"What I'm dealing with is so vast and great that it can't be called the truth. It's above the truth." - Sun Ra

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. The 'real' really scores one when a natural disaster wipes away our access to the symbolic and imaginary. Stop signs and traffic lights no longer apply. No electricity for phone charging or modems, without the electronic umbilical to the imaginary, the 'real' slowly comes into focus. All the TV could do, for us who still had power, was warn us to stay indoors. Then came 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, whose sole pursuit is still the seeking of warmth, food, clothing, shelter, it must be horrific, since so little of the real remains for them to move in. They've inherited a world mostly abandoned as we live so much of our lives in 'the cloud.' Use it or lose it, reality warns. We've lost it, twice-over.

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. Who's laughing now?

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. This has always fascinated me as my favorite film as a child was 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? Is it like Michael Moore waving a picture of a slain little girl at NRA president Charlton Heston? If it works mainly as it's a blessed item, imbued with holy power, what does a priest's blessing actually accomplish? Does it leave some electro-magnetic charge too sophisticated for modern methods of scientific measurement to detect?

I think horror movies get these symbol-imaginary chains confused, probably because their writers got too much Christian conditioning growing up, so that crosses and holy objects are themselves seen as threatening through a kind of Pavlovian dread response - the mere sign of a cross makes the grown Christian writer scratch ghost echoes of his itchy wool church suit, makes his legs fidget with restless boredom. Before engaging in sex he has to cover up the crosses and pictures of his mama. To such a person, 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 after you've already stopped 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 interesting. A representation of someone desecrating a representation of someone else. I ended up selling my copy on eBay. I was expecting so much 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 symbolic '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. It's no accident I saw my idol Kim Morgan's picture with her kneeling before a poster for the film while I was writing this and I felt compelled to smudge in some flames. 

Imagine you could see through your own image's eyes, the way characters spy in old dark houses through the eyes of an old portrait. Imagine you could see out of all reproductions of your image, all photos as long as they were of yourself, and so you would look down from gallery walls at the throngs judging whether to buy you (and force you to observe their home life in the room where you're to be hung) and out of scrapbooks and from atop fireplaces in little reproductions, postcards, TV, god knows the horrors you would see.  Is this not what we do to poor Jesus on this cross?

That sounds crazy, yet such symbol-confusion abounds in cinema, and in real life, and especially the hypocrisy of censorship: curse words, offensive gestures such as the middle finger, mean nothing outside their culture, but are pixelated out of movies that have no problem showing graphic cannibalism. Meanwhile, 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 employee makes 'six figures' and you know he's doing all right.

In a wacky 1932 movie I saw recently, THE PHANTOM, the financial jackpot everyone's been scheming and killing for in the haunted house basement 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 probably a lot more than 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, it's 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. If we were led to believe it was there, it wouldn't really need to be there, hence could be two places at once.

The shiny base underwriting everything ever created by man - all unused
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 original work by Dubuffet, Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall, mostly oils (and Sam Francis gouaches). Though generally lesser works, they were still worth a fortune by most standards. Many of them seemed to me as the artist probably dashed them out in an hour or less. The average price: $100,000. It makes no sense. Did someone like Picasso have to hold onto his shopping list, because the minute he set it down on the desk someone would grab it to sell through Christie's?
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 Dracula? Why would a vampire or a devil need to disgrace religious symbols if they 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 since we all know the drill (he runs from a cross, is burned by holy water, etc), let's use it as a springboard into this illogic: If a vampire were 'real' -- even merely within a film's diegetic reality -- why would it be cowed by an image within said diegesis, i.e. a brandished 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 the fountain 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 breaking his vows one tiny bit and BooM! all his slain vampires come back to life.

Every kid in the 70s had seen most of Hammer's Dracula films at least once and we remembered Peter Cushing using two candlesticks to form a cross; so we'd all 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, better safe than sorry, and wave them at whomever was playing the vampire to drive them off.

So.... let us consider, is defending yourself from vampiric attack 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 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, nearsighted and merely needing to take his glasses off to reduce the holy gross to a fuzzy blur? If a gun can shoot through a sack cloth, 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 where he'd written in big letters "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 placebos are so often effective medicine, or the way paper beats rock.

Ohmigod - Rock Paper Scissors = Imaginary real  symbolic: the Paper is the imaginary (the vampire and the monster in the closet); the scissors is the symbolic (the cross); the real is rock (our general well being, i.e. food, shelter, tobacco, warmth, more food, and decent plumbing and all our blood safe in our veins).  Right now in the northeast we are the rock -- reduced to pure 'real' - until our electricity is back and our lives restored. Once the power is restored, scissors and paper will once more manifest. Paper, get ready to be cut!

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