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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Exorcist: A Marriage of Spirit and Matter in the Style of William Peter Blatty

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, has an eccentric style that is marked by his tendency to create similes and metaphors that unite concrete and abstract terms. This practice is so commonplace in his novel as to indicate that it is more than merely a technique; it is essential to his narrative voice and, therefore, part of both his novel’s point of view and its theme.

In just the prologue to his novel, he includes the following tropes, each of which combines the physical and the spiritual, the literal and the figurative, the concrete and the abstract: a “premonition clung to his [Father Merrin’s] back like chill wet leaves” (3); “tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped” (3); “he dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but could not tag it” 4); “slippers, [the] groaning backs [of which] pressed under his heels” (4); “shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living” (4); “The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt” (4); “a splintered table the color of sadness” (5); “he waited, feeling at the stillness” (5); “the fractured rooftops of Erbil hovered far in the distance, poised in the clouds like a rubbled, mud-stained benediction” (5); “it [“safety” and “a sense of protection and deep well-being”] dwindled in the distance with the fast-moving jeep” (5); “some dry, tagged whisper of the past” (5-6); “its dominion was sickness and disease” (6); “the bloody dust of its predestination” (7-8); “icy conviction” (8).

What, one may ask, does Blatty gain, as an artist, by mixing the sensual and the ideal, the real and the intangible, the concrete and the abstract? The author himself offers a clue, in his novel’s prologue:
The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted snows caked thick with debris of the pain of living. The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter; yet somehow finally spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other (4).
This paragraph suggests that Father Merrin does not view reality in dualistic terms, as consisting of matter and of spirit, both of which are real. Rather, he is a monist, someone who believes that reality consists of only one essential element, although this element can appear to have two distinct expressions, that of matter and that of spirit. Truly understood, however, each is a mere shadow, as it were, of the one, true “stuff,” which is “more fundamental” and “totally other,” which is, in religious terms God. According to his faith as a Catholic, God is omnipresent, or everywhere present at once; therefore, the Spirit of God penetrates, if it does not actually embody, all things, shoes and “spirit” alike. If matter and spirit, like matter and energy, are interchangeable with one another, the body which housed a human soul in the distant past may now be mere bones, an artifact among other artifacts, as Blatty’s inclusion of human bones in his catalogue of other relics at the outset of the novel’s prologue indicates:
The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics and phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots. Nothing exceptional. An Assyrian ivory toilet box. And man. The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that had once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God. And yet now he knew better. . . (3-4).
The “he” in the final sentence of this paragraph might seem ambiguous: does it refer to Father Merrin or to humanity? Is it an individual or a universal perspective, the understanding that human skeletal remains do not signify a Lucerfarian “upward-groping back to. . . God?” The ambiguity is resolved almost as soon as it arises, if it does, in fact, arise at all, by the context of the paragraph in which the personal pronoun appears, for the paragraph speaks not of the priest, but of humanity: “he,” therefore, refers to “man,” not to Father Merrin, whose own point of view is very different, as one may already have discerned, than the worldview implied by metaphysical dualism, which sees both matter and spirit as opposite, if not opposing, realities, whereas Father Merrin sees them as both but “aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other,” or as expressions or, perhaps, indications of a transcendent divinity.

Blatty’s mixing of the concrete and the abstract also has the effect of making the latter seem more substantial, even more sensual, that it might be if it were linked, in simile or metaphor, with other abstract, rather than with concrete, terms. A “premonition” that clings to one’s “back like chill wet leaves” can be felt: it is thick and wet, clammy and cold; a “tell” that has “entrails” is a living thing--or, perhaps, a once-living thing, murdered by the archaeologists as much as by time, in order that it might be dissected, and its ancient artifacts, including the “bones” of “man” examined and catalogued; “stillness” that can be felt at is tangible, indeed.

By mixing the concrete and the abstract, Blatty breathes life, as it were, into dry and withered concepts and sensations, giving them flesh of sensual qualities that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched; at the same time, his marriage of matter and spirit suggests the monistic metaphysics that Father Merrin believes expresses the reality of a wholly “other” God who transcends both and yet, paradoxically, somehow also brings the two “aspects” of reality and, indeed, of divinity, together in himself, just as, in the same cosmic sense, Jesus Christ brings matter--the flesh--and spirit together as the incarnation of God.

It is the notion that God is not physical or spiritual, but other, that Father Karras has not yet understood. Therefore, for him, the physical and the fleshly aspects of human existence are grotesque and offensive, as is seen in Father Karras’ reaction to a homeless man, whom he sees as vile. Karras has come, of late, to doubt his faith, partly because of the concrete embodiment of sin in human flesh and partly because of the reality of evil, which is also often associated with the physical and corporeal aspects of existence, or reality. The priest sees the decadence of sin in the person of a homeless man who pleads with him for alms:
. . . He could not bear to search for Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be. . . (51).
Father Karras seems to equate human existence, or its fleshly aspect, at least, with evil:
A harried man with many appointments, the Provincial had not pressed him for the reasons for his doubt. For which Karras was grateful. He knew that his answers would have sounded insane: The need to rend food with the teeth and then defecate. . . . Stinking socks. Thalidomide babies. An item in a paper about a young altar boy waiting at a bus stop: set on by strangers; sprayed with kerosene; ignited. . . (54).
He has not yet attained the epiphany that Father Merrin has experienced. Once, like Father Karras, the older, in some ways worldlier Father Merrin found it difficult to love his neighbor as himself and to see in the human face and form the image and likeness of God; he has since overcome this stumbling block to faith, just as he has come to understand that evil is an offense to the goodness of God, not a quality inherent in mere matter or fleshly existence:
. . . The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma. Once he could not have loved this man (3).
Indeed, it might be argued that Father Merrin has come to love the downtrodden and the oppressed because of their suffering, because of the evil in the world. Unlike Father Karras, who believes that demons are merely personifications of various evils, Father Merrin knows that the “Legion” of demons that claim to haunt Regan MacNeil are lying, that “there is only one,” the enemy of God, for Father Merrin has encountered--indeed, has fought--him before, in the guise of the demon Pazuzu and knows that the true identity of the demon represented by the idol with the “ragged wings; taloned feet; bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin” is none other than Satan himself, the source and living embodiment of evil.

Father Karras is a materialist--or is in danger of becoming one. As such, he is obsessed with the physical, the fleshly, disease, and death; he is close to believing that only matter is real; and he has come to believe that evil is explainable in natural terms, as the effects of organic malformations of the brain or other physiological abnormalities.

Father Merrin, as a monist, accepts both the material, including the fleshly, and the spiritual as real, believing them to be but two aspects of a higher, unknowable “stuff” that is “totally other” than either of them and that evil is essentially nothing more than an offense to God. He is able to love Regan, despite the horrific onslaught of the demon--or the devil--who assaults her from within, often by the vilest and most corporeal means available to him--Regan’s own body.

Father Karras, on the other hand, is reluctant to seek “Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement.” It is only after he understands that God is beyond good and evil but is himself the essence of love that Father Karras can love Regan, in all her humanity, the way that Father Merrin has come to love human beings, whether a Kurd or the daughter of an actress who is temporarily residing in Georgetown. It is then that Father Karras can be the exorcist he has been called upon to be and can deliver the child whose body has been both a source of demonic violation of a temple of the Holy Spirit and a stumbling block to his own faith.

By mixing the concrete with the abstract in the peculiar similes and metaphors that appear frequently throughout his novel, Blatty brings together the material and the spiritual, making the former seem as tangible as the latter and suggesting one of his novel’s themes, which is that both aspects of reality find resolution, if not synthesis, in a higher, “totally other” form of being.

Source of quotations: Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.


Chad said...

This is an astute and enjoyable analysis. I find that Catholic authors are generally more adept at handling the numinous than are their Protestant counterparts. This is, I think, because Catholicism is steeped in mystery. There is a magisterial quality about the work.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks, Chad. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. I do believe that Blatty captures the numinous quality of faith, which is a feat most difficult to do. His gifts as a writer make his novel worth reading; it transcends mere horror and touches the spiritually sublime.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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