DOES THIS SHORT FILM OF FEDERICO FELLINI’S, TOBY DAMMIT, HAVE A “MEANING? LET’S SEE WHAT DANTE HAS TO SAY ABOUT MEANINGS IN A LITERARY/DRAMATIC WORK OF ART.
Yes it has. I know it has. Does it have a secret meaning? We shall see.
Old Dante, in his Tenth Letter to Can Grande, says that the sense of a good work of art “is not single, but may rather be called polysemous, that is of many meanings. For the meaning that is gathered by the letter is one, and the meaning that is gathered by the things signified by the letter is another; and the first is called literal, but the second allegorical or mystical.”
And in Chapter 1 of the Second Treatise of the Convivio, in analyzing one of his own Odes, Dante says that he will “always first discourse concerning each ode as to the literal meaning of the same; and after that I shall discourse of its allegory, that is the hidden truth.”
Of Toby Dammit I’ve given the literal sense above. In the allegorical or hidden truth I’ll proceed shortly.
In my various papers when I rather presumptuously set forth The Truth about a particular work of art, I’m simply, after all, following the critical method that I learned from Old Dante.
But before I go on, I’d like to make clear the two types of meaning of Toby Dammit that I’m not writing about.
First, I’m not going to present any explication of the film as a film à clef in the sense of some roman à clef.
Second, I’m not going to claim as the meaning of my title a psycho-analytic interpretation.
Now, I’m the author of a book-length psycho-analytic study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock (Superbitch! Alfred Hitchcock’s 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Eternal Prostitute).
And so I’d be the last person in the world not to value a psych-analytic view.
In fact, I’d like just now very briefly to précis that sort of view for Toby Dammit, but this is not the secret meaning that I’m finally writing about.
A BRIEF PSYCHO-ANALTIC INTERPRETATION OF FELLINI’S TOBY DAMMIT (JUST FOR THE RECORD), BUT THAT IS NOT THE SECRET MEANING OF THE FILM AS IS LATER TO BE REVEALED.
Psycho-analysis has shown that bridges are unconscious penis symbols. Psycho-analytically (this is the standard orthodox interpretation), the two opposite banks of the river represent the child’s parents.
The bridge is the father’s penis during intercourse, that reaches from his body to that of the mother’s.
To the child’s pre-conscious, parents appear as giants. That’s why there are so many giants in children’s fairy tales.
The Devil is the standard (orthodox) psycho-analytic surrogate for the father --- for the wicked father, the father who makes love to the child’s beloved mother (though in a variant version, the Devil’s also, of course, is a surrogate for the son, sexually contending for the mother with the father).
Decapitation is standard unconscious symbolism for castration. Leaping of the style symbolizes the situation by the attempt by the son to possess (to have intercourse with) the mother.
Symbolically, Toby Dammit bets his father that he can have intercourse with the mother without the father’s being able to do anything about it.
On the other hand, if Toby loses, the father will take his head, that is, his penis. The father (the Devil) wins, and that’s just what he does take.
This tale, says the orthodox psycho-analyst and Poe scholar Marie Bonaparte, does indeed contain a moral: “The father always more or less retains his power over his rebellious son.”
In a crude but accurate way, then, we can rework the title of Poe’s story to read: Never Bet the Devil Your Balls.
Poe is generally considered by orthodox psycho-analysts (and others) to have been sexually impotent, fixated upon his young, pale, dying mother, who died when Poe was a very young child and whose dead body he probably saw. This explains the strange attraction to corpses on beautiful young women his heroes have in story after story of Poe’s.
The bridge in this Toby Dammit story of Poe’s is unusual. It’s “roofed over” and has an “archway” that’s “very uncomfortably dark” and gloomy. While the bridge is a symbol for the father’s penis, this dark and gloomy archway is a symbol here for the mother’s vagina.
A man becomes impotent generally because he generally feels guilty about wanting to sleep with his mother and is unconsciously terrified that his father will cut his penis off in punishment of this wish.
He often feels too that if he sleeps with a woman, she’ll devour him, castrate him herself; and it’s common for such a man to think of the woman’s vagina, unconsciously, as a set of jaws, a maw, lined with castrating teeth.
Psycho-analysis refers to this sort of image as a vagina dentata. All this helps explain the popularity and terror of the Jaws films and novels.
THE MOTHER COMPLEX (OEDIPUS COMPLEX) IN FELLINI’S OTHER FILMS AS CONFIRMING DOCUMENTATION FOR HIS INTEREST IN THIS PARTICULAR STORY OF POE’S.
|"The Messaline-like woman giantess, Fellini Satyricon
Now, if you don’t believe in the validity of psycho-analytic interpretation, or haven’t had much practice at it, you’ll no doubt think all this rather mad. But so far as its possible relevancy to Fellini is concerned, I ask even readers not psycho-analytically inclined to just think of the recurrent impotency theme of the Messalina-like woman giantess in his various films.
Just think too of Guido’s fear of impotency in 8½ and Encolplus’s temporary impotence in Satyricon.
And think of the ubiquitous women giants throughout Fellini’s films and especially the circus giantess in The Clowns, whom we see chewing up and swallowing the little goldfish handed to her by a dwarf.
And most significant of all, think of the giantess sequence in Casanova, the scene itself set within the gaping jaws of a whale.
According to Freud the crucial configuration for the boy-child is the Oedipus Complex and its resolution in his unconscious and pre-conscious. The boy pictures his mother, the first and most important woman in his life, both as a Madonna-like Virgin and as a whore.
As a Madonna, she’ll feed him, comfort him, caress him virginally, and lull him to sleep. As a Whore, she’ll seduce him, devour him through her voracious sexual needs, threaten to chew him up if he looks at another woman and, worst of all, will betray him sexually with his hated rival, the father.
Unconsciously and pre-consciously, he gets to feel: If this mother-bitch will sleep with the castrating devil of a father, she’ll sleep with anyone. Only a whore would do that.
The Claudia-like beautiful woman in Toby Dammit (during the Award ceremony sequence) promises Toby that she’ll be his alone, that she’ll love him, take care of his every need. Christian Strich, in his credits, describes her as “the motherly woman,” just as Fellini, when he was searching for the Sandra Milo character in 8½, specified that she was to be motherly.
|Sandra Milo, Marcello Mastroianni, 8½
Throughout the shooting of 8½ Fellini kept trying to fatten Sandra Milo up, and she actually became plump enough to his satisfaction only after she became pregnant in real life during the course of the film. In Juliet of the Spirits she plays the promiscuous whore, while Giulietta Masina, whom the husband in the film can no longer make love to, plays the childless Madonna.
WOMAN AS “THE FACE OF THE DEVIL” IN FELLINI’S TOBY DAMMIT:
In this Toby Dammit scene if we listen to the words that the lovely lady speaks to Toby, we think she’s the most wonderful woman in the world. But if we look at her face on the screen, we see that she’s a whore, a very high-priced hooker. And Toby understands this too.
She’s lying to him. She doesn’t love him. She’ll say the very same words to any man who pays her. Judas-like, she’ll betray him for any man’s 30 pieces of silver, except that she’s a lot more expensive than that.
As is well known, mothers and prostitutes abound in Fellini’s movies.
Aside from psycho-analysis, the face of woman is, especially in Christian literature, the face of the Devil. For this is a conscious, or pre-conscious, reflection of the mother/whore aspect of the Oedipus Complex: Woman is the face of the Devil.
In Toby Dammit this concept is projected even further: Even as a little girl is the mother a whore! So far as women are concerned, Toby feels, there is no innocence --- none.
Toby understands this, retches at the realization, screams, screams again, wishes he’d never been born, wishes to die, and does die.
So much, then, for the psycho-analytic interpretation of the film ---discovering, as with a dream, its “hidden meaning,” as Freud puts it.