Transcending Narcissism in the Wizard of Oz

by William Earnest

Dorothy and her friends in the Wizard of Oz are preoccupied with lack. They search for missing body parts, or character traits, or they long to return home. In their search they enter into relationships with gatekeepers and credential dispensers who, in the end, only confer on the characters the power to use what they already have. In this respect, the film serves to elaborate – whimsically, but within the bounds of plausible clinical analogy – my criticism of Zizek’s idea that the effort to remedy narcissistic lacks can be relied upon to undercut conformity and drive political struggle.

The plot: Each of the central characters needs something. The Tin Man and the Scarecrow both think of themselves as needing a body part – a heart for the former, a brain for the latter – and the Cowardly Lion needs a character trait, courage. Dorothy doesn’t share in this experience of something missing in herself. At the start of the film she sings diffusely of dreams she wishes would come true, and throughout the core of the movie she expresses a simple desire to find the way back home, to return to her aunt and uncle. Tellingly, she seems to have more than she wants, for she has acquired the Ruby Slippers by accidentally crushing their former owner, the Wicked Witch of the East. This generates an experience of lack in the Wicked Witch of the West, who becomes Dorothy’s envious nemesis.

The trip to Oz, home of the Wizard, begins when the Good Witch of the North tells Dorothy that the Wizard will help her get home. Along the way she picks up her entourage of fellow petitioners. When they arrive at glittering Oz they are made pretty and presentable and meet the Wizard. The Wizard – who appears as an awesome, fire-wreathed, disembodied tyrant – tells them that he will consider their requests if they obtain for him the broomstick of Wicked Witch of the West.

They succeed in their quest. But upon their return the Wizard hesitates. With Dorothy in the lead, the group begins to protest, and the Wizard’s roaring dismissal of them wilts when Toto pulls aside a curtain to reveal an embarrassed, unimposing figure spinning wheels and talking into an amplifier that makes his weak voice boom.

Dorothy’s group is disappointed and indignant. But despite the Wizard’s unveiling as a fraud, he still can give them what they want. Now speaking as a humble wise man – and after his apologies, he appears relieved at his fall – he addresses each of their needs in magical, concrete terms. The Scarecrow gets a scroll, and recites Euclid. The Cowardly Lion gets a huge medal, and feels confirmed in his courage. The Tin Man gets a plastic heart on a string of teeth, complete with built-in time piece, and he immediately experiences poignant emotions. And Dorothy is promised a ride home in a balloon.

The film could not be more explicit in its exposure of how the substances Dorothy’s three friends desire, substances they had assumed only the Wizard was in a position to grant, are simply unacknowledged potentials revealed to be theirs by experience.

What, then, is the nature of the power the Wizard is able to exercise? It is a power only exercised when the Wizard is undone as a powerful parental figure who exclusively possesses. Once his power is lost, it flows outward, allowing everyone to appropriate their potential. Up to the moment of the Wizard’s unveiling, the film is charged with a potential for deadly conflict with antagonistic parental figures – the Wicked Witch, the Wizard – who control access to power. Dorothy’s infantalized little group is caught up in a dangerous adventure in which these frightening Others must be overcome. But, when the Wizard is unveiled, the harrowing scenario changes to a mundane acknowledgement of, or warrant to exercise, capacities that are already held, waiting to be acknowledged and respected. The independent exercise of these abilities is no longer threatening to the now kindly Wizard/parent, who steps aside, preparing to go back to Kansas. The Wizard himself becomes just a regular guy and, by being just a regular guy, the Oedipal drama of dispossession and struggle that the quartet was caught up in suddenly dissipates. This is the endpoint of the Oedipal passage Maria Torok refers to, and this passage characterizes the process of disenchantment characteristic of each of the analyses in the Madness Isn't the only Option paper on this site.

Dorothy's Fate

Dorothy’s ultimate fate is framed by a restrictive definition of femininity. She intends to go back to Kansas with the Wizard, but the balloon becomes prematurely unmoored and the Wizard, concluding his fall from omniscence by yelling he doesn’t know how the balloon works, floats away. As Dorothy fights off despair, Glenda reappears and tells her that she may simply tap the heels of the Ruby Slippers together three times and go home. Again, as in the case of her friends, this capacity was always within her grasp. But Dorothy’s return to sepia-toned Kansas entails the loss of the slippers as well as the vibrant technicolor of Oz. Her loss of the slippers and the broader draining of the environment represents a yielding up of something flamboyant and at least prospectively sexual. This impression of loss is strengthened by her exquisitely sentimental final affirmation “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won't go looking any further than my own back yard, because if it isn't there, it isn't anywhere. Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!” Her revelation coincides with an oath of allegiance to domesticity.

But this isn’t just about staying on the farm and giving up the delights of of Oz. It is also about giving up anger. Going back to the beginning of the story, Dorothy’s flight is occasioned by Elvira Gulch’s threat to Toto. During the scene when Gulch serves the sheriff’s papers to take Toto, Gulch reaches for Toto and Dorothy slaps her hand. She then looks for backup from her aunt and uncle. Dorothy doesn’t get it, and they instead advise her to yield. She gives Toto to Gulch, but then decides to run away after Toto manages his escape. Here, I think it is plausible to argue that a split develops in Dorothy’s emotions. Following one current, we see Dorothy run away, feeling lost, looking for help from the mountebank Professor Marvel, being moved by his well--intentioned false report of her aunt’s heart pains, and returning to aid her. This help-seeking/kindly emotional trend is divorced from her rage: because the return home will once again place Toto in jeopardy, Dorothy becomes angry, but disavows her anger in the projected form of the threatening tornado. She then passively experiences the windstorm, and thereby seems innocent of the death of Gulch (embodied as the Wicked Witch of the East). In this perspective, Dorothy’s affirmation that “there’s no place like home” is as much a renunciation of murderous violence as it is a renunciation of sexuality.

Dorothy’s wish for home represents her desire to return to the childhood of her latency, free of emerging sexual and aggressive feelings. In contrast to her comrades, she maintains her disorientation to her emotional life. They are taken through a passage, Oedipal in form, that allows them to have what they believe they didn’t. Indeed, this passage is promoted by Dorothy’s plight, which moves them out of the torpor of narcissistic lack and into a form of solidarity. But Dorothy herself, after carrying out her galvanizing role, cannot really possess what she has discovered. The Ruby Slippers, which were so powerfully affixed to Dorothy’s feet when the envious Wicked Witch of the West tried to take them for herself, nevertheless remain consciously unwanted by Dorothy, external to her. They finally fall away when Dorothy magically renounces them at the suggestion of Glenda, the sugary sweet “good” witch who serves as a sponsor of Dorothy's latency phase identity. Dorothy's aggressive feelings suffer the common fate of projections: they remain closely linked to external accidents – tornados, or the reflexive action of pouring water on the burning Scarecrow that leads to the Wicked Witch of the West being “liquidated” – and are thereby lost to external contingency. Dorothy returns to her dreamy state of wanting something only vaguely defined as at a location "somewhere over the rainbow," making it more likely she will wind up waiting for a man to come along and act on her behalf.

The Paralyzed Ordeal of Narcissistic Longing

Parallels between the analysands of the "Madness isn't the Only Option..." paper on this site and the characters of Oz are most clear in the case of the Dorothy’s three male friends. Their sense that they lack something puts them in a state of psychic paralysis, hanging around in cornfields or frozen with rust, and this is nicely emblematic of the state of objectified fascination characteristic of narcissism. It is only when they are drawn into the dynamics of relational desire – their friendship and love for Dorothy – that they move forward, following a trajectory in which they eventually confront the possessive Oedipal tyrants they fear. In their narcissistic misery they have been isolated and self-absorbed; it is the wish to help Dorothy, to answer her call for assistance that gives them some confidence in their own value. Her appeal draws them back into life, away from the captivating, delusional certainty that they lack something and that, if they only had it, everything would be fine. Their narcissistic orientation is truly superseded in the Hegelian sense that they have involved themselves in a process that transmutes their narcissistic fascination with lack into an emotional investment in another person. They keep the placebos – the diploma, the heart, and the medal – that refer to their formerly held delusion, but have been drawn into more fully developed relationships with another human being.

To refer to Zizek’s model of political action, Dorothy's narcissistically-preoccupied friends have become “passionately attached to some Cause…for which [they] are ready to risk everything.” But supporting the Cause leads to a transcendence of their fascination with representations of what they delusionally believed they needed for a relationship to be possible. Zizek's formulation in The Ticklish Subject of the plausible basis for political actions is insensitive to the possibility of this transcendence. Due to his stress on avoiding the spell of "stupid self-contented life-rhythms," he places his psychoanalytic wager on mechanisms grounded in narcissism. In this sense, he seeks to grow a more vital politics from a relatively frozen personality structure, one that is inconsonant with the dynamics of mobilization and solidarity. [For more on these issues, please refer to the essay "Madness isn't the Only Option: On Zizek's Resignation to Narcissistic Politics" on this website.]

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