Monday, March 19, 2012

The Primal Father (CinemArchetypes #8)

A nature documentary on sea lions explains this archetype: there's a whole long stretch beach full of ready-to-mate female sea lions, packed in there, all being ministered to by the one huffing, flopping, dominant / battle-scarred male. Any other male tries to flop on over to the harem and get some and the main bull dismounts whomever he's currently rutting and goes flopping over to drive away or fight the interloper, to the death if necessary. He seldom has time to 'finish' or so it seems.  What an exhausting life. He could conceivably share, but give 'em an inch, suddenly they gang up on you--your own sons driving you off the herd.

This is the 'nature' of a father's obscene enjoyment in its most uncivilized form, one we see in cavemen movies (Tumak's chief father in ONE MILLION BC), and David Lynch, and some pornography. The obscene / primal / anal father gives us the model for uninhibited jouissance which as men entering the social order, are simultaneously denied in reality and granted as fantasy. If we band together with our brothers to kill this primal father, and we always do, the fall-out of our freedom is that we can't ever experience his level of obscene enjoyment and so must renounce such enjoyment altogether except insofar as it remains a fantasy. We don't want to kill each other over the whole herd of women, so we each pick one, and stay faithful to her. We marry and stay faithful. Simultaneously the fantasmatic dimension--where we experience via fantasy the obscene pleasures of the dead father--is opened up, granted as a magical doorway.

Bull sea lion with harem

But though murdered within the confines of human culture (outside of cults), the primal father is hardly down for the count. He lives in our dreams as the fantasy but also our nightmares, ready to abuse us, to take our innocence, to drive us to murder him again and again, to promise us grand initiations where we one day will enjoy as he does, where he will take us to the movies, help us make a friend of horror, or introduce us to his entourage... but he never does. We kill him instead, and the idea of all those enjoyments becomes a fantasy - a primal 'boost' when we need just a little more raw animal force to get us up to and over that orgasmic peak. On the way down we stash such ibidinal fantasies back in the sock drawer of our unconsciousness, until needed again.

In his book Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, Todd McGowan forms a concept of the anal, or primordial, or primal father, based on Freud's conception of a primitive society, one devoted to unlimited enjoyment rather than prohibition, in Totem and Taboo:
"... In the horde, enjoyment is not readily available to everyone. It is confined to the strongest, the primal Father, who hoards all enjoyment (i.e., all women) for himself. This Father enjoys without restraint, but only until such time as the sons, jealous of his enjoyment, conspire to murder him. According to Freud, this murder of the primal Father is the first social act, and the prohibition of incest—or, of enjoyment—follows directly on its heels. In establishing a social order in the wake of the primal Father’s murder, the sons recognize that, if they are to live together in relative peace, they must agree to a collective renunciation of enjoyment. Without this collective renunciation, no one can have any feeling of security, because there is nothing to mediate a life-and-death struggle for enjoyment. Force itself—and force alone—prevails: the strongest can enjoy himself, and all the weaker ones will not survive. The sons, however, had already opted out of this life-and-death struggle at the moment they conspired to murder the primal Father. In this first moment of collective action, the renunciation that would ultimately become the incest prohibition has its genesis. After this point, the enjoyment embodied by the primal Father becomes only a memory, the object of fantasy for all those who have agreed to give it up. That is, the murder of the primal Father has the effect of triggering fantasies about the enjoyment that he experienced prior to his death. These fantasies sustain those who have sacrificed their own enjoyment in the collective renunciation that made the murder possible, and they provide the reassurance that, if enjoyment is inaccessible now, at least it once was accessible for someone." (p. 26)
This concept then leads up to the idea of the 'anal father' as an archetypal link to the archaic primal father (named anal due to his halting at that stage in infantile development, wherein the idea of possession leads to an obscene surplus of enjoyment, the ego cohering from a new appreciation of the body, potty training, etc i.e. "the terrible twos"). As McGowan points out, the fantasy of this primal or anal father posits that pure libidinal enjoyment can exist when ensconced in the past (i.e. HBO series' like Rome and Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, etc.) If we see the degrading misogyny and violent sex going on in these shows in real life we are for more apt to run in horror, as if some unclean demon has manifested. Safely depicted onscreen, or in our minds (or on the page), the lurid sexual dominance of the anal father can run guiltlessly free, carrying as it does the consolation that he's soon to be killed (by his sons) for his crime of living our libidinal repressed fantasy.

At a more modern level, however, lies a new brand of 'anal father' that's not as violent yet oppresses all the more by denying us even the fantasy of enjoyment, of a primordial father. This new 'dad' doesn't want to be the ogre his father was, doesn't want to be rejected by his children, feared, killing all laughter and conversation when he walks into the room, so he makes himself a friend to his kids. He wants to be "one of the boys", but the result can suffocate his sons and rob them of their enjoyment in the shared fantasy construct of the primal father / non du pere dichotomy. Their enjoyment depends on his exclusion and disapproval. In inviting himself, pandering to their age, undoing his ultimate signifier status in a bid to "not be like his own dad", he drains his son's pleasure of its transgressive oomph.

 We can see a bit of that primal father even today in things like the irrational conservative hysteria drug laws, deviant sex, and so forth. Rush Limbaugh ranting against the sluttiness of any girl on birth control - it's the reaction of the terrified and oppressed anal father-murderer, looking to destroy what they see as the threat to their enjoyment, the beating of the primal dad's hideous heart. Rush's mind is crawling with the idea of some loafing lout equivalent to that bull sea lion. It should be him! Drugs are outlawed 'cuz the kids seem to be having too good a time without poor Rush. For such a person, his ego boundaries long since eroded, civilization seems always ready to topple back to sea lion chaos, where even the alpha male never gets any, as he's too busy fighting off challengers. That's Rush on the radio, lashing out at imaginary male interlopers on his imaginary beach.

I'm not much better. When I see someone really living it up, I want to smash his face. It's offensive, the way we feel like people walking behind us laughing at some private joke are always laughing at us.

This is why characters like James Bond or Bruce Willis in Die Hard can't seem to be having fun killing people, or even bedding down dames -- they don't smile and shout "Woo Hoo!" out the window... they enjoy their sex and violence on the D.L. (you never see Bond boasting to his buddies about the girls he's with, for example, no high-fiving, no orgasmic moans).

In cinema these anal male characters find their true fruition, for theirs is a 'past' dominance; and best of all, the silver screen provides a democratic utopian sharing of this fantasmatic libidinal enjoyment. Unless our seat is bad (too close to the screen, let's say) we all share equal access to the film. Similarly in the old days, all the subjects--from peasants, serfs, upwards--are granted access to the sight of the king and/or queen at their throne or on parade. A king might be flanked by half-naked voluptuous maidens, mocking the younger, handsomer, more virile party crasher standing haughtily before them, for he would attempt to claim this alleged enjoyment for himself without quite knowing the risk.

Let's start with the most primordial and instantly recognizable and bull sea lion-ish figure for most kids of a certain age...

1. Jabba the Hut- Return of the Jedi (1983)
Darth Vader is a classic 'dark father' but a joyless authoritarian; his mask which hides a presumed phallic hideousness is his main 'primal' aspect, as is his own awareness of his son having come to kill him (see #3, Kurz). In McGowan's paragraph above, Vader would be the father who has forgone enjoyment, with no sense of humor or sadistic flair. Jabba, on the other hand, rolls large. In the added scenes digital director's cut he even calls for a musical number filled with spastic muppets! And of course, we all remember Leia's sexy shell bathing suit -- the one instance of sexual 'skin' in the whole damned series, so it's worth noting her nudity is in the service of a giant slug who likes to eat live beings, i.e. it's associated with vile excess and mindless cruelty. Jabba's corpulent primal fatherness is so immense and grotesque it overflows the conventional iconography of the kid-friendly films, hinting at a darker Game of Thrones style sadistic / human trafficking vibe lurking underneath the innocent laser beams and chasm swings. Darth Vader might blow up your home planet, but he doesn't put you in skimpy costumes (and do god knows what else). In fact, I don't think there's a single women in the entire empire. What does that say to kids?

2. Ming the Merciless - Flash Gordon (1936, 1980)
More than just a typical space dictator, Ming is a great primal father, with his harem to which he seeks to add the comely blonde Dale Arden. Especially in the original serial he's full of crafty tricks, such as promising Flash he can go free, then decreeing he's free all right, free to fight the three-horned beast of Mongo. Heh heh heh. Ming uses his great power to crush opposition but when cornered he resorts to crafty trickery and Flash, unconsciously registering him as a father figure, believes and obeys every new trick, never dare running him through with a sword during any of his ample opportunities, often out of loyalty to Princess Aura, Ming's daughter, who has the hots for Flash and regularly throws herself into the ring to share his danger, thus Aura keeps the ball in play - preventing either side from killing the other. Time and again Flash is never killed outright either, but subjected to test after test, battling monsters for the perverse enjoyment of Ming, who's anxious to get rid of him and clear the way to Dale Arden, dressed regularly in skimpy harem clothes for Ming's lascivious pleasure. (see also: Tigron and Taboo: The Freudian Dream Theater of FLASH GORDON)

3. Marlon Brando as Kurz - Apocalypse Now (1979)
"The figure of the "other father"--the obscene, uncanny, shadow double of the Name of the Father--emerged for the first time in all its force in the novels of Joseph Conrad; what we have in mind here, of course, are figures like Kurz in Heart of Darkness or Mister Brown in Lord Jim. In the midst of the African jungle... the hero encounters Kurz, a kind of "master of enjoyment," a paternal figure which comes close to what Kant called "radical evil," evilness qua ethical attitude, qua pure spirituality... Conrad depicted what remained hidden to Freud... namely the 'primordial father' is not a figure of pure, symbolic brute force but a father who knows... The ultimate secret of the parricide is that the father knows the son has come to kill him and accepts his fate obediently" - Slavoj Zizek (Enjoy your Symptom!, p. 158-156)

4. Daniel Day Lewis - as Bill the Butcher - Gangs of New York (2002)
He is both the former lover of Leo DiCaprio's wench (Cameron Diaz) and the murderer of Leo's father, but said father was killed in a fair fight, so Leo's motivation for revenge seems pointless.. and as Bill knows who Leo really is (but Leo doesn't know he knows), the  plot is known in advance, as with Kurz above. Though he's not disfigured, he is scarred and wears a ridiculous stovepipe phallic hat which contrasts nicely with the exposed bald phallic obscenity of Brando and Ming (above). Bill's 'Native American' propensity for anti-immigrant violence marks him as a remnant of the past, unwilling to die a peaceful dinosaur extinction death... When he does finally die, Bill's lust for life his 'out in the open' hate will become just a myth of the past. Characters like Bill, Kurz and Ming serve as figures of fantasy that fill a missing place in our ego ideal, the father who is not castrated, who has opted out of the latent stages of maturity and remains a wild, untamed frontier yet holds a high place within the fading social structure. He must inevitably be killed for the newer more democratic (less enjoyment-based) social order to manifest, but ideally some of that fire remains in the usurping son, though in a much more controlled and empathic form.

5. Robert Brown as Akhoba in One Million Years BC (1966)
Narrator: " There are not many men yet--just a few tribes scattered across the wilderness, never venturing far, unaware that other tribes exist even. Too busy with their own lives to be curious, too frightened by the unknown to wander. Their laws are simple: the strong take everything. This is Akhoba, leader of the rock tribe, and these are his sons, Sakama and Tumak. There is no love lost between them. And that is our story."

 Frank - Blue Velvet / Mr. Big - Lost Highway / Baron Harkonnen -- Dune 
For true deep insight into the primal/anal father and his conspicuous enjoyment check out the works of Todd McGowan or Slavoj Zizek. They both use Lynch films as springboards for whole books on the subject. Here's a choice quote from McGowan's The impossible David Lynch (which I reviewed for Bright Lights in 2008):

on Lost Highway:
"What is  the  Law's  secret? That the Law is nothing but its secret, that the Father never really was alive with enjoyment, except in the fantasy of the son. This becomes evident when the Mystery Man, just before shooting Mr. Eddy, presents him with a video screen that displays him in obscene enjoyment. What we see on the screen, however, is not Mr. Eddy enjoying himself but him watching other people enjoy. The Father, the master of jouissance, turns out to be capable only of watching others enjoy, not of enjoying himself.  In this sense, the fact that Mr. Eddy is a pornographer makes perfect sense. While we may imagine (i.e., fantasize)  that the pornographer is constantly awash in enjoyment, he is actually constantly awash in enjoying the enjoyment of others, of merely observing enjoyment. The Mystery Man lets Fred know that the Father has never held the secret of enjoying women, as Fred had previously supposed, and that Mr. Eddy is an impotent pretender. As Lacan says in Seminar VII, 'If for us God is dead, it is because he always has been dead, and that's what Freud says. He has never been the father except in the mythology of the son.' 32  In other words, Mr. Eddy's enjoyment, his vitality, existed only within Fred's fantasy, insofar as Fred supposed its existence. Fred can now know this secret of the Law because he has already sacrificed his object, and, having made this sacrifice, he represents no threat to this Law.  Thus, it is only after having sacrificed our enjoyment to the Law that we learn this is a sacrifice made in vain." - (p. 174-5)
 7. Robin Williams as Keating - Dead Poet's Society (1989)
"Dead Poet's Society is invested in Keating (as a representative anal father of enjoyment) to such an extent that it does not even depict his authority as authority... Precisely because he doesn't appear as an alternate authority, Keating's authority is all the more powerful--over both his students and us as viewers of the film... unlike traditional symbolic authority the anal father appears as one of us; he's on our side, not on the side of authority. Hence Mr. Perry and the headmaster can only look on in envy at the authority Keating wields. " (McGowan, Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, pps. 49-50)
8. Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers (1994)
The casting of respect-devoid comic Dangerfield as a slimeball father--full of abusive oaths, threats, and incestuous intent for his daughter (unchallenged by his doormat wife)--marks a touch of casting genius that shows Oliver Stone is hip to the obscene comic dimensions of the archetypal primal father (the laugh track congratulates Rodney for his incestuous tyranny). This is a man who undoubtedly sees himself as hilarious and it's that comic coarseness that makes him so vividly nightmarish. A pure archetype of evil self-absorption, he exists only to be killed. I used him for the list instead of that even more repellent gangster in The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and Her Lover but they are the same, the father as a vortex of hideous incestuous enjoyment who all but demands his future son-in-law/s kill him.

9. Richard Dreyfuss - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
 He's not as odious as most on this list, but the buddy to his kids style dad is just as unbearable, stealing as it were his children's enjoyment via his first trying to be 'a pal,' the type of dad who cheats at board games, insists his kids see a cloying bore like PINOCCHIO (1) when they want to see something else (typical of the type: Roy saw it as a child, and so wants to force his own childhood on his children), and ends up trashing the living room because he saw a UFO, acting like an obsessive tantrum-throwing first grader, playing with his food and making giant mountains in his living room, smashing windows, uprooting the garden, instead of going to his job like a real man and keeping his mouth shut about the weirdness he saw (which would show the law, as per McGowan above, that he was ready to learn its secret). Had he been able to be cool about it, he might have in fact earned a space at Truffaut's side for the big mesa meeting, and not had to sneak around.

From my Dads of Great Adventure on Bright Lights: a dad might participate by playing ball or whatever when asked, but not to the point of being a burden, and not to the point of trying to be his child's "best and only friend," which nurtures a sense of deep mistrust and fear  toward the rest of the world, and prolonged immaturity coupled to dread. The dad of great adventure is driven by guilt to become everything and everyone to his children, to be a "buddy" rather than an authority figure, not realizing that in doing do so he leaves a gaping hole in the family dynamic that the child then feels obligated to fill. A good father knows that in sometimes playing "the bad guy" who restricts (enforces curfews, etc) and punishes when needed (Lacan's non-du-pere) he also creates the space needed for genuine enjoyment, a feeling of relative safety. The dad's demonstration of authority allows the child to relax his own guard - confident his safety and that of the family unit is being looked out for. When he remains a little bit afraid of his dad's authority, the son feels by extension less afraid of everything else. An anal father like Roy creates the reverse - the dad is an immature idiot, so the son has to be 'the man of the house' and as he can't even drive yet he's not going to be an effective protector, thus they are constantly exposed to danger, which slowly turns the son into a joyless neurotic.

10. Don Fanucci - Godfather 2 (1974)
Fanucci is the old world type of deep oak patriarch... the odious ruler who insists on being seen enjoying (as in his conspicuousness and little bits of attention grabbing at the San Gennaro festival), even as he robs others of their enjoyment. There's a great moment at the puppet show for example, that is the epitome of the primal father, when Fanucci makes a joke about it being "too violent" for him, and turns around expecting the whole crowd to meet his gaze and break out in approving laughter. When the crowd doesn't even notice him amid the din there's a flicker of shame that passes over his face before he blocks it away and saunters off. This 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' micro-grandstanding exposes Fanucci as an easy target for a man as streamlined and rid of all personal pleasures (surrendered-of-his-object so privy to the absence at the core of the law) as Vito. Using Fanucci as a cautionary example of how NOT to be as a mob boss, Vito cultivates instead a kind of heavy humility (the renunciation of conspicuous enjoyment), coupled with a canny ability to use the granting of favors as a kind of paperless, untaxable currency. Beneath it all, Vito maintains the ability to repress anger in the moment and then kill in cold blood later, when it's safer. This is the 'gift' of bravery, of keeping a cool head, and it's what any successful space cowboy also has, for he or she must keep a straight face when, for example, the walls are crawling with mutant tentacled wallpaper pattern demons as you walk past oblivious parents in order to get to the sanctuary of the bedroom..."  (See: LSD Godfather)

11.Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1976)
The modern cult leader tends to believe that whatever comes out of his unconscious is the voice of God or some higher power, never questioning when that voice tells him he should have all the women  as his wives and that any male threat to his rule should be cast out. It's fascinating because such figures represents a real return to the primal father, and the cult members go along with it as the promise of their own conspicuous enjoyment--in heaven if not sooner--is contingent on their subservience. To believe someone else has all the answers and holy power is quite liberating, freeing the individual cult members of all responsibility and obligation beyond the simple tasks assigned them by their all-powerful leader. A strict vegan diet helps keep the flock passive, and soon after that 'God' is demanding all the 14 year-old girls become his brides and kicking the boys out of the congregation and letting them fend for themselves in the city. Such cults challenge the idea in some psychoanalytic circles that the primal father only exists as an archetype in the collective unconscious, for he can also be very real.

12. Gig Young as Rocky - They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969)
As master of ceremonies for a grueling, month-plus long dance marathon, Gig Young is charming, sympathetic and very dangerous; spinning the pain caused by the ceaseless, agonizing dancing (including weeding out the elderly via concentration camp-like races around the dance floor) into a joyous celebration of the human spirit. 'Feeling' the pain of his contestants with a sympathetic trill in his voice, Rocky functions as the exact opposite of the non du pere who-- in forbidding enjoyment--creates space where actual enjoyment can occur. In demanding enjoyment (i.e. dancing) beyond the point of exhaustion and even death, Rocky denies all possibility of true enjoyment (they'll never dance for pleasure again... just hearing some of the songs the band plays on, say, the radio, might later give them terrible Pavlovian leg cramps).

And there's always the scariest one of all.... Noah Cross.

SEE ALSO: Paters Horribilis: Harvey, Hookers and a Man called Pollack
1) Not to knock Pinocchio but as a kid it can be pretty dull with all the whimsical moments especially early on in the toy shop seeming to drag on near forever...  boys especially don't care about pretty little princesses rotoscoping their way into life and dumb, spastic puppet boys taking forever to master their limb movement. It bored me so bad as a kid I think I threw up so my mom would have to take me home. The way Dreyfus insists on dragging his kids to see it shows that he allies himself with the notion of a classic kid's film that moved him a boy and therefore must move his children. Their own vote on their own entertainment doesn't count because he has posited himself as the master of childishness--he alone knows how to rebel against his own authority.


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  2. Erich, the Archetypes have been brilliant so far but I just have to go on a complete tangent here after reading that quote from McGowan: "In establishing a social order in the wake of the primal Father’s murder, the sons recognize that, if they are to live together in relative peace, they must agree to a collective renunciation of enjoyment.Without this collective renunciation, no one can have any feeling of security, because there is nothing to mediate a life-and-death struggle for enjoyment. Force itself—and force alone—prevails: the strongest can enjoy himself, and all the weaker ones will not survive. The sons, however, had already opted out of this life-and-death struggle at the moment they conspired to murder the primal Father. In this first moment of collective action, the renunciation that would ultimately become the incest prohibition has its genesis.After this point, the enjoyment embodied by the primal Father becomes only a memory ,the object of fantasy for all those who have agreed to give it up."

    Sounds like Michel Houellebecq all over the place, if you know what I mean.

    Also, bringing up Bill the Butcher makes me wonder how well Daniel Plainview fits the archetype -- more so as he goes along, I'd say.


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