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Category Archives: David Cronenberg

Cover of "The Dead Zone (Special Collecto...

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It is early 1974, “in Washington, Richard Nixon was being pressed slowly into a corner, wrapped in a snarl of magnetic tapes. […] In Room 619 of the Eastern Maine Medical Center, Johnny Smith still slept. He had begun to pull into a fetal shape.”[1]

In Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone, adapted to cinema by David Cronenberg, the main character Johnny Smith stays in a coma for five years. He wakes up to a cold winter to find himself with a limp, and separated from his girlfriend. Johnny starts to see evil everywhere; he reads the consequences of the evil thoughts in people’s minds across time. A sense for evil, together with an ability to see the past, the present and the future, means it becomes impossible for Johnny to bear the burden of being in the world. He comes to realize that what he thought was an extraordinary psychic power is in fact an evil curse which makes life inordinately painful. Willing to escape from this unbearable situation that is turning him into the playground of good and evil, he falls deeper into the trap of a monstrous man, Gregg Stillson, the embodiment of evil in the world, who finds out Johnny’s secret and wants to abuse it. Johnny takes the wrong turn, because he didn’t know that “the dreadful had already happened.” Directed by the monstrous man he “wills nothingness rather than not will,” and dies a tragic death at the end.  

Little by little this brawny young dock-walloper had severed his connections with the world, wasting away, losing his hair, optic nerves degenerating into oatmeal behind his closed eyes, body gradually drawing up into a fetal position as his ligaments shortened. He had reversed time, had become a fetus again, swimming in the placental waters of coma as his brain degenerated. An autopsy following his death had shown that the folds and convolutions of his cerebrum had smoothed out, leaving the frontal and prefrontal lobes almost utterly smooth and blank.[2]       

Johnny’s rearrival, his return from the unconscious to the conscious state, from the land of the dead to the world of the living, with extraordinary psychic powers, a sense of omnipotence which turns out to be the source of death, is described by King in terms of a rebirth, a coming out of the womb after the second (nearer) death experience.

Johnny Smith is at first almost exactly the opposite of a clinical and criminal psychotic. Johnny does not identify, he refuses to believe in other worldly things, there is no struggle between good and evil in his world, in his world there is no evil, no third party. In Johnny’s world there is only him, Sarah, and their “eternal love.”  Living in an illusory heaven, Johnny is unaware of the dangers surrounding him, but in King’s world the evil shall surely show his multiple faces to scare the hell out of those people.

After the tragic and yet banal accident Johnny becomes a clinical but not a criminal psychotic. Johnny identifies himself with Jesus, he refuses to believe in the world as it is, there begins a constant struggle between good and evil in his mind. He has lost Sarah and their eternal love, and the evil forces surrounding their earlier happiness prevail. Johnny’s illusory heaven becomes an illusory hell. As usually happens in King’s world the evil shows his multiple faces and scares the hell out of the reader.

King’s novels are cathartic in a very Aristotelian sense of the word. And yet it’s precisely this cathartic effect disguised as subversive and critical of the established order that reproduces the order and produces psychotic replicas. King is a very unique example of how monstrous a unification of the therapeutic and the critical can be. There are two traumatic incidents leaving their traces on his life as Johnny goes along the way towards death. In this novel which is difficult to categorize as “horror” unless that is what horror actually is, Johnny Smith finds himself in an unbearable situation that sends him to an early grave. What seems to him to be a gift of life turns out to be a gift of death. Johnny is cursed by a “second sight” after two banal accidents, one in early childhood, one in adolescence, which submit him to the domination of the “power” of his wounds. And with the already there circumstances, that is, a society dying to believe in “the power of the wound,” “apocalypse,” “return of the living dead,” “transcendental experiences” and so on, Johnny becomes a tragic, Christ-like hero who feels compelled to sacrifice himself for the deliverance of salvation to the people. His mother sees it as an occasion for celebration that Johnny is mortally wounded when they tell her that he is in a coma: “God has put his mark on my Johnny and I rejoice.”[3]                  

Choose, something inside whispered. Choose or they’ll choose for you, they’ll rip you out of this place, whatever and wherever it is, like doctors ripping a baby out of its mother’s womb by cesarian section.[4]

And in accordance with the demands of his “inner voice,” Johnny Smith, in The Dead Zone, chooses resurrection. After five years of deep coma Johnny wakes up to a nightmare and finds himself as the one whose destiny it has become after two banal accidents of life to set things right and prevent heaven’s becoming hell. King knows that the reader’s assumption is that there is something inside to be protected from the external threats. The desire of the reader is the desire of the threat as external rather than internal to the self. King satisfies the reader’s desire by giving him/her the most beloved son Johnny as the gift: “the gift of death” as Derrida would have put it. Johnny fulfils the reader’s desire not only for an external threat but also for a saviour hero from within, one of “us.” Johnny emerges from his coma as the embodiment of the Christ-like figure, King’s son, whose mission it is to die and preserve the heaven-like qualities of this small American town in particular, and the universe in general.

 Upon his return to the symbolic order, from the unconscious state of coma, Johnny finds himself surrounded by people who are trying to exploit his extraordinary psychic powers, confronted with what Freud, in On Narcissism, calls “hallucinatory wishful psychosis” on a social level. It’s as though the whole society is in the grip of a paralysis and through their collective hallucination they cling to life. And Johnny becomes not only the thread tying them to their illusions, but also the one who preserves those illusions by sacrificing himself. Since this aspect of Johnny’s melodramatic story is more precisely expressed in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the novel, I now turn to Cronenberg’s film.

Cronenberg emphasizes that Greg Stillson is the man who is the manipulator, the one who creates and sells illusionary images of himself. In Cronenberg’s film Johnny’s visions are placed directly in opposition to Stillson’s fantastic images of self. Towards the end of the film, Johnny, no more able to stand the half-dead life he is living in isolation, decides to put his visions to a good use. He attends one of Stillson’s campaigns and shakes Stillson’s hand to see into him. What Johnny sees is Stillson as the evil president of the future, who has the fate of the whole world in his control. Johnny sees him pressing the button of a nuclear bomb behind closed doors. Finally Johnny makes up his mind and at a later Stillson campaign, this time in a church, attempts to assassinate Stillson. Sarah is there with her baby, and she notices Johnny just as he is about to pull the trigger. Distracted by Sarah’s cry, Johnny misses the target. Stillson takes Sarah’s baby and holds it up as a shield against Johnny’s bullets. Meanwhile Johnny is being shot by Stillson’s guards. A photographer takes Stillson’s picture while he is using the baby as a shield and this picture becomes the front cover of the Time magazine, not only ending Stillson’s career as a politician but also leading him to suicide.    

In the film the atmosphere is extremely melancholic. Johnny is portrayed as a much more repressed, melodramatic individual who at the same time has a romantic vision of life. The traumatic incident, the time he spends in the dead zone, magnifies his will to transcend his body which he sees as a source of agony. He pushes himself further towards isolation to escape from the increasingly sharpening visions. Remember that Johnny sees in the past, present, and future of other people through touching them. Touching another person is a cause of pain for Johnny. As his visions sharpen and turn into sources of pain he moves away from intersubjectivity and towards introversion. It is one of the characteristics of Romanticism to consider trauma, suffering, pain, disaster as possibilities of transcending the flesh. In Cronenberg’s “romanticism turned against itself” we see exactly the opposite. In Cronenberg after the traumatic incident it is a regressive process that starts taking its course, rather than a progressive movement towards eternal bliss. The problem with Cronenberg’s inversion of romanticism is that he still sees the movement towards eternal bliss, towards jouissance as progressive; the difference between the classical romanticism and Cronenberg’s inverted neo-romanticism is that Cronenberg considers that progress to be impossible.

It is at the sight of their condition, upon the realization of the situation they are caught in, that Cronenberg’s characters recoil in horror. And it is at the sight of this that Cronenberg expects the spectator to recoil in horror in a fashion similar to his characters.


 

[1] Stephen King, The Dead Zone, (London: TimeWarner, 1979),100

[2] King, 82

[3] King, The Dead Zone, 71

[4]King, 111

Cover of "Dead Ringers"

Cover of Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers

With Dead Ringers (1988) Cronenberg shows the consequences of an attempt to get rid of the space between the me and the not me. The illusory absence of difference between Mantle twins Beverly and Elliot is their own creation. They identify with one another so much that they think they are one split soul living one life in two different bodies. When they are discussing the deteriorating condition of Beverly, Claire says to Elliot that he shouldn’t identify with Beverly, distance himself from him, and live his own life separate from Beverly. In response to Claire’s suggestion Elliot says, “But the drugs he takes are running in my veins.” Beverly and Elliot are twice split. They are not only split from their mother by birth, but also from one another. They are divided within and against themselves. Let us start from the beginning to make more sense of what happens in Dead Ringers.

Right at the beginning of the film we see Beverly and Elliot, in childhood, talking about the difference between the copulation of fish and humans. One of them suggests that fish are able to reproduce without having sex, and that if humans were living under the water they wouldn’t need to have sex to copulate. They would simply internalise the water through which they would copulate. At the prospect of copulation without touching, the other twin responds by saying, “I like the idea.” The next scene shows Beverly and Elliot approaching a girl and asking her if she wanted to have sex with them in a bathtub as an experiment. They are aggressively rejected and accused of talking dirty.

 From the very beginning Beverly and Elliot see science as a means to attain sex objects and sex objects as means to carry out their scientific projects. A further hint at their tendency to see the female body as something to be experimented upon is given in the following scene where they are seen operating on a plastic doll pinned down on the table. This is their play. For them the object of desire is at the same time the object of science, and science is a form of play. Their diagnosis concerning the patient is intra ovular surgery.

From the year 1954 we shift to the year 1967. Beverly and Elliot are in the faculty of medicine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We see them applying their surgical instrument, their own invention, on a cadaver in the autopsy room. In stark contrast to the professor’s negative attitude towards their radical new instrument, the next scene shows Elliot receiving a gold plate model of their instrument as a prize for their contribution to gynaecology. At home Beverly is working on their future contributions to the field.

The differences between Beverly and Elliot become more obvious with the entry of Claire to their life. Beverly comes to understand that he is different from his brother through his different way of being in relation to Claire. While Elliot sees Claire as merely an object of play (sex and science), rather than as another person, Beverly is more affectionate and wants to sincerely engage in a profound interaction with Claire. And yet Claire’s sexual identity, that is, her masochistic tendency to occupy a passive and submissive position in the relationship makes it impossible for Beverly to escape from the double bind situation he finds himself in. The whole film is a narrative of how one falls into a double bind situation and why it is impossible to escape from this double bind without having to die. 

In Dead Ringers the Mantle twins are locked in the mirror stage. Death emerges as the only way to escape from this entrapment in an endlessly self-perpetuating process of projective identification. Their minoritarian nature, having been born identical twins, leads them to study the womb as the monster that gave birth to them. The Mantle twins’ fascination with deformed wombs, and the instruments they invent to act upon those deformations reflect their deviant relation to birth, motherhood, and sexuality.    

At the culmination of the historical effort of a society to refuse to recognize that it has any function other than the utilitarian one, and in the anxiety of the individual confronting the ‘concentrational’ form of the social bond that seems to arise to crown this effort, existentialism must be judged by the explanations it gives of the subjective impasses that have indeed resulted from it; a freedom that is never more authentic than when it is within the walls of a prison; a demand for commitment, expressing the impotence of a pure consciousness to master any situation; a voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of the sexual relation; a personality that realizes itself only in suicide; a consciousness of the other than can be satisfied only by Hegelian murder.[1]

In the relationship between Beverly and Elliot, the other consciousness is at the same time the consciousness of the self. Beverly and Elliot think that they are the same and yet different from one another at the same time. An impossible situation is situated in the context of gynaecology and the psychic life of a male gynaecologist’s relation to a female patient is used to show what happens when art-sex-science become one. The “voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of sexual relation” Lacan is talking about is precisely the Mantle twins’ relation to the female body and sex. Because they see themselves as a deviation from the norm, they see their mother as the birth giver of an abnormality. Their fascination with the ill-formed female body thus gains a significance in terms of their relation to their mother and birth.

The very existence of imagination means that you can posit an existence different from the one you’re living. If you are trying to create a repressive society in which people will submit to whatever you give them, then the very fact of them being able to imagine something else—not necessarily better, just different—is a threat. So even on that very simple level, imagination is dangerous. If you accept, at least to some extent, the Freudian dictum that civilization is repression, then imagination—and an unrepressed creativity—is dangerous to civilization. But it’s a complex formula; imagination is also an innate part of civilization. If you destroy it, you might also destroy civilization.[2] 

Cronenberg is a much more Freudian director than he would dare to admit.

Writing was in its origin the voice of an absent person; and the dwelling-house was a substitute for the mother’s womb, the first lodging, for which in all likelihood man still longs, and in which he was safe and felt at ease.[3]

Freud says that reality and fantasy, external and internal, the self and the world, the psychic and the material are in conflict and that this conflict is always experienced as pain. To compensate for the pain of this fragmentary existence man writes and tries to form a unity which he believes to have once been present and after which he is destined to strive. In Freud’s vision the subject is always in pursuit of an unattainable sense of wholeness, what he calls the “oceanic feeling.” And yet, Freud says, the subject can turn this negative situation into a positive one by creating works of art and literature in the way of producing at-one-ment with the world, although for Freud, this at-one-ment is impossible to attain, and if literature has any therapeutic effect at all, it is only to the extent of turning indescribable misery into ordinary unhappiness. Freud says, “the substitutive satisfactions, as offered by art, are illusions in contrast with reality, but they are none the less psychically effective, thanks to the role which phantasy has assumed in mental life.”[4]

Freud’s idea that imagination in general and writing in particular is a desperate attempt to return to the womb, to the state of being before birth, is clearly manifest in Dead Ringers. In the womb Beverly/Elliot was one and their choice of profession is a sign of their striving for that long lost oneness within themselves, with each other, and with their mother. What Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, calls the “oceanic feeling,” that is, the security of existence within the womb, tied to the mother with the umbilical cord, and swimming in the placental waters in foetal shape without the danger of drowning, is what the Mantle twins are striving for. According to Cronenberg they wish they were fish. Cronenberg sees barbaric regress as an inevitable consequence of progress.

This gives us our indication for therapeutic procedure – to afford opportunity for formless experience, and for creative impulses, motor and sensory, which are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence. No longer are we either introvert or extrovert. We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.[5]

Freud’s and Winnicott’s methods of therapy are based on the pursuit of a lacking sense of unity of self and the world. This form of therapeutic procedure forces the subject to ego formation, normalization, and submissiveness to the existing order of meaning. Freud considers the state of being in harmony with the world as the sign of health and development of the capacity to repress the drives and making sharp distinctions between the internal and external worlds, and between the conscious and the unconscious mind as a sign of progress. Although Winnicott, like Freud, assumes that there is an originary split between the internal and the external worlds, he at the same time differs from Freud in that his therapeutic process involves some kind of a journey that the therapist takes with the patient. In this kind of therapeutic relationship the therapist engages in a spontaneous interaction through playing with the rules of the game itself. In this process the role of the therapist is to render the patient capable of learning to play. In turn the therapist himself learns to relate to the patient through a kind of unconscious communication. 

What we have both in the Mantle twins and Freud and Winnicott then, is a will to transcend the material world through material tools. Mantle twins’ aim is to go beyond the material world and unite with one another in a dimension where the psychic and the material, the self and the other become one. The surgical instruments Beverly invents after Claire goes away for two weeks, are parallel to his mental deterioration. As he turns against himself, so do the surgical instruments turn into weapons against the patients. The sharp and pointed instruments represent Beverly’s regressive movement towards aggressive barbarism. The Mantle Retractor is replaced by objects to dig into the body.  These instruments are a result of Beverly’s attempt to externalise the illusory space created by loss of the object of love. By digging holes he thinks he will have restored himself. The instruments he creates eventually turn against him and his brother, destroying both in the process.

 

Videodrome

It is a recurrent theme of Cronenberg films that what the subject himself created turns against the subject and becomes the very cause of the subject’s death. In Videodrome (1982) for instance we see Max, the victim of a video program which is inserted into the subject’s body and possessed, the subject acts unconsciously in the service of the monstrous forces behind the screen. All Videodrome tapes do is to bring out what’s already in the subject. That is, make the subject’s unconscious fantasies appear on the surface of the screen. In other words it turns the subject into a projection-introjection mechanism. At the end of the movie we see Max’s hand turning into the gun he was holding. He is seeing himself on the screen killing himself, and in the next scene he is killing himself in front of the screen onto which he had already projected the scenario of his own death. He introjects what he himself projects, and what he projects is already an effect of what he had introjected. What we have here is a deconstruction of the relationship between the screen and the mirror.  Not only the screen is a mirror, but also the mirror is a screen. The Videodrome tapes are the partial-objects which when united through the subject’s body, take over the body and manifest themselves in the actions of the subject. The subject becomes, in a way, an object of violence against itself and others.


[1] Jacques Lacan,  Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1977), 7

[2] David Cronenberg, Croneberg on Cronenberg, ed. Chris Rodley (London; Faber and Faber, 191992), 169

[3] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1985), 279

[4] Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents, 262

[5] Donald Winnicott, Playing and Reality, (London: Tavistock, 1971), 64

 

  1. David Cronenberg – Introduction
  2. David Cronenberg – National Velvet, 1963 – Empire, 1964 – Andy Warhol by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1986
  3. David Cronenberg – Troy Diptych, 1962
  4. David Moss, David Cronenberg, Dennis Hopper, Amy Taubin, James Rosenquist – Couch, 1964
  5. David Cronenberg – Red Disaster, 1963
  6. David Cronenberg, Dennis Hopper, James Rosenquist, Amy Taubin – Screen Tests, Selected Participants, 1964-66
  7. David Cronenberg – Elvis I and II, 1963
  8. Elvis Presley – Flaming Star
  9. Dennis Hopper, David Cronenberg, James Rosenquist – Sleep, 1963
  10. David Cronenberg – Foot and Tire, 1963-64
  11. David Cronenberg – Sixteen Jackies, 1964
  12. David Cronenberg, Miriam Davidson – Miriam Davidson, 1965
  13. Mary-Lou Green – Haircut No. 1, late 1963
  14. David Cronenberg – Five Deaths, 1963
  15. David Cronenberg – Kiss, 1963 – Silver Disaster #6, 1963 – Blow Job, early 1964
  16. David Cronenberg – White, 1963
  17. David Cronenberg – Tunafish Disaster, 1963
  18. 18. David Cronenberg – Race Riot
  19. David Cronenberg – Most Wanted Men No. 2, John Victor G., 1964
  20. Amy Taubin, David Cronenberg – Silent Speed, Andy’s First Films
  21. David Cronenberg – Underground Filmmaking in the 60s

Recorded at The Art Gallery of Ontario
Friday, May 19. 2006

In July, he is curating an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. “Andy was making underground films when I was making underground films,” the director said. “And I was more inspired by him than by Hollywood. He created himself: He was an outsider, a Slovakian, Catholic, gay, an artist, poor; an outsider in his own family, a triple outsider like Kafka, with his nose pressed against the New York window. And, he became the ultimate insider, the center of his own world, and drew people to him. He became a huge example of the invention of an identity.” In fact, a Cronenberg character.

Conceived and narrated by renowned filmmaker David Cronenberg to accompany the exhibition Andy Warhol/Supernova:Stars Death and Disasters, 1962-1964. Commentary by David Cronenberg, Mary-Lou Green, Dennis Hopper, David Moos,James Rosenquist and Amy Taubin.

Director David Cronenberg explains the debt he owes to Andy Warhol’s bizarre and chillingly prophetic work

Monday September 11, 2006
The Guardian

Empire is the classic. It was outrageous – yet somehow it worked. An eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building, it was high concept, not in the Hollywood sense, but the art sense. It’s got potency, resonance. Andy even said the Empire State Building was a star. It’s so New York, which was the centre of the artistic universe at the time, the 1960s. That’s why I decided to begin the Andy Warhol show I am curating with Empire.

I can’t recall when I first saw a Warhol. I feel as though he was always in my consciousness. I started making films at the same time he did, and the New York underground scene is what influenced me – and that was Andy. He didn’t think you needed access to anything to do what he was doing – just grab a camera, do your own thing, and it’ll work.

Preparing this exhibition, I was initially planning to ignore the films. It seemed too obvious to bring a film-maker in and for him to choose the films. But I didn’t have to dig deep to realise it would be a major oversight. Andy started the silk screens, the film-making and the Death and Disaster series at the same time. Everything influenced everything.

By taking photos from Life magazine and newspapers, he was democratising art. He saw everything as having artistic potential. When he picked up a camera, he just shot what was there in front of him: the people he knew, the people who stumbled into his studio. So there was that link between his art and his film-making.

Andy saw a great connection between celebrity and death. Although he worshipped celebrities, he was aware that there were different kinds of celebrity, and that celebrity was somehow involved with death. Someone asked him what he was working on when he was doing his celebrity stuff, and he replied: “Death.” He only started to work on the Marilyn silk screens after she’d committed suicide.

Because of the newspapers, he saw that anyone could be plucked out of obscurity and become famous, but only for that day, for that 15 minutes. Death – some bizarre, strange, spectacular death – would do it. Hence his Tuna Fish Disaster: two women in a suburb of Detroit became front-page news because they had eaten tainted tuna fish sandwiches and died.

I’ve also included Elvis’s hit song Flaming Star in my show, to accompany Andy’s painting. I was going to sing it myself but we managed to get the rights, so we have Elvis’s version. If Andy were around, I would have asked him to sing it. Elvis was a flaming star. It’s naive to think Andy wasn’t aware of that, and of how dark the movie that featured the song was. It was a western, and westerns could be all kinds of things; every second movie was a western in those days. But Flaming Star is about racism, and everyone dies in it, including Elvis.

Andy was a celebraholic. He would go to all the movies and read all the tabloids. He wasn’t anti-Hollywood; he loved it. But he had created his own universe in New York and become its star. Being gay, Slovakian and an artist from Pittsburgh, he never felt he could storm Hollywood. So he created his own stars, called them superstars, made his own movies and had his own studio. That’s how he dealt with that desire he had to belong, to be immortalised. And there was nothing superficial about his work. It would be easy to dismiss the flowers or soup cans as flippant or ironic, but Andy was never ironic. He said he ate Campbell’s tomato soup every day as a child and an adult. It had huge significance for him.

Andy was very shy. He didn’t like to be touched. He liked to say he was completely asexual, although I don’t think that was true. He liked to be among people, but found it difficult. He said the reason he made his first film – Sleep, about a person who was asleep – was so that he didn’t have to talk or interact with him. It was his way of working with an inanimate object, because the actor was genuinely sleeping.

Andy was doubtless shocked by JFK’s death, but there’s no way he could have identified with Jack, who was too butch and macho. He would have been with Jackie. She becomes the centre of the anguish of the Kennedy assassination. Those works [the Jackie Kennedy silkscreens] are very emotional. Andy became Jackie in the end. He had a tremendous identification with the people he put in his art. He became Elvis, too, and the electric chair.

It’s fitting that this show will be running on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I think Andy would have thought the attacks an obvious thing to do. The assault on symbols, the way they combined death and disaster – what could have been more Warholian? In his era, it would have been the Empire State Building. He would have understood the symbolism; he would have seen that much more than buildings were being attacked. The images of people jumping out of the buildings – he had already done paintings like that. It was a bizarre prophecy. He was very prophetic and accurate in his understanding of America, of commercialism, of capitalism, of its flaws and strengths.

Interview by Matthew Hays.

· Andy Warhol Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962-64, curated by David Cronenberg, is at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, until October 22, 2006

RELATED RESOURCES:
Andy Warhol in UbuWeb Film

UbuWeb Sound | UbuWeb

 organ without a body

The Naked Lunch I am concerned with here is David Cronenberg’s film about William Burroughswriting process of Naked Lunch. The film, rather than being a direct adaptation of the novel, is a distillation of Burroughs’s life as he strives to write himself out of the past. We see Burroughs progressively deteriorating to the level of a dumb beast as he tries to make sense of his sufferings in and through writing. In the introduction he wrote for the 1985 edition of his earlier novel Queer, the writing of which dates back to 1953 following the two years period of depression, guilt, and anxiety ridden self-hatred after his accidental shooting of his wife Joan in September 1951, Burroughs, in an almost confessional manner, explicates the sources of his compulsion to write. Writing, for Burroughs, represents his lifelong pursuit of getting out of consciousness and reaching the area between fantasy and reality.

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.[1]

The death of Joan creates a space within Burroughs into which he escapes, and attempts to fill with his writings. Cronenberg explicates what Burroughs had already implied in his introduction to Queer. In the film writing in particular and creativity in general is shown to be a response to a traumatic incident, that is, production of fantasies to compensate for the horrors of life. As the film proceeds so does the mental deterioration of Bill Lee who represents Burroughs in the movie. The first signs of Lee’s split come when he is arrested by two policemen for “the possession of dangerous substances.” What they are talking about is the bug-powder which, Lee, who has given up writing to become a bug exterminator, uses to kill insects. The two policemen ask him to demonstrate his profession. One of them puts an insect the size of a hand on a pile of bug powder to see if the insect will die. As the insect begins moving its wings, arms, and legs they leave the room and Lee with the insect. As soon as they leave the room the insect tells Lee through a mouth-anus at its back that it has instructions for him, that it comes from the Interzone, that his wife Joan is not actually human and that he has to kill her. The insect asks Lee if he could put some bug powder on its mouth-anus upon the application of which it starts to make noises and movements as if in an orgy. In the next scene we are in reality and Joan is asking Lee to put some bug powder on her lips. As wee see a few scenes later that the mouth-anus turns out to be the abyss, the bottomless depth, or the space in-between fantasy and reality in which Lee loses himself and shoots his wife.

This presentation of fantasy and reality side by side occurs throughout the film. It is when the gap between fantasy and reality disappears that the Unconscious manifests itself. In the case of Bill Lee the undesired event is pushed back into the unconscious in turn causing an accumulation of sadistic impulses in him. These sadistic impulses are then externalized in and through writing. For Burroughs writing was cathartic in that it liberated the untamed drives and prevented the manifestation of aggression in the external world. In Cronenberg what we see is almost the opposite of this attitude to writing. As we know from Dead Ringers, Videodrome, and eXistenZ, for Cronenberg writing and creativity have destructive rather than therapeutic effects on the writer. In the film Bill Lee emerges as the culmination of these two opposing views on not only the creative process but also the relationship between the creator and the creation, the subject and the object, mind and body. As the arena of this conflict Bill Lee’s world is that of the one in-between the internal and the external worlds, the Interzone, or in psychoanalytic terms the Unconscious, the Real, where there is no self or not self.

Interzone is Tangiers on the North African coast where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in 1953. In those days it was a place of escape for the self-exiled artists and artisans. At Interzone everyone has their own particular universality in one big universal cesspool and that cesspool is Lee’s fantasy world. The Real, or the Unconscious, is impossible to represent and all those monsters, bug-typewriters, and disgusting images are only the creations of Lee’s hallucinating mind. In it every universality is surrounded by many other universalities and each universality is a body without organs. Upon arrival at the Interzone Lee starts to see his typewriter as an insect resembling the one which he had first encountered in the interrogation room at the police station. The bug-typewriter becomes the mouth-anus mechanism, the partial object opening a gap through language in-between the body without organs and the organ without a body.

Orality is naturally prolonged in cannibalism and anality in the case of which partial objects are excreta, capable of exploding the mother’s body, as well as the body of the infant. The bits of one are always the persecutors of the other, and, in this abominable mixture which constitutes the Passion of the nursing infant, persecutor and persecuted are always the same. In this system of mouth-anus or aliment-excrement, bodies burst and cause other bodies to burst in a universal cesspool.[2]

Here Deleuze is referring to Melanie Klein’s Psychoanalysis of Children. The state of being which Deleuze summarizes is the paranoid-schizoid position of the child, the world of simulacra. At this stage, which preceeds Lacan’s mirror stage, the child is not yet capable of identification. There is an introjection-projection mechanism going on but the objects, internal and external, are experienced as bad objects. The conception of goodness has not yet developed in the child. Since there is no good object for the child to identify with there is no condition of possibility for the identificatory process with a good or a bad object, there is no self or not self.

The paranoid-schizoid position is followed by the manic-depressive position in which identification with a good object takes place. The passage from paranoid-schizoid introjection-projection to manic-depressive identification is the process of passing through the Interzone, or in Lacan’s words “traversing the fantasy.” In Deleuze’s terms this process is the hovering of an impersonal consciousness over the transcendental field of partial objects. The bug-typewriter is Lee’s impersonal consciousness manifesting itself in the form of a paranoid fantasy, a body without organs which is pretending to be an organ without a body. In fact it is neither a body without organs nor an organ without a body and yet it is both at the same time. It is a becoming in between being and non-being.

Cronenberg’s move is away from Burroughs’s Kafkaesque understanding of the body as metaphor and towards a Deleuzean narrative of the metamorphosis of the body in a literal sense. All those self-destructive creators are inverted into the spotlight in and through Croneberg’s films and this enables Cronenberg to contemplate on the creative process as an inversion of destructive process and fill the film with this contemplation. What we see in Naked Lunch is the death drive in conflict with the life drive.

In Deleuze the body without organs is the metaphor of the death drive. And since the death drive is a response to the fragmentation of the self, it can only take the form of a paranoid fantasy projected onto the Real. The body without organs is the partial objects brought together in a totalizing way, in a way that deprives them of their partialities.

What the schizoid position opposes to bad partial objects—introjected and projected, toxic and excremental, oral and anal—is not a good object, even if it were partial. What is opposed is rather an organism without parts, a body without organs, with neither mouth nor anus, having given up all introjection or projection, and being complete, at this price.[3]

The body without organs, then, is the absence of a connection between the subject’s inside and outside. The subject, in a state of total negation, neither eats nor excretes. It eats nothingness itself and becomes the catatonic (w)hole. It is not out of the body without organs that the subject is born but from the paranoid-schizoid position which consists of a not yet formed consciousness, an impersonal consciousness violently attacking the external world and splitting the given unities. As opposed to the body without organs it consists of projection and introjection of the partial objects surrounding the subject to create fantasies such as an illusionary ego, and learns to keep the body without organs, or the Real at bay. The paranoid-schizoid position is followed by the manic-depressive position which corresponds to the formation of the super-ego and the sustenance of a balance between id, ego, and super-ego.

Burroughs’s cut-up and fold-in techniques appear to be the two constituent parts of his defense mechanism against the spectre of Joan haunting him. To escape from the paralyzing state of being haunted by the spectre, that is, not to turn into a body without organs, he carries the projection-introjection mechanism to its furthest and literally and unconsciously puts words and sentences, partial objects, next to and within each other to make up discontinuities, cause ruptures and keep the Real at bay. Through giving a voice to the Real as it is before symbolization, Burroughs’s intends to prevent it from becoming real, from being actualized  hence submitting the governance of his actions to an external force. It is this mechanism of repression inherent in the cut-up technique that causes what it tries to cure. The cut-up technique involves literally cutting-up passages and putting them together as a new text which would be neither the one nor the other, hence deforming the syntax. The fold-in technique involves folding into each other the different parts of the same text, hence distorting the order of time. In both states what is at stake is a total negation of the external world as a result of its being considered as hostile. In Burroughs the paranoid fantasy projected on the real replaces reality with its inverted version, that is, Burroughs turns what he imagines the external world to be against itself by creating a paranoid fantasy involving a scenario in which the subject believes itself to be governed by an internally constituted external and evil force. Burroughs discovered cut-up and fold-in techniques as a defense mechanism against the paranoid fantasy he constructed around himself. To get out of this mad symbolic world, he decided to slash it into pieces and connect it with other texts that are themselves torn apart.

Burroughs’s cut-up technique is a result of his search for a way of desymbolizing the paranoid symbolic world he had constructed and projected onto the external world. Burroughs thought resymbolization was therapeutic in that it gave voice to the evil within in the way of expelling it. Cut-up technique aims at desymbolizing the totalitarian system surrounding the subject and was a defense against the totalitarian nature of this resymbolization. Burroughs himself admits in a letter written to Kerouac shortly after beginning to use the cut-up and fold-in techniques that “writing now causes me an almost unendurable pain.”[4] In Naked Lunch the movie, the theme of the materiality of language recurs through the encounters between the bug-typewriter and Bill Lee. Bill Lee creates an insect within, projects it onto his typewriter, and talks with it.  His creations have taken on lives of their own and are doing and saying things mostly against him.

  • (via silent-musings)In Nova Express, Burroughs’s 1964 text, The Invisible Man says, “These colourless sheets are what flesh is made from—Becomes flesh when it has colour and writing—That is Word and Image write the message that is you on colourless sheets determine all flesh.”[5] Burroughs had a strong sense of the materiality of language. When he has The Invisible Man say “becomes flesh when it has colour and writing” he is in a way referring to the Unconscious as the invisible man who is striving to become visible to himself and to others in and through language.

 Foucault’s interpretation of Bentham’s Panoptic mechanism becomes relevant here. In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault presents the Panopticon as a metaphor of how power operates within modern western society. A revolutionary apparatus for its time (19th century), the Panopticon was more than just a model of prison for Foucault, it was a mechanism to keep an absent eye on the prisoner, to keep them under control at all times.

The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.[6]

The formulation of the concept of the Panopticon involves not only seeing without being seen, but also a mechanism that imposes both their differences and their resemblances upon the subjects. So the subject’s difference from other subjects is itself externally constituted, but is also internal to the subject. The subject is the product of the mechanism in which the subject finds/loses itself, and participates in the setting of the trap. Some subjects are produced in such a way as to act on an illusory sense of consciousness, that they are in control of their lives and events surrounding them, that they are freely choosing their destiny, when in fact all the rules and possibilities of action are always already set. In a panoptic mechanism taking on passive and submissive roles brings wealth, love, health, and even happiness. In a panoptic mechanism everyone is a slave, but some are less so than the others. In a panoptic mechanism submissiveness brings power. The system is such that the subject, to feel secure, takes on a passive role. In return the subject is recognized as worthy of a higher step on the social ladder, which brings an illusionary sense of security. The efficiency of the panoptic mechanism depends on its ability to produce submissive/adaptive/rational subjects.

Panopticomania

Burroughs’s mind works exactly like a panoptic mechanism. And I think this has been one of the major concerns of Cronenberg throughout the shooting of the Naked Lunch. What we have in the movie is a man who has been caught up in a trap that he himself set. Bill Lee projects the construct of his psyche onto the external world and it is by doing this that he finds/loses himself in the trap, dismembered. The paranoid fantasy he constructs becomes so powerful that it engulfs him causing his detachment from the external world and leading to the eventual loss of the gap between fantasy and reality. It as this point that the Real slips through and tears him apart. He, in his mind, literally becomes a slashed monster, sees himself thus, as he is not, and becomes other than himself. His becoming-other, however, is in the wrong direction, or rather results in a confusion concerning the relationship between the subject and the object.

Burroughs believed that literature gives birth to action. He also saw writing itself as an action. At the end of the film we see Bill Lee at the border on his way back to Annexia from the Interzone. Two guards ask him what his occupation is. He says he is a writer. They want him to demonstrate. He takes out the gun from his pocket. Joan is at the back of the car. It’s time for their William Tell routine. Joan puts a glass on her head. Lee misses the glass and shoots Joan on the head. The guards are satisfied. The spectator witnesses this crime and remembers the person irrelevantly looking out of the window when they were slaughtering Kafka’s K. at the end of The Trial. Who was that person? Was it God? Was it a single man? Was it all of humanity?


[1] William Burroughs, Queer (New York: Penguin, 1985)

[2] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: Athlone, 1990), 187

[3] Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 188

[4] William Burroughs, Letters (New York: Penguin, 1994), 286

[5] William Burroughs, Nova Express, (London: Panther, 1982), 30

[6] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 204

The Evil Spirit and The Spiritual Automaton

It is a recurrent theme in science-fiction-thriller movies that in time humanity turns into the slave of its own creation, namely of machines. It is precisely because of this fear of being replaced that humanity attempts to get out of time, out of the physical, and eventually falls on the side of what it was attempting to escape from; be that which they fall in the direction of metaphysics or pure-physics, in both cases their thought itself becomes machinic.

The Panopticon may even provide an apparatus for supervising its own mechanisms. In this central tower, the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders: nurses, doctors, foremen, teachers, warders […] and it will even be possible to observe the director himself. An inspector arriving unexpectedly at the center of the Panopticon will be able to judge at a glance, without anything concealed from him, how the entire establishment is functioning. And, in any case, enclosed as he is in the middle of this architectural mechanism, is not the director’s own fate entirely bound up with it?[1]

Panopticon, then, is a mechanism that disperses power as it produces submissive subjects. The transparency of the building makes it a model for the exercise of power by society as a whole. The subject becomes one with the mechanism surrounding it and so becomes the effect and the functionary at the same time. In short, the subject starts operating like and feeling itself as a machine. The body is not replaced by a machine but starts to work like the machine it is connected to. This is the contamination of the subject by the object.

Slavoj Zizek points out Deleuze’s emphasis on the passage from metaphor and towards metamorphosis in terms of the difference between “machines replacing humans” and the “becoming-machine” of a man.

The problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal “material” processes (to replace the language of mind by the language of brain processes, to translate the first one into the second one) but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only by being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not “How, if at all, could machines imitate the human mind?” but “How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?”[2]

In Cronenberg’s films we see the theme of machines replacing humans in the process of being replaced by the theme of humans connected to machines, or machines as extensions of humans providing them with another realm beyond and yet still within the material world; the psychic and the material horizontally situated next to each other. In eXistenZ, for instance, we have seen how the game-pod is plugged into the subject’s spine through a bio-port and becomes an extension of the body. In Naked Lunch the typewriter becomes Lee’s extension. In Burroughs’s the obsession was still with the machine taking over the body. In Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs the obsession is with body and machine acting upon one another. What Burroughs experienced with his body but was unable to express becomes possible to express with the film. As we know from his writings on his routines Burroughs himself was becoming-machine internally, he was incorporating the dualistic and mechanical vision of the world surrounding him, but he thought his body was being attacked by external forces and the space he occupied was being invaded by forces that belonged to an altogether different realm, an external world. In Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch we see Bill Lee becoming a spiritual automaton to keep the Evil Spirit within at bay. The paradox is that the Evil Spirit is itself his own construction which in turn constructs him as a spiritual automaton constructing an external Evil Spirit.


In what follows I will attempt to show that Cronenberg’s films are caught in a vicious cycle, that they are self-deconstructive, and that if one thinks too much about them they not only turn back on themselves but also collapse in on themselves. This is because they are shut up in themselves in a highly solipsistic fashion and are the victims of the way they attack what they consider to be dangerous for humanity. In short I will try to show how Cronenberg’s films deconstruct themselves and invalidate their own stance before what they criticize, and this turns them into suicidal rituals before which the spectator is expected to recoil in horror.

One example of what I have said concerning the self-deconstruction inherent in Cronenberg’s films is in the middle of Naked Lunch where Tom Frost, also a writer, who appears to be Joan’s husband in Interzone, tells Bill Lee that he has been killing his wife everyday for years.

Author William Burroughs, an ex-dope addict, relaxing on a shabby bed in what is known as a Beat Hotel. Paris, 1959. Photograph: Life/ Loomis Dean.

Tom: There are no accidents. For example, I have been killing my own wife slowly, over a period of years.

Lee: What?

Tom: Well, not intentionally, of course. On the level of conscious intention, it’s insane, monstrous.

Lee: But you do consciously know it. You just said it. We’re discussing it.

Tom: Not consciously. This is all happening telephatically. Non-consciously.[close-up of Tom’s mouth, his lips moving in disharmony with what he is actually saying] If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else. I’m not actually telling you about the several ways I’m gradually murdering Joan. About the housekeeper Fadela whom I’ve hired to make Joan deathly ill by witchcraft. About the medicines and drugs I’ve given her. About the nibbling away at her self-esteem and sanity that I’ve managed, without being at all obvious about it. [the movement of his lips become harmonious with what he is saying] Whereas Joanie finds that she simply cannot be as obsessively precise as she wants to be unless she writes everything in longhand.

We have to keep in mind before engaging in analysis that all this is happening in Lee’s mind, that Interzone is a construct of his psyche, that he is actually in New York, that he is hallucinating all this Interzone business, and that the year is 1953. What we have here is the loss of the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious mind. However, this is not a real loss of the boundary because we, the spectators, are informed beforehand that all this is happening in Lee’s mind. There is only the inside of Lee’s mind, and if there is anything lost it is the reality of the external world. Lee only hears the echoes of his projections. The murder of Joan has had such an impact on Lee that he is hearing nothing that the other says and he is replacing this nothing with his own scenarios concerning what’s actually going on outside.

What does the disintegration between Tom’s words and actions signify? It signifies the double-bind situation in which Cronenberg’s films are caught. In other words he is unconsciously communicating that which he thinks he is not saying. He is unconsciously doing what he thinks he is arguing against; that creativity brings with it destruction, that progress and regress are complementary. In Naked Lunch writing is identified with killing one’s wife. To keep the actual killing of the wife at bay, Lee writes not to rationalize the murder but to irrationalize not-killing one’s wife, and we know this from the fact that Tom Frost’s words are only projections of Lee’s psyche.

This scene also explicates Cronenberg’s attitude towards the recurring theme of a psyche-soma split in his films. But more importantly, since Naked Lunch is mainly concerned with the activity of writing and what happens to someone who is in the process of creating something, this scene deals with the relationship between body and language. Here I will leave aside the exhausted subject of a mind-body split who cannot make a distinction between appearance and reality and move towards the more recent theme of the relationship between bodies and languages, with the hope of opening up a field across which one passes and in the process of this passage becomes the embodiment of a new possibility of signification, another sign, neither within nor without the old mode of signification. For this a third dualism is required, and that third dualism, being that of language and Event, has already been worked through by Deleuze.     William Burroughs at his writing machine, New York, fall 1953. One of numerous, rarely seen photographs taken by Allen Ginsberg that feature in a special Gallery section of Naked Lunch@50, here Ginsberg’s Kodak Retina records a crucial moment for Burroughs, as he worked on the manuscripts of “Queer” and “Yage” before heading off towards Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch… (Courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust and Stanford University Library.)


[1] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 204

[2] Slavoj Zizek, Organs Without Bodies (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 16

Cengiz Erdem

With Dead Ringers (1988) Cronenberg shows the consequences of an attempt to get rid of the space between the me and the not me. The illusory absence of difference between Mantle twins Beverly and Elliot is their own creation. They identify with one another so much that they think they are one split soul living one life in two different bodies. When they are discussing the deteriorating condition of Beverly, Claire says to Elliot that he shouldn’t identify with Beverly, distance himself from him, and live his own life separate from Beverly. In response to Claire’s suggestion Elliot says, “But the drugs he takes are running in my veins.” Beverly and Elliot are twice split. They are not only split from their mother by birth, but also from one another. They are divided within and against themselves. Let us start from the beginning to make more sense of what happens in Dead Ringers.
Right at the beginning of the film we see Beverly and Elliot, in childhood, talking about the difference between the copulation of fish and humans. One of them suggests that fish are able to reproduce without having sex, and that if humans were living under the water they wouldn’t need to have sex to copulate. They would simply internalise the water through which they would copulate. At the prospect of copulation without touching, the other twin responds by saying, “I like the idea.” The next scene shows Beverly and Elliot approaching a girl and asking her if she wanted to have sex with them in a bathtub as an experiment. They are aggressively rejected and accused of talking dirty.
From the very beginning Beverly and Elliot see science as a means to attain sex objects and sex objects as means to carry out their scientific projects. A further hint at their tendency to see the female body as something to be experimented upon is given in the following scene where they are seen operating on a plastic doll pinned down on the table. This is their play. For them the object of desire is at the same time the object of science, and science is a form of play. Their diagnosis concerning the patient is intra ovular surgery.
From the year 1954 we shift to the year 1967. Beverly and Elliot are in the faculty of medicine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We see them applying their surgical instrument, their own invention, on a cadaver in the autopsy room. In stark contrast to the professor’s negative attitude towards their radical new instrument, the next scene shows Elliot receiving a gold plate model of their instrument as a prize for their contribution to gynaecology. At home Beverly is working on their future contributions to the field.
The differences between Beverly and Elliot become more obvious with the entry of Claire to their life. Beverly comes to understand that he is different from his brother through his different way of being in relation to Claire. While Elliot sees Claire as merely an object of play (sex and science), rather than as another person, Beverly is more affectionate and wants to sincerely engage in a profound interaction with Claire. And yet Claire’s sexual identity, that is, her masochistic tendency to occupy a passive and submissive position in the relationship makes it impossible for Beverly to escape from the double bind situation he finds himself in. The whole film is a narrative of how one falls into a double bind situation and why it is impossible to escape from this double bind without having to die.
In Dead Ringers the Mantle twins are locked in the mirror stage. Death emerges as the only way to escape from this entrapment in an endlessly self-perpetuating process of projective identification. Their minoritarian nature, having been born identical twins, leads them to study the womb as the monster that gave birth to them. The Mantle twins’ fascination with deformed wombs, and the instruments they invent to act upon those deformations reflect their deviant relation to birth, motherhood, and sexuality.

At the culmination of the historical effort of a society to refuse to recognize that it has any function other than the utilitarian one, and in the anxiety of the individual confronting the ‘concentrational’ form of the social bond that seems to arise to crown this effort, existentialism must be judged by the explanations it gives of the subjective impasses that have indeed resulted from it; a freedom that is never more authentic than when it is within the walls of a prison; a demand for commitment, expressing the impotence of a pure consciousness to master any situation; a voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of the sexual relation; a personality that realizes itself only in suicide; a consciousness of the other than can be satisfied only by Hegelian murder.[1]

In the relationship between Beverly and Elliot, the other consciousness is at the same time the consciousness of the self. Beverly and Elliot think that they are the same and yet different from one another at the same time. An impossible situation is situated in the context of gynaecology and the psychic life of a male gynaecologist’s relation to a female patient is used to show what happens when art-sex-science become one. The “voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of sexual relation” Lacan is talking about is precisely the Mantle twins’ relation to the female body and sex. Because they see themselves as a deviation from the norm, they see their mother as the birth giver of an abnormality. Their fascination with the ill-formed female body thus gains a significance in terms of their relation to their mother and birth.

The very existence of imagination means that you can posit an existence different from the one you’re living. If you are trying to create a repressive society in which people will submit to whatever you give them, then the very fact of them being able to imagine something else—not necessarily better, just different—is a threat. So even on that very simple level, imagination is dangerous. If you accept, at least to some extent, the Freudian dictum that civilization is repression, then imagination—and an unrepressed creativity—is dangerous to civilization. But it’s a complex formula; imagination is also an innate part of civilization. If you destroy it, you might also destroy civilization.[2]

Cronenberg is a much more Freudian director than he would dare to admit.

Writing was in its origin the voice of an absent person; and the dwelling-house was a substitute for the mother’s womb, the first lodging, for which in all likelihood man still longs, and in which he was safe and felt at ease.[3]

Freud says that reality and fantasy, external and internal, the self and the world, the psychic and the material are in conflict and that this conflict is always experienced as pain. To compensate for the pain of this fragmentary existence man writes and tries to form a unity which he believes to have once been present and after which he is destined to strive. In Freud’s vision the subject is always in pursuit of an unattainable sense of wholeness, what he calls the “oceanic feeling.” And yet, Freud says, the subject can turn this negative situation into a positive one by creating works of art and literature in the way of producing at-one-ment with the world, although for Freud, this at-one-ment is impossible to attain, and if literature has any therapeutic effect at all, it is only to the extent of turning indescribable misery into ordinary unhappiness. Freud says, “the substitutive satisfactions, as offered by art, are illusions in contrast with reality, but they are none the less psychically effective, thanks to the role which phan
tasy has assumed in mental life.”[4]
Freud’s idea that imagination in general and writing in particular is a desperate attempt to return to the womb, to the state of being before birth, is clearly manifest in Dead Ringers. In the womb Beverly/Elliot was one and their choice of profession is a sign of their striving for that long lost oneness within themselves, with each other, and with their mother. What Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, calls the “oceanic feeling,” that is, the security of existence within the womb, tied to the mother with the umbilical cord, and swimming in the placental waters in foetal shape without the danger of drowning, is what the Mantle twins are striving for. According to Cronenberg they wish they were fish. Cronenberg sees barbaric regress as an inevitable consequence of progress.

This gives us our indication for therapeutic procedure – to afford opportunity for formless experience, and for creative impulses, motor and sensory, which are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence. No longer are we either introvert or extrovert. We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.[5]

Freud’s and Winnicott’s methods of therapy are based on the pursuit of a lacking sense of unity of self and the world. This form of therapeutic procedure forces the subject to ego formation, normalization, and submissiveness to the existing order of meaning. Freud considers the state of being in harmony with the world as the sign of health and development of the capacity to repress the drives and making sharp distinctions between the internal and external worlds, and between the conscious and the unconscious mind as a sign of progress. Although Winnicott, like Freud, assumes that there is an originary split between the internal and the external worlds, he at the same time differs from Freud in that his therapeutic process involves some kind of a journey that the therapist takes with the patient. In this kind of therapeutic relationship the therapist engages in a spontaneous interaction through playing with the rules of the game itself. In this process the role of the therapist is to render the patient capable of learning to play. In turn the therapist himself learns to relate to the patient through a kind of unconscious communication.
What we have both in the Mantle twins and Freud and Winnicott then, is a will to transcend the material world through material tools. Mantle twins’ aim is to go beyond the material world and unite with one another in a dimension where the psychic and the material, the self and the other become one. The surgical instruments Beverly invents after Claire goes away for two weeks, are parallel to his mental deterioration. As he turns against himself, so do the surgical instruments turn into weapons against the patients. The sharp and pointed instruments represent Beverly’s regressive movement towards aggressive barbarism. The Mantle Retractor is replaced by objects to dig into the body. These instruments are a result of Beverly’s attempt to externalise the illusory space created by loss of the object of love. By digging holes he thinks he will have restored himself. The instruments he creates eventually turn against him and his brother, destroying both in the process.
It is a recurrent theme of Cronenberg films that what the subject himself created turns against the subject and becomes the very cause of the subject’s death. In Videodrome (1982) for instance we see Max, the victim of a video program which is inserted into the subject’s body and possessed, the subject acts unconsciously in the service of the monstrous forces behind the screen. All Videodrome tapes do is to bring out what’s already in the subject. That is, make the subject’s unconscious fantasies appear on the surface of the screen. In other words it turns the subject into a projection-introjection mechanism. At the end of the movie we see Max’s hand turning into the gun he was holding. He is seeing himself on the screen killing himself, and in the next scene he is killing himself in front of the screen onto which he had already projected the scenario of his own death. He introjects what he himself projects, and what he projects is already an effect of what he had introjected. What we have here is a deconstruction of the relationship between the screen and the mirror. Not only the screen is a mirror, but also the mirror is a screen. The Videodrome tapes are the partial-objects which, when united through the subject’s body, take over the body and manifest themselves in the actions of the subject. The subject becomes, in a way, an object of violence against itself and others.

[1] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1977), 7
[2] David Cronenberg, Croneberg on Cronenberg, ed. Chris Rodley (London; Faber and Faber, 191992), 169
[3] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1985), 279
[4] Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents, 262
[5] Donald Winnicott, Playing and Reality, (London: Tavistock, 1971), 64

Cengiz Erdem

It is early 1974, “in Washington, Richard Nixon was being pressed slowly into a corner, wrapped in a snarl of magnetic tapes. […] In Room 619 of the Eastern Maine Medical Center, Johnny Smith still slept. He had begun to pull into a fetal shape.”[1]
In Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone, adapted to cinema by David Cronenberg, the main character Johnny Smith stays in a coma for five years. He wakes up to a cold winter to find himself with a limp, and separated from his girlfriend. Johnny starts to see evil everywhere; he reads the consequences of the evil thoughts in people’s minds across time. A sense for evil, together with an ability to see the past, the present and the future, means it becomes impossible for Johnny to bear the burden of being in the world. He comes to realize that what he thought was an extraordinary psychic power is in fact an evil curse which makes life inordinately painful. Willing to escape from this unbearable situation that is turning him into the playground of good and evil, he falls deeper into the trap of a monstrous man, Gregg Stillson, the embodiment of evil in the world, who finds out Johnny’s secret and wants to abuse it. Johnny takes the wrong turn, because he didn’t know that “the dreadful had already happened.” Directed by the monstrous man he “wills nothingness rather than not will,” and dies a tragic death at the end.
Little by little this brawny young dock-walloper had severed his connections with the world, wasting away, losing his hair, optic nerves degenerating into oatmeal behind his closed eyes, body gradually drawing up into a fetal position as his ligaments shortened. He had reversed time, had become a fetus again, swimming in the placental waters of coma as his brain degenerated. An autopsy following his death had shown that the folds and convolutions of his cerebrum had smoothed out, leaving the frontal and prefrontal lobes almost utterly smooth and blank.[2]
Johnny’s rearrival, his return from the unconscious to the conscious state, from the land of the dead to the world of the living, with extraordinary psychic powers, a sense of omnipotence which turns out to be the source of death, is described by King in terms of a rebirth, a coming out of the womb after the second (nearer) death experience.
Johnny Smith is at first almost exactly the opposite of a clinical and criminal psychotic. Johnny does not identify, he refuses to believe in other worldly things, there is no struggle between good and evil in his world, in his world there is no evil, no third party. In Johnny’s world there is only him, Sarah, and their “eternal love.” Living in an illusory heaven, Johnny is unaware of the dangers surrounding him, but in King’s world the evil shall surely show his multiple faces to scare the hell out of those people.
After the tragic and yet banal accident Johnny becomes a clinical but not a criminal psychotic. Johnny identifies himself with Jesus, he refuses to believe in the world as it is, there begins a constant struggle between good and evil in his mind. He has lost Sarah and their eternal love, and the evil forces surrounding their earlier happiness prevail. Johnny’s illusory heaven becomes an illusory hell. As usually happens in King’s world the evil shows his multiple faces and scares the hell out of the reader.
King’s novels are cathartic in a very Aristotelian sense of the word. And yet it’s precisely this cathartic effect disguised as subversive and critical of the established order that reproduces the order and produces psychotic replicas. King is a very unique example of how monstrous a unification of the therapeutic and the critical can be. There are two traumatic incidents leaving their traces on his life as Johnny goes along the way towards death. In this novel which is difficult to categorize as “horror” unless that is what horror actually is, Johnny Smith finds himself in an unbearable situation that sends him to an early grave. What seems to him to be a gift of life turns out to be a gift of death. Johnny is cursed by a “second sight” after two banal accidents, one in early childhood, one in adolescence, which submit him to the domination of the “power” of his wounds. And with the already there circumstances, that is, a society dying to believe in “the power of the wound,” “apocalypse,” “return of the living dead,” “transcendental experiences” and so on, Johnny becomes a tragic, Christ-like hero who feels compelled to sacrifice himself for the deliverance of salvation to the people. His mother sees it as an occasion for celebration that Johnny is mortally wounded when they tell her that he is in a coma: “God has put his mark on my Johnny and I rejoice.”[3]
Choose, something inside whispered. Choose or they’ll choose for you, they’ll rip you out of this place, whatever and wherever it is, like doctors ripping a baby out of its mother’s womb by cesarian section.[4]
And in accordance with the demands of his “inner voice,” Johnny Smith, in The Dead Zone, chooses resurrection. After five years of deep coma Johnny wakes up to a nightmare and finds himself as the one whose destiny it has become after two banal accidents of life to set things right and prevent heaven’s becoming hell. King knows that the reader’s assumption is that there is something inside to be protected from the external threats. The desire of the reader is the desire of the threat as external rather than internal to the self. King satisfies the reader’s desire by giving him/her the most beloved son Johnny as the gift: “the gift of death” as Derrida would have put it. Johnny fulfils the reader’s desire not only for an external threat but also for a saviour hero from within, one of “us.” Johnny emerges from his coma as the embodiment of the Christ-like figure, King’s son, whose mission it is to die and preserve the heaven-like qualities of this small American town in particular, and the universe in general.
Upon his return to the symbolic order, from the unconscious state of coma, Johnny finds himself surrounded by people who are trying to exploit his extraordinary psychic powers, confronted with what Freud, in On Narcissism, calls “hallucinatory wishful psychosis” on a social level. It’s as though the whole society is in the grip of a paralysis and through their collective hallucination they cling to life. And Johnny becomes not only the thread tying them to their illusions, but also the one who preserves those illusions by sacrificing himself. Since this aspect of Johnny’s melodramatic story is more precisely expressed in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the novel, I now turn to Cronenberg’s film.
Cronenberg emphasizes that Greg Stillson is the man who is the manipulator, the one who creates and sells illusionary images of himself. In Cronenberg’s film Johnny’s visions are placed directly in opposition to Stillson’s fantastic images of self. Towards the end of the film, Johnny, no more able to stand the half-dead life he is living in isolation, decides to put his visions to a good use. He attends one of Stillson’s campaigns and shakes Stillson’s hand to see into him. What Johnny sees is Stillson as the evil president of the future, who has the fate of the whole world in his control. Johnny sees him pressing the button of a nuclear bomb beh
ind closed doors. Finally Johnny makes up his mind and at a later Stillson campaign, this time in a church, attempts to assassinate Stillson. Sarah is there with her baby, and she notices Johnny just as he is about to pull the trigger. Distracted by Sarah’s cry, Johnny misses the target. Stillson takes Sarah’s baby and holds it up as a shield against Johnny’s bullets. Meanwhile Johnny is being shot by Stillson’s guards. A photographer takes Stillson’s picture while he is using the baby as a shield and this picture becomes the front cover of the Time magazine, not only ending Stillson’s career as a politician but also leading him to suicide.
In the film the atmosphere is extremely melancholic. Johnny is portrayed as a much more repressed, melodramatic individual who at the same time has a romantic vision of life. The traumatic incident, the time he spends in the dead zone, magnifies his will to transcend his body which he sees as a source of agony. He pushes himself further towards isolation to escape from the increasingly sharpening visions. Remember that Johnny sees in the past, present, and future of other people through touching them. Touching another person is a cause of pain for Johnny. As his visions sharpen and turn into sources of pain he moves away from intersubjectivity and towards introversion. It is one of the characteristics of Romanticism to consider trauma, suffering, pain, disaster as possibilities of transcending the flesh. In Cronenberg’s “romanticism turned against itself” we see exactly the opposite. In Cronenberg after the traumatic incident it is a regressive process that starts taking its course, rather than a progressive movement towards eternal bliss. The problem with Cronenberg’s inversion of romanticism is that he still sees the movement towards eternal bliss, towards jouissance as progressive; the difference between the classical romanticism and Cronenberg’s inverted neo-romanticism is that Cronenberg considers that progress to be impossible.
It is at the sight of their condition, upon the realization of the situation they are caught in, that Cronenberg’s characters recoil in horror. And it is at the sight of this that Cronenberg expects the spectator to recoil in horror in a fashion similar to his characters.

[1] Stephen King, The Dead Zone, (London: TimeWarner, 1979),100
[2] King, 82
[3] King, The Dead Zone, 71
[4]King, 111

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