An Amateur Attempt at Psychoanalyzing Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’

Maya Deren had stated in section 3B of The Anagram that her film, Meshes of the Afternoon should not be psychoanalyzed. But as mentioned in Inception, when one is told not to think about elephants, that’s exactly what one does. This paper is an amateur attempt to take certain psychoanalytic concepts and apply them to the film.

The film, in texture, is trance like, its fabric spiraling in structure. The protagonist, played by Maya Deren herself, goes through the process of picking up a flower dropped by a disembodied god-like hand, goes running after a nun like figure clad in black, gives up and goes to her house four times over. Each time she enters the mundane domestic space of her house and sees it unkempt. But unlike a replay, here a montage of reality is made, with the four women- same but different- not only existing in the house at the same time but also interacting with each other.
This rose she picks up is a symbol, as are the key, the telephone and the knife. All versions of the woman observe these objects. Their repeated shots elevate the importance of these objects. But what if the objects are imagined, are fantasy objects? Possibly, these are objects that, quite the opposite of the totem of inception, are the reason for the trance like state to occur and build up. According to Zizek, when a Fantasy Object, something imagined, an object from inner space, enters our ordinary realty, the texture of reality is twisted, distorted. This is how desire inscribes itself into reality, by distorting it. ” Desire is a wound of reality. The art of cinema consists in arousing desire, to play with desire. ”
But what would this desire be? Both the key and the rose turned into the knife. The knife represents violence. The woman uses this knife to stab the face of the husband that then shatters as glass. And she also ends up dead on the couch. Earlier on, when in a circle, the forth version of of the woman picks up the key, it turns to the knife and her hand to the colour black. This suggests that she is guilty. Guilty of killing the woman on the couch? Guilty of killing herself?
“The mind has a tendency [called the Repetition Compulsion] to repeat traumatic events in order to deal with them. This can take the form of dreams, storytelling or even hallucinations .” This would explain the surreal elements of the film.
Repetition Compulsion is closely related to the Death Drive – “The bodily instinct to return to the state of quiescence that preceded our birth .” Trauma patients tend to repeat or re-enact traumatic experiences. Freud made note of this while working with trauma patient soldiers from the World War One. This film was made in 1943, two years before World War Two ended. It is not hard to believe that Deren had contextual inspiration.
Moreover Slavoj Zizek describes the death drive to be“..[death drive] is the very opposite of dying – a name for the ‘undead’ eternal life itself, for the horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain .”
Another symbol that manifests in the film is that of the mirror. The mirror makes up the face of the nun-like-figure clad in black. This in itself is bizarre but what is more so is when one realizes that if one gazes in to the face of this nun, one would see themself. This is bizarre because, it is in the context of a film which deals with many versions, replicas of the woman Deren. She never sees herself in that mirrored face, but if she did, she would see herself. This would have been a second way of portraying multiple selves. But the absence of this brings to question another psychoanalytic term -The Mirror Stage. This stage occurs in the life of a child between 6-18 months of age when the child starts to identify with his mirror image. “For Lacan, this act marks the primordial recognition of one’s self as “I.” That fantasy image of oneself can be filled in by others who we may want to emulate in our adult lives (role models, et cetera), anyone that we set up as a mirror for ourselves. The mirror stage establishes what Lacan terms the “imaginary order” and, through the imaginary, continues to assert its influence on the subject .”
Applying this concept to the film, one is faced with two questions. One, has the woman crossed the mirror stage? Can she comprehend that the women around her are versions herself? This could explain why there is an absence of surprise in the sequence. And two, is the nun clad in black ‘set up as a mirror’ of who the woman wants to emulate? The woman chasing after the nun can symbolically represent her wanting to become the nun, see her image – if she can recognize it –on that body. The woman giving up her chase and entering the house could be her failure in leading the chaste life, and instead having to settle for the role of the domesticated wife. The nun does enter the house in the third sequel. The woman tries to climb up the stairs but, reality has been distorted to such an extent that the spacial forces wouldn’t let her. The nun places a flower on the bed, an omen for a death bed. Once the nun looks up to see the woman trying to get to her, the nun just simply vanishes.
The next concept the essay discusses is of The Gaze. “The Gaze in Lacan refers to the uncanny sense that the object of our eye’s look or glance is somehow looking back at us. ” In the first part of the film the viewers are given close ups of different parts of the woman –her hand, her eyes, her shadow. One needs to actively piece the parts together. On entering the house, we observe it from first perspective the way the woman’s gaze goes. But by the second sequence, it was the house that was gazing back at the woman.
Finally, Slavoj Zizek has said that a dream only ceases to be real once you wake up. But in this film, we see a continuation of the surreal even after the woman wakes up. In a way, there are two endings to the film. One in which she wakes up, goes to the bedroom with her husband who starts to feel her up, and –pursed lips –she takes the knife and shatters his face like a mirror, pieces of which end up on a limbo like beach. The other in which the husband walks in to see her dead –telephone wires, knife and shattered glass.


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