the crew an evil horror, or is it a purging of evil, like the temporary Hell of the Parsees? Is the infinite ocean of Brahman, the sea of primordial Chaos, a terrifying watery grave one may fall into because of one false step (as traumatized Pip experiences it to be when he jumps ship the second time; Chapter 93–“The Castaway,” pages 395-397; remember also “The Mast-Head” quote above), or is it the painful but necessary purging of the world, creating a purity like the sacred fire and water of the Zoroastrians (hence, Pip’s trauma is also his mystical experience)?

The Zoroastrians would dualistically separate good and evil; as Yahveh Elohim separated the waters above and below, as He separated the divine and human worlds later reunited by the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men. Emerson would keep good and evil so separate as to suggest evil doesn’t even exist in his holy Over-Soul and its immaculate Atman, the individual self. Melville was saying we cannot separate good and evil. The evil of the whales’ painful knowledge will always swim in divine Oceanus; the strongest of these evils–like Moby Dick–will never be defeated.

Noah-like (or rather, Deucalion-like) Ishmael, floating on the arc-like coffin built for Queequeg (comparable to the chest Deucalion and Pyrrha were in to protect themselves from Zeus’s deluge), understands the inseparability of good and evil, of life and death, of black and white, of ignorance and knowledge, or of any pair of opposites; and clinging to a wooden symbol of death, he is the only one of the crew who lives in the end.

XI) The End, But No Surcease of Suffering

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Death: Ahab’s Gift to His Crew

“AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE.”  (Epilogue)

This quote is from Job, chapter one, repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, spoken by messengers to Job, a good servant of God, all of them telling him misfortunes that have befallen him. The Book of Job‘s purpose is to reconcile how evil afflicting good people can exist in a world ruled by a good God. In other words, it’s a theodicy in allegory…as, in a way, Moby-Dick can be seen to be.

God, the receiver of blessings and praise, can be seen as the thesis, to which Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser,” or “the adversary”) can be seen as the antithesis, or negation, since Job’s Satan offers the counter-argument that Job would curse God if all his good fortunes were to be taken from him. Theodicy is an attempt at a synthesis, or sublation, of the opposing contradictions of good and evil.

As I’ve said above, only Ishmael survives because only he can figure out this sublation. He, after the death of his shipmates, is an orphan: alive, but floating on a coffin.

It is significant that Ahab dies being tied by his harpoon to Moby Dick, and being dragged out into the water with the whale. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Chapter 135–“The Chase–Third Day,” page 534) He dies because of his undying attachment to the white whale.

One could describe Ahab’s madness in Buddhistic terms, namely, the Three Poisons of delusion/ignorance, attachment/craving, and aversion/hate. The hard, firm, strong body of Moby Dick–as opposed to the rolling, shifting, changing waves of the ocean–represents Ahab’s delusion of permanently existing things, and thus his ignorance of impermanence, or no-thing-ness.

His monomaniacal craving for the whale, to find and catch it to the exclusion of all other considerations, is of course not out of desire for, but out of hatred of Moby Dick. His wish to kill, to annihilate the white whale leads to his self-destruction because of his delusion of the separateness of self and other, and of the seeming absoluteness of being and non-being; he fails to see the interconnectedness of all things, including self and other.

And in trying to kill Moby Dick, his own evil projected onto the whale, he kills himself. The egotism of the narcissist is actually a ‘pasteboard mask’ hiding his secret self-hate. Though Narcissus, having fallen in love with his reflection in the water, fell in and drowned (“Loomings,” page 23); Ahab, hating the image of the white whale in the water, failed to see its face as a pasteboard mask of himself–thus he fell in and drowned, too.

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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published 1851

‘Slutlips,’ a Surreal, Psychological Horror Story: Chapter Three

 

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[NOTE: this is the third chapter (click here for the first, and here for the second) of a psychological horror story based on an audio film of the same name by my musician friend, Cat Corelli, something I wrote up an analysis for; you can learn more about that here. Before you begin reading, though, TRIGGER WARNING: as a horror story, this one has some graphic content of a violent and sexual nature; so if you’re one of my readers with C-PTSD or other forms of psychological trauma, you may want to skip this one. As for you braver souls, though, read on…]

Alice woke up at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Her whole body was in throbbing agony from the hangover she’d worked so hard the night before to drink herself into.

She seemed to be drowning in the seas of her feeble ego-state; then, with effort, she rose from the carpet she’d been sleeping on and looked at herself in the mirror on the hotel room’s dresser.

“There I am,” she gasped. “Thank God.”

Then she looked down and saw blood stains by her feet.

What are those drops on the carpet? she wondered, then the memory of the night before faded back into her mind. “Oh, yeah…”

She turned on a radio on the bedside table and set it to the local news-station. As the news played, she went into the bathroom and washed the rest of her victim’s blood off her face. The stains on her dress would have to wait ’til she got back home (if she’d be safe from the cops there). Besides, the red and black stripes on her dress obscured the blood well enough for cleaning it not to be urgent.

The news continued playing as she scrubbed the stains off the carpet with an old rag she found in the bathroom. By the time she’d almost finished getting those red drops off, she–in spite of her relatively dissociative state–heard the radio announcer say, “The search is ongoing for the murderer of Ray Terence, a man found with his throat cut in the alley between the NRG Club and the Eden.”

Alice heard the announcer say, ‘Roy Torrance,’ ‘Energy Club,’ and ‘The E-Den.’

“Oh, my fucking God,” she whispered, eyes agape, then she put her hand on her mouth. Looking away from the mirror, but still half-listening to the news report, she felt those ocean waves carrying her off into another ego-less reverie.

She heard the voices of two men investigating the case. It sounded as if they were…maybe…being interviewed by the radio announcer. She saw dark waves enveloping her in a vortex of darker and darker grey, fading into that black spiral.

Inspector Trudeau said, “The slash on Roy’s neck. It looks big enough to be the slash of a machete.”

FBI Agent Curtis spoke in a gravelly near-Brooklyn accent; it sounded cheesily stereotypical of crime investigators in noir novels or films. He said to Trudeau, “So…the report says there were teeth marks on his skin, as if he was bein’ sucked by a vampire, or a psycho who thinks he…or she…is a vampire. Barely distinguishable from the goddamn machete cut, if that was the murder weapon, but still, there…That’s not quite a typical case, is it?”

“Pretty far from typical, agent,” Trudeau said.

“Do ya figure the killer has any connections to Satanic sects, devil worshippers, maybe?”

“None so far that we can see.”

“Do you know know anything about who the killer might be?” Curtis asked. “Anything that could lead to him…or her? Background? Occupation? Family members?”

Every time Curtis referred to the killer as possibly female, Alice felt a chill go through her. Just this once, she thought, it would be great to hear a sexist use of pronouns.

“Well, the victim’s name is…Terence…or Torrance…something like that–I don’t have the file with me,” Trudeau said. “But this killing happened outside a bar, so I doubt there’s any family connection with the killer, or close friendship, or anything like that.”

Alice breathed a sigh of relief.

“In any case,” Trudeau continued, “our Winchester boys in South Dakota are on the case. They’re informing the victim’s brother…one Donny, or is it Danny? I don’t remember. If you like, I’ll tell them to ask if there’s a possibility of anyone in the victim’s family wanting to kill Roy. Anyway, that’s all for now.”

“Thank you, inspector,” Curtis said.

Alice turned off the radio and shuddered to hear the name Danny.

He was Roy’s brother…and her father.

But…was he Alice’s father…or Lily’s?

Still spinning down that black spiral, Alice couldn’t remember.

“Lily,…Lily,…” she whispered in the darkness. The waves returned, the undulating shifting from absolute black to a dark grey.

The current of waters surrounding her brought Lily’s head near. Alice’s consciousness entered the head…

…Lily, eighteen, was on all fours on a large bed with wrinkled blue sheets. As the bed creaked and jerked back and forth with Roy on top of her, the sheets looked like rolling ocean waves.

Beside them on the bed were Lily’s father Danny, and a girl about Lily’s age, who was getting doggy-style from him, just as Lily was getting it from Roy. Also as in the case with Lily, the other girl’s face was hidden by her hair and her tears.

As the men were invading them, Danny chanted, “We’re…the sons of God, coming into…the daughters…of men!”

All the girls could hope for was a quick end to the ordeal.

“The sons of God…are good…men of God,” Roy grunted between thrusts. “We’re…the descendants…of Seth!”

“You daughters…of men,” Danny panted, “are descended…from Cain…You’re wicked…you tempted us…you look…like sluts!”

“Your hot…slut-lips,” Roy moaned, “make us want…your slit-lips.”

“You’ve earned,” Danny sighed, “God’s wrath.”

I wish God’s wrath would cause the Great Flood to wash you two away, Lily thought. An endless ocean to purify me of your filth. Envelop us, ocean.

The pain of the men’s stabbing was getting overwhelming. The girls felt more and more blood coming from their insides.

Suddenly, the queen’s voice was heard: “Off with their heads!”

A Great Flood, indeed, came and enveloped them all. Alice’s consciousness left Lily’s head, which Alice could barely make out rolling away under the water. She saw other dismembered body parts whisk past her like hurrying schools of fish being chased by a shark.

As the dark waves continued to flow around her, Alice heard an unintelligible voice repeat something to her.

A female voice said, “ecilA ,pu ekaw ot emiT.”

I’ve heard that weird woman’s voice before, Alice thought. Who is she? She feels so close to me, yet so far away, too. Is she a part of me,…or am I a part of her?

“lrig ytterp ,pu ekaw ot emiT,” the Mystery Girl said again.

The dark waves were getting a bit lighter, and Alice rose to her feet, saw herself in the mirror again, and tried to ignore her pounding hangover. She looked down.

“Fuck,” she hissed. “I’ve still got some drops on the carpet.”

Too exhausted and still too much in pain, she collapsed on that spotty carpet.

She heard a voice–it sounded like Daisy’s–say, “Lily…It’s all beneath your skin.”

The waves grew darker again. She lay there, hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness…