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The Philosophy of Birdman: The Icarus Complex

II. The Icarus Complex of Celebrity

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20th century psychologist Henry A. Murray, who is perhaps most famous for his involvement in MKUltra, proposed a theory of personality disorder named “The Icarus Complex.” Michael A. Sperber—my major source for this section—reiterates the symptoms of Murray’s proposed disorder. The Icarus Complex is a compound of:

  1. Cynosural Narcissism
  2. Ascensionism combined with
  3. the prospection of falling,
  4. the cathection of fire and, if enuresis or incontinence persisted in childhood, with
  5. an abundance of water imagery.

As a consequence of this complex, one often finds

  • A craving for immortality (reascension) as well as
  • A conception of woman as an object to be used for narcissistic gains.

A bit wordy, I know, but let’s break it down. Does Riggan suffer from this disorder? And, if so, why is it important to Birdman and its viewers?

Cynosural narcissism is in reference to “a craving for a monopoly of unsolicited attention and admiration, a desire to attract and enchant all eyes” (Sperber). Cynosural refers to this ability to attract attention through some sort of quality or appearance.

An obvious connection can be made to Riggan. All you need to see is the repeated shot of Riggan reciting his character’s powerful monologue about the man who can’t see his own wife in the hospital to know that cynosural narcissism is abundant in his unconscious thought. As director, he breaks his lead character away from the scene on stage in order to be front and center, so that the audience can see him in full as he tries to deliver a wallop of a speech.

Cynosural narcissism is broken into subsections: “The Icarian’s wish is that his mere appearance (cynosural presence), or some startling exploit (cynosural act), or some moving or memorable statement (cynosural word) will draw all eyes” (Sperber).

What applies most to Riggan through the course of the film is the cynosural act: the play which he single-handedly put together in hopes of being viewed as something beyond his faded celebrity. Riggan wants desperately to be viewed as an artist, to be remembered for doing something once he is gone, to not be overshadowed by George Clooney if they were both on the same crashing plane. He sinks all of his money, time, and soul into the Carver production, only to be guaranteed failure by the critic that could make or break him.

Riggan’s cynosural act is the focal point of his entire undoing. It tears him apart mentally, leading to the appropriate demise of shooting himself on stage, which ironically plays out as a media stunt that proves to reignite the flame of celebrity underneath him. In this moment, it can be further argued that Riggan views his future as cyclical, where he will only end up exactly where he began once his “viral” status wears off. But this is an argument for another time.

Riggan suffers less with the cynosural presence—although the looming figure of Birdman in his life could act as the cynosural presence that he once had—and the cynosural word. The aforementioned monologue given during the play could act as the cynosural word within the cynosural act of the play, but it doesn’t further any argument by delving into those specifics. What is important is that it is clear to see that Riggan suffers the symptom of cynosural narcissism.

The second major component of the Icarus Complex, ascensionism (and its multiple working parts), seem to fit Riggan like a glove.

Ascensionism comes in two forms, and Riggan fits into both frameworks. Corporeal ascensionism is, according to Murray, “an extravagant human disposition to overcome gravity: a child’s desire to stand erect, to walk without support, etc. It can be expressed in fantasies of rising, flying, or floating in air” (Sperber).

Obviously, Riggan has fantasies of rising, flying, and floating in air, unless you are in the camp that Riggan has real superhero powers all along, something that is very hard to believe when you break the movie down.

On page three: Birdman’s ellusive ending gets analyzed

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