Down the Rabbit Hole

“It’s just a word, Ophelia.”

  • Carmen, telling her daughter to call her sociopathic stepfather “father” in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [1]
  • I found a Zizek essay [2] that intersects with the movie quoted above (a favorite of mine) in several interesting ways. The article delves further into the foundations of and connections between the three Lacanian “orders,” or “registers[3] – real, imaginary, and symbolic – orders which have been crucial to numerous posts on this blog.

    The film moves between the narratives of fascist Spain during World War II and of a dark fairy tale about a princess who had escaped her father’s subterranean realm. The princess died when exposed to the outside world, but her father knew she would return, as a voice tells us, “perhaps in another body, at another place, at another time.” We then meet a girl, Ophelia, reading fairy tales as she and Carmen, her very pregnant mother, ride to meet Captain Vidal, referred to in the quote at the beginning of this entry. We cut to him consulting a cracked watch, grumbling to himself that they are fifteen minutes late. We later find that the watch has enormous importance in Vidal’s symbolic order, and his addressing an invisible Other after consulting it fits well with an early question in Zizek’s article:

    How is it that, when individuals exchange symbols, they do not simply interact with each other, but always also refer to the virtual big Other? When I talk about other people's opinions, it is never only a matter of what me, you, or other individuals think, but also a matter of what the impersonal "one" thinks. When I violate a certain rule of decency, I never simply do something that the majority of others do not do – I do what "one" doesn't do. [4]

    Vidal again reveals his obsession with protocol when Ophelia tries to use her left hand to shake his. This particularity shows such gestures as following rules analogous to those of language. Zizek groups these rules into four types:

    When we speak (or listen, for that matter), we never merely interact with others; our speech activity is grounded on our accepting of and relying on a complex network of rules and other kinds of presuppositions. First, there are the grammatical rules I have to master blindly and spontaneously: if I were to bear in mind all the time these rules, my speech would come to a halt. Then there is the background of participating in the same life-world which enables me and my partner in conversation to understand each other. The rules that I follow are marked by a deep split: there are rules (and meanings) that I follow blindly, out of custom, but of which, upon reflection, I can become at least partially aware (such as common grammatical rules), and there are rules that I follow, meanings that haunt me, unbeknownst to me (such as unconscious prohibitions). Then there are rules and meanings I am aware of, but have to act on the outside as if I am not aware of them – dirty or obscene innuendos which one passes over in silence in order to maintain the proper appearances. [5]

    When Ophelia and her mother settle in for the night, Carmen tells Ophelia that her brother is acting up and asks her to tell him a story to calm him down. Ophelia tells a tale of a magic rose on a mountaintop that could give whomever plucked it immortality –a rose, however, whose thorns were full of poison. People “fear pain more than they want immortality,” so the rose remained “unable to bequeath his gift to anyone, alone and forgotten at the top of that mountain … until the end of time.” We’ll use this story as a foil to Homer’s story of the “Gifts of Danaoi,” a story with which Zizek says Lacan gives

    an account of the genesis of the big Other. “Danaoi” is the term used by Homer to designate the Greeks who were laying siege to Troy; their gift was the famous wooden horse which, after it was received by the Trojans, allowed the Greeks to penetrate and destroy Troy. For Lacan, language is such a dangerous gift: it offers itself to our use free of charge, but once we accept it, it colonizes us. The symbolic order emerges from [such a] gift… [6]

    Later that night, a fairy guides Ophelia to a labyrinth, where a faun tells her that she is Princess Moanna, daughter of the King of the Underworld. He adds that she must fulfill three tasks before the full moon to show that her essence is intact. He gives her The Book of Crossroads which he says will show her what to do. She looks inside, but the pages are blank. Looking up, she sees that she is alone.

    In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the ground of their entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only insofar as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. [7]

    The next morning, Carmen gives Ophelia a dress (which looks like a dark green version of the one Alice wears in Lewis Carroll’s books) to wear to a dinner party the Captain is hosting that evening. Carmen expresses a concern that Ophelia be beautiful for him, a concern with appearances that Vidal shows in his own grooming rituals. Yet even the most seemingly carelessly chosen apparel carries a message:

    [U]tility functions as a reflective notion: it always involves the assertion of utility as meaning.… [for example, someone who wears stone-washed jeans signals] that he leads his life under the sign of a no-nonsense, down-to-earth attitude. [8]

    Before bathing, Ophelia opens The Book of Crossroads, in which illustrated instructions appear as she watches. If we take this book as part of Ophelia’s fantasy world, we can recall the words of J. Malcolm that Zizek quotes:

    By saving [an unsent] letter, we are in some sense ‘sending’ it after all. We are not relinquishing our idea or dismissing it as foolish or unworthy (as we do when we tear up a letter); on the contrary, we are giving it an extra vote of confidence. We are, in effect, saying that our idea is too precious to be entrusted to the gaze of the actual addressee, who may not grasp its worth, so we ‘send’ it to his equivalent in fantasy, on whom we can absolutely count for an understanding and appreciative reading. [9]

    Scenes of Ophelia’s first task alternate with scenes of the Captain’s search for rebels. His cruelty throughout the film (early on, he brutally kills an old man and his son for the “crime” of hunting rabbits and for breaches of etiquette when questioned) along with this juxtaposition of scenes show that his character is reflected in the giant, gluttonous toad which Ophelia has to confront in her task. So the Captain himself exemplifies the type of monster that Zizek defines in the article – a sociopath. Zizek defines this personality by his (or her) inability to understand the performative dimension of language:

    The notion of the social link established through empty gestures enables us to define in a precise way the figure of sociopath: what is beyond the sociopath’s grasp is the fact that “many human acts are performed … for the sake of the interaction itself.” [10]

    When Vidal returns he presides over an elegant dinner with various local authorities and their wives. Early on, he contradicts the mayor’s sympathetic remark that he knows he is not there by choice and has them all toast to “choice.”

    Belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of our choice, what is anyway imposed on us (we all must love our country or our parents). This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in any case necessary, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice although effectively there isn’t one, is strictly codependent with the notion of an empty symbolic gesture, a gesture – an offer – which is meant to be rejected. [11]

    Later, a Civil Guard Capitan tells of Vidal’s father having broken his watch at his death to show how a brave man dies. Vidal also denies this story – despite that he compulsively cleans and consults this watch throughout the film. (This dinner is essential in providing clues of repression and its role in propagating a cycle of abuse – clues to both Vidal’s repression of his own family history and that of the patriarchal regime which he upholds.) The essay discusses the relation between symptoms, such as this compulsion, and the big Other:

    According to Freud, when I develop a symptom, I produce a ciphered message about my innermost secrets, my unconscious desires and traumas. The symptom’s addressee is not another real human being: before an analyst deciphers my symptom, there is no one who can read its message. Who, then, is the symptom’s addressee? The only remaining candidate is the virtual big Other. This virtual character of the big Other means that the symbolic order is not a kind of spiritual substance existing independently of individuals, but something that is sustained by their continuous activity. [12]

    Ophelia, who had been sent to bed without dinner for ruining her dress, is given a new task – to use a key that she had obtained by killing the toad to retrieve an item in the lair of another monster, a hideous creature called “The Pale Man.” The faun gives her chalk to create a door to his home. When she enters, she observes the pictures on the wall of him eating children, and then looks down at a pile of children’s shoes on the floor. These images from del Toro’s semi-historical film evoke the following description of how Colin Powell prepared to address the UN assembly to advocate the 2003 attack on Iraq:

    [T]he US delegation asked the large reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica [13] on the wall behind the speaker’s podium to be covered with a different visual ornament. Although the official explanation was that Guernica does not provide the adequate optical background for the televised transmission of Powell’s speech, it was clear to everyone what the U.S. delegation was afraid of: … This is what Lacan means when he claims that repression and the return of the repressed are one and the same process: … the very change, the very gesture of concealing the painting, drew attention to it and imposed the wrong association, confirming its truth. [14]

    Ophelia opens one of three doors with her key and removes a knife, then, too hungry to resist, she disobeys the faun’s earlier instructions to eat nothing from the banquet in front of the Pale Man. The grotesque creature, who had until then been sitting motionless, awakens, eats two of the fairies that had been sent to assist her, and comes for her, chasing her down a long hallway, and she narrowly avoids their fate by creating a door that brings her back to her room. Various aspects of her task and its consequences echo the story of the rebels, in which Mercedes, a head-servant at the mill, gives them the key to Vidal’s storehouse. Although the rebels create a diversion, Vidal quickly sees through it. He notices that the warehouse lock has been opened, not blown off. His men trap some rebels in the woods and kill all of them except one. They bring him to the warehouse to interrogate him. The Captain shows him “a few tools” to help his captive “open up.” Vidal’s casual attitude toward torture matches the approach toward it as expressed by Dick Cheney during the Iraq war. In the essay, Zizek remarks upon this approach:

    The popular and seemingly convincing reply to those who worry about the recent US practice of torturing suspected terrorist prisoners is: “What’s all the fuss about? The US are now only openly admitting what not only they were doing all the time, but what other states are and were doing all the time – if anything, we have less hypocrisy now!” To this, one should retort with a simple counter-question: “If the high representatives of the US mean only this, why, then, are they telling us this? Why don’t they just silently go on doing it, as they did it till now?” So when we hear people like Dick Cheney making obscene statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask them: “If you just want to torture secretly some suspected terrorists, then why are you saying it publicly?” That is to say, the question to be raised [is]: what is there more in this statement that made the speaker tell it? [15]

    Ophelia’s mother dies giving birth to the son that the Captain has so badly wanted. Afterwards Vidal keeps his son very near him. He has found through his interrogation that there is an informant living in his household and suspects Mercedes. As she puts the child in a crib the Captain starts to question her, beginning by speculating, “You must think I’m a monster.” He asks her to bring him something from the storehouse, and remarks as she turns to go that he is the only one that has the key. He tells her to be careful. Mercedes tries to leave with Ophelia, but they are soon captured. The captain locks Ophelia in her room and starts interrogating Mercedes in the warehouse. However, Vidal underestimates Mercedes’ intelligence, strength and ruthlessness – she cuts him a Glasgow smile [16] with a knife she keeps in her apron and escapes. Ophelia likewise escapes her locked and guarded room [17], drugs her stepfather, and obtains her baby brother. She runs to the labyrinth, where the faun demands, as her last task, that she let him use the knife she got from the Pale Man to cut the newborn, saying that the gateway can only be opened by “the blood of an innocent.” She refuses, holding her brother tightly. Vidal, who has followed her, does not see the faun. He takes his son and shoots the girl. As he leaves, he is surrounded by a large group of rebels, Mercedes among them. Before he is shot he smashes the watch, asking them to tell his son about the time his father died. Mercedes answers, “No. He will not even know your name.” – creating the possibility of breaking the cycle, at least for Vidal’s family. The film ends with a vision of Ophelia as Princess Moanna entering her father’s kingdom and the voice saying that “she reigned with justice and a kind heart for many centuries … and, like most of us, she left behind small traces of her time on earth visible only to those that know where to look.” With these words, we can reflect on

    the old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheel-barrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but the guards could not find anything, it was always empty – till, finally, they got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This reflexive twist pertains to communication as such: one should not forget to include into the content of an act of communication this act itself, since the meaning of each act of communication is also to reflexively assert that it is an act of communication. This is the first thing to bear in mind about the way the unconscious operates: it is not hidden in the wheel-barrow, it is the wheel-barrow itself. [18]

    1. del Toro, Guillermo. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006.) in:
    2. Slavoj Žižek. “How to Read Lacan 2: Empty Gestures and Performatives: Lacan Confronts the CIA Plot” in: Undated (2004?).
    3. “CHRONOLOGY • Slavoj Zizek – Key Ideas.” in: 1997/2006.
    4-12. Zizek. “Empty Gestures and Performatives…”
    13. Guernica (Painting). in: Wikipedia. October 14, 2013.
    14 – 15. Zizek. “Empty Gestures and Performatives…”
    16. Glasgow Smile. in: Wikipedia. October 22, 2013.
    17. We see Ophelia using chalk that the faun had given her to create doorways, although when adults look they can only see chalk rectangles drawn on the walls. The movie leaves the question of how she got out of the room a mystery.
    18. Zizek. “Empty Gestures and Performatives…”


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