For years priests and vicars have been worried about the declining numbers attending to church. The modern city-dweller seems to have traded in bible stories for TV trash. The Golden Age of Christianity may be well and truly over, yet this does not indicate the end of all that is religious. Its fixed elements: mythology, ritual and references to Higher States have carved out a permanent place in the world of television.
Just as they have always done, people throughout the world try to establish contact with the higher being so as to be able to control the course of Nature, the Cosmos and social relations. This link is established by means of a hierophany. Once this function was fulfilled by church spires, the totem pole, the holy mountain and the chimney down which Santa descends; now they have been replaced by television.
Television myths render the world intelligible and calm the chaos by encompassing seductive danger and the impossible within simple story structures. Thus television offers us the possibility of playing with chaos safely, of allowing us to succumb to our secret desires: we can commit incest, nautralize our enemies by means of magic, sully ourselves with the impure. Just as with all myths, it’s not a matter of whether one actually believes them - everyone knows that it’s only fiction - yet during the ritual the myth is lived and experienced as real.
The Beast Inside
The television series The Beauty and the Beast is an example of this kind of modern myth which reflects the experiences of 20th century cosmopolitans. Monster cities are both scary and the sources of power. Where it is localized or whether it is for good or evil, remains unclear to the inhabitants. The Beauty and the Beast projects it into an underworld where human gods with human worries still find the time to rush to the rescue of innocent weaklings like ourselves.
The story is an amalgam of well -known religious elements: we encounter Charon’s ferry, a flock of demons, angels, sorcerers and magicians. These figures have been taken out of their traditional contexts to provide a colourful setting for the adventures of the main protagonist: the Beast. Because everything in this story pivots around his hybrid appearance, this aspect remains paramount to this review, an aspect that is indelibly linked with the mythological and the religious. The hybrid is enigmatic, monstrous and unfamiliar. The forbidden incestuous combinations of the hybrid symbolize a Higher Power. We suspect that he possesses some secret knowledge. We would like to share his power but because this does not lie within our mortal grasp, he frightens us.
The Beast is half-lion, half-man, the rescuer of young women in the subway. When he protects his Beauty, he roars and rages while he tears her enemies limb from limb. He is not a criminal but the beast is in him. He embodies the impossible incestuous conjunction. He cannot be classified and is therefore banned to the underworld of chaos. He must kept apart from ordinary people because he is tainted and there is the risk of infection. So long as he remains in the catacombs beneath the city, no-one bothers him and he seems reasonably normal. Only when he ventures into the profane world above does he displays his super-human powers.
How can this saviour demi-god also be so savage? Where does his lion part come from? The Beast is the product of two conflicting powers: his two fathers. Father, the peaceful chess-playing lord, brought him up. He read beautiful books to the small Beast sitting on his lap and instilled much wisdom in him. He is the ever-good and just chieftain who resembles Abraham, he is the God of the underworld. His opponent is the evil Paracelsus who cast a wicked spell to implant the Beast’s embryo into a beautiful virgin. (1) After three months she died from this immaculate conception - the Beast was impatiently clawing its way into the outside world.
(1) The biography of the 16th century Paracelsus tells how this half-crazed medical student was renowned for his miraculous cures. His deeds made him legendary, immortal. So there is nothing strange about this magical doctor resurfacing in The Beauty and the Beast. It’s just a small step from the sealed laboratories where scientists perform
genetic experiments that the Gods scarce dare dream of to the dark netherworld where he first created the Beast.
Once the two fathers ruled together over the sacred underworld, but when the Beast was born a fierce struggle broke out about how he was to be brought up. Paracelsus wanted to exploit his beastly powers to further his own heinous deeds, Father wanted to guard the little creature from these kinds of machinations. This led to a schism in the Underworld and the division of its inhabitants into angels and demons. For the time being Paracelsus has got the worst of things, but the struggle continues.
The Beauty is the Beast’s lover and accomplice in this world. She can summon up the powers of the underworld by means of her secret ritual nocturnal meetings with the Beast, lust like her medieval counterpart, the witch, she appears to live a perfectly ordinary life so far as the outside world is concerned. Each day she goes to the District Attorney’s Office at precisely 8.30 am.
This latter-day Mary Magdalene can identify all the saints and the sinners of New York City and transmits this information to the Beast along channels available only to adepts. Whenever she taps a secret code on a pipe or a drain, he knows that she’s trying to make contact: Another message!
If the Beauty really concentrates the curtains begin to flutter as a sign of the Beast’s imminent arrival on her balcony. They fall lovingly into each other’s arms. Yet they can have no intimate contact because the primal energy that would be released could prove fatal for the Beauty. With her doleful cocker spaniel eyes she is indeed a bit like the Beast (Vincent, you’re part of me) but certainly not enough to hold her own against him. She goes no further than whispering and flirting with the Beast...
Tune into Religion
By identifying with the Beauty we flirt too, we succumb to the desire for the incestuous and for the dreadful secret power of the forbidden. Like the Beauty we arc gripped by tremendutn et fascinosum. And we too recognize ourselves in the Beast. We are a mongrel cross between nature and culture, spirit and body, good and evil. Just as the Beast is forbidden to enter this world, we may never express our beast liness and can only deal with it in a symbolic fashion by means of the television ritual.
The metropolis is a far cry from the warmth of Mother’s lap; it is an efficient, rational, demystifying organism. Its tainted, chaotic children hide in the sewers and in the subway because otherwise they’d be locked up in prisons and institutions. The metropolis denies the existence of its hybrids. Everything is fine above ground but chaos reigns below. The city makes desperate attempts to impose its rational structure with time tables, video cameras and signposts. But the underworld evades its power. And hence it is no coincidence that the Beauty and the Beast first met in the subway.
In the same way urban civilization seems to have banned the religious. But it has simply disappeared from view and gone underground. When you watch The Beauty and the Beast, you are participating in a myth by means of a TV ritual. When you tune in on the modern myth, you are consuming instant urban religion. We contact our Gods in a way that is much more relaxed, faster and more efficient than ever before.
translation Annie Wright