“Life is a continuity which does not begin at birth; it is split up by birth.” — Nandor Fodor
Life is like a movie; it has a beginning, an ending, and in between there’s a story — “a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence” (McKee 12). Early cinema consisted, simply, of images of light projected in a dark room. We find its counterpart in the intrauterine experience of the developing fetus: what psychoanalyst Daniel Stern calls “the sound and light show.” Although a fetus may not yet be capable of interpreting the “story,” it is true that sensory development occurs much earlier than Freudian psychologists ever predicted, with the nerve endings of the tactile system (the first sensory system to mature) in place and functioning by eleven weeks after conception occurs (Purvis). The auditory system is structurally complete and functional by week twenty-four, while eye formation begins at day twenty-two and manifests as “awake visual alertness” in week thirty-six. In other words, the sound-and-light show of the movie of our lives begins before we’re ever born — first projected on the walls of the uterus — and culminates when the screen at last goes dark — the eyes closing in death. The story that unfolds in between is both “real life” and the subject of popular cinema.
Czech Surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer treats prenatal sensory development in his films with “kid gloves.” Literally. Using as a platform the theories of birth trauma developed by renowned psychologists like Freud’s Austrian colleague Otto Rank, Svankmajer explores that side of childhood “saturated by a harassing malevolence” when he investigates the links between the development of sensory perception with the recognition of the libido (de Bruyn). Because sex is largely a physical (read: tactile) experience, and tactile sensations are the first to register in the fetus, sex becomes an overwhelming and dominant concept from an early age. The first experience of sex is birth itself, introducing the individual to the birth canal and the female genitalia. As we will see, it can be argued that all subsequent heteronormative sex acts are an attempt to return not only to the birth canal, but to the relative paradise that was the intrauterine experience before the trauma of the birth act (Rank 199).
Birth Trauma Theory
Birth trauma can be defined in three stages: intrauterine stress, labor and the birth experience, and post-natal trauma.
Though the womb is for the most part a safe, warm, nurturing home for a baby, intrauterine stress occurs when a fetus, while still in the uterus, is subject to duress of varying kinds. Because a fetus is fully capable of experiencing and even recording sensory impressions, when the fetus’ immediate environment is exposed to strong sensations, so is the fetus; including but not limited to those sensations which the mother-to-be (and consequently the fetus inside of her) experience. For example, let’s say that a gunshot goes off in the vicinity of a pregnant woman. The noise, as well as its learned implications for danger, startles her and initiates the production of cortisol and other stress hormones. “The mother’s stress hormones cross the placenta and affect the baby” (Janus 37). Though a fetus cannot, lacking the appropriate context, “understand” the implications of a gunshot, that particular sound coupled with an influx of cortisol into the baby’s environment creates a strong and lasting sensory impression. As Thomas Verny explains it: “[T]he immature animal is limited in the amount of information it can process . . . and so does not store a sufficient number of contextual memory attributes to support later retrieval of the target memory, but may very well retain particular and associated sensory impressions” (37-38). The next time an infant or child hears a gunshot, s/he might instinctually react with feelings of anxiety, heart palpitations, etc., brought on by the sense memory, without even being able to name a gunshot as such, or understand why it triggers said reaction. Such observations led Freud to assert that “there is much more continuity between the intra-uterine life and the earliest infancy than the impressive caesura of the act of birth would have us believe” (Inhibitions 68).
Labor and the birth experience (barring Caesarean births) are arguably the most traumatic elements in birth trauma theory. What doctors and psychologists now understand is that the human process of birth has failed to adapt quickly enough to accommodate the evolution of the human body. Even in developed countries, childbirth continues to be considered a “dangerous” event for both mother and child, and so the majority of births in the United States occur in hospitals, where trained medical staff are on hand “in the event that something goes wrong” (premature birth, forceps intervention necessary) (Lundgren). These precautions can become necessary due to the maladapted body.
German psychoanalyst Ludwig Janus, former president of the International Society for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine (ISPPM), explains how “the progressive development of the brain and the accompanying increase in the volume of the skull demanded an enlargement of the birth canal in humans. However, the development of the upright position required a narrower and rigid pelvic bone, with an indentation cause by the s-shaped spinal column” (12). Basically, the skull was expanding at the same time as bipedalism necessitated the form of the present-day human spine, which effectively compresses the birth canal space. As a result, “in the first phase [of birth], the child’s head is pressed between two rings. One is the neck of uterus muscle which gradually expands so that sooner or later every place on the head is put under pressure. The other is the hard ring of bone which forms the exit through the pelvis” (41). Meanwhile, “the diameter of the child’s head and the diameter of the middle of the pelvis measure about ten centimeters. At least one centimeter is missing for the soft parts. This centimeter is gained by the deformation of the child’s skull” (53). The intense pressure, somewhat compensated for by the infant’s “soft spot,” “results in disturbance of the cerebral circulation (blood flow in the brain) and irreversible tissue displacement accompanied by parenchymnecrosis (death of brain tissue) and haemmorhage (blood clots)” (51). This leads Janus to conclude: “During the birth of present day, civilised human beings, such an enormous force acts upon the child’s brain that birth must be classified as a trauma” (46).
Following this painful ordeal, post-natal trauma may occur upon delivery, when an infant is suddenly exposed to harsh lights, dry air, and cooler temperatures. Insofar as the womb was a largely protected, dark, enveloping, and warm space, for the potentially traumatic journey through the birth canal to end in a cold, bright, sterile environment is enough to make anyone yearn, rationally or otherwise, for a prompt return to the womb.
According to birth trauma theory, birth as an event is not an isolated one for the infant, but one whose repercussions extend far into the future. The main tenet of the theory posits not only that trauma is inherent in the birth act, but also that a particularly traumatic birth is “seen to have a determining effect on later development” (Verny 36). Such effects may include phobias, mental disorders, sadistic and masochistic personality types, as well as unexplainable associations with and reactions to intrauterine experiences in later life, such as the gunshot. This list is obviously far from comprehensive, and includes just a few of the consequences of birth trauma and its repression.
Birth Trauma Theory and Surrealism
Typically around sixth grade, students learn to diagram sentences into their component parts and phrase configurations. If we were to diagram a Jan Svankmajer film, we would see that a Surrealist treatment of birth trauma theory includes the following constituents: one or more characters with psychoses resulting from birth trauma repression, a superfluity of birth symbols in the film, and an emphasis on disorientation as a method for developing plot, character, tone, and most importantly, idea.
Trauma Repression and Film
Repression, a subconscious attempt to “deal” with the pain, results in displacement of emotions onto another person, thing, idea, or even an isolated area of the self. Displacement within the self can cause anxiety, depression, schizoid paranoia, and a range of physical disorders from irritable bladder syndrome to impotence (Maret 42). Svankmajer’s characters exhibit many of these symptoms, notably an Oedipal complex in Surviving Life (2010), insanity in Lunacy, sadistic fetishes in Conspirators of Pleasure, and an urgent and self-destructive desire to return to the womb in both Faust and Alice. Svankmajer himself is a self-proclaimed “militant Surrealist.” Insofar as Surrealism is “a collective adventure into the depths of the soul” (Hames 112), taking as favorite themes human fear and desire, it is the perfect medium for a commentary on birth trauma, in which Otto Rank recognized “the ultimate biological basis of the psychical” (xiii). Surrealism does not mix the real and nonreal. It endeavors to find “the point at which they are not perceived as being contradictory” (Richardson 141). In the same way, birth trauma theory attempts to explain the relationship between, say, the altered reality of an individual suffering from schizoid paranoia and the physical reality of a particularly traumatic birth.
Michael Richardson, professor of cultural studies and Surrealism expert, writes: “Being at the mercy of our phantoms is a fact of human existence” (41). What we experience in the womb and during birth haunt us forever, or at least until such time as we address the trauma. Surrealism addresses these very phantoms — as they manifest in dreams, including bizarre symbolism and often terrifying imagery. Who can forget the slicing of the eyeball with a straight razor in Buñuel’s and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou? Svankmajer’s animated beef tongues and eyeballs effect a similar, memorable grotesqueness, caught somewhere between the dream world of Surrealist cinema and our own nightmares.
A favorite film technique hardly exclusive to Surrealism is the use of symbolism, both aural and visual. It follows that a film that explores birth trauma would incorporate birth symbols. According to Ludwig Janus, the symbols expressed “in dreams, children’s games, [and] bodily sensations” are in fact manifest versions of early memories, including the repressed memories of birth trauma (22). “Many of the birth fear symbols are so universal that they can be recognized immediately . . . nightmares of suffocation or being buried alive; phobias of mutilation or falling to one’s death” (Fodor 5). Let’s look at these in a little more detail.
Suffocation phobias, closely related to claustrophobia and a fear of darkness, “can be the echo of an individual’s traumatic birth experience” (Janus xii). The intense compression of the body that can occur in the birth canal may cause oxygen deprivation in the infant for significant periods, especially in cases where the umbilical cord is wrapped around the infant’s neck. For these babies, the act of being born is closely related to, indeed is the first experience of, near-death. Individuals who exhibit an irrational fear of being buried alive may unconsciously retain a traumatic birth experience.
Mutilation phobias can be present in cases of severe deformation of the skull, either due to uterine contractions or intervention by forceps. The child feels s/he is being literally “ripped apart.” Similarly, “the too early loss of the umbilical cord and the placenta” equates to an “ontogenetic castration” (Verny 235). In such cases, the individual associates the placenta with the breast, the cord with the phallus, and consequently develops a mutilation complex. Converse to the phobia is the mutilation fantasy, seen in a “reactively formed idea of narcissistic invulnerability and perfection” (236).
Fear of falling to one’s death relates to the fact that, in general, the baby rests head-downward in the uterus and falls away from its post on being born. As Nandor Fodor explains, “Most abnormal fears of falling can be traced to the fall from the uterine heaven into the terrestrial abyss. The legend of the Fall of Man is a record of our biological origin” (16).
Surrealism, Disorientation, and Birth
Reflecting on the glory of the Surrealist movement, André Breton wrote in 1951: “What we valued most in [cinema], to the point of taking no interest in anything else, was its power to disorient” (Hammond 73). Dreams are disorienting when we cannot distinguish the dream from waking life. Life is disorienting when we are not sure if we’re dreaming: “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” one popular children’s song asserts, and don’t we ask our friends to pinch us when something unbelievable happens? Part of the reason we confuse the two (dreams and waking life) so readily is the ability of each independently to offer a complete sensual experience. Many times the only thing distinguishing the two is an adherence (or not) to the laws of physics; that is, expectations of normalcy. “One of the magic geniuses of Svankmajer is his ability to turn film, a strictly audio-visual medium, into a sensual, nearly synesthetic experience. . . . One can practically taste, smell, and feel the settings” (Jackson 3). To “feel the settings” is the factor figuring most importantly into Svankmajer’s work, and it is this disharmony between the expected (an audio-visual medium) and the actual (a synesthetic experience) that led Breton to herald the power of disorientation in cinema. In movies, we can literally follow a protagonist to hell and back; there are, simply, far fewer “rules” in cinema than those proscribed by reality.
Lunacy, Svankmajer’s fifth feature-length film, opens with the graphic (and disorienting, for its unexpectedness) disemboweling of a pig. The credits then play while a series of paintings depicting various and gruesome tortures flash like tarot cards in the background. Because tarot is a tool of divination, revealing fate, then the tarot of torture says that this life must be about pain. Surrealism, including Svankmajer’s canon, and birth trauma theory all echo the sentiment: birth is violent, childhood is terrifying, and we may not always come out the other side of adolescence intact.
Jan Svankmajer: Film Technique and Theory
The first Svankmajer film I ever saw was a short called Food, which has three parts respectively titled “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” and “Dinner.” From the moment the first character shuffles on-screen in “Breakfast,” his herky-jerky movements the telltale sign of Svankmajer’s signature stop-motion animation style, I knew I was seeing something different — the work of an artist who had no real contemporaries, in a genre increasingly dominated by Hollywood and three-dimensional animation (such a far cry from Svankmajer’s latest film, which uses old-school paper cut-out animation, and to amazing effect). I would argue that the three most revolutionary things happening in Svankmajer’s work reside loosely in the form, the thematic content, and the symbolism — more specifically, animated objects and puppets, children, and the gesture toward touch.
Objects and Puppets
Svankmajer’s characters, particularly in his celebrated earlier films, but also to an extent in more recent films like Lunacy and Surviving Life, consistently take the form of animated objects and puppets. Whether it is the disembodied tongue that slinks its way across the floor and into a meat grinder in the intercalary spaces of Lunacy, or the pantsuit that assumes a life of its own in Jabberwocky, Svankmajer imbues otherwise “dead” objects with spirit and soul once more, re-instating the power of imagination in the post-Cold War Czech Republic.
“I am continually distilling the water of my experiences,” Svankmajer says — the water, or the amniotic fluid, in which his films incubate (Hames 112). Having suffered for many years under the repressive regime of Stalinism, Svankmajer finds that “puppets best symbolize the character of man in a contemporary, manipulated world” (115). Not only are we made puppets by the experiences that shape us, but there is something to the fact that even the most lifelike puppet remains less than human. When Don Juan slays his father, his brother, and Maria’s father in Svankmajer’s 1969 short Don Juan, the deaths of these figures make for a compelling story, but not a gory one. Maria’s father has his wooden marionette’s face cut off, there is blood, but it spurts theatrically from the wound like red Kool-Aid. It is impossible to feel pity for these characters, with their frozen smiles, and that is the point, for certainly the regime had no pity for its dehumanized citizens.
Which is not to say that the March Hare in Alice (1988), a wind-up toy who is always dying and whose eyes keep falling out, or the Caterpillar, a green sock with a too-real pair of snapping dentures are not unsettling — because they are. They’re definitely creepy, and let’s face it, borderline terrifying, for their uncanniness. But they represent the way that children, according to Svankmajer anyway, see the world. Because cinema “isolates objects, it endows them with a second life, one that tends to become ever more independent and to detach itself from the habitual meaning these objects have” (Hammond 103). What this form affords the viewer is the opportunity to see with new eyes, through those of a child. “By revealing fractures between space and time, . . . Svankmajer’s style of animation generates a sense of fragmentary chaos, of disharmony” (Shera 138). And as we know, since leaving the womb all is disharmonious.
“‘Disharmony” means a lack of agreement, and certainly, dismembered limbs are not going to agree with everyone. In Freudian theory, “‘dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist” and “feet which dance by themselves” are discussed as having “something particularly uncanny about them, especially when they prove capable of independent activity'” (Shera 139). Svankmajer, however, affiliates himself with the alchemists, and “alchemy is about trying to connect things that you cannot connect” (Jackson 8). Or, in this instance, reconnect. Animated hands without owners, organs without bodies, puppets without their puppeteers — there is a sense of the whole being relegated to its parts; a regime reborn as individuals, each of them actualizing for the first time their own selfhood.
One only has to consider the teddy bear, the “binky,” or the “blankey” to recognize how children fix their attention on objects (Hammond 51). Like a fetus in the sac subject to the mother’s moods, so “objects imbibe the emotions and moods of those with whom they come in contact” (Hames 57). Thus it could be said that the teddy bear is attached to the child with an equal and opposite force. This idea is the one Svankmajer exploits in animating everyday objects. What role do children play in relationship with the object?
First off, Svankmajer maintains that all encounter is fearful. Childhood is about fear and desire (Richardson 129), as fear, dream, and eroticism are “the three deepest and most generous wells of imagination and play” (Hames 133). It is the child’s imagination that makes the potatoes jump out of her basket and roll back into the potato bin in Down to the Cellar (1983). Imagination is the necessary counterpart to living in a wide world full of mysteries like “What is thunder?” (God going bowling). When there aren’t sufficient answers to complex questions, children make up how they want the world to be. Interestingly, adults do the same thing. But by then it’s willful ignorance.
Janus notes how “it is now a generally accepted matter of fact that the child we once were continues to live on in the adult we have become” (xiii). We never leave childhood behind (Hames 64), because we carry womb trauma with us. For Svankmajer, obsessed with the lingering effects of birth trauma on his own childhood and childhood in general, this is a lucky thing indeed. “Surrender to your obsessions,” he admonishes. “They’re the relics of childhood” (140). This is how great art is born.
Gesture Toward Touch
I have said that Svankmajer’s work is remarkable for its symbolism. According to scholar Michael Richardson, Surrealism is not about symbols, but gestures that evoke meaning (29). If a symbol is an object representing something abstract, and a gesture is a movement conveying intention (that is, elucidating the abstract), what happens when a symbol is the thing that gestures? In such a situation, meaning is doubly derived — more complexly layered, but also more powerful, than ever before. The catch is that objects, as static, non-living entities, are more commonly the thing gestured to, rather than the origin of gesture. However, we know that in Svankmajer’s work, as in Fantasia, the broom is likely to come “alive” at any moment, inciting, and inviting, gesture.
The gesture in Svankmajer’s films is always toward touch. In Dimensions of Dialogue, a three-part series of animated shorts, the pairs of characters in each part are made of food, clay, and household objects, respectively. From the bristles of toothbrushes to fingerprint impressions in clay, all of the “objects” in this film invoke, visually, a familiar tactile sensation. When the clay lovers in part two claw one another to shreds, you feel the clay smush through your own fingers like some half-remembered memory of lost love. In Surviving Life, the protagonist must recover the memory of his first swim lesson, long repressed, in order to protect his sanity. Together, out, in, his mother’s voice teaches, and we pantomime the stroke in muscle memory. Gliding through the water or playing with clay — two common childhood experiences — alongside Svankmajer’s characters convince the viewer that s/he is experiencing or has experienced the same moment in time, a constant and communal reaching toward touch.
We know what it is to touch and to feel. We also know the power of touch to communicate. Svankmajer’s films are antidialogic; that is, meaning is rarely relayed through speech (Richardson 124). Discourse goes unanswered: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the White Rabbit taunts his disciple in Alice (1988), without ever answering the question. In Faust (2004), speech is used to confuse: the Fool marionette speaks in grinning riddles, and it is the deceptive power of words that convinces the Everyman to sell his soul to Mephistopheles. Since speech is too easily manipulatable, Svankmajer’s characters instead communicate through touch. Even the touch of a look, the way it washes over you, communicating, through image, tactility. Touch is the most elemental sense; Svankmajer capitalizes on its universal nature and accessibility (126).
“Tactile sensations [ . . . ] disarm the dualism between objectivity and subjectivity” (Hames 73). What we see, what we touch, what we feel, becomes how we see, how we touch, how we feel. Tactility is a means of reviving sensibility (56). As the in utero experience is our first experience of touch, so the gesture thereafter is always toward touch, toward recovery of the pre-birth paradise.
To date, Jan Svankmajer has written and directed six feature-length films and twenty-seven shorts, as well as animating a handful of Oldřich Lipský’s films. While I would love to offer each film a thorough treatment, it remains within the boundaries of this paper to examine only a select number of films, which this writer deems as representative of the Czech filmmaker’s work. I trust that the reader will go on to view the rest of Svankmajer’s canon, drawing his/her own conclusions about birth trauma and the gesture toward touch present to some degree in the whole of Svankmajer’s filmography.
Surviving Life (2010)
Dreams and dreaming figure prominently in the majority of Svankmajer’s films, as indeed they do in Surrealism at large, but nowhere is the device of dreaming as central to the plot as in Svankmajer’s latest feature-length film Surviving Life. The subtitle for Surviving Life reads: “a psychoanalytical comedy,” and in the introduction to the film, the director presents the idea of a film “where dream blends with reality and vice versa.” Surviving Life pits Freudian theory against Jungian psychology, revolving around an Oedipal complex more complicated perhaps than most. Not only does the child kill his father and sleep with his mother, he impregnates her and is himself reborn with the birth of their love child. At least in his dreams.
The protagonist, known only as Eugene, is a decent, balding, rather boring man whose life suddenly becomes exciting when he dreams into being the beautiful Eve. Unaware at first that Eve is but a subconscious representation of his own mother, Eugenia, Eugene proceeds to seduce her nightly, becoming more dependent upon and enamored of this alternate reality until the couple are expecting a child together. It is only with the help of a smug psychoanalyst that Eugene realizes Eve is a wishful manifestation, the result of repressing his mother’s very real and very graphic untimely death, which Eugene witnessed at age four.
From Eve’s first appearance on-screen, she is the very embodiment of sex and its attendant: fertility. The opening scene of Eve’s red fingernails rhythmically pumping a soap dispenser is a blatant suggestion of male ejaculation. When Eugene encounters her on the street, Eve dances and grows paper flowers out of her head with every step, their stamens curved like vulva. Meanwhile, in the background, an old woman who by the end of the film comes to represent the archetypal Mother, pushes a baby carriage back and forth, back and forth, a metronome of Woman’s biological clock; and in this case, the very fecundity from which Eugene was spawned.
We know that Eve, as Eugene’s mother, comprises the entirety of his total sexual awareness, because she is the only woman within the dream world besides the archetypal Mother (later revealed to be Eugene’s own Superego in action) who retains a complete and unadulterated female form. To Eugene, she epitomizes female perfection, and therefore his subconscious feels no need to alter her, the way it does, for example, every other passerby woman, all of whom prance around naked and cluck with the literal heads of hens. Even the psychoanalyst, who once makes a thwarted pass at Eugene is not on Eugene’s sexual radar. She, too, runs blindly around, this time with her own head but the body of a hen. All women, save Eugene’s mother, are little better than egg-laying mammals, reduced to the routine function of reproduction sans arousal or any kind of actual enjoyment. At the same time, every male passerby in the dream world is a carbon copy of Eugene. Because Eugene’s only authentic experience of manhood can be his own, Eugene idealizes himself as the ultimate man, the Ego, superior to all other men who could possibly pose the threat of competition over Woman, Eve.
The secret, repressed experience that Eugene must recover in order to stop dreaming and reenter reality is the fact of witnessing his mother’s suicide and her failed attempt to bring her son down with her. Eugenia kills herself by slitting her wrists in the bath, then slitting Eugene’s and teaching him to “swim” in the water as the blood drains out of them both. This proves to be a very sensual experience for the four-year-old, who will forever after attempt to negate the loss of the Mother with the sexual conquest of her again and again; an attempt, that is, to possess her, if only to hold on to her that much longer. When the psychoanalyst shares her theory with Eugene, he dismisses it as preposterous. “I was four!” he splutters, certain that a four-year-old has no concept of sexual arousal. “You might not have thought about it with your rational mind,” she counters, “but what about the libido?”
Svankmajer unabashedly explores the childhood “awakening” to the libido in several of his films, but the most graphic allusions to such occur in Surviving Life. Normally innocent objects, such as the teddy bear, become perverted symbols of an inappropriate sexuality (e.g., the teddy bear has a consistent erection). Asserts Rank: “The man can from the beginning remain attached to the same object, which represents for him mother, lover, and wife.” Here, the teddy bear is first a gift from the mother, then the keepsake of the lover, then a forgotten memento the wife keeps hidden in the closet. Similarly, there is an emphasis on regression to primal reflexes and objects, most notably the infant’s sucking reflex. Eugene discovers that by placing the handles of his mother’s old handbag in his mouth before he goes to bed, he will fall asleep sucking the object and be reunited with Eugenia in his dreams. If he can visit her, he has the opportunity to possess her, and if he can possess her, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll never have to part. “You have to help me get back there,” Eugene implores his psychoanalyst. Back into the dream world, even back into the womb, where nothing could separate mother and child.
Acoording to critic Leslie Halpern, everything we know is simply a memory of what we inherited. Such memories, when repressed, continue to manifest as dream symbolism, “where the dreamer relives the traumatic horror in order to master it” (75). Eugene recalls his mother using razor blades to shave her legs, and her teaching him to swim, but he can’t put the two together until he “remembers” her death. When he does so, he fantasizes about swimming, as a grown man, in his mother’s blood. As Fodor explains, “The bathtub is one of the commonest symbols for the womb. Its very hugeness suggests prenatal perspective as retrojected from the adult level” (98). This final dream is wish fulfillment concerning a return to the womb.
Because Eugene cannot, of course, return to the womb, his subconscious synthesizes the next best alternative: he will (in the dream world) kill off his father, who “becomes the representative of the anxiety connected with [the mother’s genitals]” (Rank 42), impregnate her himself, and in so doing, re-reproduce himself, in order to regain the uterine sanctuary. A very surreal scene soon follows in which Eugene stands outside the bedroom, listening to Eve give birth to himself inside . Afterward, he will toss the infant Eugene in the air, both of them smiling and laughing with happiness at this rare extra chance at new life.
In the end, however, Eugene is unwilling to forsake the cozy fantasy he’s created for a return to reality. He leaves his real wife to spend all his time sleeping and dreaming of Eve/Eugenia. Insofar as reunion with the Mother and the womb is impossible, the scars of Eugene’s unusual childhood experience will, it is implied, keep him searching and yearning for the rest of his life for the touch that only a mother can give.
Lunacy begins with an on-screen artist’s statement by Svankmajer: “[Lunacy] is not a work of art, but a reflection for the face of narcissists.” In psychology, narcissistic personality disorder is a mental illness characterized by a lack of empathy, a willingness to exploit others, and an inflated sense of self-importance. The main character in Lunacy — the fictional Marquis, based on the Marquis de Sade — exhibits all of these symptoms, and is in fact not only a narcissist but a sadist. Not to mention the Marquis’ trademark “crazy laugh,” which goes on and on and testifies to the man’s insanity long before we find out that he has escaped from an asylum.
We see the Marquis’ lack of empathy for others when he first offers the character Jean Berlot a ride home from the inn. Halfway home, in the middle of nowhere and during a tremendous thunderstorm, the Marquis stops his carriage and orders Jean to get out. Jean obliges and trudges through sodden fields for some time before the Marquis reappears, laughing. He apologizes and claims it was only a joke, but already Jean is mistrustful of and resentful toward the Marquis. Later, Jean witnesses the Marquis perform a Black Mass in an antechamber of his castle, complete with gross food consumption, blasphemy, fellatio, rape, and sodomy; the Marquis is more than willing to exploit others. He goes on to exploit Jean by involving him in the Marquis’ own self-administered purgative therapy, only to have Jean committed to the same asylum he escaped from in order to do “experiments” on Jean. Finally, the Marquis has an inflated sense of self-importance when Jean tells the Marquis he is leaving and the Marquis inquires, “But won’t you listen to my story first? I listened to yours.” He convinces Jean to stay by playing on his feelings of guilt and impudence, even though Jean knows full well how dangerous the Marquis is.
The Marquis thus fits all the criteria for one suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. This is important, because the elements of the disorder are intimately tied to events surrounding birth trauma. For example, concerning the Black Mass, Ludwig Janus writes that “The fear rooted in prenatal panic can express itself in fantasies of hell and eternal punishment” (xv). During the Mass, the Marquis hammers nails into an effigy of the crucified Christ, while intoning: “Oh Christ, thief of our noblest pleasures; in your cruelty you created life and inflicted it on every innocent soul.” The “innocent soul” is the prenatal person, unaware of the pain of birth and life about to be experienced. Christ is “cruel” and life is a pleasureless hell, and therefore Christ must be punished. Otto Rank explains why the Marquis directs his rage at a God figure. First, the Marquis creates his god: “there emerges, through severance from the mother and transference to the father, the figure of the almighty and all-loving, but also punishing, God, as a religious sublimation by means of projection” (121). Subsequently, the Marquis becomes his god: “the higher powers who punish and reward, whom one dare not disobey, are finally transferred back again into the Ego . . . out of the narcissistic feeling of omnipotence” (133). Why? “Crucifixion corresponds to a painfully emphasized return to the womb, after which follows quite consistently the resurrection, namely, birth” (137). By first creating the means to “return to the womb” (i.e., an effigy) and then destroying that means through a transference of pain (the nails), the Marquis attains that pleasurable state most common to sadists: an enlightenment born of an “infantile curiosity,” as he “seeks to discover the nature of the inside of the body” (35).
While the masochist seeks to reestablish the original pleasurable condition by means of reliving birth trauma, the sadist “personifies the unquenchable hatred of one who has been expelled; he really attempts with his fully grown body to go back into the place whence he came as a child, without considering that he thereby tears his sacrifice to pieces.” (Rank 35) This seeming ignorance is due to the fact that “even the most horrible forms of punishment . . . are clothed in the first and strongest pleasure experience of the intrauterine life. . . . The real punishment which struck him long ago . . . was the original expulsion from the womb” (136). When he forces the imprisoned Charlotte to fellate him under the crucifix, it is because “all kinds of mouth perversions in some way continue the intrauterine libido gratification (or the post-natal gratification at the mother’s breast)” (33). When he uses blood to decorate the female servants’ backs with inverted crosses, it could be due to “blood guilt,” or those feelings of guilt that arise from causing bleeding to the mother through the birth event, which in turn causes either a repulsion to blood or in this case, a blood lust (Fodor 25).
We see the opposite in Charlotte’s character, the girl supposedly held “captive” by the Marquis. As it turns out, she is a masochist who enjoys exploitation, rape, and other forms of sexual aggression. Charlotte, too, seeks a return to the womb. “In masochism it is a question of the pains caused by parturition into pleasurable sensations . . . for instance — the state of being bound as a partial reinstatement of the intrauterine pleasurable condition of immobility.” (Rank 34) However, where the male may reenter the womb, in a way, through penetration of the vagina during sexual intercourse, the female has no such recourse open to her. Therefore, “the typical fantasies of being violated or raped . . . represent nothing else than a failure in [a woman’s] attempt to adjust [herself] to her (feminine) sexual part, because these fantasies prove to be the precipitate of the initial identification with the man (penis) which should make possible the aggressive-libidinal entrance into the mother” (40). By being raped, Charlotte channels the rapists’ aggression into her own aggressive violation of the Mother.
Conversely, for the Marquis to rape Charlotte is for him to rape the Mother. His motivation for so doing is revealed in the following hostile monologue: “Nature fills this world with blood, tears, and sorrow. She is our mother. What kind of mother . . . mercilessly and systematically murders her own children?” At the same time, he recites this poem almost tenderly: “Mocking the gods / we’ll hurry home / to the great bounty / of her womb / she’s whore and mother / to us all.” Relegating the Mother to the status of “whore” makes her an easy, and perhaps even willing, target for violation.
Keeping in mind that the Marquis is a narcissist, with an inflated sense of self-importance, it’s interesting to note that he identifies with his own mother as much or more than he yearns to return to the Mother. We discover that the Marquis’ mother was, by accident, buried alive and consequently suffered a ghastly death by dehydration locked in the family crypt. The Marquis admits quietly: “I have been reliving her ghastly ordeal ever since.” The “purgative therapy” he designs for himself involves being buried alive every few months and “rescued” the following morning, ostensibly in order to empathize with her. More than that, though, “the coffin in which we return to Mother Earth is a symbol of the womb. Because of its association with death and passing from the only known plane of life into the unknown, it also alludes to the transition from the pre-natal into the post-natal world” (Fodor 38).
As a narcissist, and a sadist, Svankmajer’s Marquis attempts a return to the womb in the only way he knows how: forcibly, with violence, and through the destruction of the Mother, as first conflated with the God who gives life, and secondarily through his “whore,” Charlotte.
Darkness Light Darkness (1990)
The birth of man incarnate. An empty room with a single lightbulb in which a human being constructs himself, slowly, piece by piece. A long and arduous development in a cramped space. It is significant that the hands enter first, feeling out, feeling along. This is the development of touch. Then: eyeballs, ears, nose, arrive, following the natural trajectory of sensory development. Development is painful and meets resistance. Tongue. Brains. Once the sensory organs are in place, there is need of a brain for storing sensory experience. Legs for locomotion, though there’s nowhere to go and the body is increasingly constricted in the room, crunched in the womb. Feet and hands are proportionally too large, and one wonders how he will ever fit through the door/birth canal. There’s a larger problem, though: the violent intruder at the door. The penis knocks and rattles and shakes the whole house while the developing person cowers inside and tries desperately to hold the door (cervix) closed against him. Finally man picks up the now flaccid penis, as if to say, I control you and not the other way around. The rest of the torso forms but is held immobile in a fetal position, confined. He turns off the light. The sound and light show ceases.
More than any other of Svankmajer’s films, Darkness Light Darkness exemplifies the “story” of our lives, from birth to death, including the repercussions of experiencing the birth act. We begin and end in darkness, and in between there is light thrown on a world we struggle to make sense of. For this clay figure, birth is near. He will soon exit the room (womb) and find the freedom to stretch his legs, to reinstate his penis as patriarch once the libido is acknowledged. The fact that the figure turns out the light at the end, however, suggests that he would rather not exit the womb, to “enter the light,” but might either prefer the cramped room to the trauma of birth or even prefer death over the pain of separation from paradise. This is Svankmajer’s wish-fulfillment manifesto: in a perfect world, we would never experience birth trauma at all.
Dimensions of Dialogue (1983)
“Speech is an imperfect medium.” Two minds are always separate,” writes Professor Peter Hames (77). When words cannot bridge the communication gap, there is touch — used to heal and to destroy. In part one of Dimensions of Dialogue, an “organic” man, built of fruits and vegetables a la Giuseppe Arcimboldo, is dismembered and mutilated by the “technology” he’s created: pliers, knives, scissors, cheese graters. He is reborn from the refuse, only to see the technology destroy itself (book eats metal washers); and from that refuse a new synthetic man is born. The organic man eats the synthetic, before restoring him. The synthetic swallows the organic. Each successive union births a hybrid, while the pieces get smaller and smaller, becoming a pulpy mush. The end result is two well-formed clay men that reproduce asexually. Here, man has become the commodity.
If Food (1992) teaches us that to take into the body is to possess for the first time, or to re-possess, as the Mother yearns to do with the Child, then Dimensions of Dialogue makes birth obsolete. The Other is consumed, re-produced, and consumed again until consumption and birth become defunct modes of production. Mitosis is the new meiosis; each man is an island.
The same progression occurs in part two, where a breakdown of communication sees loving touch turn violent, and literal gulfs come between two partners; Pangaea dissolved into islands. A clay man and woman smushed together in passion become one massive writhing vagina. When they separate again a small lump of clay remains as the love child. However, it must fight for its mother’s attention, and even then she flicks it away as one does a fly or pest. The father does the same — no love for the love child. A fleshy, formless thing, it might well represent the prenatal fetus, and the mother’s attempt to squash it with her palm, a symbol of attempted abortion. All the while, the child continues to reach for the mother. The man throws the lump at the woman’s chest and scowls: this is your fault. She hurls it back at him. They begin to claw and scrape each other into shreds. In this environment of anger and violence and stress, the baby is lost, that is, miscarried. The intrauterine being is not immune to the extrauterine environment or the mother’s attendant experiences.
Down to the Cellar (1983)
The following two short films, Down to the Cellar and Jabberwocky (1971), were “studies” of a sort for the feature-length film version of Alice in Wonderland that Svankmajer would go on to produce in 1988. As such, they touch on similar themes. Both heavily concern themselves with the loss of childhood innocence, the terror that accompanies the moment, and the desideratum of the imagination in dealing with trauma. In Down to the Cellar and Jabberwocky, and later in Alice, we meet a child protagonist whose sole (soul) goal is “how to get inside.” “The whole problem of infantile sex is really contained in the famous question as to the origin of children. . . . The child’s typical reaction to the truthful answer (the child grows in the mother’s body somewhat as the plants grow in the earth) shows where the child’s real interest lies — namely, in the problem of how to get inside” (Rank 31). The corollary, of course, is that once inside, there is no going back. Not to the same world, and not as the same individual.
A small girl, her smallness heightened by dramatic silhouettes by the way she looks up to the towering man who passes her on the stairs, descends into the cellar in search of potatoes. She holds a thick breadstick in her mouth — innocent enough, until when she passes by the man the breadstick becomes a clear and unsettling symbol of fellatio. This, combined with the way the girl tiptoes around the cleaning lady, suggests acknowledged demarcations of authority and a willing subordinance on the part of the girl toward her elders, who know things she cannot possibly yet understand.
At the foot of the cellar stairs, a black cat lies in wait like Alice’s white rabbit. Both this girl and Alice are going down into a dark hole, a dark place, the gradual and then sudden easing away of light, of innocence. The flashlight, a phallus, leads the way, its head providing the only source of disorienting light. Her passage is lined by the shoes of other men watching her progress, which becomes a rite of passage. The shoes fight over the breadstick she drops the way men might fight over the privilege of defloration. She is anxious, and her anxiety manifests first in the animated shoes and then in the perceived misinterpretation of “gestures toward touch” made by the ominous characters she encounters in the cellar. The man from the stairs prepares his bed of coals then invites her, with a crooked finger, to join him. All she can do is to back away shaking her head. Meanwhile next door, the cleaning woman makes “cookies” out of coal briquettes. She sprinkles one with powdered sugar and offers it, like Eve, to the girl, as if she is to be initiated into something. The girl carries a basket like Red Riding Hood, who also comes to learn the horrible truth about danger and deception. Eventually, though, the girl makes it out of the cellar, potatoes intact. Just when she seems to have narrowly avoided “growing up” on this trip, she spills the potatoes again and must start down after them. The cat, yowling, waits for her.
As Fodor explains, “to the infantile mind, the cat is often the wife of the dog, as the cow is the wife of the horse. The cat should then primarily stand for the mother” (108). Furthermore, “the anxiety shown by the child left alone in a dark room . . . reminds the child’s unconscious of the dark abode in the mother’s womb, . . . but was brought to an end by the frightening severance from the mother. . . . The child is obviously reminded of the anxiety-affect of the first separation from the libido-object” (Rank 48). Each time the girl goes “down to the cellar,” she not only risks a premature sexual enlightenment, but re-experiences the trauma of birth, of the initial separation that it represents. She is alone, but continues to follow the cat (the Mother), because she trusts it not to lead her astray. That said, the cat is “a stray,” and like a mother, it cannot protect the child forever.
What does it mean to “protect” a child, and what are the ways that adults attempt protection? One idea holds that to punish a child, corporally or otherwise, for an inappropriate action will instill in the child a fear of future punishment that will prevent him or her from repeating the action. Jabberwocky opens with a jump-cut sequence of a small child being spanked over and over, while a soundtrack of classical music suggests the “holy” act of corporal punishment. Based on Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” a nonsense verse poem intended to parody contemporary scholarship, Svankmajer’s film version likewise questions generally accepted notions of childhood, puberty, and the “natural order” of the world.
The protagonist of Jabberwocky is an animated pantsuit, boy-like, that emerges dancing from a wardrobe only to go out into the world. Once “born” from the wardrobe, the pantsuit soon meets the obstacles of self-awareness as puberty descends. He (if I may refer to an object as such) is caught on branches that sprout like pubic hairs. The branches blossom and grow fruit, those temptations of sex and knowledge. When the fruits ripen and fall to the floor, they split open, revealing a core of maggots and worms — something intrinsically rotten, bad. The pantsuit rides the rocking horse anyway, as graphic jesters laugh at the boy’s submission to man’s weakness. Next: a female doll spits smaller dolls from her stomach, and later her face. The dolls wiggle like maggots, suggesting a total infestation. Together they all play house in a carnival funhouse, as one by one the dolls dive into a meat grinder. The pieces are collected and re-pressed by irons into flat paper dolls, given new outfits and new lives: the recycling of generations who will succumb to the same fate.
At every “stage” of the pantsuit’s development and ultimate enlightenment, a black cat attempts to foil the “child’s” progress. If the cat is a Mother figure, then the child’s subconscious desire for and fear of the mother (the results of birth trauma), which together manifest as dependence upon the mother, are the ties inhibiting the child’s normal development. As the child grows into a young man, his experiences intensify. A knife, as phallic symbol, digs divots in the wooden table, tearing the lacy white tablecloth (read: hymen) that covers it. From the mouth of a man in a painting pour dominoes decoupaged with the pictures of various women — all the women he’s had in his mouth. These tiles overlap each other, the women’s features become indistinguishable from one another, until they suggest the one Woman — the Mother. Good trick, says the clown that performs backflips on the chair, as paper airplanes exit the window like so many sperm. The man reaches enlightenment. The pantsuit becomes a suit. The cat has been caged; the Mother put in its place.
As studies of childhood imagination (Down to the Cellar) and object manipulation (Jabberwocky), these films laid the groundwork for Svankmajer’s feature Alice. A tangential tale about the loss of innocence down the rabbit hole, Alice also features animated dolls, skulls, and playing cards, but as in all of Svankmajer’s films, these “objects usually trapped in the banality of life take on new meanings as metaphors, emotions, and ideas” (Jackson 2). On the part of the viewer, the leap into the suspension of disbelief is not a hard one to make, because on some level we recognize the world that Svankmajer is calling us home to: the infantile or pre-infantile planet where all is yet potential. “Children love wonders and mystery. The critical faculty is a comparatively late development, and to exercise it costs considerable effort. To accept things at face value . . . is so much easier. . . . The fear of fascination of another world arises from a basic biological experience. We all have lived in another world — before we were born” (Fodor 77).
Conclusion: Overcoming Birth Trauma
We one and all have in common the experience of birth, whether natural or Caesarean, at home, in a hospital, or in a car on the way to the hospital. Birth trauma theory tells us that we also all share the trauma of the birth experience, whether we are aware of it yet or not. For some people, the aftershocks of a particularly traumatic birth echo into the present in a very real way, informing how they, as now mature individuals, interact with the world around them, the world outside the first world of the womb. From phobias to unexplainable reactions to everyday objects and events, birth is not simply something that happened but an event still happening, every day we open our eyes in this bright, cold world.
There are ways of overcoming birth trauma, and Svankmajer explores these too in his films. In order to overcome something, however, the underlying cause must be addressed. Bandaging the symptoms will never be a cure. “The unconscious mind has an almost limitless capacity for absorbing psychic shocks,” Fodor writes. Nevertheless, “It is a law of the unconscious mind that one cannot keep pressure locked up indefinitely” (28). Like a boiler inching toward capacity, it is but a matter of time before the unacknowledged trauma explodes. Regarding the trauma, “the mechanism [of repression] . . . is regressive association. It means we put two and two together not only consciously, but also unconsciously, not by reasoning but by an automatic feeling process. . . . [This is] the main reason why the forces of repression eventually fail, and we become aware of the anxiety or convert it into local symptoms” (106). The moment of actualization opens the door for healing.
“Freedom is never given; it demands a process of purification” (Richardson 102). Such purification includes the Marquis’s own purgative therapy in Lunacy, or reliving a trauma again and again in dreams as Eugene must in Surviving Life, so as to recognize, understand, and accept a real-life experience. Other methods of purification include therapy, staging a “rebirth” event (Food), catharsis through auto sex (seen in the 1966 feature Conspirators of Pleasure, not addressed in this paper), liberation through violence (Dimensions of Dialogue), and the direct confrontation of personal phantasms (Down to the Cellar) (143). It would seem the process must be easier for children, who still exist in the liminal space between worlds. However, for the majority of us, who will carry birth trauma with us into our adult lives, “It is impossible,” Svankmajer states, “to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the subject proper of freedom [ . . . ] we end our rebellions on our knees” (Hames 131). The only direction to go from there is up.
Birth trauma is chaos, is disharmony. Its natural antithesis is scientific organization. Consider children’s games; their inherent simplicity. Chutes and Ladders, Candyland — pick a card or roll the dice and move; nothing more complicated. Several of Svankmajer’s shorts respond to this sentiment — the taming of chaos through order — directly. Historia Naturae (1967) catalogs the natural world according to biological family: Aquatilia, Hexapoda, Pisces, Reptilia, Aves, Mammalia, Simiae, and of course, Homo. Otesanek (2000), a modern adaptation of an Eastern European folk tale, pits a man-eating tree against evil or ignorant people — when you can’t force people to get in line, clean the world up by devouring them. Sometimes, reversing the status quo is the only way to achieve order. Can’t overcome the trauma? Return to its source. “[T]here is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim of all human beings, to the place where each of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning” (Freud, Writings 245). In Faust (1994), Faust rapes Helen because “the man, penetrating into the vaginal opening, undoubtedly signifies a partial return to the womb” (Rank 39). The collapsing of obstinate difference, of disharmony, into union once more, through that ubiquitous gesture toward touch.
“Surrealism is psychology, it is philosophy, it is a spiritual way” (Jackson 4). Life is built upon psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. In the (Surrealist) movie of our lives, we are born; the birth pangs echo across the years; psychology, philosophy, and religion offer answers, solace, and more questions; we resolve our natures to ourselves, or we do not; and then we die. Jan Svankmajer, Czech Surrealist filmmaker, grapples with these birth pangs in his creative work. He attempts to address the answers, even if all he manages are questions. Animated objects, puppets, and children — those nearest the source — remind us of the importance of touch, that first sensation — its power to harm, or to heal. So that when the lights come on and the reel starts ticking, the real work of our lives begins: making peace with ourselves.
Alice. Dir. Jan Svankmajer. Channel Four Films, 1988. Film.
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Faust. Dir. Jan Svankmajer. Athanor Films, 1994. Film.
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Lunacy. Dir. Jan Svankmajer. Athanor Films, 2005. Film.
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Surviving Life. Dir. Jan Svankmajer. Athanor, 2010. Film.
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