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The cartoonish imagination

Of reefer, castration and Abu Ghraib



Soon after I began my freshman year at William and Mary, my new friend Larry -- "a very bad influence," my mother would later call him -- came to my dorm room with a bag of marijuana. It was the gift of another new friend, Kate, who was sleeping with a veteran who had returned from Vietnam with a footlocker literally packed with the stuff.

I had never smoked reefer before, but debauching myself in every way possible was my top priority in going to college. Within a few months, my room looked like it was designed for Grace Slick. Black lights. Peter Max posters. Strobe lights. A tiny refrigerator packed with junk food to kill the 2 a.m. munchies.

My initial encounter with pot was not the usual. Larry, who was a sophomore, warned me that a lot of people had very little response to it their first time. Not me. The shit blew my brain wide open. I'm talking hallucinations and out-of-control behavior. I stripped off my clothes, took my guitar (yes, I played guitar badly then) and climbed onto the roof of the dormitory to become Jim Morrison, performing "Light My Fire."

But that wasn't the strangest part. Earlier, when the stuff hit me, I was looking at Carl Jung's book, Man and His Symbols, a layman's guide to symbolism that he finished only a few days before his death. I'd checked it out of the library because its strange illustrations appealed to me.

But as I looked at the large book's pages, it became another book -- a comic book of my young life. Years later, I understood that what I saw depicted in the most detailed but cartoonish manner was my own Oedipus Complex. Each frame of the comic book was a castration scene with my mother in the background looking sad. I know this seems ridiculous. I had never even heard of Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex and its drama of imagined castration by the father if the son doesn't withdraw his libido from the mother. But I can still see some of the scenes clearly -- absurd depictions like my penis being stretched by a sideshow strongman who then pounded it with a mallet. I won't bother to amuse you with more.

Although I fairly quickly distracted myself from this horrific and mysterious hallucination, its memory is indelible. Apart from the fact that when I actually studied Freud, his Oedipal theory seemed plausible because of the experience, I learned something important then about the psyche and its imaging in fantasy, dream, reverie and hallucination. Things often get expressed in cartoonish images, even when something terrible is being described. I've seen this repeatedly with clients.

This came to mind when I recently saw Colombian artist Fernando Botero's paintings of the torture at Abu Ghraib. (They were featured on Botero is famous for figural painting in which everyone is plump and cartoonish -- not the look one would expect in a rendering of Abu Ghraib's horrific scenes. But, as writer Mia Fineman says in her Slate essay, the cartoonish look "neutralizes the otherness" of the well-known photographs of torture in the infamous prison. In other words, we more readily identify with the victims in the paintings because the cartoonish style subtracts personal identity. There is no way Rush Limbaugh could look at these paintings and call them a frat-house prank.

If you visit the Prado in Madrid, you will notice the same effect in Goya's series of prints called "The Disasters of War," and another called "Caprichos." Both depict the degradation of humanity in stark terms but also have a cartoonish quality, as for that matter, so does Picasso's "Guernica."

Similarly, the repressed in our individual lives tends to get imaged in cartoonish style so that we can look at it without immediately disassociating. One of my clients years ago, a blocked artist, sculpted a series of masks that became increasingly cartoonish as we talked about her block. The first masks were incredibly detailed. But the final one, sculpted in less than an hour, reflected cartoonish but corpse-like tragedy. It was a record of her memory of her mother's face when she came home from school to find both parents murdered. The logic of her block became quickly evident after this image appeared.

I don't recommend adopting Reefer Madness as a lifestyle, but the failure of our culture, particularly public education, to support art and the imagination is surely one reason we cannot see ourselves with the clarity with which other nations see us. It is also, undoubtedly, another reason drugs have become epidemic. They open the imagination when we can't do it ourselves.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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