The Final Cut has a way of feeling almost like Pink Floyd’s forgotten album. It wasn’t included in the box set I bought some 20 years ago after I discovered the band (though Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell were), and of course it makes sense that David Gilmour might want to distance the band from this album that was clearly primarily a Roger Waters effort.
But it seems that Waters did as well. Maybe it is because this is when things with Pink Floyd had become so fractious, with long lingering tensions coming to a head. It seems clear that the making of the album was not a good time, and while we can’t know precisely what all went down between them that led to their split in the aftermath, The Final Cut does seem to be right at that moment when the band and Roger Waters broke apart.
Yet, it is a truly moving album. It’s clearly deeply personal for Waters, whose father died in WWII when he was a baby, but I would contend it really is a Pink Floyd album, with Gilmour’s solos playing an important role in the overall effect.
This is not the point I wish to argue here, however. Rather, I want to look at the album as a poignant portrait of trauma that moves well beyond any specifics about Waters and his father. It cuts into something more symbolic, or more universal. It gets to a certain pain about being in the world, and how one might edge right up against suicide.
I’m not going to take it track by track (even if I start with the first one), but more thematically. The Final Cut is fundamentally structured around the tenses of time, and these mingle together. But let’s start with the dream.
“The Post War Dream”/”The Gunner’s Dream”
Tell me true tell me why was Jesus crucified
Is it for this that daddy died?
Was it for you? Was it me?
Did I watch too much TV?
Is that a hint of accusation in your eyes?
There is an old joke about psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud responding to everything with “tell me about your mother.” And there is something to that joke, actually, though if you read Freud it is pretty clear that he would have been a bit more likely to ask you about your father. Or maybe not.
Regardless, we get the infamous Oedipus Complex, which is far more interesting and less straightforward than many might think. But it’s still overly simple. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari point out in Anti-Oedipus, Freud makes a fundamental mistake in reducing everything to this complex of Daddy-Mommy-Me. Desire directly invests a social field. It’s broader than all of that.
“The Post War Dream” brings this out immediately. Yes, it is about daddy dying, but that itself is a symbol for something broader, and much more social. It’s about a certain injustice to the world itself.
The Father in psychoanalysis isn’t just my daddy; the Father is a symbol of the order to the world. The Father is the authority, and ultimately what gets reified into the notion of God. Why did Jesus die? Well, we’re told it was to save us. It was all a part of Daddy-God’s plan, I guess.
It is in this sense that Freud says the Father must be killed. It’s not about killing your daddy, as this particular person, but about destroying the fantasy that there is some authority out there that makes everything justified.
And yet, to experience such an actual death is to experience how difficult this all is. My father is alive, but my mother died ages ago.
That’s on a different register, but the point is that these actual deaths play out on a broader scale, or in a symbolic register. That thought is already there in Freud, but he perhaps doesn’t give it enough weight.
Should we shout, should we scream
What happened to the post war dream?
Oh, Maggie, Maggie, what did we do?
There was a dream of a better world, but things haven’t worked out. We ended up with Margaret Thatcher (and Ronald Reagan).
This isn’t just a “Post War Dream”—it remains the dream of the Left, and all of those who dream of a better world. The trauma of the War stands in for every other trauma, and we wonder what it’s all been for. Because what we want is actually fairly simple:
A place to stay
Enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what’s more no one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no one kills the children anymore
And no one kills the children anymore
“Your Possible Pasts”
There is a definite throughline on The Final Cut that relates to the past. It’s there already in “The Post War Dream” and certainly evident in a song like “When the Tigers Broke Free,” which was only included in the 2004 re-release of the album, but fits in seamlessly. We also see it crop up in “Southhamption Dock” and really throughout the whole album. But the finest head is put on this aspect of the work in the second track, “Your Possible Pasts.”
They flutter behind you your possible pasts
Some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost
What if things had gone another way? What did this do to us, Roger, to have a parent taken away so young? Who else might we have been?
And then you look at your life, and all of the choices and mistakes. You look at those failed relationships and wonder.
Do you remember me? How we used to be?
Do you think we should be closer?
It all could have gone another way, I think, whether we’re talking about global affairs or the woman who left me. The Final Cut blends these things together perfectly. There is no separation really—psychologically—between the interpersonal and the political. There’s no difference in terms of how it affects you, I mean.
“The Fletcher Memorial Home”
But we blame the world.
Take all your overgrown infants away somewhere
And build them a home, a little place of their own
The Fletcher Memorial Home
For Incurable Tyrants and Kings
And, to be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t. The world is f*cked up. It’s full of overgrown infants running things. Not only have things not gotten better in the nearly 30 years since The Final Cut came out, I think they may have gotten worse.
It’s a facile and pernicious notion of individualism that wants to put our problems on us given all of this. Yes, sure, you’re responsible for yourself, but there is no stark line between the self and the social. It makes sense that the world freaks you out. It should.
But what if we could put all of these f*ckers away?
And they can appear to themselves every day
On closed circuit TV
To make sure they’re still real
It’s the only connection they feel
Do I need to mention anyone here?
“The Final Cut”
If the Dream was about the future, and we’ve grappled with worries about possible pasts, “The Final Cut” centers on the present, or the way all of these tenses of time blend together into one amorphous thing that is the experience of one’s life.
Through the fish-eyed lens of tear-stained eyes
I can barely define the shape of this moment in time
If you’re like me, or Roger Waters (or the protagonist of The Final Cut if we should perhaps mark a difference), your life circulates around a central trauma. For me, it is the loss of my mother when I was a toddler. I can’t really remember a time before this event. There are fuzzy images, and a faint recollection of her saying that she should have waited for dad to get home and carry the groceries in for her. But that’s it.
So this loss has a way of defining the self that I am. And perhaps it is that way with trauma in general?
And if I show you my dark side
Will you still hold me tonight?
And if I open my heart to you
And show you my weak side
What would you do?
How could I expect others to deal with this when I can’t really do so myself? It’s always there, and you muddle through—you manage a wound that will never heal. And you might want to reach out, or look to others to help you cope, but if you open yourself too much to them maybe they will realize how broken you are and run away? And of course this whole complex can risk messing up any number of relationships. The trauma is always quintessentially one’s own. The best mine can do is to resonate with yours, and generally even such resonances occur best in relation to art.
Hiding it doesn’t tend to work, but neither does opening up all of the way.
Thought I oughta bare my naked feelings
Thought I oughta tear the curtain down
What I want is absolute acceptance, unconditional love—a mother’s love—but it’s not fair to expect that from a romantic partner. It’s like wanting someone to save you, when a healthy relationship would be much more reciprocal. But is this a possibility for me, or the protagonist of this song? “A kid who had a big hallucination, making love to girls in magazines […] could anybody love him? Or is this just a crazy dream?”
It is a fantasy, but our fantasies structure our worlds. There is not some brute reality we inhabit. Rather, it’s always a matter of how things are interpreted and imbued with meaning. The world is a matter of how things hang together (for me). So, by fantasy I don’t mean anything pejorative. It is a question of how we make sense of things—in particular how we make sense of things unconsciously.
One might define the trauma as a break in that world. Things no longer make sense. The world I thought I lived in no longer exists, and now I’m left to try and build a new one that takes account of this rupture.
That emptiness becomes central, and though the fantasy is for something to fill it, the reality is that nothing can because my reality is now defined by the fact that nothing can. This is the paradox. I can tear that curtain down, but will never feel accepted enough, or loved enough. It’s not possible for me, existentially, because my very existence is defined through that impossibility.
I held the blade in trembling hands
Prepared to make it but just then the phone rang
I never had the nerve to make the final cut
I have never attempted suicide, but I certainly understand the impulse. I think it is never just some small personal thing. Someone might do it, for example, in the wake of a bad break-up, but it’s really about how that person was filling a role in their world. In other words, the whole world is always implicated. It’s not worth living in. Certainly it is easy enough to look around and feel that way, but what I’m trying to get at is how the question wraps into itself not just the personal but the social and the political. It involves looking at the world and feeling that one has no place in it, and no hope that it will get better.
This runs through The Final Cut in various ways, from the invocation of past personal relationships to concerns about how we as a species seem to have lost sight of the Post War Dream, ending up instead with a kind of cold and austere late capitalism. Which is also a system that fails to grapple with things like mental health and trauma. The old State-run mental institutions—as problematic as they were in many regards—were shut down in the U.S., leaving any number of mentally ill persons homeless and wandering the streets.
Maggie, what did we do?
And then we get Reagan saying that some people want to be homeless. It’s a problematic individualism, and a failure to care for one another. We can bring it to a head through concerns about veterans, as The Final Cut does throughout, but it is so much broader than that. It is a question of whether we treat mental health as health, and whether there is some basic minimum we owe to one another as human beings.
A place to stay? Enough to eat? Where you can speak out loud about your doubts and fears?
Insofar as the world is not that, and one may feel alone, unloved, and perhaps unlovable, why go on?
The phone rang.
It’s both something small—almost a distraction—but also a reminder of others. You are not as alone as you think you are. And even if we can’t point to some grand narrative that makes life worth living, be it political or some personal fantasy about finding true love, there is still this: living is better than other available options.