'Like the Appearance of Lamps ...'
My title comes from a poem of David Jones:
I have watched the wheels go round in case I might see the living creatures like the appearance of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected from the Machine ... but A, a, a, Domine Deus, my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste ...1
The poem expresses a religious disillusion which is expressed as a disgust at the artifice of technology. Something precious has been betrayed in the traffic between God and the human world. The living creatures of the presence of God do not appear through the grinding wheels, nor does the machine project him.
It is a poem about God's absence. At an emotional level, the absence of God is something that I associate with the world that is framed by the mass media. If you walk through Television Centre in the White City in West London late at night, you will be a part of a scene of desolate and eerie beauty. Plenty of glazed work, and terrible crystal. You'll see scenery piled opposite studios, fake trees, a telephone box, a suit of armour, a magician's cave, all stacked and spilling out of crates and wrappings.
I have worked in television for twelve years. I have made twenty-seven documentary films and various worship and music programmes. Before that I was a producer of religious programmes for BBC radio, working mostly for Radios 3 and 4. Before that I read theology at Cambridge.
The great transition for me was not the transition from Cambridge to BBC Radio. There was in radio, and I think there still is, a genuine interest in religious issues and ideas. It was a bit down market from the Divinity School in Cambridge, but it was still part of the same assumptive world. For me, the great gulf came with the transition from radio to television. I had a brief to do theology, to work with ideas. I was warned by John Lang, then Head of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC, that I would find the environment different. He had just presided over a fairly violent overhaul of the BBC's religious television programmes in which the confessional element had been largely subordinated, not without controversy and pain, to the journalistic. Bright young cadets, of both genders, sometimes lapsed Catholics or non-practising Jews, were busy revamping the output, and I felt rather isolated and unhappy amid all the excitement to be asked to hold a lonely flag for theologically informed TV.
I also knew that the brief I had been given could not be fulfilled. The assumptive world of television was significantly different from that of radio. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that speech radio and book culture shared one world-view, while television introduces quite another.
The manifestations of this difference in world-view between radio and television were sometimes trivial. I remember a particular conference of the BBC's Religious Broadcasting Department in which the radio people - the words and music people - had put on a witty and self-mocking revue for our entertainment on the last night. Our guests howled with laughter and joined in the grand finale, a raucous anthem composed by Monica Furlong. It was not very politically correct, as it consisted of variations on the theme of OOMPAPA, taking OOM in the sense of the sacred Hindu word OM. While we sang, the two rows of television production staff sat still with curious frozen smiles, wary and detached. Very visible, very silent, very disengaged. Watching, but not participating.
I have been haunted for years by this image of detached, smiling, frozen faces. What do they signify? I have rarely found an answer to this within television, for the culture of television, though intense and task-orientated, is not self-reflective. The gaze is outward not inward. Now I have come to believe that those faces are the faces of gods. They stare, critically and selectively. They choose the world they make. They are Western gods, Greek gods, manifestations of Apollo, the great God of the sun, the healer, the communicator, the averter of evil. Pictures of Michael Grade in full flight pick up the Apollo look with remarkable accuracy. Working in television I quickly discovered that the detached faces could also become wrathful, deeply engaged, and emotional. Some pictures of television executives pick up the exact moment when Apollo departs and his great opposite appears: Dionysus, the intoxicating god, the eater of flesh, and tearer apart of men.
I introduce Apollo and Dionysus as a way in to my main theme, which is that the television world is a world alive to paganism. I don't mean the benign, liberal-minded paganism of so-called ecofeminists and post-Christians, who want to save the world by invoking the Great Goddess, but the paganism that resides in Western ways of seeing, in our visual culture, from Greek sculpture to Madonna. This paganism is part of our history. It is deeply intertwined with Christianity, and cannot be separated from it. But whereas book culture and middle-ground speech radio are comfortable with Christian ideas and ethics, television culture is the culture of the theatre and the hippodrome. Television is where we play out our most potent fantasies of power, sex, and violence.
I said I had not understood this from within television itself. It has been the outsiders who have shed light. One of the writers who has helped me to understand the difficulty that theology has in coming to terms with visual mass media is Wesley Carr, the Dean of Bristol, particularly in his book Ministry and the Media2 He did not set out to offer a religious critique of the mass media, a typical blast of middle-class Christian hatred for tabloid journalism and bad language on the screen. His concern was the training of professional clergy. He wanted to help them understand the world in which they will become ministers of the gospel.
He writes of the media as the context in which the Churches must now work. His aim is not to judge the context, but to describe it. The context, the environment of Christian proclamation, is not a blank sheet. It is saturated (and he uses the word saturated rather than dominated, precisely because the latter involves an unexamined stance of judgement) with mediated images. He defines media as that which mediates or moves between and embraces all of us. This includes programme makers, viewers, and critics. The revolution in communications is adjusting our perception of who we are and the contexts in which we live. As an obvious example, Carr suggests that our perception of the monarchy is still being changed by the decision of 1953 to allow full television coverage of the Coronation. We might add that our perception of Parliament and its centrality to the political process is changed by the decision to televise it. Those who opposed these changes knew this very well, better than those who supported them.
It is difficult not to accept Can's thesis that our perceptions of the world and of who we are are altered by the mediated, electronic images that swirl around us. In subsequent writings,3 following a suggestion from James Curran, Wesley Carr compares the role of the mass media in our age to the role of the cathedral in medieval times. Both have essential integrative functions. Both make connections between the self and the universe. Both are places where common stories are formed and told, where common values are forged.
Television owes much to book culture and feeds much back to it, but in its electronic immediacy and universality it confronts us with something quite new. Carr concludes that new visual media are altering the structure of Western personality and belief in ways that we cannot see directly, but which are bound to have direct consequences for religion. For religion, if it is authentic, must operate within the swirl, not from some Olympian height of judgement and detachment.
* * *
Another writer whose insights have transformed my understanding is Camille Paglia, who is Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her book Sexual Personae4 is about the visual culture of the Western world from ancient Egypt onwards. She knows that the assumed glories of the West are the capacity for abstract reason based on observation: science, philosophy, literature, and music. Art criticism is less sophisticated, somehow, more easily marginalized in our education systems. We do not see how we see, she claims, and this is our great mistake. We take our seeing for granted. While we have developed complex and nuanced skills of hearing, and reading, scanning and selection, the choices we have made about how we see are such ancient and primitive choices that we no longer realize that they ever were choices. Yet we do see in a particular way.
The Hebrews were forbidden to use their eyes, though they did of course, and suffered for it. Images are banned, not only of God, but of the human form and of the creatures. Their Scriptures tell us to beware the eye, to shun appearances, and to fear above all the all-seeing eye of God. Job, in his suffering, experienced God as a cold, detached eye, which had marked him out and targeted him for destruction. It took forty chapters of complaints before job was ready to encounter God 'out of the whirlwind', in the eye of the storm, at the very heart of the tempestuous and chaotic creativity of the natural world. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a constant longing to rest the eye, to 'behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple'. But there is also a fear that the eye might rest inappropriately. The first and primal sin in the Hebrew tradition was when Eve used her eyes to create from the fruit of the tree a specular image which was desirable to behold and therefore good to eat. So the eye is linked to desire and desire to sin.
The Greeks on the other hand used their eyes as tools and created in stone and bronze realistic human forms with bones and muscles and sinews and flesh. These were not the stiff, painted forms of Egyptian art. They were forms in motion. The eye of the Greeks was a selective, inquisitive eye; it selected perfect form. It chose to see beauty and de-selected the ugly or the imperfect. The Greeks began the process by which the naked human body was transformed into the nude.5 Kenneth Clark makes the point that the ordinary naked body with its faults and irregularities, its pouches of flesh and wrinkles, is not something that can be simply transcribed into art, as can a tiger or a snowy landscape. When an artist paints a nude the particularities of the model are deliberately unseen by the artist, who selects and composes and frames for perfection. The nude becomes numinous and carries our certainties about beauty and order.
The Greeks had a price to pay in their use of the eye as a tool with which to select the world. Along with their delight in visual beauty and order came a mythology of revenge. It is possible to see too much, to be dazzled. Those who see too much are punished by madness or blindness. One thinks of Oedipus, or of the seer Tiresias. Those who see too much are destined to fall from the influence of Apollo to that of Dionysus, from the realm of detachment to the realm of suffocation.
In the Western world you must not see how you are seeing. This in part explains the very great difficulty of appropriate criticism of visual media. It is very difficult to look directly at the seeing eye.
Camille Paglia says,
The power of the eye in western culture has not been fully appreciated or analysed. The Asian abases the eye and transfers value into a mystic third eye, marked by the red dot on the Hindu forehead. Personality is inauthentic in the East, which identifies self with group. Eastern meditation rejects historical time.... (But) the West makes personality and history numinous objects of contemplation... . Western culture has a roving eye.
The Asian eye rejects appearances; in Asian cultures both personality and historical time are inauthentic. But in the West the person is a discrete entity with a history and a timespan, visible in space.
The Western eye, as Camille Paglia puts it, is a roving eye. A roving, critical, detached eye which distinguishes this from that, art from nature, person from group, ego from self. The eye is the great defence against the forces of chaos and darkness, the blindness of the natural world, where things ooze and swell and grope and decay. Apollo's advice to those who came to the oracle at Delphi was 'know yourself'. But Apollo's eyes are always outward. He is an Olympian god. The self you can know is a defended, formed self.
Beneath this self lies a primitive world, the realm of the mad and the blind. The selectiveness of the Western eye is a leap of arrogance which always leaves a fear of punishment, of the return to nature and chaos. The Western eye is always sure it can improve on nature. And it has proof that it can in its technology, in its towers and lights and wheels and lasers, that the eye conceives and plans and creates, that keep the world moving and keep out the dark. Even so, nature wins in the end. The leap of arrogance ends in death, as our eyes are closed and bodies returned to earth.
Western culture, Camille Paglia insists, is a story of endless conflict. It is a conflict between two gods, Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, always surrounded by a company of beautiful young men, appears as the god of light, movement, music, civilization, healing, order, structure, and beauty. Dionysus wanders through the mountains and the forests with his female companions, the raving, blood-crazed maenads. He is the god of religious ecstasy, of deep stillness, sexual frenzy, animal nature.
The point is not that one or the other power wins this conflict, the point is that the conflict describes Western experience, as a constant push-pull between the two. Apollo will always strive for detachment and control; Dionysus will always drag him into helpless, ecstatic surrender. European souls are scored with the knowledge of this psychic and metaphysical conflict.
Camille Paglia insists on a direct link between paganism and our mass media. She claims that Judaeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism, which still flourishes in art, eroticism, astrology and pop-culture .... The commercial media, responding directly to popular patronage, sidestep the liberal censors who have enjoyed such long control over book culture.'
She is talking about American media, though the same may become increasingly true here. I find it not surprising, in Paglia's way of looking at things, that book culture is allied to liberalism. Books are the medium of ideas; those who write serious books prefer Apollo to Dionysus, though most of all they prefer there not to be a conflict, or for the conflict to be over and done in the pagan past. Books will explain, books will educate and console by putting ideas in people's heads.
This is the hope of liberal society, that we will make informed choices to improve ourselves. Liberal Christians applaud this, as they always have done. In contrast with this hope, Camille Paglia claims that there is a pagan ritual identity between sex and violence, and faced with this, 'No transcendental religion can compete with the spectacular pagan nearness and concreteness of carnal-red media. Our eyes and ears are drowned in a sensual torrent.' Combatively, she suggests that the mass-media subverts the liberal hope that modernity can encourage a non-violent and non-exploitative society. The world of mass media is never optimistic about the human prospect. It is, as Colin Morris pointed out some years ago, rather deeply conservative in its estimate of human wickedness and folly. Apollo and Dionysus slug it out for ever. The armour of Apollo is detachment - he is the helmeted god of a stem glance and a cool head. Dionysus does not need armour because he is nature, death, submission, shame. All relations between selves in the Western world, says Paglia, are games of power. One controls or one submits.
She is not saying, I think, that our visually based mass media tend towards the chaotic, or the irrational, or the perverse, or the demonic. That is a mistake which critics of the mass media often make, identifying popular culture only with the anarchy of Dionysus. Book culture will see Madonna, for example, as a raving corybant. But in her own eyes, and in those of some of her fans, the leap she makes is an Apollonian one towards autonomy.
* * *
The mass media are where we express the conflict between the values of Apollo and the instincts of Dionysus. One of the first things you have to learn as a practitioner in television is that in what appears on the screen there must be that edge of battle, the fight of reason and instinct, the anarchic and the ordered, because that is the edge at which we connect and relate to a visual medium. Our eyes require it, and without the tension we
are either bored or lost.
Critics say of course that television polarizes and therefore trivializes. But that's too simplistic. Why television compels us is that it constantly dramatizes the war of ancient gods, a war which still belongs to the human soul. This is the stuff of news, and the stuff of soaps, the stuff of sport and game shows. Even in documentary you are looking for that nerve, that drama, that essential clash of forces which gives life to what the eye will see and scan. You can feel it in the cutting room as editor and director use their critical, scanning, Western eyes to dissect and construct the conflict that they have chosen to tell. Towards the end we crave an epiphany, a moment of discovery, a moment when the battle is won or lost, or dissolved, or resolved, when you say 'this is it', a moment of visual truth when our eyes rest. In a fifty-minute documentary you want it to come at about forty-six minutes in.
John Reith, the architect of British broadcasting, had an idealized, one might say Apollonian, approach to the whole enterprise of television. In an evening of 'television hell' transmitted two years ago he was portrayed with his eyes rolling desperately about his head as though already pursued by Dionysus, as he confessed his fear that television might be 'a potential social menace of the first magnitude'. His concern that television and radio should be informative and educative, as well as entertaining, repressed the Dionysian aspect, with results that have yielded a wonderful harvest, but left the dark god clamouring for revenge.
* * *
I know it would be easy at this point to claim that Christianity stands aloof from this primeval conflict. It offers monotheism, an ultimate oneness and resolution of the war of the gods. The war in the human soul is healed by the struggle on the cross.
I find it interesting that serious pagan critics of early Christianity sometimes assumed that it was a kind of Dionysian cult, given to wine feasts, sexual orgies, and religious frenzy of a rather disagreeable kind. The task of the first apologists was to refute these claims. In doing so there was a tendency to identify exclusively with Apollo, to assert the primacy of reason and to deny the claims of the body. In time, the religion of women and slaves and oddballs becomes the religion of popes and kings. The inquisitive, dominating, brilliant, pagan Western ego became encapsulated in a new set of Christianized archetypes: the knight in armour, armed and defended by faith; the chaste nun, white and glacial; the powerful preacher, with the world hanging on his words. These shining figures are beautiful, but cold. They cannot be intimate, they cannot merge with each other.
Most Christian models of personality prefer Apollo. The sun god is closer to heaven than the dark god. Apollo comes into Christianity as the armoured, defended self, who helps and heals but cannot admit to wounds, the one who has no needs, but is solely for others. Christianity, like paganism, cannot quite bear to look at itself. It cannot see how it sees, how selective its vision is.
Apollo is stronger in Broadcasting House than in Television Centre. When I started to work in television my overwhelming experience was one of defeat. My assumptive world was shattered. I knew I was meeting something quite, quite different from the world of book learning or speech radio, something that had its own agenda and its life, and, though it could not learn what I brought, I had to learn what it meant if I was ever to survive within it.
I knew that Christian apologetic, Christianity as the armoured controlling Apollonian message, had no place here. It could not compete with the vivid torrent of sex and death. The frozen faces of my colleagues told me that, though I did not know why at the time.
That is not to say that Christianity does not have a place. It does have a place in a pagan world, though it is not the place that all Christians would choose. I know that the pagan world is irritated by Christians; in its heart of hearts it thinks they are rather stupid and literalistic. It knows that physics has made metaphysics redundant; it knows that God-talk is really metaphor, that belief is a form of self-help, that prayer is therapy, that the god we need we can create in the depths of our own image without the need for Bible or Church.
There is no problem about our position within that world. We keep the symbols flowing, as it were. We moderate the effects of Apollonian reason by reminding people of the benign aspect of the underworld. We are there to tell stories of goodness, sadness, hope, and compassion. We are emissaries of Dionysus under Apollo's control, telling the feminine side, the soft inner story of values and feelings. Underneath, our colleagues may suspect that we have messy and ambiguous contact with irrational emotions which they fear and despise. But as long as we have representatives among the Apollonian gods, we are respected enough and allowed to do our jobs. Like the army chaplains in the Falklands, we are sent away while the rockets are launched, but brought in to pick up the bodies.
I do not now expect to be in competition with paganism. I no longer think, as a Christian who cares about theology, that competition is appropriate. In fact, to attempt to compete might reveal how far Christianity is still caught in the pagan trap of dividing the world in order to control it. Camille Paglia distinguishes two ways of dealing with paganism, which reveal themselves in the way Protestantism and Mediterranean Catholicism approach the visual world: 'The pure Protestant style is a bare white church with plain windows.' I think I started in television with those plain windows, those white spaces, in the belief that they were empty and could simply be filled from the store of Christian knowledge, wisdom, truth, and insight. But Paglia goes on:
Italian Catholicism, I am happy to say, retains the most florid pictorialism, the bequest of a pagan past that was never lost.
Paganism is eye-intense. It is based on cultic exhibitionism, in which sex and sadomasochism are joined. The ancient chthonian mysteries have never disappeared from the Italian Church. Waxed saints, corpses under glass. Tattered armbones in gold reliquaries. Half-nude St Sebastian pierced by arrows. St Lucy holding out her eye-balls on a platter. Blood, torture, ecstasy and tears. Its lurid sensationalism makes Italian Catholicism the most complete cosmology in religious history. Italy added pagan sex and violence to the ascetic Palestinian creed. And so to Hollywood, the modern Rome: it is pagan sex and violence that have flowered so vividly in our mass media.
I am not suggesting, by quoting from Camille Paglia, that religious broadcasters can enter this world by concentrating on blood, torture, and ecstasy, for there are expectations on us to moderate these things, to be the voice of other-worldly (i.e. book-worldly) goodness, kindness, and integrity.
What I think it is saying to us is that we need a theology that does not just recognize the paganism of the visual world, but which refuses to take the side of Apollo, either by rejecting the mass media in favour of book culture, or by trying to control it. The most interesting early Christian writers had no dreams of domination. They simply wanted to survive. But they saw the Word and Spirit of God as being active in paganism as in the Hebrew Scriptures: in Virgil, in the Sybilline oracles, in the signs and symbols of yearning for truth and salvation which they saw expressed even in the eroticized violence of the culture of the decaying Roman Empire. Caught in the mess and the muddle, they recognized that the saved world was not the good world, but the whole world, and that the art of true proclamation depended on a respectful interdependence on pagan philosophy, science, and morality. Above all, they were prepared to learn and listen. Some of the early Christian writers .described themselves as 'being in the world as the soul is to the body'.6 They used the word 'soul', a deliberately feminine construct which stresses the links and webs of connection between the visible and invisible, the intelligible and the sensible worlds. They knew they would find the Living God only in masked and symbolic form within the pagan world; but this was enough. It should be enough for us.
1 David Jones, 'A, a, a DOMINE DEUS' (1938 and 1966), published in The Sleeping Lord, Faber and Faber, 1974.
2 Wesley Carr, Ministry and the Media, SPCK 1990.
3 See especially Wesley Carr, 'he Mass Media as the New Cathedral', The Way, Volume 31, Number 2, April 1991.
4 Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Penguin 1991.
5 See Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Art, John Murray (19--)
6 See The Epistle to Diognetus, Vl. 1.