Lectio Praecursoria

[ Frans, Ilkka Mäyrä ]



Lectio Praecursoria

Ilkka Mäyrä

29th March, 1999

"Custos, my esteemed Opponent, ladies and gentlemen."

The very day I finally got my dissertation from printing press all the tabloids were filled with grim details. A ritual murder, committed by a group of young devil worshippers, they reported. The most horrific and gruesome crime in the Finnish history, were the headlines. The pages of the newspapers were suddenly dealing with accounts of humiliation, torture, human sacrifice, necrophilia, cannibalism – all to the greater glory of Satan.

The media attention to cultist crimes is a contemporary trend as well as an ancient phenomenon. Stories of rituals involving extreme violence and perverted sexuality have been told of various marginal groups who are identified as "Others" by the dominant culture. The early Christians were accused of eating human flesh and drinking blood in their secret gatherings; the Jews were a common target through the Middle Ages and their persecutions and the Holocaust are in some part legacy of this history of demonisation. In the contemporary culture the devil worshippers and Satanists are given the same anxious attention, sometimes accompanied by demands to ban Heavy Metal music, violent comics or role-playing games, or any other such material which may include demonic or Satanic references.

Voluntary acceptance of the role of evil is a curious phenomenon – why would anybody want to be identified as the adversary, the opponent of everything good, as the personifications of evil are traditionally perceived? There is no single answer; indeed, it is my view that most genuine answers in the field of humanities are multiple and internally complex – this is the only way they can approach the complexities of our existence. The definition of evil tends to include ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ and ‘repugnant’ by default, yet specific forms of evil continue to attract some people, and be popular in art and entertainment. This must be, I would suggest, because ‘evil’ in a cultural context is never simply evil: it is a set of signs, symbols and attitudes, as well as activities within the field of human culture. And when there is a symbolic dimension in play, we are also faced with the complexities of interpretation, dislocation of context, and dissemination of meaning.

A demonic figure, for example, is not the same for a concerned parent who has a Christian value system, and a disgruntled adolescent. These two people stand on different sides of some important cultural division lines, and thus attach different meanings to the demonic. The other sees destruction of a value system, derangement and a dangerous outburst of chaos. The other sees carnival, a liberating way to express and explore one’s angst, inversion of power structures and promises of subversion. And, from their own individual positions, they are both right. Cultural meanings have this capacity: they can be contradictory, even mutually exclusive, and still, in a sense, true.

Boundaries and borderlines are of paramount importance for understanding the demonic. Demons are creatures of borderlines and capture the anxiety and nervous energy we invest to such phenomena. Demons are liminal beings: they go to the limits, and then probe, question, shake and break them. They are dangerous, but that makes them tempting. They are sources of information: with their transgressive actions, the demonic figures make us aware of the existence of those limits they are overstepping. It is useful to know about these sensitive lines in our social, psychological and historical texture, as far as all knowledge is useful. It is another thing, what we decide to do with that knowledge.

Culture is created out of relation and difference. To see anything, you have to distinguish its outlines, its boundaries. But even before that, you also have to have a significant contact, a relation with yourself, other people and that particular situation where you can start making distinctions. When we grasp something, it is through this dialogue of identification and differentiation. It is hard to respect the dynamic and fluid nature of this process, and theories tend to simplify: either we have access to meaning, or it is eternally delayed. Study of the demonic areas in our cultural systems offers other kinds of lessons. In the demonic phenomena ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ are inextricably tangled. My voice is always also the voice of the Other. There is no access, this lesson goes, to any pure, clear-cut and univocal identity. It might even be that we are engaged in our restless activities of speaking, writing and creating to find out who we are – as we manage a different voice, it highlights a different aspect of our polyphonic condition.

From this perspective the news that day were doubly depressing. Firstly, it was disheartening to get yet another proof of the alienating and dysfunctional aspects of the post-industrial society. Mental problems among the children, the increasing use of narcotics and alcohol, breakdown of families, loneliness and abuse are no news these days. Secondly, it was depressing to see people falling into the stereotype prepared for them. What would be more banal from a long-haired, black-dressed Heavy Metal fan than to go and actually kill and eat someone, affirming all the worst suspicions of those parading against the subversive aspects of popular or youth cultures. The scapegoat mechanism is very powerful, and it is always easier to attack a dramatic symbol of social malaise, rather than its complex reasons.

It was also a day for self-questioning: what is my own role in all this, directing theoretical attention and energy towards an area that produces monsters, as it seems. What to say? All the aspects of the demonic materials are not so easy to deal with. They are created in conflicts, and are often symptoms of serious problems. The demonic rage is an important element in this tradition, as is the demonic laughter. What is important to see, is that in those societies where people actually believed in the existence of demons, there were also ways of confronting and dealing with them. Different forms of shamanism, possession behaviour and exorcism were all techniques aiming at negotiation and eventual resolution with the alien aspects of the self. Confrontation with the demonic may be a crisis, but it also can be a possibility for creative forces, an opportunity for fundamental reorganisation of both the psychological and social structures, for rebirth. Ancient demons, daimons, were intermediaries, messengers from the great unknown, beneficial or harmful depending on the situation and how they were treated. In Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia, Orestes tries to run away from the wrath of the Furies, but only as these daimonic spirits are granted by Athena a place in the community, is the situation resolved.

What is also worth noticing, is that in these traditions it was accepted that there is always a price to be paid for dealing with the demons. In the dualistic tradition dominating the Christian view of the demonic, the conflict was perceived as particularly severe and fundamental: the demons were to be rejected and expelled totally, even with the highest cost. In the New Testament, Jesus banished the unclean spirits to swine, and two thousand of these animals rushed into lake and drowned. It is not uncommon to read from later sources accounts of exorcisms which ended in the death or insanity of either the patient or the exorcist. Even in the non-dualistic traditions the interaction with the demonic or daimonic entities was fraught with dangers. To be able to cure others, the shamans had to face the spirits first themselves, and that experience left them fundamentally altered.

Modern theories of the self and the text offer different ways of reading and interpreting the demonic. Others try to reach healing solutions, integrated and comprehensive interpretations; others view difference and conflicts as irreducible elements in any attempt to produce identity and meaning. If we take in the lessons of modern psychoanalysis, it might well be, that there is no such thing as perfect mental health, or totally completed analysis. But this does not mean that analysis is totally pointless, either. With their complexities and contradictions, the demonic texts are worth our attention: they can teach how fictional and factual, theoretical and entertaining, social and psychological structures and texts are all involved as a self or a text is produced. They are also helpful in revealing the tensions inherent in such hybridity.

When we are working with communication, culture and meaning, we are researching and producing distinctions. The difference between fantasy and reality, things imagined and things really done, is one important distinction. As with all cultural divisions, this is not a simple and clear-cut boundary line; a large part of our reality is imaginary. A work of art, for example, is just an object among others, if we are not able to imagine its aesthetic dimensions. A friend is just a piece of flesh, if we are not able to perceive any value in human existence. It is my view, that the vast majority of contemporary demonic texts are created and consumed because of the anxiety evoked by such flattening and gradual loss of meaningful differences. When everything is the same, nothing really matters. Demons face us with visions which make indifference impossible.

A cultural critic should also be able to make distinctions. The ability to distinguish different audiences is important as it makes us aware how radically polyphonic people’s interpretations really can be. We may live in the same world, but we do not necessarily share the same reality. As the demonic texts strain the most sensitive of cultural division lines, they highlight and emphasise such differences. Two extreme forms of reactions appear as particularly problematic in this context: the univocal and one-dimensional rejection or denial of the demonic mode of expression, and, on the other hand, the univocal and uncritical endorsement of this area. If a critical voice has a task to do here, it is in creating dialogue, in unlocking the black-and-white positions, and in pointing out that the demonic, if properly understood, is never any single thing, but a dynamic and polyphonic field of both destructive and creative impulses.

Our culture would be lacking much without the hellfire of Dante’s Inferno, or the restless demonic spirit explored in Goethe’s Faust, for example. Currently science fiction, horror, movies and comics are continuing this exploration of the tempting and frightening limits of what it means to be human. Even if uncommon, or uncomfortable, these voices ought to be heard, and studied case by case, rather than categorised with any sweeping judgements.

    Takaisin Fransin (Ilkka Mäyrän ) pääsivulle

Työstä sisäiseksi vapaudeksi.

Last updated: 21.07.1999
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