America’s Comic Book Apocalypse
Thor, through your arrogance and stupidity, you have opened up these peaceful realms and innocent lives to the horror and devastation of war!
So speaks the Father of the Gods to his brash younger son Thor, in the opening of the Kenneth Branagh directed film that -- two weeks after its release on May 2, 2011 -- had earned $120 million at the box office. Anthony Hopkins is no comic book fan, and knew very little about Odin or Thor when his agent phoned and asked if he'd like to play Odin, but the veteran actor quickly circumscribed the role: "He's getting to an age in his life where he doesn't know how long he can handle it. He's been running this kingdom for hundreds of years." In another three quick sentences, Sir Anthony narrates the whole plot of Thor: "He knows he has to hand it over to one of his sons. Thor's a great warrior, but he's not sure if he's the right guy. Thor does a lot of damage, so I banish him from Heaven."
This thumbnail sketch encompasses the entire premise for the latest Hollywood gladiator extravaganza, an orgy of comic book violence whose advertising posters boast the slogan: "Courage is Immortal." The film opened in the United States on the same Monday that America awoke to the news that a team of Navy Seals had gunned down Osama Bin Laden.
Stan Lee, who created the Marvel Comics superhero in 1962, entered the Army Signal Corps in 1942, less than six months after publishing his first superhero comic, "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge." As "US Army Playwright" (his official title) he penned manuals, scripts for training films, slogans, and occasionally sketched cartoons. During World War II, the United States employed just nine men for such tasks; observing the media circus that unfolded the week after President Barack Obama's announcement, it seemed that the Pentagon had at least that many people scripting the Abbottabad hoax. No doubt some were big fans of Marvel comics; Kenneth Branagh is.
In swelling rage then rose up Thor
Seldom he sits, when he such things hears
And the oaths were broken, the words and bonds
The mighty pledges between them made.
-- The Poetic Edda, Harry Adams Bellows (1936), Stanza 26
When Branagh/Marvel's Thor is cast out of Asgard by Odin, he ends up flat on his back in the New Mexico desert, where a female astrophysicist and her assistant find him; Mjolnir, his hammer, lands some miles away, and is recovered by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- a comic book cross between the FBI and CIA. The New Mexico desert is a long way from the region of northern Germany between Paderborn and Detmold, where Rudolf Steiner, in his Cristiania (Oslo), Norway lectures in June of 1910 unveiled the mysteries of Germanic-Scandinavian myth as given in the Poetic Eddas.
Dr. Steiner had chosen Christiania to elaborate the Nordic mythology both because it had been the place where the old clairvoyance lingered longest, and where he anticipated the new etheric clairvoyance would soon unfold. Telling stories of Odin, Lord of the Power of Speech, he gave his listeners an extraordinary picture of how the human being was given the gift of language; and through stories of Thor, he gave a pictorial history of the imprinting of the human "I" into the human being. In Dr. Steiner's storytelling, Thor becomes a servant and friend of humanity at a very intimate level: the ancient Norseman "felt the pulse-beat in his blood and he knew that it was the beating of the I. He felt the Thor-force in his 'I' as the constant returning of the hammer of Thor into the hand of Thor, he felt the force of one of the most powerful Angels that had ever been known and revered, because he was a mighty being who stayed behind at the Angel stage."
Just as the Scandinavian sybil Völuspa had gone beyond pictures of the past to prophesies of the distant future in her "Lay of the Gods" given to Odin, in Christiania in 1910 -- a few months after his first proclamation of the return of Christ in the etheric -- Rudolf Steiner spoke of a much closer future. "Oh, there is a deep, deep truth concealed in this account of the Fenris Wolf remaining behind in this conflict with Odin. In the near future of mankind there will be no danger as great as the tendency to remain satisfied with the old clairvoyance -- instead of developing the new."
One shudders to think what exact pictures Rudolf Steiner's research presented him of our present moment, when the Fenris Wolf of etheric untruthfulness finds its apotheosis in a widespread internalization of Hollywood comic book culture, expressed routinely in the cartoon bubble clichés of the speech of both our elected leaders and many of our neighbors; and where the Midgard Snake of capitalist astral selfishness squeezes itself like an anaconda around the body politic, choking out life and livelihoods.
The Norse bards were Rudolf Steiner's precursors and allies in their elucidation of both Lucifer's and Ahriman's relationship with humans, and so this 20th century skald sang almost effortlessly as he told of Loki coaxing blind Hödr to kill Baldur with a mistletoe dart, explaining it as the ancient world's preeminent picture of the loss of the old clairvoyance. How tragic that the very tales given humanity to recognize themselves as they lived out the prophecy given by Völuspa, of the advent of the new clairvoyance, should be put into service of Ahriman's assault on that clairvoyance. At the moment that Baldur has returned, the human being is blinder than Hödr, able to see truly neither the pictures given out of the past, nor the images unfolding before him in the present.
An epidemic of literalism acts like mistletoe upon humanity's perceptual capacity. I write this on May 21, 2011, a day when a new round of mockery is being directed at Christianity because of the literalism of a radio preacher named Harold Camping. By the end of the day, the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland was spewing a 12-mile-high plume of smoke and ash. Blinded to Baldur's renewed presence among us, no one realized that the December 1998 eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano occurred at the same moment as the escalation of lies about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," nor that the November 2004 eruption preceded by a few days the murderous assault on Fallujah.
The archetypes hide in plain sight. Thor includes scenes of Frost Giants erupting out of the ground, but in the comic-book imagination they are always purely objective evil, unrelated to the thoughts and deeds of the human "heroes" who battle them. Blinded, we send airplanes to drop water over the exploding Fukushima reactors, and drop bombs on Libyan ships as the no fly zone over the Grimsvotn volcano enlarges.
Then comes Sigfather's mighty son
Vithar, to fight with the foaming wolf
In the giant's son does he thrust his sword
Full to the heart. His father is avenged.
-- The Poetic Edda, Stanza 54
America since its inception has rarely embraced true myths of self-sacrifice, and so it is hardly surprising that the Thor posters proclaim: "Courage is Immortal." It is the commando's slogan, the one that most Americans heard echoing in their comic book heads as the tales of a midnight Black Hawk helicopter raid were fed through the wires and the ether into their living rooms. On family film review websites, where the PG-13 rating for Thor seemed overly stringent to many ("4 stars for age 10 and up!"), the culture keepers seemed most impressed by the film's redeeming "message": "Fortunately this prideful protagonist learns some positive lessons, providing the audience with good messages about humility, as well as respect for power and authority. Combined with stunning visuals and a lighthearted script, Thor may be a good candidate for your teens' entertainment dollars."
At another moment in American metahistory, when maya-ridden mythic inversions played havoc with the human community, a rich Mesoamerican civilization called its orgies of torture and bloodletting "Flower Wars," and hundreds of thousands of citizens of Tenochtitlan turned out to enact rituals of slaughter fed by slickly seductive poetic, hieroglyphic, and pictorial images crafted by a small state elite. Today the American state lets Hollywood do most of its propaganda work, packaged as "entertainment." As in 16th century Tenochtitlan, selflessness, compassion, and truth are in short supply in contemporary storytelling. Where in America is there a child who might learn that both Odin and Thor achieved their Archangelic and Angelic destinies by acts of self-sacrificing renunciation rather than self-aggrandizing physical violence against imaginary enemies?
"How does it feel to be part of a giant Marvel franchise?" Sir Anthony asks himself. "Pretty good; I've never been part of a franchise. Do they sell me in the supermarkets?" Not just in the supermarkets, for a digital cartoon version of his own face is the face of Odin in Sega's Thor: God of Thunder video game, which screams "YOU ARE THE AVENGER!" at 5- and 6-year old players. The gifted actor has been franchised right into the dreams of a generation of youth, just as the colorful comic book versions were during his youth. The Aztec Jaguar Warriors who captured the prisoners for the black magical engine of heart sacrifice upon which hummed the mephitic metropolis of Tenochtitlan, began their indoctrination into the multisensory imagery of gladiator glory almost from the time they stopped suckling at their mothers' breasts.
In the Eddas, Vithar/Vidar is "the silent one" who survives Ragnarök, the "Twilight of the Gods" -- the extinction of atavistic clairvoyance. Rudolf Steiner broke the long silence of the mysteries in 1910 to tell us of Vidar's task as the "New Michael" after 1879, when his long period of Angelic renunciation ended: "When we feel ourselves to be related to this figure of Vidar . . . we hope that that which must be the central nerve and the vital essence of all Anthroposophy, will result from those forces which the Archangel of the Germanic Scandinavian world can contribute to the evolution of modern times."
To Völuspa and the Norse skalds who sang her songs a thousand years ago, our future deeds surely had a comic book look in their stark polarity of good and evil. But our potential heroism lies in the fact that we -- unlike the Marvel superheroes trapped in their two-dimensional renderings, whether on the illustrator's drawing board and its cinematic reproduction, or in our own inner reproductions -- are free at every moment. Rudolf Steiner emphasized this when he first revealed the mystery of Vidar: "[Men] themselves will have to make up their minds to work. One can go astray in the twentieth century because what has to be attained is to a certain extent subject to man's free will and must not be compulsory. It is therefore a question of having a proper understanding of that which is to come."
Now do I see the earth anew
Rise all green from the waves. . .
In wondrous beauty once again
Shall the golden tables stand mid the grass,
Which the gods had owned in the days of old.
-- The Poetic Edda, Stanzas 59 - 60
Baldur is back, but so are the Frost Giants, and we must go beyond our comic book world view to use Odin's gift of language and Thor's gift of self-consciousness to wield the word responsibly and effectively against the Frost Giants. In Manhattan, the Frost Giants now erupt from the earth not only on the old media of billboards and ten-stories-high video screens in Times Square, but in ghostly 3D forms thrown up by smartphones. "Augmented Reality" -- which is quickly superceding "virtual reality" as the cutting edge of Ahrimanic maya -- promises to colonize with comic book clutter the fragile ecotone between the etheric and the astral. AR's pioneers innocently celebrate that everyone can now "hack Space and Time." In Central Park, kids use their iPhones and iPads to wage remote controlled dogfights with the "AR Drone"; strolling along Madison Avenue or Broadway, one can try on clothing without the hassle of going inside to jockey for dressing rooms.
The theft of the physical is always preceded by the theft of the imaginal, and every day, the Frost Giants' proxies in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue are stealing from the future as they fill children with narcissistic stories of vengeance and imperial glory. I live across the street from a day care center operated by the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrim, Henry Ward Beecher's old church. In the courtyard where the mothers and dads park their children's scooters before kissing them goodbye, between a pair of flowering dogwoods, is Gutzon Borglum's sculpture of Beecher. At Beecher's feet are two of the young slave girls whose freedom he purchased from funds raised by the mock slave auctions held inside the sanctuary.
On any weekday morning, I can stand on the corner and listen to the parent-and-child commuter conversations. Often one catches discussions about Harry Potter or Frodo or other characters from out of the latest pop culture universes. By this time next year, I fear even these conversations will be in jeopardy; these children will be wielding their handhelds to battle Augmented Reality monsters erupting from the virtual sidewalks, as they remotely control an Augmented Reality Spiderman as he leaps from the rooftop of their day care center to vanquish the villains. Meanwhile, in some far away desert, American comic book commandos go on wasting real flesh and blood citizens in our never-ending imperial resource wars.
Odin -- the "Old Micha-el" -- and Vidar -- the "New Micha-el" -- await our stories and our deeds, ones that transcend comic book narcissistic heroism.