Jim Morrison’s ‘The Ghost Song’ in the Light of Surrealism, Existentialism, Absurdism, and Sigmund Freud

 

young-jimImage source: (https://jimmorrisonbiography.wordpress.com/jim-and-the-doors-pictures/.)

 

To step into the world of James Douglas Morrison (Jim Morrison), and attempt a psychoanalytical study of his poetry would mean diving into a dimension defined by lucid images, mostly lewd and obscene but also rich in allusions and description. They provide a visual treat, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes existential and largely absurd. His poetry appears absurd and surreal owing to the images he painted under the influence of drugs such as LSD (Acid), Heroin, and Marijuana. The result is an array of images, feelings and emotions usually vague and ambiguous and barely coherent. This adds to the beauty of the writing rather than hampering it since it is a slice of the writer’s genius mind. Morrison’s writings serve as study material for psychologists and students of literature alike. This essay will critically analyse the poem The Ghost Song by Jim Morrison in the light of the surrealist movement, counterculture, existentialism and a few theories of Sigmund Freud.

It would be ineffectual to study Morrison’s poetry without understanding the era he lived in and his influences. He was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake. He was also inspired by Native American culture. He considered himself to be a shaman. William Cook in his article Jim Morrison: A Serious Poet? calls Morrison’s poetry “surreal” and “symbolic” (Cook). He says that

 

“…there is a pervading sense of the irrational, chaotic and the violent; an effect produced by startling juxtapositions of images and words.” (Cook).

 

Cook elaborates on the “ambiguity of meaning” which he claims, expresses “subconscious thought and feeling.” This statement will be studied later, with reference to Sigmund Freud and psychology. Cook analyses Morrison’s poetry with reference to the various schools of philosophy and thought that the poet has touched upon.

Morrison’s era housed the counterculture which spread across the United States in the 1960s. It was a movement of rebellion and flouting societal customs. It saw the rise of college students protesting against the Vietnam War and violence. Students also began trying to spread the message of peace and love, which simultaneously included the use of drugs and alcohol. Apart from the counterculture, Morrison’s inspiration was rooted in poets and philosophers as mentioned earlier. In The Ghost Song, Morrison whimsically drifts into a subconscious reverie pulling the reader into his world. The languid lines slowly merge into a dreamy image, evoking a sense of intoxication and a feeling of loneliness.

 

The Ghost Song

Awake.

Shake dreams from your hair

My pretty child, my sweet one.

Choose the day and choose the sign of your day

The day’s divinity

First thing you see.

A vast radiant beach in a cool jeweled moon

Couples naked race down by it’s quiet side

And we laugh like soft, mad children

Smug in the wooly cotton brains of infancy

The music and voices are all around us.

Choose they croon the Ancient Ones

The time has come again

Choose now, they croon

Beneath the moon

Beside an ancient lake

Enter again the sweet forest

Enter the hot dream

Come with us

Everything is broken up and dances.

(“10 Poems By Jim Morrison That Will Turn Your World Upside Down”)

 

The poem possibly symbolises sexual and societal freedom. Morrison’s ideas of freedom were closely associated with his use of drugs, which he used to expand his mind and express his power over imagination. The opening lines present a surreal image of a girl carrying dreams in her hair. Hair, in the Jungian sense symbolises youth, vitality and sexual prowess. The opening line thus sets the mood and tone or the poem. It is one of youthfulness and growth. Morrison’s obsession with dawn is seen in several other poems too. It is possible that Morrison saw dawn as an awakening and a door to a new world of imagination. The use of alliteration in line 5 lays stress on the “day’s divinity” (5). The idea of the divine carries a mystical element and could reflect upon the culture which was influenced by Eastern religions. It clearly is an indication that every day is divine and must be lived to the fullest. This brings in the idea of the passage and transience of time. It must be observed that Morrison uses the second person narrative thus far, which is uncommon in other works of literature.

The next few lines carry a description of the setting, which is a beach. The presence of the “cold jewelled moon” (7) brings to memory Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold where the poet writes:

 

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair (Arnold)

 

It also is similar to Edward Thomas’s The Signpost where he describes a sea. Thomas writes:

 

“The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy…” (Woodhead, 93).

 

The imagery used is rather gloomy as opposed to Morrison’s “radiant beach” (7). However, in both poems, the sea and sun provide an image of renewal of the day. The “cold jewelled moon” (7) in Morrison’s poem provides a regal picture. The repetition of the sound /u:/ is an example of assonance where the vowel sound of the words is the same. The use of the sound results in the visual image being given a tactile quality. One almost feels the coolness of the jewel like moon.

In A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud elaborates on the various symbols that might appear in an individual’s dream in the chapter Symbolism in the Dream. If The Ghost Song were to be considered a dream, one could apply Freud’s theory to arrive at a conclusion. Freud maintains that;

 

A noteworthy symbol of the female genital is also the jewel-casket;  jewels and treasure are also representatives of the beloved person in the dream; sweets frequently occur as representatives of sexual delights. The satisfaction in one’s own genital is suggested by all types of play, in which may be included piano-playing. (Freud)

 

One may arrive at the conclusion that the jewel in the poem could signify a beloved person, since the line is followed by a naked couple racing down the beach. It is essential to note how the idea of the jewel and the moon both are commonly used to refer to the female sex. The nakedness could be a symbol of freedom and also of love. It is interesting to note how Morrison juxtaposes the racing to the “quiet side” (8). It is as though the footsteps are noiselessly sinking into the sand noiselessly. The line suggests privacy and intimacy, since that part of the beach is said to be quiet, and possibly, isolated. Morrison uses a simile to compare himself to “children” (9) who are “Smug in the woolly cotton brains of infancy” (10). The image is used to compare the underdeveloped, innocent nature of children. The image of innocence is extended through words like “soft” (9), “smug” (10), and “woolly cotton” (10). Since Morrison is narrating the poem as a child would see it, the couples appear to be racing, as the child’s innocent mind cannot fathom anything perverse. The “music and voices” (11) serve as metonymy to represent people. The music is substituted with “croon” (12). Croon means to hum in a sentimental manner. The “Ancient ones” (12) could be a reference to ancestors, or even Native American chiefs. Dirges in the Native American custom are common. The word “ancient” enhances the mystical element as seen when the moon is described. The occult and magic was a common area of interest for hipsters and people of the 1960s counterculture era.

In line 16, there is a shift in the setting when Morrison describes a lake, an “ancient lake” (16). Once again, we see the repetition of the sound /u:/ in “choose”, “croon” (14) and “moon” (15). The sound slows down the tempo of the poem, forcing the reader to stress on the words while reading them. It is almost as though Morrison is guiding the child/person he is speaking to. He is inviting him/her to join him, to enter the “hot dream” (18). The concept of the dream is widely used by Allen Ginsberg, who, in his journals writes about the dreams he experienced. Most of these are absurd and surreal. It is known for a fact that Morrison was heavily invested in Ginsberg’s books. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams emphasizes on the importance of the unconscious mind. He argues that the unconscious mind governs an individual’s behaviour to a great degree. It holds experiences of memories, wishes, trauma and ideas which have been repressed. Similarly, Carl Jung refers to dreams as occurrences which offer solutions to a problem in a symbolic manner to an individual. In the case of Freud, dreams serve as mode of expressing repressed thought. The “sweet forest” (17) might be a reference to sexual desire, as Freud mentions in the chapter Symbolism in the Dream. The “hot dream” (18) in the following line is almost blatantly a reference to sexual intercourse.

The poem is a rather complicated one, as Morrison shifts between the levels of consciousness, and the reader is not entirely sure if the lines are based on a dream or reality. The final lines suggest that “everything is broken up and dances” (20), possibly hinting at the state of waking up from a dream when the world appears to the individual in broken images of a dying dream. There is no restraint in the actions of the poet as he seems to be revelling in the beauty of the dreamy morning. The word “choose” (4, 14, 12) is repeated several times referring to the idea of personal choice. It represents Morrison’s approach to life where he carved out his own path and destiny in life without much regard for societal demands.

The idea of rebelling against societal traditions is seen in the surrealist art movement which originated in the late 1910s. The purpose of this form of art was to release imagination that was locked up in the subconscious. The movement officially started with Andre Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. The artists were heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Surrealism comes from a disregard for tradition, and was also seen in Dadaism a decade earlier. The movement came to a close with the onset of the Second World War. The idea was to access the subconscious mind which consisted of the ‘id’, which housed the pleasures and desires of the individual according to Freud. The paintings that emerged from this movement were thus dream-like or absurd. They were thought provoking. For instance, in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Max Ernst brings in fantastic elements into the painting, one that pricks the mind and leaves the observer thinking. The contrasting colours and striking figures renders the work of art surreal. It is something that one would see in a dream. In order to access the subconscious or unconscious, the artists used drugs and alcohol, which is similar to the approach Jim Morrison took.

 

3b-ernst-anthony(https://www.reddit.com/r/museum/comments/10s1n7/max_ernst_the_temptation_of_st_anthony_1945/.)

 

Similarly, the existential school of philosophy focused on the individual and the richness of his thought. The core belief that one’s existence was more important than the framework that defined the individual, led to finding the meaning of life through free-will. No laws or regulations could bind an individual. In other words, they weren’t bound by “mind-forged manacles” (Woodhead, 19) as William Blake puts it. In surrealist and existentialist ideology, one was stripped of everything, and left with one’s mere existence. The rest depended on what the individual made of it. Morrison used his free-will to determine how his life progressed. The freedom of choice he exercised is seen in his poem Power from his book Wilderness where he says

 

I can make the earth stop in

its tracks. I made the

blue cars go away.

I can make myself invisible or small.

I can become gigantic & reach

the farthest things…(Morrison, 13)

 

 

In his dissertation titled Imaging the Turmoil: A Psychoanalytical Study of the Poems of Jim Morrison, Bhuvanesh Santharam writes,

 

In Power, Morrison does not only focus on his relationship with his imagination, but also with the impact he seems to have on the exterior world…Morrison is not equating himself with God, but describing the far reaching scope of his imagination. (Santharam, 15)

 

Similarly, in The Ghost Song, one sees how the imagination is held in high regard. The poet pushes the interlocutor to make his/her own choices while conjuring a vivid scene on a beach. The poem can be read as a sexual dream or even as a poem based on reality, where the poet is drifting back to reality after using psychedelic drugs or alcohol. When he says “Enter the hot dream” (18), he might be saying that true pleasure and freedom lies in the subconscious, or in a dream. This could be attributed to the fact that Morrison was hardly ever happy or contended in life. His means of surviving in the world was by living in the subconscious, where he found art, poetry and music that he might not have found in his sobriety. In the song Riders on the Storm, Morrison sings,

 

Into this world we’re thrown

Like a dog without a bone (“The Doors – Riders On The Storm”)

 

This lyric can be compared to Jean Paul Sartre’s idea that

 

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. (“Jean-Paul Sartre – Wikiquote”)

 

It depicts the Godless, animalistic world that humans live in. They are left to determine their own fate. A similar idea resonates in the Absurd philosophy, where the world is a ruthless, morally dead place where nothing has meaning. It is a rather sombre view on life, but it exposes some of the deepest thoughts in the human mind bringing to question the real nature of mankind. In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the absurdity of life is revealed through the possibly symbolic representation of Gregor Samsa, who turns into a giant insect. It provides him relief from the routine of earning for his family and being a cog in the wheel. However, the ruthlessness as mentioned earlier is seen in the way his family comes to regard his existence. Similarly, in The Ghost Song, the loneliness is brought out through the lack of society and the idea of everything being “broken up” (20) suggesting a lack of support and foundation. The encompassing loneliness and alienation from reality and the dreamlike imagery renders the poem in a surreal light. The freedom of choice suggests an existential inclination, while the symbols allow room for Freudian analysis.

To conclude, it has been studied how the poem encompasses ideas from surrealism, absurdism, and existentialism. It goes on to show how the poet’s mind was not just one fuelled by drugs and alcohol, but also one rich in poetic sense. To observe the poem from a different perspective, it could be argued that the poem is a dialogue between the two factions of the mind, the pleasure seeking side and the one filled with restraint and control, or, in Freudian terms, the ‘id’ and the ‘super-ego’. While he seems to be enjoying the sights on the beach, the interlocutor clearly doesn’t seem to be engaged completely in the setting, but rather is guided by the poet through the various things happening on the beach. Hence to observe it from this perspective would mean that the poem is an interior monologue where the poet is talking to his own self, who is possibly half awake. It goes to show how the poem cannot be interpreted in a single way. Morrison’s poetry, much like his personality proves to be multi-dimensional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Books

  1. Morrison, Jim. Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison. Vintage Books, 1989.
  2. Woodhead, Chris. Nineteenth And Twentieth Century Verse. Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.
  3. Santharam, Bhuvanesh. Imaging the Turmoil: A Psychoanalytical Study of the Poems of Jim Morrison. Madras Christian College, 2018.

 

Websites

  1. “10 Poems By Jim Morrison That Will Turn Your World Upside Down”. Com, 2019, https://culturacolectiva.com/books/10-poems-by-jim-morrison-you-must-read-to-turn-your-world-upside-down.
  2. Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach By Matthew Arnold”. Poetry Foundation, 2019, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach.
  3. Cook, William. “Jim Morrison: A “Serious” Poet?”. Literary Kicks, 2019, https://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison.
  4. Freud, Sigmund. “X. Symbolism In The Dream. Sigmund Freud. 1920. A General Introduction To Psychoanalysis”. Com, 2019, https://www.bartleby.com/283/10.html.
  5. “Jean-Paul Sartre – Wikiquote”. Wikiquote.Org, 2019, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jean-Paul_Sartre.
  6. “Jim Morrison And The Doors Pictures”. Jim Morrison Biography, 2019, https://jimmorrisonbiography.wordpress.com/jim-and-the-doors-pictures/.
  7. “Max Ernst – The Temptation Of St. Anthony (1945) : Museum”. Com, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/museum/comments/10s1n7/max_ernst_the_temptation_of_st_anthony_1945/.
  8. “Sigmund Freud Quotes – Brainyquote”. Brainyquote, 2019, https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/sigmund_freud
  9. “The Doors – Riders On The Storm”. Genius, 2019, https://genius.com/The-doors-riders-on-the-storm-lyrics.
  10. “The Freudian Symbolism In Your Dreams”. Psychology Today, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/201801/the-freudian-symbolism-in-your-dreams.

 

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