Orthodox Survival Course Class 36 – The Great Stereopticon: Preparing to Understand TV and Movies

You can listen to a podcast of this class at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/orthodox-survival-course-class-36

Introduction: We are going to continue painting our picture of the “Great Stereopticon” – the “media machine” that creates the false reality now believed by “mainstream” society, enabling the masses of people to be manipulated by the Antichrist global elite. We have discussed the newspapers and the radio; our remaining subjects within this sub-topic are the cinema, television, the Internet, video games, and “virtual reality” devices. But before we go on to examine these specific media, I would like to use this class to examine from an Orthodox standpoint the older art form of which cinema and television are a development, which is theater.

I. Preliminaries

I received some helpful responses this past week to our last class, two of which fill in some gaps in our knowledge about two things we talked about last week: Plato’s views on speech vs. writing, and Fr. Justin Popovich’s referring to Oswald Spengler about the future of Orthodoxy and civilization.

A) Plato’s views on speech and writing: You will recall that last week I spoke of Plato mentioning somewhere that speech was somehow more primordial and more sacred than writing, and that writing was invented because men had become less intelligent and less trustworthy. I brought this up in relation to the power of the radio, as a medium to broadcast the spoken word to vast multitudes of people, to society at large. Two of our fellow students wrote back to inform me that the passage I had in mind was in the dialogue Phaedrus.

One of these respondents wrote me very thoughtfully, at some length, to point out that Plato did not in fact have Socrates say what I thought he said – that writing was invented because men had become less honest and less intelligent – but rather that he simply articulated a critique of writing as less useful than speech for philosophical dialogue.

Even if we agree with this correction, however, my main purpose was not to be concerned about theories or myths about he origins of writing, but rather to point to the peculiar power speech has: we instinctively regard the spoken word as simultaneously more intimate and more sacred than the written word. If a stranger breaks a written contract, we have legal grounds against him, and we may be angry, but it does not damage us in the depths of the soul. If a friend breaks his word to us, however, we suffer a far deeper wound. I remember translating a speech of Cicero when I was in high school. It was a court case in which his client, a farmer, was suing a businessman who had reneged on an oral contract. Cicero likened his client to the homines antiqui, the “men of old” – or “old fashioned men” – who were both innocent and trustworthy, whose “word was their bond.” Operating on the level of the spoken word, on the handshake, indicates a relationship that is both more pure and simpler – more innocent – than that which depends on written agreements, which are made necessary by a degeneration of men into being both complicated and dishonest. This relates also to written political constitutions and the uncontrolled multiplication of written laws as opposed to operating on the basis of organic moral and legal traditions. The philosopher Isocrates says that the multiplication of laws always accompanies the degeneration of morals. This should be obvious.

Thus the power of the spoken word. As I said last week: the radio was so powerful because the “man behind the microphone” was no longer a stranger but a guest in your living room, a “friend of the family.” That was my main point. And today so many people have their favorite television or radio “talk show host,” and they take everything he says as a kind of sacred truth, and if you question him (or her), you are like a “heretic.” This stranger on the screen or coming over the airwaves is both an authority and a friend to them; or, rather, has greater authority because he is perceived as their friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance, in a way that a writer of an article or essay on the same topic is not.

B) Fr. Justin Popovich and Spengler: The same respondent, who in fact has read Spengler, informed me that nowhere in The Fall of the West does Oswald Spengler write that Orthodoxy is the future of Western civilization, as Fr. Justin Popovich seemed to think. He also pointed out to me that Orthodox Christians, for the most part, should not be spending time reading Spengler, and I agree, unless you are a specialist who has the responsibility, the time, and the training to go through stuff like this, understand what it is worth, and pull out what is useful. My respondent, however, did find a 1922 speech of Spengler’s which he believes is the source for Fr. Justin’s statement. Here Spengler says that Dostoevsky’s vision for the future of Russia – which, as we know, is informed by Orthodoxy and “Slavophilism” – will win out over Tolstoy’s secular, “Western” way of thinking. This may have led to someone telling Fr. Justin Popovich (who, I would conjecture, may never have actually read Spengler) something very general like “Spengler prophesied Orthodoxy as the future of Europe.”

The important thing here, however, is that, in a roundabout way, Spengler – as non-Christian as he was – had a real moment of insight here. He understood, from his own neopagan point of view, that the bland, insipid, bourgeois morality of Tolstoy – Christian morals without Christ – had no spiritual power, and that his “nice” world of “progressive Christianity” was passing away, never to return. Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy, on the other hand, Spengler could respect, even if he did not believe in it, for, as a disciple of Goethe and Nietzsche, he had a pessimistic view of human nature and understood that only some kind of supernatural or mythic power could rescue man, through some kind of primordial process of destruction and rebirth. In other words, while Tolstoy is a dreamer, Dostoevsky is looking at things the way they are, looking evil in the face, and pointing out the truth: only God can save us.

II. Today’s Topic: The Power of Theater

As I mentioned in our last class, radio, cinema, and television carry with them the power of a much older art form, the theater. What is theater? I think that a reflection on this will form a useful introduction to our discussion of TV, the movies, and the Internet.

As I pointed out in our last class, the art of theater in our civilization, as we all know, has its origins in ancient Greece, and it was conceived of, produced as, and experienced as a sacred ritual. The great annual presentation of various dramas in Athens, at which playwrights vied for the laurels of best drama of that year, was called the Great (or City) Dionysia, for it was a festival in honor of the god Dionysus. This connection to Dionysus is, of course, essential for understanding what drama is. People in the ancient world did not dedicate specific activities to specific gods for no reason: the story of the god – his personality, his adventures, the role he plays in one’s life – reveals the nature of the activity dedicated to the god. In these great, classical art forms, there is always some logos, some reason behind what they are doing – it’s not “random.” So I shall recur to this connection with Dionysus as we go along.

The power of theater is not simply that it is “entertainment.” When people say, “Well that movie or play is ‘just entertainment,’ [ i.e., a way of distracting oneself and relaxing from the cares of life],” they are usually quite mistaken. The power of theater comes from its addressing very deep needs of the human soul, for transcendence, deliverance from destruction, and rebirth and immortality.

Transcendence – As I watch a play, I vicariously transcend my ordinary, day-to-day life and enter another world, a world of the imagination. Simply to call this “escape” or “escapism” is not adequate. Our hearts carry within us the memory of Paradise, of our prelapsarian state. Because of this, we have a restless, ineradicable need to go beyond our daily existence to something other that is more exciting or fulfilling or enriching. Of course, because of sin, this other is usually either mostly evil or at best mostly good but mixed with evil, because, apart from grace and revelation, apart from the life in the Church, when fallen man does transcend visible, physical reality, he is not entering Paradise or the realm of the good angels, but that part of the invisible universe ruled by the demons. This is why the more powerful an art form is, the more dangerous it is. It could be that in one’s life, great pagan literature or drama can be part of someone’s way to God, and that God’s grace shelters the person as he goes through this lower, demonic pseudo-transcendence on the way to true transcendence, which is salvation in Christ. But too often people get stuck in the demonic pseudo-transcendence, and they don’t want to leave that stage because it gratifies their passions while simultaneously feeling like something transcendent.

Deliverance from destruction – In the paradigmatic dramatic formula, a hero with many talents and virtues is nonetheless threatened with destruction because of his hubris, his pride in opposing Fate or the will of the gods. Sometimes the play ends with his destruction, but sometimes a deux ex machina, a god or a messenger from the gods, miraculously intervenes and he is saved. As I watch the play, I vicariously experience the hero’s great adventure of danger and deliverance, I can enjoy the excitement without actually facing the danger, and I am reassured that my own mistakes and sins need not destroy me – there is a power from above that can save me.

Rebirth and immortality – By vicariously going through the hero’s destruction and restoration, I have had, at least in my imagination, what is called a liminal experience – from the Latin limen or threshold, thus a “threshold experience.” I have to pass over this threshold of the ultimate, primordial, existential danger – death to my old life – in order to stay alive. I cannot go back to my old way of living, cannot return to the womb, so to speak. I can only go forward. As I imaginatively identify with the hero in the drama, I take the risk of facing death and destruction, I courageously cross the threshold with him, and with him I attain rebirth and a happy immortality.

Thus drama in its essence is an initiatory mystagogy. I am sure that by now, as you listen to this, you are saying, “It’s like Holy Week, isn’t it? Our Lord is the ultimate, the only real Hero, He goes through the threshold of death, and He conquers death and in His Person gives the human nature He shares with us final deliverance, rebirth, and immortality. ” That’s right: the pagan drama with its hero-figure – insofar as it reveals truth free from the twists and delusions thrown in by the demons – in parallel with the truly divine – and therefore completely trustworthy and non-demonic, un-deluded – revelation of the Old Testament – foreshadows the Real Thing, the Economy of the Incarnate Word, the Great Adventure of the world-saving exploit of the God-Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ. The differences are that Our Lord’s drama really happened, He is the real and true God Who became a Man, He did not need a deus ex machina but rather raised Himself by His own divine power, and that by being initiated into His death and resurrection, we receive real rebirth and immortality, not the imaginary rebirth and immortality of pagan initiation through dramatic theater or mystery rites like those at Eleusis and so forth.

Now let’s get back to Dionysus. Dionysus is the god of viticulture – the art of making wine – and therefore also of drinking wine. But he is much more than that. More than any other god of the ancient Greek religion, Dionysos represents – and, in the perceived experience of his followers, actually bestows – man’s power to transcend his mundane existence and attain a heroic, godlike status, either for good or for evil. Along with Demeter, the goddess of grain, and her mystery cult at Eleusis, Dionysos is the god that was closest to the real needs and real aspirations of ordinary people – their respective cults were the closest thing in the Greco-Roman world to our experience of Baptism and the Eucharist, to the sacramental life. Dionysos is the god who dies and rises again – he is torn to bits by the Titans but gets put back together again and comes to life, just as the vine in the fall seems to die, and it has to be pruned, but it comes back to life in the spring. Demeter’s daughter Persephone has to go down to Hades every fall but returns to the surface of the earth every spring. She also personifies the created world’s annual cycle of death and resurrection. And what two elemental foods are they associated with? Bread and wine – the offerings of Melchizedek that prefigure the True Offering of the Divine Liturgy.

Unlike Our Savior, however, the All-Good God-man Who really did die and really did come back to life by His own power, Dionysos has a dark side, and this dark side is not avoided but made explicit in his mythology and in his rites. Remember that apart from Divine Revelation, the human mind can only conceive of man’s fate as an eternal cycle of co-equal light and darkness, a dualism of good and evil. And, naturally, the demons reinforce this delusion. The dark side of Dionysos, is, of course, the base passions unleashed by drunkenness – sex, violence, the whole nine yards. It is pseudo-transcendence that feels good while you are doing it, but it always destroys you in the end. The Latin name of Dionysus is Bacchus, and thus our words “bacchanal” and “bacchanalian,” denoting disgusting orgies of drunkenness and illicit sexual behavior. Today we just call this the “party scene,” “partying.”

Like a lot of pagan and mythic heroes, Dionysus has “familiars,” little preternatural friends that he hangs out with and that project his power onto the people around him. Dionysus’s “little friends” are not nice people. They are the Maenads, wild women who go into a frenzy and tear men to pieces and eat their flesh. Not nice! It’s pretty easy to see how all of this can exercise a dark fascination, a “Fatal Attraction” on unwary souls, especially those unprotected by grace and by the Church’s teaching. They are simultaneously telling you, “Hey, you are special, you are transcending the humdrum daily life of all the ‘losers’ out there, ” and “By the way, you can be a transcendent superman and enjoy getting high on certain substances and having a lot of sexual pleasure” with wild women and so forth. Of course, there’s the price to pay at the end. It’s easy to see how this relates to our post ’60’s culture of “drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll.”

Now back to theater: So ancient Greek theater is a cult of Dionysus. The great dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are, of course, not coarse or disgusting depictions of actual orgies and so forth. Such activities are considered obscene, in the original sense, things that are ob-scena – i.e, things that must be shielded from public view, literally “offstage.” One purpose of this great art was to sublimate man’s lower needs and integrate them into a philosophic and pious life of balance and moderation, of humble submission to the dictates of Fate, so that one does not fall prey to hubris. But, again, without grace, without Divine Revelation, without the Church, very few men could ever maintain this balance, and even when they did, it was not eternally salvific, but a temporary truce with the passions, which still resided within. And the vast majority of men will not take this philosophic route, anyway, but rather they fall prey to the dark side of the Dionysian mystery. Either way, apart from Christ, man’s condition is slavery to the power and the delusions of the demons.

So, at most, even the very best drama, the highest examples, say Aeschylus or Shakespeare, promise only a shadow, an intimation, of true salvation and eternal life. They offer only a partial and potentially confusing explanation of universal needs and universal sorrows and joys. But because the need for drama is hardwired into our minds, just by our being human, great drama is naturally attractive to better minds, and low, coarse drama is attractive to bestial minds, which are the majority, especially today. We need to practice great discretion in what examples of theater, as well as fiction writing and so forth, that we expose to Christian minds, and how we interpret them. Old Dionysos and his Maenads are waiting in the wings to grab hold of us. Let’s keep this in mind.

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