Freud, Ghostbusters, and the Past

Many viewers of the original Ghostbusters film (1984) have been quick to spot an element of homoerotic anxiety behind Egon’s admonition not to cross the streams of their protonic weapons (“Don’t cross the streams… It would be bad”), and various internet memes to that effect have circulated in recent years. Indeed, the climactic scene towards the end of the film when, in a desperate ruse to save New York and civilization itself, the four (male) ghostbusters bring together their streams while aiming at a transdimensional door that — as Egon puts it — “swings both ways” seems to confirm this impression, which is then further emphasized by the discharge of white viscous matter from the roof of the building, following the success of the quartet’s collaborative effort.

When an undercurrent of concerns about sex is as close to the surface as it is in this film, it may seem as if Freud’s theories about unconscious sexual drives could hardly do anything beyond restating the obvious. Nevertheless, if I resort to Freud in what follows is, first of all, to consider the rich historical — perhaps, prehistorical — echoes of some of these drives and their prohibitions, and also to highlight the spectacular way in which the plot of Ghostbusters proceeds from confirming to then subverting Freud.

Civilization and its Primeval Pleasures

In a footnote on the third chapter of Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud formulates a conjecture about the human conquest over fire which, even based as he claimed it to be on his long clinical experience, he deemed as too fantastical for the main body of the text (a casual reader may skim over this footnote, but viewers of Ghostbusters will be better placed to appreciate its significance): Prehistoric man was able to domesticate fire, and hence achieve a major step towards civilization, only once he had learned to renounce the sexual pleasure “of putting it out with a stream of his urine.” For Freud, primeval man (“man” used here in the specific gendered sense of “male human”) used to regard “tongues of flame as they shoot upward” as phallic manifestations, and would urinate on them as if engaging in “a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition” — a crossing of the streams, in non-Freudian terms. Freud even referrenced a few scenes in classic literature that, in his view, confirmed the survival of that desire in our fantasy life (as in the illustration from Gulliver’s Travels below).

One exceptional reader of Freud who understood the implications of this footnote was the literary theorist Leo Bersani. Taking the formulation that primeval men had to give up the pleasure of recklessly crossing streams as being more essential to Freud’s central argument (that “the price we pay for our civilization is a loss of happiness”) than even Freud’s modesty would admit, Bersani inferred that

the precondition of civilization would have been not exactly the renunciation of homosexuality, but rather the renunciation of something like “a sexual act with a male,” a form of symbolic homosexuality in which a competitive phallic power was experienced as sexual pleasure (The Freudian Body, 1986).

With these notions in mind, the plot of Ghostbusters seems to start by confirming Freud: the impulse to cross the streams must be avoided for fear that “all life as you know it” may stop instantaneously — civilization, as we know it, depends on not relenting to this impulse. But the turn of events towards the end poses a direct and fantastic challenge to the Freud of Civilization and its Discontents. Against the theory that civilization demands the repression of instinctual satisfactions for the good of society and its very survival, the ending of Ghostbusters proposes that if you are a man and you find yourself in the roof or penthouse of a high-rise building in central New York, in the company of other men, confronting ancient spirits from Mesopotamia (the Middle-Eastern region where civilization had one of its first dawns), then there’s still “definitely a very slim chance” that the choice to yield to the primitive, irrational and unconscious desire to cross the streams may just even provide civilization itself with another chance to go on. In some ways, it is rather a brilliant Hollywood variation on the idea of the carnivalesque — indulgence precedes renewal and salvation.

Gulliver - Louis-Henri Brévière (1797-1869)

Image: Gulliver, putting out the fire in the empress’s apartments. Louis-Henri Brévière (1797-1869)

A word of caution

And yet, while the submission of ghosts from an ancient past (embodied in the ostensibly Sumerian, female-like Gozer) under the force of pre-civilized male pleasure was acceptable in a Hollywood film in 1984, and while the 2016 reboot effectively moved away from the crude sexism of the original, the viewer, once awake from cinematic dreams, must still be cautioned about the dangers of adopting a kind of technocratic, Ghostbusters-like posture towards the world. For irrespective of whatever ghosts may or may not be in a rational, technical sense, in the experience of anyone who has been haunted by them in the shape of dreams, memories or apparitions they will remain as traces from a past which cannot, and sometimes must not, be left behind.

But the paradox is that the forward-looking, technocratic attitude that finds no time to look back to the past has, nonetheless, plenty of time to indulge in the primeval, irresistible urge to turn around and piss all over it.

 

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