Demythologizing the Current Political Corpse Bride: A Psychoanalytical Reading of the Populist Narratives
18 March 2023
Still from Corpse Bride, Tim Burton, 2005; Image credit: received.
Tim Burton’s classic film “corpse bride” (2005) addresses certain psychoanalytic themes such as nostalgia and paranoia that can also be located in our present day political theater. Meanwhile the contemporary post-truth politics are impregnated with populist and exclusivist narratives, corroborating and evoking these motifs. In other words, neurotic as they sound such tendencies are imbibed in popular stories (as foundational myths) and are responsible for seducing people with a strong sense of hyper politicization. Famous for its whimsical sense, the film unravels deep motifs of ‘populist politics’ in a critical way, leaving the viewer to analyze and problematize its enchanting lure. To highlight the mythical character of populism, the ongoing discussion features prominent political rabble-rousers such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin. Finally, the article draws on an interdisciplinary approach intermingling the filmic gaze with psycho-analytic approach to understand and decipher the populist narratives.
Storytelling and the Foundation Myth
In his most recent work Peter Brooks (1) quotes Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) from the final episode of TV series Game of Throne (2) saying; “there is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” There is no doubt in the strength of that aphorism, as myths and stories from the very beginning of society have been flirting with the human psyche. Experts in the field of narratology often tend to define human beings as Homo-narrans, emphasizing the fact that narratives constitute the fundamental self-image of humans. Strictly speaking, narrative construction is the only way human beings make sense of the world around them. In this context, philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor put quite an effort in to the realization that human beings are fundamentally ‘storytellers’. And hence they would argue that in contrast to the modern secularity’s ‘immanent frame’ or ‘buffered self’ (3) we must rely on the power of stories in understanding our ontological existence. Added to that, I think it is equally appropriate to raise questions over the historical validity and narrative structure of a good story? Does even the distinction between good and bad story impact our socio-ontological existence? Also, how can we de-structure a story if it is being imposed by some political authority insinuating a particular ideology?
One can hardly assume the existence of a society without some narrative structure in its birth or revival and to put it more bluntly; myths and stories encapsulate the entire foundation of any society. Across the globe, people have been indoctrinated by a ‘foundation myth’ and it goes on this way; ‘there was a community of people who were living with innocence and then all of sudden for some reason the innocence was lost and when certain sacrifices were offered it resulted in the establishment of present civil society.’ Political Historian Timothy Snyder in his most recent Yale Course (4) on The Making of Modern Ukraine also makes the same argument. He stresses that the foundation myth is a popularly accepted way to legitimize and declare the present order with the certainty of an authority. However, in the long run, such myths are converted into some kind of universal history (along an ideological enclosure) entangled with problematic assumptions.
Rousseau as a turning point in the longue durée of political myths
Before any further argument on the validity of myths or stories, let’s emphasize the fact that stories and foundational myths have always been operating from a sacred space in the longue durée of history. And in a zeitgeist manner put the course of history on a particular direction for a political community. Jean Jacques Rousseau probably for the first time in his treatise on the social contract hypothesized the innocent nature of human beings with a secular version of the story of the fall and the rescue plan invoking a political authority in the form of a General Will. (5) Without a resort to such an areligious narrative structure (the realm of innocence, its loss, and possible regain) it would be highly unlikely to make a case for the current political order in modern society.
Interestingly, for Rousseau a nuanced enlightened approach towards politics can be manifested in the interplay between reason and emotions. In other words, an entanglement of philosophy with emotions may make a case for a secular (based on reason) political narrative (with an emotional/psychological appeal). Nonetheless, if that is the case, one may subsequently read the French Revolution of 1789 as an avant garde event that overthrew the ancien régime i.e. as an old oppressive model of political narrative. And even a closer reading may also indicate that the French Revolution was an optimistic turn towards liberty, equality and fraternity with a new restoration of a political order through General Will. To make the matter simpler, ancien régime may be represented as an old narrative model while the French Revolution is a subsequent replacement with a novel secular order.
What is the Political Corpse Bride?
In the usual pattern, stories or foundation myths can be the agents of either apocalyptic change or providing assistance to some form of tyrannical status quo. When it comes to the domain of infra and radical politics, it is hard to nullify the vital role of stories for their catalytic energy in mass mobilization or disruption. In addition, every political ‘event or rupture’ (as Alain Badiou (6) and Todd McGowan (7) would describe the term Event) is guarded by some form of narration and therefore it is very difficult to disentangle from its core mythical structure. (8) In political arena, when stories allure people by making an appeal to the ‘dead past’ and help to stimulate an ideologically pregnant fantasy for an ongoing present moment, I call it the ‘political corpse bride’—borrowing the phrase from Tim Burton’s movie. (9) The movie shows a young man by the name of Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) proposed to a dead body of a girl named Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) and quite uncannily she rose up from her grave in the form of a corpse bride, captivating the young Victor and ultimately disrupting his real marriage in the church.
The story is emblematic of a ‘dead past’ resurrected in the midst of an opportunistic present. Strangely enough, every ‘present normality’ camouflages crises in some form, hiding its contradictory slopes, but gigantic events demythologize its acceptable image. As a matter of fact, in the real world, that is the takeaway from the recent pandemic. When the pandemic hit the world, it has triggered numerous tumultuous politico-economic events, disrupted and dislocated the normal accepted social imagination. More noticeably, it summoned to the fore the dead souls of xenophobia, hatred, violence, anti-immigrant rhetoric and other frantic political messages. Paving a way to the ideologues and false prophets of the time to plan their missionary zealous activities. And for this purpose, the political opportunists attempted to seduce the subjects via imposing different marketable narratives while taking advantage of their beleaguered conditions. Ironically, in such an inconsistent human condition, an appeal to the past in the form of narratives makes more sense than the present and can very successfully help the opportunists to incite simplistic and one size fit all solution to the social problems.
How to overthrow the psychic sovereignty of narratives?
In addition to the socio-political dimension, narratives maintain their sovereignty over the domain of mass psyche. Subliminally appealing to unconscious domain, the discursive-psychological register of society cannot but surrender to the intractable sovereign power of narratives. It collectively appeals to the psychological motifs of people by resurrecting and incarnating phobias, alienation, mass hysteria, attachment and longing for something lost in the past. More specifically, every foundation myth ensconces a corpse bride, attracting acolytes by constructing and entangling the imagination of subjects with some form of glorious past. However, since its enchanting spirits lures, hiding its contradictory aspects and portraits its self-image as a totality like a universal solvent to all the existing issues. Just to deconstruct in a Hegelian way, the phrase ‘corpse bride’ has a contradictory kernel to it, i.e. a decadent past masquerading in a beautiful and charming image. Almost every ‘ideology’ is manufactured with this notion that it is going to resolve all the existing problems through its ostensible magical tricks, however, by unfolding its contradictory elements one can see its uncanny image.
To further enunciate this fact, any narrative account within the shadow of corpse bride might not get easily internalized until it invocates some phantasmagoric elements. In other words, such mythical accounts must operate on the psychological motifs of nostalgia or melancholia and paranoia. These elements function side-by-side in a coherent bond and constitute the potential units of an ideology and narrative. To diagnose the nostalgic and paranoid ‘quilting point’ (as in Lacan’s point de capiton) in politics, Todd McGowan argues;
While nostalgia (from nostos; homesickness or longing for something lost in the past) locates the ultimate enjoyment in the subject’s own past, paranoia locates it in the other. Paranoia thus offers the subject not just the image of the ultimate enjoyment (like nostalgia) but also an explanation for its absence. Nostalgia and paranoia usually operate side by side in order to provide the subject a way of figuring its missing enjoyment. On its own, nostalgia as a mode of subjectivity seems to have limited political consequences. Groups may use nostalgia as a political weapon, but its political weight is diffused to some extent because it involves the subject’s relation to itself rather than to another. The same cannot be said for paranoia, which is why finding a way to counter paranoia represents an urgent political task. Paranoia is political in its very structure. It views the other as a threat and produces hostility toward the other. (10)
Todd McGowan connects both elements of nostalgia and paranoia together in the construction of political ideology, since the former has an appeal to the past while the latter targets a potential culprit in the present (some weak element in society), responsible for robbing the elite of their glorious past. Here comes the role of political demagogue or the so-called populist leader who tries to communicate this narrative to his/her acolytes.
Narrative building in post-factual politics
In her recent piece on the politics of post-truth, Maria Grazia Galantino argues that a wave of organized irresponsibility has fogged the contemporary political atmosphere. She argues that the whole structure of decision making oscillates between de-politicization and hyper-politicization. The former denotes an apolitical and expert based decisions while the latter suggests for dethroning of expert knowledge and an appeal to the demagogues as decision makers. (11) I would like to replace the idea of decision making with narrative building, since every such decision involves an appeal to the narrative. In this context, one might recall the narratives built by the current populist demagogues around the globe, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Putin or Narendra Modi, exercising the power of a particular narrative to mobilize and misguide people. Since 2016 the US presidential elections, Trump has been using the same logic, a nostalgic appeal by implying the slogan; ‘MAGA’ Make America Great Again, and creating paranoia by calling immigrants, (12) Muslims, (13) and Latinos (14) as invaders and distorters of America’s glorious picture. Similarly, during the pandemic, calling the coronavirus as Chinese virus (15) Trump would like to create an image of enemy in the public mental imagery. And at the same time, democrats have been considered as the public enemy no.1 because they somehow provided platforms to such diverse group of people. All this rhetoric and frantic politics by the populist leaders have a contradictory side to it that needs to be disclosed to the public. And as Peter Brooks would argue, despite its falsity or contradiction, such narratives appeal to the common folks and therefore it becomes highly important to analyze and deconstruct them.
To further enunciate this, an example of self-contradiction and false rhetoric could be made when Trump would call the immigrants ‘too lazy’ (16) along with the message that they have taken their jobs. One might ask; how could ‘too lazy’ immigrants take hold of the American economy? Similarly, he would also create a longing for the revival of America to some greater times (make America great again), and one might object as to what was that greater moment in the American history? When was America greater than today? Or metaphorically speaking, is it just a processional and nostalgic voice to summon the dead souls of the past? To psychoanalyze such statements and slogans, people on the left-wing often ignore that it is not just a matter of ‘right or wrong’ for the right-wingers, rather a public display of political enjoyment. (17) Instead of making an appeal to the reason and science (expert knowledge), (18) the current right-wing political project across the globe is based on the idea of promoting hate and causing pain for the sake of enjoyment. One may recall during the Covid-19 pandemic Jair Bolsonaro claimed (19) that Brazilians have a strong immunity and they do not need to worry about the disease. In his words, “they (Brazilians) never catch anything. You see some bloke jumping into the sewage, he gets out, has a dive, right? And nothing happens to him.” As political enjoyment does not exist outside an element of sacrifice, such is the language of self-sabotage nested inside right-wing rhetoric.
The Russian Formalist approach
Anyhow, to further destabilize such narrative structures, Peter Brooks argues that according to the Russian formalists (a very prominent literary school of Russian scholars in the early 20th century) every narrative structure involves two important distinctions; one is fabula and the other is sjuzhet. (20) The term fabula suggests the natural chronological order in any story or the spontaneous occurrence of events while sjuzhet is the way the story is being ordered, rearranged, designed with certain intentions and eventually distorted by some authority. He argues that unlike fabula, sjuzhet is not innocent and thus involves the subjective biases and prejudices of the teller. So while narrating any story, we should pay attention to the two dimensions, namely; the factual and the fabricated. One can locate such construction of narrative when some so-called visionary politicians talk about the establishment of their community vis-à-vis other groups. Sometimes, it might become a huge problem when it involves the possible destruction of a nation or particular ethnicity. To exemplify this understanding of narrative, one need not to read old folktale books written by some unknown tellers, rather carefully examine the existing narratives of ‘nation-state’. And in this case, I think one of the best account is the 5300-word essay penned down by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, (21) who in order to justify his invasion on Ukraine made a case of Russian unity by appealing to an historical account to ultimately construct a (false) narrative. Putin remarks;
“I would like to emphasize that the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. The formula they apply has been known from time immemorial – divide and rule. There is nothing new here. Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another. To have a better understanding of the present and look into the future, we need to turn to history.”
And on another occasion he goes on to say; (22)
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia, this process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia — by dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory.”
Putin in his remarks laments on the current division by blaming himself along with the unknown others. That is to say, the outsiders are responsible for the disunity and discord in the national integration of mother Russia i.e. highlighting the psychological motif of nostalgia along with paranoia. On the last occasion, he would totally misconstrue and misanalyse the history of Ukraine. In his final lecture on the Making of Modern Ukraine, (23) Professor Timothy Snyder argued that Putin’s narrative is no longer different from the Russian narratives constructed during the 1970s. It was the time when Russia was building a literary theory about their role in global politics i.e. they are the victims of the Western powers, they should perform in the theater of war and that Ukrainians should die because they must pay the price as the Russians have no choice. Likewise, at the current moment, by implying the 1970s logic, it is the complete shunning of responsibility by the Russians as Snyder would say. And strictly speaking, Putin is not interested in correcting his version of the history rather his goal is to manufacture a narrative that can be imposed on the common folk while taking enjoyment in their suffering. Putin’s genocidal approach quite clearly resembles of a ‘dead past’ on the move to manslaughter like the character of the headless horseman, a ruthless killer from another Tim Burton’s gothic movie ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (24) (1999) (basically an adaptation from the Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The legend of the Sleepy Hollow). Resurrected from his past by a greedy necromancer by the name of Lady Van Tassel the headless horseman would go out and decapitate enemies for her. Metaphorically speaking, when a corpse bride turns into a headless horseman, it becomes almost impossible to control the violence. And in this sense, Putin has been a headless horseman chasing the so-called enemies of Russia in the form of Ukrainians.
These are just a few examples of the destructive potential that exist inside a political narrative. Such narratives contain phenomenal power and no matter how much susceptible is the public to their lure and charm, it is necessary to demythologize, deconstruct and de-structure their discursive-psychological motifs. Some scholars such as Foucault and Kimberle Crenshaw have been advocating a counter-narrative approach out-narrating the power of existing dominant narratives and it seems a very historicist project to embark upon. However, prior to the operationalization of such a project it would be important to utilize the psychoanalytic and Hegelian approaches of narratology specialist and psychoanalysts such as Peter Brooks and Todd McGowan, who offer convincing tools that may help us in dissecting and unfolding the contradictory elements in the political corpse bride.
I would like to thank Ms. Mehreen for her thoughtful comments in the development of this article.
1. Peter Brooks, "Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative," New York Review Books, New York, 18 October, 2022.
2. Game of Thrones, Action, Adventure, Drama, Home Box Office (HBO), Television 360, Grok! Studio, 2011.
3. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2007, p. 539.
4. Timothy Snyder: The Making of Modern Ukraine. Class 2: The Genesis of Nations, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LaEmaMAkpM.
5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract: The First and the Second Discourses, Yale University, New Haven and London, 2002.
6. Alain Badiou, Being and Event, London, A&C Black, 2007.
7. Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (U of Nebraska Press/Lincoln and London, 2020).
8. By structure I allude to the realm of innocence, its loss, and possible regain
9. Corpse Bride, Animation, Drama, Family (Warner Bros., Tim Burton Productions, Laika Entertainment, 2005).
10. McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have, 44.
11. Maria Grazia Galantino, ‘Organised Irresponsibility in the Post-Truth Era: Beck’s Legacy in Today’s World at Risk’, Italian Sociological Review 12, no. 8S (7 September 2022): 971–971, doi:10.13136/isr.v12i8S.598.
12. Philip Rucker, ‘“How Do You Stop These People?”: Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Looms over El Paso Massacre’, Washington Post, 5 August 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-do-you-stop-these-people-trumps-anti-immigrant-rhetoric-looms-over-el-paso-massacre/2019/08/04/62d0435a-b6ce-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html.
13. Jenna Johnson, ‘Trump Calls for “Total and Complete Shutdown of Muslims Entering the United States”’, Washington Post, 26 November 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/12/07/donald-trump-calls-for-total-and-complete-shutdown-of-muslims-entering-the-united-states/.
14. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, ‘Analysis | Donald Trump’s False Comments Connecting Mexican Immigrants and Crime’, Washington Post, 7 December 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/.
15. Katie Rogers, Lara Jakes, and Ana Swanson, ‘Trump Defends Using “Chinese Virus” Label, Ignoring Growing Criticism’, The New York Times, 18 March 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/politics/china-virus.html.
16. Eugene Scott, ‘Analysis | “Lazy” vs. Taking American Jobs: The White House’s Mixed Messages on “Dreamers”’, Washington Post, 25 November 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/02/08/lazy-vs-taking-american-jobs-the-white-houses-mixed-messages-on-dreamers/.
17. Jouissance—a term used by Lacan simply to describe pleasure in pain and self-sacrifice). See, McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have.
18. A very good account of the Populism’s problem with expert knowledge is developed by Thomas Frank in his seminal work, Thomas Frank, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (Picador, 2021).
19. Tom Phillips, ‘Jair Bolsonaro Claims Brazilians “never Catch Anything” as Covid-19 Cases Rise’, The Guardian, 27 March 2020, sec. Global development, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/27/jair-bolsonaro-claims-brazilians-never-catch-anything-as-covid-19-cases-rise.
20. Brooks, Seduced by Story, 12.
21. Team of the Official Website of the President of Russia, ‘Article by Vladimir Putin ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“’, President of Russia, accessed 17 January 2023, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181.
22. Michael Schwirtz, Maria Varenikova, and Rick Gladstone, ‘Putin Calls Ukrainian Statehood a Fiction. History Suggests Otherwise.’, The New York Times, 22 February 2022, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/world/europe/putin-ukraine.html.
23. Timothy Snyder: The Making of Modern Ukraine. Class 23. the Colonial, the Post-Colonial, the Global, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLfFmYWjHtc.
24. Sleepy Hollow, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery (Paramount Pictures, Mandalay Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, 1999).