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I saw Darren Aronofsky’s new film, The Wrestler, last night. I’ve always been a big fan of his work, from Pi, to Requiem For A Dream. I fell asleep during The Fountain, but then it was the day after a stag party and probably not the best environment. But the guy is wise, spiritually aware.

His films, it seems to me, are often about compulsive behaviour in one form or another. He understands, better than any other film director, the extent to which humans become trapped in repetitive, compulsive and destructive routines, because those routines give them some short-term pay-off, which ultimately stops them from ever getting genuine fulfilment.

The best example of this is Requiem For A Dream, which creates a whole aesthetic of compulsiveness, via its famous ‘hip hop montage’ sequences, showing the fetishistic preparation and consumption of drugs – lining up the coke, snorting the coke, eyes dilated by the coke – repeated over and over.


Speeding up the various drug events and putting them altogether strips away the individual contexts in which the behaviour pattern hides, de-humanizes it, and exposes the sheer repetition and compulsion of it. In the words of Hot Chip: ‘over and over and over and over and over / like a monkey with a miniature cymbal / the joy of repetition really is in you’.

Compulsive behaviour is most obvious with drugs, but humans can be trapped in all sorts of destructive behaviour patterns. The Simpsons, for example, had a homage to Daronofsky in which Homer Simpson becomes addicted to a high calorie rib burger.


In The Wrestler, we meet two forms of self-destructive compulsion, in the two main characters, Randy the Wrestler and Pam the Stripper. Both of them are addicted to their public personae – the sexy stripper working it on stage to the wolf-whistles of the men, and the hard-boiled wrestler winning in the ring to the cheers of his adolescent fans.

These public personae have their cheap pay-offs – the desire or adulation of strangers – but they ultimately stop Randy and Pam from achieving real fulfilment, from engaging in genuine intimacy. But they’re both too addicted to the routine, they can’t step down off stage. They are trapped in a pattern.

Breaking out of such patterns usually means having the strength to do without the short-term pay-off in the hope and expectation of more fulfilling pay-offs in the future. So much of life comes down to the ability to defer short-term gratification in favour of longer-term pay-offs. You can call it the Protestant work ethic or whatever, but in some ways, it’s what distinguishes homo sapiens from other animals.

The tragedy is that this ability is only marginally developed in us. We get addicted to our delusions, addicted to our own legends, and end up killing ourselves for them.


Oddballs on the Tube (1)

I moved back to live in the UK in July, having lived in Russia before. One of the most annoying things about living in London is all the time you have to spend sitting on the Tube.

On the other hand, this being London, you can always rely on some ‘mentally divergent’ character to get onto your carriage and display their crazy mind-plumage for anyone to observe. Any students of psychology out there – put down thy books and take up thy Tube map.

Yesterday, I encountered not one but two unusual characters on my Tube journey home. The first got on the carriage at Oval, I believe. He was around my age – 30 or so – and quite well-dressed, smart, unremarkable-looking. The only thing that was out of the ordinary about him was that the first three fingers on his right hand had sellotape wrapped around them, forming a sheath or cellophane mitten.

He sat down, and proceeded to brush himself off using this mitten. Thoroughly. He brushed off the whole of the outside of his jacket, and then brushed off the suit jacket underneath. It was hypnotizing, like a cat licking itself clean.

Then he disposed of the cellophane sheet, scrunching it up in his satchel, and seemed prepared to refrain from eccentric behaviour for the time being. But then I noticed, in his hand, was a small roll of sellotape. And as the passengers boarded the train at Waterloo, he was ever so quietly wrapping this sellotape round his fingers again, to create a new sheath, a new protective device, a new hand-condom to give him safe contact with the nasty filthy outside world.

I was tempted to lean forward and ask him why he needed this device. He seemed fairly rational and professional, perhaps he would explain in calm terms. I assumed he had some form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and was terrified of germs, like Howard Hughes of The Aviator fame. I wondered what he thought of people like me, holding on to the carriage pole with reckless abandon, and some perverse part of me wanted to lick the pole, just to show him how little I cared for personal hygiene. But I didn’t. I just got off the Tube at Tottenham Court, and left him to his eternal self-ablutions.

As always with the Irrational, his behaviour was rooted in an (initially) rational response to a real threat. The Underground is filthy and germ-infested. Think of all those grubby hands on the hanging handles, all those feet on the seats, all those greasy palms on the escalator hand-rests. We should have a complete liniment rub-down after each journey, just to de-germ ourselves. Yet somehow we survive. We let the germs and bacteria get a free ride on us. We are their Tube system.

What his case illustrates, perhaps, is the sheer excess baggage that having an emotional disorder entails. The sheer effort and energy of it: no sooner has he rubbed himself down completely, than he has to take out his sellotape and begin the whole process again.

And the compromises you make for it. A large part of his brain functions completely normally – he goes to work, he probably works quite successfully and mingles socially, he travels home from work. And yet his mental illness, his disorder, tries to come along too, like a parasite, tries to get as much obedience from him as possible. And he tries to give it as much obedience as possible, while maintaining his tenuous position as a member of human society.

So many people with minor mental illnesses have to try and keep up this balancing act – both placating their inner demon, which demands their obedience and feeds off their energy, while also placating external society, which demands that they obey conventional behaviour. So they sit and look normal on the tube, while slowly and quietly winding the sellotape around their fingers…

And the other oddball? I’ll tell you about them another time.