“The Wall” In Pink Floyd And US Politics: Evolution And Regression

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Dr. Jacques-Jude Lepine.

-For André

“I tell you that if these were silent, the stones would cry out.” (Luke, 19, 40)

The 2014 movie Roger Waters: The Wall is built on an alternation of highly contrasted clips. Sequences from Water´s 2013 world tour are intertwined with scenes of his pilgrimage through France and Italy to the tombs of his grandfather and his father, respectively killed in WWI and WWII. Not only are the two series of sequences thematically linked by a common repulsion for war, but the movie’s ending visually fuses them together. Towards the end of the show, the massive wall, which was occupying the stage and changing shapes and colors in sync with the music and its lyrics, collapses after a blow from Waters’ fists. It then rises again into a series of architectural forms tracing the outlines of the monument to the dead where his father’s name is engraved. This transformation is not the last one. Throughout the show and up to its very end, the symbolic meaning of the wall keeps changing, becoming at times a backdrop for the global violence and oppression of a meaningless consumer society, and at other times suggesting what Girard called the identity of violence and the sacred, when the wall turns into fascist buildings which then morph into Stonehenge-like monoliths, leaving open the possibility of endless cycles of destruction and rebirth. The later version of the show (after 2001), however, features one more metamorphosis of the wall, whose sobering, strictly realistic content stands in stark contrast to the hallucinatory, nightmarish content of the previous versions. It is this artistic evolution, its meaning for its authors, and its connection with our history and current US politics that I will try to describe here.

“Another Brick in the Wall”: From Personal Fantasy to a Global Concern for Victims

I will refer to three productions: the 1982 movie The Wall, the 1981 (and subsequent years) Pink Floyd show by the same name, and the 2014 movie Roger Waters: The Wall. Their common storyline is about the mental breakdown of Pink, a rock star traumatized by his childhood memories as a war orphan and a strong sense of alienation from his audiences. Both of these elements are inspired by Waters´own childhood and his exasperation with the out-of-control crowds attending Pink Floyd’s giant concerts. In order to protect himself from these inner and outer aggressions, Pink develops a coping mechanism of self-isolation that he calls his wall. One could say that he mentally turns each person by whom he ever felt threatened into a brick in this wall; firstly teachers, but also parental figures, doctors, officers, judges and politicians, i.e., any and all authority figures: “…All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” Calling them “bricks” helps keep at bay the petrified version of Pink’s real or imaginary tormentors. This mental wall thus offers a degree of protection (“goodbye, cruel world,” Pink says while closing the wall upon himself with a final brick). However, the meaning of the wall always remains ambivalent. Throughout the show, the wall remains an ominous, oppressive presence which, thanks to high-tech animations, suddenly morphs into reptilian entities hunting and circling Pink, who is reduced to a faceless, disarticulated puppet. It is no exaggeration to say that the wall is structured like a fantasmatic “all against one.”

In a pivotal moment during the movie, this personal, imaginary meaning of the wall takes on a literal meaning. This semantic return to the wall as a physical object is nothing else than the materialization of Pink’s imaginary “all against one” into a series of scenes of collective violence against isolated victims. During this segment, Pink, on his way to a public performance, is now hallucinating and imagines himself as a dictator, his show turned into a fascist rally during which he spurs on the crowd to kill all deviants in their midst:

Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
Get them up against the wall!
There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me,
Get him up against the wall!
That one looks Jewish!
And that one’s a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There’s one smoking a joint,
And another with spots!
If I had my way,
I’d have all of you shot!

“In the Flesh,” part II, The Wall, 1982

The segments that follow depict graphic scenes of mob violence, with the wall becoming, in Pink’s own words, the execution place par excellence: “get him up against the wall.” The wall is no longer (just) a pathological product of imagination; it is the physical object which will materially contain the stigma of the violence that took place in front of it. This new meaning of the wall finds its full expression in the 2013 version of the show, where the bricks of the wall assume a new meaning. In this version, the wall is, at times, lit up in red as if covered with blood. Meanwhile, as the music is reduced to slow, sad guitar notes and low drum beats, there appear on Pink Floyd’s trademark circular screen above the stage, one after the other, the faces of  actual victims of wars, terrorism and repression, each one with their name, date of birth and death. Their faces are then flashed on the wall, turning each brick into the face of a victim. Thus, from being the hallucinatory representation of Pink’s past persecutors, the wall has now become a historical record of actual victims of human violence. The absence of distinction between the authors of this violence, whether military forces, terrorist organizations, state police or mobs, emphasizes massive, faceless violence against single, individual innocents whose unique faces, by contrast, shine like as many stones on the wall.

Compared to the previous productions, Water’s show thus displays an evolution from the self as a victim to others as victims, from paranoid, traumatic fantasy to global reality. Of course, all the various original symbolic meanings of the wall are still present in the later shows, intricately morphing into each other; however, this ultimate version, though not excluding a pretty hefty dose of histrionic narcissism, clearly reflects a measure of ethical and personal maturity.

“Mother should I build the wall? Mother should I run for President?”

These lines from Pink, the rock star lost in a paranoid and megalomaniac delirium, sound like an eerie prophecy about our current political times, which are dominated by a man who was elected president on the promise to build a wall. In fact, his current discourse about the reasons for building a wall on the border between the US and Mexico seems to follow a process opposite to the evolution described above. The wall must be built against a threat depicted with images and words chosen to trigger fear and hatred: faceless collective entities (caravans of criminals, rapists, gang members, terrorists, drug dealers, etc.)  are preparing to “infest” the country like strands of mythical plagues. The very humanity of these people, the desperate condition of these victims of extreme poverty (historically caused by US foreign policies of the 60s and beyond) and violence in their countries, are completely obliterated. This discourse consists of a denial of reality in favor of a paranoid fantasy populated by demonized entities from which only a perfect wall can protect the US. The perfection of this wall is itself a fantasy denying reality. Its characteristics, size, shape and cost keep shifting, from a fence to a “very high” wall, from an inert concrete structure to a sophisticated, mysteriously self-sustaining wall, or possibly a see-through steel structure, a “great wall” anyway. In addition to this surreal polymorphism, reminiscent of the metamorphoses of the wall in Pink Floyd’s shows, the wall is invincible and can even address threats other than hordes of invaders. For example, it will stop drug trafficking, even though most drugs enter the US through regular importing channels. In the presidential discourse, the wall is an almost magical entity, a match for no less mythical threats.  We are back to the psychotic stage of the first versions of the wall by Pink Floyd.

If the presidential discourse consists of describing victims as aggressors, it becomes necessary to use the label of “fake news” to attack any media showing these victims otherwise, i.e., in their helpless, brutalized, gassed, caged or imprisoned state, in other words, in the reality of their condition. Such claims as “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” are the equivalent of saying: “build a mental wall,” with all the pathological – Pink-like, one could say – implications of such a mechanism of self-deception. From this point of view, it can be argued that, taken as a whole, the media function like a gigantic, ubiquitous mosaic of faces of victims of all sorts, whether as a result of natural disasters or human action, not unlike the latest versions of the show The Wall. While in general the media tend to lapse into infotainment and outright entertainment, in the case of The Wall, it is an entertainment which functions as a reliable medium.

Another Face on the Wall

This awareness of victims that permeates the media on a global scale was not invented by the media and does not correspond to any particular agenda. As always, the media feed their audience with what they want. Obviously, this awareness is also vastly manipulated and exploited in ways that make us live in an “Age of Anger” which generates more victims. However, what really matters is the origin of this awareness, which René Girard sees as a consequence of the slow influence of the Gospels in our increasingly global culture, like its unnamed leaven.

The early representations of the crucifixion often feature the wall of Jerusalem in the background. In the symbolic anthropology of iconography, beyond the specific city of Jerusalem, the wall represents all cities and cultural constructions in relation to the murder of an innocent, divine victim, Jesus Christ. If, according to Girard, all cultural foundations – of which a wall and its bricks, like as many tombstones and memories of stonings, is the perfect symbol – are hiding our violent origins, then the reappearance of the victims on these stones, projected on a Pink Floyd stage or on any of our digital screens, partakes in an unveiling (in Greek, an apocalypse) of this divine, entirely pacific victim.

Image: “Casualties as bricks in the wall,” submitted with article.

Dr. Jacques-Jude Lepine is a librarian, college teacher, and Orthodox priest.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.

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