Times Literary Supplement, 2005.08.19-26: 14-17.
The Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, has been controversial ever since it was first included in the Bible. It has been given a thousand and more readings, and divined to promise a thousand and more Jerusalems on earth (including the Third Reich, unfortunately). Exegesis has endowed it with mystical depths of great historical importance. English literature would be the poorer without its figures and tropes, and the cadences of the Authorized Version; metaphorical phrases too numerous to recount have passed into common speech. Its riddling story, hiding its subjects under cipher, prosopopeia, anathemata and other linguistic devices, ensured it was and has remained ambiguous, as well as controversial. But all the hermeneutics have clouded the literal story the book tells, and it is from this perspective that it becomes acutely troubling in modern times. This inaugural document of hallucinated triumphalism, with its vision of righteous war, now informs world leaders’ outlook and strategy.
Revelation solicits its audience to identify with the blessed ones, and does not show much pity, or invite us to feel it either, for those cast into outer darkness. It excites us into a storm of hope; in the words of Bernard McGinn, the leading scholar of the book, it “offers the prospect of a fresh start, for a remnant”. Its present, disturbing prominence beyond the pulpit has a new, unexamined moral force of redundant nastiness – of the kind that the thinking of many centuries on the subject of justice and humanity has striven to put aside. But we can no longer mock it out of meaning, as George Bernard Shaw did in The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932), describing it as “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict which was absurdly admitted to the canon under the title of Revelation”.
Shaw rightly draws attention to the title, for the Greek word “apocalypse” (to unveil) does not make quite the same claim to a true vision as the less frenzied and less triumphant “Revelation” of the King James translation of the Bible and other subsequent versions of the Reformed tradition. While “apocalypse” promises violence in the act of disclosure, “revelation” conveys a calm and cogent realization of something true. The political uses of the book today have shifted from personal illumination to religious “revelation” as a warranty for violence, and a remodeled concept of retributive justice. Apocalyptic visions of the End tear aside the veil on a vision of a new beginning. The final book of the Bible does not end like the Oedipus trilogy, with recognition and the chastening of the hero by his terrible fate, or like Hamlet or Macbeth, with almost everyone, including the heroes, dead on the stage. It is, if you like, Hamlet retold from the point of view of Fortinbras, and that is not the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark.
If tragedy is written in the historic present of existential intelligence (such things happen); if the preferred tense of psychoanalysis is the poignant future perfect (the paths that might have opened, the way not taken); then apocalypse takes place in the wishful mood, the imperative: so be it, that this may happen, let it happen, to them, not to us, not to me. Prophecy is in this sense performative: it presents desiderata as acts; the words have meaning as allegory, as oracle, an enigmatic tissue of symbols.
The author of the Book of Revelation gives his name at the beginning as John, and he was identified fairly soon with the Beloved Disciple, and with the author of the Gospel of St John. These overlapping personae halo the author of Revelation with lustre, and added considerable weight to the book’s claims to truth-telling. But set aside the appealing image of St John the Divine, and Apocalypse then resembles many minor works of frenzied numerological and visionary invective produced in the turmoil of the Judaeo-Hellenistic world. Put it on the same table as dream almanacs, grimoires or books of spells, esoterica deemed apocryphal such as the Book of Enoch, and apocryphal apocalyptic visions of the afterlife sometimes ascribed to Mary, sometimes to Paul or other apostles. This type of communication from the future flourished in the Mediterranean basin and Near East in the first and second centuries; they share a similar taste for magic and miracles, charged with a will to power, a belief in curses, a drive for mastery and a thirst for revenge. Of all the material in the New Testament, Revelation most resembles the Old, resonating with “little apocalypses” from the Book of Daniel, the vision of Ezekiel, and other passages in which railing, burning, smiting fill all the business of heaven.
Structured as in a tree-like stemma, branching into clusters of seven letters, seven trumpets, seven vials, and so forth, the episodes fork furiously, drawing power from magical practices used in oral performance such as chanting, repetition and accumulation. The book possesses a kind of self-pleasuring thrust and vehemence and rhythm; its harsh music makes itself heard down the centuries in works as diverse as those of John Bunyan and Andrea Dworkin, Toni Morrison and Stephen King. In the Authorized Version, the English punches out the curses, moving to the rhythm of a heavyweight placing blows: “hate the whore … eat her flesh burn her with fire …”. No one who reads it soon forgets its famous visions: of the Lamb of God, the book with seven seals, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, including Death on a pale horse; of the great falling star, “Wormwood”; the woman clothed with the sun who is attacked “by a great red dragon” so huge that it sweeps down the third part of the stars of heaven with its tail, who is “called the devil and Satan”; of an avenging angel who harvests the wrongdoers and throws them into the winepress of the wrath of God, “until the blood… was up to the horses’ bridles as far away as sixteen hundred furlongs”; of the plain of Armageddon which sees the outpouring of the last of the seven vials of God’s wrath, accompanied by a great voice announcing “It is done”; of the Whore of Babylon; of the New Jerusalem in bridal array; and of the wedding feast of the Lamb (where the guests will “eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men”).
At last, the dragon is chained for ten thousand years, and the last chapter promises “a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal there shall be no night there … where] they shall reign for ever and ever”. In the closing verses, which undoubtedly cast a serene spell of hope, the godhead repeats the promise, “I come quickly”: the pact for the elect will culminate in the parousia, otherwise called, especially in evangelical circles, “The Rapture”.
So, after punishment has been meted out to the errant churches, and the seals have been opened and the trumpets sounded, after the loosing on earth of plagues, fire and brimstone, floods, earthquakes, locusts, stinging and lashing monsters, after multitudinous angels and engines have blasted the sinful world and another angel has loudly cried “Woe”, and horsemen have ridden down the sky, thousands of them in monstrous armour, the book’s violence at last winds down, and it ends with a vision of victory for a few, the remnant, the chosen survivors. Nevertheless, the last verses before the final greetings and blessings – in effect the closing thoughts of the entire Christian Bible are: “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie”.
Armageddon does not engulf us all in this book: it holds out the hope that it will engulf all of them – Satan, the Beast, the Dragon, the Whore of Babylon, the unchaste and the luke-warm, dogs and sorcerers, and all those other famous antagonists and embodiments of evil; these will be swept away while we will survive. The language of denunciation, ostracism, anathema on the enemy amounts to this: a spell of exclusion. But who are the others? And who are we? Who is speaking?
Apocalypse has invited unnumbered interpretations, but each one allows another to grow, as is characteristic of magic babel. Metaphor and meaning jostle in the listener’s or reader’s mind, fomenting one referent, then another, and bubbling up with now this perception, then that, in an overstimulated superfluity of effects. Allegory and figures of speech struggle to compose coherent pictures, though we today are undoubtedly helped by artists such as Durer and Blake, and in the cinema, Ingmar Bergman (and blockbuster epics such as Apocalypse Now and The Lord of the Rings). Movies, above all, have found in the Book of Revelation a quasi-organic iconology for their own kind of storytelling, not in content only, but in the very nature of Apocalypse’s cast of characters: monsters and war, angels and engines populate any number of visions of the end of days, and the theme has become the staple popular spectaculars.
But at the same time, the very persuasiveness and cogency bequeathed to the visions by some of the art they have inspired (the movies’ simulated realities above all) conceal the incommensurable and irrational core of the apocalyptic narrative: the huge disjunctions of scale, the arbitrary numbers, both too neat and too huge, the demented and skewed relationships between all the narrative elements – the duration, the characters, the impact of the violence: an audience feels what is happening with fear and trembling indeed, but it is a fundamental misconception to receive it as something that is taking place, or could do so, even in the perspective of eternity. The poor fit of drama and meaning, in respect of a dead lamb opening a very large book, and later marrying 144,000 virgins, boggles the logic of the imaginary – with incongruities Dante and Milton dazzlingly avoid.
This might seem far too literal a reading of a mystical text central to the Christian doctrine of redemption, but forcing the mind to think about the cogency of narrative is useful, because the surface meanings are so confused: hence the many codebreakers, the many messages found in it, the stream of prophecies that fail and fail again. Believers don’t lose confidence: they simply return to the task of finding another secret message, which this time they will grasp. The rebarbative incongruities of the patent narrative, the abundance of unstable and efflorescing latent messages, have a parallel in the incoherence and excess of simulation in contemporary culture. But this very difficulty can illuminate an ethical aspect missing in experience today.
The Book of Revelation was written rather late – around 95 CE or even later – and only included in the canon after fierce debate: it was the last text to be admitted into the Bible, after a struggles with another contender, The Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd is the first Christian allegory, and was written, by Hermas, in the first century CE, soon after the Apostolic era. It opens with a scene between the visionary and his muse, a woman called Rhoda, to whom, Hermas writes, he was sold as a slave. In its intense illumination, this relationship announces Dante’s initiation through his adored, stringent Beatrice. Hermas’s eyes opened, he sees the Church personified as an old woman, whom at first he takes to be the pagan Sibyl; the female – and old at that – does not here signify lechery, corruption, or helplessness. She issues ten commandments and some penalties for failing to keep them, but her general outlook is lenient, so much so that her laxity in connection to fidelity in marriage caused outrage, and helped block Hermas’s way into the canon. The vision continues with thoughts on angels – also heretical, it was later decided – and some very fine symbolic passages using allegorical motifs, such as the Shepherd himself, which strongly recall Jesus’s most bucolic and homely parables. Some of the episodes might lack colour and drama, compared to the sound and fury of Revelation, but they certainly express a different psychology in handling hostility. The approach could he seen as preeminently Christian, according to at least one strand in the religion.
Indeed, until the fifth century, the churches of Syria, Cappadocia and even Palestine did not accept Revelation. Luther considered removing it from his translation of the Bible, as, he wrote, “Christ is not taught or known in it”. Its subsequent history has made it even more inflammatory than it was when, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, it first denounced the Roman empire as the work of the devil. The final solution it evokes, those smitten, smoking, charred victims, summon up uneasily the work of a more recent creed.
From the 1960s into the 1970s, influential studies of apocalyptic thought by the historians Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and Norman Cohn (Pursuit of the Millennium, 1970; Europe’s Inner Demons, 1975) focused on radical millenarianists who had invoked the persecuted, heroic survivors of Revelation. These analyses looked to the seventeenth-century revolutionaries, to Blake and to Abolitionist religious zeal in both America and England, and conjured the impassioned resistance of world turned-upside-down movements. Inspired by a desire to lift the dead weight of history and tradition from postwar society, these historians looked to the eternal horizon of Apocalypse, where the past is abolished and the future has become the longed-for present. In doing so, they showed little interest in the often deep connection of apocalypticism with authority.
Bernard McGinn, who has revised those postwar historians, reminds us that the book’s influence originated with “the well-educated and well-situated clerical intelligentsia… potent political figures”. He goes on to declare that apocalypticism was adduced “in support of the political and social order” both retrospectively by reviewing the past in its light – and prospectively, by prophesying conflict to come. The last book of the Bible may have blazed in the Diggers’ and Levellers’ minds, lit up Blake’s imagination, and lived in the pockets of the ragged-trousered philanthropists who after him, but it also stood open on the docks at clerks and scholars who worked for the interests of reigning authorities, who in the past (when Dante was descending into Hell to mete out justice on his foes, and Milton was revisiting the Fall) were emperors and kings and sometimes, queens. Something of this still resounds in the characterization of acts of war in the present time, in the jeremiads of George W. Bush and Tony Blair against their opponents, their passionate self-justifications, and their rationale for their new concepts of just war and terror.
The strands of the Book of Revelation that are still alive in the contemporary imaginary are bound by memories of both world wars, but the lessons of the Nazis uses have not been absorbed. Rather the contrary. In a speech made in March last year, Blair invoked Armageddon by name, and cast his decision to go to war in Iraq in visionary terms:
September 11 was for me a revelation [sic]. The purpose was to cause such hatred between Muslims and the west that religious jihad became reality, and the world engulfed by it. The global threat to our security was clear. So was our duty: to act to eliminate it. Here is where I feel so passionately that we are in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the new world. If the twentieth century scripted our conventional say of thinking, the twenty-first century is unconventional in almost every – respect … it was defined by September 11.
Prophecies of retributive justice also strike again and again in the US administration’s proclamations, most notoriously in the Axis of Evil speech of January 2), in which Bush tellingly phrased his apocalypticism in semi-archaisms that move from ordinary American speech to a portentous use of full auxiliary verbs: “We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer…. Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun. This campaign may not be finished on our watch – yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch”.
The Book of Revelation exhorts, “Be watchful”; and constantly warns that the unwary will be taken by the enemy. The writer of this speech disclosed in his memoirs that Bible study classes are held in the White House which speechwriters and aides are expected to attend.
The apocalyptic perspective permeates political consciousness much further afield than the While Houses inner council chambers, quite independently of the government. Congregations of evangelical Christians everywhere read the Bible as docu-drama, with literal application to world affairs and in North America, more millions – some of them the same people, but not all – have also declared that they believe in angels. As Bernard McGinn commented, in 1987: “Millions of Christian fundamentalist read Revelation in a highly literal way as a blue print for coming crisis”.
Glorious Appearing: The end of days, the eleventh of the mega-selling Left Behind books, continues to unfold a present-day apocalyptic final battle. The series’s authors are Tim LaHaye, an evangelical pastor, and Jerry B. Jenkins, a professional ghostwriter for celebrities (including Billy Graham). Armageddon, tenth in the series, was the first to appear on the New York Times bestseller list, in April 2003, the month after the war in Iraq began. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion describes how it opens with the sudden, “enraptured” disappearance of God’s chosen and the struggles of those remaining during the times of Tribulation (the seven years that follow), against international conspiracies of all kinds, financial, military, religious, terrorist, led by the Antichrist who, as in the Apocalypse, will promise peace. “I fear it may he very soon”, warns the Pastor; “We need to watch for the new world leader” – who will have to follow the fate prophesied. The vengeful rhetoric of Christian fundamentalism makes common cause with hard-line Zionism, while Islamic calls for jihad use apocalyptic language too, interplaying the one another in a mirror image effect of emulation: Hamas prophesies rivers of blood, Ariel Sharon announces retaliation no less bloodthirstily.
The Book of Revelation has indeed been prophetic, and not only historically. It also anticipates modern genres: the monster comic, the horror video and the sci-fi fantasy. I am not by any means the first to see an affinity between angels and engines: the philosopher Michel Serres, in his book on angels, included jumbo jets in his survey, and his study was published before September 11, 2001. H. C. Wells imagined the angels of Revelation as engines from Mars, describing in The War of the Worlds, written at the end of the nineteenth century, before the use of gas in the trenches of the First World War, before the Second World War the atom bomb, and before the latest generation of WMD, death on a huge scale visited on the inhabitants of pretty suburban Surrey and central London, with heat ray guns and chemical miasma taking the place of the angels of the seven vials in the Apocalypse. J. R. R. Tolkien dramatized an epic struggle to cast out evil, while J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter faces another Sauron in the guise of Lord Voldemort, whose name parses as Wish for Death. These wars are not easy to keep apart in the mind’s eye from the conflicts conducted in reality and on news channels, and this is not just because Star Wars or the Narnia books are modern allegories. A recent poll found that a terrifying number of people in Britain thought Hitler was a figment and believed that the Orcs’ defeat at Helms Deep in The Lord of the Rings actually took place.
Tolkien’s fantasy epic was written during the same postwar decades as the utopian histories of E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, and it too conjures a myth of struggle and deliverance, revolutionary energy and hope carried by little people against tyrannical might and unharnessed destruction. The Hobbits from the Shire had first appeared in The Hobbit (1937), which was imbued with the Arcadian and English nostalgia that pervaded that era, culminating in Brideshead Revisited (1945). Tolkien himself had been invalided out of the trenches of the First World War; but he lost his family and most of his friends from his university days in that war, and his experience can be descried in the endless combat of The Lord of the Rings. The book became a secular Bible for the hippy generation, and traces anarchism – individualist, hedonist, pacific, antinomian – linger in the medieval and Celtic nostalgia that envelops the book’s afterlife as a touchstone of the New Age. But its present incarnation, as a film, projects into our here and now a vision of one small, beleaguered tribe and its allies overthrowing a mighty imperium in altogether changed political circumstances, without much thought of transformation, negotiation, organic exchange or development.
Some other filaments of past and present apocalypticism are worth teasing out, in order to grasp why its myth has regained moral force. Anglo-Saxon warrior epics such as Beowulf were established as the Ur-texts of English Literature by Professor Tolkien at Oxford, where Philip Pullman was a student in the 1960s. Pullman read English – unhappily – then started work as a schoolteacher in Oxford during both the first phase of the Tolkien cult and, as he often recalls with some asperity, the popular ascendancy of another Oxford visionary for children, Lewis and his Narnia cycle. Pullman’s highly ambitious trilogy, His Dark Materials, consciously defies both those precursors of his youth: he challenges the archaic savagery and the apocalyptic vision of Tolkien’s invented Englishness, and Lewis’s Anglican piety. He draws on a parallel, dialectical literary tradition, taking on Milton, speaking with Blake (who has, for these purposes, become an angelic presence, constantly there), shadowing Bunyan, and surpassing certainly Milton and even Blake in his defiance of Christian dualism, his rejection of the doctrine of original sin and his championing of women, children and their energies of curiosity, sex and love. He stages several topoi of apocalyptic struggle, but in each case, makes a knight’s move in another direction.
The scandalous, worldly, beautiful Lilith-like anti-heroine, Mrs Coulter, is a wicked mother, but with a difference, and her seductiveness works its spell on the reader as well as on Lyra and many other victims. Pullman’s Satan, the towering explorer and magus Lord Asriel, radiates rebellion in Miltonic fashion, but he too is a complex case, as in pursuit of knowledge he defies the control and interests of the Authority’s prelates, who wish to steal, hoard and pervert any results he obtains. The concept of Dust, which streams through the book, symbolizes the life force of particle physics on the one hand, and on the other, more defiantly, the energy and vitality of carnal knowledge.
Taking a cue from Blake’s Urizen, the divine power who strangles the infant joy in his grip. Pullman performs a supreme act of delinquent, topsy-turvy imagination when the child heroes Lyra and Will meet the Ancient of Days, the Authority himself: “he was so old, and he was terrified, crying like a baby and cowering away into the lowest corner. ‘He must be so old – I’ve never seen anyone suffering like that oh, Will, can’t we let him out?”. The once supreme ruler of heaven and earth, the creator of the world, is lying in a crystal casket, like a victim of Alzheimer’s on the geriatric ward. Moved to pity, they assist the decrepit creature out of his casket:
…it wasn’t hard, for he was light as paper, and he could have followed them anywhere, having will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower in the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. Only a few moments later he had vanished completely…
In this bizarre tableau of the death of God, Pullman inverts the deposition and pieta motifs of Christianity, and has the crumbling, cowardly, abject old man cradled in the arms of two children. He is the power who has visited his harsh justice on the world; they are two rough, ignorant kids applying the different medicine of mercy.
Finally, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter sacrifice themselves to bring to an end the rule of the usurping angel Metatron, and to allow Lyra and Will to return to enfleshed, ordinary human existence in time. As Lord Asriel exclaims, angels are jealous of human beings, because “They haven’t got this!” – he pinches the arm of his companion – “They haven’t got flesh”. So His Dark Materials resists apocalypse in favour of what Gerard Manley
Hopkins called haeccitas, the thisness of things, the phenomenon of the here-and-now, the flesh you can pinch and that feels pain, the base and raw material of life. Pullman has in many ways dramatized for children a claim that resounds to Blake’s antinomian axiom, “Everything that Jives is holy”. This is to make large claims for Pullman, but it is important to note his swerves and soarings away from the usual apocalyptic script.
The Italian philosopher and Catholic Gianni Vattimo, in his book After Christianity (2002), offers a similar insight. He too lambasts the Church for dishonestly invoking a concept of nature and natural law in the service of its own violence, against women and homosexuals especially. Nature has been changed into an unassailable grand truth. So sex has to be “natural” (no contraception, and so on). Vattimo is by no means the only prominent Christian to grasp at the Blakean legacy: while the Association for Christian Teachers has denounced the blasphemies of Philip Pullman, and American fundamentalists have anathematized him as well, the Archbishop of Canterbury flabbergasted Guardian readers when he praised the vision of the books and the stage version at the National Theatre. Without addressing apocalypticism directly, Rowan Williams nevertheless issued a challenge which implies a strong critique of it: “[But] what kind of a church is it”, he asked, “that lives in perpetual and murderous anxiety about the fate of its God? What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence”.
In the years of Ban the Bomb, of the Cold War, of the Cuban missile crisis, the first wave of Tolkien-mania and Narnia’s success, Frank Kermode was also thinking about apocalypse. In his influential book The Sense of an Ending (1967), Kermode develops a powerful argument about the differences between myth and fiction through a meditation on the vision of the end of the world in Revelation. Kermode agreed with Roland Barthes’s polemic in Mythologies that myth communicates ideology: static, traditional, conservative, bound to the past, and antithetical to the true enterprise of literature. He distinguished chronos, the flow of time, from kairos, the moment of being; fiction bundles kairoi to form the timeless aeon of redemptive order, saturated with revisionary, not reactionary meaning. Kermode lays great emphasis on the immanent meaning of fiction which, like Apocalypse, imbues the foretime with meaning and endows it with a rationale, to render it bearable: this is the salvific promise of art.
Malcolm Bull, an astute critic of millennial themes, has pointed out that moments of being have purpose, in literature as in life, and that this is not always to be found in their ends: “human time is not made of chronological time but is, as in Ecclesiastes, ‘a time for this, and a time for that'”. We experience time for its significance as it happens, and it swells and subsides according to its import: we do not inhabit endings, and much of the literature of the past hundred years has striven to imitate what Proust called “the intermittences of the heart”. The deep difference between intermittences (processes) and teloi (ultimate ends) illuminates the way apocalypticism in its new historic form endangers democratic negotiation and incremental compromise. Revelation’s vision of future time is predicted on lost time past, on nostalgia for a Golden Age: Alpha is Omega – an ourobouros, not biting, but sucking its own tail in infantile plenitude. Jerusalem is forfeit, but the New Jerusalem will step down from heaven in grace and beauty and pour her blessings on us.
The handling of time in recent films and their cognates (television, computer imaging, digital photography) throws into question the idea of art and literature’s fictive temporal order. Wallace Stevens’s vision of this order of art, from which Kermode draws inspiration, this other space-time of the imagination, has been propelled into the real through current illusionistic techniques, and in being thus propelled has fulfilled aspects of apocalyptic prophecy at its most obscurantist. Ultimately, it is perhaps not the violence in entertainment that does the damage, as much as the promise of possible fulfilment by these means: the performance of an action, projected into an eternal present lasts unchanged, repeated again and again, and so becomes a real event, a real act in actual time
The brilliant illusionism of The Lord of the Rings, as filmed by Peter Jackson and his host of technicians, creates amazement in any audience. Through Computer Generated Imagery and more than 700 different types of special effects (animation, bluescreen, mattes, models, etc), the film summoned realities that are not there. In interviews, the horde of designers all testify to their fidelity to historical methods of forging armour, brewing mead, raising elvish castles in the air, cloning Orcs in mud. But this film refuses those laws of the flesh in which experience is grounded: that carnal condition Blake attempted to proclaim, that praise of dust and of flesh Pullman has sung. Bodies crash to the ground, onto jagged bare splinters of lava, and show a mere charming cosmetic scratch. Nobody ever holds their nose or gags at the reek of corpses, as they do in medieval paintings of the Raising of Lazarus. This film and many others now – Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Troy – passionately strive for authenticity, verisimilitude, especially where bodily sensations, suffering and pain are concerned. But this extreme kind of realism ever admits the damage that blows or blades really inflict: the consequences of violence. When Frodo, at the end of the trilogy, still feels the wound in his shoulder, it is a genuine and even exceptional moment, which calls for unusual empathy: he has changed, he has suffered, and he has been transformed by the ordeals he has gone through. But much of the time, the person on screen, dematerialized into photons and as ethereal as a shade in Homer’s underworld, necessarily feeds, only an illusion of physicality. Film-makers pile on the carnage and gore, in a way almost analogous to the ghosts needing to drink the sacrificial blood Odysseus gives them before they can connect with him. But unlike the ghosts in Homer’s underworld who can speak with Odysseus after they have drunk the black blood of a sacrificed ox, cinematic spectres simulate but never attain that pinch on real flesh that Lord Asriel tells us angels envy.
More even than the visual sleight of hand, sound effects pack impressions with the force of events taking place for real. The elusiveness of embodiment and material being are drowned out by a quadrophonic sensorama of crashing, roaring, squelching, splitting, slicing, hewing, flogging – the soundscape stands in for the physical horrors depicted and acts directly on the audience’s viscera. So, faced with the awesome illusionistic techniques of film today, the spectator grasps at the reprieve of disbelief, twice over: this is only happening on screen, and it is not happening at all to the actors and participants. Otherwise the scenes of Armageddon on film would he as unbearable as the fighting on the Somme which originally blasted Tolkien’s nerves.
Even in the most stirring scenes of torment and damage, something twists and directs the audience towards unfeeling. The state of over-wrought sensation, comparable to the metaphorical excess in the Book Revelation, demands that the battered spectator either thrills to the bloodshed or resorts to numbness. Imaginary battles become a kind of training in resisting fear, in stopping the springs of empathy. Huge arrays of weapons, soldiery, monstrous animals, siege machinery from every epoch of war-mongering are deployed in vast spectaculars of terrifying mayhem from horizon to horizon, but you are asked to sit tight and watch: a squashed fly in Shakespeare can produce more pity. The hot and unremitting violence of such films even perhaps communicates revolt against the very conditions of disembodiment, of not being involved, for audiences out of the war zones. Smart bombs, robot disposal units, stealth planes, missiles, all the contemporary paraphernalia of intelligence or destruction, disengage attackers from their victims. (Hand-to-hand combat ennobles battle: a cavalry charge into a horde of Orcs is heroic in a way that a radar-controlled missile is not.)
Our present fantasy or magic spectacles may not represent the world as we think it operates – not altogether. That would exceed even today’s state of credulity. But contemporary technologies of weaponry and film-making have altered the nature of the literal, by confusing act with representation, the event as performed with the image as perceived. Leakage between simulated and actual reality is not trapped inside the cinema or the Gameboy. Television news programmes need to label an interview “Live” to inform the viewers that it is really taking place at that moment, and conversely the warning sometimes appears across footage of bombings or other events on American television, “Metaphorical Images” to distinguish these images from “live” ones. Metaphorical – not fictional, not simulated, not untrue: we are being asked to receive them as truthful. No wonder a new generation of video games incorporates documentary footage and mixes it up with virtual scenarios, emptying meaning from the damage caught on film and denaturing responses to its truth. The consequent disengagement grows and spreads by analogy, when fantasy is not the issue.
Plato’s anxiety about the mendacity of verbal and visual representations has attained a new, acute truth value – which we have seen, from many different angles, over the photographs of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. These came in a variety of simulations, some of them faked in England, some of them staged for the camera as tableaux of punishment, torture and degradation, some of them records of torments actually taking place. The poses accorded with S&M conventions naturalized through pornography, so the history of these images itself reveals the disappearance of a border between act and image; some guards defended themselves by saying they were “Only posing”, not for real. In these trophy pictures, the subject’s existence as a person is denied – his abasement turns into a symbolic ritual to deliver pleasure to the viewer. Happily, the public revulsion revealed that images still have huge power to shock one into thought, however widely they are applied to numb one out of it.
In a sense the apocalyptic condition is this: when the cataclysm is over, the flesh is resurrected not as flesh but as image-flesh, a form of angelic apatheia or nonfeeling, cybermatter which feels nothing and occupies nowhere but the screen, no time except the present of its unfolding through whatever medium of communication it is assuming as its vehicle.
This apocalyptic dimension raises acute questions in relation to current war policy, at home as well as in Iraq and other affected countries. Most urgently, who are the Orcs? Who are these untermenschen who are our enemies? The writer Eduardo Cozarinsky expresses this anxiety well in his novel The Bride from Odessa, when he comments on the “Third Reich’s theatrical passion for creating a real life apocalypse. A sort of Oberammergau passion in reverse…. Were Auschwitz, Maidanek and Treblinka the other side of some shining souvenir medallion from Oberammergau?”
The imagination does not exist in a sealed chamber, and we do not enter it wearing sterile gloves or protective clothing; it is the air we breathe and contemporary powers of illusion, fast increasing in the cinema and virtual technologies have helped enhance fantasy, magic and transformation in culture today in every way. New media wrap us in illusions of monsters and angels, turning myth into history, and vice versa. We do not look at illusions from a high peak: we inhale them, daily.
A storyteller such as Jorge Luis Borges constitutes through “reasoned imagination”- his phrase – a metaphysical and poetic dimension of reality. Many writers in the genres of fantasy – contemporary versions of magic and transformation – project a subjectivity which no longer respects the distinction between lived experience and dreams, between actual and unreal events. The problems arise, as they did in Inquisition trials, when the receivers of the written word forget that stories are made up, take them to be real, and wish to bring everyone else round to believe in them too. That is one way in which fantasy that flaunts itself differs from prophecy. When we lose sight of the inherent unreality of a story conjured by language, and become believers, dangers begin. Tsvetan Todorov expressed this pithily when he wrote, “Trouble starts when the symbol is taken for reality”.
Works of imagination such as the Book of Revelation, of their very nature, seek to persuade, and in order to do so struggle to abolish the presence of language between the events described and the receiver’s faculties: words close the gap between themselves and their audience, that is their work: they have this magical tendency to become flesh – at least in the mind’s eye. When the mass media conjure and transmit images, their intrinsic, spectral character prevents them embodying the smell and touch and temperature of the real thing, its capacity for feeling, physically and psychically. Inside the frame of fantasy, heaping up reality effects only exacerbates the alienation of the image from its subject, as it strives to cancel its own inherent condition of disembodiment. Either we admit artifice, and stage unreality frankly, or we must honour the laws of time and the flesh, and confront the consequences of violence and exclusion, the reality of pain and suffering.
For language and imagination not only govern ways of thinning, but from that work of cognition, follow ways of doing. Today we can include, under the rubric of language, the mass communications media. These new means of representing the world have “realized” things that were not possible before except in fantasies. Beside the spectacular Armageddons of contemporary experience, for real in the case of terrorist attacks and invasions, for fun in the case of special effects cinema entertainment, we must continue to scrutinize the new conditions of reality that have been brought to bear on our lives by the angels and engines of now.
From the last of three Robb Lectures on “Magic and Transformation in Contemporary Literature and Culture”, given in March, 2004 at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. A fuller text will appear in the Fall issue of Raritan in the United States.