Ms. Cynthia Nichols
16 December 2009
I Just Don’t Know What to Do: A Lacanian Interpretation of “Astral Weeks”
Famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said, “What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?” (Brainyquote.com). In Van Morrison’s 1968 album “Astral Weeks,” a man yearning for impossible fulfillment through a lover (his objet petit a) is depicted, as well as the fleeting euphoria of its attainment, the eventual acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father, and then the disintegration into the obscurity of the Real.
“Astral Weeks” is an 8-song album with a wide array of instruments loosely structured around Van Morrison’s guttural voice. Musician Elvis Costello hails it as “still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium, and there hasn’t been a record with that amount of daring made since”(Grammy.com). The album has garnered a cult following through the years and remains a consummate display of imagination and musical craft. Using Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis, I examine the narrator’s development from an unhealthy investment in the Imaginary Order to his eventual maturation.
The singer’s emotional investment in the Imaginary Order is evident by his passionate desire for an ideal lover, as seen in the eponymous first track. Wishing to “venture in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream,” we can immediately sense that the singer wants to mystically unite with his lover in some fantastic and cosmic plane of existence, due to a feeling of lack (Morrison). Because of the singer’s maladjustment to the Symbolic Order he wishes to revisit the seemingly perfect union he once had with his mother, and this yearning is channeled into an objet petit a, here being his lover. If he could connect with her it would be a regression to that blissful time he associates with the Imaginary Order, as is supported by the singer’s desire “to be born again.” He imagines being cared after by his idealized lover like a mother would care for a child when he sings “Takin’ good care of your boy/Seein’ that he’s got clean clothes.” It is this unhealthy infatuation with the child-like realm of existence that Lacan would deem as an exorbitant attachment to the Imaginary Order.
The next two tracks further emphasize the singer’s discontentment with the Symbolic Order. The singer pensively cries to be with his lover and “never, never, never, never wonder why at all.” The singer never had to be concerned with other people’s problems when he was in the Imaginary Order with his mother; it was a wondrous state of existence where she met all of his demands and, because his conscious and unconscious mind had not yet separated due to language, he felt whole. But he escapes these concerns of the Symbolic Order when he imagines his lover “tak(ing) me strongly in your arms…and I will not remember that I even felt the pain.” This idealized love, which is an unconscious desire for the illusory paradise of the Imaginary Order, is a place where he “will never, never grow so old again.” The Symbolic Order, the realm of language, responsibility, and society, does not comfort the singer and thus he pursues his objet petit a passionately.
We see the singer’s neurosis fully revealed in the fourth track “Cyprus Avenue.” The singer is rendered dumb and oppressed by the tiniest facet of society. “I’m conquered in a car seat” is his way of saying that the formless anxiety that is incurred on him by society leaves him defeated. Lacan believed that people who hold resentment for the Name-of-the-Father, the representation of patriarchal society first learned through the realization of Father’s ownership of Mother, suffer from neurosis. Here the singer cannot even speak well, lamenting that “my tongue gets tied every every every time I try to speak.” Language, which is the integral part of the Symbolic Order, does not mesh well with the singer because the singer suffers from neurosis and an inordinate pining for the Imaginary Order. At times, the harpsichord itself seems to plague the singer.
Next, the objet petit a has been obtained and the singer experiences a romantic regression that results in a brief and raucous episode of joy. The notably short fifth song, “The Way Young Lovers Do,” is rollicking, explosive, and jazzy, nearly to the point of being cloy. “The sweet summertime” of this romance epitomizes everything that the singer has been striving after thus far and, since what he was after an idealized return to the illusory union from infanthood, the young love is doomed to fade, much as this song does after a mere 3 minutes. This collapse of the ideal is hinted at around the 2 minute mark when an unfitting guitar (that sounds reminiscent of the past 4 songs) lingers in the back, accompanied by absurd chiming bells. This represents the Real, the true nature of reality that is incomprehensible, which can cause serious trauma if encountered too fully.
Following the fleeting affair with his lover, the singer takes a significant step towards maturation by accepting the Name-of-the-Father. This is symbolically portrayed in the sixth track “Madame George.” Here a scene is described with the titular character Madame George. In her we see the entanglement of the feminine mother figure (Madame) with the patriarchal dominance of society (George). The singer falls into a trance and begins to confess to “getting weaker.” The singer, who still holds resentment for the Name-of-the-Father, metaphorically sees Madame George as the manifestation of this relationship between his mother and father. The cop’s arrest of Madame George is symbolic of patriarchal society taking away the beloved mother figure. As the singer tries to “say goodbye…(and) dry (his) eye,” he is trying to accept the reality of his separation from Mother. The singer continues to contemplate the fall of Madame George and then, in a surge of matured awareness, the jazzy percussion from the fifth track seamlessly blends into the song, thus marking the singer’s acceptance. He is now able to “say goodbye” and assimilate successfully into society by “get(ting) on the train.”
Now that the singer has “(seen) the writing on the wall,” he can utilize his Imaginary Order sentiments within the realm of the Symbolic Order, exemplified in the refined and cultured art of ballet within the seventh song, “Ballerina.” He tries to warn a younger child who he claims is “heading for a fall” much like his own. Trying to teach her how to channel the Imaginary Order into healthy creative outlets, he challenges her to “step right up just like a ballerina.” The singer, whose Imaginary Order attachment and subsequent neurosis are now gone, accepts that “the man…say(s) the show must go on,” and shows he is mature enough to trust society, saying “the crowd will catch you.” The singer can now operate within the two previously opposing Orders.
Within the final song the singer comes traumatically close to the Real. For Lacan, the Real was the part of existence that words cannot grasp and we can only sense its presence, which happens whenever we feel an unexplainable sensation of depression or disillusionment. The singer heartbreakingly observes a girl who rides atop a horse “white as snow.” This purity is still within the Imaginary Order, yet she seems to be focused on the “Cadillac(s)” of the Symbolic Order. The singer feels some indescribable anxiety for her, as if she is heading towards some fated doom that he identifies with: “You’re gone for something and I know you won’t be back.” Knowing the transience of life, he confesses that he “know(s) you’re dying.” This harsh realization of life, that renders identification with society meaningless, baffles the singer. This is due to an increased awareness of the Real and as the singer admits “I just don’t know what to do,” the album implodes and disintegrates into the obscurity and chaos of the Real, in one of most chilling and baffling endings to an album ever.
Van Morrison downplays any intentional message in the album, claiming: “’Astral Weeks’ songs…were from another sort of place—not what is at all obvious. They are poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination.”(Los Angeles Times). Some may use this confession of a spontaneous approach as an argument against a full Lacanian interpretation. However, this criticism could be countered that, since Morrison had no conscious intention to convey a particular message, his subconscious (and most truthful) feelings were expressed. The fact that Lacan’s theories fit so well to the album, composed such as it was, only further validates the universality of Lacan’s theories. All humans seem to have a need to feel whole and Lacanian interpretations are just one method to raise awareness of the human condition.
In Van Morrison’s soaring and inspiring album “Astral Weeks” we can clearly see the maturation that could take place within anybody. With a prolonged attachment to the Imaginary Order and the subsequent desire for the objet petit a depicted in this album, we can see the neurosis and inevitable disappointment that come with the desire of the ideal, as well as the healthy acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father. And just when we thought we were safe and secure within our lives, we all get jarred periodically with the existence of the Real. “Astral Weeks” stands as a testament to one musician’s unflinching pursuit of beauty, love, and truth that is so honestly crafted that it naturally lends itself to a Lacanian interpretation such as this.
Brainyquotes.com. n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
Lewis, Randy. “Van Morrison’s full Q&A on ‘Astral Weeks’“. LATimes.com, 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.
Morrison, Van. “Astral Weeks.” Warner Bros, 1968.
Sutton-Smith, John. “Astral Weeks Travels Through Time.” Grammy.com, 9 Apr. 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009.