Kim Glore, #0136546
Freud and the Literary Imagination: Autumn 04
Sexual Frustration and Its Consequences in Alfred Hitchcockıs Rope
On May 21, 1924, two highly intelligent university scholars from Chicago, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, executed their highly-calculated plan for the cold-blooded murder of a distant relative of Loebıs, 14-year old Bobby Franks. As students of Nietzscheıs philosophy, Loeb and Leopold had set out to commit the ³perfect murder² in order to actualize the belief that they were of an elite group, superior to the common man, to whom the standard moral code did not apply. So infamous is the story of their murder and eventual detainment that it has become entrenched in American popular culture, with numerous books and films aspiring to recreate it in vivid detail. Amongst these, Alfred Hitchcockıs Rope (1948) stands out as an exemplary achievement both in its cinematic technique as well as its carefully executed plot, which exposes the psychological decomposition of the two murderers as their deed is gradually discovered. However, the aspect of the real case that is not explicitly addressed in the film as a result of the censorship codes at the time, but one of the primary reasons that Hitchcock was initially attracted to the project, is the homosexuality of the two young men, a factor which becomes pivotal to a Freudian interpretation of the film. It is the shifting and complicated dynamic between their aggression and, more fundamentally, their frustrated homosexual desires which explains the depravity of their actions.
Strewn throughout Rope are many indications that underlying the ostensible story of a murder are unfulfilled homosexual desires of such an intensity that the dialogue and actions of Brandon and Phillip, the names of the two murderers in the film, unintentionally reflect their unconscious demands for sexual satisfaction. To begin with, the most evident symbol of their frustrated sexuality is the phallic image of the murder weapon itself, the rope. In fact, the real murder, on which the film is based, was carried out by bludgeoning the victim, which suggests that the homosexuality of the men was of enough significance in Hitchcockıs mind to warrant a more suggestive alternative. The flaccid structure of a rope is quite obviously an association to the sexual impotence they experience as a consequence of societyıs disapproval of what it designates as ³perverse² erotic expressions. When the boysı housekeeper returns from her shopping, Phillip fears that she will discover what has transpired, and the young men exchange particularly telling words which exemplify this idea even further:
P: I was sure sheıd notice it.
B. Notice what?
P: The rope of course. Brandon, weıve got to hide it.
B: Itıs only a piece of Rope, Phillip, an ordinary household article, why hide it? It belongs in the kitchen drawer.
In other words, Phillip is unintentionally giving voice to societyıs denunciation of homosexuality and, consequently, to his fear of exposure and the shame it would bring upon him. In terms of this discussion, however, the aspect of the film which carries the strongest Freudian implication is the very fact that the rope, a phallic symbol of sexual frustration, is the actual weapon chosen to commit murder, one of the most violent and explosive acts of aggression. One can conclude from this that, with any attempt to understand Brandon and Phillipsı behavior in a Freudian context, the link between the erotic and the aggressive impulse is an important consideration.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud delineates the various reasons for which the individual, with his egoistic instincts and desires, can never truly be satiated, either as an autonomous individual operating amongst other individuals, or as a member of a community in which individuality is restricted for the greater good of the whole. In the case of Rope, the conflict that arises is easily discernible: In a society hostile to sexual expressions other than those between a male and female, which was certainly the case in the 1940ıs when the film was produced, these two individuals with their unique instinctual demands must face even further difficulties in satisfying both their own desires as well as the requirements of society. Freud, in acknowledging this difference, explains:
As regards the sexually mature individual, the choice of an object is restricted to the opposite sex, and most extra-genital satisfactions are forbidden as perversions. The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes a source of serious injustice. (746)
This injustice results from the fact that sexual gratification, according to Freud, is the prototype for all forms of happiness, and the denial of that avenue must necessarily throw the mental processes of the individual out of balance, or, as Freud might say, disturb the economics of the libido. Thus it is important to keep in mind while analyzing their actions that Brandon and Phillip are, from the beginning, handicapped by the instability of their psychical constitution in this respect.
However, since the young men are not able to indulge their sexual instincts, they must go beyond this primal gratification and look for other means by which they can appease their agitated unconscious. Freud addresses this in a revision of his initial theory of the pleasure principle, which he expands to incorporate not only the positive source of pleasure, the satisfaction of instinctual drives, but also the negative pleasure principle, which he describes as the process of avoiding displeasure or suffering. Since human beings are affronted with three inherent forms of suffering, namely the body, forces of nature, and human relations, the individual must resort to several mechanisms by which the psyche can evade the pain and anxiety that these inevitably create. The first of these measures, deflection, is one that both characters in Rope utilize in order to harness their instinctual demands, which have become even more persistent and unruly since they have met with external frustrations. In the process of deflection, the libidinal forces are diverted into other channels, such as intellectual work or artistic creation, which are not impeded by reality. Brandonıs pursuit of higher education, in addition to his preoccupation with philosophy, could both be placed in this category. Perhaps his fervor in these areas is a sublimated manifestation of the energy and intensity with which his stifled libido attempts to resist the sexual renunciation imposed upon it. The same could be said of Philipıs dedication to piano playing. As Brandon explains in the beginning of the film, ³Iıve always wished for more artistic talent. Well, murder can be an art too.² In other words, both Brandon and Phillip participate in the ultimate artistic deflection, the all-consuming task of planning and executing the careful murder of their classmate David, an act which Freud might deem as an unfortunate consequence of the sexual suppression of society.
The second measure that the young men employ in order to alleviate the tension between their instinctual desires and the confines of reality which impede the satisfaction of these is a mechanism frequently exploited by society, wherein a person participates in some form of an illusion. Examples given by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents include viewing or experiencing artistic forms, indulging in any kind of fantasy, and the practice of religion, which Freud believes is the ultimate illusion of mankind. Although this substitutive form of instinctual fulfillment is salutary for most individuals, in some cases this illusion can be taken to an extreme and become the source of a neurosis, as would certainly be the case with Brandon, the partner who almost entirely responsible for instigating their plan and its implementation. When reality is not amenable to the demands of the instincts, an individual may attempt to refashion a new reality which is more suited to their purposes. Regarding this desperate move, Freud explains,
one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with oneıs own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. (732)
Here Freud introduces the concept of a delusion, a term which perfectly encapsulates the philosophy and motivation behind the murder that Brandon and Phillip commit. As a result of the sanctions on sexual expression in their society, their frustrated instinctual drives found the promise of deliverance in a belief that they were members of a superior society in which their sexuality could be freely indulged. Hence when Brandon proclaims himself to be one of ³those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts,² he is under the influence of a delusion in which his importunate sexual energy, what Freud might call the latent content of his fantasy, suffers no limitations or deferrals.
Given these discoveries, what then is the specific relationship between the homosexuality of the young men and the seemingly unconnected brutality they exhibit by committing this murder? To answer this, we must first introduce an essential component of Freudıs developments in Civilization that we have not yet discussed but which will become important later in the analysis of our two characters. This concept is the aggression instinct, an inherent element of the human mind which Freud suggests forms the alternate side of the unconsciousı bilaterally-orientated drives. By identifying the inclination to aggression as an often-overlooked portion of human nature operating alongside the overbearing erotic instinct, Freud reluctantly concedes that the human psyche, along with civilization in general, is cursed from the beginning with the possession of an innate conflict between the opposing forces of love and death. We see this idea resonate in Brandonıs exclamation that, ³The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.² As a consequence of this breakthrough, Freud posits,
Now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. (756)
What is to be gained from this picture is that within the economics of the psyche, in order for the ego to satisfy the twofold demands of the unconscious and also appease the external necessities of civilization, there must be a structured system in place in which a sense of balance can be maintained, both amongst the components of the psyche as well as in the relationship between the individual and the society to which he or she belongs. By including the aggression instinct into the analysis, we arrive at an even more translucent picture that will eventually help to explain the conflicts and motivations that underlie the boysı actions.
As long as the ego can sustain its delicate balancing act, a person should bear every semblance of normalcy, assuming the instinctual drives that society suppresses are redirected into the appropriate channels or substitutions. Judging from the vicious and unreasonable behavior that Brandon and Phillip display, one can only conclude that this crucial equilibrium has been in some way perverted or contaminated. While the young men are able to gratify their erotic desires by way of diversion or deflection, the pacification of the instinct of aggression is a far more complicated matter. In part, it is the psycheıs attempt to do this, Freud asserts, which leads to the development of the superego, the third piece of the triangular psyche to which the sense of guilt is attributable. He explains that ³in the beginning conscience arises through the suppression of an aggressive impulse, and it is subsequently reinforced by fresh suppressions of the same kind² (761). Because society prohibits most forms of outward aggression, this drive is internalized in the psyche, where it annexes a special portion of the ego, now called the superego, for the purpose of releasing its aggression on the remaining part and thus satisfying the individualıs violent instincts. This aggression, which is translated as guilt, occurs when a negative impulse has either been committed in action or indulged in thought. It is at this juncture when Brandon and Phillipıs dysfunctional or unbalanced mental operations become readily apparent. While they may be capable of quieting their homosexual desires, their unsatisfied aggressive instincts are unleashed by the superego who berates the ego for even thinking of committing a ³sexual perversion.² However, the way in which their psyches have controlled their aggressive drives has not created a balance but has instead provoked even further agitation, thus creating a volatile atmosphere in which a murderous impulse could very well (and does) ignite.
Given the strong vituperations the young men suffer at the hands of their superegos on account of their homosexual thoughts, the almost complete lack of guilt that they evince after committing the murder is quite remarkable. In fact, this is probably the most disturbing aspect of the film for the viewer, who cannot but feel a sense of alienation from these cold-blooded killers who seem quite calm and incapable of guilt. This absence of emotion can be explained if we once again apply the Freudian notion of the economics of the psyche. In Civilization, Freud proposes that a virtuous man, or one who actively disciplines and suppresses his instinctual drives, actually suffers more abuse from his conscience than a man who occasionally yields to his desires. Even a man who has no pretences to saintliness but simply cannot find a release for his libidinal drives experiences a similar result. Freud explains,
As long as things go well with a man, his conscience is lenient and lets the ego do all sorts of things; but when misfortune befalls him, he searches his soul, acknowledges his sinfulness, heightens the demands of his conscience, imposes abstinences on himself and punishes himself with penances. (758)
In other words, when compared to someone who is able to find outlets for his instinctual drives, a man who encounters an external frustration, or what Freud terms here as ill luck,ı experiences heightened criticism and even further demands due to the mounting aggression of his superego. Taking this into consideration, one could postulate that because Brandon and Phillip had been experiencing a sexual frustration in which their erotic drives could not find external satisfaction, the potency of their superegos had expanded and thus were continually releasing this aggression onto their battered egos by way of guilt for their deviant sexual thoughts. However, in murdering their classmate and thus expending that aggressive energy externally, their superegos were divested of their power and, in consequence, were effectively silenced. Nevertheless, it is the eventual revival of this aggressive instinct and the superegoıs successful wielding of it which, at least in Phillipıs case, hastens the emergence of guilt, thus ultimately unhinging their composure and exposing their deed.
As Hitchcock concluded when he reviewed the story of Leopold and Loeb, the homosexuality of the young men provides a complexity and intrigue not to be found in an ordinary case of cold-blooded murder. Apparently, the Chicago Tribute at the time of the trial felt likewise and offered Freud $25,000 to come to Chicago and analyze the accused men, but for reasons of health, he was obliged to decline. Had the offer been accepted, however, Freud would undoubtedly have conceded that the co-existence of the boysı ³abnormal² sexuality and their explosive act of aggression was not coincidental. In fact, it is the balance between the libidinal forces of the individual and the requirements of society, as represented through the superego, which constitutes a state of normalcy and is precisely what the boys were not able to produce. As Freud prophecies, ³It is not easy to understand how it can become possible to deprive an instinct of satisfaction. Nor is doing so without danger. If the loss is not compensated for economically, one can be certain that serious disorders will ensue² (742). Because society prevented them from gratifying their erotic instincts, the boys had to find other means of maintaining their psychic equilibrium, which, in their case, brought with it only deadly results.
Freud, Sigmund. "Civilizations and Its Discontents." The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.
Linder, Douglas O. ³The Leopold and Loeb Trial: A Brief Account.² Famous American Trials.
1997. November 2, 2004. <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/Accountoftrial.html>
Rope. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perfs. James Stewart, Rupert Cadell, John Dall. Videocassette.
Warner Brothers & Transatlantic Pictures, 1948.