Coraline and Freud. Distinguishing Being and Semblance
The turning point of Coraline occurs when she tries to run away from the Other Mother and the whole world around her begins to dissolve, leaving her in an empty white space. It is the moment where Coraline realizes that this parallel universe that she’s discovered, and that was becoming more and more uncanny, is actually fake, artificial: a “small world.” The blank and unfurnished emptiness surrounding her reveals that everything that Coraline has experienced in the World Within, i.e. the world of the Other Mother, has been aligned and arranged, towards and around her. The house and the Other Family that were initially presented as the inhabitants of an alternative universe, turned out to be an intentional and illusory construct. But what exactly is it that aligns and organises this World Within?
When we move into a new apartment, we furnish it according to our needs; similarly, the Other Mother’s World Within is furnished according to Coraline’s needs, or, more precisely, her wish for a perfect family. The World Within therefore serves as a wish fulfilment and everything in it is created according to this goal. Everything in it looks familiar; the house, the neighbours, and her family being almost exact copies, but improved copies, whose sole purpose it is to fascinate and captivate Coraline. The beginning of the movie establishes that Coraline feels neglected by her parents; the World Without, the ‘real world’, in that sense appears to her as a world of deprivation, while the World Within is to be understood as a world of fulfilment. This difference is illustrated by the picture of the boy that appears in both houses; the ‘real world’ version shows his scoops of ice cream having fallen to the ground, while the version of the ‘fake world’ shows him happily enjoying the dessert.
Coraline’s wish for a perfect family is not created by the Other Mother, she rather capitalizes on it. Indeed, as the ghost children witness, the Other Mother feeds on children who feel neglected. On a family photo we can see Coraline’s family on a visit in the zoo of Detroit . It is the picture of a happy family. But what’s striking here is that Coraline isn’t wearing her extravagant outfit— the yellow rain coat, the boots and her blue hair. This implies that the latter were a conscious reaction to the feeling of neglect, a typical strategy of children to catch the attention of their parents. This memory-image of the perfect family drives Coraline like a motor. It generates the regressive wish for a return to the family as it once was. It is therefore no coincidence that the Other Mother stages Coraline’s entry into the World Within as a return: “Welcome home.” This phenomenon, where a child acts as if it belongs to a surrogate family in which it remains at the centre of attention — a reaction against the changed family dynamics that occur when we grow up — was formulated by Freud in his text Family Romances (Der Familienroman der Neurotiker) from 1909. There he describes, how children, out of “a feeling of being slighted [Gefühl der Zurücksetzung],” develop the fantasy “of being a step-child or an adopted child” (FR, p. 237), fabricating daydreams that “serve as the fulfilment of wishes and as a correction of actual life” (ibid., p. 238). Just like Coraline’s nostalgia, this is “an expression of the child’s longing for the happy, vanished days” (ibid., p. 241). In short, the child wishes to remain a child, to remain within the family’s safe environment and its atmosphere of carelessness and joy.
But when it starts growing up, the child’s role within the family, but also within society, begins to change; and the stronger it begins to feel said change, the stronger, potentially, its regressive reaction. The task of the child, as Freud describes it, is then to turn away from this wish; failure leads to neuroses, to a child in a grown-up’s body that can’t handle the non-familial experiences of reality. But how can this obstacle be overcome? In Coraline, the protagonist starts turning away from the wish once she gains insight into the artificiality of the World Within in the scene described in the opening paragraph. Not only is everything that Coraline sees and experiences fake, in all the ‘wonders’ that she experiences she remains a completely passive subject, a spectator. The neurotic condition is essentially an inability to act, as the subject is stuck in perpetual repetition — the repetition of its childhood. But not only does Coraline realize that the World Within is essentially unreal, it also is confined, and she can only remain there as a prisoner.
She realises that she needs to escape, for a failure to escape the World Within would lead to a complete integration into the latter, a complete schism from the ‘real world’. This is what the Other Mother wants, and the decisive gesture for this total immersion is for Coraline to sew on the button eyes. Self-blinding, of course, is an ancient theme (Oedipus etc.). Symbolically speaking, it expresses an abandonment of truth (in the case of Oedipus an attempt to ‘unsee’ it). The truth for Coraline is the realisation that the World Within is artificial; ‘unseeing’ the truth therefore would mean to relinquish the ability of differentiating between being (truth) and semblance (artifice). As long as Coraline keeps her eyes, she manages to perceive the falsehood of the World Within; if she gave them up, the simulation would become total. The distinction between being and semblance would fall apart, a distinction that, in Coraline, corresponds to the two different worlds.
But what is it that distinguishes being and semblance? It isn’t materiality, as Coraline is able to touch the beings and things of the World Within. For the differentiation we have two options: (a) the difference we’ve sketched above between fulfilment and deprivation; (b) the difference between openness and confinement. They both relate to each other, as they pertain to an overcoming of narcissism.
What does Coraline renounce in renouncing the World Within? It is the wish for the perfect family, but not the family itself. In fact, the happy ending of the movie is one of a return to the family, but through the abandonment of the narcissistic wish to remain a child. The child is in the centre of attention, it lives within the comfort of the family’s care, and the family’s task is (seemingly) solely to fulfil its desires. In returning to the family as a grown-up, Coraline no longer takes up the role of the protected child that lives in a fulfilled world. She steps out into the ‘real world’ that is indifferent her, and that therefore seems to follow a logic of deprivation. Religious conceptions can in that regard be seen as attempts to ‘familiarise’ the universe — the subject is God’s child, just as it was for its family. Through such a parallelism, the subject can remain narcissistic, as not only the family seems to exist for it, but the whole universe. Following Freud, this amounts to an infantilisation of the subject, which is unable to face a world without purpose: “Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’” (FI, p. 49)
Yet, this ‘negative’ lesson corresponds to a ‘positive’ one that results from (b). The world of the family — or of religion — might be purposeful and warm, but it is also limited and confined. To fulfil Coraline’s wish, the Other Mother didn’t need to create a whole world, she only needed to create what is pertinent to Coraline’s wish: her home and its immediate surroundings. Everything else, as we’ve seen in the opening paragraph, remains in the state of pure whiteness . The wish, then, will always create a confined territory that excludes everything that doesn’t belong to it. If we wish for something, everything else ‘disappears from view’. Its world is reductive and limited. The ‘escape’ out of the prison-like World Within would then not amount to a refutation of the wish, or of imagination itself, but of escapist tendencies of the imagination and of entities that promise a safe haven from the dangers of reality — be it the family or religion. Reality, as harsh as it might be, is at the same time vast and does not subjugate us to any metaphysical entity or structure.
The differentiation between being and semblance, as a way to separate the ‘false’ from the ‘real’ would then amount to sharpening our wits to perceive structures that try to trap and incorporate us into a machinery, and to find fissures where openness shines through. Imagination not only has the potential of entrapping us in artificial fantasies, but also of allowing us to act creatively in a world without a predefined meaning or sense.
The type of worldliness that is defined by a relinquishment of the narcissistic wish (i.e. of fulfilment), is established by Freud on a subjective level as part of any healthy coming-of-age, but also on the societal level — the renouncement of wish-based religion towards worldly science as he formulates it in The Future of an Illusion. This is part of Freud’s utopian streak:
“By withdrawing their [men’s] expectations from the other world and concentrating all their liberated energies into their life on earth, they will probably succeed in achieving a state of things in which life will become tolerable for everyone and civilization no longer oppressive to anyone” (ibid., p. 50).
The energies that are released thanks to science lie in the power to use nature as a resource to cover the basic human needs, but also of creating structures of meaning, instead of creating surrogate worlds like the afterlife. Just like growing up means overcoming the utopia of protected childhood, social maturity means overcoming the religious utopia of the afterlife (including secular structures that imitate it). The blissful happiness of childhood, as much as the serenity of religiosity are illusions to overcome.
The overcoming of the narcissistic wish — growing up — can be positively read as a liberation from an artificial and confining universe. The family keeps the child safe as long as it is small and helpless, but at some point, it needs to step out of it — and do what? Create its own family. What the child’s narcissism hindered is its own future family formation; to become a parent, one ought to be able to consider oneself ‘second’, to sacrifice one’s time and energy for one’s child. This aspect introduces an ambivalent aspect to Freud’s conception of the Family Romance, as the subject’s escape, its growth, is acted out strictly within the familial structure. The subject leaves its family only to establish its own. It appears then that Freud doesn’t overcome the familiarisation of the universe, and reaffirms it as a fundamental structure. This reflects the oedipal subject formation, where the relinquishment of the desire for the father/mother is completed by the formation of one’s own family. Fairy tales— and structurally speaking, Coraline is one —often begin with a ‘banishment’ from home and end in marriage, where a new family is established. The adventures might happen in a foreign land, but in the end, they also have a function within the familial structure — namely its perpetuation.
Far from a liberation from hierarchical structures through the overcoming of the ‘artificial’ wishes of narcissism, Freud’s conception subjugates the subject under the seemingly ‘authentic’ structure of the family. But it is a form of the family, which itself only produces subjects whose desire remains strictly on familial grounds. The subject desires nothing more than to establish its own family; and it is in that act that it finds its meaning in a cold world of deprivation. Growing up amounts to becoming a parent. This completely cuts the subject’s ties to the world outside of family — to the social and political spheres. The mature subjects steps into the vast and open universe, only to recreate its own little territory, its house and home. It ‘creates’ its meaning by having children. Thus, the power structures that perpetuate the sociopolitical dynamics remain unquestioned.
The ideological character of such ways of thought lies in their naturalization of suppression, totalizing it and positing it as necessary and genuine. This aspect is concealed by staging the return to the family as a reconciliation of the daughter with her parents, of the subject with the “difficult situation” (ibid., p. 49) — making us wonder, if not all reconciliation is a covert submission, or, to cut deeper, if not all radical differentiation between being and semblance, between naturalness and artificiality, is essentially a covert legitimation of a certain power structure. Just as slavery is legitimized by an apparently ‘biological’ difference between slave and owner, the bourgeois family with the paterfamilias is being posed as the only ‘natural’ constellation, excluding ‘deviations’ on the grounds of being ‘unnatural’. The insight that said differentiation is subliminally based on power structures was worked out by Deleuze and Guattari in their book on Kafka:
“On the one hand, one discovers behind the familial triangle (father-mother-child) other infinitely more active triangles from which the family itself borrows its own power, its own drive to propagate submission, to lower the head and make heads lower. Because it’s that that the libido of the child really invests itself in from the start: by means of the family photo, a whole map of the world” (K, p. 11).
Asserted naturalness is always a positing of power, it is about controlling the subject, because what is natural is deemed unchangeable and is hence legitimized in its perpetuation. Naturalizing the family, its totalization, means that it belongs to an order of things that transcends the subject and that demands of it the repetition of the structure, one’s own family formation within given roles and boundaries.
The shift that the postmodern criticism of Deleuze and Guattari attempted is one away from the division of natural/artificial to the one of open/close; instead of normative, it is now topological. Where are the exits, the passages, the stabilizing forces that delineate and judge what’s inside and what’s outside the territory? How can a territory be left and what hinders the escape? Subversion, as the two writers found it in Kafka, lies in an abandonment of the normative distinction — family is neither natural nor unnatural, it is a territory that includes and excludes and that follows specific rules. The question now is: what aspect of this territory leads to subjugation and how can the subject ‘raise its head’? The resistance against suppression is not normative; it is reflexive and somatic, like a wolf forced into a corner. It is then not about refuting and refusing the family, and much rather about bringing to light what prefers to remain hidden.
Here, Coraline fails, just as Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for “Gregor refused to let go of the portrait of the lady in fur. He sticks to the portrait, as if to a last territorialized image” (ibid., p. 15). Coraline gives up on the family portrait, but not on the family; ultimately, she too is reterritorialized. When she escapes the prison of the Other Mother, she jumps right into the arms of the family. The movie ends, bourgeois enough, with a garden party. Reconciliation, the hallmark of the happy ending, amounts to an appeasement of the liberating impulses that initially fuelled Coraline’s imagination — as occupied as it was by the regressive image of a lost childhood. The appeasing wisdom of ‘no place like home’ can be rekindled by a shift of emphasis, a slightly different intonation that reveals its nomadic potential; the negation of the very existence of such a place ‘like home’. This is the first step of affirming openness.
[FI] — Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. In: The Standard Edition, Vol. XXI, Hogarth Press 1981, p. 5–56.
[FR] — Freud, Sigmund. Family Romances. In: The Standard Edition, Vol. IX, Hogarth Press 1959, p. 235–241.
[K] — Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix. Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. University of Minnesota Press 1986.