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Let’s pause for a moment to do proper homage to the remarkable fact that during the 1980s, there was a blockbuster family film in which large parts of the plot revolved around the subject of incest. That film was Back to the Future, which I recently discussed with Dan Calvisi and William Robert Rich on their screenwriting podcast (PEL listeners can download a free story map outlining its plot structure free for the next 30 days here, after which it will be available on Amazon.com).
You may recall (or may have repressed) the fact that the subject of incest is not merely subtext in Back to the Future, but a central part of its plot. After traveling back in time, Marty McFly becomes the object of his young mother’s not-so-maternal affections. Getting back to a future in which he has actually been born requires that he deflect his mother’s sexual interest back to his father. As we shall see, “Back to the Father” would have been just an apt a title for the film.
You might wonder what any of this has to do with the initial worries that seem to motivate the protagonist. When we meet him, Marty’s primary ambitions are to succeed as a musician and take his girlfriend on a weekend camping trip by a lake. The obstacle to the latter is his prudish mom, and to the former his fear of rejection and being a loser like his father. Indeed, Marty’s father George turns out to be the caricature of a loser: harried, spineless, and essentially defeated in life. George’s spinelessness is directly implicated in the destruction of the family car, without which Marty’s trip to the lake is foiled. The car problem is the first real plot point in the movie’s external line of action, and it easily could have served as the basis for an entire story (replacing or fixing the car), fulfilling a standard symbolic function (freedom, sexual possibility, etc.). But the film takes a more interesting symbolic turn: what Marty needs more than a working car is a working father. In dreamlike fashion, the movie condenses these needs, equipping Marty with a car that is also a time machine, one that will allow him to accomplish his central goal of fixing his father so that he himself can finish growing up. This time-traveling car is incidentally a DeLorean, the iconic automotive loser, redeemed only by a time travel-enabling “flux capacitor” that is vaguely reminiscent of a sex ed diagram of the female reproductive anatomy.
But what does any of this have to do with incest? To the average viewer, it might seem confusing that a film would so haphazardly throw together elements of incest, an inadequate father figure, stifled ambition, star-crossed love, and time travel. But to a student of psychoanalysis, the relation between at least the first four terms will seem like a commonplace. That’s because on the psychoanalytic view, the strong father just is the inverse of incest. The strong father is the buffer between infant and mother, the one who makes it possible to grow up and leave a maternal realm in which an infant’s needs are (ideally) met automatically and effortlessly. By “father” here we refer not necessarily to an actual father but to the function of the father, which is played also by culture and various family members and authority figures, including the mother herself. What this symbolic father represents is the notion that the mother has interests and desires other than the child. These might include a real father, but also might include her work and any other object of desire. The intercession of the symbolic father implies that the mother is a real person with a mind of her own, and not merely an all-perfect gratification machine, existing only in and for the satisfaction of infantile needs. As we grow older, this mother-as-human-being becomes something available to our empathy. There is a tremendous amount of loss involved this development, because it means that the fairy godmother of infancy – who, perfect, is untroubled by human concerns and requires no empathy – has passed away. Either we must mourn this fantasized ideal as we would mourn the passing of any loved one, or the failure to mourn has pathological consequences. Many of us, to some degree or another, deploy defenses against this loss, and prefer not entirely to let go of the ideal. We remain stuck to some extent in an entitled, utopian fantasy, a standard by virtue of which the world’s inevitable hardships become much harder.
Freud refers to the early predicament – the desire to maintain an idealized mother and stave off intercession of the father – as the Oedipus complex. Getting over this complex requires that I let go of infantile maternal attachments and narcissistically redirect them toward myself. This in turn requires making myself a suitable love object for these attachments, fashioning myself into a culturally beloved person by imitating certain worthwhile others, including my parents, taking on (or trying to live up to) their desires and aspirations. Freud calls the part of us that functions in this way the “superego,” and its goal is the “ego ideal.” It is constructed via a series of identifications with representatives of the symbolic father (blurring for the sake of brevity, differences between boys and girls, and differences between Freud and later theorists such as Lacan): an attachment with “mother” gets replaced, for example, with an attachment to the ambition to become a writer, doctor, or even mother or father; or to national pride, religion, or a less obvious and definable set of values and ideals. While such ambitions and ideals come with certain pressures, the thought of achieving or satisfying them provides a compensatory gratification for loss of the maternal world, in something of the same way that a pacifier is compensation for loss of the breast.
There are many ways in which this replacement process can go awry. One of them is the failure to mourn loss of the ideal mother, by way of a degraded, more primitive form of identification. This ends up being something like psychical cannibalism, substituting incorporation for imitation: instead of identifying with the symbolic father (which again, can include aspects of the mother realistically conceived), one identifies with the ideal mother. One metaphorically devours the ideal mother and holds her hostage within, at the psychical level refusing to give in to the prohibition on incest and the necessity of separation. One refuses to grow up. This identification with perfection may take the form of unrealistic grandiosity, something that in its most severe form is implicated in psychosis. Many schizophrenics suffer from grandiose delusions (and their complement, persecutory delusions). They may believe that they are a god, or God, or have godlike powers. Often, the imagined religious or supernatural nature of these powers elides into something with a quasi-scientific rationale – i.e., becomes a vital work of science fiction.
Time travel is one such power, and also aptly involves a defiance of the laws of physics in a way reminiscent of incest’s defiance of moral law. But interestingly, the plot of Back to the Future gives neither Marty nor his mentor Doc the chance to consider abusing their power. Instead of a story in which the protagonist sets out to rig his future (whether by playing the lottery or some other scheme in which fore-hindsight is useful), we have a story in which the protagonist must use the very incestuous power of time travel solely for the purpose of undoing incest. It’s remarkable that Marty’s scheme for uniting his parents involves a plan in which his father must prevent him from sexually assaulting his mother. While there certainly must have been a better and less dangerous (not to mention repulsive) plan available to him, Marty seems resolutely on the path of using incest to undo incest. The fantasy here seems to be that his predicament contains the seeds of its own resolution (and in ideal psychical development, this is precisely the case).
The danger of incest is then on one level the danger of conscious, psychotic grandiosity. But short of psychosis, unconscious grandiosity can interfere with life in more mundane ways. And here we can return with some insight into Marty’s fears of rejection surrounding his musical ambitions: a psychoanalyst might suspect that Marty is actually inhibited by fear of success. Why? Because without a strong father, his ambitions are too charged, too reminiscent of incest , something we get a hint of in Marty’s getting blown across the room at the beginning of the movie by a massive, over-powered guitar amplifier. There is not enough of a barrier between his desire to have it all and his desire to have it All (mother included). Without a strong father identification, a fear of incest (or of an identity-demolishing reabsorption into the maternal world) is liable to kick in at critical moments. Being a loser, like the elder McFly, is not just a matter of not having been trained to assert oneself. It’s a matter of feeling such assertion to be extraordinarily dangerous, as transgressing a taboo and evoking the threat of total annihilation. Marty’s father seems practically strung out on terror, which physical fear of bullies alone cannot explain. When we watch him submit and slink away from a fight, we should see this in the context of a fear not of physical violence, but of sex. Sex carries with it a threat of a psychical annihilation arguably more terrifying than physical danger, which helps explain why film depictions of graphic sex are far less acceptable to the public than depictions of graphic violence.
On this view, Marty’s problem is that his ambitions are directed too much toward the ideal mother, and not enough toward the symbolic father, which would give a safer, more realistic, and less unconsciously grandiose timbre to his aspirations (a grandiose case in point is the gag near the end of the movie in which he usurps the origins of rock and roll). The same goes, incidentally, for his ability to enjoy his relationship with his girlfriend, or get her to the proverbial lake: for Freud, the incest taboo is also implicated – because of an association between any object of affection and a parent – in the inability enjoy one’s sex life.
These problems involve a kind of arrested development – “regression,” as Freud called it, a psychical version of being stuck in the past. The fantasy of the film is predicated on taking regression both literally and hyperbolically, transferring someone who is developmentally arrested back not to the point at which they got stuck, but to the point at which their progenitors got stuck. Initially too much in the realm of the mother psychically, Marty must enter this realm more overtly in order to be finally free of its effects, disarming an unconscious impulse of its power by making it conscious. This realm of the mother is the fantastic place that film characters so often enter when they go on their obligatory, second-act voyage of discovery, often an external unfolding of psychical territory surveyed in the first act. Getting out of the second act and into the third often means getting back to the first act but bearing the dragon’s treasure, which often takes the form of some enhancement of character. Back to the future actually means back to the present, one that has been freed of the past and from the powerful influence of regressed elements of the psyche. But the therapeutic opportunity to transform the arrested present into an open-ended future is one only afforded by voyaging to the past, from which one can reimagine the present prospectively.
And so we see that Back to the Future’s different thematic elements turn out to more tightly woven together than they might first appear. This is not to say that the writers of Back to the Future fashioned the story based upon their intricate knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. More likely the relationship between ambition and incest was emergent, coming out of an unconscious artistic process that will happen upon such connections whether the artist is consciously aware of them or not. If you find yourself skeptically shaking your head here, and more sympathetic to the notion that this is one big coincidence, I’d to press you – whatever your views of psychoanalysis – on the non-coincidental association between incest and the failure to fully grow up. We’re all familiar with the theme of the “mama’s boy” whose attachment to his mother interferes with his romantic relationships and ability to make his way in the world on his own. You may find the word “incest” odd here – but then I think you would be hard pressed to deny the association between filial attachments that interfere with or even eclipse one’s sexual relationships, and the more threatening implication that there are sexual undertones to such attachments. Marty’s second act incestuous predicament would hardly have the thematic power that it does if were entirely unrelated to his central wish for a better father and a stronger sense of self.
And it is not difficult to find similar treatments of the relationship between ambition and incest that predate Freud. One of the world’s earliest works of science fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, is a story about two men whose ambitions are infected with a grandiosity that is predicated upon clearly incestuous attachments (after the death of his mother, the good Dr. Frankenstein marries his adopted sister). Frankenstein also invents (with props of course to the Faust of German legend) the character of the boundary-crossing mad scientist that Back to the Future and so many other works of science fiction reprise.
Which brings us back to the question of why a film that treated incest so explicitly was, like Frankenstein, an instant hit. I think we can say that it is more likely that Back to the Future enduringly fascinates because of its incest theme rather than in spite of it. Whatever the conscious revulsion of audiences to the topic of incest, stronger still is the therapeutic goal we share more or less consciously with Marty McFly: to find our way back, in a world beset by arrested development, to a future that is populated by adults.
— Wes Alwan
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