Drive-In Part V: Rotary

“You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know…I’ve always been here.”

  • Delbert Grady, specter of a murderous former hotel caretaker, to Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining
  • What better film to help navigate this maze of an article[1] on determinism, the eternal absolute, and free will than this story of trauma, repetition and escape?

    The 1980 movie begins as Jack, a “recovering” alcoholic, interviews for the winter caretaking job at The Overlook, an enormous and isolated hotel in the Rockies. After offering it to him, the corporate manager, Stuart Ullman, tells him something “that’s been known to give a few people second thoughts” – in 1970 a Charles Grady, while holding the same job, had killed his wife and both daughters with an axe, then shot himself. The story doesn’t faze Jack. He accepts the position, taking his wife, Wendy, and his six-year-old son, Danny, to live alone there for five months. We soon find that bloodshed in The Overlook’s history goes back a bit further than 1970 – it had been built in 1907 on an Indian burial ground, and its builders had to repel attacks during its construction. Violence also plays a large role in Jack’s history. He had been abused by his father, had been fired from a teaching job for assaulting a student[2], and had injured his own son at least once, dislocating his shoulder.

    These histories of violent episodes, the private reflecting the public, are a striking illustration of the “logic of repetition” that seem to be the heart of the Zizek article that compares Hegel’s [3] dialectics with Deleuze’s [4] idea of pure difference. Briefly, Zizek defines Hegelian Dialectics: “Hegel conceives a radicalized difference as contradiction which, then, through its dialectical resolution, is again subsumed under identity.” And he defines Deleuze’s Pure Difference. As I discussed in my previous entry, it

    is not actual, it does not concern different actual properties of a thing or among things, its status is purely virtual, it is a difference which takes place at its purest precisely when nothing changes in actuality, when, in actuality, the SAME thing repeats itself.
    – Deleuze’s Platonism: Ideas as Real [5]

    Deleuze thus argues, according to Zizek, that “Hegel is unable to think pure difference which is outside the horizon of identity/contradiction,” as a “possibility which already qua possibility possesses its own reality.” However, Zizek speculates what Hegel’s counterargument would be: that pure difference is the necessary condition for identity itself. It is the maintenance of its properties throughout the changes around it, such as various lighting conditions (think Monet’s haystacks,) that make an entity’s identity. Thus,

    [P]ure difference is closer to antagonism than to the difference between two positive social groups one of which is to be annihilated. The universalism that sustains an antagonistic struggle is not exclusive of anyone, which is why the highest triumph of the antagonistic struggle is not the destruction of the enemy, but the explosion of the “universal brotherhood” in which agents of the opposite camp change sides and join us … It is in such explosion of enthusiastic all-encompassing brotherhood from which no one is in principle excluded, that the difference between “us” and “enemy” as positive agents is reduced to a PURE formal difference.[6]

    During the first month at the Overlook, while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds (including its famous hedge maze) Jack remains in the hotel lobby, ostensibly trying to outline a new writing project. He becomes increasingly feral, snarling obscenities at Wendy and banishing her from the lobby for talking to him while he is writing. After they are snowed in, she has to break this new rule when she hears him screaming from a nightmare in which he had cut her and Danny “up into little pieces.” As she tries to comfort him, Danny walks in with a stunned bearing, a torn collar and red finger marks around his neck. She screams at Jack “You bastard! How could you?!” Jack storms into the bar in The Gold Room and moans that he’d sell his soul for a glass of beer. Suddenly, he smiles and addresses “Lloyd,” a spectral bartender. Jack complains about his “white man’s burden” and drinks bourbon on the rocks. First denying that he would “touch one hair on his goddamn little head,” Jack soon admits that he had hurt Danny once, but immediately adding that “it was an accident…It could have happened to anybody” and fuming that “it was three goddamn years ago.” The role that this kind of deflection of responsibility for violence plays in its continuation leads us to the next point of Zizek’s article:

    It is because of this “minimalist” – purely formal and insubstantial – status of the Real [we touch it when we subtract from a symbolic field all the wealth of its differences, reducing it to a minimum of antagonism] that, for Lacan, repetition precedes repression – or, as Deleuze put it succinctly: “We do not repeat because we repress, we repress because we repeat.” (DR-105) It is not that, first, we repress some traumatic content, and then, since we are unable to remember it and thus to clarify our relationship to it, this content continues to haunt us, repeating itself in disguised forms. If the Real is a minimal difference, then repetition (that establishes this difference) is primordial; the primacy of repression emerges with the “reification” of the Real into a Thing that resists symbolization – only then, it appears that the excluded/repressed Real insists and repeats itself. The Real is primordially nothing but the gap that separates a thing from itself, the gap of repetition…[7]

    Wendy runs in, crying that Danny has told her that a crazy woman[8] in one of the rooms had tried to strangle him. After asking if she’s out of her “fủcking mind,” Jack gets the room number. We watch from his point of view as he enters room 237 to investigate. In the bathtub, we see movement behind the shower curtain, then Jack’s fearful face. A hand pulls the curtain back, revealing a beautiful woman. His expression gradually relaxes to a smile. She slinks toward him and they embrace. He opens his eyes, and starts as he catches sight of both of them in the mirror. We see that he has been holding an old woman’s partially-decayed corpse. He staggers backwards. She laughs, coming toward him with arms outstretched. He backs out of the room and locks the door. This scene can help us remember Zizek’s (per Deleuze and Lacan’s) use of the terms, “the Idea” and “virtual,” as well as help clarify the distinction between “the Real” and “reality” with his example of

    the old Catholic strategy to guard men against the temptation of the flesh: when you see in front of you a voluptuous feminine body, imagine how it will look in a couple of decades …or what lurks … beneath the skin…[I]n the opposition between the spectral appearance of the sexualized body and the repulsive body in decay, it is the spectral appearance which is the Real, and the decaying body which is reality – we take recourse to the decaying body in order to avoid the deadly fascination of the Real which threatens to draw us into its vortex of jouissance.

    A “raw” Platonism would have claimed here that only the beautiful body fully materializes the Idea, and that a body in its material decay simply falls of from its Idea, is no longer its faithful copy. From a Deleuzian (and, here, Lacanian) view, on the contrary, the specter that attracts us is the Idea of the body as Real. This body is not the body in reality, but the virtual body in Deleuze’s sense of the term: the incorporeal/immaterial body of pure intensities.[9]

    Jack returns to his family’s rooms and tells Wendy that he saw nothing. When she asks what could have caused Danny’s bruises, he claims that Danny must have made them himself. She points out that, however he had gotten the bruises, they have to get Danny out of the hotel. Jack flies into a rage, saying that if he continued to let her “fủck up [his] life” he’d end up working at a car wash or shoveling driveways. He storms out, heading toward The Gold Room. When he gets there, he sees it as it would have looked in the 1920’s and filled with what Ullman had called “all the best people” who treat him as someone important. A waiter spills a drink on him and brings him into the gentlemen’s room to clean his jacket before it stains. Finding that his name is Delbert Grady, Jack recognizes him as the caretaker who had chopped up his wife and daughter. Puzzled, Grady says he has no recollection of doing so, and, saying the words at the beginning of this entry, informs Jack that his “son is attempting to bring an outside party into this situation” through his “great talent” (the shining[10].) Grady suggests that Jack do his duty as to his family – as he had done as to his own – i.e., “correct” them.

    This would probably be a good place to bring up that Grady and his family, like many facets of the movie, are treated inconsistently. Ullman had told the story of Charles Grady who, in the 1970’s had killed his daughters, aged about 8 and 10. Danny sees visions of the murdered 1920’s daughters of Delbert Grady as twins. These differences, as this Kubrick Corner article [11] points out, add to the spectral quality of the Overlook. We can use them to keep in mind the distinction Zizek makes here about the actual and the virtual:

    To put it directly: changes which concern only the actual aspect of things are only changes within the existing frame, not the emergences of something really New – New only emerges when the virtual support of the Actual changes, and this change occurs precisely in the guise of a repetition in which a thing remains the same in its actuality. In other words, things really change not when A transforms itself into B, but when, while A remains exactly the same with regard to its actual properties, it imperceptibly “totally changes”…[12]

    Later Wendy goes to the lobby, carrying a baseball bat, to tell Jack that she and Danny will leave the hotel in the snowcat, with or without him. She comes upon the “manuscript,” that he had been typing for over a month, which consists of a thick stack of pages, all of which are covered with the same sentence – “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” As she desperately flips through the document, Jack seems to step out of a picture in the wall behind her, asking if she likes his story. As he follows her retreat upstairs, threatening to bash her brains in, she manages to hit him with the bat, knocking him downstairs. She pulls his semi-conscious body into a food storage room and locks the door. As he rouses, he yells for her to let him out. When she says she and Danny are leaving he laughs maniacally – he had sabotaged the snowcat. He taunts her (“Go Check it Out!”) and later escapes, killing the would-be rescuer/outside party with an axe and chasing Danny. Danny runs outside into the maze (which he and Wendy had, unlike his father, checked out,) and retraces his own footsteps in the snow. He falls to his knees and backs out through a side opening, brushing the marks away with his hands. Thus, retracing his steps allows him to escape his father – and his father’s fate. Recalling this scene can help us picture the idea that,

    The way to get rid of a past trauma is not to rememorize it, but to fully REPEAT it in the Kierkegaardian sense…

    [P]erhaps … the most succinct definition of what an authentic ACT is: in our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) coordinates of our identity, while an act proper is the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual “transcendental” coordinates of its agent’s being – or, in Freudian terms, which does not only change the actuality of our world, but also “moves its underground”. We have thus a kind of reflexive “folding back of the condition onto the given it was the condition for” (JW-109): while the pure past is the transcendental condition for our acts, our acts do not only create new actual reality, they also retroactively change this very condition.[13]

    In contrast, Jack cannot escape the labyrinth, even with an axe in his hands. The last time we see him alive he is wailing something incoherent, which the subtitles reveal as “San Francisco here I come/right back where I started from.” – A reference both to the cycle in which he is trapped and the horror of the Donner Party that Wendy, he and Danny had discussed on their drive to the Overlook. In the end, we see him frozen both literally, inside the maze, and figuratively, in a photograph which had been taken in 1921.

    These shots of one character being frozen in an eternal pattern while another escapes can symbolize Zizek’s point that, ironically, Deleuze’s logic about pure difference, which he thought contradicted Hegel,

    …is at the very core of the Hegelian dialectics: it relies on the properly dialectical relationship between temporal reality and the eternal Absolute. The eternal Absolute is the immobile point of reference around which temporal figurations circulate, their presupposition; however, precisely as such, it is posited by these temporal figurations, since it does not pre-exist them: it emerges in the gap between the first and the second one…[14]

    So, by becoming aware of our background we can change our own fate as long as we, like Wendy and Danny, “go check it out!”

    It being Memorial Day weekend, here’s [15] an example of some background we might want to check out – despite the efforts of the powers that be.

    1. Slavoj Žižek. “Deleuze’s Platonism: Ideas as Real.” in: 1997/2007.
    2. My first two examples of Jack’s violent background are from the book the movie is based on; although novel and film are very different, these episodes fit well with what is shown in Kubrick’s version.
    3. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.” in: Wikipedia. June 12, 2013.
    4. “Gilles Deleuze.” in: Wikipedia. June 10, 2013.
    5-7. Žižek. “Deleuze’s Platonism…
    8. Jason François, Peter Gaham, and “Imperfect Symmetries.” in: The Kubrick Corner, Part 11. The article analyzes the meanings of the “crazy woman,” “shining”, the Grady family inconsistencies, and many other aspects of the film. (It could use a better fact-checker and editor, but it does offer some fascinating insights.)
    9. Žižek. “Deleuze’s Platonism…
    10-11. François, Gaham, and Tieman64. “Imperfect Symmetries”…
    12-14. Žižek. “Deleuze’s Platonism…
    15. Amy Goodman. “Another Memorial Day in This Endless War.” In: Common Dreams. May 24, 2013.


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