The Totemic Mother and Father of 'The Squid and the Whale

by Chadwick Jenkins

29 December 2016

Our parents loom over us, first literally and then figuratively, for the entirety of our existence.
Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney in The Squid and the Whale (2005) 
cover art

The Squid and the Whale

Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline

US DVD: 22 Nov 2016

Before we ever learn of Oedipus and Hercules, before we hear of the legends of Napoleon and George Washington, before we know anything of God or Satan, we are confronted by our parents. We enter into a world where they are, of necessity, larger than life. They loom over us, first literally and then figuratively, for the entirety of our existence.

Sigmund Freud famously contended that all of religion and myth has its foundation in the family dynamic, that theater derived from domestic tragedy (sometimes farce). Our Heavenly Father and Earthy Mother: our parents are elemental forces that act upon us, that we must either obey or resist, and obedience and resistance are at our peril.

In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud explores the psychological grounding of the totemic social systems and their corresponding taboos that inform the lives of so-called “primitive” societies. His boldest move, however, was to suggest that totem and taboo lived on in civilized man but had moved into the subterranean depths of the Unconscious where they could remain hidden—and do greater harm.

The totem is usually a sacred animal that a clan reveres. The clan identifies with the totem animal, taking its name. They live under a set of proscriptions related to the animal. They cannot eat its flesh, except during specific ritual feasts. They do not otherwise kill the animal insofar as this would be murdering one of their own. When they do kill the animal for the ritual, they must all participate so that the murder is an act of the clan and not of an individual.

They also practice exogamy; that is, they do not have sexual intercourse with anyone belonging to the same clan, even if that person is not blood-related in our sense of the term. In their sense, Freud assures us, they are blood-related insofar as they all stem from the totemic animal.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Freud reads the totem as a father-substitute and yet we inherit our totemic identity through matrilineal descent. This seeming contradiction is one of several reasons that anthropologists and most other scholars dismiss Totem and Taboo today. The book is widely discredited and rightly so. But I think there’s actually something far more clever about Freud’s gambit here than is generally acknowledged.

We both fear and revere the totem. For Freud, of course, we also fear and revere the father owing, in large part, to the Oedipus complex. We seek the affections of our mother. Our father has her affection in a manner with which we cannot compete but we nonetheless see him as a rival—a rival that far outstrips our power. We revere him for having what we want and we hate him for it as well. We fear his retribution for that hatred and so place it elsewhere (the Freudian notion of projection).

The totem operates through displacement. The awe we feel toward the father is projected onto the totem, symbolically weakening our rival, our actual father. Moreover, the totem is a father derived from our connection with our mother. But that too is a slippery notion, for our actual father is ours also through a connection with our mother, after all. Thus, the displacement is not entirely successful. Rather, the father and the mother become mythical, or rather are seen as always already having been mythical, through the connection with the totem.

The fearful totem-father exerts his power through the mother, who is more than a mere conduit; she is the gatekeeper. She keeps the dangers of his potency at bay while filtering it for our own enrichment. We are, after all, identified with the totem. Its power is ours but to access it requires the right mixture of obeisance and overcoming. That, perhaps, can only come through the right relationship to the mother.

That last bit is not explicitly in Freud. Freud, as is well known, had a “woman problem”. He was far more interested in scrutinizing the phallic dominance of the father rather than explore the subversively stabilizing power of the mother. I started thinking about the underestimated mother in relation to the totemic father (and Freud’s many missed opportunities with respect to the mother) while rewatching Noah Baumbach’s 2005 independent film, The Squid and the Whale.

Nowhere does the mythical quality of one’s parents, the power relations between the distancing, totemic father and the embracing, connective mother (these roles can, of course, be reversed), and the relative powerlessness of children come more to the forefront than in divorce. The balance of relationships in a family, even a stable one, is a precarious negotiation of individual and shared responsibilities, emotional debts, and contested space. An unhappy marriage applies pressure that simply cannot be withstood by the family structure.

In an important but understated scene in The Squid and the Whale, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) confronts his mother Joan (Laura Linney), blaming her for ruining a good family. It’s utterly clear, however, that this was not a good and healthy family; the strained balancing act was always on the verge of collapse.

Before the immanent separation was known to Walt and his brother Frank (Owen Kline), Walt was already preparing to present Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as an original creation in a high school talent contest, in the ‘80s. The album on which it appeared, The Wall, was roughly seven years old at that point and widely celebrated. What’s surprising is not that Walt got caught, but that it took as long as it did (he was awarded the prize money initially).

Walt’s justification for his plagiarism is telling: he felt that he could have written the song so the mere fact of its actual authorship was immaterial. This is a lesson that Walt learned from his totemic father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), although it was certainly not a lesson Bernard intended. Bernard is a failed novelist. He had some success in the past but is now teaching at Brooklyn College and desperately seeking a new agent.

Bernard unleashes pronouncements rather than speaking with his children. When Walt tells him that the school assigned them to read A Tale of Two Cities, Bernard dismisses the book as “minor Dickens”, thus relieving Walt from the burden of actually having to read it as his mother encourages him to do. Walt dismisses her advice, claiming that he doesn’t want to “waste his time”. However, Walt doesn’t bother to read anything, not even Kafka (whom Bernard, with hopeless and ludicrous arrogance, claims as his “predecessor”). Why bother formulating an opinion when all value is decreed by the totem?

Bernard teaches Walt that the world is divided into intellectuals and non-intellectuals but the only distinction seems to be the attainment of a dismissive categorization into major and minor works (a rather lazy hermeneutic). He teaches Walt that failure to attain an audience is really just the success of authenticity. The world is a place where you never get what you want but you must insist on your utter right to receive it—more sex, more wealth, more recognition. Bernard is the totem father that transforms his powerlessness into the prestige of resentment and Walt is poisoned by his reverence for his progenitor.

If Walt represents the relation to the father founded upon awe and prostration, then Frank represents the relation of anger and distancing. He looks for a new totem in his tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin), who, in a conveniently Freudian turn, begins an affair with Joan. When Bernard dismisses Ivan as a philistine, Frank accepts the descriptor as representative of himself. Frank adopts Ivan’s mannerisms (the particular handshake) and linguistic habits (addressing everyone as “my brotha”). He disavows any physical resemblance to his father, insisting his bone structure is similar to his mother’s.


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In another rather Freudian plot point, Frank begins masturbating in the school and spreading his semen on books in the library and the doors of lockers. If the power of the biological father derives from his investment of seed and its dissemination into the mother, then Frank demonstrates the unimportance of mere fluids that can be indiscriminately cast aside and concomitantly the unimportance of books (the business and sad obsession of his father) by reducing the latter to mere receptacles for his seminal vandalism.

While Bernard openly displays his vitriol and disappointment by manipulating Walt to become a surrogate for his lost youth, Joan comes to inhabit a space that is obviously new to her. She tentatively explores a new position. She is blossoming as a newly successful author (much to Bernard’s chagrin, of course). She speaks candidly (if inappropriately) to her sons about her past infidelity. Perhaps the multiple references to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” are meant to underscore the crossed trajectory of the parents in the film.

As Bernard is reduced to virtual impotence, losing his purchase on what he deemed the source of his humanity (his authorships/authority) in the manner of Gregor Samsa becoming an odoriferous insect, Joan, like Samsa’s sister Grete, undergoes a positive transformation, no longer suffocating under the strain of an unhappy marriage and becoming herself, a creator in her own right.

Walt doesn’t quite know what to do with his mother. She’s a source both of consolation and disappointment. Her most disturbing characteristic for Walt is her unfettered sexuality, just as Walt is becoming ever more concerned with his own. While he has always regarded her as subordinate and inferior to his father (he is the real writer and influenced her, his opinions are the ones to emulate), Walt is now witnessing his mother’s emergence into her own gentle grandeur and newfound self-assurance. She is emerging as a mythical being as well, revealing what in some sense he as known all along. She too is a totem (pace Freud).

The final scene, of course, materializes the title of the film and the symbolic representatives of the elemental forces embodied by the father and the mother. In its overly dramatic, kitschy posing of the squid in dire battle with the whale, the Museum of Natural History’s aquatic diorama makes visually immediate the power struggle that lay behind a child’s understanding of the parental relationship.

The whale is enormous, terrorizing in its brute force. It’s rapacious, always wanting more, never satisfied. It threatens to engulf the entirety of the world in its greedy maw. The squid is sinuous, labile, and patient. It insinuates itself onto its opponent, feeling for the right spot to grab, exerting a subtle pressure that is, at first, unnoticeable but that increasing impinges upon the enemy; an encroaching, implacable endgame is set in motion.

The squid and the whale are caught in a precarious dance, inextricably intertwined but refusing to combine into some greater companionate whole. They are larger than life, sublime elemental forces beyond comprehension. As Walt stands before them he has that experience of the sublime celebrated by such writers as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

The sublime makes us aware of our smallness, our mortality, our relative powerlessness in the dynamic, churning chaos of existence. But at the same time, our ability to stare it down, to look at it squarely and unflinchingly, our ability to come to grips with the incomprehensible, to somehow adequate ourselves with all of our inadequacies to that which is beyond us so utterly—this defiant insistence on our ability to observe and by observing to separate and by separating to preserve ourselves—this is the true lesson of the sublime.

We cannot hope to overpower the force of the totemic. We are forever marked by the emblems of the presence of our parents, the pervasiveness of their sway over us. But we can learn to observe rather than simply to feel so battered, the unwitting victims of a struggle that is an expression of their totemic omnipotence and human impotence. We can accept that their love also involves pain (for them, for us). We can learn to see that the hurt they caused was not the callousness of deific indifference but rather the unintended consequence of mortal suffering. In that observation we find salvation—and so do they.

***

Criterion Collection has recently released a Blu-Ray edition of The Squid and the Whale. As is typical of Criterion, the disc comes replete with extras. The booklet includes an essay by filmmaker/festival director Ken Jones and an interview of Baumbach by Jonathan Lethem. On the disc itself, one finds filmed interviews with Baumbach and with Daniels; a documentary including interviews with Linney, Eisenberg, and Kline; a conversation concerning the music; taped auditions; and a “Behind the Scenes” documentary. The extras are in no way commensurate to the film, of course, and are perhaps a bit underwhelming in comparison to other Criterion offerings in their impact. Nevertheless, the film bears repeated viewing.

The Squid and the Whale

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