The analysis of "The Captain"

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
dementia praecox
Posts: 11
Joined: Mon Feb 23, 2004 2:34 pm
Location: Croatia

The analysis of "The Captain"

Postby dementia praecox » Tue Feb 24, 2004 2:38 pm

"The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends,
but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is "man" in a higher sense - he is "collective man," a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind." (1)

The development of an human being is a part of the process of living, of adapting ourselves to the world and making our mark in it. Unless there is some significant interference, we develop along the lines that are easiest to us, but we also like to "put our best foot foremost". This means we usually develop our best function, be it thinking or feeling or something else, and at the same time have tendency to conform to what is expected of us, to respond to education or social pressure, to behave in a accepted way. . In this process much that rightly belongs to the personality is lost, or rather it is not lost but has simply been pushed away into unconsciousness; in psychological terms it has been repressed. Small children left to behave naturally are often lustful, acquisitive, and aggressive, and show all the tendencies that the adult is supposed to have grown or been educated out of. But the mistake of most educators, parents, teachers, and others, is to believe that they have really changed the nature of the children in their care, while all that has happened is that the disagreeable or inferior tendencies have been pushed into the background and forgotten, yet live on in the adult. This forgetting is often so successful that we come to believe that we are exactly as we appear to be, sometimes with disastrous results. Repressed tendencies belong to personal unconscious, and far from withering away, as one might hope, they seem to be like neglected weeds that flourish in any forgotten corner of the garden. The process of civilizing the human being leads to a compromise between himself and society as to what he should appear to be, and to the formation of the mask behind which most people live. This mask is the "persona", the name given to the masks once worn by the actors of antiquity to signify the role they played. But it is not only actors who fill a role; a man who takes up a business or a profession, a woman who marries or chooses a career, all adopt to some extent the characteristics expected of them in their chosen position; it is necessary to do so in order to succeed. A business man will try to appear (and even to be) forceful and energetic, a professional man intelligent, a civil servant correct; a professional woman nowadays needs not only to appear intelligent but also well dressed, and a wife is required to be a hostess, a mother, a partner, or whatever her husband's position demands.

"Society expects, and indeed must expect, every individual to play the part assigned to him as perfectly as possible, so that a man who is a parson ... must at all times ... play the role of parson in a flawless manner. Society demands this as a kind of surety: each must stand at his post, here a cobbler, there a poet. No man is expected to be both ... that would be 'odd'. Such a man would be 'different' from other people, not quite reliable. In the academic world he would be a dilettante, in politics an 'unpredictable' quantity, in religion a free-thinker - in short, he would always be suspected of unreliability and incompetence, because society is persuaded that only the cobbler who is not a poet can supply workmanlike shoes."(2)

In the following lines I'll prove that a poet using the symbolic material of the collective unconscious can make shoes for our ego consciousness to wear in our everyday living. So let us take a look on the symbolic meaning behind the verses.

Now the Captain called me to his bed
He fumbled for my hand
"Take these silver bars," he said
"I'm giving you command."

At the very beginning of the song we find the persona of the captain at his death-bed doing what is expected from the dying leader - to relinquish control to someone else, his inheritor. It is obvious that the inheritor is the person telling the story, in other word his ego-consciousness, and that he is not in command. In command of what? The first thing that comes in mind regarding the captain is the ship, the sea...and from there on the conclusion is obvious, because the sea symbolizes our hidden self, primordial image or if you wish the collective unconsciousness, so the captain, "the ruler of the wide sea", is in command of his innermost feelings and other material from unconscious. It is not the coincidence that he is dying in his bed. The bed is the bridge between our conscious and unconscious self, every one of us crosses this bridge every night as he takes on his journey from reality to dreams, from conscious to unconscious. In dream psychology, dreaming that we are in bedroom may symbolize a need to contact those inner feelings and emotions that will lead to a better understanding of who you really are, or it may symbolize the inner self, unconscious contents that can be beaccessed through your dreams. Then the captain seeks for a hand. There are two things that come in mind; tied hands indicate that someone is bound up, and washing hands indicates guilt. This is interesting because both of these themes are present throughout the song (storyteller is unable to take control, and the captain tries to deny the guilt). Next we see the captain wanting the storyteller to accept his gifts; the silver bars, symbols of command, a most adequate one, may I say, silver; something that is of value (regard to his personal development), associated with the moon, fertility, new growth, and the bars; indications of recognition and stature. These are the rewards one will be given if he does what the captain tells him and accepts to take control of the fight, besets himself on the path of individuation to reach recognition and stature by new growth. Will he do it? Let us take a look at the following verses.

"Command of what, there's no one here
There's only you and me --
All the rest are dead or in retreat
Or with the enemy."

The silver bars have been offered and are indignantly refused (for now). Such misinterpretation of the "argentum vivum" is easy to understand, the materiality of the silver make the rejection comprehensible enough, but that is precisely why it is so hard to find the "lapis". Natural man is not a "self" - he is the mass and a particle in the mass, collective to such a degree that he is not even sure of his own ego. That's why since time immemorial he has needed the transformation rites to turn him into something, and to rescue him from the animal collective psyche. But if we reject this unseemly man as he is ("Command of what, there's no one here, There's only you and me"), it is impossible for him to attain integration, to become a "self". And that amounts to spiritual death ("All the rest are dead"). Life that happens in and for itself is not a real life; it is real only when it is known. Primitive rites of passage, as described in mythological symbolism, which mark transitional stages in a person's life - birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage and career, death - all contain death-and-rebirth symbolism and express a recognition that the development of new attitudes more appropriate to one's new stage in life (the death and resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor for such death and resurrection stages in the individual life). The symbolic death of the initiate in these rites may also be seen as a descent of the conscious ego into the unconscious: it is the unconscious (and the compensating knowledge that it holds) that provides the means for new growth - rebirth. "The rest" that are "in retreat" indicate that he himself is in a regressive, transitional period of life projection his own qualities that are being neglected unto "the enemy".

"Complain, complain, that's all you've done
Ever since we lost
If it's not the Crucifixion
Then it's the Holocaust."

Here we see the captain defending himself by denying the guilt for mismanagement, the washing of the hands (hand motif, discussed before). Reason for complaints are Crucifixion, symbol of dying to one aspect of self, and Holocaust, the terminal elimination of the self; both things the captain was responsible for. But, of course, with Crucifixion comes the inevitable Resurrection.

"May Christ have mercy on your soul
For making such a joke
Amid these hearts that burn like coal
And the flesh that rose like smoke."

The reference to Christ may well have a deeper meaning than that of a mere moral reminder: we are concerned here with a process of individuation, process which has constantly been held up to western man in dogmatic and religious model of the life of Christ. The accent has always fallen on the "historicity" of his life, and because of this its symbolical nature has remained in the dark. Christ often represents what in you is really your true self, as opposed to the ego self that you perceive yourself as being. Therefore, this is another proof that the storyteller represents the ego-consciousness. The Captain only hopes that "the self" will not take the above jokes (about the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, the dying and extermination of "the self") as an insult. Now the ego-consciousness goes on describing the state of battlefield or should I say the state in which itself is. Hearts represent emotions. In order to burn they must be torn out. Torn out heats mean open up feelings, and it is not strange that they should burn like coal, because coal is the source of energy, the potential self. The battlefield is in smoke, thus making it unable to see things clearly. Everything is burning; emotions, feelings, energy sources of potential self, and it all makes such a mess that he cannot see anything clearly, everything seems obscure.

"I know that you have suffered, lad,
But suffer this awhile:
Whatever makes a soldier sad
Will make a killer smile."

The Captain acknowledges the suffering our storyteller has gone trough in the past, and makes a statement about a soldier and a killer. Soldier has positive connotations, masculine aspect, discipline, it is ego-conscious determining its own direction. Killer should have negative connotations, he is there when something needs to be killed. However, both are different sides of the same coin, one does not go without the other. Killing often refers to drastic changes that are happening in one's life, so killer is the one who smiles, because he is the one who needs to kill some aspects in life which are the main reason the center of the self will move away from ego-conscious, and that is why the soldier, who represents ego-conscious, is sad. It is the road which has suffering written all over it.

"I'm leaving, Captain, I must go
There's blood upon your hand
But tell me, Captain, if you know
Of a decent place to stand."

Our storyteller wants to leave, reason being the blood on the Captain's hand. Here again we see the motif of guilt, the things Captain has done cannot be so easily dismissed, blood cannot be washed off, it is the life's energy source, love, passion, life itself, physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. It is his own blood lost because of inner conflicts. He seeks for advice, he believes he could avoid confrontation, he believes he can leave.

"There is no decent place to stand
In a massacre;
But if a woman take your hand
Go and stand with her."

The Captain tells him that he cannot leave the battle and still be decent. It is impossible. But if it happens that a woman takes his hand he should accept it. The woman here is clearly an "anima" figure, the one who should lead him, the famous and mythical bridge between conscious and unconscious.

"I left a wife in Tennessee
And a baby in Saigon --
I risked my life, but not to hear
Some country-western song."

Wife symbolizes relation with his anima; he saw it last time in a place far away, and hasn't seen it since. But the baby, which represents his vulnerability, need for love, the innocent part of his personality, his inner child, he left even farther away in some distant foreign land. . There is a child in all of us - our emotional self - that often needs reassurance, to be told that all is well and there is no cause for fear, or anger, or guilt, and that love makes all things good and dissolves all pain. At the same time the child sometimes needs to be chided and corrected if it is eventually to - as it should - grow up. To remain a child for too long is childish, but it is just as childish to move away and then assume that childhood no longer exists because we do not see it. But if we return to the "children's land" we succumb to the fear of becoming childish, because we do not understand that everything of psychic origin has a double face. One face looks forward, the other back. It is ambivalent and therefore symbolic, like all living reality. We stand at the peak of consciousness, believing in a childish way that the path leads upward to yet higher peaks beyond. That is the chimerical rainbow bridge. In order to reach the next peak we must first go down into the land where the paths begin to divide.

"Ah but if you cannot raise your love
To a very high degree,
Then you're just the man I've been thinking of --
So come and stand with me."
"Your standing days are done," I cried,
"You'll rally me no more.
I don't even know what side
We fought on, or what for."

The meaning of the verses is obvious. The Captain seeks for the one who cannot raise his love, the one who cannot not attain high degree of consciousness. Thus the negative side of the archetype of meaning is shown. It is normal that the inflation of the archetype of meaning makes person feel he is endowed with great wisdom, prophetic powers, the gift of healing, and so on, and makes him believe he does not need to extend his awareness of the unconscious. But Captain's plea is refused by ego-conscious, the reason being that everything is messed up, and it does not see things clearly anymore (the motif of smoke covering the battlefield as discussed before).

"I'm on the side that's always lost
Against the side of Heaven
I'm on the side of Snake-eyes tossed
Against the side of Seven.
And I've read the Bill of Human Rights
And some of it was true
But there wasn't any burden left
So I'm laying it on you."
Now the Captain he was dying
But the Captain wasn't hurt
The silver bars were in my hand
I pinned them to my shirt.

Here we find Captain stating on which side he is on in the battle that is raging inside our storyteller. Heaven is the symbol of the higher self, thus it is normal that we find him against it. He is the archetype of meaning and attaining the higher self would diminish or completely eradicate him. He is also "against the side of seven", the number for completeness, highest stage of illumination, and the indicator that the process of integrating the personal unconscious is at an end. Snake represents the primitive or the animal part of the psyche, the fear, aggression or anger buried in the unconscious - the perfect side for a Captain to be on. I the last verses we see the archetype of meaning dying, relinquishing himself of the guilt again by stating that only some of the Human Rights Bill is true, thus leaving no burden behind except the burden of the path by which the ego-consciousness must go. The rest is clear: The Captain is dead, but his death is also a new beginning, resurrection of the ego-consciousness from the depths of the unconsciousness. Ego is now in command, he has silver bars on his shirt, and control in his hands. The reasons why all this has happened are still unknown. Perhaps our storyteller was not living his life the way he supposed to, but rather the way others expected him to, creating his poet persona, thus making it possible for an archetype to inflate.

"In the era which has concentrated exclusively upon extension of living space and increase of rational knowledge at all costs, it is a supreme challenge to ask man to become conscious of his uniqueness and his limitation. Uniqueness and limitation are synonymous. Without them, no perception of the unlimited is possible - and, consequently, no coming to consciousness either - merely a delusory identity with it which takes the form of intoxication with large numbers and an avidity for political power. Our age has shifted all emphasis to the here and now, and thus brought about a daimonisation of man and his world. The phenomenon of dictators and all the misery they have wrought springs from the fact that man has been robbed of transcendence by the shortsightedness of the super-intellectuals. Like them, he has fallen victim to unconsciousness. But man's task is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upwards from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being."(3)


(1) "Psychology and Literature", C.G.Jung
(2) "Two Essays on Analytical Psychology", C.G.Jung
(3) "Memories, Dreams, Reflections", C.G.Jung
Young dr. Freud
Posts: 667
Joined: Fri Dec 06, 2002 2:41 am

Postby Young dr. Freud » Tue Feb 24, 2004 3:44 pm

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, kiddo.


Young dr. Freud
User avatar
lizzytysh
Posts: 25340
Joined: Thu Jun 27, 2002 8:57 pm
Location: Florida, U.S.A.

Postby lizzytysh » Tue Feb 24, 2004 4:37 pm

Well :D ! And a Welcome to the Forum, of the size befitting your piece on "The Captain," dementia praecox! Extremely detailed and well thought out, you've done an excellent job with it 8) .

One suggestion I would make would be to find substitute wording for your sentences that say, "It's obvious....." and "It's clear....." ~ if it were so all of those things [obvious/clear], what would be the need of your interpretation? It ends up being a bit 'insulting' to the reader, as well. What if they would prefer to feel 'enlightened' by your interpretation, rather than ashamed or embarrassed by not having already seen what's so 'obvious' or 'clear'? It seems to me you have a strong piece here. Why diminish it by offending your reader?

My welcome remains, of course :D !

~ Lizzytysh
User avatar
lightning
Posts: 1346
Joined: Fri Jul 19, 2002 4:54 am
Location: New York City
Contact:

Postby lightning » Tue Feb 24, 2004 5:45 pm

I understand "the Captain" as a kind of cosmic anti-millitary pro-love song such as was de rigeur for singer-songwriters during the Viet Nam War period. Only it is full of paradoxes and ends with a twist where the lower in rank man accepts the bars of promotion when he has every reason to reject them. I can only understand this as the senseless perpetuation of war and millitarism , agaist the better judgement of one promoted. The song might be intended as a critcism of a man who accepts the flattery of millitary promotion in spite of all the evil it will inevitably bring to the world. P.S. I gave away my copy of "Women Who Run with the Wolves" extensive Jungian analysis by Clara Pinkola Estes, and the person I gave it to put it out for rubbish.
jurica
Posts: 626
Joined: Wed Oct 02, 2002 2:31 pm
Location: Croatia

Re: The analysis of "The Captain"

Postby jurica » Tue Feb 24, 2004 7:41 pm

dementia praecox wrote: Amid these hearts that burn like coal
And the flesh that rose like smoke."
...i'll have to take more time to go trough this whole post, so for now i'll state that i think this burning hearts and flash that 'rose like smoke' referes to the Holocaust mentioned above. Jews (obviously important characters in this song) were burned, and their bodies (including hearts) were burned to smoke that was carried on the wind.

it's not the only time LC used this image. in The Future he says: You don't know me from the wind...I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible.

a variation is also from Dance me...: Lift me like an olive branch (meaning - in camps they were as thin as olive branches).

in all - i think this poem is about father and son, but also God and men.

i'll come back to it soon.
User avatar
lizzytysh
Posts: 25340
Joined: Thu Jun 27, 2002 8:57 pm
Location: Florida, U.S.A.

Postby lizzytysh » Tue Feb 24, 2004 7:49 pm

Hi Jurica ~

[Don't forget the olive branch as a symbol for a peace offering :) .]

~ Lizzy
User avatar
lightning
Posts: 1346
Joined: Fri Jul 19, 2002 4:54 am
Location: New York City
Contact:

Postby lightning » Tue Feb 24, 2004 7:54 pm

When he says he left a baby in Saigon he is identifying with the soldiers in Viet Nam who fathered children and abandonned them. The country and western song brings to mind the period he spent in Nashville, home of C & W music, about that time.
George.Wright
Posts: 1874
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2002 3:37 pm
Location: Bangor, N.Ireland

Postby George.Wright » Tue Feb 24, 2004 7:56 pm

Dementia, this is an excellent analysis of the song. Well done, keep up the good work. I enjoyed reading this immensely.
Georges
I am a right bad ass, dankish prince and I love my Violet to bits.
User avatar
lightning
Posts: 1346
Joined: Fri Jul 19, 2002 4:54 am
Location: New York City
Contact:

Postby lightning » Wed Feb 25, 2004 3:56 am

"I'm on the side of snake eyes tossed against the side of Seven" refers to the dice game of craps where seven is a winner and snake eyes, or two, is a loser. As you may or may not recall, Cohen used to call his band "The Army" Military imagery is not unknown to him.(c.f. "Field Commander Cohen") It is more likely that this is an army captain here than the captain of a ship. Jungian oceanic imagery is unnecessary. Maybe an army of fallen angels or demons who always oppose God and lose. The silver bars the soldier( back from Saigon) pins to his shirt by which he assumes "the burden of command" when "there wasn't any burden left", as the army was "dead or in retreat or with the enemy", are worthless but now the soldier has become The Captain. Is this a comment on the idiocy of the military?
Young dr. Freud
Posts: 667
Joined: Fri Dec 06, 2002 2:41 am

Postby Young dr. Freud » Wed Feb 25, 2004 3:34 pm

Is this a comment on the idiocy of the military?
I doubt it. C likes to pose as a liberal iconoclast but he has a very strong father fixation. Even in a song that appears to be anti-military his true feelings emerge. Denied a father at the age of nine, he is forever in search of an authority figure to love and admire. (Conversely, he needs the father figure to love and admire him too.) First comes Layton and his impramatur on C's poetry. Then, the Japanese Monk and the "Marines of the Spiritual World." And now, the Indian Guru who has absolved C of any guilt for past, present and future actions. All fathers.



Young dr. Freud
jurica
Posts: 626
Joined: Wed Oct 02, 2002 2:31 pm
Location: Croatia

Postby jurica » Wed Feb 25, 2004 4:19 pm

even if i wouldn't put it the way dr. Freud did, i do agree.

the poem starts with an image of a man in a bed who calls to someone (his son, i think) and 'fumbles for his hand'. Old dr. Freud thought that military ranks are common symbols of father/son relationship, didn't he, Young dr. Freud. i think that's the case here.

"Complain, complain, that's all you've done
Ever since we lost
If it's not the Crucifixion
Then it's the Holocaust."

i think this is a sort of father/son talk that goes on all the time. 'Father, you claim that we, Jews, are great people, but we are losers! We crusified Christ, and they killed us and chased us away from Promised Land whenever they felt like it!'

"I left a wife in Tennessee
And a baby in Saigon --
I risked my life, but not to hear
Some country-western song."

i agree this is obvious war-protest part. but i think this is something that comes from his 'fixation' towards his father - who was wounded in a war (wasn't he? i think i've read that somewhere).
User avatar
lightning
Posts: 1346
Joined: Fri Jul 19, 2002 4:54 am
Location: New York City
Contact:

Postby lightning » Wed Feb 25, 2004 5:09 pm

I agree with Dr. Freud and Jurica on Cohen's being in search of a replacement for a father he lost at a young age. However in this song The Captain (elder,superior male) is not fixated on (loved) as he is pictured in negative way. He is a loser, indifferent to the sufferings of the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, enjoys soldiers' killing, has blood upon his hands, is against the side of Heaven,etc, etc. and is rebelled against at first "You'll rally me no more" ( I refuse to fight for you). I don't understand why at the end of the song the soldier pins the silver bars to his shirt and inherits the dying captains command . Could it be to say "I'm as bad as he was"(Couldn't raise my love to a high degree?)
jurica
Posts: 626
Joined: Wed Oct 02, 2002 2:31 pm
Location: Croatia

Postby jurica » Wed Feb 25, 2004 6:36 pm

it's hard to answer this from my point of view, since i think that means: his father is dead, so he has to take responsibility for his own actions and his family (the usual 'man in the house' stereotype).
jurica
Posts: 626
Joined: Wed Oct 02, 2002 2:31 pm
Location: Croatia

Postby jurica » Wed Feb 25, 2004 6:41 pm

and furthermore:
lightning wrote: However in this song The Captain (elder,superior male) is not fixated on (loved) as he is pictured in negative way. He is a loser, indifferent to the sufferings of the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, enjoys soldiers' killing, has blood upon his hands, is against the side of Heaven,etc, etc. and is rebelled against at first "You'll rally me no more" ( I refuse to fight for you).
...this is usual relationship between father and son. sons (i'm one so you can trust me) usualy don't express much affection towards their fathers (even if they do love them), but rather rebel against them. i argue with my father about politics, christianity etc. all the time. i even like to acuse him of taking part in killing (we had a war here few years ago)... if i was writting a poem about my relationship with my father it would sound quite like The Captain.
User avatar
lightning
Posts: 1346
Joined: Fri Jul 19, 2002 4:54 am
Location: New York City
Contact:

Postby lightning » Wed Feb 25, 2004 11:22 pm

Not an uncommon father-son relationship these days, though in other times and places sons revered their fathers. But do you want to follow in his footsteps, inherit his command, wear his silver bars, etc? What I don't understand about Cohen's soldier is why he didn't throw them away.

Return to “Leonard Cohen's music”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 4 guests