Friday, 15 August 2014

The Guardians of the Galaxy meet D. W. Winnicott in Outer and Inner Space

Mark Featherstone

I recently saw the new Marvel film The Guardians of the Galaxy at the cinema with my son who has become a Marvel fanatic over the course of the last couple of years. Indeed, Marvel comic books and comic characters have become our mutual obsession, taking me back to my own childhood when I lived in a world populated by ‘Spiderman’, ‘Daredevil’, ‘Doctor Doom’, and ‘Galactus’. Many of the characters he encounters, however, are new to me and his interest has opened up new worlds for us to explore together. Hence we watched The Guardians of Galaxy who we had previously encountered in various cartoon series and comic books and waited to see how Marvel had realised its outer space heroes on film. Of course, he enjoyed the film immensely, and reviewers also noted that the film was great fun. In fact, unlike other Marvel characters, and films, which seem to contain a clear moral or philosophical dimension, the general impression of The Guardians of the Galaxy and the rest of the Marvel cosmic tradition seems to be that it is largely meaningless, and is simply a kind of overblown space opera, populated by Galactic Gods obsessed with death and destruction and lonely space travelers who wander the vast expanse of the universe in search of peace. Of course, this short description is enough to show that even these stories are deeply mythological and concerned with the meaning of the human condition and so on. Like fairy tales, comic books, such as those of Marvel and DC, always speak to us, and especially our children, of the deeper meaning of life, addressing our anxieties, fears, and desires. In this respect The Guardians of the Galaxy is no different from any other comic book and I think the film contains an underlying, psychoanalytic, text which speaks to family relations and beyond this our sense of who we are and what makes us human. But how can a story which makes a talking raccoon – ‘Rocket’ – and a walking tree – ‘Groot’ – key characters possibly say anything about the real world we inhabit? Humour me, because the main point I want to make in this post is that no product of human culture is meaningless, and, I would suggest, probably cannot be meaningless, since everything we make must in some way reflect the world we live in, and as a result say something about the society we occupy.

Back to The Guardians of the Galaxy. What is its social, cultural, and psychoanalytic meaning? Well, I would suggest that the key scene of the film occurs very early on – the young ‘Star Lord’, Peter Quill, visits his dying mother. He listens to his Walkman. Peter cannot bring himself to speak to his mother or acknowledge her because of the pain her impending death will cause him. However, this resistance is shattered when she dies in front of him. At this point Peter is torn away from his mother by a male family member, perhaps his Grandfather, and taken outside. He is subsequently abducted by a band of space pirates and his adventure as Guardian of the Galaxy begins. What is interesting about this scene is first, the music young Peter listens to on his Walkman. The scene opens with Peter sitting on his own waiting. He listens to 10CC’s ‘I’m not in love’ and this track essentially frames the scene. This is, of course, a strange choice of music, because it is not the kind of song which one would imagine should capture a young boy’s relationship to his mother. The song is essentially about denial. ‘I’m not in love, so don’t forget it, it’s just a silly phase I’m going through’. One does not need to be a psychoanalyst to understand that the words of denial are really a sign of affirmation. ‘I’m not in love’ essentially means ‘I’m in love but I would prefer not to be because of the pain it causes me’. In his case Peter denies his love for his mother, because he cannot accept her impending departure. So far so good. However, the 10CC song does not speak of the love of a son for his mother, but rather of the love of a man for his ex. Or at least I think this is the most likely story. So how can we interpret this disjuncture, which means that the song does not seem to fit with the scene it accompanies?

The answer resides in Freud’s theory of Oedipus, where every male child takes his mother as his first object of love. According to Freud, the young son jealously defends his mother, because she gives him everything, and competes for her attention. Centrally, this is not a phallic, or what we would normally consider sexual love, but rather what psychoanalysts call polymorphic eroticism, where care and attention provide pleasure, but not mature, sexual, genital, arousal. Freud’s point was, of course, that this kind of love is acceptable to young children, but at some point they must grow up. He suggested that the father’s role in the family is essentially to cut the ‘apron strings’ (an umbilical metaphor) and tell his son when enough is enough. At some point the young son must let go of his mother and start to invest his interest in society, and eventually the world of other men and women. This is exactly what we see dramatized in The Guardians of the Galaxy. The young Peter is torn away from his mother in traumatic fashion – and the resolution of the Oedipus complex is always traumatic in Freudian psychoanalysis – and the 10CC song captures this moment by highlighting his borderline state. What does this mean? Well, the song captures Peter’s emotional state – ‘I’m in love, but I need to deny it’ – but also highlights the reason he has to let go – because the song concerns the thwarted love of lovers, rather than a son and mother. This is where Peter must go now – his future lay in the world of grown-ups where we live in a state of loss and melancholia ultimately anticipated by Oedipus. The song captures this condition and the trick of the film is to link the sense of loss captured in the key line of denial ‘I’m not in love’ to the Oedipal loss Peter experiences when he is torn away from his mother. Okay, so where do we go from here?

At the end of this scene Peter is taken away from his mother by a male family member, is subsequently abducted, and becomes a superhero. From a psychoanalytic point of view, and following the above discussion of Oedipal trauma, what follows is Peter’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of his mother. In other words, the entire story of the film, where ‘Star Lord’ teams up with ‘Drax’, ‘Gamora’, ‘Rocket’, and ‘Groot’ to fight the evil Kree warlord ‘Ronan’, is a fantasy which Peter plays out in order to make up for the loss of maternal love. It is important under these circumstances to recognise what the symbolism of the galaxy represents because like the idea of ‘mother earth’ the galaxy is a sign of maternity and the loving mother. The galaxy is, thus, a kind of universal mother – the origin of everybody and everything. What this means is that Peter leaves his mother in real life only to save her in his fantasy in the form of the galaxy which he protects from monstrous villains who want to destroy her. On the villains themselves, what is the significance of ‘Ronan’ and the other monsters who populate the pages of Marvel’s cosmic comic books, such as the nercophilliac ‘Thanos’ and the space God ‘Galactus’ who eats entire planets? Our meeting with ‘Thanos’ in The Guardians of the Galaxy explains everything, I think. ‘Thanos’, the galactic Titan who is obsessed with death, wants to destroy the galaxy, and reduce the universe to a state of nothingness, is essentially a hyperbolic symbol of the father, or the male authority figure, who tears Peter away from his mother. ‘Thanos’ make his sovereign, phallic, power clear to everybody. He is the grumpy king of pain, death, and destruction, and we know this because he sits on a throne looking miserable on a barren meteorite flying through space. There is no adornment in ‘Thanos’’ world – he occupies a cold place surrounded by nothing and this is what he wants to impose upon the galaxy. Again, one does not have to be a psychoanalyst to imagine how he might be the result of the borderline son’s vision of the male authority figure who tells him he needs to leave his mother behind and start to grow up. ‘Thanos’ represents the cold world of the Freudian father – the symbol of death, where death is the end of care, attention, affection, and the love provided by the mother.

So finally, does this mean that The Guardians of the Galaxy is only a story about a boy losing his mother to some terminal condition when he is very young? It is this, but it is also more than this, because for psychoanalysts society is premised on the process of growing up and learning to be adults – in this respect, the mother’s death in the film may be metaphorical and essentially reflect the loss everybody must face when they start to grow up. In the psychoanalyst’s view this process of growth and maturation is not possible without encountering loss, even if this is the very normal loss of Mom who does everything for us. We cannot grow up without it. Moreover, this loss is essential because it is only out of loss that we create a world around us, and make things, which is precisely what Peter achieves in his fantasy world that speaks of his own sense of loss and love for his mother who finds symbolisation in the figure of the galaxy. Psychoanalysts call this process sublimation – essentially ‘symbolisation’ through redirection of libidinal energy - and it is what drives humans’ cultural lives. We create in order to express our emotional selves – and this is exactly what The Guardians of the Galaxy reflects upon. In short, then, The Guardians of the Galaxy is great fun, but it is also a film which has deeper significance and is more than simply a meaningless summer blockbuster. Centrally, I found that this piece of fun stuck with me for far longer than I imagined precisely because of its unconscious message which speaks of the drama of childhood, loss, growth, and joy. I think that The Guardians of the Galaxy speaks of the human condition, and our world more than the world of aliens and monsters, and yet it does so in a gentle, under-stated, self-depreciating way that never proclaims the importance or asserts the seriousness of ‘Star Lord’ and the other characters. Thus the film is told from the perspective of the child, precisely because it refuses to recognise the cold and serious world of adults that waits in the future, and reminds us of the world of play, creation, and imagination which we can always return to in our cultural lives. It is precisely this space, what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott spoke about in terms of a transitional space of imagination and cultural creativity, which I share with my son through our immersion in the pages of Marvel comics and the universe of The Guardians of the Galaxy

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