Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

December 5, 2008

A Brief Discussion of the Tennessee Williams play in light of M. Bergmann’s paper, The Anatomy of Loving

            Bergmann in his wonderful work of 1987 culled insights into the nature of falling in love from the ideas of Freud and subsequent psychoanalytic thinkers.  He highlighted Freud’s famous statement in his 1905 paper, Three Essays on Sexuality, echoing Plato, that the “finding of a [love] object is in fact a refinding of it.” This compelling idea suggests that a person seeks throughout life to “refind” parental love.  Other psychoanalytic ideas raised in the Bergmann paper relevant to a discussion of love include narcissism, splitting, merger fantasies, and reality testing. 

            Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, explores a web of love relationships in the Pollitt family in mid-20th century Mississippi.  Although the centerpiece is the love between Brick Pollitt and his wife Maggie, the relationship Brick has with his authoritarian father and his psychically-weak best friend are critical to understanding his capacity to love.

            Early in the play, Brick and Maggie bicker, illustrating that Maggie’s love for her husband is not reciprocated.  Brick, a former football star, drinks bourbon all day in order to ease his nerves.  Brick’s parents, called Big Daddy and Big Mamma, return from a trip to a cancer clinic in the belief that Big Daddy has been given a clean bill of health.  A celebration at the sprawling Pollitt estate ensues. 

            Brick is contemptuous of Maggie, who attempts to coax her husband’s love back with her feminine charms.  The play climaxes as Big Daddy learns from Brick that he is in fact dying, and as Big Daddy’s curiosity about Brick and Maggie’s nonexistent sex life uncovers the story of the suicide of Brick’s best friend Skipper.  While Tennessee Williams, who was homosexual, arguably left it open as to whether Brick and Skipper had a homosexual relationship, homosexual feelings, and especially Brick’s unresolved oedipal feelings, clearly energized this relationship.

             Big Daddy was the son of a penniless hobo, a cause of great shame to this self-made millionaire.  Yet by the end of the play, Brick causes Big Daddy to admit that his father loved him and that he loved his father.  Big Daddy’s drive to hammer his way to success and to annul the shame of his father caused him to repress his love for his father and also for his wife and children.  Likewise Big Daddy never believed in his wife’s love.  He saw Big Mamma as nothing but a money-grubbing, controlling liar.  Tennessee Williams’s characters rail about the “mendacity” of the people around them, when the mendacity actually lies within themselves, i.e. the mendacity of the repression of their emotions, including love.

            Brick was never able to experience a non-traumatic separation from his mother, which the positive involvement of his father at an early age would have encouraged.  Merger fantasies likely persisted, underpinning his yearning for an exceptionally close relationship with Skipper.  Nor later in his childhood could Brick experience a healthy resolution of the Oedipus Conflict that would have involved his giving up his wishes for his mother and identifying in a positive way with his father.  Instead he identified with his father’s shame, his father’s anger, and his father’s rejection of love.  He witnessed his father’s rejection of his older brother Gooper and concluded that only by being better than Gooper, by being a football star, could he win his father’s love.  He became an overachiever.  He developed a strong, but rigid ego – arguably the definition of masculinity in the culture of the South of these times, conquering reality instead of enjoying it and possessing love objects, instead of experiencing love.

            In attempting to “refind” the pathological triad with his parents, he found Maggie.  Maggie adored her handsome, upper-crust football star, much like Big Mama adored Big Daddy.  Brick also found Skipper, a man with a fragile ego, who idolized Brick.  They played football together; however, one day when Brick wasn’t on the field, it became clear that Skipper had little skill to play professional football.   Brick idealized this weak man, who he believed was the only one in the world he could count on.  He deluded himself into believing he could experience the bliss of a passive male relationship with Skipper, the kind of non-traumatic yielding to one’s father that occurs in a healthy resolution of the Oedipus Conflict.  In fact, he chose Skipper in order to avoid closeness with a stronger male, whom he feared would be like his authoritarian, unloving father. And, Skipper chose Brick because Brick represented the archetype of manhood — strong, capable, hard.  Skipper killed himself after his failure on the football field, after Brick hung up the phone on Skipper because he had let him down.  The sudden realization that Skipper was not the strong male he could count on may have set Brick into a rage.  Maggie went up to Skipper’s hotel room before the suicide, circumstances that led Brick to believe she was unfaithful to him with Skipper.  We learn later that this was not true.  Brick Pollitt’s “compulsion to repeat” makes for dramatic theater in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 

Freud posited that homosexuals often set themselves up as their mothers and their objects as themselves.  They identify with their mothers instead of their fathers, according to Freud.  In this case, however, it appears that Brick played the role of his father, projecting the unloved part of himself onto Skipper.  The climax of his rejection of himself came when he hung the phone up on Skipper.  Subsequently, he could not bear the thought of having been so cruel to Skipper, having acted out his father’s rage against this fragile man; so, he projected his unwanted aggressive self onto Maggie, turning her into the lying, money-grubbing cat his father believed his mother was, and Brick believed he himself was.  She was the one responsible for Skipper’s demise, not him.  This fantasy sustained Brick’s exhausted ego.  Only then was it safe for him to identify with his father; only then could he be the strong, upright man he believed his father was.  Brick’s loss of Skipper hewed more to “melancholia,” or the loss of an intrapsychic object, than to simple “mourning,” the pain of the loss of a real object.

Very compelling was the agreement that Brick and Maggie made after Skipper’s suicide.  They would remain together, but with no love, no physical intimacy, only psychic torture.  This way she could be with her ego ideal (her handsome husband) and he could hold his debased self at a safe, but close distance.  Brick had “refound” the triad of his youth. 

            A therapeutic episode ensues when Brick tells Big Daddy he is going to die.  Faced with the truth at last, Big Daddy realizes he loved his father, which brings into relief his love for Brick, Big Mamma, and the rest of his family.  This episode also causes Brick to accept that he had let down Skipper, but that Skipper was a weak man and that Brick therefore was not responsible for his suicide.  This enables him to see Maggie for what she really is.  A desirable woman who loves him.  She is not a liar; she is not money-grubbing; though she still is a little catty, a little seductive, and a little interested in moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

             Freud’s theory on narcissism also helps explain the love relationships in this play.  Freud suggested that the narcissist loves what he himself is or was or would like to be, or even a part of himself.  Maggie’s narcissism is a love of what she would like to be, her ego ideal as embodied in Brick.  Brick’s narcissism is the love (and often the hate) of a part of himself, the rejected part, the heartless, money-grubbing man his father was, his father believed his mother was, and he believed Maggie was.  He likewise loved in Skipper that despised, weak part of himself, rejected by his father.  At the same time, in his conscious thoughts, Brick turned Skipper into his ego ideal — a supportive, kind-hearted and strong man, albeit a distorted view of Skipper.  In the event, when Skipper failed him, he swung from idealization to devaluation in the nanosecond it took to hang up the phone.

            Freud also talks about how a strong, object-oriented love can impoverish the ego.  Clearly, this speaks to Skipper’s love of Brick.  Skipper leaned on Brick.  Brick was his ego ideal, the mirroring mother he probably never had.  All Skipper’s libidinal energy was directed at Brick, leaving little for his ego.  Once Brick withdrew his love, the selfobject representation that sustained Skipper’s self-esteem went from “good” to “bad,” making suicide the only option.

            The abrupt swings in this play from loving to hating and vice versa bring to mind the concept of splitting and Freud’s discussion of emotions as distinct from instincts.  The ego synthesizes all sexual instincts and libidinal energy into love and all aggressive energy into hate. A weak ego cannot integrate these opposing emotions, cannot see people for the gray characters they often are, resulting in splitting and in sharp mood swings.  Thus, the rage, and in the case of Skipper, suicide.

            The extreme emotional reactions experienced by Williams’s male characters, in comparison with his female characters, are consistent with Altman’s notion that it is easier for women to find an appropriate non-incestuous love object from the onset of adolescence than it is for men.  This is because girls have already renounced their first love object, their mother, during the oedipal stage, when they choose their father.  Boys have a greater tendency to remain fixated on their mothers, making it perhaps more challenging to find appropriate non-incestuous object choices later on.

            In ego psychological terms, it appears that Maggie the Cat may have been the character with the strongest ego.  Although in her compulsion to repeat, she may have clung to “the hot tin roof” as long as she could, she was always sure about Brick and loved him amid the storm.  She was the most capable of Tennessee Williams’s characters at enduring frustration, showing compassion, and performing reality testing by airing the truth and integrating contradictory material.

            Clearly, the love refound by Tennessee Williams’s characters one stormy night under a hot tin roof was a refinding of the lost love, or rather the incomplete love, of childhood.  But, it was a therapeutic refinding, flexible enough to allow the kindling of mature adult relationships, and the jettisoning of unwelcome patterns.

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The Nukalofan threat…

January 30, 2008

…a story written for my mom on the occasion of her 75th birthday…

 The Nukalofan Threat 

I was walking home from school one wintry day when I was seven, wondering whether that afternoon I would be free to have a final contest, once and for all, with the evil that lurks in our universe.  It is a frightening evil, the kind that blasts defenseless women and children with beams of energy fired from starships orbiting the Earth.  It was my burden as well as my honor to lead the fight against this diabolical evil, a race of beings with bulbous heads, antennae, and no body hair, known far and wide as the Nukolofans.  The Nukalofans were a race that traveled from a galaxy, far, far away, to our Milky Way in order to subdue Planet Earth and wrench our earthly freedoms from our hearts.  

I was prepared to confront the Nukalofan threat that afternoon in December many years ago when I was seven, as the sun of the northern hemisphere sank low in the sky.  It was a sun that illuminated everything in its path with that winter’s light, that light of sharp angles, that light that makes it so that every creature, every tree, every car seems to radiate its own light, like a planet about to explode into a star.  Yet I knew that I had to wait until my mother drove my sisters to Hebrew School before I could engage in operations in and around our family compound, a six bedroom, two-story house on half an acre on the south shore of Long Island that had plenty of bushes and trees which provided cover against the aliens.  The only unanswered question in my mind was whether, during the free time that I would have between dropping my strong-willed sisters off at Hebrew School and when they and my father would arrive home for dinner, I would receive orders from my commander, otherwise known as my mother, to engage in search and destroy operations in and around the family compound.  Though it is hard to believe, it was my mom who was the Chief of Planet Earth’s Department of Homeland Security; and I and my dog Bonkers were her loyal lieutenants.  It would be mom’s decision whether or not a second grader’s homework would take precedence over securing our way of life on Planet Earth.

In the car, my sisters and their superficial friends yammered on about some teen idol of theirs on television, some cutesy David Cassidy or some such creature.  Luckily, these sisters of mine, who, I must admit, could still pummel me with the fierceness of an intergalactic swamp rat, were dropped off at Hebrew school, which much to my delight, was something they detested.  I of course was not thinking ahead to the time that I too would be forced to forgo intergalactic spying or even an afterschool soccer game for this forced Jewish learning.  Yet, with a few good years left as a spy, I scooted to the front seat of my mom’s station wagon and the two of us drove home.

Me and my mom.  Just the way I liked it.

“Got homework tonight, honey?” she asked.

I had only moments to make my case for the defense of the galaxy.

“It’s warm out for winter, Mom.  Can I run around the yard before supper?”

“How much homework do you have?”

Ahh, the dreaded homework question, raised immediately by my mother, whose acute intellect never missed a detail.  She was of course a starship commander.

“Not a lot,” I replied. “Some math, some reading.”

“Maybe you should get busy on that right when we get home.”

I had to explain to her the necessity of our maneuvers that day.  I had to explain how, if I delayed taking action with my team of intergalactic spies, then there might not be a Planet Earth in existence tomorrow, and that meant no elementary school around the corner, no second grade, and hence, you do the math, no homework due.

“But, Mom, the Nukalofans are planning an attack this afternoon before it gets dark and if I don’t stop them, the planet will be destroyed, and you know what that means?”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Mrs. Grace (my second grade teacher) won’t be asking us to hand in our assignments.”

Mom smiled.  I detected a muffled laugh.  A starship commander such as she cannot be seen to be getting jocular with her subordinates.  I smiled.  Mom removed her eyes momentarily from the road, and she and I exchanged a glance, a knowing glance, a glance of co-conspirators.  I studied that smile on her olive-colored face, her lips painted red, her teeth straight and white, her hair wavy and as black as the hearts of those Nukalofans, the same color as mine.  That smile, which she shared with me before giving me my orders for the afternoon, was a smile I had given her.  From the time I was a baby learning to laugh at my mom’s goofy baby sounds, I had generously given her that smile.  I understood on some non-verbal level the principle that she that giveth shall receiveth.  That is, my mother had given me something, some primal emotional support only mammals understand, and in return, I gave her that smile.  Sometimes yelling at my sisters or arguing with my father or even on the rare occasion disappointed in me, my mother gave up that smile.  But that was only temporary.  She was a natural with laughter.  A naturally silly person.  She gave me the capacity to laugh, so I gave her that smile.  A smile that made her turn away from the road to glance in my direction once my strong-willed sisters had been left to contend with the rabbis.  Maybe it was the private burden my mother and I shared of having to save this watery planet from alien invasion that made us appreciate our few moments free to laugh and goof around. 

“Yesterday, you had me flying through space on a Nukalofan starship,” she said.  “I can’t get anything done up there in space.”

“I know,” I replied.  “It’s a good thing Bonkers and I rescued you.  Or we wouldn’t have had supper last night.  But today the Nukalofans are going to land on Planet Earth.  On our front lawn.  The whole world is in danger.”

 I had reached her.  She put her eyes back on the road, stiffened her neck and gave me my orders for the rest of the day.

“Okay, starship trooper, you can run around for a while, but keep your jacket on, and right after supper, you go up to your room and do your homework. I don’t want your father saying I go easy on you, not to mention your sisters.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I barked.  With a sharp jerk of my arm, I offered her the salute that she deserved.

Back at the family compound, while my mother prepared dinner in the kitchen, Bonkers and I set about our work.  It was dirty work, but someone had to do it.

I stretched myself out on the floor of the kitchen by the refrigerator with Bonkers, who was a little dog, yes, but a tough predator nonetheless.  He sat on my chest and we conferred on the imminent operations.  My mom had to step over me a couple of times to get to the frig.  She didn’t complain.  She and I communed in silence, almost as if we were exchanging thoughts telepathically about the imminent Nukalofan attack.  She smiled down at me.  She was calm, rolling meat balls in her palms.  I believe that rolling meat balls is a little-recognized therapeutic technique that could help many a world leader deal with the heavy weight of the problems they face.  Made me remember that time I rolled a meat ball around a grape, much to my sister Elise’s chagrin later at dinner when the tart juice squirted in her mouth when she thought she was biting into a harmless meat ball.  I think my mom even muffled a laugh at that time.  I loved to trick my sisters, but saved my most diabolical actions for the Nukalofan enemy.

“Aren’t you going outside?” my commander asked.  “If you wait much longer, it’ll get too late.”

With that, Bonkers and I launched our operations.  What looked like the headlights of a car coming down our street through the windows in the front of the house were in fact the lights of a Nukalofan shuttle craft landing in our front yard.  The Nukalofan away team was by this time in our house, so Bonkers and I sped out of the kitchen, jumped over the armrest of the couch in the living room and hid for a while beneath the cushions.

“Get out of there with Bonkers!” shouted my commander.

But, before we could do that, Bonkers and I took cover behind my father’s bar.

“I said, ‘Get out of there with Bonkers,” she repeated, firmly but amiably.  We both knew that I wasn’t supposed to be in the living room with Bonkers, but we both knew that she didn’t really care that much.  She was merely reinforcing the rules that we both knew would go into effect when my father arrived home.  Bonkers too was aware of the changing legal framework in our household when my father would arrive home, given his memory of rolled up magazines wacking him on the butt when he broke these iron-clad laws.

Outside Bonkers and I avoided an atom blast fired by a Nukalofan security officer by diving into the hedges along our driveway.  Then we made a break for the fence to the back yard. We closed the fence door behind us and ran for cover by the unfinished redwood deck.  Our plan was to lure the Nukalofans under the redwood deck, my favorite hiding place in the whole family compound.  It was a place my father hated me to hide, fearing a collapsing two-by-four, but a place my mother condoned me hiding when no one else, not my sisters, not my dad, was around.  It was where I would hide with Bonkers, luring the unsuspecting Nukalofans in order to fire my atom blaster at them.  I had to bring them into close range, and the bowels of the redwood deck provided the best possibility.  At close range, I could score a direct hit on their atom blasters, which would cause an anti-matter explosion which would cause these diabolical creatures and their nefarious way of life to cease to exist.  It was our only hope.  Earth’s only hope.  I think my mother, rolling meat balls in the kitchen, understood this.

Well, it seemed that it was not to be. Before Bonkers and I could reach the unfinished redwood deck, a team of five Nukalofan storm troopers surrounded us.  They tied me up and put ole Bonkers, barking incessantly, in a cage.

“We shall destroy you,” hissed their leader, “by lowering you into a pit of crocodiles. Then we will roast your little dog on the spit and serve him as a Nukalofan hors d’oeuvre.”

It seemed that we were finished. Soon to be destroyed, leaving the Earth itself, and all that we hold dear, to be obliterated.  But I felt calm.  It was a calm that comes from good parenting.  You see, I had been in fixes before out on operations in my family compound.  Whether it was killers from Argentina about to have my limbs pulled apart by wild animals, or galactic terrorists determined to cut my head off and sell Bonkers into slavery, I knew that my commander, my mom, was not far off. Oh sure, perhaps she was in another wing of the house sewing or cooking or painting or reading.  Perhaps she was talking on the phone, not nearby at all, preoccupied with something else.  But, I knew that when I was engaged in military operations designed to protect my family, protect our neighborhood, protect Planet Earth, when there was no one home but my mom and I, and I was free to roam the family compound, freed by my commander, my mother, I knew that she was never far away.  I knew that her smile was not far away.  I knew that she had a sixth sense about these things.  She knew when my life was in danger, when my enemies were upon me, and she would arrive and save me in the end. 

That was why I was calm when being lowered into a pit of man-eating crocodiles.  Tied to a board moving slowly down into the barbecue pit that the Nukalofans had turned into a crocodile nest, I could have despaired that all was lost.  But I knew, like James Bond, that I would prevail by the end of the movie.  As the crocs snapped hungrily just inches below by limbs, I heard my mom call from the backdoor of the house, “We’re eating!” 

When she spied my predicament, she pulled out her atom blaster.  The five Nukalofans barely knew what hit them.  As they turned, off-balanced and confused, the last thing they saw was a blast of energy coming their way and then they were no more.  Then she turned her wrath on the Nukalofan shuttle craft, blasting it to atoms, and then toward the sky, she shot a mega-photon ray at the Nukalofan starship orbiting the planet.  It was time for supper.

Thirty years later, I am proud to say that the Nukalofan threat, while not eliminated, has been held at bay.  Held at bay through the tireless efforts of my mom, my dog, and me, liberated each day a long time ago when my sisters and my father were away, liberated by my generous mom, rolling meat balls in her palms in the kitchen, liberated by her smile.  My mother let me have the run of the entire family compound so that I could engage in operations that would save the galaxy.  Hats off to my mom.    

I will always remember my mother’s gift to me.  Free reign and time alone to let my imagination run wild, all the while knowing that she was not too far away to save me in the last moment from my enemies.

A Cave with Tables

January 27, 2008

A Cave with Tables

Here is an excerpt of my manuscript, A Cave with Tables.  Make sure you push on past the first edgy 11 pages.  Let me know if you want to read more!

David’s Dream

January 27, 2008

David’s Dream

Here is an excerpt from my manuscript, David’s Dream, a novel about a Jewish diplomat from planet Earth, mediating a conflict in the galaxy at the dawn of the 24th century.  He is also competing with his brother, a swashbuckling starship captain, for the affections of the same woman. 

On the Borderline

January 26, 2008

On the Borderline

A short story I wrote.  See link.