Under Arrest: The Hanged Man and Disco Elysium

Guest Post by Isaac Fellman

I could not possibly be more excited to present Pop Tarot’s first guest post. I did a lot of exclaiming when I first read it, and also wincing because of recognizing myself too much. Onwards:

Under Arrest: The Hanged Man and Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium (2019) isn’t subtle about its tarot motif. A man hung by the neck is its central image, riffed on and redescribed, floating up in dreams. The game’s protagonist, detective and late-stage alcoholic Harry Du Bois, begins the main story by naming his new case “The Hanged Man” (typically, the game offers several blackly comic options besides this one, but they’re shot down by Harry’s straitlaced partner, the William Gibson-esque Kim Kitsuragi).  As he tries to solve a case of mob vigilantism in the war-blasted neighborhood of Martinaise, Harry obsesses about the dead mercenary at the center of it, lynched and abandoned in the courtyard of a cheap motel. It’s not that he’s that a single-minded of a detective. He is not in a Place for that right now. But the dead man speaks to him, reflects his own flop-sweat and suicidal urges, shows him not so much a potential future for himself as a tunnel that’s caved in – with a distorted, mocking face spray-painted into the rubble.

Disco Elysium is a stingingly bitter game, but also a funny one. Harry and Kim are deft men with a one-liner, and many more jokes come at Harry’s expense, particularly the system by which he levels up. Namely, the player selects thoughts for Harry to internalize, a process which takes a few hours of in-game time and grants him new insights and extra skills. I say “new insights,” but most of them are irrelevant or even damaging. There might be a flashback to Harry’s precarious childhood, a delusion of psychic ability, the reluctant conclusion that the recently amnesiac Harry is probably not the vanished disco star Guilliame Le Million. This means that the hanged man is not just the game’s central motif; he’s also a ready metaphor for its main mechanic. After the player clicks “internalize,” Harry will go on with his day, generally finishing the suspended thought just as the player has forgotten it was there.

There are other suspensions too. Harry periodically loses (or finds) his concentration, and at these times the game’s perspective floats above the city in the aspic of dissociation, generating insights, observations, and bits of color. And in-game time only passes during conversations with other characters, which means that Harry can spend hours of real time in the same moment. He’ll wander around Martinaise, pondering the meaning of life and collecting recyclable trash to redeem at the corner store, with the sun fixed in the sky and the faithful Kim by his side.

The game, in sum, is a long pause composed of other pauses. It’s about a man trying to come to terms with himself: his addiction and potential recovery, his obligations to Kim, the historical traumas of his city, and the simple and complicated matter at hand. He will not finish, he cannot come down, until he is ready and has what he needs.

It was a little presumptuous of me to pick one of the major arcana for this post. The Hanged Man is one of the big deepcards, a card you might well draw in a TV show (you’ll never see Fox Mulder turn over the Eight of Pentacles). I’m an enthusiastic amateur reader, but I’m not a professional or a student of the cards like James. But when they offered me the chance to do a guest post, this was the idea I wanted to work through. 

The Hanged Man is a frustrating card because it counsels patience and the willing rejection of control. You know you have to change your life, but you don’t know how yet, and even when you do come down off the tree, all you’ll have – like the god Odin, who subjected himself to the ordeal of hanging from the tree Yggdrasil in order to gain understanding of the runic alphabet – is knowledge of steps A, B, and C. The real work is still to come, and you’ll have to do it while you’re still drained of energy and blood. 

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it induces Hanged Man moments almost daily. I often find myself suspended in the grip of an intrusive thought, or a wildly disproportionate anxiety about my physical or moral purity. Like Harry struggling with his several addictions, I know what has to be done (throw off the obsession without turning to compulsions for comfort, in my case; confront his traumas without turning to alcohol, in his). But each time, it’s a small ordeal. Medication and specialized therapy help, but they’ve only taught me to hang from the tree for a few seconds, minutes, or days, rather than a few hours, weeks, or months. 

I know people who regard their mental differences in a lot of ways, from ambiguity to pride. Not all of us would choose a different mind, if we had a choice. But personally, I get no beauty or redemption from my OCD. I do not consider it a prophetic or ecstatic state. If offered the chance not to have it, I would take it, even if it involved considerable cost. I don’t consider the Hanged Man’s state to be prophetic or ecstatic, either; he’s based on the image of Odin seeking divine knowledge, but to me, what he represents is work, of a type I’ve done many times and will do many more times. But the work of caring for our mental health is necessary work – it helps to keep all of us from suicide. Sometimes we need to dangle head-down, inverted but safe, to avoid the temptation to put the noose around our necks. 

Disco Elysium is too subtle a game to engage literally with the Hanged Man card. We never see it onscreen; the game never mentions the tarot. At the same time, the symbolism is everywhere for Harry Du Bois, who has a tree right there in his surname. We also know that he has drawn this card before. Other characters tell him that they’ve seen him on the brink of recovery, and seen him relapse, and they have no faith that this change will last. But in the hands of most players, he still chooses to try to get better, and even when he chooses to get worse, he finds he can’t do it anymore without self-awareness. Of course, he would rather dwell on whether he’s secretly Guilliame le Million, but this wacky shit isn’t working anymore, and the schtick is wearing thin. All that’s left for him, after a certain point, is the rope and the tree.

Disco Elysium makes much of the fact that Harry, an officer of a powerless police force in an occupied city, cannot meaningfully arrest anyone. Instead, the state of arrest – of being arrested, rather, in midflight – is reserved for him. We might not like it, but until the case is over, we are right there with him, waiting in suspended time for the answer to come.

Isaac Fellman is a novelist and archivist. His novel The Breath of the Sun, published under his pre-transition first name, won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for queer science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He tweets at @isaac_fellman and newsletters at isaacslaw.substack.com.