READING WILLY WONKA IN THE ERA OF ANTI-THINKING
Whether encountered as a movie or novel, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a childhood staple of postwar Anglophone culture. Originally published in 1964, Dahl’s story of “Willie Wonka” is a morality tale for our times addressed by the present essay in relation to the precariousness, violence, intergenerational faith, and materialist fantasies reflective of contemporary life in the early twenty-first century. Compensating for the precarity of contemporary life’s impoverishment as assumptions of societal stability are overthrown, this chronicle of the Bucket family details: envious desire validated by large group chosen trauma; authoritarian enslavement of inferior, colonized peoples with murderous, industrial-level human experimentation; toward gratification of the greedy fantasy of unlimited sweetness under the sway of lethal identification with the aggressor.
KeywordsWilly Wonka precarity intergenerational chosen trauma fantasy identification
The present paper focuses upon human destructiveness and our frequent obliviousness to acts of malignancy. Often unnoted in the complex compromises of our daily life accommodations are the tensions between social and antisocial elements of personality. Embedded in interpersonal relations, these reach expression in action across the jagged continuum from conscious awareness to the unformulated in the range defined by Bion between amnesia and oblivion (Bion and Bion, 2005; Miller, 2015). Recognized or unattended, the complicated balancing act between the known and unknown, between our capabilities both for destruction and affirmation of who we are in relation to ourselves and others, underlies our active engagements within ourselves and the world.
Psychoanalytic thinkers describe a well-worn conceptual path that locates the balance of what is consciously meaningful, central in our thought, to what is peripheral through reference to empirical, real world examples. Perhaps the finest examples are local: in the daily inattentions to the meaning of the Charing Cross by regular London commuters, observed by Freud (1910, p. 16); or in Winnicott’s (1949) thoughts on the theme of murder lurking in the bucolic lyrics of the nursery tune, “Rock-a-bye Baby.” Within each, the individual’s central focus on one level of attention casts another level of attention to the periphery of thought—even to nothing at all, a denial of any meaningful possibility of what is unformulated and unconscious: pure amnesia, complete oblivion.
The Freud example is over 100 years old; Winnicott’s is almost 70 years old. In today’s world, we hear the expression in everyday English, “he is dead to me”, and think nothing of it. Indeed, in colloquial urban English, its actively engaged, aggressive form is called “blanking”: one sees another and acts to affirm the other’s nonexistence.
The progression from the declarative “he is dead to me,” which acknowledges peripheral awareness of an Other, to the prescriptive action of blanking illustrates our contemporary blunting of emotions in the civil and interpersonal spheres; and the ease with which the Other, another person (no matter what he or she represents or is purported to have done) is located as being beneath thought, diminished into a No-thing. Nothing.
“He is dead to me” announces intentionality. Not only does the speaker intend to erase the peripheral Other, very literally expressing the desire that he be dead, but the listener—as member of the public or even representing a more personal relationship—is meant to stand by and to tolerate this expression within the realm of civility. The speaker’s own intention to deaden himself psychologically to other people and to their acts, as well as to inflict his own rather passionate violence upon the listener, goes unattended, passing itself off as colloquial expression. That is, it does not claim our central attention. In declarative language, it operates at the edge of our notice. And reminds us that our psychological capabilities extend along a continuum of positions from (1) center to (2) periphery to; (3) the unfamiliar or uncanny and then (4) to the unthinkable, unimaginable.
In hearing “he is dead to me”, the passive listener is meant to support a twisting of social communication according to its asocial intent. Easily blunted by the multiple assaults of daily life, recognitions of daily trauma including our forms of aggressive verbalization, require the compassionate human capacity to imagine, to encounter, to register and to address what Martin Buber terms the real (Anderson and Cissna, 1957) within our resonant witnessing. Buber’s view reminds us that our fantasies, however they may be split off from conscious awareness, just as we repress the experience of our dreams (Freud, 1900), are constitutive elements within the range of human experience, part of our lived realities. And that by imagining and addressing what is real, however painful, in extension of our internal experiences outward into our social experiences, we mark them, giving them voice as precursors to possible action, dependent on the enlargement of our consciousness. With this move, we shift “he is dead to me” to an aliveness of what we are doing in this form of intentional murder; and account for the malignant contingencies of our deadening acts.
Otherwise, as we become inured to such colloquial expressions as “he is dead to me”, we endure a twisting, or perversion of what it means to be socialized. In this perverse socialization, we tolerate destructive non-being at multiple levels within which, perhaps the most prominent is that associated with caring and identification—with our own belonging and interdependency at the expense of others’ differences. Of course, there is a continuum of distortion within such socialization. Mistakes, errors, failures between people as between generations, are common; but a moral divide separates those that, with reparation and reconciliation can be mended, and those that cause final, inexorable destruction to others.
We accept “he is dead to me” because we wish in our passive acquiescence to the speaker, to be civil, to be accepted or respected. We do not wish to give offense; and because we believe that we value the affirmation of what is social over its destructiveness, we absorb (almost without noticing) destruction and murder in our complicated affirmations and negations of the Other. As listening participants in this social interaction, we contain hatred in the service of daily discourse; just as Winnicott’s nursery ditty, “Rock-a-by Baby” (Winnicott, 1949, p. 74) acts to calm the child while providing a container for the maternal hatred lingering just outside of the infant’s direct linguistic understanding.
Since its beginnings, psychoanalysis has observed the “unheimlich” or uncanny relation of that which is conscious to its ghostlike and dissociated, alter-ego or double, often depicted in literary form such as E.T.A. Hoffman’s terrifying story of the “Sand Man” (Freud, 1919; Kilborne, 2014; Rank, 1914). In a similar way, Roald Dahl’s childhood classic story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl, 1964) delights the reader as it portrays uncannily both the violence and gratification of shared, non-reflective, intergenerational fantasy, the stuff of loving identification with a caring Other that results in the intentional, murderous malignancies of perverse socialization. Compensating for the precarity of contemporary life’s impoverishment as assumptions of societal stability are overthrown, this chronicle of the Bucket family details: enviously murderous desire, validated by large group chosen trauma; and authoritarian enslavement of inferior, colonized peoples with murderous, industrial-level human experimentation, to gratify the wild fantasy of unlimited sweetness,—the Bucket equivalent of attaining a life lived in what is now termed the contemporary global “1%” (“Who exactly are the 1%?”, 2012, January 21, the Economist).
The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings of the adults, who remain offstage. These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilization.
They affect us because we realize that if they are monsters it is because we, the adults, have made them so. In them we find everything: Freud, mass culture, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. But all these elements do not blossom directly, as we know them, from the mouths of a group of children: they are conceived and spoken after passing through the filter of innocence. Schulz’s children are not a sly instrument to handle our adult problems: they experience these problems according to a childish psychology, and for this very reason they seem to us touching and hopeless, as if we were suddenly aware that our ills have polluted everything, at the root (Eco, 1985, p. 16).
“My dear boy,” said Grandpa Joe, raising himself up a little higher on his pillow, “Mr. Willy Wonka is the most amazing, the most fantastic, the most extraordinary chocolate maker the world has ever seen! I thought everybody knew that!” (Dahl, 1964, p. 10).
And indeed, Charlie receives this consensual knowledge, extended to him by the man he most loves. It is knowledge known by “everybody”, hence freely given for the taking—something rather rare in the Bucket family’s life of precarious socioeconomic deprivation. And because there is a barb in Joe’s direct address, as if something is amiss with Charlie’s uncertainty, Joe’s doctrine functions, too, as a pointed instruction: to belong, to be like everybody else, and most importantly to be like me, to be loved, you must also believe as I do.
Charlie lives with his family in a world defined by physical starvation relieved only by the shared fantasy of belief in the mysteries of Willy Wonka. They live on cabbage soup purchased with an income insufficient by 75% to maintain the family, Charlie, his mother, father—an unemployed factory worker—and four elderly grandparents who share the home’s single bed.
Dahl’s descriptions of Charlie’s personality concern his endurance of suffering under economic insufficiency, unrelieved but for intergenerational fantasy; and of his wild fortune, confirming the delightful joint wish of Charlie and Grandpa Joe that Charlie wins one of the precious “Golden Tickets” offered by Wonka, that extend to five winners a factory tour and a lifetime supply of Wonka product, a concretization of unlimited sweetness. Against this deprivation, Dahl draws the entitled ease of the other winners of Wonka’s Golden Tickets. And with this, Charlie is marinated through loving exposure to the envious, contemptuous hatred of his family elders toward the middle-class winners who temporarily cast Charlie’s deprivation into a bright beam of intense darkness. Grandma Georgina, for example, asks “Do all children behave like this nowadays—like these brats we’ve been hearing about?” (Dahl, 1964, p. 40). Grandpa Joe later opines, that they deserve a “good kick in the pants” (p. 97). Operating at the periphery of notice, Charlie is socialized in envious hatred for those who seem not to suffer economically, as do the Buckets in the chosen trauma of their precarious large group social identity (Volkan, 2013).
Charlie’s economic and material deprivation is embroidered with his familial awareness both of difference and envious hatred for the more economically fortunate middle class. And against this is his faith: faith in his Grandpa’s own belief and beyond this, making that belief his own, faith in the miraculous nature of Willie Wonka. And through this loving dedication, this identification into faith of familial care against the torturous and brutal hardships of an uncaring world, is the loving foundation of Charlie’s perverse socialization. The twist comes, beyond love and questioning, in faith’s singularity of limitless sweetness with its malignant diminution of others as “dead to me”.
Unlimited sweetness within Dahl’s Charlie-world is a fantasy that spans a value horizon from bad to good. Dahl’s entitled, middle class caricatures of children, brats who eat too much, disrespect parental authority, are addicted to television and their own self-interest are actually, just as desirous of unlimited sweetness as is Charlie. Yet their entitlement to unlimited sweetness derives from socialization in society’s promise as conveyed by their anxious, narcissistic parents; and is ultimately unattainable. Despite the delivery of lifelong sweets, their need for more is never satisfied. For them, unlimited sweetness is a function of class entitlement in which they believe the Golden Ticket is their due. It would appear from Wonka’s harshly moralistic perspective, that they do not suffer sufficiently, however their narcissistic preoccupations are predicated on psychic emptiness. Wonka’s perspective obliterates complex consideration of how human beings think and feel. It reduces human concern to brutal, physical survival and passive submission to totalitarian authority through exploitation of human weakness, desire.
For Willy Wonka, greed itself both defines what is fundamentally human and provides civilization’s most powerful individuals with a fulcrum for oppressive manipulation of all others’ human weaknesses. Roald Dahl divides greed two ways. The first, trading either on physical or psychic hunger, operates as a tradeoff of freedom for authoritarian manipulation on a continuum between conscious and unconscious acquiescence. Wonka’s Oompa Loompas, for example, begin their servitude willingly. They are depicted as attending the engines of Wonka’s factory in exchange for the sustaining guarantee of life-giving cocoa beans. By contrast, the genuine economic precarity and powerlessness of the Bucket family blinds Charlie to the fact of his hope-sustaining distortion of Wonka’s power as goodness. He chooses a psychic alignment with the intoxicating vision of Grandpa Joe’s idealization of Willy Wonka against the well-drawn, immediate economic reality of societal immiseration represented by his own father. Indeed, Dahl pointedly restricts the unemployed Mr. Bucket from initial entry into the chocolate factory. As an experienced, if beaten-down worker, his potential capacity to calibrate the distance between the promise and delivery of societal sweetness might operate as a dampening influence on Charlie’s susceptibility to Wonka’s manipulative, and overtly brutal, seductions. Here, Mr. Bucket personifies Freud’s reality principle (1911) offering a potential view through reflective appraisal or a second opinion on the proffering of an impossible fantasy, that what Wonka offers may come with the huge price of restricted human freedom, whether in action or thought.
The second dimension of Wonka’s perspective on greed concerns the value of human misery as a singular fulcrum for human manipulation. Here, Dahl’s polemical target is the middle class fantasy that human desire might be satisfied through material consumption. Stripping away both Wonka’s contempt and the Buckets’ envy of the bottomless aspirational desires of middle class entitlement, it seems that the true failure of these other bearers of Wonka’s Golden Tickets, is that they are insufficiently submissive to Wonka’s totalistic demands. Paradoxically, their inoculation against Wonka’s seduction through earlier gratifying entitlement, has worked! However insufficient in addressing their limitless greed, the four brats who accompany Charlie and Wonka through the factory have internalized sufficient gratification to prevent them from the total submission to Wonka’s authority. The very fact of their bourgeois complacency and greedy demand causes them to be insufficiently pliable for Wonka’s purposes. Complete manipulation requires towing the line, both actively and passively, in observation of Wonka’s destructive narcissism and self-aggrandizing power. Only Charlie’s precarity, aided by the blinding fantasy of Grandpa Joe, passes this test.
Against the gratuitous greed of entitled children is Dahl’s polar opposite, beginning in a virtuous fantasy of unlimited sweetness that is rooted first in intergenerational faith, illustrated by Charlie and his Grandpa Joe; and that continues, by the virtue of enduring painful suffering. This combination renders the sufferer malleable; and is recognized in Charlie and Joe by the god-like Wonka, who in his narcissistic encapsulation, seems immune to their religious devotion as anything but weakness. Charlie, just like the other children who claim the Golden Ticket, has not suffered entirely. While their socialization has been in gratification of fantasy, Charlie’s fantasy-life has been filled lovingly with Grandpa Joe’s wishful faithfulness. Oddly, this identification also seems to inure him from registration of the other children’s suffering at Wonka’s hands. Charlie, perhaps through incubation in his family’s precarious chosen trauma, lacks empathy for others. He cannot and does not put himself in the other children’s shoes.
Still, in contrast to the other children, Charlie’s Ticket emerges as singular: through an identification and mimicry of Grandpa Joe’s intense faith. In a sly nod to this intergenerational pairing, Dahl underlines this special relationship. Wonka recognizes only power and manipulation; in his harsh aloneness, he repudiates interpersonal identification and loving relatedness to another. He misses what is most lovingly human in Charlie and Joe. However, blinded in their devotion to Mr. Willy Wonka, and identifying with the correctness of his demonstrated brutalities, neither Charlie nor Joe recognizes that what they most value in one another, their loving care, is missing in Wonka. Their own greedily loving mutuality also excludes the presence of Joe’s son, Charlie’s father, whose world-weariness might puncture the gratification of their shared fantasy of escape from material suffering.
While Wonka permits each child to visit the factory in the presence of two adults, it is only Charlie who proceeds with a single adult, Grandpa Joe—and this, despite his own father’s desire to see the wonders also narrated to him by Joe, his own father. Simply put, Charlie’s father lacks the singularity of Wonka-faith manifested by Charlie and Joe. Laid off from the assembly line where he’d screwed caps on tubes of toothpaste, Charlie’s Dad is a man too beaten by the world, too aware of the compromises forced by reality to be rewarded within the shared fantasy of unlimited sweetness. Joe’s son/Charlie’s father must also be kept away from Wonka’s manipulative orientation in human cruelty—as Wonka fully understands—because Charlie’s father, however silent and beaten, is the only effective counterpoint to Wonka’s manipulation of Charlie through seductive promises. If allowed to speak, if allowed to be heard on Wonka’s factory floor, the silenced voice of Charlie’s Dad might signal Buber’s real (Anderson and Cissna, 1957), acting upon fantasy as reflective thought.
Wonka himself is a fierce judge of suffering. Indeed, apart from his miraculous capacity at invention, Wonka’s singular, human trait is in recognizing and exploiting the starvation of others through the promise of unlimited sustenance. The twist in the plot is that survivors of Wonka’s factory, maimed and tortured, are provided with the reparations originally guaranteed by their Golden Tickets, a lifetime supply of Wonka stuff; but the real payoff of unlimited sweetness is Wonka’s promise to Charlie that Charlie will become Wonka’s successor, after his family is absorbed within the factory in a dramatic conclusion involving the Freudian, phallic (1923) rocketing of a lift at speed, through a glass elevator shaft, achieving explosive ejaculation and destruction of the Bucket family home.
Wonka oppresses whole tribes of colonial peoples, the Oompa Loompa, who reside in his factory through population transfer; and who both endure through his provision of unlimited cocoa beans and perish in the fiendish experimental labs of his chocolate factory. Ultimately, Charlie too, will be rewarded for his starvation in exactly the same manner: with the transfer of his family to the factory against the angry protest of family members. Both Charlie and Joe know too well, but make absent as dissociated knowledge that the factory functions not only in wonder but in its shadowy capacity in human experimentation and extermination, both for Oompa Loompas and entitled children. Such knowledge becomes “dead” to them though; under the seductive anti-thinking of unlimited sweetness.
At the center of this modern morality tale is an asymmetrical relation between the physical suffering of starvation from which, based in loving human identification, arises the shared fantasy of unquestioned faith; and its exploitation by the powerful, as weakness—eventuating in complicity with extreme human violence. Wonka disposes of children who are insufficiently cowed by hunger, insufficiently compliant. These, he tortures. He marks their bodies, as if with the biblical mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15, The Jerusalem Bible, 1968, p. 8) with the signs of his power and outrage at their audacious lack of submission. So tattooed, for life, these are the survivors of their own desire for unlimited sweetness.
Perhaps more perniciously, exploiting their genuine need in hunger, Wonka rewards the product of loving identification and shared fantasy with enlistment into the ranks of the factory administration. The Buckets become Wonka’s capos. Here, in a radical perversion of the biblical “you shall be like gods” (Genesis 3:5, The Jerusalem Bible, 1968, p. 7) the condition for godliness is the human effacement of differentiation. The condition of Charlie’s elevation to Willy Wonka is the blurring of good and evil. In the final act of perverse socialization, the difference between good and evil becomes dead to me.
It always happens like that,” sighed Mr. Wonka. “I’ve tried it twenty times in the Testing Room on twenty Oompa-Loompas, and every one of them finished up as a blueberry. It’s most annoying. I just can’t understand it (Dahl, 1964, p. 116).
Oompa-Loompas, children: Charlie and Grandpa Joe observe it all, marveling in wonder rather than horror. They encapsulate the gratified fantasy at the center of their vision; and expel any reality, including the reality of their direct experience well beyond the periphery of thought, past the uncanny and into the unthinkable. Others’ suffering is dead to them. And here, resting submissively, flush with the violent destruction of the only family home they have known, the story concludes in perverse gratification of unlimited sweetness: among the disclaimed detritus of physical destruction and overt evidence of maimed humanity. Charlie escapes the pain of reality represented by Dahl’s twin action upon his father. First, Mr. Bucket is drawn in his own immiseration, contrasting with Grandpa Joe’s hopeful faith. Next, Charlie’s pursuit with Grandpa Joe, of their shared fantasy, gratified by Wonka’s addictive promise of unlimited sweetness, also stills the possibility that Mr. Bucket might have another perspective, a second opinion, on the manipulative trading on human misery that is Willy Wonka’s primary task.
It is not only that the fantasy of unlimited sweetness holds sway in equivalence to the idea that the suffering of others is “dead to me”, but also that no counter-position operates for Charlie to challenge his distortion. Grandpa Joe accepts Wonka’s obvious malice. That Mr. Bucket’s voice is absent in commenting upon another cruel production-line, is also the silencing of potential protest that might awaken the anesthetized Charlie from his addictive dream. Embracing oblivion, Charlie laughingly leads his family into Wonka’s chocolate factory accompanied by Grandma Josephine’s declarative cry “I’m starving! The whole family is starving!”
“Anything to eat?” Cried Charlie laughing. “Oh you just wait and see!”
But a clarity of sight is exactly what Charlie lacks. Like the Sophoclean hero of “Oedipus King”, he has blinded himself to the reality with which he has been presented. “Oh you just wait and see!” are chilling words, like “he is dead to me”. They are unreflective; offering complicity in the destruction of what is also good within humanity. Words that are the product of perverse socialization, gratified by a full stomach of Wonka’s cocoa in a violent fantasy of unlimited sweetness. A fantasy wherein thinking through the contingencies of one’s actions, either explicit or implicit, upon self and others, are consigned to No-things in a gloriously greedy and terrified present of anti-thinking, between the desire to attain the elusive security of the 1% and the dreaded precarity of the remaining 99%.
Dahl’s story, to which we have become inured through over a half-century of bedtime reading (1964) and movie watching (Margulies et al, 1971; Burton, 2005), is ultimately about the triumph of fantasy in turning away from what is real in our current sociopolitical worlds. Since the dawn of modern literature, partial thought has been demonstrated as leading disastrously into unconsidered action. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, made delusional from his addictive habit of reading books, in this sense is the novelistic precursor to Dahl’s Charlie and Wonka. Like them, he sets out in forays of action seemingly rooted in thought but without consideration of thoughts’ contingencies (Bion, 1962; Cervantes, 1605, p. 21). Today’s political climate of fake news and willed, manipulative deception masquerading under the gravity of informational value (Frankfort, 2005) acts to polarize society, together with politically cynical encouragement of fractious, unbridgeable emotional positions, leading to violence and splitting of imperfectly cohesive societies into fragmented oppositional groups of “us” and “them”, rooted in competition over subjectively experienced chosen traumas (Volkan, 2001).
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory outdoes Don Quixote’s poignant observations of chivalry and human injustice. Motored by envious desire validated by large group chosen trauma, it normalizes the authoritarian enslavement of colonized peoples together with murderous, industrial-level experimentation. Empathy is swept away as people are made “dead to me”, collateral damage in pursuit of limitless desire twinned in lethal identification with Wonka as murderous aggressor. In splitting off our reflective capacity for skeptical thinking and empathy for others, we submit to the unexamined contingencies of cynically and manipulative brutalization as we attempt our escape from freedom, in pursuit of our all-too-human desire for the gratifications of unlimited fantasy. Our alternative is in the difficult toleration of clear thinking and recognition of the contingencies of our fantastic, anti-thinking.
Ian Miller, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of the books, On Minding and Being Minded: Experiencing Bion and Beckett (Karnac, 2015), Defining Psychoanalysis: Achieving a Vernacular Expression (Karnac, 2016), Beckett and Bion: The (Im)patient Voice in Psychotherapy and Literature (with Kay Souter, Karnac, 2013), and On the Daily Work of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (with Alistair Sweet, Routledge, 2018).
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