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The Shining: Kubrick’s unheimliche manoeuvre

How do you…fill your days?’
My editor was looking at me with a hint of concern, in a cafe on Portland Street. She was worried I was losing my edge. It had been almost a year since my first book had come out, and still I hadn’t started working on another. Well, I thought to myself. Kubrick didn’t rush his projects. 12 years between his penultimate and final movie. Besides, how could I explain to her or anyone that I’d spent the last four days somewhere else entirely, perhaps in another dimension, also known as the Overlook Hotel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started on Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, I watched a film called Room 237. It introduces us to some of the online obsessives who, in the last few years, have put forward complex and often very sophisticated readings of Kubrick’s horror-masterpiece of 1980, The Shining. We hear from six critics, each putting forward a different master-theory of the film: that it’s about the Indian genocide, or the Jewish holocaust, or the faking of the moon landing. Some of the theories are more credible than others, but the film certainly convinces you that Kubrick is playing some strange semantic games.

There’s the question, for example, of whether the ghosts in the hotel are real or just a reflection of Jack’s inner demons. He only ever sees the ghosts when there are mirrors around. Who is the management of the hotel, the higher powers driving him to kill his wife and child? There’s also the weird ending, with the photo of Jack from a party at the hotel in 1921. He is told that he’s ‘always’ been the caretaker. Has he been reincarnated? And who in damnation is that guy in the bear suit?

Then there are the little details that have driven online theorists crazy with speculation. The film is full of continuity errors – furniture appearing then disappearing, photos on the wall changing arrangements. The first scene in the hotel takes place in a room which appears to have an impossible window (see the map below) – as if the hotel’s architecture doesn’t make sense, like a building in a dream. These hints of hidden meanings and codes have driven people to construct theories bringing together every single detail in the film, from typos on the pages Jack writes (‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’) to the cartoon figures on Danny’s bedroom door. Everything becomes soaked with hidden significance.

Re-activating Animism

One way to understand the film is as an exploration of how we have an emotional need to find hidden meanings, as Sigmund Freud discussed in his essay, Das Unheimliche, or The Uncanny. Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson repeatedly read and discussed this essay while writing the script for The Shining.

In his essay, Freud begins by exploring the etymology of the German word unheimliche, the opposite of heimliche which means ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. He suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when the homely is made strange and frightening to us. Freud then explores some of the plot-devices with which Gothic writers produce this feeling in us  – ghosts, dopplegangers, telepathy, curses, apparitions in mirrors, inanimate objects coming to life, events from the past repeated, numbers repeated, symbols and patterns repeated, all of which produce the over-riding sense of “something fateful and unescapable”. Freud suggests that these Gothic plot-devices work on us emotionally because they reconnect us to our pre-modern animist beliefs. The uncanny, he writes, connects us to

the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled by the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic over-estimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts…the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers)…It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive man, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces which can be re-activated.

Romantic literature attempted to keep alive this old animist paradigm within the scientific-industrial age, and succeeded for a while, but gradually such beliefs came to seem more and more childish to us, and were pushed to the margins of our culture, into nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and then into the ‘low art’ of fantasy, horror, science fiction and comic book culture. Modern men and women duck into the low dives of ‘trash culture’ to re-activate their primitive belief in the spirit-world.

Kubrick recognised this cultural-religious function in sci-fi (he explored animist-religious ideas in 2001: Space Odyssey) and in horror-fantasy. He rang up Stephen King at 7am one morning, in their first conversation, and launched in with ‘I think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?’ King, perplexed, asked ‘why do you think that?’ ‘Because supernatural stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death.’ They appeal, he later said, to our ‘longing for immortality’. They also posit the suggestion that there is some higher pattern, some secret dimension, to our banal material existence, which is also perhaps an optimistic idea, even if the secret dimension turns out to be Evil.

Engineering the Uncanny

What Kubrick does in The Shining, and what David Lynch does in his works, is masterfully re-activate these animistic traces and engineer a sense of the uncanny. (Kubrick made the crew watch Lynch’s Eraserhead before making The Shining to give a sense of the mood he wanted to evoke, while Lynch’s Twin Peaks is clearly influenced in turn by The Shining). Take Kubrick’s repetition of certain numbers. Freud noted:

we of course attach no importance to the event when we give up a coat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number, say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on board ship is numbered 62. But the impression is altered…if we come across the number 62 several times in a single day, or if we begin to notice that everything which has a number – addresses, hotel-rooms, compartments in railway-trains – always has the same one, or one which at least contains the same figures. We do feel this to be ‘uncanny’, and unless a man is utterly hardened and proof against the lure of superstition he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number…

Kubrick seized on this idea for The Shining. The cover of his edition of Stephen King’s novel is covered with scrawls of him trying to work out ways to use the number 217, which in King’s novel is the hotel-room where Danny and Jack see a witch (it’s changed to the number 237 in the film).

Kubrick’s copy of Stephen King’s The Shining

Kubrick repeats the number 42 throughout the film – on Danny’s shirt, on the number-plate of Hallorann’s car. When Danny and his mum are watching TV, it’s showing a film called The Summer of 42. The numbers 2, 3 and 7 when multiplied together make 42. The stools in the bar where Jack meets the ghostly barman are arranged in a group of four and a group of two. And so on.

Kubrick also plays with mirrors, twins, dopplegangers and doubling to suggest hidden connections between figures – Danny is connected by telepathy to Hallorann, Jack is haunted by the ghost of the previous caretaker Grady, or maybe he is the previous caretaker. David Lynch did the same sort of thing in Twin Peaks – Laura is doubled with her evil doppleganger from the Red Room, and also with her cousin Maddy. Her father Leland is also Bob, who appears when he looks in mirrors. In the Red Room, the giant is doubled with the dwarf, who speaks in reverse in a sort of mirror-language, just as Danny does when he chants Red Rum. Both Kubrick and Lynch also use garish carpet patterns to suggest hidden patterns in reality (they should have opened a store together: Uncanny Carpets).






The Uncertainty of the Uncanny

At the heart of the uncanny is a confusion of the self and its boundaries. The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that in the modern secular age we all have ‘buffered selves’ that are walled off from nature and from each other. In the animistic age, we had ‘porous selves’, selves without firm boundaries, invisibly connected to each other by thoughts, energies, elective affinities, and also connected to the spirit-world, capable of being invaded by  benevolent or malevolent spirits. In the modern world, we are autonomous agents trying to figure out what to do in an indifferent universe. In the animist world, we are the creatures of the Fates, threads in some cosmic pattern of Good and Evil.

The uncanny is a particularly modern emotion, however, because it rests on an ambiguity and uncertainty about whether there is a natural or a supernatural explanation for the eeriness of the atmosphere. The Bible is not an uncanny work because it is very clear that all the supernatural events are the work of God or the Devil. There is no ambiguity. The Shining is an uncanny work because there is this uncertainty. This is what initially drew Kubrick to King’s novel. The ghosts appear at the corner of our eye, at the margins of our modern rational consciousness.  The events in the Overlook Hotel could be explained in secular Freudian terms as fantasies emanating from the hidden violence in the Torrance family – Jack’s murderous anger and Danny’s Oedipal rage. The Shining could simply be a story of male domestic violence against women and children. Likewise, Twin Peaks could simply be a drama about an incestuous family.

Kubrick complicates matters further by introducing a political level of significance. The violence in the film could also point to the historical violence of white Americans against Indians (the hotel is on an Indian burial-ground and there are Indian symbols around the hotel) or African slaves, or the Nazis against the Jews (42 was the year Hitler began the Genocide). Or the film could simply be a story of how the political elite (the hotel management and its powerful guests) use stooges like Jack for their state-sponsored mass murders – look, in the final photo, how Jack’s hand seems to be held up by the rich people around him. He is their  puppet, their errand-boy.

Can we escape the past?

Is The Shining really an optimistic film, as Kubrick suggested all horror stories are? On one reading, the film could suggest humans are trapped in cycles of violence, frozen in sin like Jack at the end of the film,  doomed to repeat our crimes over and over. On the other hand, Danny and his mother escape the Overlook Hotel. Danny is not lost in the maze – he retraces his steps and gets out. Perhaps we too can escape history.

Perhaps the film suggests that we’re at risk when we overlook things, when we forget the crimes of the past – like Dilbert Grady apparently forgetting that he killed his wife and children. Art holds a mirror up and show us our dark side, reminding us to take care, showing us a way out of the maze like Ariadne’s thread or Perseus’ mirror-shield.  Kubrick said: “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”

Or perhaps that is too neat and utilitarian an explanation of art’s power, and art is in fact more dangerous than that. The uncanny, after all, is a dangerous emotion. Once activated, how can we be sure it will stay within the bounds of art and not spill out into reality? How can we be sure we will not ourselves be possessed by the old belief-system and find ourselves back in the demon-haunted world we thought we had left behind?

Kubrick wrote: “Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If [horror] required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.”  For better or for worse, we crave the uncanny. We have a deep emotional need for patterns of meaning and intimations of immortality. Freud would say that was the vestige of our primitive self, Jung would say it was our true self seeking its Maker.

Either way, modern life does not that satisfy this emotional need for the uncanny, so we turn to art, and to The Shining. We try to decipher Kubrick’s intentions as if he was God, and every detail of His creation is a clue to His meaning. Like lost souls, the acolytes haunt the Kubrick archives at the University of Arts London, which I imagine as a vast warehouse containing an almost infinite number of crates. And in one of those crates, perhaps, lies the key.


In other news:

John Gray is our next guest at the London Philosophy Club, on April 9. You can sign up here.

How useful would randomised controlled trials be in public policy, in areas like education for example? The debate rages on the internet, as Michael Gove dismisses ‘bad academics’ for blocking evidence-based policies, while some academics suggesting there are risks to thinking everything can be quickly solved by an RCT. Rebekah Higgit summaries the debate and provides lots of useful links here, while Evgeny Morozov warns of the risk of ‘solutionism’ in public policy, in his new book reviewed here.

Teenagers used to define themselves by whether they liked Blur or Oasis. Now they define themselves by whether they own Mac or Samsung, argues this piece. And, to prove how chic geekdom has become, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s new film sees them become hapless interns at Google. Sounds…pretty dire!

I’m working on an article looking at five years of Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT), the British government’s flagship mental health policy which has brought CBT to the masses. Here is a good blog by a therapist looking at the data coming out of IAPT. And here’s a good new article in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology looking at the limits of evidence-based medicine in psychiatry (behind a pay wall alas).

A philosopher and psychologist debated whether psychology was a science or an art on Radio 3’s Nightwaves this week. The debate then rumbled on for days on Twitter…for all I know it’s still going. The discussion is 34 minutes in here.

Some new books. My friend Tom Chatfield from the School of Life has a new book out called Netymology, a dictionary for tech language. Another friend, Tom Butler-Bowden, has a new book out called 50 Philosophy Classics – I’ll publish an interview with him soon. I’m still reading David Esterly’s book about wood-carving and philosophy  – it’s really brilliant. I admire David a great deal.

Finally, here’s a Tumblr that made me laugh a lot this week – a collection of lousy book covers from the world of fantasy fiction. Enjoy, and see you next week.


PoW: The Saint, The Stoic, The Spy

The nice thing about having lived in Russia is that everyone assumes you must have been a spy. Acquaintances drop knowing hints about MI6. One relative even claims she heard me sleep-talking one night, mumbling in Russian, before shouting out: ‘Not this time, Karla!’ The truth, sadly, is that neither MI6, nor the Foreign Office, nor the KGB showed any interest in me whatsoever. The only contact I had with the British government in four years in Moscow was when a louche young diplomat from the British embassy licked my face in a club one night, permanently denting my opinion of the FCO.

Nonetheless, Moscow expats liked to play the game ‘guess who’s a spy’. And there were some among us: the bassist of my band, an American journalist, turned out to work for the CIA, which we discovered when he was forced to leave Russia overnight after being set up in an FSB sting operation while trying to secure military secrets. I also played football with a couple of spies from the British embassy, one of whom was thrown out of Russia when he was video-taped dropping secrets into a fake rock.

In general, my impression of Anglo-Russian spying was that it had fallen to a pretty low and amateur standard – fake rocks, assassins leaving a trail of radiation, sleeper agents who seem to be just as attention-seeking as any goon from X-Factor.

But I still find the world of spy-craft quite fascinating, and since I’ve come back I’ve loved reading John Le Carré’s stories of the Cold War, particularly the Smiley novels: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and Smiley’s People . The film and TV adaptations of these books are on YouTube by the way (just click on the links above). The Alec Guinness portrayal of Smiley in particular is absolutely brilliant. There’s also a film adaptation coming out in September, which I’m looking forward to, with Gary Oldman as Smiley (not sure about that) and Colin Firth as Bill Haydon.

What fascinates me about spies is the incredible self-control it must to take to play a role, not for an hour or a day, but one’s entire life. Le Carré, whose father was a con-artist, writes: “A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers…while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief…He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses”.

You could trace a genealogy of the spy, from the Stoic of the Roman Empire, rigidly controlling his personality in the service of the Logos, to the saint of the Christian era, controlling his personality in the service of Christ, to the spy of the modern era, controlling his personality in the service of the nation-state. The spy still retains some vestiges of these earlier roles in the popular imagination, where he or she can appear as Stoic or saintly knights – think of ‘The Saint’, Simon Templar.

George Smiley, Le Carré‘s greatest creation, is in some ways a saintly or Stoic figure. There’s something monastic about him – his self-effacement, his economy, the ‘iron quietness of his demeanour’. We hear that working for him “is like working for a bloody clergyman”(he was partly based on a chaplain Le Carré met at boarding school). When Smiley is preparing to bring down Karla, the head of the KGB foreign directorate, we read that he undergoes “a going in, a quietness, an economy of word and glance”, like a monk on spiritual retreat. Likewise we hear Karla has a “stoic face”, while Leamas, the hero of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, has a “frightful stillness about him…not of resignation, but self-control”.

These knights of the secret services strive to achieve “a higher order of human conduct”, so that the childlike masses can carry on their lives of self-indulgence and irresponsibility (this is the view of the secret services in The Sword and the Shield, one of Vladimir Putin’s favourite Soviet thrillers). They are the secret defenders of their nation, in “a world grown old and cold and weary”. Smiley moves wearily through a corrupt world of strip-clubs and psychic bookstores, like the last knight from a lost order of chivalry: Alec Guinness did, of course, play both Smiley and Obi Wan Kenobi, and there are some parallels between the two figures.

Just as the Stoic must free himself from all emotional attachments to external things, because attachments mean that others can exploit and enslave you, so the spy must rigorously police his own emotions and attachments, so that no one can control or blackmail him. The Cold War spy had to be cold. They must control their emotions, their appetites, their desires, must withdraw themselves from external attachments, like a turtle pulling its limbs inside its shell. And when they fail to do this, when they fall in love for example, it destroys them. Smiley is defeated by his love for his wife, Karla by his love for his daughter.

This is why James Bond would have been such a terrible spy: his animal appetites, his drinking, gambling and womanizing, would have made him an easy target for blackmail. He is an egotist, drawing attention to himself, while Smiley, more authentically, is a master of self-effacement. Bond is a 19th century Byronic figure, a nostalgic throw-back, quite out of place in the emotional climate of the Cold War.

And yet, here is the strange thing about the spy: they ruthlessly negate their own soft humanity, while just as ruthlessly detecting and exploiting any hints of humanity in others. They are experts at resisting control, and masters at exerting it. They are trained “to find the humanity in people…[and then] to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill”. So while there is something Stoic in their resistance to attachments, they are extremely un-Stoic in their attempts to exploit others and make them betray their own values.

And in whose service is the spy subjecting himself to this rigid asceticism? The Stoic serves the Logos, the saint serves Christ, but the spy serves the nation-state, which really means the short-term commercial and political interests of a handful of petty politicians and CEOs (Le Carré is a master at describing this pettiness in Smiley’s political masters). What you often see in Le Carre’s books is the clash between ideals and interests, the clash between a moral and a realist vision of global politics. And interests usually trump ideals. As Leamas puts it, in a fine rant in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

Le Carré sees the Romantic allure of the secret services – he served as a spy himself in Berlin in the 1950s – and yet he also relentlessly examines and attacks this allure. In his books, we witness him “embracing an institution [the secret services], then fighting my way clear of it”, as he later wrote. Yet if one leaves the service, as Le Carré did himself, then what or who do you serve instead? Do you even exist, outside of the service? At the end of Smiley’s People, Smiley says that he and Karla have become “the no-men of this no-man’s land”. They are spies without states, saints without a church.
But perhaps, Le Carré suggests there is a greater moral code that we can serve beyond the nation-state. At the end of the Constant Gardener, his diplomat hero has left the Foreign Office, left public service, and is wandering through a desert landscape, a no-man, an exile, awaiting assassination. Yet although he has left his government, he is still serving an ideal. He is serving the greater good of humanity, rather than the limited good of the nation-state.

In other news:

Here’s two examples of people who left politics to serve their country in other ways. Both of them speech-writers for prime ministers: Peter Hyman was Tony Blair’s speech-writer, before he left to become a teacher. He’s setting up a free school, which sounds like it will be an excellent institution. And Danny Kruger was David Cameron’s chief speech-writer, before he left to set up a charity for former prison inmates. Here he is writing on why his old boss was wrong to U-turn on prison reform.

An interesting week coming up at the RSA. Martin Seligman is giving a talk on Wednesday, while on Tuesday, philosopher and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis is giving a talk on ‘neuro-mania’. Tallis thinks the great illusion of our time is the belief that neuroscience can explain everything about humanity, leading to all kinds of nonsense given legitimacy by the prefix ‘neuro’ – neuro-ethics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-politics. It should be an interesting event, given that Tallis has accused the RSA itself of this sort of neuro-mania.

By the way, Kirsty Young, the presenter of Desert Island Discs, said her favourite ever guest was Tallis. Have a listen to his appearance on the show here.

Here’s a good Slate article on Robert Nozick and his brand of libertarianism. Nozick was Martin Seligman’s philosophy tutor at Harvard, by the by.

Finally, a couple of good philosophy blogs to check out: Christine Dietz is a singer and philosophy student in California, who writes this great philosophy blog, which is sort of philosophy in high heels, while for the fellas, here’s a blog called PhilosophyBro, which is, well, philosophy for bros. Good blogs, both of them.

See you next week,