Spider

Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg has just been released from a mental institution to East End London of the 1980s. He arrives at a boarding house where, after stopping his medication, he becomes consumed by recollections of events before his institutionalisation. These memories concern his 1950s working class and hyper-British upbringing. Mrs Cleg is in the kitchen while Mr Cleg is down at the pub ‘hatching’ a plan with the town prostitute Yvonne to get rid of both mother and Spider. Spider, so named because of his creative expression of weaving webs around the house, ‘witnesses’ his mother’s murder and resolves a plan of his own to kill Yvonne. He discovers he has killed his mother, whose first ‘death’ was the death of the maternal woman in exchange for the sexualised ‘whore’ from which he thinks he has saved himself. The past and present converge in the boarding house, as the materiality of recollection affects Spider toward a new plan, and his landlady Mrs Wilkinson wakes with Spider strangling her.

David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002) is a film about the tentative and risky world of memory. Pragmatically, the relativity of memory for this article is appropriate. Viewing film is a practice that involves the coalescence of phantasy and memory. The memory of viewing – like Spider’s memory – does not always present an authentic or reliable version of what we have seen. But this transgression is not a flaw or failure at truth and authenticity. Cronenberg’s film is about versions of memories rather than, and occasionally opposed to, actualities of history. The tragic event of the murder of Spider’s mother Mrs Cleg (Miranda Richardson) is the one intersection at which the various trajectories of memory cross. By positioning Spider as the character to which our identification is sutured, Cronenberg troubles the ease with which we can distance ourselves from and hence pathologise this man. Against the clinical polar situating of patient/madman and doctor/sane person third terms are introduced; a boy Spider in the same frame as the adult Spider and a woman who becomes her own double in the form of the domestic Mrs Cleg and the lascivious Yvonne (also Miranda Richardson). Thus different spaces and times exist simultaneously and fold into and out of each other. Although the adult Spider is able to peer into his boyhood kitchen and observe his ‘childish’ self, Boy Spider is far wiser than he –

MRS CLEG:
Tell your father his dinner is on the table.

BOY SPIDER:
It’s not on the table.

SPIDER:
It’s not on the table…

Time is no guarantee of development of reason, and thus it is reversed or diffused. This is the essential definition of memory. Like cinema memory is the immanence of different places, events and periods compressed into accessible and immediate recollection. In order to remember the actual we must first distort time and space, clearly a paradoxical and thus hazardous project. Thus the rudimentary observation of less critical viewers that the film is about the unreliability of memory fails to see that memory as a concept has no relationship to authenticity or reliability. It is a tactic rather than a fact. The real issues at stake in Spider are issues of society’s response to pathology, to memories that are less resonant with the majority, and the ways in which these memories, like all memories, can be creative, troubling and destructive. We should not ask ‘why is Spider’s memory flawed?’ to which the simple answer is ‘schizophrenia’, an answer which Cronenberg gives away immediately so the diagnosis does not ‘cure’ the narrative. We should ask ‘how does Spider’s memory structure his subjectivity?’

Psychosis

Spider

Although modern psychology sees Spider as schizophrenic, psychoanalysis (1) would traditionally name his actions the result of a psychotic episode – an exterior hallucination resulting from a repudiation of reality. Schizophrenia describes the internal shattering of a single subject. Spider’s memory is indeed fragmented, however announcing him schizophrenic depends entirely on how we position memory in relation to subjectivity. As a child Spider hallucinates that his mother is a completely different woman – thus it is the other who is shattered not Spider himself. The reason I wish to emphasise this potentially pedantic shift is because Spider, far from being ‘about’ schizophrenia, is I believe far more resonant with Oedipal sexuality and the navigation of heterosexual desire in male children. This is brutally clear in the obvious positioning of the mother/whore, played by the same actress, as being the genesis of all Spider’s problems. It is not he himself but the outside world which splits apart for Spider.

As a young boy but not a child (Boy Spider is about nine), repression of sexual desire for the mother has occurred and latency should be present. Seeing Yvonne has aroused in Boy Spider the memory of the mother as sexual but because he has developed knowledge of ‘real’ sex rather than polymorphous desire for his mother, his memory of her sexuality moves from the innocuous wanting to marry mummy that the quintessential case study Little Hans speaks of so frequently (2), to the memory of infantile desire for mummy compressed within a knowledge of adult sexual intercourse. Little Hans’s father telling him about the stork “not only prevented his being in bed with his mother, but also kept him from the knowledge he was thirsting for.” (Freud, 1990, 291) Boy Spider’s father is clearly absent from the kitchen in the early part of the film so Boy Spider has his wish of absent father/available mother. There is no threat or prevention from the father, making the mother available for libidinalisation. However Boy Spider, as an older child, has the sexual knowledge of which Hans is ignorant. Freud highlights the importance of Hans’s “intellectual inability to solve the difficult problem of the begetting of children and to cope with the aggressive impulses that were liberated by his approaching its solution” (293, original emphasis). The death of Boy Spider’s mother is essentially the (violent) intellectual death of Boy Spider’s conception of her as purely maternal. Boy Spider has the solution Hans lacks and so when the father is absent Boy Spider, unlike most children, has the knowledge and the opportunity to act upon his infantile libidinal impulses in a relatively adult sexual way. To ‘save’ his mother he must create Yvonne. After his mother ‘dies’ and the arousing Yvonne takes her place Spider must kill his desire for his mother’s murderer. As a result of the psychosis that repudiates his mother as capable of being both maternal and sexual, Spider hallucinates both his mother’s death and the actual murder of his mother he commits as the murder of Yvonne. In his study of Little Hans, Freud emphasises the importance of phantasy in desire. Acceptance of phantasy prevents repudiation of impossibility of wish fulfilment that can erupt as hallucination. “With this phantasy [of marrying his mother and killing his father accepted as phantasy but not repressed] both the illness and the analysis came to an appropriate end.” (289) Boy Spider’s phantasy follows a similar pattern as Little Hans’s, but adolescence has replaced infantilism and thus the phantasy, rather than remaining interior to be repressed in latency, has been externalised.

Two forms of phantasy converge here: Phantasy of the past, which is memory and phantasy of the future which is wish. Both forms are material forces which shape the subject but we can sketch memory as actual (happened) and wish as possible (never happened). Spider’s memory is of Yvonne killing his mother, which never happened. His wish is that his mother will become sexually available thus turn into Yvonne, which (conceptually and in Spider’s mind) has happened. His memory thus fulfils his wish and his wish is in conflict with his memory. Memory as actual and wish as possible have become ambiguous and confused. Oedipal wishes are marked by the importance of their not being fulfilled, hence the tragedy of Sophocles’s Oedipus. For Spider the two axes of phantasy, which are never extricated from each other, have created a particular network of phantasy – his web – and like all psychical beings his psychical development has followed a unique pattern. Webs are non-linear. They are not defined by series (a is to b) or segments (a is to be as b is to c). Webs are an assemblage of plateaus along which an infinite number of trajectories can be traced. Spider is therefore not the pathological to our normal but is shown to be a psyche with a particular trajectory. In psychoanalysis, our webs are usually internalised but Spider builds webs and externalises his trajectories, resonating with the externalisation of his phantasies, wishes, memories and hallucinations.

Schizophrenia, Partial Objects and Reterritorialisations

Spider

I am going to shift now to thinking about the film from the psychotic to the paradigm of ‘the schizophrenic’. Traditionally in the Oedipal narrative and ‘normal’ regulated versions of psyches, bodies and desire are organised. Objects, desires and actions exist within regiments of appropriate function and place. Reality as an external concept can thus be agreed upon between individuals only if these laws are observed. When objects and actions are shifted around – reorganised – what is remembered is also reorganised. This is one way we can explore the schizophrenia of Spider. When we first meet Spider we are invited, through Peter Schuzitsky’s intimate camerawork, to localise our gaze around the severe tobacco-stained fingertips and the multitude of cotton shirts Spider wears beneath his coat. Later Spider removes his many shirts to wrap himself in newspaper. If we configure the gaze as it travels around lines of organisation, so that we organise the meaning of an image based on the logic of our gaze, then Spider’s body immediately strikes us as organised differently to the ‘normal’ body. Where we find a shirt there are many, where we find a newspaper – at a newsstand or being read – Spider wraps his torso in it, thus altering the function of both the newspaper and his torso. Spider’s projects of creating webs are projects which reorganise the lines of vision, logic and bodies in relation to each other. This is the way Cronenberg can point out Spider as psychically different without making his body congenitally deformed. Cronenberg emphasises Spider’s different lines of logic, his reorganisations which include his body, rather than his passive mental or physical ‘madness’.

Spider takes the partial objects of newspaper, string, cigarettes, books and shirts to deterritorialise traditional logic for new, or reterritorialised, logic. Spider’s reterritorialisation of logic through the reorganisation of partial objects should not be understood however as a metaphor or reflection of the stock definition of schizophrenia as ‘shattered’. Spider invests all of his objects with meaning – they resonate with memory through which Spider can structure his present, and they are objects desired in their capacity to reorganise the patterns of his logic. Partial objects create a chain of logic with the disorganised body. Deleuze and Guattari emphasise “The chain is like the apparatus of transmission or of reproduction in the desiring machine. Insofar as it brings together – without unifying or uniting them – the body without organ [the disorganised/reorganised body] and the partial objects.” (327) Desire here should not be thought in the same way as sexual drive, but as a force which is implicit in constituting the organisation of a subject – as simple examples Mrs Wilkinson desires order and control, explicit in her horror at Spider stealing her keys. Mrs Cleg desires to break out of a singular rigid subject position to become a more complex woman. We also see a resident of the halfway house completing a puzzle, offering as more banal, pervasive and domestic the desire to work things out in a repeatable and complete way. Reterritorialisation of partial objects can visually reterritorialise bodies in the juxtapositioning of Yvonne with Mrs Cleg. The body with an apron and modest clothing peeling potatoes is organised differently through the use of a low-cut blouse, lipstick, bleached hair and a cat being stroked. These are common gendered reorganisations. What can we make of Spider’s fingers, tattooed with the stain of the objects he inhales, creating a permanent, corporeal and visible intimacy between hand and cigarette? What is ‘mad’ or strange about accepting tobacco stains that is different to other visual signifiers on the body? Where the ‘normally’ organised body would scrub the stains to restore the body to a hermeneutic ‘whole’, Spider’s acceptance of the cigarette as indelibly part of his body shows a different regard for the demarcations of what constitutes his self, and an ignorance (volitional or otherwise) of what is signified by different indicators. The desire to reterritorialise the self as a whole entity into a partial object is seen during Spider’s most acute moment of anguish. He deterritorialise his whole body as a partial object with the earth when he lay on the ground weeping and clutching the dirt in his fingers and palms.

As objects organise themselves in relation to each other, so too does Spider organise himself differently in relation to Yvonne, Mrs Cleg and the Miranda Richardson Mrs. Wilkinson. His posture, the way he faces these characters and the camera alter markedly when he gazes at each. Spider’s desiring patterns and patterns of relation to objects and people create a navigation of memory, phantasy and want that also constitutes his organisation, although his desiring patterns are more difficult to annex to a common or established desire. Where keys and puzzles as partial objects have clear metaphoric meaning, Spider’s choice of partial objects to reterritorialise his organisation remain ambiguous. It is enough that we see him making webs rather than solving puzzles.

Through deterritorialising and reterritorialising objects, including both partialisations of and his whole body Spider is not illogical, he is differently logical. This is cemented by his use of language which, although not a traditionally organised language, is a language nonetheless. The use of repetition in Spider’s language emphasises his project of reterritorialisation. Where ordinarily the repetition of a moment of speech would be considered fragmentary and thus meaningless, when Spider repeats the language of those around him the meaning and function become reorganised. When Boy Spider accuses his father and Yvonne as ‘Murderers! You’re both Murderers’ Spider at the window repeats ‘Murderers…both Murderers’. Whether Spider is asking, affirming or simply observing is unclear. Does Spider repeat and write in his book to remember the past? Does he repeat to create the past? Is this a working out of events in relation to memory or a creation of meaning for past events? By taking language as fragmentary Spider both mirrors memory as itself a mumbled and fragmentary phenomenon, and emphasises that language reterritorialises memory. When we recount events through language we both alter and cement their possible relative interpretations. The camera evinces itself as a version of language by both bearing witness to events but also positioning Spider twice within a frame so we see the same person simultaneously remember differently an event that never occurred.

Place and time are reterritorialised in Spider. The East End’s Kitchener Street, although an Edwardian development, seems directly thrown up from the 1950s. It is sometimes difficult in the film to reorient the setting to the 1980s – Spider still looks, as the other men in the house and Mrs. Wilkinson, as if time has not moved for him. The 1950s have been taken as partial object and inserted into the 1980s setting. Spider’s 1950s, childish haircut (actually modelled by Fiennes on Samuel Beckett’s) again reterritorialises this adult body as somehow childish, or ‘stuck’ in a time where hair and sensibility remained immobile while the body and mind grew.

What I have tried to offer in this review is two different paradigms through which to understand the sketchy suggestion of ‘schizophrenia’ in relation to memory, phantasy and desire in Spider. Neither is right although one or the other may be preferred. Cronenberg’s films are defined by the creativity, both corporeal and psychical, of their protagonists. However if we remain in the realm of psychoanalysis it becomes very difficult to see Spider as a creative being. He is instead a destructive being defined by the galling nostalgia for mummy and daddy that is symptomatic of psychoanalysis. Can we see schizophrenia instead as Deleuze and Guattari see it: “Not as a breakdown but as a breakthrough, however distressing and adventurous”? (362) Although Spider is traumatised, and his reterritorialised patterns of logic result in murder, what they do for the viewer is reterritorialise the possibilities for thinking the ways memory, phantasy and desire coalesce as dynamic and mobile. It is ironic that psychoanalysis is that which refers to the canonical and authentic memorial of Oedipus against which to comprehend psychoses, as memory is such a volatile key toward psychoanalytic diagnoses. Psychoanalysis is about the past, a memorialisation through symptoms. Psychoanalysis arrests the deterritorialisations of schizophrenia as creative process, producing instead an immobile pathology. Schizoanalysis, according to Deleuze and Guattari, offers a “taking apart of egos and their presuppositions; liberating the prepersonal singularities they enclose and repress; mobilising the flows they would be capable of transmitting, receiving or intercepting; establishing always further and more sharply the schizzes and breaks well below conditions of identity.” (362) Spider is not a film about schizophrenia as a clinical pathology. It is a film about the creative possibilities – both positive and negative – film offers us in thinking our relationship with our own deterritorialisation of fact through memory. Despite its lack of gore or visceral mutation Spider shares more in common with Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986) than films about mental illness.

It is, like all of Cronenberg’s films, a phantasy designed to evoke a rethinking of flesh, thought and action as exceeding any ontological institutions we may use to navigate or control them.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996

Freud, Sigmund, (1909) “Case Histories I: Little Hans”, trans. James Strachey, Penguin Freud Library Vol. 8, London: Penguin, 1990

Endnotes

  1. Interestingly from December 2002 to January 2003 Ralph Fiennes appeared as Jung in the new Christopher Hampton play about the rift between Freud and Jung The Talking Cure in London’s Cottlesoe Theatre.
  2. Freud, (1909) 1990. See especially 251-2, 256, 272, 288-90

About The Author

Patricia MacCormack is lecturer in Communication and Film at Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge. Her PhD was awarded the Mollie Holman doctorate medal for best thesis. She has published on perversion, Continental philosophy, French feminism and Italian horror film. Her most recent work is on Cinesexuality, masochism and Becoming-Monster in Alternative Europe, Thirdspace and Suture. She is currently writing on Blanchot, Bataille and Cinecstasy.