He exists as an embodiment of an almost pure ideal. He is partly (in Christian terminology) Christ and partly Anti-Christ. He embodies the ideals of society to such an extent that he is seen, and sees himself, as utterly unlike it.
He is mystical and messianic, and — thin and often pale — he seems estranged from the physical world. Not muscular, but, at times, slightly feminine even, he cannot fit into an all-male — “jock” — environment. Yet he relates to — and transcends — the world sexually, through women, as he does via the intellect, through books (which he absorbed somewhere in his past).
This is the nature of a peculiar male figure that appears on the horizons of modern culture: the “gnostic” — in the Voegelian sense — among us; man as alien. We are familiar with him in a variety of forms, from Faust the magician to David Bowie in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and other heroin addict Punk icons who wanted to shake things up, and fantasized about a post-apocalyptic (in a spiritual sense) world.
Hence, this man out of place and time is also a figure that periodically comes to symbolize the energy and “rebellion” of youth.
But rebellion itself is largely misunderstood by parents and social commentators alike. Not an act for its own sake, it is partly an attempt to break out of the ephemeral and into the timeless, into the authentic, the Truth, what is beyond conventions that have become the fossilized remainders of a previous culture that created and understood their meaning.
In Jubilee, the 1977 movie by director Derek Jarman, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, John Dee, summons the pale and thin, “pure and clarified,” spirit of Ariel. In turn, Ariel reveals to the queen what Britain will look like, four centuries later, during the Silver Jubilee year of her namesake, Queen Elizabeth II.
Imagining that Britain will only grow in wealth and glory, Elizabeth I is shocked to see a society in decay: gray; drab; dilapidated buildings; gangs; violence; young women with crew cut hairstyles; fashion that is intended to be ugly and to shock; etc.
Ariel, played by Adam Ant (of the New Wave band, Adam and the Ants) is able to traverse the worlds — past, present, and future; God and man — yet, available to be summoned by Dee, he exists in a state of perpetual alienation. He must exist in worlds in which he has no part or role. According to Kenneth Minogue, an Australian philosopher who lived much of his life in Britain, “alienation” is one of the predominant themes of Western culture, stemming from Christianity, and taken up by Karl Marx. “Men must work and suffer in conditions where they are fundamentally divided both from God and from one another,” says Minogue, articulating this conviction of Western society (Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, p. 10).
This is the condition of Ariel as he is summoned before Dee and the queen of England.
For Marx, Minogue points out, the cause of alienation among men is capitalism (p. 38). The proletariat does not own the means of production. He is a mere tool of an exploiter class.
Anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism have become less central to Left-wing politics, at least in regard to anything even approaching the mainstream. Christopher Hitchens once notably described himself as “a socialist living in a time when capitalism is more revolutionary,” and at the same time expressed one of the great, if largely unnoticed paradoxes of the contemporary period. (Capitalism and socialism mix quite well, as the Che Guevara tee-shirts, bubble bath and other items attest, no less than the refrain of conservatives who insist that capitalism is better at creating equality than socialism.)
Nevertheless, though such ideas exist also on the extreme-Right, anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism have tended to be associated with the Left, especially its more radical segments, closer to Marx’s ideas. But this sense of alienation through capitalism embodied in the mysterious, alienated male figure appears no less in popular culture, especially music (Punk, New Wave, Grunge, etc.), and in the movies, such as the recent sci-fi film Elysium.
With its plot of a future planet earth in ruins, populated by a proletariat class, alienated from the super-bourgeois luxury planet, Elysium, the movie is generally, and not unreasonably, considered to have a Left-wing narrative.
The movie Pale Rider, would probably be considered Right-wing, Libertarian, or conservative, due in part to it starring Clint Eastwood (who has spoken at the Republican national convention).
In the movie, a group of gold miners are threatened by a powerful landlord who, with the help of the sheriff, is intent on taking their land and stealing their income. It is the Marxist worldview in microcosm. Yet, the title of the “Western” is itself taken from the Book of Revelation, where it describes a “pale horse” ferrying the figure of Death.
With capitalist domination about to get another foothold, the pale, alien, male figure enters. This is the “preacher,” played by Eastwood. He is a cowboy, a man of few words, and a man without a name. He is an ascetic with a gun, and a dislike of human failings, not least of which is capitalism. As if encapsulating Minogue’s observation of the theme running through Christianity and Marxism, the preacher informs his adversaries: “You can’t serve God and Mammon.” The preacher — this alien presence without a name; a kind of angel of the Wild West — serves God, we are to understand.
How is the dichotomy of society, with its victimizing and victim classes — its landlords and miners — to be resolved? Minogue reminds us of the Revolutionary Left-wing notion of “praxis.” “[S]truggle,” he says,
develops from the interplay of things called ‘contradictions,’ which can be converted into navigational beacons by an aspect of praxis called theorizing. The ideological struggler thus finds himself not by his actual goal — which would be systematically misleading as distantly glimpsed from where he finds himself — but from what he takes to be the contradictions in his social environment. (p. 194)
In popular culture — if often with a “cult” status — it is the alien, male figure that appears on the horizons to embody and live out “praxis,” to synthesize and transcend — to use the Hegelian terms — thesis and antithesis. It will be the alien, male figure that drives out the oppressor class, and returns society to its natural state. Not, however, simply because he dislikes oppression, and dislikes or merely uses money — using it for his own ends, having no emotional attachment to it himself — but because he embodies mystical, even religious powers or authority.
In The Man Who Fell To Earth, the protagonist — an alien — leaves his home planet and journeys to earth. His aim is to build a spaceship there, and take back a vast amount of the planet’s water, to save his family and people from dying of drought.
The first thing we notice is his able to manipulate money, and his lack of attachment to it. We see him pawning a gold ring that he has brought with him. The situation looks desperate until he pulls out a string full of identical rings. Next he has registered a number of patents for inventions that will assure dominance in the market, and will make him the richest man (alien) on earth within a year or so.
Union of Opposites:
But, the alien also discovers that he has, or, rather, is afflicted by, psychic powers. Bursting in on his consciousness, he sees, in his mind’s eye, a professor having sex with his students. It is disturbing to the alien. And, yet, while he himself is barely able to cope with ordinary stresses — such as taking a short trip in a car, which makes him feel nauseated — he enters into a relationship with a young woman.
When she discovers that he is an alien, with a slightly lizard-like appearance — who disguises it by wearing a human-like covering — although shocked and revolted, the couple nevertheless make love while his alien form is exposed. He appears at the end, to be in a kind of trance or mystical state, with his body oozing a kind of foam. Unpleasant, though it certainly is, he is for once both fully connected to the human world and utterly removed from it. Physically weak, it is through sex that he has, in a sense, transcended the human world.
The body, for the alien man, is a vehicle to reach God, Otherness, and to be discarded once there. The ooze that is expelled from the body indicates the ecstatic state, but it also seems to us to exhibit a body in decay. It is la petite morte in every sense: transcendent, ecstatic; death of self; and decay of the body.
Similarly, in the opening scene of the 1970s vampire move and cult classic The Hunger, also starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, the couple pick up a young man and woman to seduce back at their Manhattan apartment.
In the midst of sex, the protagonists kill the unlucky pair, so that they can — as vampires do — drink their blood. The scene is intercut with the thin, pale singer Peter Murphy, of the “Goth” band Bauhaus, singing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in a nightclub. (The song is about the silent film actor who specialized in playing Dracula.) Notably, too, besides the appearance of the thin, pale, male figure (which we see in Bowie as well), the couple are killed with knives that are concealed in Egyptian ankhs worn around the necks of the protagonists — symbols of eternal life.
Sex, in relation to the alien, male figure, serves the Hegelian function of resolving contradictions (the human and alien, the mortal and immortal, etc.), and, momentarily at least, transcending them. This figure (which may have precursors in the myths and folklore of older cultures) appears on the horizons of popular culture and in popular imagination as a mystical figure, partly warning of the danger of alienation from society that outsider behavior promises, and partly reminding us of the potential to transcend the ordinary, to reach to the transcendent, and to destroy the status quo and recreate the natural society, Paradise before the fall, and so on.
The price this strange, male figure pays, though, is not mere alienation, but, in popular culture, at least, his own ruin. The question, we are left with is whether this tragedy is merely the warning of a society that wishes to preserve the status quo, or whether this is somehow predetermined by cosmic forces, which offer the alien redemption in that desolation?