Don’t Go Spilling His Beans: Pandemic, Social Reproduction, and the Hellscape of Masculine Austerity in The Lighthouse  

By Johanna Isaacson

The Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted two baffling contradictions and major impediments to left solidarity. First, we know that the majority of us are in a precarious position. We are low-waged, we are part time, we lack social support, we are a paycheck or medical procedure away from abject poverty. And yet, many of us still identify with forces of austerity and deprivation. The pandemic only exacerbates this disjunct as millions become unemployed, lose their health care, or go into insurmountable debt. Secondly, we see during this pandemic that what has proved to be essential consists largely of the forms of labor so often denigrated by this imagination of austerity– reproductive labor, feminized labor, migrant labor, service labor. Despite their proven necessity, many continue to disparage those who do these forms of labor as weak, lazy, parasitic, and undeserving of help. Robert Eggers’ recent proto-quarantine horror film The Lighthouse, illustrates the deep currents of desire and imagination that subtend the patriarchy-soaked, self-destructive and world-destructive logic behind what Jason Read calls “negative solidarity.” 

Eggers’ previous, more widely lauded film, The Witch (2015) was another exercise in mining history to reflect on current strains of patriarchal identification. Here, an isolated family’s pubescent daughter is made into a scapegoat as she exposes the family’s apparent puritanical austerity as a cesspool of forbidden desires, and finally rebels to “live deliciously” with a coven of Satanic witches. In The Lighthouse the already claustrophobic lens tightens, narratively and formally. We see only two men, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) locked in a power struggle based on values of masculinity and austerity. Wake is a longtime wickie, or lighthouse supervisor who is overseeing Winslow’s apprenticeship. Through most of the film Winslow’s low-paying, difficult, precarious, reproductive labor is demeaned and discounted by Wake. And yet, rather than rebel, Winslow only pushes himself harder, masochistically identifying with his father-figure-like supervisor, who at one point appears to him as the God Neptune himself. 

As the two men spend their allotted month in isolation, and then endure a storm which prolongs their stay, tension and violence precipitously ratchets up between them culminating in their utter dissolution. The landscape of the film is a craggy New England shore which would typically be shot in a wide aspect ratio to depict the vast, masculine ruggedness of the expanse. But Eggers instead chose to shoot the film with a 1.19:1 aspect-ratio, nearly a square, converting this scenario into a claustrophobic enclosure, emphasizing not only the confinement of the lighthouse’s domestic spaces, but also the limits of the lighthouse beacon’s phallic verticality. 

As lighthouse workers stranded on an island with only each other’s company, Wake and Winslow seem to the contemporary viewer to be quarantined, living in a man-made hell with no way to escape the poisonous fumes of their farts and aggression. The film shows where their true interests lie– in tenderness, in mutual aid, in lovingly reproducing themselves and each other. However, this possibility is made visible only by its negation, as the men sink deeper into a zero sum game of mutual destruction, hardening the contours of what Wilhelm Reich would call their character armor or what Klaus Theweleit, in his description of the fascist German Freikorps of the 1930s describes as “male fantasies.” [1]

The concept of “negative solidarity,” coined by Alex Williams and developed by Jason Read, helps us understand this logic of masculine austerity. Read argues ours is a moment dominated by fiscal discipline, and this logic permeates the affective realm, leading to mass depoliticization. Where self-preservation would encourage us to advocate for social, economic, and emotional support we are driven by this toxic cathexis to the endorsement of “more jobs, more austerity, and more persecution of the disadvantaged.” [2] Emotional fulfillment is helplessly entwined with a fantastic attachment to austere discipline, which leads to a detestation of those perceived to escape or elude this constraint, such as single black mothers, migrants, and care workers. 

Read argues that the desire and affective investment in one’s identity as a worker has been exacerbated as the nature of work shifts to a more “intensive, cooperative, and relational” mode. Following Jennifer Silva, he makes the case that in our current moment nearly all subjects of capitalism are denied “any fantasy of mobility and accumulation.” “What emerges instead,” he claims, “is an ideal of work as discipline.” Thus, the experience of struggle in paying bills or drowning in debt “is projected outward into a world in which scarcity is the rule and generosity, even equity or justice, is a kind of luxury.” The more one rejects one’s own possible pleasure, fulfillment and even survival, the more one affirms one’s “toughness, hardness, and discipline” and, as Read argues,”these become the only joys left.” 

Within this logic, “self-transformation becomes the source of validation.”  In other words, what keeps this self-destructive logic in place is an intense investment in a vision of the self as hard-working, self-sacrificing, and self-reliant, and this maps onto a masculine persona that defines maleness as rigid and contained, contrasted against abjected feminine archetypes of soft, spreading, flooding pliancy. In the era Read calls “late neoliberalism,” this gives new valence to Klaus Theweleit’s question: “is it true, as many feminists claim, that fascism is simply the norm for males living under capitalist-patriarchal conditions?” [3] This may be true in different ways in different moments, but the masculine ethos Theweleit describes converges with “late neoliberalism’s” affects and imagination that arise when the pleasures and positive cathexis of consumerism are no longer available. Instead we have austerity, hard work, and what Read calls “negative individuality,” a sense of the self as an island that precludes solidarity.  

In The Lighthouse this “negative individuality” appears as a guard against anything soft or feminine in the men themselves, their environment, or their labor. And yet this feminine excess crashes in waves against the phallic lighthouse that Wake and Winslow strain to preserve even as it erodes their psychic integrity. Immediately upon arriving at their worksite it becomes evident that the bulk of the labor Wake and Winslow must do is reproductive –primarily cooking, cleaning, and tending to the light. In order to disguise the feminine quality of this work, the men turn it into a sadistic power play, with Wake demeaning Winslow and rhetorically compensating for his diminished position with tall tales and self-mythologizing. More than a fantasy of a world without women, this is a fantasy of a world without what are imagined to be feminine qualities. This pact of exclusion drives the men into a contest to relegate one another to a feminized position. As Wake is the boss, he at first gets the upper-hand, forcing Winslow to repeat his cleaning efforts over and over, always finding them inadequate. The gendered, racialized nature of the humiliation becomes explicit as Winslow asserts, “I never intended to be no housewife or no slave.” Wake responds by doubling down on his treatment of Winslow as a housewife, a lazy worker, and, implicitly effeminate or gay. 

You lying job. Tis begrimed and be-dammed, Unwashed, unwiped and bestained…You swab it again and you swab it proper. Suck off every speck of rust til all those nails sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker. 

In The Lighthouse, no reproductive labor or activity can occur without passing through a gendered gauntlet. Even Wake’s sleep and walking is roughed up by his constant aggressive farting, a form of taking up space and marking territory. 

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Yet, Wake and Winslow do not seem to have much to do but reproductive labor. In response, they create their own Sisyphean conditions as they strive to keep excessive, luxuriant, feminized forces at bay. There are no women on the island, except for  in dreams. However, in an interview with Vox Eggers notes that he conceives of Winslow’s fantasy mermaid and the sea itself as the film’s two female characters and the most powerful. [4] In the end these feminized forces prevail leaving both Wake and Winslow: “forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea,” as Wake had predicted in a majestically florid curse. 

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The film returns over and over to the relentlessness of these forces. The mermaid appears increasingly frequently in Winslow’s foggy psyche, luring him out to a roiling sea. She sucks him in with tentacled extrusions and a vaginal slit in her tail; she repells him with a shrill scream. The beacon itself has qualities of this excess. Wake asserts he is “married” to the light and Winslow soon discovers that Wake has some indescribable erotic relationship with the entity. After seeing Wake writhing naked in the lighthouse window Winslow sneaks up to try to observe more closely. There he sees traces of a squelching, chittering alien. A tentacle writhes. 

These Lovecraftian elements draw attention to not only the gendered dynamics of the film but the implications for thinking about race– both in this film and in the logic of negative solidarity that Read outlines. As Annalee Newitz argues, the Lovecraftian monster always signifies a simultaneous desire and fear of racial mixing and impurity. That is, Lovecraft’s grotesque, seductive, tentacled creatures are not only meant to signify a fear of the racial other, but a fear of white desire for this racial other. [5] 

For all Wake and Winslow’s efforts to contain themselves from these threats, there is no way to hold back the tide of this feminized, racial other. From every crack in the lighthouse’s phallic edifice, fluids pour in. The two men disintegrate into steaming, drunken hysterics, wading in their flooded kitchen pissing and vomiting into the muck. Like Theweleit’s Freikorps men, and reminiscent of Mary Herron’s depiction of the extreme hallucinogenic affective ends of capitalism and misogyny in American Psycho, Wake and Winslow want self immolation, “they want to wade in blood…they want an intoxication that will cause both sight and hearing to fade away…They want a contact…in which they can dissolve themselves while forcibly dissolving the other sex.” [6] 

In their efforts to beat back feminine softness and replace it with masculine hardness, the two conjure the scenes of domestic violence that are secretly playing out behind so many doors, as huge surges in domestic abuse are reported in every area of the global lockdown. The isolated men belittle, gaslight, and eventually commit increasingly physically violent acts against each other. In the hothouse of the lighthouse this exercise of intimate violence can’t be detached from fantasy structures around work and austerity. 

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This vision of these men, coupled as abusive boss and abused worker, and as abusive husband and abused wife, momentarily gives way to reveal the desire for another world that lurks below these hardened masculine carapaces. The men dance in a tender, close embrace with Winslow draped over Wake’s shoulder, caressing his back as Wake nuzzles Winslow’s neck. Wake softly sings an Irish ballad: “On a monday morning/My lover lies asleep/My lover is warm/Gentle caress/Just to share her pillow.” In this sentimental idyll, we shift into an alternate, utopian imaginary, tonally distant from the rest of the film– a Monday morning free of labor, filled with gentle love. Although we have up to now seen Wake as a grimy, farting, sadistic old salty dog, here we take the intimacy seriously. But it is only a glimpse of queer “living deliciously” before the hardness of “negative individuality” reasserts itself. On the brink of a kiss, the men abruptly shift into a fist fight. 

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Says Barbara Ehrenreich on this logic (in her preface to Male Fantasies): 

They will build dikes against the streaming of their own desire. They will level the forests and pave the earth. They will turn viciously against every revolution from below– and every revolution starts with a disorderly bubbling over of passion and need. They will make their bodies into hard instruments. They will confuse, in some mad revery, love and death, sex and murder. They may finally produce the perfect uniformity, the smooth, hard certainty that transcends anything that fascism aspired to: a dead planet.” [7] 

The first step to this totalizing destruction is a hardened identification with white, productivist, masculine labor and a continued disavowal of the feminine socially reproductive labor we all depend on. It is eventually revealed that both men have constructed work identities that have little to do with their actual lives. Wake describes himself as a sailor who has undergone the greatest trials of suffering, austerity and endurance. But we learn that he never was a sailor, and all his tall tales of developing scurvy and male comradery were a fabricated self-mythology. When Winslow goes and “spills his beans”– an image that conjures domesticity and liquidity itself– we learn that he is not Winslow after all. He is not a freewheeling lumberjack, but a fugitive living through a dead man’s stolen identity. The men, who appear so “authentic” to the postmodern eye, are self-aware pastiches of archetypes, desperately attempting to mythologize themselves and to solidify the myth into fact. This resonates with Read’s remarks on the constructedness of the myth of labor. He says: 

The dominant sense, and sense of work is a motley collection of everything that has ever been believed, made up of remnants of puritan struggle, Fordist promises, and contemporary anxiety. Its anachronisms are tailored to the current conjuncture in which more is demanded of employees and less is offered in exchange. 

Despite this rejection of “women’s work,” it is Winslow’s rejection of the reproductive labor Wake actually does, his cooking, that unleashes Wake’s most violent curse, showing his ambivalent relationship to socially reproductive labor. Not only is this repression a rejection of tenderness and solidarity, but also of his own status as an essential worker, in line with rather than opposed to the feminine forces he strives so hard to suppress. Nancy Fraser calls this process a “relation of separation-cum-dependence-cum-disavowal.” [8] What we see here in the men’s interpersonal death dance–a rejection of socially reproductive labor, is what Fraser points to on a structural level. She insists that we live in a state of denial about affective and reproductive labor, imagining that it is dispensable when, as she says, “Without it there could be no culture, no economy, no political organization.” This disavowal leads the characters to choose violence and self-destruction rather than empathy, tenderness, and mutual aid. 

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The final blow comes to the men through their passion for the lighthouse beacon, which, like the box that contains a nuclear device in the noir film Kiss Me Deadly, represents their desire not only for self-destruction, but for utter world-annihilation. This phallic beacon has become central to the self-mythology the men have constructed, and as in the Oedipus myth of willful blindness to the truth, it burns out Winslow’s eyes. All along, the men have had a choice between an intimate relationship of care or perhaps even love with each-other’s warm, pliant, craggy, dirty flesh, and the cold obliterating abstraction of the phallic beacon. But the choice seems fore-ordained, Wake has already served Winslow his fate, sending: “Black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime, to choke ye, engorging your organs til’ ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more,” or so goes his curse. 

I cannot help but see this death-driven commitment to plague and abstraction in light of recent defences of “the economy” over the lives of the frail and sick in our country. Texas politician Dan Patrick presented this myth of sacrifice as a heroic narrative. Our frail elders have the chance to die martyrs, to overcome their status as useless grandparents who have no legitimate labor left in them and can only give the next generation worthless love. A negative solidarity, it seems, can be built on the rejection of one’s own old age, among other senseless and cruel prejudices. Just this week Chris Christie asked, “Of course, everybody wants to save every life they can – but the question is, towards what end, ultimately?,” as if the abstract accumulation of capital is the only imaginable horizon for life.

But if the carapace of negative solidarity is built, as Read argues, on imagination and affect, it holds its own negation. In her introduction to Male Fantasies Barbara Ehrenreich characterizes the counterpoint to the death cult of austerity like this:

what [Theweleit]  saw in communism, in female sexuality– a joyous commingling, as disorderly as life. In this fantasy, the body expands, in its senses, its imaginative reach– to fill the earth. And we are at last able to rejoice in the softness and the permeability of the world around us, rather than holding ourselves back in lonely dread. This is the fantasy that makes us, both men and women, human– and makes us, sometimes, revolutionaries in the cause of life. [9]

[1] Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, Vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

[2] Read, Jason. “Negative Solidarity: The Affective Economy of Austerity.” Unemployed Negativity, October 24, 2019.

[3] Theweleit, 27.

[4] Wilkinson, Alissa. “The Witch Director Robert Eggers Spills his Beans about The Lighthouse.” Vox. October 15, 2019.

[5] Newitz, Annalee. “The Undead: A Haunted Whiteness.” The Monster Theory Reader, University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 248.  

[6] Theweleit, (205).

[7] Theweleit, xvi. 

[8] Fraser, Nancy. “Contradictions of Capital and Care.” New Left Review, 100, July-Aug 2016.

[9] Theweleit, xvi.

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