Initiation, Part 2: A Long Road Out Of Hell

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The following is the second part of a three-part series. Part 3 will appear next Thursday.
These are in-progress excerpts from the
upcoming

Immanence of Myth
anthology.
Read Part 1 here; Part 3 here.   

 

Like most kids in America, I grew up on the
programming that is made available through the mass media. We take it in as a
given. The innocence of childhood may not so much be innocence as a simple
willingness to take in everything at face value. Whether or not it represents a
lack of critical thinking, I don't know, but it is a kind of wonder that is
incredibly easy to manipulate. How advertisers must wish we could remain so
unjaded? 

I grew up before the internet boom, even before the
real propagation of cable and satellite television, so I remained relatively
inexperienced about what the possibilities of cinema and even television really
are. I watched PBS like it was crack, which I guess is somewhat unusual; the
rest of my subconscious was populated by the likes of Transformers, or a
sneaked peek at Jaws or Friday the 13th. (Which, if I remember
correctly, frightened me much less than it frustrated me at the relative
brevity of all the sex scenes.) Movies were entertainment: nothing less,
nothing more. I thought the only way to tell a story was from the beginning, to
the end. This is precisely the view of movies and television that most people
hold throughout their adulthood, from what I can tell. 

Then, still relatively young, I saw Jacob's Ladder. I can't remember how.
Maybe it was on late night. It doesn't really matter. The main thing I remember
is a first inkling of a sensation I had never before experienced: gnawing,
existential terror. Despite its somewhat lurid imagery, Jacob's Ladder is not
horrifying because of what it shows, like Hellraiser,
not even because of what it doesn't show, as with Hitchcock's Psycho. It is horrifying because you
really don't know how solid the ground beneath you is. If you let you take it
in, if you begin to apply it to your perspective of your own life, you might
begin to wonder: am I dead already, living in the feverish flash-forward of the
impending end? Is my entire life a moment like this, a white-hot moment lived
and relived from different angles, a moment simultaneously already finished and
not-yet-begun? 

This, before I'd ever encountered hallucinogens,
before I explored the occult or read James Joyce; this was my first contact
with that kind of uncertainty. 

At the time, I didn't know why it made me feel so uneasy. Not really.
At the time, it seemed like a weird movie about a troubled Vietnam vet who was
uncovering some kind of government conspiracy. I wasn't at first aware of the fact
that this "story" was just the feverish delusions in a dying man's
mind. But I couldn't get the movie out of my mind, I found myself playing it
over and again in my mind, piecing it together in different configurations, and
for a while that existential terror remained. 

Later, I came to understand and to love the idea of
a tale that contains many stories or layers within it; a story which changes,
like a hologram, depending on where you are standing or what you bring to it.
(A non-linear meta-narrative, if you will.) Jacob's
Ladder
isn't the only instance of this approach, I later found it in Grant
Morrison's Invisibles, in Alan
Moore's Promethea… It is a
technique changed and rendered differently in the hands of hundreds of
different artists. This is an idea and approach to myth and media making that
has inspired my work ever since. I can't say it is the technique I employ in
every work I've done, but certainly most, and it is one that I hope to master
before my eternal moment is finished — before it has ever begun. 

The odd truth is, by the time I had started writing
my first novel in my early college years, I had completely forgotten about
Jacob's Ladder. It was only by sheer chance that I recently saw this movie
again, and was reminded where many of these seeds were first sewn. Now, almost
two decades since I first saw it, I could recognize this piece of storytellig
for what it really is, and just how much I was indebted to it, (which is not to
say I ever stole from it.
This is not how inspiration works.)

So let's get to the movie itself, since I've talked
around it so much. If this story isn't really "about" Jacob Singer, a
man with post-traumatic stress disorder, forced to re-live his past again and
again, then what is it about? It is a modern re-interpretation of many of the
ideas of the Christian Mystic Meister Eckhart, and the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan
Book of the Dead
. It is about the timeless final passage into the
hinterlands which all of us must take — and which, in a manner of speaking, we
have already taken. And which we are taking right this very moment. This is the
only true hell, which results from clinging to the things of this world as they
are stripped away, one at a time. The beings we encounter there, they too will
be demons should we resist them. Or like Jacob's chiropractor, they can be
angels, if we follow the natural order of things and let the bliss shine
through. Every character serves as a metaphor for this psychological process:
Jezebel, clearly an emissary of the lower realms of lust; Sarah, his wife in an
alternate life, Sarah, mythologically, the first wife of Abraham, the princess,
and the counterpoint of Jezebel, who could just as well be considered a
stand-in for Lilith. There comes a point in film analysis where clearly the
analyst is projecting, but there is amble evidence that most of this symbolism
is intentional. Even when it isn't, a truly successful work of art succeeds
both through intent and as a blank mythic canvas: it is what we say it
is. 

In the process of building a modern myth, original
sources must be bent and re-worked to fit the new form. Purists will snub their
noses at this, but artists should recognize it for what it is: progress and
creativity at work. For instance, an original Eckhart passage relevant to the
subject of this movie goes:

"They ask, what burns in hell? Authorities [the
Fathers] usually reply: 'This is what happens to willfulness' [to individual
will, self-interest]. But I say it is 'Not' [it is the Nothing] that is burned
out [that burns] in hell. For example: suppose a burning coal is placed in my
hand. If I say the coal burns me I do it a great injustice. To say precisely
what does the burning, it is the 'Not'. The coal has something in it that my
hand does not. Observe! It is just this 'Not' that is burning me — for if my
hand had in it what the coal has, and can do what the coal can do, it, too,
would blaze with fire, in which case all the fire that ever burned might be
spilled on this hand and I should not feel hurt." (Speech 5b, DW ?)

An interesting point but not exactly riveting
material for a screenplay. In the movie, it becomes: 

"The only thing that burns in hell is the part of
you that won't let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them
all away, but they're not punishing you, they're freeing your soul. If you're
frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life
away. If you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you
from the earth."

Keeping on task, this idea of the dual and yet
intertwined nature of heaven and hell appears in Buddhism, in Hinduism, and
Christian Mysticism. They are psychological states, rather than physical
places. The same can be said for this idea of the duality of angels and devils,
after all the root of the words "devil" and "deva" (angel)
means "divine." They are the psychological agents of the
"inbetween lands," depicted as the River Styx in Greek Mythology. The
Bardo is the "inbetween state," the gap, the states between here and
there, whether in life or in death. Should we reach divinity, or unity, or
nothingness, as we choose to call it, there is no room for ego, for separate
divinity. All of those things have been burned away. That union is annihilation.
As we see in the Jewish tradition, in Greek mythology, and many other places:
to look upon the face of God is to be annihilated in fire. Heaven or hell. The
end or the beginning. Neither and both. They are right here, if we open our
eyes. 

The name "Jacob's Ladder" originates from
the Book of Genesis, where Jacob sees a ladder ascending into heaven. On the
way up, one encounters different "spheres of existence," which were
associated by Christian and Jewish mystics alike with the Sephiroth on the Tree
of Life. There can be little doubt that all of these inferences were
intentional on the par of the script writer and film-makers, they say as much
in interviews on the Director's Cut of the DVD. 

Psychological facts such as these, which transcend cultural
boundaries (even if they wear different garb or go by different names) can
truly be called "myths," and so, in the end, Jacob's Ladder is
precisely what I mean when I refer to a "modern myth," and say that
modern media, and art, can serve as modern myths. They can occur in the public
sphere rather than in a pedestal or in some rarified temple in Tibet. They can
happen in a place so profane as a movie theater. The producers just need to
learn the tricks of the trade to sneak it by the gatekeepers that fund such
endeavors. 

Perhaps this is as good a point as any to finally
make this point about "modern mythology" absolutely clear. Though we
could enter into a point-by-point comparison of a work such as Jacob's Ladder and the symbolism in the
sources that inspired it, or that we imagine inspired it, we would be wasting
the reader's precious time. A modern myth is a living myth, it cannot help but
borrow inspiration from historical sources — the lives and thoughts, myths and
images of those who have come before — but it is transformed, re-forged we
might say, in the heat of our personal experience, and may come out looking
quite different from any of those original sources. Thus inspirational sources
became a good jumping off point, for cutting right to the heart of where a myth
is leading us, but if we take the step beyond that, we wind up forcing a new
creation back into an old, dead mold. We cram it in the sarcaphagus and bury it
in the ground. This is a real danger for scholars of this work in particular,
as the academic tendency is more akin to an entomologist — collecting and
cataloging dead bugs — than a creative artist of any kind. 

 

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