Starring Hugh Grant as an English reverend by the name of Anthony Campion and Tara Fitzgerald as his wife Estella — who, on a visit to Australia, go to stay with the illustrator and painter Norman Lindsay — the movie Sirens (1994) is a strange, perhaps sometimes confused, but interesting and overlooked commentary on the modern era.
Lindsay was a real artist, known for his depictions of naked women in semi-mythical settings. In the movie, Reverend Campion is asked to visit him and to convince him not to include the painting “Venus Crucified” (1912) in an upcoming group show at a museum. The work, which shows a woman being nailed to a cross, is similar to Félicien Rops’s “Temptation of St Anthony” (1878), which depicts a woman tied to a cross, the letters “E.R.O.S.” written above her heard.
Early on in the movie, after the Christian couple have arrived at Lindsay’s home, Reverend Campion asks where the toilet is, and then takes a large hardback book from his bag. One of Linday’s muses asks if he “always take[s] his Bible with him when he goes to the dunny [toilet].” Although his wife informs the woman that it is not the Bible, only much later do we see that it is, in fact, The Decline of The West by Oswald Spengler.
This strange detail is never explained, though one scene, which shows The Decline on a table with an apple and an adder crawling between the two objects, suggests that sexual liberty is, or will be, the downfall of the West. Indeed, although he does not act on it, the reverend himself seems to take a fancy to the youngest woman, while his wife winds up more fully immersed in the sexual stew of the commune. But the opposite meaning could be read into the Spenglarian message. In the final scene, riding in a train carriage, Estella runs her foot up her husband’s leg, while he giggles and complains that they might get arrested for indecency. It is difficult to imagine that the reverend could do anything other than argue politely to save civilization. He lacks drive and power. His sexuality is unapparent. In effect, he lacks manho
Spengler, a German philosopher, or theorist, claimed that civilizations are organic entities, like plants. They grow, blossom, and then wither and die. The Roman Empire, the British Empire, classical Chinese civilization, ancient Egypt, although all once the cultural and military powers of their day, have faded into history, their achievements only of interest to the historically-minded.
Western civilization, in moral and cultural decline, many devotees of Spengler believe, is now withering away, its demise hastened by wars, unguarded borders, speech restrictions, and a moral code that excludes any classical idea about how man should live or develop himself. Indeed, the very idea that we might want to improve ourselves, at least through adversity, seems at odds with a culture that believes we are perfect as we already are, and that any challenge — even a “microaggression” — should be avoided as potentially traumatic.
We might associate today’s university educated with Lindsay, who is cultured, anti-Christian (he argues with Reverend Campion, rubbishing the religion), and apparently loose in his morals when it comes to sexuality. Outside the commune — or oasis — that he has created, away from the nearest town, he is free to paint, indulge his own ideas, and sexual desires (although we don’t actually see him having sex with anyone).
Outside, the people — proletarians — are rough, ugly, and stupid, but exceedingly moral. Morality is a weapon used to keep outsiders out, and, as such, it is a tool to keep their community tight-knit and together. Immorality serves the same purpose for the artistic commune.
Looking down on anyone not like them — especially on Lindsay’s entourage — the townspeople are, in a certain sense, an extreme caricature of conservatives. Or perhaps they are similar to early Nazi converts. In either case, they have chosen community over high culture. Although Lindsay may, on some level, be exploiting the women for his work and for his amusement, the commune’s vibe is essentially feminine. The emphasis is on beauty and art, self-expression, and perhaps literature. The intellectualism itself seems lazy, being employed merely to justify hedonism.
There is no hint of the martial or the austere. It is unlikely that the group would last long if it could not buy what it needed. Lindsay, though surrounded by wilderness, does not seem to be a hunter, farmer, or fighter.
With the artist the sole member of the group, his authority comes, it would seem, largely from the fact that he owns the grounds on which they now live. The male-female imbalance in Lindsay’s commune means that the young women wind up looking for sex with unintelligent young men from the town — who ignore them when they venture into the backwater metropolis, for fear of being seen with women labeled as “whores” — or flirting with lesbianism. Despite being cultured himself, beyond flattering them and depicting them as unrealistic and semi-mythical figures to be sexually desired, ultimately Lindsay can offer little to the women.
Our time is not quite like Lindsay’s. The moralizing and the desire for everyone to obey the rules has passed from old people and Christian reverends to the young, university educated, who are shocked, it seems, by everything that falls outside of the shrinking intellectual and cultural horizon of the contemporary West. We can, of course, have whatever type of sex we want. No one really cares. What we cannot do is develop ourselves through adversity. We cannot create art that expresses a morality or a spirituality that is archaic, primordial, and outside the scope of the current political convictions. Everything from the US Constitution to Confucianism comes under suspicion. Spirituality, like capitalism, is made to serve modern politics.
Whether from the Left or Right, center or extremes, we need neither ignorance and moral policing, nor isolation from reality. What we need, it seems, is the self-overcoming of the archaic and the freedom of the contemporary era. We need to create art that confronts with vision and power; the harmony and balance of the sexes; a rejection of prudishness and judging combined with the realization that serious relationships are better than hookups for the soul, and for the individual who wants to grow; and we need to appreciate male and female qualities, and how they have expressed themselves in every culture over the last ten thousand years or so.
To put it more bluntly, perhaps, we need to be bigger than life — bigger, that is, than the life of a civilization that is shrinking before our eyes; bigger in ourselves, in confronting challenges, developing ourselves physically, spiritually, culturally, and intellectually, and bigger in the art, writing, martial arts, meditation, and in the beauty that we create.