Inside The Wall: Roger Water’s Inner Experience

Roger Waters’s 1979 album The Wall, along with Alan Parker’s 1982 movie of the same title, recreates Waters’s abandonment of his protecting motherly bonds. As psychologist Erich Fromm explains in The Art of Loving, when a person fails in this process, he tends to escape the awareness of separateness to recreate the illusion of dependence. One of the means to attain this end is a psychic symbiotic union:

Symbiotic union has its biological pattern in the relationship between the pregnant mother and the foetus. They are two, and yet one. They live “together,” (sym-biosis), they need each other… In the psychic symbiotic union, the two bodies are independent, but the same kind of attachment exists psychologically (Fromm, 1956. 19).

Additionally, another means of escaping separateness lies in orgiastic states: “In a transitory state of exaltation the outside world disappears, and with it the feeling of separateness from it” (11).

In Waters’s case, his liberation from his motherly bonds was challenged by his situation. The combination of an over-protecting mother and fear of the external world, caused by the absence of his father and an intimidating childhood environment, led him to choose between the lesser of two evils: to avoid separateness by psychic dependence on a mother figure. Waters himself is aware of this phenomenon. As he says in the overlay commentary of the 2005 edition of The Wall, “[t]hose of us whose spirit and sexual identity have been crushed by our circumstances in early life tend to define our beings in terms of the relationships we develop, rather than individuals in our own rights” (49:11). Thus, Waters, as well as the main character in The Wall Pink, will search for mother substitutes in the form of symbiotic relationships to audiences, women, and himself and of orgiastic states, such as consumerism and violence. This expression is externalized through lyrics, music, film, and animation.

The work, both movie and album having minor differences, presents a story as a sequence of songs. The first two pieces present a subconscious problem: “In the Flesh?” says, “[i]f you wanna find out what’s behind these cold eyes/you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise,” and “The Thin Ice” introduces the idea of a thin layer of “modern life” covering a deeper chaos. Then several pieces express one component of Waters’s problem, the intimidating childhood environment: “Another Brick in the Wall Part 1” alludes to the absence of his father; “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Brick 2” refer to his frightening teachers; and “Goodbye Blue Sky” depicts war, the context in which his father died. At the same time, “Mother” illustrates the other component of Waters’s dilemma: an overbearing mother. In the song, Roger describes how all his life takes place under her supervision. Mother will “check all [his] girlfriends,” protect him, or “make all [his] nightmares come true,” and the culmination of the song, is “of course mother’s gonna help build the wall.” Drawing a biographical parallel, a dialogue between Waters and the animator Scarfe points at an absorbing mother as well:

Waters: Do you think there is something fundamental about the kinds of mothers who insist that you are hideously embarrassed by wearing short trousers until you are fourteen?…
Scarfe: I think they are trying to keep their little boy as long as possible (14:43).

Reading between the lines, we can infer that Waters’s mother had her own identity problems and promoted her own symbiotic relationship to Roger. In these terms we can understand the wall as a symbol for a mother that simultaneously protects and isolates him. Conversely, every negative experience in Roger’s childhood constitutes, as the song states, “another brick in the wall”; with every intimidation, young Roger is pushed further back to his protecting mother, the only available alternative to overcome a threatening world.

The next song in the sequence, either “What Shall We Do Now” in the movie or “Empty Spaces” in the album, marks the beginning of Pink’s and Roger’s searches for mother substitutes, as it asks “what shall we use to fill the empty spaces?” By referring to emptiness, this sentence shows the artist’s intolerance to being alone and his need to be attached to anything that can deny his individuality. The song in the movie offers several alternatives that will appear in the plot: applause, consumerism, romantic relationships, music, violence, and necrophilia. An animation complements the song as Pink transforms into symbols of those alternatives: a woman, ice cream representing female sexuality or a mother’s sweetness, a machinegun, a guitar, and a BMW (39:36). Thus the protagonist sets out to find and adequate substitute that can absorb his identity.
The next song shows that he starts with romantic relationships. In “Young Lust” the singer introduces himself as “just a new boy/stranger in this town,” asking for a girl to “show this stranger around.” Thus the protagonist asks a woman to take responsibility for him. In addition, an animation in the movie shows flowers having sex evolving into pseudo-human creatures fighting each other until the female devours—a way to absorb—the male (36:36).
Another sign of Waters’s need for a girlfriend as a mother substitute can be inferred from the similarity between “Mother” and “Pigs on the Wings,” one of Waters’s love songs, whose lyrics show his need for protection from pigs on the wing rather than love:

“Mother” at 3:41

Image of an excerpt of “Mother” on staff notation

“Pigs on the Wing1” at 0:29

Image of an excerpt of “Pigs on the Wing1” on staff notation

The harmony, the key, the melody’s rhythm and contour, the tempo, and the guitar accompaniment are quite similar. Apparently for Waters there is little difference between singing to his mother and singing to his girlfriend, a characteristic that shows his interest in women primarily as mother substitutes.

Additionally, this trait of Roger’s had already been laid out in Animals, the album before The Wall. In Animals, “Dogs,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” and “Sheep,” depict stereotypes of differently corrupted human characters, and they are placed between “Pigs on the Wing,” parts 1 and 2, in which Roger expresses the need for a woman to protect him from the threats illustrated by the animals: “a dog needs a home/a shelter from pigs on the wing.” As quoted by Nicholas Schaffner in Saucerful of Secrets, Waters declared to be “something of a ‘dog,’” and that “he was in love” (Schaffner, 214). Reading between the lines we can establish that Waters perceives the world as a dangerous place and looks for a woman for shelter instead of love.

The first attempt at a mother substitute is romance; however, “One of My Turns” and “Don’t Leave Me Now” both express disappointment at love affairs, which fail because they stem from the wrong foundation: the need for protection and alienation rather than actual love. With “Don’t Leave Me Now” in the background, the film shows Pink’s ex-wife making love with a second man, with whom she left. This scene is parallel to Waters’s experience of losing his partner Joan, who as he recalls in the movie’s overlay commentary, told him over the phone that she had fallen in love with somebody else (36:00). Although it is hard to establish the circumstances of Waters’s break up, a dialogue between the musician and the animator hints at Joan’s frustration at lack of love in her relationship due to Waters’s mother-fixation:

Scarfe: He’s smuggling up his mom with his girlfriend
Waters: Which can happen, if you haven’t had the right therapy (31:56).

The animation at 50:10 supports this idea: as Pink watches TV, the shadow of his ex-wife appears on the wall, turns into a monster (the phantasm of his absorbing mother) and chases him around the room. The cartoon implies that Roger is simultaneously looking for and running away from romantic relationships. Although they protect him, he can only conceive them as a total denial of his individuality and integrity, which he consequently fears losing.

Since the first attempt at replacing mother fails, Pink expands his quest for mother substitutes, as shown in the next song in the sequence, “Brick 3.” The song denies the need of love by stating that his relationship was “just another brick in the wall” and that he doesn’t “need anything at all.” Next, the song “Goodbye Cruel World” shows total withdrawal, indicating a growth in his need to avoid separateness, so from here on, Pink will pursue more radical forms of attachment to mother: necrophilia, self-withdrawal, orderliness, sadism, and violence.

To understand why they can play the role of mother it is necessary to examine what Fromm called “the anal-hoarding character.” As he explains in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, mother has a symbolic “double role… as goddess of creation and goddess of destruction… The same earth from which man is made… is the place to which the body is returned; the womb of mother becomes the tomb” (Fromm, 1973. 363). In this way, there are benign and malignant forms of psychical incest, and according to Fromm, mother fixated “children in whom no affective bonds emerge” tend to develop malignant incestuousness:

For them, mother is a symbol: a phantom rather than a real person. She is a symbol of earth… she is… the ground in which [the individual] wants to be buried. The reason for this development seems to be that the state of unmitigated aloneness is intolerable; if there is no way to be related to mother or her substitute by warm, enjoyable bonds, the relatedness to her and to the whole world must become one in final union in death (Fromm, 1973. 363).

As a consequence of the attraction to death, this type of individual develops necrophilia, which in a clinical sense does not necessarily mean sexual relationships with corpses but the attraction to whatever is dead, putrid, or decaying, including the attraction to feces and bowels.

Based on this reasoning we can understand that the song “Hey You” shows necrophilia as another alternative to a mother substitute: “the worms ate into his brain.” Worms are a fitting symbol for malignant incest, as their function is to decompose a body and unite it again with mother Earth. Waters himself is subtly aware of the connection between mother and necrophilia, although it is harder for the musician to put it in words. As Schaffner quotes him, “[t]he worms are symbols of negative forces within ourselves, [of] decay. The worms can only get at us because there isn’t any light or whatever in our lives” (Schaffner, 226). In this way, Waters associates necrophilous tendencies, the worms, or “negative forces within ourselves,” with the lack of benign mother substitutes, the absence of light. He does not manage to articulate, though, that both fulfill the same function: absorbing his personality.

In “Is There Anybody out There?” Pink moves on to self-withdrawal and orderliness, which as Fromm explains, are part of the anal-hoarding character as much as necrophilia and thus are also forms of mother substitutes: “the anal interest has to be understood as another, but symbolic expression of the anal[-hoarding] character.” Because of his necrophilous tendencies, the anal-hoarding character “cannot understand the self-replenishing function of all living substance,” so he “has only one way to feel safe in his relatedness to the world: by possessing and controlling it, since he is incapable of relating himself by love and productivity.” As a consequence, he “cannot endure things to be out of place and has to put them in order; in this way he controls space…” (Fromm, 1973. 293-4). Thus, the controlling attitude of irrational orderliness is a manifestation of a necrophilous attachment to mother, or anal-hoarding character.

Irrational orderliness is thus the next point in the film. With “Is There Anybody out There?” in the background, the movie portrays Pink after an outbreak of violence in his room, where he is lining up broken guitars, TVs, pieces of furniture, and other objects that remained after the destruction of the place. In the movie’s commentary, Scarfe tells Waters, “[t]his scene came of talking, I think, of what you do when you are going off your head. You get very meticulous.” (55:23). Thus, the artists are subtly aware of the connection between the hoarding syndrome, in Scarfe’s words “going off your head,” and orderliness, or “meticulousness.”

The following song, “Nobody Home,” depicts the idea of self-withdrawal, complemented in the movie, as the protagonist is completely absorbed in his activity—or rather passivity—of watching TV. Regarding this hobby, Roger Waters recalls in the movie’s commentary that “whenever [he] arrived at a hotel, the first thing [he] would do was switch the TV on” (44:07).
These failed quests for mother substitutes are followed in the album by the song “The Show Must Go on,” which establishes the need to continue the search. The next stage is violent domination, an expression of both an orgiastic state and the active form of a symbiotic relationship. To this purpose, the song “In the Flesh” portrays Pink as a dictator discriminating audience members for being different from him. The lyrics say “we are gonna find out where you fans really stand!,” referring to whether audience and leader can be one by a symbiosis based on obedience. Thus, the differences, and any individual found to be different, must be eliminated to achieve the union. This is why Pink’s audience is wearing masks: everybody loses his integrity in a symbiotic union. Domination is related to Waters leading great audiences and his stardom, and it is akin to his spitting on one of his fans, the event that triggered his motivation to produce The Wall. Thus, a biographical parallel is drawn between Pink the dictator and Waters the idol, and both situations are potential mother substitutes because they have in common the domination of large crowds as a symbiosis and as an orgiastic state. Aware of this connection, Waters compares dictatorships to music stardom: big concerts “owe more to Nuremberg rallies… than to art… hence [Pink’s] transformation” from star to dictator (1:12:36).

This violent form of mother substitution might take place upon a strong need for a symbiotic union, as it happens to Pink after his total retraction in “Goodbye Cruel World.” In this way, Pink’s development is parallel to Waters’s. Schaffner notices that a period of self-withdrawal set in after The Dark Side of the Moon: “the pressures inherent in following up such a blockbuster were so intense… that [Pink Floyd’s members] found themselves locked in a state of creative paralysis” (Schaffner, 187). In this way, we can consider the pressures from the music business on Roger Waters after Dark Side “just another brick in the wall.” Following that period of pressure when producing Wish You Were Here, whose lyrics also show self-withdrawal, Waters seems to have had domineering attitudes. As Schaffner puts it, in Wish You Were Here, “Roger got his way” (Schaffner, 199). More remarkably, during the production of The Wall, Roger attempted to dominate the band and his environment. As Schaffner says, “[s]everal published reports hinted at Dave, Nick, and Rick’s restlessness under Roger’s domination” (Schaffner, 233). Additionally, the author reports, “Roger had banished Bob Ezrin from the Floyd for the crime of shooting his mouth to the press” after “working [with him] cheek to cheek for a year.” In the author’s words, “[i]t was almost as if the fascistic impulses that The Wall ostensibly deplored were asserting themselves willy-nilly” (Schaffner, 243). Thus it is possible to observe that Roger underwent roughly the same stages as Pink: from total self-withdrawal to domination. Waters shows his partial degree of consciousness regarding this evolution, although he is not able to explain it thoroughly: “[t]he idea of a metamorphosis from [Pink’s] weakened condition into a Nazi demagogue… I suppose it’s my description of… something that can happen internally if you don’t externalize any of this stuff” (1:09:19).
“Run Like Hell” recreates both aspects of this stage of dictatorship, symbioses and violent orgiastic states, by a powerful symbolic allusion. The lyrics say, “[w]e’re gonna send you back to mother in a cardboard box.” The message is that individuality will not be accepted. Consequently, an individual will be sent back to a place where a symbiotic union is established: the mother’s womb, represented by the cardboard box. The significance of this symbolic ritual—cutting people into pieces, putting them in boxes and mailing them to their mothers—might be present in both the fiction in The Wall and the reality of dictatorial institutions.

After “Waiting for the Worms,” which deals with necrophilia by an invitation to “follow the worms,” the sequence goes on to “Stop,” in which the protagonist takes a moment to reassess his life, and “The Trial” follows. The first part of “The Trial” shows Pink’s life in perspective: on one hand, his schoolteacher representing the inadequacy of father figures who would attempt to correct an individual by mistreatment, on the other, absorbing mother figures. The animation contributes to the recollections of his mother, as she appears as a plane that swallows Pink, turns into his mother, and whose arms finally extend and become the wall itself (1:26:40).

The second part of the song is the verdict and sentence. Although the judge seems to stand for society, Waters does not know the population’s opinion about his case—the spitting incident—nor are his charges representative of all legal cases. Additionally, he did not have any traumas arising from being on trial. Since Waters cannot construct social criticism on rational grounds, we must understand the judge as Waters’s projection of his own feelings about himself and the trial as a symbolic representation of his internal mental process: his individuation and abandonment of symbiotic unions. As the lyrics say, the accused “was caught red-handed showing feelings,” with a musical emphasis on feelings. As the lyrics in “Run Like Hell” remind us, it is wrong for the necrophilous character not to “keep your dirty feelings deep inside,” as they show individuality. The wife’s question, “have you broken any homes up lately?,” the only possible allusion in the trial to his crimes, is preceded by, “you had to go your own way,” which seems to be the main accusation. In addition, the judge condemns “the way [he] made them suffer, [his] exquisite wife and mother,” whose unfulfilled wish was, as Scarfe says, to “keep [her] little boy as long as possible.”

On these grounds we can understand that Pink and Roger’s crime is to betray their mother figures by becoming individuals, by acquiring self-awareness—and not the sadism in fiction or the spitting in real life per se. Roger’s self-awareness in real life comes from his shock at the spitting incident, and Pink’s from his feelings in “Stop.” Once they become aware of themselves, their prior equilibrium with the world is broken; hence, the judge’s sentence is not a real punishment but a symbolization of the impossibility to return to the state of dependence on a symbiosis: the irreversibility of the individuation process.

Thus, “The Trial” is analogous to the old biblical myth of Adam’s fall: Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, symbolizing humans acquiring self-awareness and reason, and God banishes them from paradise, which represents pre-human instinctive harmony with nature, or humans’ symbiotic union with the world. In “The Trial,” Pink’s feelings play the role of the tree of knowledge, the judge replaces God, and the confinement within the wall is akin to paradise.

For Waters, the eating of the apple is his reflection on the spitting incident, but the outcome of this reflection is a bit unclear. Individuation has a positive and a negative aspect. On one hand the person acquires independence and freedom; on the other, he loses security. The movie shows the negative aspect to Roger’s independence. Since the judge is portrayed as an ass or a worm, Waters’s own self-assessment is made from the perspective of the necrophilous character by his own malignant motherly conscience. Besides, the last song in the work, “Outside the Wall,” describes the external world once the wall has been torn down without dealing with Pink’s adaptation to his new situation. Regarding the interpretation of his own work, in Waters’s interview included in the 2005 edition of the movie, the artist is merely able to pronounce a few vague words: “It’s kind of open-ended… I guess… I’m fucking confused” (23:40). Since Roger’s self-assessment is an irrational punishment, a reasonable interpretation seems to be that Waters is trying to change, but he is attempting to force a change by blaming himself for who he is rather than developing a rational independence from the image and role of mother—a significant life change that would require great effort and time. Therefore this attempt fails, as he continues to treat himself like a little boy with a motherly conscience that dwells on the loss of dependence rather than valuing freedom—in other words, Waters does not know any better than relating to the world by symbiotic unions. These are the reasons why tearing down the wall appears not as a success achieved by Pink, the accomplishment of his independence, but as a self-imposed punishment, while he still remains a passive puppet. If these considerations are correct, it is irrelevant that in a 1979 interview with Tommy Vance Waters said that de-isolation “is a very good thing,” because the artist might intellectually understand the process as positive while not resolving his emotions correspondingly, thus rationalizing them.

In conclusion, The Wall portrays Waters’s need for mother substitutes. This need arose in his real life from biographical circumstances, particularly the combination of an absorbing mother and an intimidating environment, including an absent father, and the expression of his character had precedents in Animals and Wish You Were Here, as well as in Roger’s behavior after Dark Side of the Moon. This search for mother substitutes found its objects in symbiotic unions and orgiastic states of different kinds: romance, self-withdrawals, necrophilia, orderliness, sadism, and violence, and it culminated in Waters’s self-awareness, which rather than promoting self-improvement, dwells in self-punishment for not being a good boy, as he betrayed his self-retentive motherly conscience.

Works Cited

  • Fromm, Erich. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1973.
  • —. The Art of Loving. Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York, 1956.
  • Pink Floyd. Animals. EMI Records, 1977.
  • Pink Floyd. The Wall. EMI Records, 1979.
  • Schaffner, Nicholas. Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey. Dell Publishing: New York, 1991.
  • The Wall. Dir: Alan Parker. Perf. Bob Geldof, Christine Hargreaves, Eleanor David, Kevin McKeon. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1982. Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005.
  • Vance, Tommy. Interview. Roger Waters. BBC. Radio One, London. 1979.

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