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Sundries
...a sweatshop of moxie

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Angels & Demons

(A belated welcome to The Anchoress readers!)

Every once in a while, I like referring on my blog to Dan Brown's two works, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.

They hold a special fascination for me, since they are the marriage of the popular finally acknowledging the historically occult.

But since Brown's Da Vinci Code came out, there have been a slew of similarly themed works, both in book and film form.

Last year's National Treasure is a case in point.

It played to packed houses precisely because it capitalised on the furore of the Illuminati, Freemasons and secret societies in general, deftly rediscovered in the two Brown novellas.

And next year will see not only Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code come out in theatres, but Boccacio is the inspiration for the film version of his own famous novel of love in the time of pestilence, retitled Decameron: Angels & Virgins.

Angels & Virgins? Hooboy.

Such a bald-faced attempt at raking in the money by titling anything with the words "Angels" or "Code" is getting to be schlocky.

(That's not even taking into account the abysmal Hayden Christiansen as the lead, going from Darth Vader to Lorenzo minus lightsabre...)

And the thing of it is, neither the Da Vinci Code, nor Angels & Demons, nor National Treasure, were in any way good.

In fact, Dan Brown is a dreadful writer. The clues to National Treasure were shockingly easy to decipher.

Bad writing, bad acting, bad works?

Well no. That's the disturbing part of this phenomenon.

Despite their flaws, I liked National Treasure, I liked Angels & Demons, and I tolerated The Da Vinci Code.

It's not difficult to see why either.

Despite bad writing, DVC survives on pure plot craftsmanship alone. Ditto for National Treasure.

You've heard of stories writing themselves? This one of them.

The question then becomes, why do we like them despite their flaws?

To all of those of you who wish to infer an Al-Qaeda-type fascination to this post-9/11 world of ours, I don't think that's quite it.

I concede that nefarious and closed-door societies may play SOME role in the need to find out more about them, brought on by our own era's concerns, but in fact, the Brown books, National Treasure, the Decameron even, are about the West.

About our common experiences, our religious curiosities, our shared histories, not about other societies and their interests.

It seems what fascinates us is still not the Other, but Ourselves -- a known unknown, if you will.

But what would you say if I told you, it's also the quality of artistic output since the Impressionist era.

It was then that art divorced itself from historical and literal interpretation (a natural enough consequence of the advent of photography, where you didn't have to have events INTERPRETED for you anymore), but rather trusted the artists' instincts entirely in what they wished to convey.

Once that strand of logic was lost, there was no need to read into works of art anything but one layer of knowledge, since the fear of being able to say what one wanted became less and less acute as the twentieth century progressed.

If you saw a Campbell's Soup tin, chances are Mr. Warhol was not infusing a secret into his artwork, there to be deciphered and turned over for meaning.

The meaning was completely transparent -- it was a commentary on our society, plain and dazzlingly simple.

This is quite different from an era where hierachical power structures such as the Roman Catholic Church, autocratic governments, and controlling parents prevented people from plainly inferring anything too oppositional into their art.

To illustrate this point:

Here is Andy Warhol's now infamous silkscreen of the Campbell's Tomato Soup.



We all instinctively understand it's a comment on America.

It's accessible. It's cheap. It's disposable, no fuss no muss, goodness within badness, badness within goodness...and yet, strangely compelling for its simplicity. It attracts you despite you understanding all its qualities.

Now take Michelangelo's glorious interpretation of Genesis, perhaps the iconic Western moment of all time.



Look at the picture of God, Our Father, reaching out to spark Adam into life. Look at the shell-like object in which He is encased. Does it look familiar to you?

It should.

It's eerily like the parietal view of the brain, which of course Michelangelo would've studied in the cadavers with which he used to perfect his drawing skills.



From manifest religious art, the Sistine chapel mural goes from ULTIMATE belief to SUBVERSIVE thought:

God didn't create Man. Man Created God. God exists only in Man's Brain.

I don't believe it, but you can see how easy it is, once someone uncovers the mystery, to go: ohhh yeah, will you look at that.

What I am saying is, the symbolic is almost dead in the modern-world.

Why? Because, by and large, we don't need it.

Our society is more literal than any Western society before it.

Even if what we say still has consequences, few challenge our right to say it. That is the greatest advance of the modern world.

And it is this reserve of mysticism, of allegory, of secrecy that Dan Brown and Company have tapped into within ourselves.

We want to be told, even if we don't necessarily believe in the theories expounded, that there is a secret cache of information behind our most beloved and well-known ideas.

Not just forbidden fruit, mind, but hidden fruit.

This is the operative idea -- since being forbidden something is common to all of us. It's top-down authoritarianism, readily understood by all generations of man.

But hidden fruit is the subversion of that forbidden delight, and it appeals to our vanity to be able to uncover it. And how that much more, than to reveal it.

It's Prometheus redux.

Because after all, the sweetness of the nectar is not about the taste, but about the opening of fruit...about discovery.

My next blogpost will deal with a subsidiary topic, conspiracy theories, which have also made a huge comeback after the dreary post-Oliver Stone-JFK years.

They are all tied to a common thread.

That thread is uncertainty, the state of which man has never liked be in.

And conspiracy theories are just a very old impulse to make sense of the uncertain.

4 Comments:

  • I think you're a bit off. For one thing, art being "historical and literal interpretation" in the first place is a fairly late development. But I don't think art history has much to do with it.

    The current fad for conspiracy-style stories seems to me a reaction against not just the transparency of modern Anglosphere life but its diffusion: in a market-based (and ever-more-network-based) world, there's no center, not even the ones al Qaeda's thought to attack of late. Even in politics, democratic elections and a relative lack of corruption mean power constantly shifts, in unseen and barely-harnessable tides, from one place to another.

    The conspiracy story suggests an alternative, where there's both secrecy and centralization, where things aren't decided by the sea of billions of individual preferences and reactions but by one hidden, graspable thread. A bit of understandable atavism, perhaps.

    But remember that the desire to see conspiracy isn't just in modern pop culture (shouldn't you point to "The X Files"?) but in most of the nonwestern world, where it is a part of daily life. Putting a "Jewish" or "neocon" or "Halliburton" cabal's face on the sometimes alien market system is both amusing naivete and something else. I've seen immigrants smile without malice in saying that of course the Jews control all the banks, but that same sentiment, on a base of Arab or German resentment...

    But here, today, such a notion can strengthen one's life in the market, by going toward book purchases and movie tickets. Rather a neat solution, don't you think? Or subversion, if you like.

    By Blogger JSU, at Sat Oct 08, 08:27:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I think you're a bit off. For one thing, art being "historical and literal interpretation" in the first place is a fairly late development. But I don't think art history has much to do with it.

    Unless I am getting the wrong end of the stick, which is possible!, I couldn't disagree more with you, JSU.

    From the caves of Lascaux, to the biblical renditions of Western art, as well as the classical infusion of the Renaissance, artists have always tried to recreate the historical into artistic interpretation.

    After the advent of film, that need to capture, interpret and INFUSE into art the historical became less and less important.

    It was the triumph, for a time, of nature over man.

    The current fad for conspiracy-style stories seems to me a reaction against not just the transparency of modern Anglosphere life but its diffusion: in a market-based (and ever-more-network-based) world, there's no center, not even the ones al Qaeda's thought to attack of late. Even in politics, democratic elections and a relative lack of corruption mean power constantly shifts, in unseen and barely-harnessable tides, from one place to another.

    All very good points, but ones I shall bring out latterly in my post on Conspiracy Theories. :)

    The conspiracy story suggests an alternative, where there's both secrecy and centralization, where things aren't decided by the sea of billions of individual preferences and reactions but by one hidden, graspable thread. A bit of understandable atavism, perhaps.

    Exactly! Conspiracy theories are there to discern the nebulous, which is both impossible, and yet attainable using logic (goes conspiracists way of thinking).

    But remember that the desire to see conspiracy isn't just in modern pop culture (shouldn't you point to "The X Files"?) but in most of the nonwestern world, where it is a part of daily life. Putting a "Jewish" or "neocon" or "Halliburton" cabal's face on the sometimes alien market system is both amusing naivete and something else. I've seen immigrants smile without malice in saying that of course the Jews control all the banks, but that same sentiment, on a base of Arab or German resentment...

    My post on Conspiracy Theories won't go into such details or mention the very relevant points you bring up here (helas!), simply because it's meant not to be that serious.

    My blog is not exactly serious -- it's there to amuse, although amuse with a hodge-podge of topics, some more serious than the others.

    Still, good ideas all.

    But here, today, such a notion can strengthen one's life in the market, by going toward book purchases and movie tickets. Rather a neat solution, don't you think? Or subversion, if you like.

    Yes, I'm sure Mr. Moore has realised all of that as he sits in his palatial Bel Air home with the proceeds of his conspiracy theories. ;)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sun Oct 09, 12:56:00 am GMT-4  

  • "From the caves of Lascaux, to the biblical renditions of Western art, as well as the classical infusion of the Renaissance, artists have always tried to recreate the historical into artistic interpretation."

    No, no, I insist. You are misreading them.

    There are identifiable "real" elements in these things, yes, as there are in the Sphinx. But --and the earlier you go the more clearly this is true -- in their substance they are not real, much less history. They are myth and spirits and gods.

    Private portraiture comes long after the divine totem (with the god-king's portraits in between); tales of real men long after tales of gods and demigods. Even when names are attached -- surely neither Malory nor Chretien de Troyes were attempting to show any sort of literal, factual truth of a British Arthur or his circle. And they are quite late, in the scheme of things.

    And what is the "historical and literal interpretation" going on in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

    By Blogger JSU, at Sun Oct 09, 09:19:00 am GMT-4  

  • "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

    What's a Greek Urn?

    About fifteen dollars an hour!

    Hoi!!

    By Anonymous Mike Cunningham, at Sun Oct 09, 11:42:00 am GMT-4  

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