THREE ETERNAL MODERN GOSPELS IN TIME OF WAR
H.G. WELLS — T.S. ELIOT — C.S. LEWIS
TRUMP DENIED SALVATION
PART ONE: GOD’S DEATH AND SUBSEQUENT RESURRECTION
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1- GOD’S DEATH AND SUBSEQUENT RESURRECTION, FROM FAUST TO APOCALYPTO (Université Catholique de Lille, 2007)
GOD’S DEATH AND SUBSEQUENT RESURRECTION
FROM FAUST TO APOCALYPTO
University Paris Dauphine
University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne
First of all, a preliminary remark. I will not reduce the term literature to fictional written works of art, but I will understand literature as all fictional and imaginary means using any medium whatsoever to tell a story to an audience. It has to be understood as multimedia by definition, the separation of media being a modern and largely French characteristic that had little meaning in the past, particularly German or Anglo-Saxon.
To understand the discourse that is going to be mine, we have to start from Goethe’s Faust who is the first staging of God’s death. That will be my introduction (note I had a full version of this topic published in Theâtre du Monde, n° 15, 2005). Faust, if we consider the two parts, is the direct reflection of the passage from a world in which God and Satan were real beings to a world in which God and Satan become imaginary at the most and eventually mental or spiritual. The first part ends with the salvation of Gretchen, dead, and the damnation of Faust, alive. Goethe had only retained the love affair with Gretchen in the first part, but in the second part he goes back to his sources and uses all the other farcical elements. Here, through the peripeteia of the second part, Faust liberates himself from God, from Satan, and becomes the servant brain (Geist, says Goethe) of history identified with the creative work of this brain, associated with hundreds of hands (Händer, says Goethe), hence in the industrial revolution that is taking place at the time in Europe. His death is not spectacular at all, no dismembering or any other ordeal. Just death and the ascent to heavens where he has to go through a first stage where he is confronted to three impersonations of the Father, of God, viz. Pater Ecstaticus, Pater Profundus and Pater Seraphicus, hence a male trinity; then the transitory Doctor Marianus, an allusion to Dante’s Paradise; then an impersonation of the Holy Virgin, the Mater Gloriosa; and finally a triple impersonation of the woman, the holy woman with Magana Paccatrix, Mulier Samaratina and Maria Aegyptica, the triple goddess so dear to Shakespeare if you want, and then Una Peanitentium, a redeemed Gretchen who is going to plead for Faust. This constitutes a pentacle or pentad of five women with a triad of them in the center. At this moment we think that Faust, or man, or human civilization has grown beyond the triple identity of God, beyond God and Satan, to the female essence of the universe realized in the number five, the number both of all promises and all dangers, of the most pagan dimension of life and yet the most Christian dimension too. In other words, Goethe tells us the story of an agonizing God confronted to the industrial revolution that enables man to reject both God and Satan. Hegel will easily declare God’s death. He is not the one who killed him, but Goethe did it before him by only registering and reflecting the assassination committed by the industrial revolution. The conclusion of this Faust Is, in French: “Toute chose périssable / Est un symbole seulement, / L’imparfait, l’irréalisable / Ici devient événement ; / Ce que l’on ne pouvait décrire / Ici s’accomplit enfin / Et l’Eternel Féminin / Toujours plus haut nous attire. » We will for the time being accept this translation.
We can now follow the slow descent into that annihilation.
I./ GOD’S DEATH
We are going to follow Faust through the 19th century in this first section of our study.
And first of all, we have to get into Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust (1846). The opera itself suggests a division of the universe in two worlds. On one side the dark male voices of Mephistopheles, a baritone, the Dionysian student Brander, a bass, and the chorus of the Damned and the Demons at the end entirely composed of very low and dark male voices. On the other side, we have the chorus of celestial Spirits composed of female voices that reach higher and higher, definitely higher than Gretchen herself. Heaven is calling us and pulling us up from the heavy and dark hell that is pulling us down.
But the essential transformation is what Berlioz makes with this first part of Goethe’s Faust. In the French post-revolutionary morality Marguerite cannot be put to death for “fornication”. The crime has to be a real crime, that is to say, a crime that has nothing to do with any Christian moral code. So, Berlioz is using a prop to bring up the death penalty. Marguerite has received some sleeping potion from Faust to put her mother to sleep while she is waiting for her lover. She overdoes it slightly and her mother dies of the excess of sleeping potion. Hence Marguerite is a “parricide” as Berlioz calls her, a matricide in more modern terms. Hence the Christian teleology of Goethe’s Faust is replaced by a good French un-religious teleology. The untranslatable French concept of “laïcité” has very old roots in France. The distortion goes slightly further because Faust only signs the pact with Mephistopheles when he learns Marguerite is going to be executed, only to be able to save Marguerite, but his signing triggers his descent into hell. Marguerite then is saved by some divine intervention but with an argument that has nothing to do with religion or morality. She is a victim due to her naivety confronted to love, this perverse passion that requires a lot of experience for us not to fall into its traps. This vision of love is also very French and unchristian. Eve after all only fell because of her love for Adam in a way, because of her naïve ignorance. This contrasts with Mary’s mission that she willfully and in full awareness accepts from God himself. For the French love excuses, in a way, everything, even the worst possible sins like causing the death of your own mother, though of course this consequence is not excused by justice which is quite something else since it is a crime and not a sin.
We can see here that Berlioz is rewriting Genesis in a direction that could not be acceptable for Goethe: the original sin has been erased, Gretchen is not responsible because in a way she is irresponsible due to her naïve ignorance, the tempter is Faust and he is the one who carries the whole responsibility and has to be damned.
Though not entirely dechristianized, this teleology is largely governed by civil law.
That’s where we meet Liszt and his Faust Symphonie (1854). I quote this music piece because Liszt uses Goethe’s concluding verses I quoted in French in his last movement. We now have to look at the original text in German. It is pregnant with a great change that we had not specified.
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Hier wird’s Ereignis;
Hier wird’s getan.
Das Ewig Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.“
I am now going to insist on the extraordinary musical dimension of this text. The rhyming pattern is admirable:
The fourfold structure of this rhyming pattern reminds us of the four women of the end: Mater Gloriosa who does not speak, Magma Peccatrix, Mulier Samarita, Maria Aegyptica (note the four M initials bracketed by two Marias), as well as the four penitents: Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana, Maria Aegyptica and Una Poenitentium. And these four penitents who plead the cause of Faust to the intercessor to God and his son, Maria Gloriosa, the fifth woman beyond the four men that had been left behind. Here the redemption is inscribed in the eight lines, the number that brings Jesus Christ back on earth for his second coming, doomsday and the apocalypse, the selection of the righteous and the destruction of the sinners, and finally the opening of the path to the messianic Jerusalem. Strangely enough, the rhymes can be counted as three if we do not take into account the consonants I have put in brackets (liche/nis/an), but have to be counted as six if we take into account these consonants (gliche/chnis/gnis/bliche/tan/nan), which doubles the number of rhymes and each particular rhyme. We can, of course, measure the value of this structure of double three contained in six as being a representation of the star of David, of Solomon’s number. When we also see that the eight lines have four feminine endings and four masculine endings we can wonder what is the salvaging element in this strange and equal union of four and four to build eight. Is it the feminine that redeems the masculine, or is it the masculine that saves the feminine, or even is it the equal union of both that is the redeeming element? We can now look at words and there maybe is a solution somewhere.
The whole stanza is dominated by the neuter gender of its nouns: Vergängliche, Gleichnis, Unzulängliche, Ereignis, Unbeschreibliche, Ewig Weibliche. But this neuter gender is covering the feminine in meaning carried by the word weiblich, and yet this weiblich comes from the neuter das Weib to designate the woman. It is quite obvious Goethe was aware of these elements because he couldn’t not be. His meaning is not clear of course since Goethe never explained it. Why express the feminine with the neuter gender? For one, it seems plausible that Goethe knew the word das Weib was a lot older for a woman than the word die Frau. Hence he could have aimed at going back in time to express eternity by rooting his language in the deepest past, which he expresses with the other words that convey a meaning of some immobile passing of time, time as captured in spatial concepts. We must remember that God created the world by creating first light that created in its turn the first time flow with day and night. We must follow Kenneth Burke in this who says that this alpha of the creation of time will find its leveling end in the omega that will bring a final stop to the flowing of time.
“Eternity is a perpetual present, and the ‘present has no space’ (praesens nullum habet spatium, [Saint Augustine, Confessions], xi, xxvii). But ‘space’ here is meant in the sense of ‘interval’; and the expression for ‘perpetual present’ is semper stans (that is, ‘ever standing’), an idea involving an image of substantiality that is definitely spatial.” (Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1961,1970, p.155)
Eternity is then timeless, hence it is only a topography, the topography of the messianic Jerusalem, hence it is only space. Goethe expresses this with his words and probably too with his neuter gender. We can also — and in Goethe’s time that would not have been a surprising idea though probably quite advanced — consider the neuter gender as being older than both the masculine and the feminine, hence as being the original gender of the world, the real eternal gender before the creating of the masculine sun (feminine of course in German) and the feminine Moon (masculine of course in German). We find this opposition in pre-Jewish Semitic beliefs (the Sabaeans for example) that have survived in some southern areas in the Arabic Peninsula with a mother God standing for the sun, a father god standing for the moon and the son standing for the stars, and first of all for Venus (note this is our name for it). We also think of Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
If we consider the starting syllables of the lines, we have a structure that emphasizes in its turn the neuter gender.
Das Un- (neuter)
Hier wird’s (neuter)
Das Un- (neuter)
Hier wird’s (neuter)
Das E- (neuter)
We can see how that neuter gender is reinforced all along by repetitions. And we can see how the beginning (the alpha) of the stanza is centered on a neuter “alles” that will be echoed by another general pronoun, but this time “uns”, hence designating the human race. And the parallel is all the more pregnant when we consider that it is all this neuter world that attracts us, that pushes us forward. Note the French translation I used earlier translates “hinan” by “plus haut” doubled by “toujours”. The original text does not imply in any way an upward movement, but only a forward movement, in fact, a movement that implies keeping at a distance, going away from, a stepping forward movement. It is progress and not elevation. That eternal feminine wrapped up in absolute neuter is the incentive that pushes us on the road to the future, to an improved reality, but improved by our own steps, decisions, making.
What I am aiming at here is to show how this final stanza of Goethe’s Faust (Zweiter Teil) is opening the door to a feminine interpretation of the world, the feminine principle being seen as basic, fundamental, original. And this feminine element is original because it comes directly from the original gender of things, of the world, the neuter gender from which everything has come, and also the neuter gender towards which everything is going. That neuter gender is the equivalent of the timeless eternity that can be captured beyond alpha and omega, beyond the existence of the world between its limits, the alpha of its beginning and the omega of its end. This ending of the play was moving the meaning from a divine domination of the world, from the masculine divinity or from the divine masculinity of things, hence away from the standard Christian teleology. Yet Liszt using only this stanza and making it the heart and conclusion of his music propels the Faustian tale into a regeneration, a rejuvenation that moves it away from its religious dimension. In other words, it goes the same way as Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, though with other means. It does not replace God’s law with civil law, but it erases the divine nature of the tale to the benefit of a more abstract, existential, philosophical nature.
When we understand this change, we have no problem moving on towards the total eradication of God from this literature.
The last stage on this Faustian road is, of course, Gounod’s Faust (1859). Faust becomes a merry feast all along that turns sour at the end. Mephistopheles is nothing but a Master of Ceremony. Marguerite will be executed by decision of civil law, but this time not because of an accidental causation of her mother’s oversleeping herself into death, but because she willfully kills her own child. She is an infanticide and this sounds pretty sordid and bleak. And yet Gounod wanted to end his tale on a merrier note, so Marguerite has to be saved. He uses a typical Christian Deus ex Machina that looks and sounds slightly ridiculous in this tale that has no religious dimension at all up to this final miracle. It holds in one three-line stanza sung by a chorus of angels: “Sauvée! Christ est ressuscité! / Christ vient de renaître ! / Christ est ressuscité ! »
II./ GOD IS DEAD AND SO IS THE WORLD: TOWARD A VIRTUAL TELEOLOGY
In music, we could follow this slow death of God in Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892 or Das Lied von der Erde (1908). That would lead us to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex on a text by Jean Cocteau translated into Latin by Jean Daniélou (1927, rev. 1948).
But I will skip this line of approach to jump directly to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) because it will lead us to two cinema adaptations and hence be a shortcut or a bridge to the silver screen.
Yet before starting on that path, I would like to quote Bernard-Henri Lévy who wrote in Le Point n°1630, December 12, 2003:
« Ce n’est pas Nietzsche, mais Hegel, qui, le premier lance sur la scène philosophique le thème de la mort de Dieu — c’est lui qui, le premier annonce : « Le sentiment sur lequel repose la religion moderne est le sentiment que Dieu même est mort. » (Foi et Savoir, traduction Méry, p. 298) […] La mort de Dieu encore. Le christianisme est la première grande religion à s’être bâtie, non sur la naissance (banal), mais sur la mort (unique) de sa figure adorée du divin. Incarnation, résurrection, corps glorieux : tout part de là — tout procède, oui, de cette théologie, sans précédent, de la mort de Dieu. »
This approach is primitive. It does not take into account the anthropological dimension of the genesis of the Christian faith as the subsequent development of the Jewish faith and the very development that will give rise later to Islam that will surge from the repressed trend of James’s zealots by both the Temple’s priests and Paul’s followers and the two subsequent compromises that the lower clergy of the Jewish faith and Paul’s followers will find with the Romans before the first destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70 CE. Just like the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham is the evidence that society at this time shifted from accepted human sacrifices to their rejection, the story of Jesus is the first expression of this new human rule, that is still not universally recognized, that man does not have any right to take the life of another human being for any reason whatsoever, because any man — or woman at that — contains a small portion of divinity and to kill a man is to kill God himself.
This is a perfect transition to Wells because Wells, as we are about to see, is beyond this stage of human development and assumes it completely. God is dead probably because human beings have not respected their divine dimension and have gone on for centuries killing other human beings. Each time one man kills another man, he also kills the divine in man, hence God.
If divine teleology is pushed aside in the 19th century, it is to the benefit of three different approaches. First, history that is conceived as a science by some, at least something that is logical and can be described, explained and even foreseen. Karl Marx is not the only thinker in that century that thinks so. Montesquieu, earlier, implied the same kind of material determinism when he proposed his theory of climates, assuming the idea that the climate in which a human community lives could determine their culture, political organization, and history.
Then economics is considered as the basic social dynamism. Adam Smith in the 18th century was the precursor, and in fact probably Goethe’s source of inspiration for his Faust Zweiter Teil. It is John Stuart Mill who will bring this approach to some systematic construction that Karl Marx will only further and deepen. For these thinkers, it is the economy that determines the structure of the society and its very history. Once again the objective is to understand the functioning of this economy in order to become capable of predicting what is to happen, hence to become capable of governing the economy, society, and history itself. This may be considered as a myth of a positivistic century but it will govern the minds of people for a long time and even today this idea still survives. Human history is done and made by man himself in a conscious perspective. We are in a way hardly coming out of this myth that expressed the total eradication of divine providence from human thinking. They replaced it by the concept of a force that was larger than man but a force man could learn to know, hence domesticate or tame, hence bring under control, thus conquering the power to govern history. We know what crimes this illusion has produced.
Finally, natural history and biology are considered and that leads to Darwin and his approach to animal species as having a biological history of their own, each animal species having evolved from another through genetic mutations and natural selection. This principle will become so powerful in the 19th century that social Darwinism will develop, stating that a man can only get in society what he morally deserves: success is a sign of moral goodness and moral goodness can only produce success, we mean both social and economic success. Some in that field will go as far as saying that the rich are good and the good are rich, hence the poor are bad and they have what they deserve. That’s exactly what Russell Conwell defends in his lectures and in his book “Acres of Diamonds”:
“Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. […] I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God as punished for his sins … is to do wrong … let us remember there is not one poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.” (in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1492-present), Harper Perennial, New York, NY, 1995)
We need this context to be able to move into H.G. Wells.
These three approaches carry each a particular teleology. The economy moves in one direction and all those opposed to it must be eliminated or neutralized. This is the reduction of the market economy to capitalism, the absence of any regulation, absolute freedom for those who control capital. History has a meaning and is moving in one direction and all those opposing this direction, this destination must be eliminated. Finally, natural history has a teleology of its own that can easily be transferred to the social level and all those who do not have the proper genetics or oppose the domination of the world by those who have perfect genetics and perfect ethics must be eliminated. These three positivistic approaches of the world and life lead to criminal attitudes proved to be so by one full century of history.
H.G. Wells is by far the louder voice that as soon as the very end of the 19th century tried to draw our attention to the future these ideologies of ours were producing.
The Time Machine (1895) provides us with an apocalyptic vision of the future. The future world the time traveler visits is entirely devoid of God. The humans there have no funeral rite and they do not bury their dead. It is a world without God. This world is the direct development of social Darwinism enriched with Marxism. The upper class, known as the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, has become a separate human species that lives on the surface of the earth, in light, just picking what they need, only vegetal food and no animal food, no hunting, no fishing. They seem to be doing nothing at all and they owe their survival or rather comfortable living to the delivery of all they need by the second human species that lives underground. This second species that lives in darkness is the descendant of the working class.
The “upper” species that lives on the surface of the earth has the following characteristics:
a- Their concentration ability is very short in time.
b- They do not look after their children in any way.
c- They seem to be able to feel gratitude and some tenderness.
d- They live in an atmosphere of total abandon and enjoyment though they seem to experience fear, particularly fear of the night and particularly fear of a moonless night.
e- They know where the danger is coming from: the airshafts that sink underground. Hence they know their predators.
f- They have lost all constructive intelligence that could enable them to invent and construct defensive devices against their predators.
The “lower” species that lives underground takes care of machines and produces all the goods necessary for the survival of the upper species they feed and take care of because they are their game and cattle. They live in total darkness and are absolutely blinded by light. They come from the old mining or industrial working class, they eat meat which is provided by the upper species that is nothing but a source of animal proteins.
H.G. Wells explains that this is the result of the desire at the end of the 19th century to satisfy all human material needs and to create a world without any parasites (plants as well as animals), a world free of diseases. This produces a human world cut in two species. The Eloi living in the sunshine, descending from the upper classes of old and transformed in this future world into cattle. The Morlocks, the underground predators of the first species, carnivorous and industrious.
A further voyage will lead the time traveler to a further future in which the earth has been given back to pure geological time in which animal and vegetal life has been reduced to monster red crablike crustaceans on which some green fungus or algae is growing, attracting the second animal species that look like big white butterflies. Once again red versus white, predator versus prey.
The vision contains though a shortcoming whose presence reveals a very pessimistic conception of humanity. The Eloi being confronted to a predator should have been able to answer their fear with some kind of defense that could have been religious (H.G. Wells implies a total loss of God and divine spirituality, which implies in its turn that these Eloi are the result of a genetic mutation that changed their mind, hence it implies the mind of people is genetic in essence), or simply material: weapons for example. In other words, these Eloi are no longer homo sapiens. They sound as if they were some kind of Neanderthal beings who lived themselves out when confronted with some homo sapiens competition. These Eloi are a regressive human species.
This vision makes us think of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that contains the same division in an upper world and a lower world, the lower world being the industrial world, and even lower the residential areas of the working class. The Machine is the Moloch in this film and it requires the feeding of unwilling half nude chained prisoners of some kind and then two battalions of workers marching into the mouth and furnace of the Moloch in rows of six and with six rows per battalion. This is the anti-Semite theme of the film that we will not discuss here.
H.G. Wells could be contrasted with that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) in which the social classes have been entirely ossified into five groups that are produced through pure educational determinism and comportmental training. But Huxley is a lot more political than social and he envisages the existence of a resistance parked away in some reservation. Huxley has kept some optimism. Wells has not.
H.G. Wells meaning is that of a cry of alarm directed at humanity, at least at those who read his literature, hence at the educated class in society: “Beware! Our modern positivistic approach of life is leading us to a catastrophic future!” It could also be seen as an absolute prediction of what is going to happen, hence a despaired and unsalvageable vision.
George Pal’s first adaptation of the book (1960) is absolutely faithful to the book and thus does not add or withdraw anything. The meaning then varies from H.G. Wells’ because of the time distance. In 1960, fifteen years after the second world war, in the midst of the cold war and also in the midst of frantic development in the west, the film could only be seen in the west as a warning against the “working class ideology”, hence against Marxism, as well as against the enjoying and careless attitude of the west who should eradicate communism which should be seen as representing a real danger for humanity. But altogether the film becomes a great piece of entertainment more than a political pamphlet.
The more recent adaptation of the book by Simon Wells, a distant relative of H.G. Wells, in 2002, leads to a completely different song.
The first change is that the shift from our world to that future world is caused by a cosmic accident when the moon explodes and falls to the surface of the earth. Hence the connection with social Darwinism and Marxism is completely severed. No more historical or biological teleology. In fact, no teleology at all: it is a pure accident.
The Eloi live in a reconstructed community with their own habitat, even if the ruins of New York are not very far. They practice some agriculture and have reinvented some technology which provides them with light at night. Their habitat makes them unreachable at night since they live in some kind of suspended houses on the flank of a cliff. They are vulnerable in the daytime when they are down in the plain to work and they may be attacked then. The Morlocks who live underground in the darkness are not, however, unable to attack in the daytime and in daylight.
The Morlocks are governed by a “chief” and live underground in an industrial society that is also highly hierarchized. This leader needs to capture female Eloi to assure his genetic future by procreating with the one he selects.
But the most important change is in the fact that the time traveler learns how to use his own machine as a weapon, hence to change the situation by entirely destroying the Morlocks and at the same time saving the Eloi. It is purely illogical that his machine can change time in the underworld while it does not change it in the surface world. But we know how to suspend our disbelief. But this event blocks the time traveler forever in this future time with the Eloi because his machine is destroyed by the event. Then he becomes a schoolmaster and he uses the remnants of the New York Public Library as a source for education. He ends up educating the Eloi into reinventing a new human life.
In this dimension of the Eloi having developed enough to reconstruct a primitive but autarkically self-satisfying world possessing a certain level of technicity and self-defense is a sign of the 21st century. Note there is absolutely no God, no mention of any divine dimension. God is dead and dead forever in this vision. But man is man and has a project, hence a future that is based on education and invention. Even the Morlocks, or at least their “chief” relies on some of that inventiveness and his genetic search for the proper female Eloi mate is in a way a sign that it is not all determinism. We have moved away from social Darwinism but also from Marxism. The Eloi are producing what they need to live and they are not cattle anymore raised by their own predators. They are game for sure but they do know, or at least they can learn, how to defend themselves and fight, at least up to a point. They have the concept of self-defense which they did not have in the previous film and book in which they went to their fate as soon as they were summoned to do so by some horn.
But the film raises for us a question that it does not even discuss. The film is based on the total annihilation of the Morlocks as if it were natural and normal to commit such a genocide in the name of self-defense. This fate is amazing more than fifty years after the second world war and the final solution of the Nazis. How can we in any way envisage the total destruction of another human species just because they are our predators? It is based on the blind consideration that a human being is justified in killing anything, or is it anyone, that menaces him. We can understand here the immense evolution from H.G. Wells’ book. And yet this film is entirely godless and the destruction of the Morlocks is in no way justified spiritually, not to mention religiously. It is a pure defensive, rational, sane, necessary measure. This is the triumph of exactly what H.G. Wells denounced: the domination of our minds, lives, and future by cold and disincarnate rationalism. This time the film is really frightening today.
Here we have to say that after the death of God there is nothing left and it leads to the worst imaginable crimes.
III./ BACK TO THE FUTURE I-II-III: WE CAN CHANGE THE FUTURE
This trilogy is a pure modern fable invented by a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis, in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Started as a complete project before the fall of the Berlin Wall it will be finished before the end of the Reagan-Bush-Sr’s era, twelve years that have deeply impressed the ideology of selfish psychosis in the heads of the Americans. I use the term psychosis here in the meaning Kenneth Burke gives to it, i.e. the awareness that I am living in a hostile world and that I have to resist and fight against some hostile evil empire, or should I say axis of evil to speak in the post-Berlin-Wall’s-collapse ideology.
Zemeckis considers that the slightest change of the slightest detail in any given situation will determine tremendous changes in the immediate as well as distant future. The dramatic element used in the three films is the possibility to travel in time and to do that with the basic American traveling device, a car, though it will, in the end, come to a steam engine, but that’s only the cherry crowning the pie.
We are visiting four time periods but in the very same place somewhere in California: the end of 19th century (1885), the 1950s, 1985 and 2015. No matter where he may be Zemeckis always states the absolute absence of religion or God, and even, which is a miracle in the US, the absence of any church.
Zemeckis has nevertheless an ideological vision.
Society, and this is also true of any individual, cannot survive if it does not have positive objectives. The symbol of this is the destruction of the library’s clock by thunder in 1955 whose renovation and restoration is a constant aim, still in 2015. This clock was erected in 1885 when the town was nothing but a western settlement. It is symbolic of historical time, of the movement of time, and yet the world has been able to go on with even some drastic changes due to some events that changed the course of history, though the clock had been dead and out of order from 1955 to 2015. Does it mean that the world after the second world war does not need clocks anymore? Maybe. It sure does not need a library clock because time has become a perpetual and permanent presence.
Can we say time is able to stop, at least this clock is able to stop, because of the lack of spirituality? I do not think so. Science and technology are the modern spirituality of the world. American empirical pragmatism leads to a new spirituality that does not need a clock to exist nor a God to survive.
The films also advocate an ideology that has nothing to do with social Darwinism. In 1955 the janitor of the main square bar, probably an ice-cream parlor or eatery of some kind, will be the black mayor later on in life. Education and the will to succeed drive the world or rather drive every individual that has the opportunity provided to them by society to improve their lots. An opportunity and a duty too. Zemeckis is perfectly conscious that some individuals can cheat since he uses this cheating to completely pervert the world in the second film, but he is also convinced, and it is the very core of the films, that this cheating can be opposed and corrected. He does not hesitate to show us what the future would be if some unethical cheater could get the means to dominate society through money and ruthless violence.
But the films show that there is some kind of limit to this optimistic ideology. Dr. Brown Emmett will always be on top of his society through his knowledge and ahead of his contemporaries, no matter when or where. On the other side, the Tanners will always be brutal, ruthless, violent hooligans in any period of time and in any generation. That badness is transmitted from father to son and then to grandson without any possible break in this line of genetic determination. Those are the two extremes: extreme intelligence versus extreme badness. In-between, you have Marty and his father and mother. They are neither good nor bad, or rather neither absolutely good nor absolutely bad. They are adaptable and they follow the wind, their inspiration, their inclinations, their desires, but they stay on the safe side of things because they want to avoid at all cost any difficult situation, any deterioration of their present situation and they take the absence of improvement as being a deterioration. Yet Marty who reacts irrationally each time he is called a chicken (poule mouillée), is shown as able to change since at the very end of the third film he will manage to trick those who call him a chicken, to his great benefit because otherwise, he would have died in a road accident.
This leads me to say that the absence of any divine spirituality, or even any ethical spirituality, leads the world into believing that the only objective of humanity is to enjoy more consumption, more comfort, more security every day. The films completely erase the rest of the world seen and shown as nothing but hostile. The only moment in the films when the outside world comes into the picture is when some Islamist terrorists come after Dr. Brown Emmett to recuperate the plutonium he has stolen from them. This event reintroduces God and the outside world, both captured as hostile elements. We are living in these films in a completely psychotic world both excluding the other and God.
Society is thus governed only by money and ethical rules that come from education and the respect of others that is positive with intellectual superior individuals, positive but requiring a helping hand for the middle of the way silent majority and negative for the hostile criminal-minded minority. The world is kept going by the desire to know more, to invent new solutions to everyday problems and to have more money, more goods, more comfort, provided this desire is kept within ethical limits. Note science is not free of the fundamental contradiction: the allusion to the Islamist extremists is clear about the danger of technology, in that case, nuclear technology.
Strangely enough, the film contains another teleology that has little to do with God but has a lot to do with our modern world. The third episode is built on an allusion to Clint Eastwood and one of his films, A Fistful of Dollars. This teleology is amazing because it deals with cultural and cinematographic teleology. It is fun of course but it implies that the world can be controlled by our knowledge of cultural artifacts. This leads us to believe that the world is going on turning on itself because it reproduces what has already been done or imagined in some film or book. In this entertaining allusion, there is some kind of a closed-minded vision of oneself. We are contained in our own vision of the world or even virtual imaginary vision of the world. We are the slaves of our imagination, even if it can be of some help from time to time. This is another dimension of the psychosis I was speaking of: we are psychotically locked up in our own imaginary vision of life and the world.
These films are definitely produced by a totally agnostic, and even non-religious if not anti-religious, approach. God is dead even in its ethical dimension, and the only mention of some religion is hostile and has to be rejected. Hence the morality the films are dealing with is so virtual that we may feel dizzy in front of these un-materialistic, anti-materialistic ethical rules that come from nowhere and are just rules surviving on top of, the chaotic mess that society and history are.
We have reached rock-bottom and we are ready to move back up.
IV./ TERMINATOR I-II-II: THE REBIRTH OF THE DIVINE
Behind these three films, we have a cult series of novels known under the generic name of Dune by Frank Herbert. I will not consider them, though the son of the original author decided after his father’s death to go on with the series. This series is deeply nourished in some Semitic heritage (meaning the three Semitic religions).
This here film series is a trilogy again (1984–1996–2003). The great difference with the previous one is that it is spread in time over nearly twenty years whereas the previous one was done in three or four years. The very beginning of the first film states a teleology:
“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present, tonight.”
This teleology is essential. It states the destruction of humanity by machines through a nuclear holocaust. This menace is the starting point of the Dune series. Humanity has been able to survive because it learned how to unite in due time beyond their differences in order to impose the Butlerian revolution that banned all thinking machines, machines that could replace human beings in their thinking. It also states the same a priori as the previous trilogy but in a more dramatic way: the present determines the future. In this case, it is a lot more dramatic because the aim of the victorious machines of the future is to come back to our present to kill there and then the two people who will give birth to the future leader of the human resistance against machines. The film seems to think that the future can be changed directly from the future by manhandling our present, that is to say, their past. This is exactly the same axiom as in the previous trilogy.
It is also in perfect continuation with H.G. Wells since man in his search for progress has produced his own doom which is contained in the very machines he has fabricated. But these machines are of a new type. They are androids, they look like men, they are as intelligent as men but a lot stronger and more resistant, hence a lot apter to survive any attack. This is the transfer of the Darwinian principle of natural selection to a world in which machines have been invented and can compete with human beings as if they were a natural species, and yet unkillable and undestroyable machines.
The second line of thinking that comes from these films is that these machines can from their future world send emissaries to the past in order to destroy the very human beings who are going to produce the man who will lead the rebellion against these machines in the future, hence destroying him by annihilating its origin. At the same time, we can see that human beings are stronger than machines somewhere since they can survive the nuclear holocaust the machines have triggered and have the will and stamina, even the courage and blindness necessary to fight against these machines. Human beings have an advantage on these machines. Their intelligence is not programmed in any way so they can have reactions that the machines were not able to foresee, hence they can surprise the machines and put them at a disadvantage.
The three films have each one their different objectives. They follow the life of the main character in the real time of the distributing of the films. Hence in the first one, the hero is not yet born, in the second one he is a teenager and in the third one, he is an adult.
In the first film, the main character who only exists in the future sends an emissary to the present to protect his own mother who is not yet even pregnant. It is this emissary who is going to be the father of the future hero. Note the tricky situation of the son being his own father or even the grandson being his own grandfather is clearly avoided here and Back to the Future I, four years later, will deal with the same situation the same way, though Zemeckis will use the situation as a dramatic and comic argument. Here we do think like Wordsworth: “The child is father of the man.” Here the child of the future is making sure his mother gets pregnant with him so that he can be sure of existing. We suspend our disbelief and see the dramatic element. The child will be born to an unmarried mother who is convinced to have been impregnated by someone from the future. The rejection of this explanation of hers by everyone is going to make her completely psychotic by short-circuiting the whole situation. The mother will end up in psychiatric institutions and the child in foster homes, using his knowledge of high-tech devices to cheat ATMs and get the money necessary to finance his rather hectic and careless life. We thus wonder how this ruthless and careless teenager could become the leader of the rebellion; We think of John Milton who said: “The childhood shows the man as morning shows the day.” That is the second film. Here the rebellion sends an android of the same generation as the android sent by the machines in the previous film. This leads to an imbroglio. This second android is supposed to protect John Connor, the future leader of the rebellion, whereas in the previous film a similar android had to kill the mother. When the mother is liberated from her psychiatric hospital a second objective appears beside protecting John Connor. It is to destroy the invention that gave rise to these machines. Hence the same tactic is used by the android of the rebellion, hence the rebellion in this second film, as the one used by the machines in the first film. Destroy the source and you will get rid of the descendant. But here we meet with a strange idea. Their attempt at destroying this technology before it ever exists is doomed to fail. It only slows down the inventive process but the invention will come anyway. This is very frightening since the human race is asserted there as producing their own doom and that this process cannot be halted. It follows a logic and a dynamic that goes beyond man’s will, consciousness, and power. We see here a new element emerging: man’s history is dominated by a teleology that is not man produced since man cannot change it. This is the reappearance of a transcending principle that is, of course, the very matrix from which the concept of God can emerge. I use the term “matrix” on purpose to allude to another series of films using this word as their generic title. In this Matrix, we also have a rebellion of machines, but in the end, it is found out that machines are not simpletons and hostile by nature, but by programming. When the human programmer is identified and neutralized the machines accept some kind of negotiation and truce if not yet peace.
In the third film, John Connor is a young adult and he is afraid of the future. The rebellion sends an android who is of the same type as the one they sent in the second film. The machines send in their turn a (this time) female android who has to neutralize the other android and John Connor because we are just hours before the starting time of the holocaust that will destroy most of humanity. John Connor’s android is not there to prevent the holocaust but to make sure John Connor will survive it. John Connor is divided between preventing the holocaust and accepting his android’s strategy. He will, in the end, be forced to accept the latter.
But the third film is definitely trickier than that. First, the holocaust is called “Judgment Day” and that is a direct allusion to the Book of Revelation and Saint John’s Apocalypse, an apocalypse transposed into the 21st scientific and technological century. But the situation is slightly more complex when we learn that John Connor has been executed in the future by his companion Kate (who is present as a young adult in the film and is going to be seduced by John Connor) because this Kate has deemed John Connor as the leader of the rebellion insecure and dangerous. The android was actually sent by Kate, who is assuming the leadership of the rebellion, from the future, to make sure John Connor and Kate, just before the holocaust can escape this holocaust and hence guarantee the future. We see that we are getting into a new dimension. The future is not entrusted to one man only but to a couple, hence to a sexualized teleology. The mission of the android is to make sure the couple is secure during this holocaust. We start thinking we are in a different pattern this time. It sounds like the Book of Genesis, especially since the meeting of the two is not very sexually happy: sexuality was not a strong link between Adam and Eve before the fall. This couple has to be the starting point for the future humanity. That brings us back to the first film and then we can assume that the grandson is the father of his own father. We will forget this tricky element. After all, nineteen years have elapsed. They will survive because the android takes them to the Presidential nuclear shelter and the conclusion of the film is: “Our destiny was never to stop Judgment Day. It was merely to survive together… Never stop fighting and I never will. The battle has just begun.” The term “destiny” leads us to a deeper approach. First, as we have seen, the apocalypse is inevitable and man-produced. Only one man and one woman can survive and start the whole human history again. This is the very end of the Nordic Ragnarok and it is the very starting point of humanity in Genesis. Yet it is not the revival of the divine. It is rather artistic teleology: the film uses an archetypical form that gives depth and value to the story by linking it formally with other stories that most of the time are more or less forgotten by the audience. But there is something more. The surviving couple cannot be a man and any woman as it would be with any animal species. The human species has a sexual strategy that is based on a feeling as much as an instinct, and the feeling seems to control the instinct. We have to understand then the Genesis model it alludes to as being the founding myth of this particularity among human animals that sex is the reproductive tool but governed by some kind of a choice, of a feeling that goes beyond simple instinct. In the same way, the Nordic Ragnarok states the special fate of this surviving couple:
“After the final, terrible battle at Ragnarok, the entire cosmos will be destroyed. The only humans who will survive this destruction are Lif (“life”) and Lifthrasir (“eager for life”) because they hid in Hodmimir’s Forest, the forest that the flaming sword of the fire-giant Surt cannot destroy. There they sleep through the destruction of the earth and when they awaken, they will find the earth is green and verdant again. Lif and Liftrasir will become the progenitors of a new race of humans, and their descendants will inhabit this world.” (Micha F. Lindemans, Encyclopedia Mythica™, The Internet, April 10, 2007)
Their names are interesting since the woman is called Lif and linguistically is the basis of the man’s name derived from the woman’s name. The translation of Lifthrasir is probably slightly erroneous. Scandinavian languages are Germanic in syntax, hence ‘thrasir’ can only be a nominal element, a noun and it has to be the dominating element. Hence it must mean the strength of life or drive or impulse for life. This is ambiguous in intention since linguistically the man’s name is derived from the woman’s name but semantically the man’s name comes first since it states a desire for Lif. But does the desire exist before Lif or does it appear when seeing Lif who exists then before? In Genesis, the desire existed before. But here it is not clear and the order in which the two are presented is always the woman first and the man second. This, of course, reflects the tricky situation in the future where the woman has had the man executed, showing she was the real master, though he was at first.
What is important here is that this structure, this form or pattern, or even motif is inspired from religious or mythological allusions.
We must not forget that John Connor carries the initials of Jesus Christ, which is another biblical and evangelical allusion. For the audience, this John Connor will be an allusion to Connor McLeod, the hero of Highlander, though this latter film was only produced in 1986, two years after the first Terminator. In other words, the filiation is not from Highlander to Terminator, but rather if there is any from Terminator to Highlander. But for the audience, this John Connor is an allusion to Connor McLeod just for the simple reason that they are going to connect the two together, especially since Highlander is also an allusion to Nordic mythology.
The concept of a stronger power, hence of a transcending power, hence of a destiny, a fate, a teleology, a god is thus emerging from these films as some kind of inevitable future that dictates the final apocalypse or holocaust and the next stage of the survival of humanity in a couple that will procreate a whole new humanity that will resist against the machines that have taken over the world. This is the new element: this teleology leads us back to the biblical pattern or the Nordic model. The power of these films, like the previous trilogy, comes from the constant shifting if not drifting from one period of time to the next, from the present to the future, and both the present and the future assimilate the years that passed from one film to the next, though the time scale of the future is less precise and probably less developed in the number of years, though it does not matter really since the future is only circumstantial.
Originally I was planning on stopping there. But a new film came out in the meantime: Apocalypto, and I will conclude with Mel Gibson.
It would be easy to conclude with his Passion of Christ. I won’t. Apocalypto is a direct continuation of the previous trilogy (Mel Gibson is too learned in the cinema for us to believe he is not aware of it) and that is what I am interested in.
Here again, a couple is entrusted, by themselves, with starting humanity all over again in the jungle. This couple has survived very difficult trials and ordeals, survived a programmed death actually. The man was expecting spectacular death on the top of a Maya pyramid, his heart ripped out of his chest when the eclipse these human sacrifices were supposed to prepare and make benevolent arrived. He is saved by both the sun and the moon, the moon covering up the sun, the female symbol covering up the male symbol in our standard reading of sky-luminaries as the Bible calls them. The woman survived in drastic conditions, giving birth to her second son in a pit filled up with rainwater. She will escape sure death in this pit due to the timely arrival of her husband who gets her out of her trap, along with their two sons.
And they leave the Maya public scene when the Spanish Conquistadors are arriving on the beach. They leave that Maya public scene to go in the jungle and start it all over again there. But this time it is not only a man and woman, hence an allusion to Adam and Eve before the fall, but the same man and woman plus their two sons, in other words, Abel and Cain, the second having been born in dramatic conditions. They are going to start all over again but picking the thread of the story after the fall and before Cain kills Abel. In other words, they start it all over again but with the promise of the killing of one brother by the other, in other words with the promise of starting it all over again the same way that led to Mayas sacrificing other Mayas, brothers ripping the living hearts of brothers out of their panting chests.
This is an obvious continuation of the Genesis allusion of Terminator and quite a few other films, but with a slight addendum. No restart can erase the tragedies and crimes of history. All new restart is nothing but a repeat of all the mistakes the human species has produced in their history. It is no longer a destiny, nor a teleology. It is a nightmare, a calamity. Human history will always repeat itself because it is written in our genes to build a community that contains the contradiction that is going to bring progress as well as the downfall of it all.
 It is not Nietzsche but Hegel who first threw on the philosophical stage the theme of God’s death — he is the one who announced for the first time: « the feeling on which modern religion rests is the feeling that God himself is dead.” (Faith and Knowledge […]) […] The death of God again. Christianity is the first major religion that was built, not on the (trite) birth but on the (unique) death of its worshipped divine figure. Incarnation, resurrection, glorious body: everything starts there — everything proceeds, absolutely, from this unprecedented theology of the death of God. [personal translation]