That Slow Boat to China Redux

I believe that there is a profound lesson to be learned from the final scene of The Master (2012):

Lancaster Dodd: […] Freddie, sailor of the seas. You pay no rent. You’re free to go where you please. You go. Go to that landless latitude. And good luck. Once you figure out a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you would be the first person in the history of the world. […] If you leave here [then] I don’t ever want to see you again. [long pause] Or you can stay.

Freddie Quell: Maybe in the next life.

Lancaster Dodd: If we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy.

Freddie and Dodd smile at one another.

Dodd sings “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China.”

So, what is the lesson?

Freddie, a veteran of the the second world war, found himself aboard Lancaster Dodd’s boat. Freddie was an alcoholic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was unable to hold a job or maintain any sort of stable relationship with other people. Yet Dodd and Freddie seemed to really hit it off from the beginning. Why was this the case? The popular interpretation seems to be that Dodd saw Freddie as the perfect test-case for his cult teachings. If Dodd could convert Freddie – of all people, Freddie was surely the most difficult to reach – then his indoctrination techniques were ready for a larger audience. In other words, the popular interpretation is that Dodd needed Freddie so that he can achieve more power and influence over ever larger segments of the population. I name this the skeptical interpretation. My interpretation is quite different: I believe that Dodd and Freddie hit it off from the beginning because it was love at first sight. In other words, they were sexually attracted to one another.

Most of us are led to believe that sexual relationships are always about sex, whereby sex connotes physical and spiritual contact between ostensibly opposite genders. However, great romances bloom from the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that come between us, and so on. For example, consider the scene when Freddie and Dodd are in nearby prison cells. Dodd reminds Freddie that nobody has ever cared about him except for Dodd himself. Is this not the same line we hear in the movies from abusive and controlling husbands or boyfriends: nobody else cares about you like I do – nobody else is capable of caring about you like I do. Moreover, when Freddie finally arrives back from prison, Dodd and Freddie roll around in the grass; if ever there was a case of foreplay, this was it.

These sexual relationships play out in our own lives. There is often the noble friend whom, if you like, acts the part of the master. The noble friend is the one who provides the interpretations, speaks the law, makes the plans, promises destiny, etc. And then there are the critical, free-wheeling, hysterical friends. The hysterical friends are the ones who challenge their noble friend’s sincerity, faithfulness, knowledge, etc., and attempt to prove that they are in fact something special that the noble friend ought to appreciate. This is precisely it: Dodd is the noble friend, the master, and Freddie is the hysterical friend. Dodd wants nothing more than to help Freddie realize that there is something within him more than him, an supra-human core fighting to break out from within the human-all-too-human exterior.

The point is that the noble friend is a structure of desire which is essentially masculine; the hysterical friend is a structure of desire which is essentially feminine. You can see how these two structures work within and between themselves below:

The masculine structure is on the left. You can see that the noble friend as masculine structure implies that he is in possession of the phallus for the hysterical friend. You can also see that the hysterical friend as feminine structure implies that she is the objet petit a for the noble friend. This is the point, then: the noble friend sees in the hysterical friend the lost object cause of desire and the hysterical friend sees in the noble friend the phallus which promises security, stability, safety, etc.

The relationship between Freddie and Dodd is therefore not a homosexual relationship – it is a heterosexual relationship. It is a heterosexual relationship because Dodd sees in Freddie the objet petit a and Freddie sees in the Dodd the phallus. However, the problem of their relationship is that Dodd loves Freddie but can not properly convince Freddie that he has the sort of phallus that Freddie is truly after. The Master/Hysteric relationship is a fragile one and any overstep on the part of the Master can result in the Hysteric’s withdrawal (this is a lesson learned in Freud’s case with Dora, among others). Perhaps it was because Dodd accepted Freddie’s mysterious potions that Freddie realized that Dodd was himself weak, dependent, and lacking in certain respects. In any case, it soon becomes obvious that there is no sexual rapport between the two of them (Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel) and they part ways.

Freud and Lacan were optimistic about hysterics. Lacan claimed that, for Freud, hysterics allowed him to discover the nature of the unconscious itself, the logic of signifiers, and the transferences. However, the question is this: can a hysteric ever become a master? This is an important question – I do not believe that hysterics are the high-point of radicalism. Rather, I believe that they are merely the very first step; hysterics are only the beginning. I believe that Dodd knew this all too well. So, he sang:

I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China; All by myself, alone.

You can see the point: it is a long journey, but if the hysteric keeps trying, keeps struggling and fighting, he too can become like the master. He too can become an analyst.

The Cause requires that Freddie, upon his departure, be forever designated as an enemy, and that he be opposed without mercy. The hysteric spends his time flaunting his freedom, demonstrating that he already has what the rest of us are after: knowledge, absolute mystical experience, freedom – life without a master. And yet, as Dodd makes abundantly clear, this is nothing more than hysterical repression. When the hysteric departs from the master’s plan – or when the master injects himself too much into the relationship, wanting too much too soon – then the relationship must be destroyed without mercy.

So, what is the lesson? I suppose that it is not really a lesson, it is perhaps something more like an ethical maxim: to be the noble friend is truly a difficult task; it sometimes requires that we watch others suffer – as the master has himself once suffered – and not be able to help at all (in fact, it can even imply harm). This is the difficulty of being a noble analyst. Perhaps it even says something about true love.


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