The Antifascist Aesthetics of Pan’s Labyrinth
We’re the first potential parents who can contain the ancestral house. -- Wilson Harris, The Whole Armour
Hollywood projects itself as a liberal and tolerant social institution, even as a liberatory agent in the fight against prejudice and bigotry, a courageous proponent of humanitarianism. It is, of course, a ridiculous conceit and a necessary illusion, one well-nourished over the past thirty years by the Christian Right in its endless attacks on Hollywood’s so-called atheistic secularism and anything-goes cultural relativism. In this way the religious Right and liberal Hollywood form a closed circle. Corollaries of each other, they are also like mirrors in a funhouse, for any person who passes through the apparatus must forget that the whole experience has been put together by those who own and control it, in order for the mirrors to produce the desired illusory effects.
Occasionally a film is distributed by Hollywood that breaks free of this closed circle, a film that in fact did not come from Hollywood at all, that is neither a pretentious “independent” production nor the work of a veteran auteur like Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola or Sidney Lumet. A film with mass appeal in terms of its aesthetics, yet boldly dissonant and disjunctive ideologically. This happened in 2006 when Hollywood released Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s monster movie El laberinto del fauno, marketed to American moviegoers as Pan’s Labyrinth.
While the film’s content, the establishment of fascist rule in Franco’s Spain, helps to explain why Hollywood chose to distribute and market the movie to American audiences—that is, as a way of both appealing to the strong anti-Bush sentiment in the country and showing at the same time that fascism is something that happens somewhere else, that in the U.S. such barbarism is unthinkable—its mythical dimension, which constitutes Pan’s Labyrinth’s total form, offers a new popular cinema aesthetic. My suggestion is that del Toro’s aesthetic brings to the surface a startling absence in Hollywood film: the lack of movies that use ancient or pre-capitalist mythology to animate stories about modern capitalist social relations. In general, the Hollywood aesthetic does the opposite: it superimposes present-day capitalist social relations onto all history as if capitalism has no pre-history—as if it has always existed exactly the way it is today.
Freud argued that this kind of creative artistic activity, in which ancient myths are called on to explain events in the present, belongs to the realm of “mass psychology,” or the collective psyche as a social space. The mass, according to Freud, “wants to be dominated and suppressed and to fear its master.” The expression of mass psychology comes through the collective unconscious—“the unconscious foundation that is the same for everyone.”1 For Freud, the two great social institutions through which mass psychology expresses itself are the army and the church. Here the masses are inspired to extremes, knowing “neither doubt nor uncertainty.” Here they are encouraged to compensate themselves for being “a helpless target for all the taxes, epidemics, sicknesses, and evils of social institutions.”2 Here is where “the poor,” says Freud, act out their “libidinal attachments,” namely “self-love, parental and infant love, friendship, general love of humanity, and even dedication to concrete objects as well as to abstract ideas.”3 Since being loved is the goal, the army and the church spend much of their resources trying to satisfy this desire and gear their entire propaganda apparatus to it. Yet these revered institutions almost always fail in making people feel loved. Consequently, the army and the church become home to a “universal compulsive neurosis,” where people find ample opportunity to fashion their own “system of delusion.”
Freud pointed out the obvious, that in the army and the church people merely “echo” the real human experience of being loved and thus in this “distorted form” every sort of perversion imaginable (and unimaginable) can then be carried out. “If a culture has not got beyond the point where the satisfaction of some participants requires the oppression of others, [who may constitute] the majority (and this is the case with all contemporary cultures),” he argued, “then, understandably, the oppressed will develop a deep hostility towards a culture that their labor makes possible but in whose commodities they have too small a share.”4 Freud never got to see firsthand the total expression in Europe of “the universal compulsive neurosis”—he died in 1939. But he would very likely have agreed that the failure to prevent fascist hegemony in Germany and elsewhere was a failure to see in the commodity logic of capital the seed of authoritarian social control.
With the decline in U.S. society of the church and the army as the two great social institutions (in the sense of mass appeal) and their replacement by Hollywood, Freud’s theory of mass psychology – or the collective unconscious – is useful for a study of fascism and Hollywood cinema. My aim in this essay is to center this type of analysis on what we might call del Toro’s “outside” aesthetics. His approach to filmmaking comes not only from outside the Hollywood system of cultural production, but also outside its closed ideologies, in particular the ideology of U.S. liberalism—the notion that the mission of the U.S. is to fight fascism and make the world safe for democracy. As we will see, del Toro’s fascist monsters are loaded with pre-capitalist mythical content of a kind that enables a full objectification of historical fascism, that makes the invisible reality or collective unconscious of fascism present. And that this is precisely what the Hollywood aesthetic always avoids.
The monster mash
It would be a cliché to say that, because I am a Mexican, I see death in a certain way. But I have seen more than my share of corpses, certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I’ve seen people being shot, I’ve had guns put to my head, I’ve seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated…because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility. -- Guillermo del Toro
To judge by the most commercially successful Hollywood films, the desire for apocalypse is the American masses deepest wish fulfillment in response to the horrors of life under capitalism, that their abiding wish is to see capitalism destroyed utterly.5 What might replace capitalism is as alien to Hollywood cinema as the movie aliens are to their audiences, yet that is not the point in Freud’s terms. The point is that capitalist culture has produced social alienation on a scale so vast and extreme that vastly extreme responses to it are the only appealing ones. Everything in between, such as political reform or realistic hope for making a better world, is rejected as pure fantasy.
In this aspect, my analysis of Hollywood cinema is not new or original. The treatment of ideology as a camera obscura or set of optical illusions, of an upside-down world in which historical reality is inverted into fantasy and fantasy into “historical reality,” goes back to the Romantic era (Left and Right alike), and before the Romantics to Vico. Frederic Jameson has referred to this procedure as thinking about culture in terms of a “dawning historicity in the realm of taste.” Jameson, accordingly, uses the term “ideograms” to describe the artifacts of capitalist mass culture. Such thinking about culture, he writes, is “marked by the will to link together in a single figure two incommensurable realities, two independent codes or systems of signs, two heterogeneous and asymmetrical terms: spirit and matter, the data of individual experience and the vaster forms of institutional society, the language of existence and that of history.”6 As a result, one sees a clash not merely between illusion and reality (between what really happened and how we imagine it happened), but between the language of particular illusions and that language’s constantly shifting terms and vocabulary in relation to epochal historical change. In the case of film language, and in the monster movie genre specifically, the clash of asymmetrical terms, between ideology and history, is of course expressed visually and thus involves a set of analytic procedures different than those used in literature or music criticism. Nevertheless, as a system of signs film invites the same kind of the interpretive analysis as other artistic fields, so long as the two conflicting “heterogeneous and asymmetrical terms” are treated as the creative force of all artistic activity.
It might come as a surprise that the monster movie is by far the most popular genre of Hollywood cinema. It is not at any rate the romantic comedy, the gangster flick, the musical, the western, the detective movie, the psychological thriller, or the road movie. All the piles of awards heaped on to such genre films notwithstanding, American moviegoers much prefer monster movies and reward the film studios handsomely for producing an enormous excess of them. Yet these monster movies are not monolithic. There are a great variety of monsters—in fact, compared to the romantic comedy for example, the monster movie genre is astonishingly eclectic and totally unpredictable.
Doubtless this is part of the monster movie’s mass appeal. Whereas the romantic comedy is essentially a date movie (strictly a means to an end), the monster movie is pure cinema, pure in the sense of offering to moviegoers a fully conceived alternate universe, a social space mathematically constructed in images through which people’s everyday fears and hopes are transfigured into a special visual language impossible to translate or transfer outside those two thrilling hours in a darkened theater. That said, the monster movie is certainly a formula-type genre film. Here it should be stressed that I am thinking of the monster movie in broader terms than is customary in film studies and in Hollywood marketing and advertising, where horror movies, fantasy films, disaster movies, alien movies, and sci-fi flicks are usually divided into discrete categories. I find this kind of categorization of little use, since moviegoers themselves appear to draw no distinctions between them. If the film has a sufficiently kick-ass monster in it, whether he, she or it is an alien, a phantom or ghost, a terrifying supercomputer, a malignant wizard, a vicious dinosaur, a great storm, a freak of nature, a stuffed demonic animal or toy or Satan himself, the masses will pay to see it. Therefore, when I say monster movie I mean any movie featuring a massively destructive force committed single-mindedly to annihilating the human race. From this open-ended beginning, things fall into a fairly straightforward order. There are fascist monsters and monsters of the apocalypse. Movies with fascist monsters tend to be films of the apocalypse (or the end of the capitalist world), and movies with monsters of the apocalypse work according to a fascist logic, in terms of their dominant ideograms. In general, the Hollywood aesthetic prefers the latter.
The Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro made El laberinto del fauno (2006), which has been translated for American moviegoers as Pan’s Labyrinth, although there is no such Pan character in the film. There is a faun (a goat-god or horned beast), but in del Toro’s construction of the mythological figure the Greek Pan archetype is fused with Roman as well as other ancient religious concepts of the great goat-god to produce a new antifascist archetype. It seems likely, however, that the English translation’s choice of “Pan,” instead of “faun,” was based not on American moviegoers’ general knowledge of ancient Greek mythology, which is very doubtful, but rather on Disney’s version of the archetype, Peter Pan.7
Del Toro was born and raised in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. While his films for Hollywood are remarkably fresh and elegantly singular in visual style, he is nevertheless better known in the U.S. media for his close friendship with two other Mexican filmmakers, Alfonso Cuarón Orozco (Great Expectations, Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, 21 Grams, and Babel). The Mexican triumvirate has indeed taken not only Hollywood by storm but the entire cinema world, collecting dozens of nominations and several prizes, from Cannes and Venice to the Golden Globe and Academy Awards. In addition to his intimate association and working relationship with Cuarón Orozco and González Iñárritu, del Toro is famous in world cinema for having rejected a hugely lucrative deal with Warner Brothers to make the third Harry Potter movie in favor of work on his lifelong obsession: turning the Hellboy comic, a Dark Horse Comics character created by Mike Mignola in 1993, into a major motion picture, which he achieved in 2004. Hellboy is already considered a cult classic, and del Toro’s sequel to it, to be released in July 2008, has become one of the most anxiously anticipated films in recent screen history.
El laberinto del fauno is explicitly about fascism, but is of interest not simply because of its subject matter but above all because of del Toro’s iconoclastic approach to the rendering of fascism on screen. In obvious ways, the film came through Hollywood by way of a distinctively non-U.S. sensibility, a Mexican sensibility in which the question of fascist dictatorship is perceived by the filmmaker both personally and historically. In del Toro’s case, following his father’s kidnapping in 1998 he was forced into exile, a condition in which he remains today. But what makes del Toro’s artistic approach to fascism so different from that of the run-of-the-mill Hollywood production, such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, is his construction of a transcendent fascist-monster archetype. Schindler’s List, in contrast, offers fascist social types that cannot exist anywhere but in Nazi Germany. Moreover, unlike Schindler’s List, where there are antifascist German capitalists and fascist German capitalists (a clever ideological invention on Spielberg’s part, since in reality there were no German capitalists who opposed fascism), in El laberinto del fauno, all the capitalists are behind fascism, which is shown, as we shall see, in one of the film’s most compelling scenes.8 First, however, it is necessary to describe del Toro’s visual style and how he constructs his distinctive fascist-monster archetype.
From El laberinto del fauno’s opening scene, we understand ourselves to be entering a magical place that is nevertheless coldly historical. We are in Franco’s Spain, but we are also deep in the verdant woods, where shards of brilliant light are knifing through thick and damp foliage above. We are traveling with a fascist cavalcade, but we are not with them: we are neither prisoners of fascism nor its unwitting accomplices. We occupy, in terms of our gaze, a strategic location sharply dissonant and ideologically disjunctive in relation to Hollywood’s representation of the fascist experience. In del Toro’s imaginary, fascism is directly in front of us to see and fear, but its power is thrown into direct relief against forces much larger than itself. Importantly, fascism in del Toro’s vision is not an unhistorical, faceless and invincible evil monolith extending its reach everywhere, nor is it, in the manner of Spielberg, hypostatized into period piece ethno-drama (German Nazis and Jewish victims). Rather than Satanic or ethnic, it is thoroughly human, made by particular human beings for specific political ends. Fascism for del Toro is much more than an individual lust for totalitarian social control—this has been the self-serving bourgeois interpretation. Rather, it is a systematic attack on nature, in particular on the relationship between mother and child.
As del Toro’s camera begins following a young girl through the woods (the fascist cavalcade has stopped so that the girl’s pregnant mother can vomit by the side of the road), the fascists are left behind to guard their vehicles. From this point forward the fascists scurry around like rats on the margins of del Toro’s narrative—he never allows them any centrality. So we realize right away that this will not be a movie about “the fascist mentality” or how everyday people become fascists. This liberatory feeling dawns on us the deeper the young girl, Ofelia, moves into the forest. For there she meets a fairy, who will soon take her to the faun’s labyrinth which is in a different place in the woods. Like all of del Toro’s mythical figures in the film, the fairy is strikingly concrete. Always gender-free, his fairies avoid the typical sort of crude Hollywood anthropomorphism whereby immortal mythical characters are loaded with mortal human attributes, a tactic aimed apparently to make them less alien, but that usually has the opposite effect: it closes off the imagination to everything which is not immediately recognizable or that lacks instant human potentiality. Del Toro’s fairy in this opening scene is tiny, and is seen fluttering around like a butterfly, incapable of human speech but gifted at physical gesturing. His fairies will play a central part in the tale he tells.
Before we meet the faun we meet the fascist. He is Captain Vidal, dispatched to the mountain village of Navarra by Franco to exterminate the antifascist resistance there. He is Ofelia’s stepfather, and Ofelia’s mother Carmen implores her young daughter, who has yet to meet the man (the cavalcade’s purpose is to deliver the pregnant Carmen to Captain Vidal so he might personally secure his heir, for he has convinced himself that Carmen’s unborn child is a boy), to always address him as father. Ofelia flatly refuses, and for the rest of the movie we witness the consequences of her lucid intuition, that Captain Vidal is nobody any decent human being would ever call father. That her mother has fallen in love with such a monster does not, however, concern Ofelia. Her mind is always in another place.
This utopian place in Ofelia’s mind is constructed by del Toro in two ways: through a lugubrious lullaby that begins and ends the film, and by overlaying the film’s main story of historical fascism in Spain with an ancient resurrection myth. In del Toro’s use of the myth, based on the Mother Goddess archetype, a young princess wanders away from her kingdom of eternal happiness in search of what lies beyond, only to find herself desperately lost in the world of the mortals. In response her parents, the king and queen, order that all the portals to the human world be opened in the hope their lost daughter will one day stumble onto one of them and be returned to her place at the throne. After all but one of the portals have been unsuccessfully used up and long since withered away, those in the kingdom of eternal happiness come to fear the very worst, that their princess has been disappeared by the mortals and will never return—until a fateful day in the mountains of Navarra, when Ofelia meets a fairy who takes her to the faun.
Karen Armstrong has identified the Mother Goddess myth as the most popular myth of the Neolithic period (8000-4000 BCE). “A meeting with the mother goddess,” she says, “represents the ultimate adventure of the hero, the supreme illumination.”9 At first indefinable, since he is rendered by del Toro with the same dangerously potent ambiguity found in the ancient Greek and Roman myths of the goat-god, the faun’s true identity becomes clear soon enough. He belongs to the kingdom of eternal feminine happiness, sent by the king and queen to guard the last remaining portal to the human world, which the faun has embedded inside a labyrinth deep in the woods. The faun explains to Ofelia her true identity as well as her destiny: a return to the throne where she will rejoin her mother the queen and her father the king. First though, she must complete three tasks before the moon is full. And at the same Ofelia is carrying out the three tasks, Captain Vidal is carrying out his own, a massacre of the antifascist guerrilla movement. Not only is there a doubling of characters (mortal Ofelia and Princess Ofelia; mortal Carmen and Queen Carmen); there is also a doubling of narratives. This mythical doubling technique is not the only thing that distinguishes del Toro’s movie about fascism from those of mainstream Hollywood, yet it is the most crucial and enlivening. A slight digression here is therefore required.
Doubling is an ancient aesthetic practice; it can be found in the bronzes of Benin in Africa and in the sacred Ugaritic texts of ancient Mesopotamia (for example, in the epic of Gilgamesh) down to the elaborate cosmology of the Mayan Indians, articulated systematically in the Popul Vuh, the great Mayan Quiché book of life. In ancient Greek theater doubling is also fundamental, seen in Oedipus the King for instance, where Oedipus’s blind misrecognition of the doubling principle is the source of his tragic fate. It is all through Homer’s Odyssey as well.10 Psychoanalytic theory tells us that psychic doubling is the beginning of all human subjectivity: the moment in which the infant child realizes, in sheer terror, that mommy is not simply an extension of herself but a real person, with needs and interests of her own. In defense against this frightening reality, the child creates her own double, to serve as a reliable mommy substitute but also to anchor the fragile self in what has become a fallen and hostile world of other people and their own demanding subjectivities. This double will become in Freudian theory the ego, which undergoes in his revision of his initial theory its own process of doubling. In fact, due to the power of narcissism and what Freud referred to as the “dynamic” capacity of the unconscious to absorb and then reconstitute blocked narcissistic desires, the doubling process never finally ends.11
Tellingly, Freud in his final years went back to the ancient roots of doubling, in his then extremely controversial work, Moses and Monotheism (1938). Here he argued that all along there were two men called Moses, the ancient Egyptian Moses and the Midianite or Hebrew Moses: the former a prince, priest, or high official belonging to the ancient monotheistic cult of Aton (1358 BCE), and the latter a son of the Midianite priest Jethro, who belonged to the cult of the volcanic god Yahweh (around 1000 BCE). Freud was very reluctant to publish the text, and consequently only its first two parts appeared during his lifetime.12 It is, as Edward Said pointed out in his 2003 study Freud and the Non-European, a truly revolutionary work, “carefully opening out Jewish identity toward its non-Jewish background.”13 Freud’s underlying thesis, as he stated it in the foreword to the last essay of Moses, is that “progress has forged an alliance with barbarism.” Because, he wrote tersely, “The corruption of a text is not unlike a murder. The problem lies not in doing the deed but in removing the traces.”14 Removing the traces of the non-European (Egyptian) roots of Judaism and Christianity has been done in the name of progress, but it is in fact an act of extreme violence, a mass extermination at the level of popular memory, which itself carries recognition of an original murder, that of the first Moses, who according to Freud was killed by the Midianites in response to the severity of his law. The second Moses then, the Hebrew Moses, is an ancient masquerade: a collective attempt among the Jews to remember their crime of murdering the first Egyptian Moses, their real father, and to atone for it. Freud explains:
Putting our conclusion in the shortest possible form of words, to the familiar dualisms of that history (two peoples coming together to form the nation, two kingdoms into which that nation divides, two names for god in the source writings of the Bible) we add two new ones: two religious inaugurations, the first forced out by the second but later emerging behind it and coming victoriously to the fore, two religious inaugurators, both of whom went by the same name Moses.15
Yet in the end it is the baffling staying power of monotheistic belief that provokes Freud’s controversial query, “the task of finding out,” he says, “how those who have faith in a Divine Being could have acquired it, and whence this belief derives the enormous power that enables it to overwhelm Reason and Science.”16 Here the connection between Freud’s theory of the double Moses and mass psychology and del Toro’s narrative of fascism in El laberinto del fauno lies in what Freud called “the ancient ambivalence of the father-son relationship.” “Originally a father religion,” says Freud, “Christianity became a Son religion. The fate of having to displace the Father it could not escape.”17
Thus, to “unravel the masquerade of appearances,” as the Caribbean novelist Wilson Harris has nicely put it, is the true task of the artist, who needs to assume the role of “the lost child” in order to recall what has been erased from the oppressed community’s memory—“to deepen its insights into the soil of place in which ancient masquerades exist to validate the risks a community may take if it is to come abreast of its hidden potential.”18 Ofelia is a lost child in precisely this sense, and through her del Toro tells his story of fascism. But before turning back to his movie, it is important to note another compelling connection to Freud’s theory of mass psychology: that it took a non-European to recall for the masses of Spain its traumatic past. To judge by the lack of any mainstream Spanish films on the subject, the Spanish people’s failure to murder Franco the fake father (whose brutal fascist regime was allowed to persist until 1975) is a deeply disturbing memory that they are still unwilling to bring into the light. This helps explain del Toro’s double narrative and the character-doubling which drives his plot. Since Franco’s fascism has been given in Spain a kind of unchallenged hegemony at the level of official national memory, in which both the historical crimes of his regime and the heroic antifascist resistance to them are kept in psychic limbo, the only way to unravel this “masquerade of appearances” is through recourse to ancient myth, in this case the resurrection myth. It is a simple idea but a rare one in Hollywood cinema.
For now it is enough to register two basic principles of artistic creation in relation to mass psychology. First, that to recall a deeply repressed traumatic past can certainly be done by the artist without recourse to ancient myth or aesthetic doubling, but that a rational and scientific approach to the past will have little if any impact on a political unconscious completely invested in unrequited love and in a corresponding singular desire to see the real world in which we live – where “the satisfaction of some participants requires the oppression of others” – totally abolished so that eternal happiness can spring to life. It goes without saying that making this argument through rational and scientific critique—for example, by proving that the inherently destructive and radically alienating nature of capitalism more often than not produces fascism—has consistently failed to move the masses of humanity. Whenever the working classes and the poor have taken up arms against capital, it has been to avoid mass starvation or another catastrophic war. And second, in the absence of such imminent real apocalypse—that is, the visible presence of fascism—the masses of people are not thinking of proletarian socialist revolution but instead are consumed with endless daydreaming and fantasy about a totally different world, which under a capitalist-controlled media usually takes the form of monotheistic religious belief, that Big Daddy Capital will save us all—hopefully in the form of an apocalypse.
Del Toro’s narrative of fascism is a rejection of the monotheistic religious turn. His concept of religion comes not from Catholicism but from Mexican spiritualism or the Obra Espiritual, as it is popularly known. The Mexican novelist and anthropologist Elena Poniatowska has written authoritatively of spiritualism’s mass appeal to the Mexican poor. “Their cultural roots have been disturbed by television and radio,” she says, “and for them, spiritualism is more satisfying than Catholicism: the emotions are stronger, and they are treated like ‘people.’ Spiritualism makes men and women feel as if they were chosen by God from among all the whirling souls on Earth.” She argues that in the Obra Espiritual, “Men and women of all ages recognize the catharsis that occurs when they are spiritually possessed by their protectors.”19 This is clearly evident in El laberinto del fauno, where the lost child Ofelia is spiritually possessed by her double the Princess Ofelia, who with the help of the faun and his fairies protects her from fascism. The fascists, in contrast, who carry out their massacres of the poor on behalf of monotheism and the Fatherland, are left unprotected. Not only have they cut themselves off from the ancient past, from spiritualism in the popular sense, as the religion of the poor, but they have also committed themselves to eradicating all memory traces of it from the land they are militarily occupying. And this seems to be the underlying motive for Captain Vidal’s extermination campaign in the mountains of Navarra: to make sure the ancient resurrection myth of the Mother Goddess never happens again.
Here the tragedy of El laberinto del fauno emerges in full view, the tragedy of Ofelia’s mother Carmen, who has forbidden her daughter to walk through the woods and who constantly admonishes Ofelia for reading fairytales. And yet Carmen’s heart is not in it, thus Ofelia is able to pursue the faun and the mission he has laid out for her without constraint. Meanwhile Captain Vidal, being a misogynist, is blind to the subversive activities of Ofelia and even more so to those of Mercedes, a local villager whom he has hired to manage his household. Above all he is indifferent to the fate of Carmen, her sole purpose on earth being to bear him a son. Mercedes is the real hero of the story and a different side of the Mother Goddess archetype. Sister to the antifascist underground’s commander, she also leads a double life, playing the part of a docile peasant woman in the face of Captain Vidal, while stealing from him medicines and supplies and delivering messages for the resistance. All this doubling will come to a head when Captain Vidal discovers, much too late for him as it happens, Mercedes’ antifascist activities and Ofelia’s support of them. The resistance prevails, but it is not a happy ending, not by Hollywood standards: Carmen dies a horrible death in childbirth and Ofelia is murdered by Captain Vidal. As the film’s beautiful and haunting lullaby returns once again, the blood of Ofelia, who has been shot in the back by Captain Vidal before she can enter the portal, drips into the portal, triggering her resurrection. As the lullaby continues we see Ofelia enter the kingdom of eternal feminine happiness, where she is welcomed by her father and her mother Carmen, rendered by del Toro in magnificent splendor, in dazzling rich red and gold hues. A huge chorus then rises to its feet in thunderous applause, to thank Ofelia for never once compromising with fascism.
A myth happens all the time
A myth is an event that happened once, but which also happens all the time. An occurrence needs to be liberated from the confines of a specific period and brought into the lives of contemporary worshippers, or it will remain a unique, unrepeatable incident, or even a historical freak that cannot really touch the lives of others. -- Karen Armstrong
Utopia wants speech against power and against the reality principle which is only the phantasm of the system and its indefinite reproduction. It wants only the spoken word; and it wants to lose itself in it. -- Jean Baudrillard
As earlier alluded to, the general approach in Hollywood to historical fascism is non-mythical, even anti-mythical. Rather than liberating fascism from “the confines of a specific period,” it does the opposite—it de-universalizes and then sublimates the bourgeois roots of fascism by either making “true stories” about it (Sophie’s Choice, Marathon Man, Schindler’s List, The Pianist) or concocting freakish, thinly-veiled allegorical monster tales about invading foreign terrorists hell-bent on imposing fascism on democracy-loving Americans and destroying their “way of life” (True Lies, Independence Day, 300).
Armstrong shows that in the ancient world, “a symbol became inseparable from its unseen referent. Because likeness constitutes some kind of identity, it makes the invisible reality present.”20 In El laberinto del fauno, the underlying invisible reality is a Mother Goddess Utopia, where the mother-child bond or the Eternal Feminine is the foundation of all human happiness. Del Toro, who was raised by a female community headed by his grandmother, is explicit about this in the film: what enables the visible antifascist resistance to succeed are its “invisible” women organizers, invisible in the sense of using cunning dual identities to trick the fascists. For example, when a male medical doctor tries to use a double identity to fool Captain Vidal, in order to give the resistance medical supplies, he is caught and murdered, but Mercedes always eludes the captain, even in the midst of being tortured by him. Again, this has to do with the captain’s misogyny: he cannot conceive of a woman with guts enough to challenge his fascist authority. His misogyny is the antifascist movement’s security. In this climactic scene, Mercedes’ secret role in the resistance has just been discovered by Captain Vidal, who excitedly takes her over to his torture chamber. While preparing his sharp and heavy metal instruments of torture, with his back turned to Mercedes who is tied to a chair, she cuts through the rope with a paring knife and then uses the knife on the captain’s face. Rather than killing him, she slices a deep gash from the corner of his mouth all the way up his cheekbone, symbolically turning him into the deformed monster he has in reality always been. Symbolically marked as he now is, even if the resistance loses the battle for Navarra the fascist Vidal will never be able to disguise his true identity.
Captain Vidal has his mythical double also. He is the Pale Man, whom Ofelia must overcome in order to achieve the second of the tasks the faun has set for her. He is a seducer of children, who by way of a long table of luscious foods is able to lure them into his grasp and then eat them alive. For his malignant perversity, he has been banished by the gods to a cavern where he is forced to sit in a state of paralysis at his table of delicious sweets, fruits, and roast meats, his eyes gouged out and resting on a plate in front of him. Inside the Pale Man’s cavern, where dusty piles of children’s shoes and clothes can be seen, is the key that will open a door inside which is a dagger, a ceremonial weapon Ofelia needs to complete the third and final task. Needless to say, the faun has warned Ofelia not to partake of any of the foods on the table, not even a single grape. Yet Captain Vidal has just punished Ofelia for being late to a dinner party by depriving her of her supper, thus she is very hungry as she enters the Pale Man’s cavern. After locating the key, unlocking the box with the dagger and securing it, she cannot resist the food and eats a grape, bringing the Pale Man back to life. The Pale Man devours two of the fairies that have gone with Ofelia to the cavern and begins chasing her down. She narrowly escapes, and is later harshly chastised by the faun for failing to resist her appetite.
What makes the Pale Man Captain Vidal’s double is twofold: his hatred of children and the way he uses food to achieve his fascist objectives. We see this early in the narrative when the captain seizes from two local farmers, a father and son, a bag of wild rabbits they have hunted and killed, after which he brutally murders them, and later when he imposes on the villagers a strict food rationing program. If the villagers do not collaborate with the fascists, they will be starved to death. Prior to the Pale Man scene, we switch between double actions: Ofelia carrying out her first task, which is to overthrow a giant, grotesque and stupid toad that has occupied an ancient and beautiful tree in the forest and, through its insatiable greed for the tree’s nutrients, is causing it to die, and the dinner party, at which are gathered all the members of Navarra’s ruling class, the priest, the village magistrate, the local sheriff, the big landowners and their wives, and the county governor. Without exception, each strongly supports Captain Vidal’s campaign to exterminate the resistance. While Ofelia is slaying the mythical fascist toad, the real fascists are plotting their repression of the villagers.
This narrative doubling technique structures every scene in the movie, where the figures of historical fascism such as Captain Vidal and the ruling-class members of Navarra are made inseparable from their “unseen referents,” that is, the mythical symbols of fascism such as the giant toad and the Pale Man. To put it another way, still following Armstrong’s insight, the likeness drawn between the identity of the grotesque and idiotic toad, as well as the deathly child-eating Pale Man, and the historical fascist Captain Vidal makes the “invisible reality” of fascism present. This invisible reality is the political unconscious or mass psychology: the way fascism uses our basic libidinal attachments (“self-love, parental and infant love, friendship, general love of humanity, and even dedication to concrete objects as well as to abstract ideas,” in Freud’s words) on behalf of concentrating economic power and putting down laboring-class resistance to bourgeois oppression. In so doing, it also seeks to eradicate from popular memory any and all myths that tell the story of an original crime: the murder of ancient communalism by an emergent capitalist class.
In El laberinto del fauno, this idea is subtle and complex. For example, not until the final scene does it become clear that Captain Vidal murdered Ofelia’s father in order to replace him as Carmen’s husband and steal from them the rights to their unborn son, by claiming the child as his own. For it turns out that the faun’s final task for Ofelia is to use the ceremonial dagger on her newborn brother. The spilling of his blood, the faun tells her, will open the portal whereupon she will be returned to the kingdom of eternal happiness. It is a clever stratagem, of course: the final test is not the sacrifice of her brother but proof of Ofelia’s purity of heart. She passes the test, choosing her own mortality over taking the life of her brother to gain immortality. And so there mortal Ofelia perishes, at the mouth of the portal, shot in the back by Vidal in pursuit of Ofelia’s brother, whom she has taken to the faun’s labyrinth to hide him from the captain. He kills Ofelia, after grabbing the child from her. But as mortal Ofelia dies, immortal Ofelia is resurrected to her rightful place at the throne, next to her mother the queen. Meanwhile, with the child clenched in his arms, Captain Vidal emerges from the labyrinth, thinking he has prevailed. Yet at its entrance he is greeted by the leaders of the antifascist resistance. “Tell my son…Tell him what time his father died. Tell him that I…” he orders the resistance leaders, after Mercedes has taken the child from him and begins preparing his execution. “No,” she says plainly. “He won’t even know your name.”
Perhaps the most striking example of cosmic doubling in del Toro’s narrative is that between Ofelia’s unborn brother and a mandrake root. Given to Ofelia by the faun, to aid Ofelia in the care of her deathly ill mother Carmen, the mandrake root, through Ofelia’s nurturing, comes alive: she feeds and protects the root as if it were her own infant child. Kept in hiding under her mother’s sick bed, the mandrake root begins to flourish, and its growth and happiness cures Carmen of her illness, baffling both her physician and Captain Vidal. The captain is of course very pleased to see this development, for it convinces him fate is working in his favor, that his heir will soon be born and in good health. In a scene that leads to the film’s conclusion—the resurrection of Ofelia to the throne and the execution of Captain Vidal—the captain discovers the mandrake root and brutally murders it, provoking the unborn child’s premature birth and with it massive hemorrhaging in the body of Carmen. Like every scene in the movie of violent death caused by Captain Vidal and his fascist henchmen, Carmen’s death is accompanied by the birth of new life, the birth of Ofelia’s brother.
Importantly, the mandrake root has cosmological significance in many ancient religions, from the lands of China to Palestine. Its magical, heavenly properties, given that the plant is both poisonous and has a human semblance, tend to be alchemical in nature. In ancient mythology the idea is that, if not treated delicately and with special knowledge of its dynamic life-giving potential, the mandrake root can take the form of a dangerous weapon, since it is believed that if dug up without forethought and care the mandrake will become murderously violent. In the Book of Genesis, the mandrake is referred to as a “love plant,” and this view of the mandrake can be found in other ancient religions as well—that it stimulates conception. The mandrake is therefore a symbol of the life force, but it is also an actual medicinal plant, thus it is itself the ultimate double, and as such possesses the most force among del Toro’s many monster archetypes. To put it another way, when put in the context of modern fascism the ancient myth of the mandrake root becomes, like del Toro’s other mythical archetypes, loaded with political signifying power. Contempt for the life force, the life force here being represented by the mandrake, is the hallmark of fascism, and it is exactly the fascist’s hatred for everything alive which brings about his own violent death.
Now we can return to Freud’s theory of mass psychology with a better understanding of the relations between the political unconscious and the creative artist. Without recourse to pre-capitalist mythology, imaginative narratives of historical movements such as modern fascism run the risk of confining themselves to specific places and times, as if the true history of fascism is begun the moment the narrative departs and ends as the narrative reaches its denouement. While this is a straightforward problem—the attempt to create a whole world entirely sealed off from the dialectic of history, by removing all traces of it from the work of art—the deeper, much less resolvable one has to do with the definition of a common humanity. Del Toro’s solution is to use ancient cosmologies that are extremely multi-voiced but that at the same time always return to the same common lullaby, a primal scene in which our development as a species begins with faith in the movement of history itself, that history’s forward march is unstoppable because of the life force in us all. It takes concrete shape with proper respect paid to the Mother Goddess archetype in everyday life, through careful cultivation of the mother-child bond. When this type of secular worship is disrespected and repressed fascism takes control, and when it is enabled to flourish our hidden potential comes to life. The political unconscious then is the place where our hidden potential resides, and it is always being added onto, from ancient times down to the present.
Most liberating about del Toro’s story of fascism in this respect is that the ancient archetypes he chooses to draw on, those he perceives as most deeply embedded in humanity’s collective unconscious, are all about the self-emancipation of women, which in his view is inseparable from a militant confrontation with patriarchal repression. To confront patriarchal repression—embodied in del Toro’s vision by Franco’s Spain—without recourse to the Mother Goddess archetype is to squander a ripe opportunity, he suggests: the opportunity to create through the political unconscious, or rather in direct relation to it, a new concept of emancipation, a concept that has deep roots in our common ancestral past. That is, del Toro’s aesthetics belong to the revolutionary antifascist tradition not simply because his mythical heroes and heroines risk their lives fighting the fascist movement, but rather because of the way their heroic actions are “brought into the lives of contemporary worshippers,” to borrow Armstrong’s insightful phrase—in the way del Toro deliberately undermines the deceptive and self-serving bourgeois “common sense” perception of fascism as “a unique, unrepeatable incident, or even a historical freak.”21 Del Toro wants us to see that the blundering endurance of male supremacy is also the staying power of fascism as ideology, that antifeminism is the “invisible reality” of fascism, for without it fascist movements lose their connection to mass psychology.
Pan’s Labyrinth arrives at this enlightened understanding of fascism through del Toro’s double narrative technique, yet the double narrative is itself never schematic or formulaic, it is always dialectical. Rejecting confinement to a specific period, even though the film has an explicit historical setting, del Toro’s achievement is the linking together in the single figure of fascism “two incommensurable realities,” the individual experience under fascist oppression and, to continue with Jameson’s terminology, “the vaster forms of institutional society.” In del Toro’s conception, these forms of institutional society transcend individual fascists such as Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. In fact, what makes del Toro’s fascist monsters so alien to Hollywood’s favored method of rendering fascism on screen, a method by which we remain “in the world of common reality” and “are spared all trace of the uncanny,” as Freud put it in his analysis of the uncanny in fairytales and literature, is precisely their uncanny dual identities.
Freud’s theory of the uncanny is instructive here. It is a feeling, he says, which “cannot arise unless there is a conflict of judgment whether things which have been ‘surmounted’ and are regarded as incredible are not, after all possible.”22 The problem in literary tales of the uncanny, Freud argued—from Homer and Dante to Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde—is that they bring about “events which never or very rarely in fact happen.” While in the fairytale this problem “is excluded from the beginning by the setting of the story,” in literature the storyteller’s “less imaginary” setting still maintains a sharp distinction from the real world, “by admitting spiritual entities such as daemonic influences or departed spirits.” And as a consequence of remaining “within their setting of poetic reality,” he concludes, “their usual attribute of uncanniness fails to attach to such beings.”23
As we have seen, del Toro’s monster movie of fascism begins not in fairytale land but in historical reality—Franco’s Spain in 1944—and his mythical entities are actually doubles of real historical fascists. Crucially, they do not pretend to live in common reality. Instead, their uncanniness lies in their deeper ancestral identity: they are transcending figures inhabiting the collective unconscious and as such can be brought into common reality at any moment. They are always historically possible. Thus the incredibly possible in del Toro’s aesthetics is not what fascism once did to humanity but that it is always ready to do it again. Accordingly, a vital part of the struggle against fascism is at the level of myth. To prevent fascists from returning to power, the constant production of counter-myths is necessary, new myths of antifascist resistance derived from the collective unconscious in which the abiding wish among the masses of humanity is to be forever free of such monsters. The breakthrough del Toro makes is to animate this ancient human desire without losing any of its uncanniness—without acting as if we have already surmounted it. This he achieves by showing the centrality of male supremacy in fascist ideology. For del Toro, the opposite is true: we have not finished with antifascist resistance, we are really just beginning.
1. Sigmund Freud, Mass Psychology and Other Writings, trans. Jim Underwood (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2004), 26, 22.
2. The Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited Ernst L. Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1960), 46f.
3. Freud, Mass Psychology, 41.
4. Freud, Mass Psychology, 11, 117.
5. Of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time in the United States, only one isn’t about either the supernatural/paranormal or an apocalyptic event—the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This low-budget movie about normal everyday people embroiled in the chaotic, frustrating and often joyous details of normal everyday American life rests at number fifty. Next to the other 49, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is like an evolutionary biologist forced to sit through a Billy Graham sermon at a sold out football stadium: in front of it is a spectacular religious monolith. Most of these films feature swashbuckling humans with superpowers fighting back rampaging forces of catastrophic evil (Spider-Man, Batman, Men in Black, The Incredibles, Transformers, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix), while the rest are about rampaging catastrophic evil getting the better of the humans (Jaws, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Twister), or animals who have replaced humans in this eternal battle between good and evil and turn out to be more successful at it (Shrek, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.).
6. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 6f.
7. In Greek mythology Pan is a goat-god and an important nature spirit. His name means “herdsman,” and Pan plays a central part in many ancient Greek legends, such as the battle with the Titans and in the myth of Echo. In both tales Pan becomes closely associated with his famous flute. The Roman version of Pan is Faunus, from which the Indo-European name “faun” derives. Many ancient religions have a Pan-like god or horned beast, and in most cases he is an archetype of virility. Of course many Americans associate Pan with Walt Disney’s version of the archetype, Peter Pan, a boy who refuses to grow up. Del Toro’s version of Pan is a hybridic re-creation of the ancient concept of the goat-god, and thus the term “faun” is much closer than “Pan” to what del Toro intends.
8. Henry Ashby Turner sets out in his history of the German capitalist class and Hitlerism, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (New York: Oxford, 1985) to disprove the myth that German financiers were responsible for significantly funding the Nazi Party. He shows that the bourgeois parties – the DVP (Deutsche Volkspartei), the DDP (Deutsche Demokratische Partei), and the DNVP (Deutsche Nationale Volkspartei) – were in fact badly disorganized and as a result had no coherent policy in favor of Nazism. But he provides no evidence that even a single German capitalist offered any organized resistance to fascism.
9. Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (New York: Canongate, 2005), 54.
10. See Armstrong’s Short History of Myth for a concise and eloquent explanation of ancient doubling, in particular her chapters “The Early Civilizations” and “The Axial Age.”
11. Freud writes in The Ego and the Id (New York: Norton, 1989) that “When the ego assumes the features of the object, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the id as a love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too—I am so like the object’” (24). This “antithesis between the coherent ego and the repressed which is split off from it,” Freud argued, is the beginning of psychoanalytic practice (9).
12. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Random House, 1939).
13. Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (London and New York: Verso, 2003).
14. Freud, Mass Psychology, 202.
15. Freud, Mass Psychology, 210.
16. Moses and Monotheism, 157.
17. Moses and Monotheism, 175.
18. Wilson Harris, “A Note on the Genesis of The Guyana Quartet,” The Guyana Quartet (Boston and London: Faber & Faber, 1985), 13f.
19. See Elena Poniatowska’s masterpiece, Here’s to You, Jesusa! (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), for a full description of the Obra espiritual, in particular her elegant Introduction to the text, which is a memoir as told to Poniatowska by Josefina Bórquez, a working-class Mexican woman born and raised in Oaxaca, who spent most of her life in the barrios of Mexico City.
20. A Short History of Myth, 69.
21. Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, 70.
22. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” in On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 158.
23. Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” 158f.