Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Figure of Death

Cft0R_vWQAQrH5d (1)Here lies a subject that it would take a large book to survey, let alone a blog post.  So I’ll necessarily confine myself to one small phenomenon, far more limited even than the katabasis (mythological journey into the Underworld): the anthropomorphic figure of Death (that is, Death given a human shape and characteristics.)  Not all mythologies do this.  For example, in a Boethian universe (one in which evil does not exist as a force, but rather as an absence,) Death is not considered evil, but more often incarnates as the end of a cycle–like winter ends our calendar year.  If you’re a Buddhist, it might not even signal an ending–but the beginning of a next life, during one’s journey in Samsara (the cycle of reincarnations, culminating hopefully in Nirvana).

So to further narrow our topic:  Death is, contrarily, personified frequently in a Manichaean view of evil (as a force, it exists in tension and constant conflict with Good /God.)  For us, this would mean, most familiarly, a Western, Christian-based universe.  Death is the ultimate manifestation of Evil, from the mortal perspective.  A paradox, of course, since one must traverse the barrier of Death to reach Paradise; but of course, one risks a descent of the Soul to eternal Hell.

So, at least on the surface, because God appears in Western art in the figure of an Old Man (famously in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel tableau, creating Adam) it makes simple sense to present Death, also, in human(oid) form.  And yet, rarely are the two dramatized in direct conflict, and when a physical adversary is needed, a serpent often stands in.  Milton, of course, famously poeticized a centerpiece of Satan’s host being thrown down by St.Michael.  Which may provide a clue.

Unlike the perfection attributed to Creator figures in this type of world (and also contra many Native American mythologies,) one might consider the theory that anthropomorphized Death–especially thus visually presented–signals an association with humanity.  Specifically, the flaws.  The potential error, imperfect knowledge, and mistakes.  Philosophically, this suggests that Death can be cheated.  An archetypal fantasy.  Cheated, not necessarily in service of eternal life, but perhaps only temporary reprieve.

Consider Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a knight of the Crusades (Max Von Sydow, pictured) meets Death’s arrival with a challenge to play chess.  Asked why, he responds with a bargain to be let go, if he should win the game.  If not, he will submit willingly.  Death, perhaps bored with power, accepts.  Only gradually do we realize the knight cannot (but privately has no least intention to) win.  Death smiles at his ignorance, but Block’s character is in fact playing only for time, to allow several of the minor characters of the film–all archetypes–to avoid the plague which would otherwise take their lives.  Because Death has no experience with such selfless sacrifice, he is fooled by the gambit, for a time–though the inevitable outcome must come.  Still, by the end of Bergman’s poignant allegory, Life has had its hour.

Death is also sometimes portrayed as a Joker, himself (usually male, notice.)  Hermes, in Greek mythology, the Trickster God, had among his duties the conducting of fallen souls to the Underworld, either directly, or to be passed to the custody of Charon, whose boat ferried shades across the river Styx, into the domain of Hades.  The defining trait of mortality, perhaps, is the ultimate joke upon humans, by deathless gods.  This Hermes/Charon/Hades trio would seem an analogue to Christianity, the triumvarate Father/Son/Holy Spirit.

A far cry from Milton, but in modern pop culture, an example of untrustworthy Charon can be found in Chris De Burgh’s 80’s hit:

In the rolling mist, then he gets on board,
Now there’ll be no turning back,
Beware that Hooded Omen at the rudder,
And then the lightning flashed, and the thunder roared,
And people calling out his name,
And dancing bones that jabbered and moaned
On the water.
And then the ferryman said,
“There is trouble ahead,
So you must pay me now, “
Don’t do it!
“You must pay me now, “
Don’t do it!
And still that voice came from beyond,
Whatever you do,
Don’t pay the ferryman,
Don’t even fix a price,
Don’t pay the ferryman,
Until he gets you to the other side. . .
Difficult to imagine a more human characteristic than the desire to get paid, as Ishmael explains in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick.  We might legitimately wonder, what could be Charon’s motive; why the desire for money, in the Underworld?  And one level deeper, why the warning?  Why the demand for payment at signs of trouble?  Will he betray the bargain?  Is the ferryman not as powerful an authority as he may seem?
Or–and in my mind, more likely–is this a trick, a test, to divide the Worthy from the Unworthy passengers?
Let’s go deeper.
It is common in mythologies for a guardian to demand payment for passage (your state government, an ogre at a bridge).  It is equally common to demand a test of wisdom or knowledge (famously parodied in the Monty Python film about the Quest for the Grail.)  Cannot these two possibilities amount to the same thing–two sides of a coin?
Not all tricksters work against the best interests of humanity.  They are chaotic; meaning they are as likely to do so, as not.  Death has persisted in being often presented as a helper (Charon as ferryman, of course, down to the holding of the lifeless hero in his arms on the cover of the first modern graphic novel, “The Death of Captain Marvel,” a visual echo not just of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, but of the famed song by Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Beware.  (Be Wary.)  Meaning Be careful.  This is not a command to Fear.
“Beware the Hooded Omen at the rudder.”  Whether in a voluntary katabasis, as Odysseus or Aeneas or Heracles journeying to the Underworld with the intention of returning later, or involuntary fall, as  “so many heroic souls” lamented in the opening lines of the Iliad, it is the concept of the rudder that interests me.  Just as in modern times, when we board an airplane for example, we voluntarily surrender our power, completely, over our transition to the next phase of the journey.    The song conjures the protagonist–and by extension, the listener–to resist the demands of Death to assume control.  (Here I would remind my reader that Christinianity, as glossed at length in Dante’s Inferno, considered suicide, the voluntary taking of one’s own life, a mortal sin of despair.)  De Burgh is advocating heresy here (cf. Dylan Thomas’ “Rage, against the dying of the light!”)  A Romantic would consider such rebellion the act of a hero, a la Prometheus; a Realist, the act of a fool.  Can Death be resisted?
Probably the master theme of Homer’s Odyssey is the tension between when to submit to Fate, and when to resist the fear, stubbornness, greed, or folly of one’s own nature.  Almost as if in co-conspiracy with the forces of Death, Circe, “dire beauty and divine,” (of dual nature) tells the hero, “Home you may not go/Unless you take a strange way round and come/to the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone.”  Fitzgerald’s translation of the Greek into “strange” means foreign / unfamiliar.  The Unknown–the ultimate human fear.  And Odysseus is afraid: “moaning” in acts of “despair.”  But he submits, and goes.
Not all tests come in the form of a riddle.  Circe gives exact instructions (as does the voice–conscience, maybe?)–in De Burgh’s song.  The test is one of nerve.  What makes a hero?  Lack of fear–certainly not.  That would not be human.  Rather: Superiority to fear, when it rises.
“Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil.”
“Baby take my hand /don’t fear the reaper / We’ll be able to fly. . .”
DeBerg’s song lacks a third, climactic verse following its complication, quoted above.  Thus the listener is left to interpret, based on the evidence provided.  To me, this overwhelmingly points to Charon as a true compatriot of Hermes (and Satan,) tempting his passenger to abandon a bargain, abandon courage, and abandon faith.  To tempt (test the free will) is not evil; but the resulting choice may be.  The passage into the next plane of existence is not free, but the coin is only symbolic.  The real cost is one of integrity, even beyond the passing of the physical body.  Thus the true motive of Charon, in demanding early payment, becomes immaterial.  Whether the “trouble ahead” is real, or merely invented, also immaterial.  The only reality is whether the passenger earns her passage across, to the next stage of existence, by accepting the inevitable; or wanders the near shore (purgatory, see elder Hamlet’s ghost,) for bailing out.
This pop-cultural manifestation, then, is a sort of Buddhist interpretation of Christian Death, returned to abstract form: Ultimate, not temporary, Surcease of Sorrow (borrowing from Poe) must be earned, just as life must be earned, by courage.  Death, in human form, delivers that opportunity and challenge.

 

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Wicked Witch Versus the Wonderful Wizard

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He looks the part–but can you trust him?

By Shawn Stjean

We return to this series, as we often do in October, to devote a little analysis to the better understanding of commonly seen (and often misinterpreted) figures and events in storytelling.  Or, as I prefer to call it, our cultural mythology.

Entire blogs and books are devoted to the subject of witches, so I’m treating them here in a special circumstance: when appearing as half of two lesser-known figures that function together as a pair.  Other examples, beyond the familiar Oz universe,  of this pairing include:

-the Oracle and the Architect from The Matrix films

-Morgan Le Fey and Merlin of Arthurian legend

-Eve and Adam

-Pandora and Prometheus

Sometimes the witch-figure is masculinized, though the specific male-witch character will often exhibit feminine traits of nurturing and guidance:

-Gilliam and Wilford from Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

-Gandalf and Saruman from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

-Arioch and Donblas from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga

-Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader  function this way.

The fact that these two figures often covertly conspire together, or at least operate with a tacit understanding of the need for the other’s existence, signals their true nature at the archetypal level.  On the surface, the two might be bitter enemies–“Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West,” commands Oz–but perhaps “rivals” might be more accurate.

Beneath the local storytelling level, the couple are really two parts of a whole: the “witch” is an agent of the primal, universal force of Chaos, and the Wizard a custodian and operative of Order.  This fundamental addiction to dualism in storytelling results from the inability of mortal human beings to reconcile existence into its transcendent reality as One, as Joseph Campbell once told Bill Moyers.  However, this working together for balance, a yang-and-yin harmony, is the storyteller’s acknowledgement  of the need for both. One without the other?  You may as well ask for an ebb without a tideflow, a moon without a sun, female without male.

For westerners, this primal level can be hard to penetrate because of our cultural bias against Chaotic forces, identifying them as “wicked” or “evil.”  The original inhabitants of our American continent held no such biases.  Whatever was useful was good; otherwise, try to avoid it.  For example, in Lakota  mythology, Iya (the Eater) and Iktomi (the Spider) are siblings.  The Native Americans instead prefer a “Trickster” figure (a la Hermes among the ancient Greeks, as opposed to brother Apollo,) who sows disorder in a Boethian way–through ignorance, selfishness,stupidity, and accident, but without intent to harm.

(By the way, this shift in emphasis is not be taken as a philosophical argument that evil never exists.  Clearly, Hitler stood for fascistic order, and the Allied forces opposing him stood for a more tolerant, democratic order.)

How, then, to spot these figures in a story, and recognize that the story of “good vs. evil” is often really our cultural shorthand for a tension that exists in each human being, even at the biological level–every pump of the bellows of the heart, inhalation/exhalation of the lungs, every emotion and countering bit of logic?

Science and Technology are manifestations of Order as a force; Magic/”Powers” are manifestations of Chaos as a force–wherein the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, are voided.  Characters with command of magic don’t “play by the rules.”  A spell or enchantment violates space, or gravity, or free will; a prophecy violates Time.  But when a machine is built to accomplish these same feats?  Everybody wants one.  As old as the antagonism between reason and mysticism, is this divide.

There’s a complicating factor in the West: gender.  Cries of “Witch” at first glance signal acknowledgement of the presence of a powerful woman, but really mean a woman beyond control–and the use of the slur is a final desperate attempt to regain that power, to call in the force of the collective against the relatively vulnerable individual.  The parallel gender slur “Bitch” is a variant, defining the woman as merely a female, at the animal level.

Women have been villainized because they are unconsciously identified with Chaos–lack of control, emotion, a lure to sexuality, even insanity.   “She” embodies the human inability to understand (“Weird,” we say–as in Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters–as a placeholder for that which we have yet to comprehend.)  Recall that Circe–the most powerful female antagonist of Homer’s Odyssey–was denigrated from her proper status of goddess to a mere “witch.”

Often, agents of Chaos appear as Oracles–a brilliant trick, as it appears to sort things out–reveal the future.  But prophecies are riddles that are subject to, and often are, misinterpreted, a storyteller’s way of warning us against too-slavish devotion to Order.

And the Wizard?–well, let us not forget one thing: he’s a fraud.  Oz hides behind a bombastic projection of technology, Vader is half a robot, the Architect retreats to his room of computer screens.  Order is at least as artificial a construct as Chaos, and as tenuous–as anyone who has ever experienced the danger of over-reliance upon technology–a flat tire, a dead cell phone battery, a corrupted hard drive–can attest.  We crave order, routine, solidity beneath our feet, and we resist change, dynamism, and unpredictability–and yet these are catalysts of growth.  The struggle of losing control, regaining it, and losing again are the very rhythms of life.

Agents of Order often appear as policemen and soldiers (the Sheriff of Nottingham or Sherriff Will Teasle or Javert) versus the intrusive elements and undesirables (Robin Hood or Rambo or Valjean) that threaten the community’s authoritarian stability.  Thus we arrive at another of the tacit recognitions that Chaos is not inherently evil: the Western tradition of the rebel-hero (beginning with Prometheus versus Zeus).  Only relatively recently have women been gaining access to these non-stygmatized roles, appropriately enough as adolescents (Bella Swan of Twilight, Beatrice Prior of Divergent.)  Here, age prejudice intersects with gender prejudice in a kind of double-double standard.  It remains largely to be seen if adult and mature women of Chaos can gain heroic acceptance as anarchistic rebels, and cease being dismissed as crazy old crones.

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Scary, yes. But wicked?

Reading and Writing “Unsafe” Fiction

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These days, grown men wear bicycle helmets. No one old enough to leave the house goes without a cell phone, and “insurance” can come with every item you purchase.  When someone wants to criticize you, they most often do it through two firewalls, three levels of encryption, and under a pseudonym. And whether it’s within the walls of a school where “bully” is a more feared word than “gun,” or 9,000 miles outside our borders, where our government spends billions to protect us from threats that may or may not even exist, things in 2012 have gotten pretty safe. It’s the inevitable cultural backlash from September 11, 2001 anxiety.

For creators and consumers of fiction, at least, things may be a little too safe. There was a time, only 200 years ago, when this was not at all the case–you wouldn’t dare admit, in decent company, to reading novels. They were’t good for you, because they weren’t true. But in 2012, all true, all plausible, nothing harmful. Like organic vegetables. Watch TV tonight: if someone is murdered, don’t worry. A dozen geniuses in bulletproof labcoats will expend every last resource of technology to ensure the killer spontaneously reveals himself before that 9th commercial break. So don’t worry–go buy something, tomorrow–and meanwhile, eat something.

There’s a lot of advice, in the new era of self-publishing, about writing what’s marketable (talk about fearsome words.) In sifting through the dozens and dozens of articles, one often encounters the encouragement to “create a backlist”–the idea being that, once readers trust you, know what they’re getting, they’ll likely return to draw from the well of your other works. As if the writing of several books could–or should– be done on a production-line basis. And yet, seminars even exist about how to author and self-publish an e-book in a month, a week, even a weekend.

Obviously, the kind of work produced under such severe time- and motive-constraints will have several quantifiable features: gimmicky (at best,) formulaic, cliche-ridden, dialogue as padding rather than in support of a tenable plot or serious character development. In a word, SAFE. Like the latest adolescent horror movie: no real surprises, but enough tricks (the “boo” shot, the flip-ending) and treats (naked breasts, or gratuitous gore, whichever you like) to keep you from asking for a refund.

Sure, literary history is full of examples of legitimate authors resorting to hack writing to keep body and soul together. Louisa May Alcott is a favorite example of mine, churning out much “sensational” fiction to support a large family, because her father couldn’t or wouldn’t, and in the end working herself literally to death. So I won’t go so far as to say there’s anything fundamentally wrong with mainstream fiction, television, and movies. They make money, and we all enjoy them at the odd time.

However, for those of us seeking to consume something better–moreover, seeking to create something better–can any of us be spared to write unsafely? What do I even mean by that?

Here are a few criteria. The unsafe fiction:

–attempts to use a vocabulary of more than 8,000 discrete words, including strong verbs and less-familiar synonyms

–employs sentence variety, and departs from the standard subject-verb-object (who did what to whom?) construction regularly, which requires more reader concentration

–does not overly rely on dialogue when narrative is called for

–invents a premise that is neither post-apocalyptic nor involves vampires (or similarly outworn devices)
–eschews the exploitation of human fears and perversity that defines 90% of American television programs (the culture of cop shows and freak shows)

–bothers to develop plausible backstories and motivations for its characters

–pays attention to relevant details while resisting the inclusion of irrelevant ones

–does not overtly or covertly support the culture’s dominant ideologies (consumer capitalism, cuthroat competition, uncritical jingoism, and adolescent individualism)–in addition to practicing casual and active sexism, which is very popular, or paying mere lip service against racism and homophobia–also very trendy right now

–occasionally experiments with its prose or concepts (to the extent that nothing is really new, what I mean here is that the author tries something unfamiliar to them, and which actually could fail)

–does not attempt to be all things to all people–that is, some readers might actually hate it. Ah, commercial volatility. Now we’re getting somewhere!

But don’t take my word for it. Come up with your own criteria.

C’mon, writers, teachers, bloggers–it’s October. What’s really scary? (If you think the answer is “wasting your time,” don’t forget what’s also looming, and that’s reading season). Try something that is not a sure thing. Knock on the old, crazy lady’s door. It’s not as if there’s a very fine line between what’s sensible and what’s utterly reckless, though our cultural parents would love us to believe that. There’s a whole, long limb on that tree outside your window. The wind may have picked up, and the clouds threaten rain. But winter is not here, yet.

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Quiz: Top Ten Incarnations of the Devil in Film and Literature

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Probably should be Top 100, because a lot of great portrayals (like the ones in my photos) didn’t make the list.

Apropos of the “Casting Calls” for Villains lately here on the Clotho’s Loom site, and in honor of this month in Autumn, culminating in the celebration of All Hallows’ Evening (Hallowe’en) on the 31st, I thought we’d pay homage to some great manifestations of evil, from creative minds in the West.  Calling it the “Top Ten” may be a little ego-maniacal of me–but let the form fit the content!

Try first to guess who uttered the famous line quoted (full credit-10 points), and if you’re stuck, take hints from my brief analysis below–but be careful: examples can be misleading–heh, heh (half-credit-5 points).  The answers are in the menu to the bottom left (of course).  Score yourself–how naughty are you?

BONUS for naming the films or characters in the photos (5 points each)!  PRIZE: Roll your hands and cackle in the self-satisfaction of knowing how much you rule over the cretins surrounding you! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Top Ten Incarnations of the Devil in Film and Literature

10. “Slugs! He created slugs. They can’t hear, they can’t speak, they can’t operate machinery. I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I were creating a world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and dafodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, day one.”

Second-guessing God is always a good sop for the feeling of helplessness that exiles live with. The flaws of creation are readily apparent, but it’s frustrating not to be included in the divine plan. Of course, that frustration has rarely been expressed so comically.

9. “That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.”

Oh, the best don’t perform parlor tricks. They’re refined. You don’t run the show, they do. You don’t set the terms during bargaining. You don’t goad them into the silly spontaneous admissions of TV crime melodramas. A good trickster unrolls his hand, on his own terms. And then, it may have all the charm of projectile vomiting.

8. “It was between the brothers, Kay — I had nothing to do with it.”

Hanging on to a lost innocence that he traded away for power, lying to those who are still innocent to maintain appearances is the cold comfort this character takes.

7. “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

Beyond the obvious point that beauty is only skin deep, it’s amazing how vanity, ego, and pride make up a sizable percentage of all Western storytelling villainy. Thinking you’re better than everyone else around you–that’s a big step toward commiting heinous, ugly crimes. So ironically, beauty fades the more one values it. Also, the need for external validation–constant reassurance–of this villain, betrays a great deal of insecurity and fear.

6. “Closer, please. Closer.”

Like a coiled snake, all potential energy that can be unleashed in an instant, you’d better heed warnings not to approach him. Others have paid the price. He has about as much remorse about killing as a lethal carnivore, but his real pleasure is in the contemplation of the meal, going on behind his smiling, mesmerizing eyes.

5. “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”

The scariest part of being verbally aggressed in a public place, like a bar-room, is not the physical size or menace of the antagonist (who is often not particularly imposing)–it’s knowing you’re suddenly confronted with someone who doesn’t acknowledge the rules, and therefore could do anything. After all, you’re in a public place of comradeship and celebration, not an arena.
The villain who utters these lines is a threat to all order, embracing chaos–he values human life as randomly as he destroys it–practically a force of nature, himself.

4. “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”

He’s seen the triviality of the whole grand scheme of war, and tried to rise above it on angel’s wings. Like every soldier, his attempts to do good have brought him into proximity of the worst horror. No one keeps his hands clean in Vietnam.

3. “Sayest thou so?” replied ——, smiling apart. “Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go; and if I convince thee not thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest yet.”

The age-old rhetoric of the tempter–“we haven’t done anything wrong, yet, and you can always change your mind later” is specifically designed as a logic-trap, to ridicule the intuition and fear we have built in. He’ll obscure the boundaries until you’ve already crossed them–and then it’s too late.

2. “Don’t make me destroy you.”

Denying responsibility for one’s own actions is built even into the speech patterns of some villains. Holding a gun to a hostage’s head, and claiming the policeman will be responsible if she dies, is clear psychological projection: unable to face himself, the villain sees evil in the world around him, and wreaks havoc upon it.

1. “Evil, be thou my good.”

Not numbered among the classical seven deadly sins is the master sin of all Judeo-Christian mythology: Despair. It’s tantamount to rejecting life itself. This character renounces all conventional morality, because he can’t be best at it. Rather, he’ll embrace a whole new system of his own concocting, and without the hypocrisy of justifying it under another name. He simply gives up on goodness. And with his power, that means Hell for the rest of us.

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