Saturday, November 3, 2012

Through a Dark Symbol: Imaginary, Symbolic, Real = Rock, Paper, Scissors


There's a war going on right now, and it's not between us and them, or good and evil, it's between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The reason is that the 'real' - the immediate issues of food, shelter, warm clothing, electricity, gasoline -- are suddenly 'not there' for so many of us in the northeastern U.S. after Hurrican Sandy. There was the big moment here last weekend when for a hot second the world seemed to stop beating, the heart to stop turning, the ears started popping from strange pressures, and all the TV could do was warn us to stay indoors. Then comes the massive clean-up and now we're moving onto elections and marathons and other quintessentially imaginary / symbolic endeavors, but for those who have not yet been able to resume their gentle electric sleep of warmth, food, clothing, shelter, it must be horrific, since so little of the real remains.

This is important to know in understanding why animals and plants exist only in the 'real' and not the imaginary or symbolic. They don't recognize themselves in photographs (though sometimes in mirrors); they seldom speak, except in a grotesque howling or barking, as if to mock us, we who have dared to leave their realm.

In the ghost shows I watch (see my mind-numbing reviews) there's the common belief that any demon would be afraid of crosses, attracted by pentagrams, repulsed by the sting of holy water. But this implies the demon must have been raised in a very orthodox Christian or Catholic school, or else why would said demon even notice or care?  I've been obsessed by these symbolic inconsistencies all my life since my favorite movie is Dracula (1933). Why would a vampire be afraid of a cross? Is it just the symbolic reminder, like a text message from mom coming right when you're trying to break your very first law? What does a priest's blessing actually accomplish? Does it leave some electro-magnetic charge too sophisticated for modern methods of scientific measurement?

I think horror movies get them confused, probably because their writers got too much Christian conditioning growing up, so that crosses and holy objects are themselves seen as threatening: they recall physical pain, real or imagined, and thus fear, dread of hell, etc., so attacking or defacing the symbols directly becomes a very first chakra kind of rebellion, albeit one mired in an id-less prison mentality, like defacing a stop sign but still stopping for it.


School of the Holy Beast (1974) is an example of this, a 70s Japanese pinku wherein, amongst other things, a nun is stripped and beaten with thorny roses and then made to urinate on the holy cross. This is actually considered pretty subversive in the context of the film, but really, in the end, it's kind of silly and not very cinematic. A representation of someone desecrating a representation of someone else. I ended up selling my copy on ebay. I was expecting better.

But then again, I went to public school.


Don't Deliver us from Evil (1968) finds two best girlfriends home for the summer from Catholic school, performing similar 'atrocities' - such as stealing holy articles from their school's chapel and even tossing out a bunch of sacramental wafers into the nearby lake. The shizz with the passing swinger/rapists the girls pick up along the way are one thing, that's human life, that's real, but their litanies and rituals with the pilfered holy items are purely symbolic. It's a very odd breech of the walls between the levels of imaginary, symbolic, real, like a picture of a fire (symbolic) burning up, so it's no accident I saw my idol Kim Morgan's picture with her kneeling before a poster for the film and felt compelled to smudge in some flames. 


Imagine, for example, if you could see through your own image's eyes, the way characters spy in old dark houses through the eyes of an old portrait.  But you could see out of all reproductions, all photos as long as they were of yourself - so you would look down from gallery walls at the throngs judging you and out of scrapbooks and from atop mantels, and god knows the horrors you would see. You could just leave a picture of yourself on the wall anywhere you wanted to spy.


That sounds crazy, yet such symbol-confusion abounds in cinema, and in real life: curse words, offensive gestures such as the middle finger, mean nothing outside their culture, and wrongs performed in the real world are presumably righted by other symbolic magic words ("I'm sorry"). Men live and die for one particular symbol, the "$" sign, the three digit mark. An example of how to situate the absurdity-of-money issue is in the case of the Confederacy. In a wacky 1932 movie I saw recently, THE PHANTOM, the jackpot everyone's been scheming and killing for turns out to consist of now worthless confederate bills. Did the crazy old lady lie when she said she had three million dollars? No. Then again, if her relatives still had that money it might be worth something as a collector's item - there's a bill like the one above selling for $139. on eBay! So it's worth even more than its face value!

Similarly, if society falls apart, the US dollar bill will be worth nothing. Gas and cans of corn will be the new gold. We use the gold standard today, its universal, so all our paper money is allegedly connected to some store of bullion somewhere in Fort Knox, but there's some conspiracy theories that Fort Knox's biggest secret is its staggering emptiness, which we must keep hidden from the other nations lest they see we're broke. But then again, why waste all that gold? It's just sitting there, locked deep in a vault, no good to no one.

The shiny base underwriting everything ever created by man
Undertanding the sheer nonsensicality of this all became easier for me after working at a high end art gallery for eight years. We specialized in expensive Dubuffet, Picasso, and Chagall oils (and Sam Francis gouaches). They were expensive, but in general lesser works, still worth a fortune by most standards, but something the artist probably dashed out in an hour or less and which now sells for at least $100,000.  it makes no sense. Did someone like Picasso have to, like, hold onto his shopping list, because the minute he set it down someone would grab it to sell through Christie's at some future date?
So prized was Picasso's signature that it is said that when he paid for things by personal check, the odds were that the recipient of the check would save it rather than cash it. Seeing as a simple Picasso autograph can easily fetch $1,000 today, perhaps this wasn't such an irrational decision. (...) The value came not from any intrinsic source -- it's a fraction of a cent's worth of ink on a piece of paper worth scantly more. Anything touched by Picasso becomes in the eyes of many that much more valuable. It was something that he could have used (and perhaps did use) to his advantage. Why not keep paying with checks if people aren't going to cash them. (fool.com)
Warhol's $ sign silkscreens (which his assistants made, he only signed them) showed he understood the tragic joke at the core of this symbol blindness - but does the devil? Why would Satan need to disgrace religious symbols if he got this cosmic joke? Would the devil create holy statues just to desecrate them? It's not very rational.

Top: Warhol silkscreen; Dubuffet Personnages 5
both on paperest. $50-100,000. (as of 1998)
The idea of a presumably 'real' vampire or ghost stopped cold by religious iconography is only the tip of the iceberg but the most easily seen and a symbol unseen is without relevance. If a vampire were 'real' why would it be cowed by an image, i.e. a cross? We grant the makers of holy objects too much credit if we imagine that every cross on the assembly line has been somehow imbued with holy spirit power. Maybe some priest has blessed the holy water, but what if that priest was just phoning it in that day, not really delivering the required god power? Does that render all his holy water ineffective?

Just as when the head vampire is killed and all his victims are freed from his spell, does a vampire's scars from holy water disappear when the priest who blessed it is found in the rectory with a choir boy? What if it's a pedophile priest waving a cross at a very decent sort of vampire, one who only targets deserving mobsters like Anne Parillaud does in INNOCENT BLOOD? Could you scare away a priest by waving a pentagram in his face? I imagine the priest even thinking about some sin he'd like to perform and BooM! all his slain vampires come back to life.


Every kid in the 70s had seen Hammer's Dracula films at least once and we remembered Peter Cushing using two candlesticks to form a cross. It seemed to us a bit like cheating. We'd practice with holding our two fingers together to form crosses, presuming that would work on real vampires the way it did in the movies. We'd make them from popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, anything handy. Is defending yourself merely matter of calling the vampire's attention to the cross patterns abounding within the field of his vision? Can he weasel out of his adverse reaction by not paying attention to you as you frantically gesticulate towards the cross shapes in the tile floor? Did vampires have to avoid checkered floor tiles? Would the cross have power if Dracula couldn't see it? A gun can shoot through a sack cloth but can a cross repel a vampire through one's coat?


The only answer is that the symbolic is as real as the 'real' and that it is the wellspring from which the daemonic flows. On the surface this wouldn't make sense, but surface is perhaps an illusion more than even the symbolic. A deep, deep down reading leads to a lot of Sesame Street-style fun. Imagine scaring off a vampire with the word 'cross' - One ringy dingy! Two Ringy Dingy!

Behold the word!
Or what else? Why not a photo of a cross? Or even the word 'church' written on a postcard?

This would seem to stem a lot from our own beliefs, the power of the human mind. For example, as a child I was terrorized by a monster in my closet until my dad posted a sign on the door saying "no monsters allowed" and they never came back. My dad didn't believe in either the monster or the power of the sign in the sense of their being 'real' but as a pharmaceutical market research analyst he understood the importance of symbolic over the imaginary, like the way paper beats rock.

Ohmigod - Rock Paper Scissors / Imaginary real  symbolic: the Rock is the imaginary -- the vampire and the monsters; the paper is the symbolic - the cross, the sign; the real is the scissors - our general well being, the state of our physical place in the universe in any given moment, where the only real concerns are food, shelter, tobacco, warmth, more food, and a decent plumbing.  Right now in the northeast we are the vampire symbolic undone by the real of the hurricane - we are reduced to pure 'real' - until our electricity is back and our lives restored, we are but symbols, shadows of charity, oblivion, panic attacks.  Paper, you best get rock-beatin'!

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