by H.H. Stein
“Any of the psychic danger situations can evoke regression to manifestations of ‘anal narcissism’—an attempt to master overwhelming feeling by a kind of emotional sphincter action, narrowing down the world to the controllable and the predictable. … the attainment of anal sphincter control functions … as a means to master primal (murderous, cannibalistic) affect.” (Shengold, 1985 p. 47)
“There’s always an alien battle cruiser or a Korilian death ray or intergalactic plague that’s about to wipe out life on this miserable planet. The only way people get on with their happy lives is, they do not know about it.” (Men in Black, 1997, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)
The first quote is from the summary of a paper by Leonard Shengold entitled, “Defensive Anality and Anal Narcissism.” Our ability to control powerful, primitive emotions and fantasies is linked to the developmental achievement of sphincter control of our bowels. Learning to control our bowels gives us a model for controlling our emotions. The film, Men in Black, gives life to the struggle between the wish to express and to suppress “primal (murderous, cannibalistic) affect.” It is our ability to suppress our primitive emotions and fantasies, to “not know about it,” that allows us to get on with our happy lives.
For those of you too mature to have seen Men in Black, it is a light-hearted science fantasy adventure based on a comic book series about an organization devoted to protecting the people of Earth from destruction by and knowledge of fascinating and often diabolical creatures from outer space who are resident aliens on our planet. For those of you who may have seen Men in Black, but have not read Dr. Shengold’s paper, it is an erudite potpourri of clinical observations, theoretical discussion, developmental elaborations and literary interpretations—notably Proust and Yeats—having to do with anal fantasies and defenses and anal narcissism.
Shengold begins his paper with a session in which a patient turns his rage and hurt over an upcoming several week interruption to the analysis into nothing. Through obsession and repetition of petty details, with vagueness and loss of emotion, he effectively the makes the session appear boring and meaningless. He acknowledges the achievement by finishing the hour, saying, “’I managed to turn this whole session to shit, didn’t I.’” (p. 47)
Shengold: “By the end of the session the patient had effectively deprived both himself and the analyst of variety, vibrancy and value. The exciting, chaotic, mysterious universe had, transiently but characteristically, become simplified, controlled and certain.” (p. 48)
Men in Black: As the credits roll, we are focused on a strange dragonfly-like creature in space. It is mysteriously cute, but possibly menacing. At first, we do not even know its size as it descends to Earth where after two narrow escapes it splatters on the windshield of a passing van. As the windshield wiper streaks its remains, the driver comments, grumpily, “Bugs.” The imaginary creature has been “effectively deprived . . . of variety, vibrancy and value” and “the exciting, chaotic, mysterious universe . . . become simplified, controlled and certain,” reduced to “Bugs.”
The opening scene that then develops has a similar result. A border patrol near the Mexican border has intercepted a group of illegal aliens being smuggled into the country. Suddenly, two neatly dressed, fast talking MIB agents appear to interrupt their bust. The MIB agents are also looking for an illegal immigrant of another sort. They remove his disguise to expose a large amphibious-looking creature with two arms and multiple “flippers”, clearly from another planet. He attempts an escape bearing large teeth, growling and hurtling himself at a bewildered Border Patrol guard. One of the MIB agents shoots the creature with some sort of ray gun causing him to explode into a mess of blue sticky stuff that lands all over the landscape and the stunned policeman. K, the MIB agent, makes a comment that the officer is covered with “entrails.”
This creature, too, called “Mikey” by the MIB agents, is deprived of his “vibrancy, vitality and value,” as well as his rage, to be turned into a gooey mess. For a moment we see a wild, frightening creature charging and bellowing, but then we see a stunned police officer covered in blue goo that looks like melted bubble gum.
This turning of danger and rage into shit lends the film some of its comedic charm. In the Woody Allen movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of the characters says, “If it bends it’s funny; if it doesn’t bend, it’s not funny.” We might add the psychoanalytic corollary, “If it’s anal it’s funny; if it’s phallic, it’s not funny.” I’m sure the second part of that statement has exceptions—we might well find a phallus that bends funny; but it is apparent that anality evokes a comic response that gives this film a light touch that makes it more acceptable to adults.
I think that this comedic reaction to anality stems from the fact that we have come to associate anality with shameful regression, defensively reducing it to an embarrassment while denying its underlying dangers, great as they once were when we were infants.
Anality has two sides to it. In the paper, Shengold describes the tension of the anal stage of development. The child’s primitive fantasies and emotions—rage, greed—want expression, but also need containment. The anus is an organ of both expulsion and withholding. He argues that without defensive anality we would not be able to control those emotions and fantasies; but if there is too much anal control we lose all spontaneity, and life becomes shit. Instead of the helter-skelter world of pregenital fantasy, we may have a lifeless, but well categorized and contained view of life. “Abraham implies a developmental change in the child’s conception of his anal sphincter which at first is felt as a body part that expels and destroys … . In the second anal phase, the sphincter becomes an instrument which also is used to hold on with and to contain.” (Shengold, p. 52) “Anal traits” include both messiness and neatness.
Immediately after K has splattered the alien “Mikey’s” bodily fluids, a team comes in to start a cleanup. Not only must the landscape be cleaned, but also the memories of the witnesses, a group of border policemen. This is done with a device called a “neuralizer”. K holds up the small device that looks like a silver pen-light. When asked who he is by the officer covered in goo, K answers, “a figment of your imagination.” He tells the men to stare into the neuralizer, and when they point their gaze, it gives off a little flash that wipes out their memory for the event. K tells them that their guns discharging had caused an explosion from an underground gas main. In this film, the neuralizer is the primary weapon of anal defensiveness. As the opening quotation implies, it is not enough that the film’s pregenital creatures of the imagination be controlled, they must be eliminated from awareness, repressed.
The human characters also demonstrate some of that same anal defensiveness. Dressed in their neat, clean black suits and ties, they keep the world safe and clean from the often messy, chaotic creatures. They do it out of a building that has no windows, no obvious entrances, no identifying facade, a seemingly closed sphincter. The original MIB agents are middle-aged white men in control of their emotions. They are, in keeping with their job, to preserve sanity by repressing all this primary process mayhem and primitive rage.
They are contrasted with a new character, a young police officer, Edwards, who is recruited by K to be his new partner. He is the film’s quintessential non-conformist. He is young, brash and black. His speech is from the street. When he shows up at MIB headquarters for his recruitment exam, his swaggering, expansive style is contrasted with a group of young, starchy, military types who look tight-assed and proud of it. Edwards laughs at their stupidity, born of an unwillingness to know anything they are not told. When Edwards asks why they have all been called to the mysterious agency offices, one of them parrots back what they have been told, “Because we’re the best of the best of the best,” bringing a snicker from Edwards. Faced with the task of filling out a test form while sitting in a cramped chair, Edwards is the only one with the imagination and initiative to drag a table to his seat.
As J, the new MIB agent, he brings his fresh style to the agency. When he and K interview a woman whose husband’s body has been taken by an alien, J insists that as her memory of the incident is wiped out by the neuralizer, she be given a more positive, lively replacement memory than the standard junk K was going to give her. He even tells her to buy a new dress and fix herself up. Later, he is sympathetic to a young woman medical examiner, concerned about K’s overuse of the neuralizer to erase her memories. He has some doubt about the “flashy-thing” that wipes out memories of the exciting hidden world of aliens. The film moves along with the tension between J’s sometimes uncontrolled individualism and K’s need to maintain order.
Their relationship is a subplot to the primary story which can be viewed as a toilet training nightmare. A “Bug” has landed on Earth in an attempt to find and steal a powerful source of energy, a small jewel that contains a miniature galaxy. The rightful owner of the Galaxy is a gentle elderly jeweler named Rosenberg, who is really just a disguise for a member of the Arquillian royal family.
The Men in Black find themselves in the position of an infant caught in a struggle to maintain sphincter control and to control its primitive fantasies and impulses in order to please a demanding parent.
Below, there is the Bug: “Bugs thrive on carnage . . . They consume, infest, destroy, live off the death and destruction of other species. Imagine a giant cockroach with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex and a real short temper is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand new Edgar suit.” The Bug’s saucer crashes onto an isolated farm in upstate New York. It devours the owner, a brutish man, the aforementioned Edgar, and awkwardly inhabits his body as a disguise. Particularly infuriated when humans kill insects, it kills a fumigator, stealing his truck. The Bug drives to New York to look for Rosenberg and the Galaxy. There, it kills a waiter in order to get close to Rosenberg and another Arquillian who has come to warn him. They recognize him when roaches fall out of his sleeves, but he kills them quickly. Unable to find the Galaxy in the jewelry store, it goes to the morgue where the Arquillians’ bodies have been taken and there kills an attendant who is swatting flies, leaving his body stuck to the ceiling in a pool of muck.
Above, there are the Arquillians, proud possessors of a superior technology and keepers of the Galaxy. Within moments of the death of the Arquillian Prince, an Arquillian battle cruiser appears over the Earth. I am reminded of another of Shengold’s images, the title of one of his books, “Halo in the Sky”. It was an image that stood for the toilet and for the inexorable morality of toilet training. The Arquillian ship delivers an ultimatum to the Men In Black: “Deliver the Galaxy!” No matter that they do not even know what the galaxy is; it must be delivered—and on time: “Arquillian battle rules. First we get an ultimatum, then a warning shot, and then we have a standard galactic week to respond.” A standard galactic week, it turns out, is one terrestrial hour. The final message reads, “Deliver the galaxy or Earth will be destroyed. Sorry.”
From their battle cruiser above us , the Arquillians are like a large, demanding, rigid, indomitable anal mother ordering an exact and timely performance. Faced with this rigid ultimatum, the Men in Black must stop the unbridled Bug without creating a mess on Earth. It is after J, the younger, less experienced MIB agent fires a powerful weapon at the Bug, creating destruction and a general mess in a several block area that his mentor, K, chastises him for firing a weapon in view of the public. J protests, “Man, we aint got time for this cover up bullshit. I don’t know whether or not you’ve forgotten, but there’s a alien battle cruiser . . .” It is then that K tells him, “There’s always an alien battle cruiser or a Korilian death ray or intergalactic plague that’s about to wipe out life on this miserable planet. The only way people get on with their happy lives is, they do not know about it.” Maintaining proper control is most important.
K and J follow the Bug to the morgue, but he manages to escape with the Galaxy and the female medical examiner, brought along as a snack. They catch up to him at Flushing Meadows, where he is attempting to fly off with his prize. The Bug discards its disguise, revealing itself to be a huge creature, somewhere between a cockroach and a scorpion. With time almost run out, it devours their guns. K gets the creature to devour him so that he can retrieve his gun and blow open the Bug from the inside. They must still be saved from one more attack from the Bug by the medical examiner, who has retrieved one of the guns. In the end, the Bug is reduced to a gooey mess.
Throughout this sequence, we tend to view the Bug as the enemy. The danger actually comes from the superior Arquillians, noble caretakers of the treasured Galaxy (already represented by the elderly kind jeweler, Rosenberg). This is as it should be in the world of anality and anal defenses. Shengold (p. 54, quoting Ferenczi): “The anal and urethral identification with the parents . . . appears to build up in the child’s mind a sort of physiological forerunner of the ego-ideal or superego . . . a severe sphincter-morality is set up which can only be contravened at the cost of bitter self-reproaches and punishment by conscience.” The danger is from above, from the parental figure, the superego figure; but the danger is experienced as coming from below, from the Bug, from the terrifying internal affects and fantasies. The Men in Black pursue the Bug to satisfy the Arquillians, just as the child must squash its fantasies to meet the demands of the mother and the internalized mother.
At the end of the film, K makes a transition from his world of anal defense, anal narcissism and primitive fantasies to a mature relationship. He asks J to remove his memory of the pregenital world so that he can go back to his loving wife who has been waiting for him for about thirty years. (How’s that for delay of gratification?) He says that he does not want to remember all the horrors he has seen and experienced, but clearly with it he also gives up the anal defenses that have kept him in an all male world with little true relatedness.
The younger generation has taken over the job of protecting the world from “primal (murderous, cannibalistic) affect.” J has the young woman, the former medical examiner, as his new partner. Together they inhabit the exciting and dangerous world of infantile fantasy while protecting us from having to cope with it directly. K has returned to his wife and a normal life with no memory of that world. We do the same. We can leave the theater having been entertained by a reflection of our unconscious impulses and fantasies without having to accept their reality, our internal neuralizers protecting us from our memory of them.
Shengold, Leonard (1985) Defensive anality and anal narcissism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 66:47-73.
Originally published in the PANY Bulletin and in Double Feature: Discovering our Hidden Fantasies in Film by Herbert H. SteinExplore posts in the same categories: Movies