Analysis of ‘The Rite of Spring’

I: Introduction

The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) is a 1913 ballet and orchestral piece composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography originally by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage designs and costuming by Nicholas Roerich. This was the third of Stravinsky’s three great ballets (the other two being The Firebird and Petrushka) commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris.

The ballet is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” When Stravinsky was finishing work on The Firebird, he claimed he had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.” I assume that by “the god of Spring,” he was referring to a Russian variant of Yarilo, a Slavic pagan god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime.

The brutality of human sacrifice, meant to appease the gods and avert such disasters as a bad harvest, is well-linked to the revolutionary aspects of Stravinsky’s music here: namely, his use of polytonality, polyrhythms, asymmetric and constantly changing meters, irregular accents, and harsh dissonance. These controversial departures from the more traditional, post-Romantic style of The Firebird and Petrushka (though these two also have their share of musical innovations–in the latter, the use of bitonality is especially to be noted), along with Nijinsky’s stomping choreography, resulted in an infamous riot at the ballet’s premiere on May 29th, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

The riot, to paraphrase Cocteau, centred around two warring groups in the audience: the wealthy conservatives, who hated the ballet, and the “Bohemians,” who were thrilled at this new provocation of the stuffy cultural establishment. The controversy began early, with the dissonant winds of the Introduction; but the disturbances got worse when the curtain rose and Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography began. The uproar got so bad, the shouting of the audience drowning out the music, that Nijinsky had to shout the step numbers to his confused dancers.

I was introduced to the piece as a child through the truncated version of it heard in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which replaced the pagan rites with cartoon sequences of the formation of the Earth and fighting dinosaurs struggling…and failing…to survive. The brutality of life was thus preserved in the adaptation; and The Rite of Spring has been my all-time favourite piece of music ever since my teens, this being the CD I enjoyed listening to.

Verses, set to music by Henry Cowell (another musical innovator who must have found the verses amusing), express the displeasure conservative ears have to Stravinsky’s ballet. Nonetheless, over the years, public opinion has changed, and now The Rite of Spring, whether performed as a ballet (with notable later choreographies, for example, by Léonide Massine in the 1920s–which revived performances of the ballet–and by Maurice Béjart) or as a concert suite, is acknowledged not only as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century classical music, influencing many modernist composers–such as Varèse, with his Amériques, and Messiaen, who constantly analyzed it–but also as one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Here is a performance of the ballet with Nijinsky’s choreography (the music starts at 4:38). [Please bear in mind that when I refer to ‘Nijinsky’s choreography,’ I really mean the reconstruction of it performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which is probably as close as we can get to an accurate version of Nijinsky’s intentions.] Here‘s one with Béjart’s choreography. Here‘s the Fantasia cartoon sequence. And here‘s a version with the orchestral score. Please refer back to the links of this paragraph for the sources to my commentary.

II: Adoration of the Earth

The “Introduction” of Part One of the ballet begins with a bassoon playing in a register so unusually high for the instrument that it sounds like anything but a bassoon: indeed, the beginning high C sounds like that of a flute to my ears. Other woodwinds join in, with strings later. Stravinsky said it was meant to sound like “a swarm of spring pipes,” or dudki. Peter Hill, in his book, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, wrote of the build-up of tension–before a sudden return to silence–saying, “it is bursting ecstatically into bloom.”

The Fantasia sequence shows the beginning formation of the universe, a darkness suggesting that of the Greek creation myth, then the fire of desire lights everything up, and we see the fiery, volcanic Earth by the beginning of “Augurs of Spring,” just before which the bassoon theme returns, but a semitone lower.

The curtain comes up, and we see the dancers stamping to the strong rhythms of “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls.” An E-flat dominant seventh chord, played over a triad of E, G-sharp, and B (or F-flat, A-flat, and C-flat, as seen in the strings in the score), is heard on the horns and strings. This polychord is one of many instances of polytonality in the ballet, or of bitonality in this particular instance. Just as the bitonality of Petrushka was meant to represent the half-human, half-puppet nature of the titular character of that ballet, so can the bitonality of The Rite be heard to represent, among other conflicts, a duality in the adored Mother Earth.

The Earth mother goddess of Slavic pagan myth, Mat Zemlya, would have been both adored and feared, depending on whether she provided a bountiful harvest in the fall (i.e., the flourishing of Yarilo) or a bad one. The plenty or dearth that she provided would have been the salvation of the pagan tribe, or its doom…hence the tension in the music.

Recall what Camille Paglia had to say about the use of society and culture as an illusory shield against nature, and we can begin to understand the pagan tribe’s need for these ritual dances: “Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements…Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake–anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.” (Paglia, page 1)

Recall how, in the Fantasia sequence during this section of the music, we see erupting volcanoes, with bursts of lava synchronized at each of Stravinsky’s irregular accents that are played on the horns over the scraping strings. Consider the contrast of these visuals with those of the ballet, with the girls dancing a ritual to appease Mother Nature.

The Earth mother goddess, therefore, can be understood to be like the dual mother of Kleinian psychoanalysis: she is the good mother and the bad mother, the good breast that provides milk for her baby, and the bad breast that won’t provide. Sometimes Mat Zemlya provides a plentiful harvest; sometimes she doesn’t.

The people of the pagan tribe are like helpless babies, all dependent on their Earth mother goddess. They’re in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, knowing that the good and bad breasts belong to the same good and bad mother. In their helplessness, the tribe must accept her as she is, in her capricious state, for they lack the scientific knowledge we today take for granted.

Utterly bereft of modern knowledge, the pagans have to believe in something to give them comfort and hope, so they have their ritual dances. Otherwise, the turbulent, chaotic, and unpredictable ways of nature–symbolized in the music by Stravinsky’s use of irregular accents, as we hear from the beginning of this section, with the dissonant E-flat major seventh chord on the E-major triad–would be unbearable for these people.

The pagans’ adoration of Mother Earth, thus, is them currying her favour. When Mommy is angry, her child blames him- or herself; for to contemplate the possibility of Mommy being the guilty one is far too frightening for the helpless child…or in this case, the helpless pagan tribe.

Since gods and goddesses are modelled on male and female authority figures respectively (e.g., mothers and fathers, as noted above), we can link the authority of Mother Earth with that of the old matriarch of the tribe who, during this section of the piece, comes out, prophesies the future of the tribe, and teaches rituals to the girls. One can imagine her prophesies to include a future doom to the tribe if one of the girls isn’t sacrificed.

“The Ritual of Abduction” gets even more violent and dissonant, with pounding tympani and frenzied instrumentation beginning in 9/8 time. French horns, playing an up-and-down tune of perfect fifths, contrast polytonally with shrill flutes and piccolos playing a frantic tune in eighth notes that repeats the same theme just heard by them, but in a lower key, two pages earlier in the score, with the trumpet in D and woodwinds.

Men appear and join the dancing girls. Each man grabs a girl, and they all dance: the men’s seizing of the girls is presumably what is meant by “abduction,” a word with far more forceful, violent connotations. Since the music is getting more and more intense, with growing dissonance and changing meters, I sense that each “abduction” of each girl is meant to be an omen for the girl among them to be chosen as the sacrificial victim, forced by the men surrounding her to dance herself to death, as happens at the end of the ballet.

The tension ceases with a soft passage of woodwinds. Flute trills are heard in the background, while clarinets in E-flat and B-flat play a tune octaves apart from each other in a bar of 5/4, then 7/4, then three bars of 6/4, and a bar of 5/4 again, before getting into the main theme of “Spring Rounds.”

This main theme was taken from a brief passage in “Augurs of Spring,” a hymn-like theme played in seventh chords, but now played more slowly, and with a mournful quality. The girls dance a Khorovod to it. Though all of Part One of this ballet, as an “adoration of the Earth,” is ostensibly about a celebration of the beginning of spring, with rituals meant to honour Mat Zemlya, the deep sadness felt in this section suggests one’s sense of resignation to one’s fate: one of these girls must die for her tribe. The depressive position, recognizing that Mat Zemlya is both a loving and cruel mother, is keenly felt.

Such a sad resignation isn’t without a sense of horror at the cruelty of the imminent sacrifice, though, for the sad theme suddenly transforms into an explosion of dissonant violence, punctuated by the tympani and the crashing of the tam-tam. After that, a frenzied passage precedes a repeat of that soft woodwind passage, ending this section.

“Ritual of the Rival Tribes” puts the men of the tribe in war games. Two groups compete: like the ritual preparations for human sacrifice to ensure the survival of the tribe in an unpredictable, treacherous world, so must there be preparations for the possible danger of invading tribes. The music is fittingly dissonant, violent, and metrically irregular, with lots of banging of the tympani.

A soft, rising and falling melody is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the brass, then in the violins and clarinets, with polytonal counterpoint in the pizzicato cellos and contrabasses. After that, a loud, martial theme is heard in the horns, suggesting those war games. The rising and falling theme returns and segues into the “Procession of the Sage,” but it’s even more dissonant and foreboding, with the brass in the background.

A wise tribal elder is brought onstage; from the Nijinsky choreography as seen in the performance in the video provided (link above), the old man appears to be blind, his disability allowing him to have a closer link to the spirit world, not distracted by the sights around him.

The violence of the music abruptly comes to a halt. Very soft, tentative music is heard as “The Sage” kneels down and kisses the Earth, blessing Her. Again, this sanctifying of the mother goddess, as an act of love, is actually performed out of fear of Her. Will the sacrifice be pleasing to Her and to Yarilo, or will there be a bad harvest after all, the victim having died in vain?

This question should be kept in mind with the explosive crescendo of the bass drum, tam-tam, and tympani leading to the “Dance of the Earth,” meant by the tribe to be a sanctifying and becoming one with the mother goddess. The tribe would express their love for Her, but the dissonance and irregular, stabbing rhythms suggest fear.

The Disney cartoon sequence puts this section at the very end, after the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” (which shows the dinosaurs dying off from a heatwave and drought). Significantly, we see an extreme earthquake tearing up the land, a furious mother goddess to contrast with the passionate, celebratory dance seen onstage with Nijinsky’s choreography. The dancing is meant to prevent the wrath of the goddess. Stravinsky once described the dancers as “stomping like Indians trying to put out a prairie fire”: how aptly put.

The pagan tribe’s senses are assailed by the sundry irritants of a hostile world that they, in their pre-scientific mindset, haven’t a prayer of understanding. Their only way of expelling the pain heaped upon them is to project it all onto a chosen sacrificial victim.

III: The Sacrifice

The “Introduction” to Part Two of this ballet, as its title implies, leads us directly to which girl will be the chosen sacrificial victim. That is, we’re moving straight to the heart of the matter…the sacrificial death.

The Disney cartoon sequence, however, begins with the origin of life on Earth at this point in the music–a kind of dialectical irony…the end of life, and its beginning. It has often been said that we begin dying as soon as we’re born, so beginning Part Two of the cartoon in this way is fitting.

The music begins with a soft but eerie, wavelike theme of up-and-down eighth notes played on flutes and clarinets, the rising and falling possibly a symbolic suggestion of that relationship between the rising of birth and the falling of death. Adding to this eeriness is a melody, introduced with violin harmonics, in a bar of 4/4, then one of 2/4: A-G-A-E-D-G-E. This seven-note theme will be developed, with other instrumentation and transposed, throughout this introduction and in the following section.

A soft theme shared by two trumpets in C in 5/4, with a slight variation in 6/4, is another to be developed; a creepy background is heard in the violas and cellos for two bars of 5/4, then two bars later, an upward splashing of sextuplet 32nd notes is heard in the E-flat clarinet, backed by a similar upward splashing of notes in the violins and with viola harmonics. All of these sound effects create a portentous atmosphere.

“Mystical Circles of the Young Girls,” paralleling the “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls,” sees the curtain rise to show a group of female dancers moving in a circle, as the title implies. (Interestingly, in the Béjart choreography [link above], we first see the female dancers only in the ‘Introduction’ of Part Two, for Part One is all male dancers; both sexes will dance together from the third section of Part Two.) Musically, this section begins with that theme first heard in violin harmonics from the “Introduction,” but now played by a sextet of three violins and three violas, not in harmonics, with the six of them playing in the key of B.

The girl to fall from the circle will be the chosen victim. According to Nijinsky’s choreography (see link above), the chosen one will fall twice, to music of a paralleled arrangement, heard on trumpets in C and on French horns. This horn arrangement gives us a feeling of surprise, and the second time we hear it, with the confirmation of the chosen victim, the horns repeat the motif, little by little getting louder and faster, and climaxing in a dissonant shriek, bringing us to the violent next section with a barbaric pounding in a bar of 11/4.

“Glorification of the Chosen One” opens with brutal, pounding rhythms in 5/8, 9/8, 5/8, 7/8, 3/8, and 4/8. All the girls dance in a circle around the chosen victim, who stands still and looks up with a frozen gaze, accepting her fate and repressing her fear, for even the slightest flinching on her part may displease the gods and jeopardize the tribe’s hopes for a good harvest.

It’s interesting to contrast Nijinsky’s choreography with the Disney cartoon sequence, which at this point in the music shows a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or some similar such predatory carnivore) appearing among a group of other dinosaurs, and fighting (and killing) a Stegosaurus. The dancing girls may be ‘glorifying’ and honouring the heroine who will lovingly give her life ostensibly to save her tribe, but she is an ill-fated Stegosaur in her own right (and rite), facing a T-Rex of superstitious tradition that is demanding her life.

In what way could her predicament be a metaphor for social phenomena in our lives today? I ask this question in the hopes of finding a way to make The Rite of Spring relatable to our modern world. Just as she, the chosen victim, is being made to die in a rite of human sacrifice, in the hopes that her death will improve the lives of the tribe, so do we, as a society in today’s alienated world, choose people to victimize in the hopes of making our own lives more bearable, to take our pain out on them.

I’m not speaking of human sacrifice, of course, nor am I even speaking necessarily of having someone die for us. I speak of bullies choosing a victim, picking on someone, to bear the brunt of all our pain, a victim to be bullied so we can hate ourselves a bit less, to release some of our own pent-up frustrations.

This maltreatment of others is so commonplace in our world–at school, in the family, in the workplace, and online–as to be a universal experience. Such universality of pain can symbolically give the pagan story of The Rite of Spring an unexpected relevance in a world far removed from that of superstitious people terrified of the wrath of the gods.

After all, the tribe bullies the girl, essentially, into dancing herself to death, because the tribe, in turn, feels bullied by the parent-like gods, who threaten such things as droughts or bad harvests if a sacrificial victim isn’t offered to them. Similarly, people who bully others tend to have been bullied themselves, so bullying others is a quick and easy, but cowardly way of ridding themselves of their pain.

The gods thus are like bullying parents, for example, the Kleinian bad mother I described above; and the children the parental gods bully–the tribe–are like elder siblings who pass the abuse down to younger siblings, like the tribe’s chosen victim. Remember that her “glorification” is just a bribe to motivate her to cooperate in doing something–dancing herself to death–that no one in his or her right mind would otherwise ever agree to doing.

“Evocation of the Ancestors” is brief, with fanfare-like brass and woodwinds, and pounding drum rolls. As the title of this section implies, the girls dance to invoke the tribal ancestors. We see, in Nijinsky’s choreography, the girls in a circle around the chosen one, falling towards her or away from her, with every drum roll. It’s as if they were falling to their deaths, yet ritualistically projecting the fall to death onto her.

Male dancers, representing the old men of the tribe, appear for the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” The music starts off very softly, with pizzicatos in the strings playing quarter notes with the French horns and the soft tapping of the bass drum, and a kettledrum and tambourine are hit during the offbeats. The cor anglais repeatedly plays a chromatic ascension of four 32nd notes (encased in a triplet), each phrase ending with a tied whole note (the first time), then with a tied, dotted half note.

At this point in the ballet, the victim is given to the care of these old men. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the men make sure that she goes through with her ritualistic suicide, and is never able to back down. It’s implied bullying, and the creepy, building tension of the music attests to this implication.

After a brief, pianissimo moment with the kettledrum and pizzicato strings, this ominous feeling heightens when we hear an undulating flute melody in the octatonic scale; soon after, a melody in the trumpets is also octatonic. The Disney cartoon sequence at this point in the music shows the dinosaurs plodding in a desert during a heatwave that has dried up everything. They’re doomed to an imminent death, as is the chosen one, surrounded by old men of the tribe.

Suddenly, the music gets loud, with French horns blasting that octatonic trumpet theme. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see the male dancers going in circles around the victim, who still stands frozen in her spot in the centre, trembling and breathing heavily, as trapped and helpless as those dying dinosaurs in the cartoon.

The music gets softer, yet intensely suspenseful, for a brief moment. Female dancers join the males in the circles around the victim, and the loud octatonic French horn theme returns. A tense, rising four-note tremolo theme is played repeatedly in the first violins during this loud reprise of the French horn theme. In the Disney film, we see a Tyrannosaur fall on a sand dune, dying from dehydration and exhaustion. The chosen victim, too, will die of exhaustion from her endless dancing.

The music gets soft again, rather like the beginning of this section, but with a bass trumpet in E-flat playing the repeated, ascending chromatic line of 32nd notes played previously on the cor anglais. Flurries of notes are heard on the clarinets and bass clarinets. A bar of 2/4, with a quick descending of sixteenth notes in a septuplet on the bass clarinet, segues this section into the climactic last one.

The “Sacrificial Dance” (of “The Chosen One”) begins with particularly harsh dissonances in the strings, immediately followed by the oboes, cor anglais, and horns, with changes of time signature at almost every bar. The discords are so harsh, they almost sound like tone clusters.

The time has come: the victim begins her dance to the death. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see her jumping, flailing her arms, and kicking her feet backward in frantic desperation.

What is interesting about this particular rite of human sacrifice is that we don’t see her ceremonially killed by someone else: no decapitation, no knife cutting her heart out. She must do the dirty work all by herself.

This is a forced suicide. This is the ultimate abuse, forcing her to destroy herself while all the others watch, her knowing no one will save her, which would shame her before the whole tribe.

The use of extreme dissonance and constantly irregular meters is fitting, for such music aptly expresses the Chaos-like, disorderly sense of what Lacan called The Real, an undifferentiated, and therefore traumatizing, world that cannot be symbolized or verbalized. This sense of the undifferentiated comes from the fact that the sacrificial victim, in giving her life for the tribe, is renouncing her sense of individuation to be submerged in the Dionysian unity of all things.

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, described this Dionysian oneness as the opposite of Apollonian individuation: ‘Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. Freely, earth proffers her gifts, and peacefully the beasts of prey of the rocks and desert approach…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbour, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.” (Nietzsche, page 37)

Now, one’s individuality being absorbed into the unifying All, like Atman into Brahman, can be a blissful experience, nirvana, if one voluntarily goes into it. This girl, however, has no choice but to be thus absorbed; and as I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s a dialectical unity between what we typically call Heaven and Hell, so her absorption into that unity under duress means she’ll be experiencing the hellish aspect of The Real, Bion‘s O, “the void and formless infinite” of Milton.

We see the men circling around the chosen victim as she stands trembling in the centre. The music has softened, yet is full of suspense and dread of the worst to come. Staccato sixteenth notes are played on bassoons, contrabassoon, and strings, with staccato 32nd notes on French horns. A threatening chromatic descent of sixteenth notes in a quintuplet is heard twice in the trombones, then in the trumpets. She briefly resumes her dancing with the sound of these brass instruments, as if their threatening notes were coming from the men.

She freezes for a moment again, as if her resolve to go through with her dance of death were faltering. Those staccato 32nd notes, once softly played on the French horns, are now loudly and aggressively bowed on the strings, and she is nervously moving again. The threatening chromatic descent is now heard in a different key in the trumpets in D and in the piccolos and piccolo clarinet in E-flat, raising the tension to an agonizingly dissonant climax in the brass and woodwinds, in a bar of 3/8, then of 4/8.

The soft staccato notes in the strings and French horns return. She is still and trembling again. She’s afraid to carry on with the dance…but she knows she must. Tense, chromatic waves of 32nd notes in quintuplets in the first violins, aided by similar playing in the piccolos, seem to restore her resolve (at least for the moment), and she’s moving about again.

The dissonant, metrically irregular beginning theme of the sacrificial dance returns, with added, extra pounding of the tympani. She’s doing the same jumping as before. She’s getting exhausted…but she cannot stop dancing. The men are sitting around her, not allowing her to rest.

The music explodes into a barbaric and chaotic sea-storm of sound, with sustained bursts of energy that sadistically pressure her to go to the polar opposite of her exhaustion. The tympani are pounding away, the horns are blaring, and she falls…but she must get up and continue!

She hits her fist on the ground in frustration, then gets up to dance again. She falls again, hits her fist on the ground again, gets up, falls…

Her leg is in pain. She mustn’t stop! More men in the circle surrounding her approach her, their dancing meant to inspire her…or threaten her, more likely…to continue. She’s twirling and flailing her arms about in a desperate attempt to give the best dance she can to the gods.

Any sacrificial victim would far prefer a quick death, the pain only brief before passing out. She cannot hope for such a happy death. As with crucifixion, hers will be a long, drawn-out, agonizing death in which one must keep moving long after total exhaustion makes even the slightest budge pure torture.

Though the “Sacrificial Dance” is only about four or five minutes long, we can assume that the girl’s dance to the death would be much longer. In a state of total exhaustion, yet still being required to dance, our poor victim will be moving around with every inch of her body in excruciating pain.

She is suffering the trauma of the undifferentiated state of The Real; life and death are one to her. Accordingly, the music ends with pounding rhythms of metric irregularity and dissonance after dissonance. After a brief, soft moment, the music gets loud and pounding, and it climaxes with her finally collapsing. The men pick up her dead body as an offering to the gods. The music ends with a final pounding of the bass and kettledrums.

IV: Conclusion

As I said above, we can find this music relatable to our world by seeing the human sacrifice, to appease the gods, as a metaphor for how we scapegoat people in our society as a cheap and easy way to rid ourselves of our pain. This is why the music is so dissonant: it’s a cathartic release of that pain.

Modern systems of farming, however, have ended the famines that plagued peasants living off the land throughout history, making such pain no longer an inevitability. The collectivization of agriculture in the USSR of the 1930s, contrary to popular belief and to Nazi propaganda about the “Holodomor,” actually ended the famines of that part of the world. The same is true of Maoist China, in spite of the bad start with the Great Leap Forward.

We now have the potential to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medically treat the people of the entire world…provided we use the world’s wealth properly. So why aren’t we doing this? Instead, some of our centi-billionaires are needlessly flying rockets into space while millions die each year of hunger. Aren’t these oligarchs, in a way, like the men in the circle, while the Earth’s wretches are like the girl dancing herself to death in the centre?

My point is that in today’s world, with the build-up of the productive forces, we have the potential for spreading love everywhere instead of dumping pain on the weak from a fear of scarcity that need no longer exist.

Forgive me, Dear Reader, if I’m getting too preachy here, but if our current world–with its ongoing ecocide, economic collapse, and threat of nuclear WWIII–continues down its present course, we’ll end up like those Disney dinosaurs.

Instead of destroying the Earth, let’s be in true adoration of Her. Let’s stop the dance to the death, and instead have a dance of life.

‘The Lake,’ a Horror Short Story

“Look at that lake,” Cecil said as he and his fiancée, Eleanore, came to an opening in the forest to see the sparkling water.

“It’s beautiful,” she said with rapt eyes as she saw how the light of the summer sun danced on the gentle waves.

“Let’s go in for a swim,” he said, beginning to take off his shirt.

“Hey, you kids, I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” slurred a man’s voice from behind them.

The couple looked back and saw a middle-aged man standing a few feet behind them, holding a bottle of whiskey in his right hand. He staggered a bit and belched.

“Who are you?” Cecil asked. “And why can’t we go in the water? Will we become drunkards, like you?”

“The name’s Nelson, and if you go in that water, you won’t come back out,” he said, then took another swig from his bottle.

“We can swim all right,” Cecil said.

“It ain’t about if you can swim or not,” Nelson said. “That’s Lake Real. It’s cursed with witchcraft.”

Both Cecil and Eleanore laughed.

“I recommend you leave that rotgut alone,” Cecil said. “It’s affecting your brain.”

“I began drinkin’ because people were dyin’ in that lake. I saw ’em all die with my own two, sober eyes. I also know the story of how a witch turned Lake Real into the deathtrap it is now.”

“Oh, this I gotta hear,” Cecil said.

“No, honey,” Eleanore said, pulling on Cecil’s arm. “Let’s just go. He don’t want us swimmin’ here, so we’ll go, alright?”

“No, no,” Cecil said. “I wanna hear the ghost story. You ain’t too drunk to tell it, are ya?”

“Actually, the drinkin’ will prob’ly help me tell it,” Nelson said, then took another swig. “Have a seat.”

He sat on a rock, and Cecil and Eleanore sat on two rocks facing him, all three of them shaded from the summer heat of the early afternoon by the overhanging trees.

“Well, it all began back in 1857 with the passing of the Gradual Civilization Act in the Province of Canada.”

“What does that have to with us here in the Colony of British Columbia?” Cecil asked.

“Well, back in the Province of Canada, they wanted to get the Indians here to be a part of our Christian society. Some Catholics living near here learned about this idea to purify the Indians, cleanse them of their heathen ways, and teach ’em about Christ. They liked the idea, and used their money to set up a school by this lake.” Nelson pointed with his bottle to an abandoned building several yards behind Cecil and Eleanore, a small, wooden building obscured mostly by the bushes and trees of the forest, but visible enough for the couple to see it. “In 1860, St. Peter’s Residential School was established for Indian children…not those livin’ ’round here in the Fraser Valley area, mind you, but for those livin’ further away.”

“Why not Indian children from here?” Eleanore asked.

“‘Cause the idea was to take the kids far from their families, and from their heathen influence,” Nelson said, then took another swig. “Best way to make ’em Christian…or so the Catholics thought.”

“So anyway, what happened?” Cecil asked. “Did the Catholics make the Indians all Christian in that school?”

“Not exactly,” Nelson said. “There were stories that the priests and nuns were abusing the kids, punishing them for being defiant and refusing to accept Christ.”

“Did they beat the kids really hard?” Eleanore asked.

“Worse than that. The priests, being celibate and therefore denied the society of women, did filthy things with many of the kids, the sorta thing you don’t wanna say in front of a lady. Sometimes, to keep things quiet, they even killed many of the kids.”

Cecil and Eleanore gasped at these words.

“The bodies were buried out by the school, not far from the lake. One woman, who was a teacher at the school named Audrey Wilson, got so infuriated at how the priests and nuns were mistreating the Indian kids that she not only quit the school, but she also gave up on her Christian faith…assuming she ever even was Christian to begin with.”

“What makes you think she wasn’t Christian?” Eleanore asked.

“Well, Miss Wilson was a white lady, so I assume she was originally Christian, but if she was, and lost her faith, I’ll get into the reasons for that soon enough.”

“In any case, giving up on her faith sounds excessive to me,” Eleanore said. “We all know there are some bad apples out there among the Christian flock, but that doesn’t mean there’s no Jesus looking down on us from heaven.”

“Well, whatever her religious leanings had always been, she surely didn’t see it that way,” Nelson went on. “It seems she couldn’t reconcile men of God, presumably guided by the Holy Spirit, readin’ the Good Book and praying every day, allowin’ themselves to stray so far from the right path to be doin’ what they did to those Indian kids. She’d walk by the confessional set up next to the school chapel, and she’d eavesdrop on the confessions of beatings, rapes, and killings. The confessor would advise them to turn themselves in to the law, which the confessing priests and nuns never did; and the sinning priests and nuns continued working in the school, and Miss Wilson knew they continued their abuse of the kids.”

“Well, again, that’s the fault of those priests and nuns, not the fault of their religion,” Cecil said.

“But how do you know all of this?” Eleanore asked. “You live near here, right?”

“Yes, I do,” Nelson said. “And as I said, she didn’t see it as only a matter of sinnin’ priests and nuns, she saw it as a problem of the whole religion. I worked as a janitor for the school, and she and I used to have conversations about the corruption in the faculty. She claimed that faith in Jesus is the ‘theory’ of Christianity; the corrupt ways of the Church are the ‘practice’ of Christianity throughout history, which makes me think she may never have been Christian, but some kind of pagan in secret. She claimed she’d read of, and heard anecdotes of, countless times when the Church–Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant–had committed similar abuses.”

“So anyway, what did Miss Wilson do about the abuse, besides quitting her teaching position?” Eleanore asked.

“Well, a week after she quit–and this was in 1862, so four years ago–I saw her by the lake one evening, after the school closed down for the day. It was still light enough for me to see basically what she was doin’. She was chantin’ something, she had candles lit in a circle all around her, and she was dancin’ around as she chanted. It looked like she was doin’ some kind o’ ritual. That’s why I think she may have been a pagan.”

“And you were getting drunk, and dancing to her music, too, no doubt,” Cecil said with a smart-Alec smirk.

“No, I was stone cold sober!” Nelson snapped. “I didn’t start drinkin’ ’til after the deaths, as I told ya before. And now I’ll get to that part o’ the story.”

“Oh, good,” Cecil said. “Now the story should get interesting.”

“I live near here, as I said before, so I’ve seen it happen every time,” Nelson said, then took another swig from his bottle. “I’ve never known Indians to practice witchcraft, and Miss Wilson was the only white woman I’ve ever known to renounce Christ, or never believe in Him, whichever, so her little ritual must ‘a’ been the witchcraft that caused all the deaths in Lake Real.”

“Very well,” Cecil said. “What about those deaths? You claim you were sober when you saw them.”

“The first couple o’ times, after her ritual, when I saw people go to the lake for a swim, I walked over to the shore to get a better look; for that woman’s ritual looked so intense, combined with her hate o’ that school and the sufferin’ o’ the Indians she so pitied, that I had to see what was goin’ t’ happen.”

“…and what did happen?” Cecil asked, his patience leaving him.

“As soon as the first person to go in was all the way under the water, I saw him freeze in it.”

Freeze in it?” Eleanore asked. “You mean, go cold?

“No, not that,” Nelson said with dread in his eyes. “The swimmer just stopped movin’. Completely. I looked down at him in the water. He was facin’ me, so I saw the terror in his eyes. He wouldn’t move. Couldn’t. Then, what I saw got stranger ‘n’ stranger.”

“What was that?” Cecil asked, smirking in disbelief.

“His whole body…his face, trunk, arms ‘n’ legs…they all started…stretchin’ out, like as if he were meltin’, or goin’ fat, or somethin’ like that.”

“What do you mean?” Eleanore asked with a sneer of disbelief.

“It’s like his body was slowly mergin’ with the water, becoming one with it.” He shook, then took another swig.

“How is that even possible?” Cecil scoffed.

“I don’t know, but that’s what I saw,” Nelson said. “And I was completely sober.”

“No offence, my friend,” Cecil said, “but if you saw all that while stone cold sober, then you’re lucky you haven’t been put away somewhere.”

“If you go in that water, you’ll learn the hard way that I ain’t crazy at all!” Nelson shouted, standing up as if ready to have a fistfight with Cecil. “Go on in! You’ll regret it! I warned ya!”

“Sir, we’re sorry,” Eleanore said. “Cecil, watch your tongue!” Then, back to Nelson, “Please, sit back down and finish your story. What happened next?”

Nelson calmed down, sat down with staggering difficulty, and continued: “As I said, his body was merging with the water, and I could see him slowly fading away. His skin turned blue and became the water, and the last thing I saw o’ him was his terrified eyes, ‘n’ they faded away, too.” He took another swig from his bottle.

Cecil and Eleanore just looked at him with confused eyes. They didn’t know what to say to such a crazy story.

“Every other person, man, woman, or child–white people, that is–that I saw goin’ into that lake over the past four years, has met the exact same fate. I put up a sign or two, warnin’ people not to go in the water, but people just ignore it, ’cause the water is so beautiful. Nobody believes there’s anything wrong with the lake.”

“We saw such a sign, remember, Cecil?” she asked him. “We just walked by it as if it wasn’t even there.”

“Because there’s no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with the lake, honey,” Cecil said.

“Because part o’ the witchcraft is to lure you in,” Nelson said. “Miss Wilson told me how much she hated the white man for hurtin’ the Indians so much, so part o’ her avengin’ them musta been to lure as many white Christian folks to their doom as possible. Some priests in the school tried to baptize some Indians in the lake: the priests went in, felt compelled to dip their heads in the water, go all the way in, and died–I saw it, the same way as that first man…but the Indian kids came out o’ the water unhurt.”

Cecil’s and Eleanore’s eyes widened.

“The survivin’ priests and nuns concluded, as I did, that Lake Real is possessed o’ demons, so they closed the school down and tried to warn other people, though everybody was just like you…unbelievin’. Over the past four years, I’ve tried to warn would-be swimmers here not t’ go in, but none of ’em listen to me. They go in and die the same way. And then is when I started drinkin’…out o’ despair.”

“Very well, then,” Cecil said, getting up with Eleanore. “If it’ll make you feel any better, we won’t go in the water.”

“Thank you,” he told the couple, then stood up. “That gives me a peace o’ mind that I rarely have these days. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” they said, and walked back into the woods.

They’ll still go in, Nelson thought. Lake Real is callin’ for ’em.

Cecil and Eleanore walked through the forest in a semicircle around the lake before coming out in a clearing on the other side. (Nelson had gone in a semicircle the other way; the equidistant roundness of Lake Real made it easy for him to reach the same area in roughly the same time. He hid behind some bushes before they got there.)

The couple looked around for any signs of Nelson hiding.

“Good,” Cecil said. “That crazy old drunk is gone. Let’s go in the water.”

They stripped down to their undergarments and waded into the water, up to their upper legs. So far, nothing to fear. They ventured in further, up to their waists, and far from sensing any danger, they found the water to be most refreshing. They felt an urge to go in deeper, so they went in with the water up to their necks.

“What do you think, Eleanore?” Cecil asked her.

“The water is lovely,” she said.

“I agree,” he said. “Let’s dip our heads in and swim around some.”

At that point, Nelson came out of the bushes and approached the shore. Here’s where it happens, he thought. As soon as they put their whole bodies under, as those priests who did the baptizing, they who couldn’t resist going all the way under, too. The lake makes them want to.

As soon as Cecil and Eleanore dipped their heads under the water, they froze.

They couldn’t paddle their arms or legs at all.

They just floated, immobile, under the water.

“Mmm!” they both whined repeatedly as they tried to fidget in the water, but neither could budge in the slightest.

Both of them were facing the shore, so they could see Nelson standing there, frowning at them. He took another swig from his almost-empty bottle.

Go on, you old bastard, Cecil thought, scowling. Gloat at us. Shout out, “I told ya so!” Go on. You know you want to.

Eleanore wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, but all she could do was whine as before. Why is this happening to us? she asked herself. Cecil and I never hurt any Indians. Why are they taking their revenge on us?

Because you came here with the rest of the white men, a voice said in her mind’s ear and in that of Cecil. You took our land from us, scorned our religion and culture, and stopped us from practicing it. You all abused us, raped us, beat us, and killed us in massacres and spreading your European diseases onto us. Worst of all, you’ve benefited from our suffering. That’s why you all deserve to die!

Cecil and Eleanore assumed that, no longer able to hold their breath and forced to inhale, they’d pass out, drown, and be put out of their misery. But when they breathed in the water, a strange thing happened: not only did they not pass out and die, they found themselves breathing the water as if their nostrils and mouths were gills! The Indian spirits possessing the water were keeping Cecil and Eleanore alive…for the moment.

As they breathed in the water–which felt as natural to them as breathing in oxygen–they found their bodies slowly merging with it. Nelson watched with horror–a horror only somewhat mitigated by his drunkenness, and not at all mitigated by having seen the same thing many times before–as the couple’s bodies were melting and mixing with the surrounding water. Their undergarments slipped off and floated to the surface while the peach colour of their naked skin stretched out into the water, merged with each other, and began melding with the blue.

Nelson saw a growing, wavy rectangular form made up of the skin colour of both of their melting, merging bodies. The two pairs of terrified eyes, however, stayed where they were and stared at him. He almost heard what those eyes were saying to him.

Help me.

Please.

That rectangular mass of skin colour was slowly changing into the blue of the lake. Those pairs of eyes, though, remained intact and kept staring at him, pleading with him.

Help us, please.

Save us, if you can.

Could he save them? In his staggering drunkenness, Nelson knew, far off in the back of his mind, that he could.

The voices of the Indian ghosts in the lake had said to him, every time he watched all the other deaths as with these two, that he could have saved them…if he’d had the guts. He still could, this time.

All he had to do was replace the couple in the water.

Nelson had come to hate his life. He hated his cowardice, the cowardice that had kept him from saving the lives of the previous victims. He hated himself for running away from his responsibility, and running towards bottles of whiskey.

Getting drunk was an attempt to escape the pain, of course, but it was a failed attempt, every time. This time, however, he was so drunk that he felt fewer inhibitions about going in the water, so this handsome young couple, young enough to have been his own son and daughter, could come out of the water and live the full lives they should have been allowed to live.

So, Nelson? one of the Indian ghosts’ voices asked him, the voice echoing in his mind’s ear. Do you have the courage, finally, to do it this time? Will you demonstrate the truth of your religious beliefs? Will you be an imitator of Christ, go in the water, and die for these two people?

Nelson watched those fading bodies and shuddered.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, the Indian voice said. Isn’t that true, Nelson? Are you ready to redeem yourself, your religion, and your people?

Cecil’s and Eleanore’s bodies continued turning blue, and those pleading eyes kept staring into Nelson’s.

He gulped down the last of the whiskey.

A tear ran down his cheek.

He was shaking all over.

You had better hurry, the Indian voice said. Time is running out for the two of them.

“The hell with it,” he slurred, then tossed the empty bottle to the side. “I’ll do it.”

He waded into the water, staggering and stumbling. By the time he was up to his neck in the water, he turned around to face the shore, took a deep breath, looked down at the pairs of eyes in the water one last time, and dipped his head in.

He froze.

Cecil and Eleanore felt their bodies slowly materializing: blue turned back into the peach colour of their skin, which condensed and reshaped itself into their naked bodies, and they found their undergarments. They rushed out of the water, so eager were they to get out of it that they didn’t care about their exposed nakedness.

They wrung out their undergarments and put them back on; then they put the rest of their clothes back on. Finally fully dressed, they looked out at Nelson in the water.

As motionless as they had been, he was facing them and smiling at them. Eleanore wondered, at first, if his smile was from the lecherous pleasure of seeing her body. Then she realized it was a smile of peace of mind.

It was his body that was melting and dissolving in the water this time. His eyes looked out at Cecil and Eleanore, who looked back at him teary-eyed.

Eleanore couldn’t bear it. “No!” she said, starting back for the water. “We can’t just leave him there to die! We have to–“

“No, Eleanore, no!” Cecil said, grabbing her by the arm and stopping her. “We ain’t goin’ back in there. I won’t let you experience that hell again. He’s done this for us. He wanted to. Don’t refuse it. Look at his face. He’s found peace.”

Indeed, they saw a dissolving face with a smile and eyes that shone peace of mind, something he hadn’t felt in years.

Soon, all that was left were Nelson’s floating clothes and those peaceful eyes.

Then the eyes faded away, too.

‘Between the Divide,’ a Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

Here’s a new poem by my Facebook friend, poet Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. As usual, I’ll put his writing in italics, to distinguish his words from mine. Here’s the poem:

frenzied and lost
a shadow of what i was
lost in a second
fulfilled at any cost

the parallel lines
turn to parallel lies
I keep seeking the divine
but fall between the
divide

answers hurt to
questions unasked
i bathe in the glory
of a chemical axe
waging war within

that is a sin
as it goes beneath the
skin
to drown me deep within
and without
just another day that
passes far too quick

leaving me trembling
shaky and sick
what was a vision of
mortality
is now a passage of
doubt
and i’m lost again

too many yesterdays
still portraits
crawl with the rotten
stage
falling through my anger

and i just want to turn
the page
to burn the magazine
tie up all my aspirations
and burn the stage

winter is here and it is clear
i am not wanted here
too many disharmonies
to ever sleep without
fear

i close my eyes
and say goodbye
no more goodnights
no more lullabies

only the rage
the justifications
an empty gun
and a permanent
vacation

And now, for my analysis.

Jason is speaking of the struggle to find happiness, including spiritual enlightenment. We sense his frustration with the difficulty of attaining this in the first verse.

The “parallel lines” seem to represent, on top, the spiritual path of God above, and on the bottom, Jason’s attempt to emulate that path below, on the Earth. The problem is that parallel lines never meet, so try as he might, Jason cannot reach God, no matter how hard he may try to conform to the Christian way.

He learns soon enough, though, that those parallel lines are lies, an effective pun. The lie is the failure to attain spiritual enlightenment without “Christ,” which translates actually to not attaining it without first conforming to the catechism of the Church; hence his “seeking the divine,” and falling “between the divide,” another effective pun. The “questions unasked” of the Church, that is, the taboos of questioning and doubting Church authority, lead to “answers hurt.”

Other attempts to heal pain, the alternative of the “chemical axe/waging war within,” sound like the illusory euphoria of psychiatric drugs, with their chemical compounds: this medication never cures mental illness–it only keeps it under control. It “is a sin/as it goes beneath the skin/to drown [him] deep within.” The pills are “invisible handcuffs,” as Charles “Haywire” Patoshik (played by Silas Weir Michell) calls them in season one of Prison Break.

Realizing the hard truth of these false paths to happiness leaves Jason “trembling/shaky and sick,” “a passage of doubt/and [he’s] lost again.” Then there are his painful memories: “too many yesterdays/still portraits.” He just wants “to turn/the page/to burn the magazine,” to get rid of the past, to destroy all of it.

He feels the “winter” coldness of alienation and loneliness; he is “not wanted here/too many disharmonies.” He’d go to sleep and escape the cruel realities of daily, waking life; he’d “close [his] eyes/and say goodbye/no more goodnights/no more lullabies.” He feels “only the rage”…a rage brought on by “the justifications” of the Church that once betrayed him? He has “an empty gun” from having already fired out all of that rage.

His “permanent vacation” could be anything from indefinite disability leave to the dream of an eternal state of nirvana…or maybe even enjoying listening to Aerosmith!

The Seventh Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s ‘Diverging Paths’

Here is poem #7 from Diverging Paths, the collection of writing by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose poems I’ve looked at so many times before. As usual, I’ll be putting his words in italics to distinguish his writing from mine. Here’s the poem:

Staring through, 
The eye of the needle, Where is god now? 

Staring with perspective, 
At the death before me, Where is god now? 

Watching my life, 
Fall into pieces, 
Where is god now?

And now, for my analysis.

The beauty of this poem is in its brevity, which is the essence of well-written poetry. Three short verses, like the Trinity. Jason’s deliberate writing of “god” with a lower-case g reminds me of Christopher Hitchens‘s irreverent use of it in his book, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

“The eye of the needle” reminds me of Mark 10:25, when Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” One of the reasons we cannot seem to find God, if He even exists, is that the rich are allowed, for the most part, to do whatever they want with impunity. How many more centuries do we have to wait for justice to be done, if He can dispatch it with omnipotent ease?

Faith can often blind us from perspective at all the death before us: deaths from war, disease, poverty, etc. Perspective helps us see beyond the lies and propaganda. Again, the poet asks where that divine personification of justice is.

Watching his life fall to pieces, the poet can be easily speaking for the millions of people in our world suffering trauma, abuse, and all the other injustices we see everywhere around us. Again, where is God now? God, as the personification of justice and goodness, is nowhere to be seen, and is needed now, more than ever.

If we cannot find this Supreme Being to be anything more than just a theoretical construct, a theory put into practice by a corrupt Church that has failed us throughout history, then maybe we need to take things into our own hands and fix the world ourselves, instead of waiting for an invisible man in the sky to fix it for us.

The Sixth Poem from ‘Diverging Paths’

Here I’ll be looking at Poem #6 from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection, Diverging Paths. Recall that I’ve looked at many of his poems in previous posts, if you’re interested in looking at some of those. As usual, I’m setting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

This isn’t real this is a dream, 
When I wake I swear I will 
Never sleep again, 
Every waking moment a sin, 
God knows I’ve tried, 
But I’m lost in this, 
Magick and emotion, 
Turning down the podium, 
To stare into the heresy, 
Spiral unreality, 
Shadowing in moments lost, 
A vision of Holocaust, 
Sadly no divine intervention, 
Only death, 
And God a blemish,

And now, for my analysis.

The speaker, I suspect, is someone other than the poet, since, though I know the poet to be someone going through some difficult times emotionally, I don’t think he’s experienced a psychotic break with reality, as seems to be the case with the speaker here.

The speaker seems to be rejecting both dream and reality as too painful to bear. By a rejection of all, I mean a refusal to take in and accept any forms of stimulation from the outside world, Wilfred Bion‘s beta elements. In Bion’s theory of thinking, raw sensory data from outside, initially irritating, has to be processed (through what Bion called alpha function) into detoxified material acceptable for thought (alpha elements). In layman’s terms, this means that emotional experiences have to be processed in order for the brain to cope with them. (Click here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

If external stimuli aren’t processed and made into thoughts, one cannot sleep, dream, or even experience waking thought. Without this ability to process thought, one becomes psychotic.

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

I discussed this issue in my analysis of The Machinist, in which the main character, Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale), goes through a psychotic break with reality when he refuses to process his own emotional experiences, namely, his guilt over having hit and killed a child in a car accident, then driving away without taking responsibility. As a result, he doesn’t sleep for a whole year, descending into madness.

To get back to Jason’s poem, the speaker rejects what he’s experiencing, calling it a dream. He says he’ll never sleep again upon waking, since what he’s experienced is so intolerable, so impossible to process and turn into detoxified thought. Yet, “every waking moment [is] a sin,” so waking moments are as impossible to process as unconscious ones.

He’d rather be in a world respecting old ways and old gods, one represented by such archaic spellings as “magick.” Such an idealized world is one the speaker feels lost in, since it’s so much better than the painful one of today. He finds himself “turning down the podium” (i.e., not wanting to go up, be seen by an audience, and communicate with them). He’d rather “stare into the heresy” of an alternate reality not accepted by mainstream society (i.e., the Church), which is seen as “spiritual unreality,” but also the unreality of not wanting to face the painful, but real, world. “Moments lost” are shadowed-in traumas, that is, erased from memory, hidden in the darkness of the mind, repressed.

The pain of a trauma so severe that it must be rejected is seen as a “vision of Holocaust.” There’s “no divine intervention,” either of the Judeo-Christian or pagan kind, when psychosis has replaced coping with reality. So one experiences “only death,” and God seems to be only “a blemish.”

Note that “God” can represent an authority figure, like a stern father. So as a blemish, this harsh authority figure could be the root of the trauma that has caused the speaker to want to run away from painful reality, and to reject all stimuli and all thinking that makes a connection with the world possible.

That way madness lies.

‘The Day that We…’, a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

I have a new poem here by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at so many times before. As usual, his words will be in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Here’s the poem:

The day that we fell
Fell so far
Shooting stars
Dividing worlds
Becoming God’s
A future law of three
A past shone in the trees
A photograph that changes
The malice and the rage
The quest for poetry that speaks till it’s raw
By word of mouth
Sometimes stars
One in five none get out alive
But the words
The words
Whisper of forever
And forever we’re denied
Living on in nothing
Just a star fell from the sky
The night that we
Became reality.

And now, for my analysis.

I suspect that the speaker is one of the fallen rebel angels, who “fell so far.” They’re “shooting stars” nonetheless in their rebellious glory, “dividing worlds” into the heavenly and the hellish, as we know them in Milton‘s Paradise Lost.

He and the others are “becoming God’s” in the sense that He will use them to test mankind. “A future law of three” sounds like Adam, Eve, and the serpent being tempted to sin through the commandment not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. One is reminded of Romans 7:8, “sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.” This is “a past shone in the trees” of the Garden of Eden.

“A photograph that changes” reminds me of my connecting of the Garden of Eden myth with the park scene in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s film, Blowup. In the film, Thomas has taken photos in an Edenic park of a young woman and her elderly lover, photos she wants back because they make her feel shamed, as Adam and Eve felt shamed in their nakedness. His taking the photos makes him into either the Yahweh or the serpent figure for interfering with the two. The photograph changes because it, among many others taken in the park, go from being relatively innocent to implying that a murder has been committed there, rather like the shift from innocent to sinful Adam and Eve, a shift caused by the serpent, or by Thomas’s changing photographs. (See my analysis, link above, for more details on that.)

Imagine “the malice and the rage” of the fallen angels, who search “for poetry that speaks till it’s raw.” One wishes to speak one’s own poetry, one’s own language, not that of those who impose their will on us, as God did on His angels and on Adam and Eve. These are words spoken “by word of mouth,” naturally, not edited on the page.

The mortality imposed on us all for defying God’s authority, on man as well as on the rebel angels, means that, to paraphrase what Jim Morrison once sang, “One in five none get out alive.” “The words,” however, presumably those of Scripture, “whisper of forever/And forever we’re denied,” because we disobeyed God.

We’re “living on in” a hell of “nothing.” We, in our defiant glory, are “just a star” that “fell from the sky.” But in our damnation, we were true to ourselves, not mere compliant, willing slaves, for this was “the night that we/Became reality.”

Analysis of ‘La Notte’

La Notte (‘The Night’) is a 1961 Italian film by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. Filmed on location in Milan, it is about the disintegrating relationship of a man and his wife, as both of them are tempted into having extramarital affairs.

The second film of a trilogy (the first being L’Avventura, and the third being L’Eclisse), La Notte continues Antonioni’s abandoning of traditional plots in favour of visual composition. The film was acclaimed for its exploration of modernist themes of alienation; it received the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a first for an Italian film, and it also won the David di Donatello award for Best Director in 1961. It’s one of Stanley Kubrick‘s ten favourite films.

Here is a link to quotes, in English translation, from the film.

When the opening credits are showing, we see a shot of a building up close, one much taller than the other buildings of the city either in the background or in the reflection of the skyscraper’s windows. The camera is slowly moving downwards.

Since La Notte is about a married couple growing alienated from each other, and we know that the essence of alienation is an inability to communicate with and understand other people, then this descending camera shot of a skyscraper suggests the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven. But God (Elohim) says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7). And indeed, after the credits are finished showing, we see the beginning stages of the breakdown in communication between writer Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and his frustrated wife, Lidia (Moreau).

Subtle associations in moments in the film with key moments in the primeval Biblical narrative can be found afterwards, too, though largely in reverse order to that of the early chapters of Genesis. I’ll return to these other associations soon enough.

Giovanni and Lidia enter a hospital where their good friend, fellow writer Tommaso Garani (played by Bernhard Wicki), is a seriously ill, dying patient in need of morphine to ease his pain. In this pitiful state, Tommaso personifies the Pontanos’ ailing marriage.

Before the couple go into his room, they’re accosted by a pretty but emotionally unstable young woman who complains of the telephone in her room not working (symbolic of already failing communication). She will later make sexual advances on Giovanni after Lidia has left the hospital in tears over the wretched state Tommaso is in. There is a clear link between seeing their dying friend and this young woman, for temptations to adultery are among the things that are slowly tearing this marriage apart.

The theme of stifled communication is developed in Giovanni’s repeated self-deprecatory remarks about his fading abilities as a writer. The ability to use language is crucial to a writer, of course, but also key to having healthy relationships, especially in a marriage. Language is a central part of Lacan‘s Symbolic Order, brought into being through the prohibition of Oedipal indulgence via the Nom, or Non! du père, and bringing the child out of his narcissistic, dyadic relationship with mother and into the world of society, culture, and shared customs. Giovanni’s indulgence with pretty girls like this wild woman in the hospital, and later with Valentina Gherardini (Vitti), is a regression to a self-centred, childish state, a retreat from society (coupled with his fading ability to write, to use language) that will wreak havoc with his marriage.

The funny thing with Lidia, as far as Giovanni’s temptations with both women are concerned, is that she isn’t jealous. She’s just disgusted with him. It’s a clear sign that the love has died in their marriage. This is why we see her walking off from him, going off alone so many times.

First, she has to go off alone at the hospital, after empathizing with the pain of Tommaso, the personification of her marriage to Giovanni. Then, at the promotion of his new book, La Stagione (“The Season”), she walks off again. Finally, at the Gherardinis’ party, she’s often alone.

She’s sometimes tempted by other men, directly or indirectly, as Giovanni is by young women. During her walk-off from his book promotion, after which he goes home surprised to find her not there (and turns off a recording of an English lesson, the translation of English vocabulary into Italian; his turning off of the recording is symbolically another indication of the ending of language, and therefore, of communication), she encounters some people and things that can at least symbolize, or be associated with, thoughts of her being with other men.

At one point, Giovanni lies down and naps for a bit. Lidia walks along a sidewalk with short stone posts that are phallic in shape; she touches one or two of them, and passes by an old woman who would seem to be a reflection on her own aging…and fear of further aging.

Later, having been driven around in a cab (her riding with a male driver other than her husband suggestive of an adultery fantasy), she encounters a gang of boys, two of whom get into a fistfight. Though she naturally abhors the sight of violence, and promptly stops the fight, one suspects that she–being a woman raised in a traditional society–would find two virile young men fighting to be erotically stimulating, at least on an unconscious level.

After that, she sees rockets being fired into the sky. The sight strongly suggests ejaculating phalli. Such images of virility, something that seems conspicuously lacking in mild-mannered Giovanni, suggests the root of her problems with him: he seems impotent (an at least psychological inadequacy, if not a physical one), and only able to get it up with young women. In fact, even with the wild woman in the hospital, he doesn’t seem to be aroused.

Early during her walk, she comes to the run-down buildings of some poor people and finds a child crying. Though she, as a bourgeois, is not of the poor child’s class, she nonetheless sympathizes; and her wish to comfort the child suggests her frustration at never getting to be a mother. Indeed, we know of no sons or daughters from the Pontanos.

Giovanni wakes from his nap in an agitated state, suggesting he’s just dreamt what she experienced alone outside. It’s another example, as I’ve noted in Blowup and The Passenger, of Antonioni verging on, though not quite lapsing into, the surreal, the borderline between reality and dream, or fantasy. In any case, Giovanni’s worst nightmare is being realized: she’s falling out of love with him and having adulterous thoughts of her own.

She telephones him and has him pick her up in a place where they used to live, a reminiscence of a happier time when they were still in love. In response to his worries, she says it’s “nothing”…as in Much Ado About…When he arrives, he notes a train track now covered in vegetation; he remembers when the train was once used. Back in the time when they’d lived there, their love was going places, like that train. Now, their love goes nowhere…like that train.

When they get home, she takes a bath. The scene is interesting in that it was originally censored for giving us one or two brief flashes of Moreau’s breasts. (Other scenes in the film, such as the wild woman’s seduction of Giovanni, including her undressing after their kiss, as well as his and Lidia’s rolling around in the dirt kissing at the end, and one of two ladies walking together saying ‘whore’–or ‘tart,’ depending on the translation–at the Gherardinis’ party, were also censored.) Giovanni shows no sexual interest in his naked wife, adding to her frustrations.

Night is approaching, their marriage’s ‘dark night of the soul,’ so to speak, and Lidia doesn’t want to sit around at home. They’ll go to the Gherardinis’ party, but first to a night club. She shows herself off to him in a new black dress, but he shows minimal interest, disappointing her once again.

At the night club, they watch a striptease/equilibrist perform while balancing a wine glass. The juxtaposition of Giovanni and Lidia watching a woman being undressed (by her husband?) with her balancing of a glass half-filled with wine, which she later drinks, vaguely suggests Genesis 9:20-22, when Noah got drunk and naked in his tent, and Ham saw him. Ham thus is cursed.

The shame in the scene in the film, though, is in how the erotic dancing does nothing to inspire passion in Giovanni, a passion that he could direct at Lidia. As he says to her, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” She is thus once again frustrated. Their marriage is cursed.

They arrive at the Gherardinis’ party, where the lady of the house (played by costume designer Gitt Magrini, who incidentally also played Jeanne’s mother in Last Tango in Paris) greets them.

Her husband is a curious sort: he would seem to be a socialist’s fantasy of what a boss ought to be like. Mr. Gherardini (played by Vincenzo Corbella) speaks of not being interested in making profits, but rather producing things to be remembered. He imagines that Giovanni writes out of necessity. He also offers Giovanni a job, to write the history of Gherardini’s company. Giovanni probably won’t accept the job offer: after all, as a bourgeois with a servant in his home, Giovanni would seem out of place working for a ‘socialist.’

Still, he might consider taking the job after all…if he can get closer to the Gherardinis’ pretty daughter, Valentina. Giovanni Pontano’s philandering with young women suggests that his surname is a pun on puttana, or more aptly, ‘puttano,’ a male whore.

He begins his pursuit of Valentina by playing a game she’s devised, that of sliding her compact across a floor of checkered tiles with the aim of it landing on one specified tile, to win points. By participating in this game, Giovanni is demonstrating what a ‘playa‘ he is.

He is so careless and foolish that just after the end of their game, he kisses her…and Lidia sees him do it! This is shortly after she’s learned, from having telephoned the hospital, that Tommaso has just died. She isn’t jealous of her husband with Valentina because she knows her marriage is dead.

Soon after, it starts to rain. This heavy rain can be compared to the forty days and forty nights of rain of the Great Flood. Now, the placement of the rain in the time sequence of the film is one of the few instances that don’t coordinate with the reversed time sequence I mentioned above about the major events of the early chapters of Genesis. Still, the Biblical parallels are enough to make my point about Giovanni’s and Lidia’s marriage: it’s going backward, not progressing.

The cause of the wickedness of the world leading up to the Great Flood, as described in Genesis 6:1-4, was the sons of God mating with the daughters of men, a forbidden mixture of the human and divine worlds that brought chaos to God’s ordered creation. The ‘sons of God’ of La Notte are Giovanni and Roberto (played by Giorgio Negro), who show a sexual interest in, respectively, Valentina and Lidia, the ‘daughters of men’; and the former pair pursues the latter pair before, during, and after the rain, which doesn’t quite correspond with the reverse order of the analogous events in the Bible. Still, I say the correspondences are close enough.

At first, many of the guests at the party use the rain to elevate their hilarity and fun–a number of people jump in the swimming pool, reinforcing the association with the Flood; ultimately, however, the rain causes certain crucial guests to split up and go their own ways, a breaking up of the universal socializing and communicating that is the essence of the Symbolic. Giovanni and Valentina become a dyad, and so do Lidia and Roberto.

These two dyads, metaphorical mirrors looking into each others’ eyes and reflecting each others’ egoism, are experiencing what Lacan called the Imaginary. The desire one member of each dyad has for the other is a wish to be at one with the ideal-I that is experienced in the reflected faces of their metaphorical mirrors. The one desires to be the desire of the other, or to be recognized by the other. Giovanni wants the youth and vitality of Valentina, since he’s losing his own virility with age. Lidia hopes to be a sexy, desirable woman for Roberto, since she cannot be such a woman for her husband.

So both husband and wife have regressed from engagement with the Other (society in general, mingling with many people instead of just focusing on one) to engagement with the other (just one other person, making a dyad with him or her, a transference of the mother/son or father/daughter, Oedipal pairing). These narcissistic duos, reflecting each other like mirrors, are a regression from the adult world of the Symbolic to the infantile Imaginary, and thus constitute a breaking down of communication.

Now, it isn’t so easy to regress into the secondary narcissism of the revisited Imaginary without the danger of lapsing into the terrifying chaos of the Real, which is what the Deluge-like rainfall symbolizes. Narcissism is a defence against psychological fragmentation, a falling-apart of the self and a psychotic break with reality.

Lidia is in Roberto’s car during the heavy rainfall; they are in ‘Noah’s ark,’ so to speak. We see them through the car windows, chatting with and smiling at each other, enjoying one another’s company; but we don’t hear a word they’re saying. Inside the car is the narcissistic dyad of the Imaginary; outside the car, out in the rain–like the forty days and forty nights of rain that killed everyone on Earth–is the traumatic, undifferentiated horror of the Real, what cannot be symbolized with language.

This scene in the film reminds me of what Slavoj Zižek once said about the inside and outside of a car as it relates symbolically to the Real. In Looking Awry, he commented on a passage in Robert Heinlein‘s Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. A couple are in a car driving home, but are told under no circumstances, no matter what they see, to open the windows of their car. They witness, during their drive, a child hit by a car, and naturally feel the urge to roll down a window, just a bit, to tell a patrolman about the accident. Instead of seeing all that they’ve seen through the closed windows, though, they see through the opening “Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life.” (Zižek, page 14)

So what is this “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life,” Zižek asks, “if not the Lacanian real, the pulsing of the presymbolic substance in its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside, materialized in this case by the windowpane…To those sitting inside a car, outside reality appears slightly distant, the other side of a barrier or screen materialized by the glass. We perceive external reality, the world outside the car, as ‘another reality,’ another mode of reality, not immediately continuous with the reality inside the car. The proof of this discontinuity is the uneasy feeling that overwhelms us when we suddenly roll down the windowpane and allow external reality to strike us with the proximity of its material presence…But when we are safely inside the car, behind the closed windows, the external objects are, so to speak, transposed into another mode. They appear to be fundamentally ‘unreal,’ as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis–in short, they appear as a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane. It is precisely this phenomenological experience of the barrier separating inside from outside, this feeling that the outside is ultimately ‘fictional,’ that produces the horrifying effect of the final scene in Heinlein’s novel. It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside reality had stopped working, as if, for a moment, we had been confronted with the formless grey, with the emptiness of the screen…” (Zižek, pages 14-15)

In La Notte, however, it isn’t seeing out from the inside, from the narcissistic veil of illusion out onto the harsh reality of outside, but the other way around. From the Real that is outside, one looks inside to see two people experiencing the illusion. It is just like Noah’s family and the pairs of animals, experiencing the comfort of the illusion of life, as opposed to the chaos and destruction of the Flood going on outside, killing everyone and every land animal, a return to the tohu-wa-bohu of primordial Chaos. Accordingly, Lidia can enjoy the feeling of being courted by Robert; but when they park the car and get out, and he continues his pursuit of her, she snaps out of it and realizes she cannot cheat on her husband. She has had a taste of the Real, standing out in the rain for a moment, and her narcissistic illusions have been shattered.

She cannot cheat on Giovanni, even though she knows he hasn’t been faithful to her; this is partly because of the patriarchal double standard that indulges a husband’s affairs, but not a wife’s. Also, she cannot cheat on him simply because she’s much more responsible and adult than he is. We’ve seen her smile and watch the jazz band play up close, admiring these attractive, talented men. She has gotten in the car with Roberto. But she never fully acts on her temptations as Giovanni does. She won’t even kiss Roberto.

When Giovanni and Valentina are alone in the house, she plays a tape recording she’s made of what seems affectedly poetic TV dialogue; she feels embarrassed about it, for she asks him to promise not to make fun of her for having recorded it. After playing it, he wants to hear it again, but when she rewinds it, she also erases it, considering the recording to be “drivel.” Once again, La Notte shows how the removal of language and communication vitiates relationships.

When Lidia and Roberto return, she and Giovanni have to confront each other’s temptations to adultery. Giovanni is offended at something Roberto says to him with challenging eyes, that in democracy we “take things as they come”; it would seem more reasonable to assume he’s more annoyed at Roberto being alone with his wife (i.e., free to take her as she comes) than at what he has said. As mentioned above, though, Lidia denies any feelings of jealousy over her husband’s interest in Valentina, even though he’s made no attempt to hide that interest.

Instead, she feels as if she wants to die, for she knows she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore. Like Tommaso, her marriage is dead. The Cain of her husband’s concupiscence has made her no longer able…or, Abel?…to love him anymore. Giovanni, his eyes wandering in the land of Nod, knowing those other than his wife, has murdered her love, just as Cain killed his brother.

The morning has come, and it’s time to leave the party. Giovanni and Lidia decide to walk through Mr. Gherardini’s golf course. She finally tells Giovanni about Tommaso’s death; he’s annoyed that she didn’t mention it earlier, but he was playing (i.e., the game with Valentina with her compact slid across the checkered tiles–trying to seduce her). With the mention of Tommaso’s death comes her final confrontation with Giovanni about the end of her love for him…and vice versa.

She reads him an impassioned love letter she’s had in her purse. Though he’s visibly moved by the letter’s contents, he has forgotten that he, in fact, wrote it long ago, back when he still truly loved her. His obliviousness to what he wrote proves his love, too, has died–how his ineptitude with language has ruined their relationship.

He won’t accept this painful truth, though, so he makes unwanted sexual advances on her. They’ve been sitting by a group of trees, him rolling on top of her in the dirt. This moment is comparable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

His pitiful attempt at lovemaking reminds us of St. Augustine‘s interpretation of original sin, coming from concupiscence, or involuntary desire, which has been plaguing their marriage from the beginning. His uncontrolled arousal was directed at women other than Lidia; this same involuntary arousal was no longer directed at her, so when he tries to make love with her there, it’s fake, and she knows it (i.e., she knows he hasn’t got an erection–he’s impotent). He’d wished, in his love letter, for his love for her to be immortal, but not even his memory of the letter was immortal. Small wonder she, too, has looked outside their marriage for love.

His attempt at lovemaking is so fake that it should be obvious even to him that his love for her died long ago. He knows, as if from eating the…here, bitter…fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that their love is dead. Only his narcissism would push him to hide his shame by pretending to feel desire for her, paradoxically related to the shame that made Adam and Eve want to hide their genital arousal by covering it with fig leaf aprons.

They roll in the dirt of his concupiscence, for Giovanni, like Adam, is dust, and like their marriage, to dust shall he return. From the Tower of Babel of the opening credits, to the…Edenic?…ending of the film, their marriage has gone backwards, not forwards.

This ‘Edenic’ ending is not a return to the lost paradise, for Giovanni and Lidia remain in their fallen state; they know their love is dead–they aren’t the naïve, unknowing naked pair before having eaten the forbidden fruit. Fully clothed, they’re like Adam and Eve only after God has clothed them in animal skins.

Now, it isn’t that sex per se is dirty, as Augustine conceived it; it’s that desire isn’t controlled–it’s misdirected. Sex itself didn’t bring about the Fall of Man; God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Childless Giovanni and Lidia were never fruitful. Desire brought about the fall of, respectively, both the naked and the clothed couples of the Bible and La Notte. The Buddhists agree that it’s desire that is the root of human suffering, and the Pontanos’ misdirected desire has been causing their suffering throughout the dark night of their marriage.

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, OCTOBER Books, London, 1991

Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio Cortázar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with Cortázar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed), this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in Cortázar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In Cortázar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj Zižek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (Zižek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In Cortázar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.