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Cabbalistic Cinema –Part 1
The Fall of the Gnostic Anthropos
by Eric G. Wilson
Eric Wilson is Professor of English at Wake Forest University. He has written a number of books, including the critically acclaimed Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (2008). His most recent book is My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing (2011). We offer here the 2nd Chapter from his Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film. New York: Continuum (2006). It appears with permission. This excerpt is presented in two sections of three parts each.
The Perfection of Cary Grant
There are days when a person seeks the cinema not to flee the rough edges but to sand them smooth. In this mood, one does not yearn for an alternative realm blissfully foreign to the botched material plane; one hopes to experience this everyday world–composed of car wrecks and divorces, robins and dirt–in its finest light.
The moviegoer strides into the picture house for its vibrant strokes, its shimmering images of perfect forests, of men as graceful as Adam unfallen and women as alluring as Eve. He takes pleasure in the insouciance of George Clooney and the gorgeous yearning of Julia Roberts.
Witnessing these beautiful forms, he imagines the possibilities of his own life. He believes for an instant that he might meld into the hero and seduce the heroine, that in his better moments he resembles this man or that his wife in the right light looks like that woman.
The Golem and Modern Fantasy
Stoked on reverie, the movie goer watches his personal history transform into preparation for beautiful success. Such a state of mind intimates the secret alliance between movie going and golem-making (The “golem” is a man made of mud and magically animated with God’s word.).
To go to a film in this mood is to yearn for Eden, the material beyond decay, the self unvexed by fear and desire. The exquisite forms on the screen–a Clooney or a Roberts but also a Grant or a Loy–become splendid realizations of potential for truth and beauty and goodness that most of us possess but fail to actualize. But in worshipping these artificial shapes, one risks experiencing the opposite of Eden: imprisonment in the superficial conventions of the fallen world.
Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as they appear in the movie theater are crass commodities as much as ideal models, machines of the system as much as meditations on redemption. If mimicking these figures can lead to miraculous realization, then copying these same performers can also result in monstrous violation: the blurring of natural and artificial, animate and inanimate, human and mechanism.
This same tension between miracle and monster troubles the history of golem-making. In fashioning the golem, the magus (the magician who creates the golem) is often torn between the admirable desire to form a being that approaches Adam and the less noble yearning to concoct a servant. The former impulse might result in spiritual fulfillment, a living model of innocence regained. The latter might end in ignoble affront, a machine moving like a man.
Embodying this tension between miracle and monster, the golem becomes a proxy for Grant or Gable. The artifice of the magus and the illusion of the director are sites of liberation and control, organic exuberance and dull mechanism. To mimic the Cabbalistic golem or Cary Grant–to be a mystic magus or a maven of the movies–is to suffer these same conflicts: to entertain transcendence, to risk mechanism.
The Self-Conscious Golem Film
Certain films that focus on the Cabbalistic motif of golem-making self-consciously explore this affinity between the matter of the android and the subject of the cinema. These meditations on the conjunction between miracle and monstrosity reflect the double bind of the attempt to embody freedom in a determined pattern.
The golem movie is an artistic depiction of the hero’s struggle to reconcile mechanical limitations with human affections. This sort of film is also a mechanical production that inculcates clichés reducing behavior to rote movement. Both vision of redemption and commodification of existence, the golem film erases itself, leaving viewers trapped between agency and engine.
This imprisonment might induce despair. But this same entrapment could witness an illuminated machine, cogs blessed with consciousness–a projector that irradiates light and sound, elegant motions, and profound reflections.