Sunday, March 14, 2004

Hell & the Modern Citizen

Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver sits on my bedroom floor, serving for the moment as my bedside table. I was among the zealots who scampered out to get the book on the day of its release, very much despite the misgivings of Publishers Weekly, etc. The professional readers all kvetched over Stephenson's inability to edit his copious research of Enlightenment life. To me, this seemed attractive: I usually find myself mulling over Stephenson's legendary info-dumps long after I've finished his books and forgotten the names of his characters (although you're unlikely to find a more memorable name than "Hiro Protagonist," of Snow Crash).

Alas, a half-year later, the bookmark rests at page 300. I'll get back to it - I see Volume Two of The Baroque Cycle is due to come out in a few weeks - but I stopped after resorting to an hour of speed-reading. I don't mind speed-reading, but I'd much rather luxuriate, and Quicksilver wasn't giving me the motivation to slow down. The frequent ideological exchanges were tossed around as if it were all an intriguing parlour game, often with an undisclosed political significance to be revealed some point further down the road. My interest evaporated, and I gave no further thought to it until I read Simon Kinahan's comments (and thank-you, M. Blowhard). Kinahan notes that the characters treat religion, specifically, as an interesting personal choice - a very modern perspective - and not as a matter that exceeds all other values. A curious misstep from an author who proposed, in Snow Crash, that religions were an intellectual virus that functioned like a computer language, providing a unique ability to communicate invaluable concepts, at the cost of certain inexplicable "short cuts."

My problem: "political intrigue" is an oxymoron for me. Poor Daniel Waterhouse can be caught up in machinations beyond his (and my) ken, but my speeding eye only came to a skidding halt, then back-tracked, and proceeded again at a leisurely stroll when he witnessed the brutal murder of a Puritan. Sigh. It seems when it comes to maintaining my unevolved interest, intellectual parlour games are no match for mayhem and sheer physical danger.

So I gave up on the Enlightenment, where Reason disseminated itself with a dispassionate casualness among the tribal chaos, and focussed instead on Hell. Life is so much more interesting when Everything is at stake.

Hell is the gift that unbearably visceral movies like Jacob's Ladder and The Exorcist give us. Actually, I'll include the recent Errol Morris/Robert McNamara flick too, while I'm at it. They convincingly give us the impression of a reliable, reasonable world balanced precariously on the brink of absolute catastrophe. The three movies resolve differently, and I'd say of the three of them McNamara's resolutions are the most discomfiting, while Jacob's Ladder has the greatest intrinsic appeal. All three begin with a faith in reason, which is shaken to the core, and finally pulverized by unnaccountable forces (R McN might beg to differ, but I think this is the impression Morris would leave us).

It's interesting to me that for The Exorcist and Jacob's Ladder, salvation is embodied in children. In the director's cut of The Exorcist (dramatically inferior to the original, btw), the two priests take a little time-out from their exorcising to discuss their enemy's strategy. The real targets here, says Fr. Merrin, are the adults; the enemy wants to bring them to despair. When the conflict finally unspools, balance is restored: Regan is returned to a state of innocence, Fr. Karras is returned to his calling, and everyone is brought back to a pre-Vatican II faith (Mel Gibson might take note, the next time he chooses his movie material. In fact, this raises a provocative question: just what is it about Vatican II that so riles our movie makers?).

Jacob's Ladder isn't a story so much as it is an environment vigorously transforming itself into something personally antagonistic toward the hero. There are a few slender threads of hope for the titular philospher-mailman, including the chiropractic angel Louis, who exhorts Jacob to read his Meister Eckhart. Caught in a nearly uninterrupted onslaught of torment, Jacob doesn't have the luxury of time to read, but he somehow manages to intuit the road to salvation, and takes the proferred hand of his deceased son to begin his ascension, and leave his hellish environs.

So where does all this horror leave us? Beyond the obvious state of shock, I'm not at all sure. Roger Ebert says of The Exorcist that, "(Director William) Friedkin has the answers; the problem is that we doubt he believes them." Indeed, which becomes more frightening: the questions these movies raise, or the answers they offer?

No comments: