Like Two Skins, One Inside the Other": Dual Unity in Brokeback Mountain

By Willbern, David | PSYART, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Like Two Skins, One Inside the Other": Dual Unity in Brokeback Mountain


Willbern, David, PSYART


By focusing on the specific language of Annie Proulx's story - with some references to the Ang Lee film - I speculate that the sources of imaginative production (writing) and popular reception (reading) lie in memories and evocations of early (infantile) emotional life. Using concepts from object-relations psychoanalysis, I argue that the deepest texture of unconscious experience in Brokeback Mountain links to preverbal life, evoked in the story by metaphors of bodily images and sensations: smells, noises, warmth, coldness, and intimate embrace. I suggest that the extraordinary popularity of both story and film is anchored in this matrix of pre-oedipal, universal, human experience - beyond sexuality, straight or gay.

keywords: sexuality, homosexuality, homophobia, fantasy, wish, nostalgia, pastoral, pleasure principle, reality principle, dual unity, symbiosis, transitional object, separation, individuation, closet, mourning, Freud, Mahler, Winnicott, Loewald.

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_willbern01.shtml

In an interview, Annie Proulx revealed that the impulse for her now-famous story, "Brokeback Mountain," came from her observation of a middle-aged cowboy in a Wyoming bar, nursing his beer in solitude while gazing at the handsome younger men around him. In another conversation she remarked how especially difficult it was to get inside these particular characters; how the story haunted her for months as she tried to get it right. The question of a writer's uncanny imaginative habitation of characters is in this case intensified by the distances between a New England woman in her seventies and the young, male westerners she invented.1

Inventing characters is of course a main work of writers, but I suggest that the sources for Proulx's literary figures emerged not merely from her empathic social observations, and not merely from her personal preference for male characters. Underlying the fictional relationship of two sexually confused, adolescent men is another scene, anchored in our primary emotional life, and perhaps especially available to Annie Proulx as a woman, and mother. In this brief essay I'll examine the story and the film in terms of literary and cinematic texture, and from the perspective of object-relations psychoanalysis.

The story begins with a short, present-tense prologue: a snapshot of one of the characters as he begins his day.

Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft.

This opening is carefully composed. The verbs "rocking" and "hissing" suggest a metaphoric matrix of primal movement and sound. A glimpse of the shuddering shirts hints at the final climactic scene. The paragraph proceeds to describe Ennis's morning routine, expresses his concerns about his property and family (a married daughter), then concludes with his feelings of pleasure "because Jack Twist was in his dream."

If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong. The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence.

Those final two sentences produce a collision between past wish-fulfillment and present rough reality. Ennis's feeling that nothing seemed wrong is countered by a blast of wind "like a load of dirt..." Metaphorically, the world dumps on his dream.

The private interiority of Proulx's written scene-inside a trailer, inside the character's head-contrasts vividly with the expansive exteriority of Ang Lee's film version of the story, which opens with a long shot of a truck on a rural highway, slowing to pick up the hitch-hiking Ennis, with massive snow-capped mountains in the background. For the first five minutes there is no dialogue, only moving pictures. …

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Like Two Skins, One Inside the Other": Dual Unity in Brokeback Mountain
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