Faith as Addiction?


With the Oscar nominations out, and the British artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave a top contender, I am reminded of McQueen’s previous film, Shame. It didn’t make quite as big a splash, not because it wasn’t a great film–it was–but clearly due to its intense, graphic portrayals of sex. Brilliantly directed and co-written by McQueen, this was also one of the best acted films of 2011. Shame has continued to haunt me, and I write about it now because, I believe, it offers insights into the potentially addictive nature of religious faith.

Shame is a film about desire—desire to the point of addiction, a sickness unto death. To sum it up in a sentence: It’s about a sex addict named Brandon living in New York City. There are many addictions that befall us Homo sapiens; most are made and kept in secret, keeping us from the most intimate of intimacies. The film portrays the destructive tendencies of desire turned inward, the bankruptcy of an aesthetic and/or religious life that would establish the individual as sole proprietor of spirit. Desire gives way to despair, gives way to disease, all festering within the individual closed off to the world.

What follows here is not a “review” of the film so much as a meditation, looking at what this cinematic narrative tells us about the life of the individual and intimacy, the threats of disease and despair, and a life of faith.

Desire and Addiction

Brandon is deeply, compellingly, and hunkily—which is to say superbly superficially—played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender’s Brandon is successful, can afford a lofty place, or two, in the Manhattan skyline, and the occasional prostitute. We’re not sure what it is he does, and it doesn’t really matter. Manhattan office buildings provide a guise for the most generic of jobs; his bosses’ words jumbled fragments of self-help management books, followed by unmanageable nights on the town. What does matter is Brandon’s addiction, established in the first half hour: prostitutes, constant masturbation, so much pornography that his computer crashes, any out-of-the-ordinary sexual activity that keeps emotional distance between himself and others.

McQueen’s film offers some of the more convincing sex scenes in recent cinema—not pornographic in the sense of only bodies on bodies with the gaze of the audience distanced, nor sentimental in the sense of only “spirits” moving together, and certainly not titillating in any but a messed up way.

One of the more insidious elements of addictions like Brandon’s is the way it overtakes the most elemental, everyday thoughts and activities. From its beastly perch on the shoulder, addiction nags in the addict’s ear, turns the head this way and that, disabling clarity of vision. For the average person, a weekend evening at the bar may produce “beer goggles” around closing time. But addicts like Brandon have had optical laser surgery to produce permanent goggles. Everything is distorted.

Breaking the Habit

For Brandon, addiction is routine, part of everyday life: the same bathroom stalls for masturbation, the same place at the computer on the table for live sex chats, the same liturgy for visiting prostitutes. McQueen’s work as a visual artist helps show all of this with little verbal interruption—much of the film is silent—an effect used through 12 Years a Slave as well.

Brandon’s routine is broken when his equally troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him. The siblings share some dark secrets, a fact the film makes obvious without letting on what those secrets are all about: probably abuse, maybe incest, clearly some suicidal tendencies. She is self-destructive and her self-cutting gives rise to Brandon’s disdain. The disdain is only slightly softened in a lovely scene that has Sissy softly cooing “New York, New York” (Mulligan herself sings it) in a nightclub, and Brandon’s single tear hints at hidden layers of his personality.

Sissy’s arrival is followed by another break in Brandon’s “normal” routine: He meets a co-worker he really seems to like. We can tell he likes her because, for the only five minutes of the film in which Brandon smiles, he smiles with her. His overall dysfunction is apparent in the contrast between smiles and lack of smiles, well before and beyond his other scenes of dysfunction. But this disruption seems to spur him to come to grips with his addiction. (He comes to grips with it; he does not come to terms with it.)

Most Sloppywood movies rely on quick cuts because actors can’t sustain lengthy dialogues or moods; directors can’t direct action; and audiences can’t sustain their own attention. Not Shame. Nor does McQueen’s startlingly beautiful film need a lot of verbal dialogue. Instead, we get bodies, faces, gestures, motion. Through the body, levels of desire register, and the painful need for others is revealed.

Chasing the Dragon

Psychoanalytic criticism tells us desire stems from a primary lost object. The mother figure looms large, as we run our lives trying to replace, re-seek, and restore a primal unity, that wholly wombed dependence, followed by the rule of the father. Much of monotheistic tradition can be easily, and often cynically, written off as the projection of the lost parental relationship onto a much larger pater familias.

Likewise, addiction takes shape when the user attempts to reconstruct an original high. Addicts call this “chasing the dragon.” It’s an impossible task, and the desire is never fulfilled.

Perhaps fervent faith is also an addiction—devotion to sex no different than devotion to Jesus. The first dragon may be Mother, Yahweh, or the spirits; substances inhaled, injected, or imbibed. Freud wrote about this a century ago, suggesting obsessive behavior and religious faith are linked. What is needed, according to the Freudian tradition, is the mythological/metaphorical murder of the parents to unlink one’s self from the past, and to enable self-development, otherwise neuroses like anxiety, depression, addiction, or religious faith develop. (A psychoanalytic interpretation of neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris might suggest their project is not one of atheism so much as patricide, as the specter of monotheism loomed large in their lives.)

Shame leaves familial relations in the horizontal realm of siblings, giving viewers only the reality of the present. Nothing is explained, but there are hints of something earlier, something old and rotting, in their lineage. In one of the few revealing lines, Sissy tells Brandon, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” They are both suffering the effects of some unknown precedent, possibly paternal cause. Whatever it is, the siblings have been violently separated from a primal unity. Now Sissy can’t stop cutting herself and Brandon can’t stop fucking: Thanatos and Eros. The drives of death and life, misplaced toward an irrecoverable object.

Beyond the Individual

The French writer Georges Bataille took Freudian ideas, rewove them with religious ritual and myth, and added a dash of surrealism. He was more concerned with the horizontal and fraternal realm of the community instead of the vertical realm of deities and ancestors. “We are discontinuous beings,” Bataille wrote in his Erotism: Death and Sensuality, “individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity.”

Instead of the rear-view glance of Freud, Bataille looks forward, actively striving to create what has been lost: both religious ritual and eroticism are vehicles for doing so. Addiction, whether to a deity or drug, comes when the individual is the sole proprietor, the beginning and end, of the experience. The way beyond the addiction, then, is erotic, communal, transparent. So, for Bataille, “The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, . . . is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives.” It’s not Brandon’s sex so much as his solitariness that is at the heart of his addiction. For all the sex, there is little of the erotic in his life.

If you hang out in recovery programs for long, you’ll hear the one about the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. The dragon/mother/god is unattainable; it is crazy to believe otherwise.

Sanity is breaking free of the past, acknowledging the dragon cannot be had, and you are not alone. You can be part of an erotic community that gets outside one’s self.

The first scene of Shame shows Fassbender, walking naked through his Manhattan flat many stories up, with no shame. The final image of him is in a subway underground, heavily layered in winter clothes, half-smiling, replaying an earlier scene in which he silently exchanges gazes with a stranger. Some shame has, perhaps, crept in. Like Adam and Eve, shame is necessary for growth, leaving the original unity of the garden. To toil, to bear fruit and children.

But the audience is left ambivalent, unsure if transformation has occurred and Brandon has shed the past and moved somewhere east of Eden, or whether he is left in the damnation of an eternal, insane return. The choice is yours.

S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at or on Twitter @splate1.