Living in a Ghost World
Max Hooley

Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001, USA) articulates several features of post-Freudian psychoanalysis, specifically Jacques Lacan’s theories of desire, fetishism and the objet a. These concepts are embodied by the characters Enid (Thora Birch) and Seymour (Steve Buscemi) in their personal relationships with each other, and with the rest of humanity. This essay seeks to illuminate Lacan’s concepts by arguing that the film positions Thora as a budding fetishist who is in the beginning stages of becoming a full-fledged fetishist like Seymour.

The core conflict for Enid and Seymour is that they have contempt for humanity while at the same time they seek to be a part of it. Being a part of humanity promises numerous benefits, such as successful friendships, but especially is promises the possibility of finding love, a “significant other.”  This is troublesome, because Seymour and Enid consider themselves above others, and refuse to lower themselves to achieve normative happiness. This attitude leads to Seymour’s stating that he “can’t relate to ninety-nine percent of humanity,” and Enid echoing that she “think[s] only stupid people have good relationships.” Since both characters refuse to become part of humanity, they focus on alternative passions which keep them isolated. These passions represent the objet a / chaperone in the triangle of chaperone, suitor and beloved triangle articulated by Henry Krips in his book Fetish: And Erotics of Culture.” For most of the film, the figure of the “beloved” in the scenario does not represent any actual loved personage, but instead the potential for obtaining a beloved.

Seymour’s particular fetish object is evident from the second time we meet him; he is a lover of music.  When asked to list his top “five main interests in order of importance,” Seymour states that, “I’d have to put traditional jazz, blues, and then ragtime at the top of the list…” Most notably, he is an avid collector of obscure record albums from the distant past. The sexually repressive nature of his record collection is not lost on the filmmakers. When Enid and Rebecca (Scarlett Johannsen) attend a record selling party held by Seymour, Enid overhears a heated conversation he is having with a potential buyer regarding the flaws of a particular record. Nonchalantly she approaches him and asks, “What’s all this talk about enlarged holes and tight cracks?” Similarly the manifestation of Seymour’s music as a chaperone-like bloackage to his attainment of love occurs in the scene at the bar where Enid has set Seymour up with a woman. Seymour is visibly pained when she describes the music they are listening to as “blues.” He can’t help himself but interject and go on a rant about the subtle differences between genres. Learning from this experience, Seymour later realizes that in order to have a traditional successful relationship he must learn not to hold on to his passion so passionately. Following the analogy, he had to learn to re-focus his desire away from pleasing the chaperone, and instead move toward pleasing the beloved.

Over the course of the film, Enid finds she can relate to Seymour above all others–including adults and people her own age–and shares many qualities with Seymour, the most prominent being disdain for humanity. But she is not like Seymour in that she does not have a singular fetish (such as his record collecting) which distracts her. Rather she is more broadly interested in all things unpopular–taking solace in marginalized cultural objects such as obscure Bollywood VHS tapes and a leather Catwoman mask. Yet she still yearns for participation in humanity, and speaks to Rebecca of “sexual frustration.” Early in the film her main distraction–the chaperone that she appeases, prevents her from joining humanity–is her love of embarrassing and/or following people. Most of these people she considers odd or sad, and she most likely identifies with them. On most of these hanky-panks, Enid is accompanied by Josh (Brad Renfro) and Rebecca. Later in the film we learn that Enid has serious feelings for Josh. Thus she comes close to the attainment of her own beloved by spending time with him, while also using Rebecca and her activities as a chaperone. Those activities are also how Enid first comes to know Seymour. Out of his sad desperation, Enid comes to realize that he is a much more “cool” individual than she could have known. Here, her mission shifts from embarrassing others for her own enjoyment, to helping Seymour have a successful relationship. While different, this new mission of Enid’s still performs the same function; it keeps her from participating in humanity.

This conflict also articulates the issue of temporality in fetishism. Enid is drawn to Seymour specifically because of his attraction to the art of the past. The first time we seen Enid (perhaps the only time she is truly happy) she is enjoying a Bollywood dance routine from the 1960s. In light of Seymour’s record obsession she considers him a kindred spirit of sorts.  When she sees his record room (the inner sanctum of his fetish) she voices how envious she is of him for having a room like that. Consistently throughout the film we see how these two individuals chafe against their own reality. Seymour hates modern ‘blues’ music, while Enid is made fun of for the clothes she wears, which she defends by saying, “it’s not like this I’m some modern punk dickhead–it’s obviously an original 1977 punk rock look.”

The catalyst for conflict in the story for Enid is her graduation from high school and her plans to move in with Rebecca. Rebecca is presented as having normal or traditional plans and worries. She constantly pushes Enid toward getting a job and shopping for the new apartment. This thought of the future makes Enid thoroughly uncomfortable. She cannot bear the thought of moving beyond the past–the through of attaining something beyond where she is right now–so she takes solace in her relationship with Seymour.  This works for her, because it is inconceivable to Enid that Seymour could possibly alter his position in life.

However, despite her expectations, Enid inadvertently succeeds too well in helping Seymour to circumvent the fetishistic stoppage imposed by the chaperone, and embrace a beloved, represented by Dana (Stacy Travis).  When Seymour joins the modern world of desire and attainment, Enid is confronted with the fact that she had too successfully paid attention to her own chaperone and was now alone. Enid is confronted with the fact that her constructed distraction was merely temporary and at some point she must herself join the rest of the world in seeking the satisfaction of desires. She finds that she cannot abide by this, and ruins Seymour’s new life by sleeping with him.  While perhaps this action represents a subconscious (or conscious) desire to reset the cycle and force Seymour back into his lonely state, it backfires and he becomes obsessed with Enid herself. It should be noted that Seymour is not obsessed with the potential for a relationship with Enid, rather he is obsessed with the whole, perfect, one night they spent together in the past. This obsession is strictly regressive; it is the same one Seymour has held for years, just in a different form.

So in the end Enid sees several paths that she can choose to pursue. On the one hand, the “Seymour path” of fetishizing the past, and accepting the present only as much as necessary, is shown to lead to a regression where Seymour has been forced to see a psychiatrist and move back in with his mother. On the other hand, Enid can choose to embrace the reality she is occupying, get a job, pay some bills, and move in with Rebecca, thus fulfilling the “stupid seventh grade fantasy” they shared so long ago. Or, in a third option, she can choose to opt out of reality entirely, in the form of suicide. In the end, Enid is shown following an old man onto a bus line that is clearly “out of service.” Previously in the film she had regarded the old man’s daily appearance at the inactive bus stop as “the only thing I can count on.” Indeed if one refuses to accept reality, suicide is something that can always be counted on. Enid is one of the contemporary characters most clearly tortured by the Freudian principles of pleasure, and the fetishistic withholding of pleasure, illustrating how fun and frustrating it can be to live in a ghost world of old objects, and past relationships.

 

WORKS CITED

Krips, Henry. Fetish: An Erotics of Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999.

 

This is an original piece written by a student at Clark University. For more information visit the Screen Studies program website.

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