Tuesday, December 29, 2015

John Sedgwick’s War of Two – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Learns our Founding Fathers left a Complicated Legacy


Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are forever linked by their duel (a contraction of duo bellum, Latin for "war of two"), when the sitting Vice President killed a founding father and member of the first cabinet. This book brings them to life as more than just our third Vice President and the guy on the ten dollar bill, which, if pressed, is about all that I could have supplied about them.  Instead, in addition to being interesting characters in their own rights, they serve as foils for describing essential tensions about what kind of country the United States was going to become during and shortly after its birth and maybe to this day.  I read this book as homework before seeing the musical Hamilton, which I have now done and reported on here.  The lives of these two men are linked in this book as kind of mirror images and a chapter on Hamilton alternates with a chapter on Burr, frequently covering the same time period and often the same events from the perspective of the other as a way of articulating their duel not just as an event that linked them, but as the fated culmination of their parallel but very different lives. 

The author wrote a popular book.  He is a magazine reporter turned historical fiction writer and the book relies on the work of others and thus is not an original work of historical non-fiction, but he bookends this tale with a letter from Hamilton, written on the eve of his death, to his own great, great, great grandfather Theodore Sedgwick.  The letter contains language that is cryptic and foreign sounding, and the author wisely hints at it in the beginning, producing the full text only after telling his tale.  Even then, though, the letter is tough to make sense of, at least to me – not just because it alludes to things obliquely, but because what it is articulating sounds to my ear, and it is weird to say this: un-American.


Hamilton, by far the more interesting character of the two, was born in the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.  Five small islands here produced, in the form of sugar, more wealth than all 13 colonies.  Sr. Croix, where Hamilton settled when he was 10, was as big a city as New York, and just as wealthy.  Sugar cane, growing on the islands, and its resulting sugar, had just been discovered by Europe, and the Europeans were figuring out that it was good for more than just putting in tea and were going mad for it, and willing to pay a premium to have it to bake into things they were discovering as quickly as they were devouring – cakes and cookies and stuff that at least I thought of as existing since the beginning of time.

Alexander Hamilton, who was the second son of a woman who left but could not divorce a cruel husband, was a bastard.  Further, the author alleges that Hamilton was not the son of James Alexander, the man she took up with, but a Mr. Stevens, who apparently cuckolded Mr. Alexander.  One of the consistent but not highlighted themes of this book is how badly women were treated during colonial times and how little freedom they had – but also that many of them used sexual relations to try to better their situations – often with disastrous results, but with few other options.  One could read this like a failed version of a Jane Austen novel – if you look at it from the perspective of the women, which the author seldom does.  (The musical does look through women's eyes in interesting ways - perhaps in part because it was based on a different text that includes more sensitivity to the experience of women).  In any case, Hamilton and his mother were stricken by yellow fever when he was 12 and she died.  He had to fend for himself; he was apprenticed to an import/export firm where he proved so competent that the owners felt free to return to New York and leave him in charge by the time he was 14 or 15.  He did a remarkable job – keeping books, but also learning how to dress down ship captains for delivering substandard goods.  The skills he learned – and an apparent aptitude for dealing with both numbers and people, served him well when he worked for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, helping Washington with correspondence and the problem of supplying the troops with provisions, and this, in turn, led Washington to appoint him the first secretary of the treasury.  In between, he contributed to the constitution and wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers - essays that helped to convince people to ratify the constitution.  More immediately, in St. Croix, a benefactor recognized that he had many skills; including writing poetry and the benefactor raised money to send Hamilton to New York to go to school, and Hamilton never looked back.  After the war, with his constitution in place, and as treasury secretary, he developed the Federal Monetary system that continues to be the basic foundation of our banking system today.



That Horatio Alger type story is told in much more detail in the book, and there are many bends and twists in it.  And Burr is used as a kind of foil – the author claims they are mirror images, or black and white versions of each other.  I am struck by the similarities of these men from different social strata – Burr, who came from all but American noble parentage – his grandfather was a very well known preacher and both his grandfather and father were Presidents of Princeton University – which at that time was essentially a seminary – training men to take on the most noble of professions.  But, like Hamilton, Burr was orphaned.  Also like Hamilton, he was incredibly smart and was the youngest graduate of Princeton, due not just to smarts but – in a mirror again of Hamilton – to very hard work.  Unlike Hamilton, Burr seemed to work hard, but in spurts – with periods of indolence or purposelessness in between.

I think that the way that the author means to be contrasting Burr with Hamilton is that Burr was driven by the principle of doing what was in Burr’s best interest – he appeared to be a man without external principle.  But I think there is more similarity in the two men’s positions than he points out.  Not that Hamilton is just driven by self-interest, which he certainly is, but that Hamilton’s principles are not clearly articulated.  Early on, in the time before the revolution, Hamilton is a believer in the crown, and he manages to talk his way out of a siege of King’s College by revolutionaries by the use of sophisticated rhetoric that allows him to sound sympathetic to the cause while retaining loyalty to the king.  Indeed, one of his claims – through the paternity that the author questions – it that he is descended, through James Hamilton, from Scottish Royalty.  Now we know that he fought on the Revolutionary side and was one of the founding fathers, working on the constitution, and, more than just that, working to get it ratified.

As the first secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton shaped in essential ways the country that we would become.  He was able to conceptualize the tremendous debt we accumulated in fighting the war as an asset – as something that could be sold.  He built a strong central bank and, when Jefferson was elected, it was working well enough that, even though it was counter to Jefferson’s principles, Jefferson retained it.  What principles was the bank in conflict with?  Jefferson, and the Southern Republicans opposed the northern Federalists' intent to make our nation into an industrial power.  Their interest, and their reliance on slave labor, created the ability to retain a noble way of life while preserving the agrarian lifestyle they valued.


Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky, cira 1851 (Detail)
Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872)

Really quite by accident, I was in our local art museum this afternoon, and wandering through the local wing in between seeing two travelling exhibits.  Two paintings struck my eye.  One was a vista that was painted looking north across the Ohio River early in the 1800s.  On the south side, there was a bucolic scene with slaves and cows and lots of green space.  Across the river was a city, with crowded housing, smoke mixing with the clouds to create a very early version of smog.  The second painting, also from the early 1800s, was of a poor white family headed north – leaving the south because they were unable to generate a living in competition with slave labor. 


North Carolina Emigrants: Poor White Folks, 1845
James Henry Beard

The Republicans, the Southerners, had a vision of the United States that was complex.  It included something that the Sierra Club would admire – something that today we would call ecologically sound.  But it also included a weird vision of a social system that was based on a class system of nobles – white privileged folks – and the slaves who supported them.  Those who did not fit in would, like Hamilton’s father – not one of the first two or three children of his royal father – be left to fend for themselves and have to settle for the leavings. 

Now, the Federalists were also all male, all white, and their vision was not without its internal problems.  But it was a very different vision of a world that would be based on economic opportunity.  It would create the bustling cities of the north that would draw the southerners to their prosperity and would belch smoke into the sky, but also create a middle class – a group of people who, while not wealthy, would be able to survive setbacks.  These people would create the backbone of an economic system – one driven by mass consumerism – that would become the world that we inhabit today.

So this book, read in preparation for seeing the hit musical “Hamilton” in New York next month (though my reluctant friend Dan maintains that I would have better prepared by buying and listening to the soundtrack), revealed an unexpected history, the seeds of the economic system that has come to define us.  Aaron Burr, the other character, is a shadowy figure.  Enamored first of his wife and then of his daughter who was named for his wife, he became vice president under peculiar circumstances.  He and Hamilton were among the first politicians in America to actively campaign and to organize voters – remember that we invented the modern democracy and so had to figure out how to move away from noble functioning – including the noble inhibitions that prevented pandering to the common man. Burr had secured the votes that Jefferson needed to become president by campaigning for him in the north.  There were no provisions made for parties in the constitution, so he and Jefferson – by running as a ticket – each received the same number of votes – but there was no distinction about which office the votes were cast - each received the exact same number of electoral votes – though clearly it was Jefferson the people intended to be president.  Burr didn’t quickly concede, angering Jefferson.  This kind of slinky, self-promoting behavior had previously alienated Burr from Hamilton and, when Hamilton besmirched his honor, Burr demanded a duel.

So, the letter; the night before the duel, Hamilton wrote his friend, Theodore Sedgwick, and the following terse paragraph summarizes some thoughts that he had been struggling with:

I will here express one sentiment, which is, that Dismemberment of our Empire will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good; administering no real relief to our real Disease; which is Democracy, the poison of which by a subdivision will only be the more concentrated in each part, and consequently the more virulent.

This is a funky paragraph.  Democracy is a disease?  Let’s set that aside for a moment.  Subdivision is a presentiment of the civil war – though also of a weird plot of Burr’s to divide off the Ohio Territories and the Louisiana purchase from the eastern colonies and create a second country that would conquer Florida and the other Spanish lands including Texas and Mexico.  Obviously that never came to pass – and Burr’s attempt ended up being incredibly feeble and thus I, at least, had never heard of it in the history books.  But there were natural divisions in the young country.  And Hamilton’s vision was that “our Empire” had positive advantages – and I think that the glue of that empire is economic.  And the goal of the empire?  In Hamilton’s mind it appears to be to support a country that is not Democratic, but one that is – what – aristocratic?  And Democracy is a poison that would only become more concentrated in a smaller batches – in smaller parts of the whole.  So Democracy is diluted by the large Federalist state or empire.  The bigger the government – the more it can be determined – not by the will of the people, who are perhaps fickle or driven by self-interest (this is speculation on my part), but instead by the governors – the ones who are in the know and who can determine a course of action which will be good for what?  For the Empire, I believe – for our Empire.

This is a stunning paragraph that is left by one of our founding fathers.  He was in decline – Jefferson’s ascent had not been good for his political fortunes, nor had a series of other factors, including his own behaviors.  But the sentiments included here are not hidden or coded – as they would have been if sent by the secretive Burr.  There is no sense that Hamilton experiences them as being in any way seditious or problematic.  Quite the contrary, he is speaking with certainty about beliefs that he believes others will share.  Remember, many were clamoring for Washington to declare himself King.   And seeing the musical helped clarify that his attachment to Washington was a source of much of Hamilton's power.  This letter is partly a mourning of what might have been.  We were in uncharted waters – and this had been a revolution that was led by the aristocrats, not the common men.  As low as Hamilton’s birth might objectively have been, he saw himself as the son of a nobleman and functioned as a patrician in a country that was harshly divided between the privileged and those who were not, while simultaneously it was a country that would be increasingly open to Horatio Alger like transformations that Hamilton himself had undergone - transformations supported by the financial system that Hamilton had built.


I am not at all sure what to make of this book.  I am struck, as I am reading another book about many things including our shared reluctance to acknowledge the impact of our development on our mature selves (I expect that I will be posting on that book here soon), that what I am marveling at is how important it is for us to reflect on our roots as a nation as well as doing it as individuals.  Our current political climate might be better understood if we abandoned some two dimensional views of history – the northerners were for X and the southerners were for Y – and substituted something more complex: Our founding fathers were an interesting blend of men who were struggling to articulate a new vision of a country – and were doing that from manifold perspectives – and as they did that they were necessarily influenced by the personal and cultural histories that each of them had lived.  They were articulating, and building into the DNA of the country, visions that contained unassimilated bits of previous governments – and imagined future Empires – that were expressed in a variety of founding documents – not just the constitution – and that may still be exerting powerful – if now distorted - influences on our political functioning.  Sedgwick points out that the monument to Hamilton visible from the dueling grounds at Weehawken New Jersey are not anything constructed on that site, but the skyline of Manhattan, visible across the Hudson River.  We are the children of parents whose vision could not have imagined what would come to pass as a result of their actions and our subsequent labors.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Ponders the Attraction of “Universal” Themes


Star Wars burst on the scene in 1977, when I was a senior in High School.  Attuned to very local events – what was going on with my friends and at school – I was out of touch with the national culture in many ways.  I rarely went to the Rock Concerts that came through town and almost never went to the movies.  But somehow I found myself with a group of friends – I can’t for the life of me remember who they were – at a movie theater on the opening weekend of Star Wars.  I remember, vaguely, that one of the members of the group suggested that there was this hot movie playing that we should go to.  I don’t know how I paid for it.  I was working at the time, but never had pocket money, I put everything in the bank and kept it there, saving up for college, I guess.  Despite all this, I found myself in the front row of the movie theater; the front row because the place was sold out and those were the only seats left.

After the opening words scrolled deep into the screen – into infinity – and the first ship thundered onto the screen, I was hooked, but they had me when the second, endlessly vast ship flew overhead.  We were in a new and very different place – one that I was intrigued by and ready to explore – but also one in which – it seems to me these many years later – I already felt at home.  My seatbelt was buckled, and I was along for the ride.

The Reluctant Wife and I frequently return to favorite haunts or prepare favorite dishes again.  While they are inevitably good, there is something about the first time that we eat what will become a favorite that stands out – it is not just that it is good, but that it is novel.  We have tasted nothing like it before – it is as if the world were remade in that moment with new possibilities – and this is a second layer of deliciousness – that there are uncharted waters out there – that we can be surprised.  The second ship brought with it the promise of a very new and different world – or a new and different way of seeing our world.  And the rest of the movie delivered on that promise – though the themes that it played out were anything but novel – indeed some of them were ancient – and yet I was able to be surprised by them.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens had both the feeling of familiarity – there were old friend characters – but also the sense of newness; to mix my science fiction references – the sense of bravely going where no one has gone before.  Only the cantina – on a new planet – with new weird aliens but the same old music – seemed tired.  We went to see it with all hands that were on deck – including the reluctant son who has sworn off movies; but for Star Wars – he has seen all of the episodes at least once and read many of the books – he made an exception.  I think that the movies – for him, for me, and for so many of us – have stirred something deep within us.  That said, the reluctant stepdaughters, who don’t feel the same kind of affection for the franchise, were excited that the action hero was a woman and the romantic lead was an African American. 

This movie, like the 1977 Star Wars, had a little bit – or a lot – for each of us in my family.  That said, the record crowds on the opening weekend were two thirds male.  The previous films may have called out particularly to males.  I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me.  They are, on the surface, a series of buddy films about guys roaming around the universe with guns, fast ships, and swords: the stuff of boy play.  But my experience has been of a deeply psychological set of films – something that my gender biases don’t include as masculine interests.  Of course it is both things.  It is a good action film – the good guys win – and it is also a series of powerful dramas that invite us to think about them – to remember them, to be haunted by them, and to feel that they are related in broader ways to who it is that we are.  Perhaps I am not giving millions of men enough credit – that we may be broadly drawn to both layers – and that we particularly like films that work on both levels.

This movie, also like the original, starts on a planet far from the center of the Universe – and like the planet in that first movie – the planet is a desert planet.  The heroine is, like in the first film and in Harry Potter, and in a host of other coming of age stories, an orphan.  We are invited to identify with this heroine – to notice the ways that her life – like the life of Luke Skywalker before her – is akin to ours.  And we do and it is.  And some psychoanalysts – and I don’t really know what I’m talking about here so forgive me if I am wrong – but some psychoanalysts of the Jungian and perhaps other traditions would suggest that this means that we are dealing with Universal Themes.  Freud, on the other hand, steered us away from Universal Themes – he was interested in the particular associations of this particular person to the manifest content of this  particular dream (or other piece of material) in terms of working to understand what the unconscious or latent meanings might be for him or her.

Well, we now have two divergent set of people’s unconscious to think about.   The first set is the authors’.  Originally George Lucas, whose script was cobbled together from bits and pieces of Greek and Roman stories and from sources that were much less lofty – comic book plotlines and other stuff he had run across.  And he stumbled onto one of the themes that gets as close to a Universal theme as Freud ever got – the oedipal complex/triangle.  And one of the questions is whether this is, indeed, a Universal theme.  I would take the position that this has the appearance of being a Universal theme because each of the viewers, the second set of people, can bring our own associations to the skeleton of the story and flesh it out in ways that allow it to come together for us.  That is, that what is universal is not the story as told – but the story as watched – the story as we experience it and integrate it into our own lived experience.  And when we look at that closely what we see is not one story, but an infinite variety of stories, each thematically related, but none of them identical to the host story.


So, as an example, I think one of the ways that Star Wars works for me is that the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker resonates with the relationship between my father and me.  But the particulars are not the same at all.  My father was not unknown to me in the way that Darth Vader was to Luke.  He lived in my house – most of the time – growing up.  He was away a lot – as a travelling salesman he was frequently gone at least two and sometimes three nights a week.  What was he doing when he was away?  I imagined that he was with the CIA, working on decoding some terrible secret that would help us all when he did it.  When he came home, he was hard to connect with.  In fact, I don’t think I really connected with him until we were adults – and that was largely the result of my efforts to reach out to him and get to know him.  So he was unknown, but in particular ways that differ significantly from the chasm between Luke and Darth.  But I can make the connection in the same way that I make the connection between the latent and manifest parts of a dream – there is a thematic similarity between what is represented and what I have lived.

You may be saying to yourself, this is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with Star Wars?  And that’s just the point.  It has something to do with Star Wars, it is related to themes in Star Wars.  There are connections between my narrative and the one that George Lucas wrote – and, in the process of watching the film, I think that part of the pleasure of watching is feeling – not thinking about or analyzing or articulating – but feeling that there are connections – that this is a story that is both novel – shockingly so – and familiar in important ways.  Further, I think there is a feeling that the story he is telling will inform how my story – how my coming of age will proceed.  Not that it will be a recipe, or worse, a written manual, but that it will be something much more ephemeral and yet useful – it will be a musical theme, a score, that will help me think about when to amplify my voice – when to let it be quiet – it may even provide some lines – I can’t tell you how many friends I have who have recited lines from favorite movies – and these are clearly lines, or bits of dialogue, that are cool – that are instructive in how to live – how to manage our lives, not as actual orphans, but as people who feel – especially as I felt when I was seeing that first film in High School – estranged from our fathers – I, for instance, felt that my father’s agenda was really at cross purposes with my own.  And while he was not, in fact, incarnated evil – it was nice to see a film where, in black and white, the hero could be concerned about his father while also knowing that his own convictions were valid, and that his direction was the good, right and true one for him.  It was, again in my case, useful both as the fourth, fifth and sixth films (episodes 1, 2, and 3) filled in the back story of how Darth Vader developed as an evil character (actually I didn’t follow this very closely), but more to the point, as I learned more about who my father was and learned about how he became the man that he was.

But how is my reading of the story Universal?  I think that it is actually quite particular.  It differs, for instance, from my son’s story in many ways – one that I assume is also represented in some way in the movie because of his investment in it.  I worked, quite consciously, to have my son’s life be very different from my own.  I went into a profession where I would be home each night.  Then, as a result of divorce, my son is only in my home half of the time.  He and I have dinner together less frequently than my father and I did.  That said, we have a bed time ritual – and other rituals – that allow us to be connected.  I’d like to think that my work to connect with my father has led me to connect with my son in ways that are richer earlier.  But my son still has to find his own way – one that is not mine, but his.

My son’s introduction to Star Wars came early in his life.  When he went off to pre-school at 3, he went into the clutches of a little kid whose father seems to have weened him on Star Wars - long before I was comfortable with my son seeing a film that was so violent and complicated.  At a school that had peaceful conflict resolution as an essential part of its mission, the reluctant son was being assigned by a little brat to play the part of Han Solo, or a Wookie, or a Storm Trooper – and being ordered around about the best way to do that by a kid who was, I think, not developmentally capable to take in all of the stuff in the film, and was acting it out – both by portraying it, but also by bullying my son into “playing” with him.  This was a complicated and difficult period in my son’s development and in his mother and my parenting of him.  During this time, he would insist on taking a dinosaur to school with him each day.  I thought that this was simply a “transitional object” – something familiar from home that helped him feel connected with home when he was far from it.  So, one day when he had forgotten the dinosaur and we discovered that only as I was dropping him off at school and I was already late for work and he insisted that we go home to get his Dino, I gave him an ice scraper and insisted that he keep that with him during the day.  Well, only years later did I learn that his fantasy was that the dinosaur would, if something bad happened, grow to life size and defend him.  The ice scraper would not have been an effective defense tool, no matter how big, because it was inanimate.

Perhaps a few years from now, my son and I will be able to talk about how he relates in his life to the themes from the current film.  Right now, we are able to access what we like about the characters and situations, and what we find funny and delightful, and he is able to tell me that this is his favorite of all the Star Wars films thus far.  And we may be better able to articulate why that is the case when the final two installments of the series come out.  This segment leaves lots of unanswered questions.  That may be why the Reluctant Son likes it so much.  It is, at this moment, open.  Why did the character who is on the dark side go there?  How will the relationships between the players develop?  The reluctant son is at a stage in life where these are questions in the tapestry of his own life, with the players he is engaged with, are very open.


The appeal here is, perhaps most clearly, individual rather than universal.  The idea is that this film, with its various ambiguous elements may, like a Rorschach, be a representation of aspects of each of our world view.  Or it may conform to us and who we are.  The film both tells a complete story and it leaves many unanswered bits.  Perhaps this is part of the serial nature of it – again perhaps like the Harry Potter books and movies – we have a meal to chew on – and when we next sit down at this table – it will be a different – novel meal, but in a familiar restaurant.  That said, the resolution will inevitably be disappointing.  It will not be our resolution, but the resolution of the director.  And we will have to stitch that to the resolution, our own resolution that we want to achieve, with a thread that will be strained.  At this point, it is the movie that is strained.  There are things that don’t make sense, and we are free to fill them in based on our own narrative.

My own pleasure with this particular movie seems, at this moment, to be more on the surface.  I enjoyed the film a great deal, but was somewhat disappointed.  I remember when the second film (episode 5) came out, I was deeply disappointed in it – I remember stridently denouncing it – something that was out of character for me at the time.  My criticism was that it was just carrying things along – not resolving them – it was an intermediate film – a way of making money – and my indignation suggested that something holy had been defiled.  This film, the seventh (also, finally, episode seven – they now line up), is one that I am not as invested in.  My disappointment is not in the film itself – it is a fine, good and entertaining film – but that it is no longer a franchise that is speaking to me in the ways that it once did.

There was recently an interview with Bob Dylan in the AARP newsletter, and Bob Dylan had chosen to be interviewed by the AARP music critic, whom Dylan knew from the critic’s days with Rolling Stone, because the critic interviewed Dylan as a musician and songwriter – not as some kind of guru.  This film is directed by a guy who, like me, was taken by the films when they first came out.  Unlike me, he studied them – watching them over and over.  He has now been entrusted with a sacred text and I think he is doing a good job of articulating it.  I also think that my developmental arc – while still resonating with the issues of that galaxy far, far away and long, long ago – is no longer embroiled in working out the elements of this story – at least not in the same way I once was.  And that feels sad.  If I am more mature than I was, or just an old fart, there is something about the failure of this film to be experienced by me as more than a film – as an event – as something monumental – as something important to me and to culture - that leaves me feeling a bit hollow – not as if the film didn’t live up to my expectations, but that I have failed to do that.

At least that is what I thought last night.  As I reflected though, and as I thought about the direction that my thoughts took in terms of how the film might be related to the reluctant son’s life, I realized that one of the central themes that I have not talked about is one that is about the Oedipal triangle from the perspective of the father, not the son.  Well, maybe I am hoping (given how things turn out in the movie) that things will go well in my relationship with my son – in other words, I am trying to ward off one of those themes – not recognizing how that theme might serve as a cautionary tale – because it is too scary to think about how badly things might go if they really do go off the rails.  And the movie, then, allows me to be exposed to that – and to retain that as an unconscious fear – in the same way that a good dream can represent things that we need to work on while keeping certain aspects hidden in plain sight which are too scary to confront more directly.  

The films then touch on Universal themes in so far as, at different moments in our developmental arcs, we connect with those themes in our own particular way.  The films, to this point, have been more popular with men – that may change as a woman protagonist steps forward.  Not that women haven’t been drawn to this franchise, they have been, just as they have been drawn to Harry Potter.  It may also be the case that we are moving towards being able to identify across gender lines with heroes.  But it seems also to be the case, that, at least for me, at least for this moment, my developmental interests are focused elsewhere.  Another way of saying this is that Universal themes are not static – on a cultural or an individual level.  We will discover the Oedipal conflict in our own ways – as individuals and as cultures.  And we will identify at times from the perspective of the child and at times as the parent.  Parents, and our attachment and conflict with them, and children, once we have had them, and our attachment and conflict with them, and the ways that we work through that will be important, both across millennia and across the arc of our individual lives.  And this film, which contains big and important themes, is not hitting me where I live right now – not in the way that the first three (episodes 4-6) did.  But I will certainly be looking forward to episode eight. We’ll see if, by then, I am back on the oedipal track… or able to let the scarier elements affect me more.

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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Trumbo: A Psychoanalytically Sophisticated Hero

Dalton Trumbo is the subject of a new film about an old issue – the blacklisting of Hollywood scriptwriters in the 1950s - and, because it is a Hollywood film, it has the expected happy(ish) ending.  I am not alone in having taken Hollywood to task for failing to trust their audience to embrace the messiness of being human by, among other things, imposing happy endings on their movies (see a whole raft of examples under the link here.).  This messy movie is driven by the need for a happy ending – something that ironically it achieves while staying at least somewhat true to human vagary if not, apparently, to all of the biographical facts. 

In the film, Trumbo is accused, early on, of being a writer who writes happy endings.  But he doesn’t do this, we are told, cynically, as many writers do, but because he believes in them.  Across the course of the film, we see him working to achieve a happy ending in real life as much as in his films, and this becomes his tragic flaw.  As the stars (both those in the sky, but also John Wayne and his pals) align against Trumbo, he doubles down, doing what he does best, writing.  As this becomes more and more difficult, the strain becomes evident not just on him and his fellow writers, but on his family.

The resolution of this film – the final scene – is a worthy destination.  It is a speech that Trumbo gives on the occasion of being recognized for the accomplishments of his career.  It is a speech that is given at a moment of triumph – a moment that he has pointed himself towards with unswerving discipline – and one in which he is able to recognize the costs that have been part of that.  His foes are there as well as his allies, and he is able to speak to them truthfully and plainly.  This kind of resolution – this kind of happy ending, one that is, at best, bitter sweet, is one that feels genuine and authentic, because it is complex and recognizes the mess of life. 

Near the beginning of the film, Trumbo, the highest paid writer in Hollywood, is accused, rightly, of being a member of the communist party at the very beginning of the red scare in the late 40s and early 50s.  We meet him as he is living the high life, connecting with friends and picnicking with them and his family on the ranch that his earnings have bought near Hollywood.  He has a happy family – a beautiful wife who juggles (and will juggle metaphorically later on) and three children – Girl, boy, girl.  When the House Un-American Activities Commission comes calling on ten writers, including Trumbo, he convinces them that the best defense is to not answer the questions that are posed.  After all, none of them have committed a crime.  They will be found in contempt, and the Supreme Court will be happy to hear the appeal of any negative outcome as there are five liberal and four conservative justices sitting on the bench.  Well, as luck would have it, one of the liberal judges dies before the appeal makes its way up, so Trumbo, and his fellow writers, must do time in a Federal prison for contempt.


This period film feels in many moments as if it were written, acted and filmed during the time about which it is being written.  The prison scenes, for instance, are heavy – almost leaden.  They might have been filmed in the 50s, when the acting was more ponderous.  And there is a romanticism that is typical of the era – Trumbo’s letters home to his wife are sweet to the point of being saccharine, but they are none the less deeply affecting – his vision of who his family is and who he is in relation to them is consistent with the idyllic ranch picnic and we almost believe that there will be a happily ever after when he gets out of the prison hell where he is looked down on by murderers as a traitor.

Of course, the ring of hell of freedom without work is worse than prison – and then, in order to get work, Trumbo teams up with the King Brothers, B team movie producers – bullies who pay little, produce bad films, but won’t be cowed by the Hollywood powers – and creates so much work that he creates a third ring of hell for himself and for his family that is destructive to them – and to his fellow writers whom he recruits to write the mindless scripts needed to churn out low budget films that make lots of money – for the producers.

This part of the film becomes somewhat cartoonish.  The conflict between Trumbo and his eldest daughter, Nicola, is told in brief, intense scenes that aren’t elaborated.  Similarly, Trumbo’s use of Benzedrine and Alcohol to keep his mind awake and quiet with too much work and too little time is referenced without the effects being adequately explored.  That said, we know the effect of drugs and alcohol.  We also know the effects of a father who privileges work over family – I, at least, have lived that from both ends – and the poignancy of a daughter who idealizes and would emulate her father – in fact does so in her own activism around the civil rights movement in the early sixties – but who feels shut out by him and furious with him for that – this is something that we can imagine.  As this builds to a crescendo, and her mother steps in to advocate on behalf of the family – as it looks like we are headed over a cliff and she will give him the boot as she did her first husband - Trumbo has an unexpected (and off screen) change of heart and reconnects with his family.  A quick and easy happy rapprochement leads to winning an Oscar without credit – which the family celebrates with him, and then getting credit for Spartacus and the screen play for Leon Uris’ book Exodus – and the blacklist is broken.

So, it is not the resolution that is interesting here – but the dissolution.  Trumbo is an odd communist.  He argues with the powers that be in Hollywood, and in front of the newsreels, that the carpenters ought to get their share of the monies that are streaming into Hollywood.  Everyone ought to be in on this huge gravy train that threatens to drown the city in wealth.  He is not, however, a “pure” communist, like some of his fellow writers, who see themselves as being on an equal plane with all others - Trumbo knows his value – he knows his worth – and he expects to be recognized for it.  His motivation is not that all should share, despite his simplistic explanation of communism to his daughter, but that those, like himself, who can profit from their gifts and hard work should not be piggy – they shouldn’t take it all for themselves, but leave room for all to profit.  But don’t get in the way of my getting what is mine – I will fight for that.



The Older of the King Brothers, Frank, the B-movie producer that Trumbo delivers his and other’s scripts to during the blacklist period, is played by John Goodman, and he epitomizes the unabashedly selfish approach to film making when he brandishes a baseball bat at the heat from Hollywood who would scare him away from using a blacklisted writer when he notes that, because of the writers, money and pussy, which are the two things he wants most in life, are falling off the trees, and if anyone wants to get between him and that, he better be prepared to defend his life.  This kind of modern writing and acting feels almost anachronistic in the film – but very refreshing.  More importantly, I think it underscores that Trumbo and his motivation – mirrored by the Kings – could not be more Capitalistic – with a dash of socialist social concern.



At least in Trumbo’s case, not only was the accusation of colluding with the Soviets wide of the mark, it was ludicrous.  Trumbo lives out a capitalist/Horatio Alger dream of scratching back from being down on his luck by working hard and charging what the market will bear until the value of his work is recognized.  The emotional cost of doing this is the almost hidden message of the film – in case you are looking for a latent communist theme on the part of the writer – capitalism saps the soul of those caught in its clutches. 

Karl Marx predicted, in the Communist Manifesto, a transformation of human nature.  This transformation was from an essentially selfish position to one that considered the good of the whole first.  This transformation, he predicted, would occur first in the highly industrialized countries – in England and the United States.  Instead, as a political movement, the Soviet bloc, China, Cuba and other, what we would call emerging or agrarian economies became “communist”, though each was or devolved into some sort of dictatorship with the redistribution of wealth occurring at the whim of the political elites.

The cold war was fought against dictators – and though some in Hollywood and elsewhere were likely spies or interested in the USSR becoming the dominant power, the characters in this film are depicted as being much more interested in a personal and societal transformation – one that would – as Marx thought – perhaps best be supported by a transition from a stable, highly industrialized and therefore wealthy democrat state – and the tragedy is that their hero was anything but a communist.  Concerned about his fellow writers’ well-being, Trumbo figured out how to help them survive economically – to work as a collective, using his kids as all but slave labor – to make a system of supplying the industry with the scripts they needed work.  As he said at one point, the blacklist and the black market were both alive and well. 

When the blacklist was alive, it was partly because of fear of the misuse of the powers of the state – the United States became the kind of dictatorship that we were theoretically fighting against – depriving our citizens of their civil rights without even passing laws to do that.  In that kind of environment, Trumbo – the real one - described what happened in the 1970 speech dramatized in the film as follows:  “There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.”  This is the speech that speaks to the messiness of being human – we betray our friends and help our enemies – we don’t know – politically, but also psychologically, what the proper or best course of action might be.  We confuse each other, and ourselves, especially when we are in situations with high pressure levels.

It is a happy ending because Trumbo has succeeded.  His family, battered and bruised, is there.  Edmund G. Murrow, who ratted him out to the House Un-American Activities Committee to save his own hide, is there.  The other writers, the ones who survived, are there.  And they are, none of them, unlike in a Hollywood musical, free of guilt.  They are all battered and bruised - and wealthy.  And he is able to speak the truth of that - to acknowledge the breadth of their experience - of each other and of themselves - to serve as a truth speaker - to have, as it were, the last word.  That things are not as simple as we would have them be - or as simple as we try to make them in movies.


These kinds of situations occur not just when there is a red scare, but when we are scared of anything – of an education bubble bursting and resources becoming scarce – the insurance industry limiting benefits for those who need long term treatment - the electronic age turning us away from each other and ourselves – becoming caught up in acrimonious divorce or custody situations where access to loved ones becomes limited – this film is not just about the first amendment or the imposition of corrupt governmental powers – it is about how we respond to the times that try our souls.  And this is not pretty, but it is very human.  And that means that it is a hard thing to portray on the screen.  There are problems with this film.  The characters should have been played by character actors, the scenes are uneven, the pace is bad, it tries too hard to get at too much and thus makes some of the important moments cartoonish, but it is good to see what can be accomplished with a manual typewriter, a red pen, and scotch tape.  The expression of important if not complete aspects of the human experience can be accomplished. 



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