So let me put this card on the table. I am a Christian. And then let me put this one down. Nothing disturbs me more than Christian propaganda. What do I mean? As Jacques Ellul points out in the quote below, Christianity, which claims to be truth, after being put through mass media propaganda, ends up merely as an ideology. And as such “It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax.” And it is this hoax that many believe to be the truth. And it is this hoax that those who have rejected Christianity tend to believe defines it. But I am not here to defend the message of Christianity.
It is ironic that Christians invented the term propaganda, through the Roman Catholic Curia, to define the means of spreading the gospel. Something more like missionary work. Originally it meant something much closer to propagation. And propagation is the natural spreading or multiplication of an idea. Propaganda is definitely not natural. Now I can hear some people saying ‘Well missionary work certainly isn’t natural.’ But I would disagree. When Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark (chapter16 verse 15) “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” He certainly doesn’t mean doing so by impersonal and all surrounding means. He isn’t imagining mass evangelistic rallies in 80,000 seat sports colosseums, “Christian” Movies, pop music, comic books, video games, television channels, websites, social media, etc.
(And if you are wondering why I’m lumping all of these mass media together and calling it propaganda I suspect you haven’t read the entirety of this series which started several years back, where, following Jacques Ellul’s definition of Propaganda, we pointed out that much being disseminated by mass means is by default already propaganda. Go ahead. Stop. Go back. Catch up. Then come back when you can. I’ll wait. Click this to begin.)
A brief outline of Christianity and the developing system of Propaganda might go something like this. At the dawn of Christianity Jesus and his disciples had no access to propaganda techniques. Jesus emphasized personal human communication and consciously rejected the means of power. Christianity was seen as a powerless sect of Judaism by the Roman Empire. Yet the message spread as the absolute counterpoint to Roman propaganda, which was developed through the minting of money with Caesar’s image, the gladiatorial games and most of all through the unconquerable power of the legions. There were periods of violent persecution. And this persecution not only didn’t stamp out the sect, it caused the sect to grow. But there came a day when the Emperor Constantine legitimized Christianity, even converting to it himself and eventually in it’s closing days Christianity was made the official religion of the Empire. And this is the moment when things began to change. The Roman government turned the Christian faith on its head by using persecution and censorship created forms of propaganda to convert the decadent Empire in its waning days. Christianity survived, but Rome was already too far gone it fell. But the damage was done. Christianity was aligned with power now, which perverted the message of Jesus in many ways, though as long as the scriptures were there it couldn’t completely distort the humbler message contained in the Bible.
But distortion did occur whether through Crusades (a Christian imitation of Islamic Jihads), the selling of indulgences (which provoked Martin Luther and helped spawn the Reformation) or worst of all the Inquisition (in which power was grafted so deeply onto the Christian vine that it nearly killed it). All of these were also accompanied by successive waves of propaganda. But this propaganda, though fierce at times was much less total than propaganda had become by the mid-20th Century. After two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism and the propagandas used to combat the fascist and communist the world of the 1950s and 1960s saw Christian propaganda grow stagnant and completely ineffective. It is at this point that Jacques Ellul’s book Propaganda was published. Ellul too was a Christian. But he certainly didn’t spare his fellow believers. He knew what was coming. Allow me to quote at length from his book on the subject.
“Obviously, church members are caught in the net of propaganda and react pretty much like everyone else….
“Because Christians are flooded with various propagandas, they absolutely cannot see what they might do that would be effective and at the same time be an expression of their Christianity. Therefore, with different motivations and often with scruples, they limit themselves to one or another course presented to them by propaganda. They too take the panorama of the various propagandas for living political reality, and do not see where they can insert their Christianity in that fictitious panorama….
“At the same time, because of its psychological effects, propaganda makes the propagation of Christianity increasingly difficult. The psychological structures built by propaganda are not propitious to Christian beliefs. This also applies on the social plane. For propaganda faces the church with the following dilemma:
“Either not to make propaganda — but then, while the churches slowly and carefully win a man to Christianity, the mass media quickly mobilizes the masses, and churchmen gain the impression of being ‘out of step’, on the fringes of history, without the power to change a thing.
“Or to make propaganda — this dilemma is surely one of the most cruel with which the churches are faced at present. For it seems that people manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities, less and less suited for the autonomy of a Christian life….
“I already have stressed the total character of propaganda. Christians often claim they can separate material devices from propaganda techniques — i.e., break the system. For example, they think they can use press and radio without using the psychological principles or techniques that these media demand. Or that they can use these media without having to appeal to conditioned reflexes, myths, and so on. Or that they can use them from time to time, with care and discretion.
“The only answer one can give to these timid souls is that such restraint would lead to a total lack of effectiveness. If a church wants to use propaganda in order to be effective, just as all the others, it must use the entire system with all its resources; it cannot pick what it likes, for such distinctions would destroy the very effectiveness for which the church would make propaganda in the first place. Propaganda is a total system that one must accept or reject in its entirety.
“If the church accepts it, two important consequences follow. First of all, Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity. We have already seen the effect of propaganda on ideology. In fact, what happens as soon as the church avails itself of propaganda is a reduction of Christianity to the level of all other ideologies and secular religions.
“Christianity ceases to be an overwhelming power and spiritual adventure and becomes institutionalized in all its expressions and compromised in all its actions. It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax. In such times there are innumerable sweetenings and adaptations, which denature Christianity by adjusting it to the milieu.”
And obviously Ellul’s words can be applied across the religious and political spectrum, which is the point of his book Propaganda.
Now I as a Christian first read these words around 1982. I had been deeply troubled by developments in culture at that time. These developments included the rise of a Christian music industry (known as CCM – Contemporary Christian Music, though I felt it really stood for Commercial Christian Music) a rising Christian movie and television industry, and most troubling of all a kind of conservative political movement that equated Christianity with then current right wing political issues. And I’m not saying there isn’t an overlap, but it’s also clear that at that time there was also overlap with the liberal spectrum as well, which was why many Christians voted for Jimmy Carter for president in 1976. Since that time the lines have been drawn much sharper. And that is a direct result of rising propagandas from that time. Today’s polarizations are the direct ancestors of the propagandas of the 80s, both left and right.
If one was to be transported back to America in 1970 one would find confused weak churches unable to really understand what was going on the steaming hothouse of the Sixties. Conservatives and fundamentalists not only had little voice propagandistically, they didn’t crave that kind of voice. They were reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth and digging in for the coming Antichrist. They just assumed it was all over. But the Jesus People, a now forgotten movement, sometimes erroneously called Jesus Freaks, were beginning to reap a bounty of new but less conventional converts from the cultural debris of the Hippie Movement in California. And they made underground Christian newspapers, Christian T-Shirts with slogans like ‘Christ, He’s the Real Thing’ complete with imitation Coca-Cola logo, bumperstickers, and most importantly Jesus Music.
Now there was about five years when this new Christian music had a fresh feeling to it. But by the end of the Seventies the music had been contained by the very newly dominant CCM industry. That combined with the new political consciousness, a product of a wing of the Charismatic Movement, created the new Christian propaganda which haunts us to this day.
And so whether in the highly repetitious music of 21st Century Hillsong churches, the more sophisticated pop music of so many imitative Christian bands, manipulative movies like God’s Not Dead, the theatrical megachurches, prosperity teachings, the dumbing down of so many Christians in favor of a feel good message.
Also there was a justifiably nervous attitude towards the developments in the secular world. And so many Christians backed away from engagement with that world, with the full support of the powers that be. And so a separate propaganda sphere was created. Christian girls could read Christian romance novels usually stuck somewhere between old school Harlequin novels and Little House On The Prairie. Although by the early 21st Century it was just as likely they would be encouraged to read Young Adult sub-Tolkien or CS Lewis Christian Fantasy novels that, while slowly growing in quality since the 70s, encouraged the newer generations to avoid reality and maturity in favor of a Christian version of the current regnant era of delayed adolescence. (By the way I think Lewis and Tolkien are both turning in the graves over this development.)
Christian boys could what? Listen to Christian commercial white-boy pop rap? Buy guns? Or more likely simply join the ranks of forgotten men everywhere. But one thing everyone could do was to express themselves with Xtian slogans on T-shirts, posters, tattoos.
Meanwhile Christian cable channels, YouTubery, radio stations and above all websites allowed the faithful to be completely surrounded in a sweet propaganda bubble. People sang and swayed in megachurches and little dying denominational churches. The cutesy imagery from Vacation Bible School classes for the youth only reinforced the cuddly Christian message. And as I’ve pointed out before the gospel of Christ became the gospel of Fun. Meanwhile the overall positivity was giving way to Christian accommodations with ‘tolerance’ in its new totalizing definition in several quarters. And those who didn’t understand the shift were left in confusion supping on the tepid remains of late 20th Century Christian propaganda.
Now I know not all Christianity is like this. I know this better than many of you. And there have been those who have questioned these developments through the years. A few are only just now beginning to question these things. They are questioning the hoax that sadly too often the faith has become. But that’s not my subject here. What I have wanted to point out is simply that those who in some measure believe as I do are no more immune to the scourge of propaganda than anyone else.
But it does lead me to a serious question: What can any of us do to live in a time like ours when the locusts of propaganda infest our deepest hopes and dreams. Well there must be more to say.
Come back soon for some possible partial answers.
And so since I began writing these Georgian Lessons, and until very recently, I had no idea that I might find myself moving there. And yet that is exactly what is going to happen. (The whole story can be found at Gravity From Above.) By the end of 2018 I will be back in Tbilisi to stay. I will finish up the editing of Gravity From Above there and then just stay to start work on a puppet and doll museum. Friends back in Alaska knew I was going back to work on my documentary last year. A few asked me if I was planning on moving to Europe. And what I would tell them, in all honestly, was that I wasn’t planning on it. But then I would add that I wasn’t planning on not moving there either. I just didn’t know. Life in Alaska seemed to be changing for me. I was open to possibilities. For a short while France appeared as a possibility. My French is passable and I have a few friends there. And in all truth I will always have France as a place to return to for certain things I can find nowhere else. But I somewhat suspected it might be Georgia calling me.
When I first arrived in Georgia at the end of December 2017 I was a little puzzled. I had thought I might be invited to experience more of the holiday season with some of my Georgian friends. But that didn’t really materialize. (I didn’t even know how they celebrated their holidays.) And so I found myself in a very different situation than in my first journey to Tbilisi in 2016. I was keeping myself busy. Yet I felt isolated by the very holidays I had half hoped to experience. But I need not have worried. Georgia isn’t like America that welcomes you with wide open arms immediately, only to forget about you later. It is slower sense of acceptance. And then it feels much more solid. So whether with my hosts who rented me my three month apartment in the Saburtalo area. Or my friends in puppetry. Or the many singers, dancers, and musicians of Erisioni. In each case I realized that a slower approach would work better. At Erisioni I was content to remain in the background quite a while, hardly moving, eventually becoming more and more a part of the troupe until at the end I definitely felt accepted in a fairly deep way, even though most of the members didn’t speak much English.
But where I could speak English I soon discovered levels of conversation I had rarely seen in America since I was young. For you see Georgians, even the hippest of them, haven’t really been very influenced by postmodernism yet. Modernism? Yes. That desire to pull things apart, to reinvent things from zero? Yes. In a way. That’s there and in some of it’s darker forms. But the irony of postmodernism? Hardly at all. And so my conversations were all quite earnest. And with depth. Even though big budget Hollywood films, video games, electronic dance music are all there I didn’t have one conversation that could be construed as postmodern. No snarky references to traditional culture, no geeky discussions about Marvel superheroes or Star Wars, no obsessive gamers. I mean I’m guessing that just given the nature of these beasts they must be there somewhere. Maybe I just got lucky. But they just seemed to take these forms as just that cultural artifacts. But they didn’t seem to live in them. At least not yet. And I certainly wasn’t going to encourage them to do so.
The truth is that except for the youngest generation most Georgians have reminders of the serious side of life within their living memories. Older folks remember communism, people in their thirties and forties remember the civil wars of the 90’s. Nearly everyone remembers the five day war with Russia in 2008. And most still remember the electricity being very undependable. And even now there are still many problems. Reality has a way of chasing away the fluff. The West has had it so good for so long that our interests and problems reflect the strange unrealities of our lives.
Conversations in Tbilisi among my new friends reminded me of conversations I had had in the 1970’s when I was much younger. That was the last period I remember when people seemed open to dialogue with people of any sort. People would try to prove their points to each other. Which I’ve always taken as a sign of openness and care even when the disagreements were strong. The way conversation has developed in America and Western Europe after that period has led to more and more division, with the internet finally separating people from each other in near totality. Leading to our current stalemate. Not that Georgia doesn’t have people with radically different ideas. And not that those ideas are all healthy or wise. Rather I felt a kind of humility to discuss things in a way that sadly is almost impossible further west.
One new friend grilled me about my ideas. And seriously. She was looking to poke holes in my arguments about the meaning of life. She was coming from a science background and had begun to adopt what I felt were premature conclusions based on neuroscience. I elaborated my thoughts as best as possible. Finally after several lengthy discussions she turned to me and said “I can’t find a problem with what you believe. You prove yourself very well.” Even among my very good friends in America who often agree with me on a foundational level I rarely find that kind of remark. (Not that I am wanting everyone to agree with me.) That is mostly because they don’t chase my rabbit all the way back to its hole. I’ve noticed that when Americans find a point of disagreement, which is inevitable, they are not willing to continue the discussion too much farther. They’ve gone over the years from a we-just-disagree sort of fatalism to an immediate ‘unfriended’ mentality. Which I do feel is a shame. Because as I have said I do remember those all night long discussions when I was younger. I remember endless conversations while working. But now say the wrong thing and that can become the end of the relationship. (There are fortunately a few exceptions to this in America. You know who you are.) And I have seen that too many times in my life. It’s a definite lack of courage. And compassion all round.
I’m not saying every discussion was deep. Nor am I saying Georgians have no sense of ironic humor. One of the traits I saw that really touched me was the Georgian tendency to say what they feel profoundly. When I was invited to a supra, the traditional ritual meal, I watched the toasts carefully, because I knew it would be my time to add to them soon. And Georgians take toasting at a meal seriously. And so when my turn came around several times I spoke, and was translated, giving my most thoughtful observations and hopes. I was told by the father of the friend who invited me over, that I toasted like a Georgian. And I took that as a very high compliment. Another friend musicologist John Graham told me that he had brought a couple of British men to a supra. They were incapable of speaking without irony or from the heart. And the Georgians notice things like that.
My discussions covered a wide range of subject matter. We spoke of the art of filmmaking, puppetry as an art, music from so many different perspectives, issues related to architecture, the meaning of emotions in Georgia, the effects of communism, the traditions of art, the problem of pollution, religious devotion pro and con. And it went on and on. And I felt at home. I could stretch out enjoying the serious possibilities of conversation that I have always thrived on.
It’s not that my American friends can’t talk. But there is often a distinct lack of reality, of historical understanding. Georgians are still trained to know their history quite well. Americans in these days often stop short because they can’t enter in much deeper than the surfaces. Because that is what we are trained to do in order to get along. Whenever people tell you those three things you are not supposed to talk about in American society I feel the immense poverty of our discourse. And we are happy enough when any event feels good. We are not willing to take it further to that sense of profound emotion. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. There are deep Americans and shallow Georgians.
The conversations I had in Georgia convinced me to consider living there before I was ever offered the job which I couldn’t refuse. And I understand something very clearly in this life. Something serious in life can be accomplished by a relative handful of people who can commit themselves to a task. As opposed to the American condition that more and more resembles everyone going solo. I believe serious (and imperfect) commitments can be found in Georgia yet held with a lightness and humor while holding onto the understanding that life is very difficult. I didn’t meet one person in three months relentlessly trying to be positive. And that is an excellent thing. Not that everyone I meet will be like what I am describing. But if just a few are like that, which is what my observations show me, then I will not be spinning my wheels in the mud. And that is why I can commit myself to living in Georgia. It is hardly a perfect place. But there still is courage on a very humble level. When Georgians say hello to each other they do not say ‘Hello!’, they say ‘Gamarjoba!’ which literally translates into ‘Victory!’ And what I understand by this constant greeting is that life is hard, we’ve been through many many difficulties, including war and death, but somehow we will fight on. That attitude meshes with my own.
We’ll end our Georgian Lessons here. For now.
(Eventually I’ll have a separate site for my Georgian observations.)
And remember you can help support me in this endeavor through PayPal if you wish.
You can start the Georgian Lessons series here:
And you can find my original Georgia series here:
And don’t forget to look up my travels in Georgia over at Gravity From Above:
Propaganda must be total. – Jacques Ellul
And so after throwing the word propaganda out there we still need a some way of defining it so that the word doesn’t descend into the cruder sense of ‘their lies, our truths’.
As I mentioned earlier I have based much of my thinking on French sociologist Jacques Ellul and particularly his 1961 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.
Let’s pull out a few quotes to give you a taste of his thinking here.
Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing him in both his private and his public life. It furnishes him with a complete system for explaining the world, and provides immediate incentives to action. We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person. Through the myth it creates, propaganda imposes a complete range of intuitive knowledge, susceptible of only one interpretation, unique and one-sided, and precluding any divergence. This myth becomes so powerful that it invades every arena of consciousness, leaving no faculty or motivation intact. It stimulates in the individual a feeling of exclusiveness, and produces a biased attitude.
Propaganda must be total. The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal — the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing. Modern propaganda must utilize all of these media. There is no propaganda as long as one makes use, in sporadic fashion and at random, of a newspaper article here, a poster or a radio program there, organizes a few meetings and lectures, writes a few slogans on walls: that is not propaganda.
The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action.
Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.
That’s enough for now.
So Propaganda is an encircling totality. It is the place we live where we gather all our information, our entertainment, our education. We must surround ourselves within it. We speak in propaganda as we share our factoids. We cut ourselves off from those who have a different worldview. Or when we do venture into enemy territory, we look at their propaganda, always an exaggeration of beliefs and meanings, something easily mocked and scorned. And that’s another aspect Ellul points out. There must always be an US versus THEM. And they are always wrong, suspect, stupid, dangerous, or evil. The 2016 election cycle in America became a farcical, unreal, and disturbing battle of Propagandas.
And Propaganda must always be unbending and all encompassing. You can’t give ground to those ideas, otherwise you are starting to become them. So it’s not enough to make up your own mind about abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, transphobia, animal cruelty, feminism, global warming, racism, capital punishment, globalism, immigration and the rest. Once your side adopts a posture you must keep in line with the whole program. Heaven forbid a leftish person would opt out of the proper stance on reproductive rights, while holding the rest of checklist in order. Or that a right wing soul would be favor of gun control while holding most of the other appropriate positions. It’s pretty much all or nothing… Or at least that’s how we are made to feel. If you question one tenet you are in danger of questioning it all.
You can see what happens if you look at a subject that is not yet polarized but could conceivably become so one day. Let’s think about pets for a moment. Let’s say you’re talking with someone and they happen to mention that they think that having and feeding pets is a waste of resources and the time and effort would be better put into caring for humans who have so many problems that to distract from that might not be such a good idea. Then that person responds by telling you that you aren’t seeing the whole picture. That dogs and cats, though a cost to raise and a responsibility that perhaps some people don’t have time for, bring much joy into the owners’ lives. And that if you care about human beings then part of the health of being a human in the world is to interact, and closely, with its animal life. Now since that’s just two people discussing a subject that hasn’t yet been given the full propaganda treatment the conversation might go in any number of directions. Although if you listen closely you can already hear subjects creeping into the mix that are from very heavily propagandized terrain.
Now suddenly there is a movement that evolves out of the animal rights and ecological systems that begins to seriously question whether a human, just another species of animal after all, has the right to own another. This isn’t far fetched and is already circling our society as I write waiting to land. And so then what happens is we get two sides. Owning pets would obviously then become an individual rights issue with deep traditional roots. And now you have two sides. But how shall we label them.
‘Anti-pet’ obviously isn’t going very far, though that will be what the opposition calls them. So what about ,’pro=human’ or ‘pro-world’, since this will be considered an ecological issue? And maybe ‘pro-care’ or ‘pets rights’ for the other side. Don’t get too hung up on what to use right now. The new brand names just have to be non-negative. And that’s another serious propaganda point, in this age everything has to cloaked in positive language. Then there will be documentaries made. The pro-human folks will show the enormous waste of food resources, the brutality of certain owners, dog fights, cats in the cemeteries of Paris, old folks living on pet food, etc. The pro-care folks will have to counter that our pets love us, they will show psychological studies showing how pets affect humans for the better (no dog attack or cat parasite news whatsoever), interviews will be made with people who say that their only companion is an unselfish pet. You get the idea. There will be websites dedicated to these positions, TV stations, newspapers will array them along side of other ‘obvious’ issues of the day. And then when our two friends meet again to discuss the subject they won’t be able to believe that anyone could be so cruel, regressive, idiotic or whatnot to believe the lies that they have been spoon-fed by their respective media.
The difference between a discussion among friends who disagree on some topic and a propagandized discussion perhaps involving the same two people is that in the first there are personal reflections and thoughts. The ideas are unique and quirky. And in the second, the responses completely conditioned by ones of each propaganda web, which will want to keep out anything from another propaganda system. So I can very well imagine two friends discussing the origins of life on earth. One says there must be a creator the other doubts that and they present ideas to each other. What about this? Well what about that? Well you make an interesting point that I’ll have to reconsider. I think I understand why you feel the way you do but I still disagree. Now the same topic among the propagandized. God made the world in seven days and that’s all there is to it. No I’m sorry that’s pure unscientific bullshit. Then how do you explain the fact that there is meaning in the world? There isn’t, everyone just makes their own meaning. And so it goes ad nauseum. They can’t communicate because everything they say provokes a knee-jerk reaction in the other.
Ellul also points out that listening two different propagandas doesn’t help either. For in getting both sides of an issue what you really get is slugged from both sides and feeling woozy and beaten up in the middle.
Now how did this happen? And I have seen this my whole life. People I have known who once had their own opinions come to ape the media they ingest. I’m talking about people who really should know better. How does it happen? What makes us succumb? And I include myself. For I have certainly caught myself in those very situations as I look at my life.
Jacques Ellul points out one key ingredient. We find ourselves alone in the mass. And that is what mass media, mass communication does to us.
But let’s really dissect what happens. Next week!
“The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment.” Propaganda – Jacques Ellul
Things are getting weird out there. Although maybe by ‘out there’ I mean ‘in here’, in that moment when a reader slides eyes across these digital screens and then following that comes a reaction. And yet what happens in this cyber world (Does anyone use the word ‘cyber’ anymore? Or ‘virtual’? Has it all started to seem like actuality now?) has serious ramifications across the real globe. (But is it a globe anymore? Maybe the flatness of our screens has finally created what we mistakenly believed about the ancient people, that they, the ignoramuses!, actually believed the world was flat. But for us it is! This map of contextual geographies is now blindly being accepted for reality. But whose?) So yes, things are getting weird in here, and in turn out there. And people seem to be walking around in a concussed daze. And everyone has their pet theories as to whom is the culprit, which group, what viewpoint, which Weltanschauung, which bunch of absolute evil idiots is responsible for the state of this exhausted mind-numbing gut-wrenching time we live in.
Now if you’ve been following my words at all for the last few years you’ll realize that I rarely touch directly upon what be could construed as political topics. This isn’t an accident. I certainly have opinions on many issues. Some may even be correct on some level. But it is not my wish to add to the chaos of noise emanating from the glow of these screens. I also believe that most what passes for political opinion in these days is not politics in any good sense of the word. If I don’t think all of the hot topic issues of the day aren’t by and large politics then what do I think all of this palaver is? That, my friends, is the what I am intending to write about here, to try to elucidate. If possible, and mostly it is not. What passes for political opinions these days is predominantly Propaganda. And I am not using that phrase in its standard usage, which comes across as “The lies they tell, versus the truths we know.” I have other fish to fry. In fact were going to cook up the whole lot. Let’s make a meal out of them. Not only the lies they tell but also the ‘truths’ we believe, whomever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are. So I warn you if it seems like I’m coming after your beliefs it’s because I am.
Now before I get started with this subject, and so that you don’t suspect that what I’m really trying to do is some clever form inverted propaganda to subvert your ideas while pumping up mine, let me put my own cards on the table so that you know where I stand and you can see when I’m going after my own folk.
First of all I am a Christian. What kind? Neither fundamentalist nor liberal. Hopefully a Christian in line with the historical faith and brain intact. Next… politically? Extremely independent. I can safely say no party represents my thinking. I wouldn’t mind if there were. But I’m not going to put a checklist here of hot topics and where I fit in. But trust me I’m all over the map. Yet even that is a complete oversimplification. If I ever write directly about some pet subject you’ll know. And who knows maybe I’ll spill a few mung beans here and see if they sprout. I generally shy away from any party politics and the demonization of ‘them’. Which of course is the point of this whole series on propaganda.
I’ve lived in Hawaii as a child, in California in the San Francisco Bay Area as a teen, in New York City during my 20s and 30s and finally in Alaska for my 40s and 50s. Plus I’ve spent quality time in Europe from England and France through Switzerland, Poland and all the way to Georgia. And so my view point is shaped by all of these environments. Plus I’ve been researching popular music and film culture since the 70s. I’ve hung out with Jesus people, hippies, punks, vets, pomo-hipsters, conservative Christians, Asians, Europeans, etc. etc. Needless to say I do not have simplistic opinions. I’m not saying that to brag. I’m saying it so that you, the reader, know that I am not going to have an obvious set of dogmas to respond with if you wish to ask questions.
So let’s get down to business here.
The first thing we have to get is a working definition of Propaganda. As I mentioned above, the standard way people seem to think about propaganda is as the ‘lies they tell versus the truths we know’. I have a CD of the influential Noam Chomsky talking seriously about propaganda, corporate propaganda, big biz manipulation. Somewhat accurate as far as he goes. But he doesn’t go nearly far enough. For instance he doesn’t for one second acknowledge the fact that he too is in danger of making propaganda every bit as encircling as that made by states and corporations. And by NOT making that clear he actually becomes without a doubt a very serious propagandist. In other words there is not one moment when he scrutinizes his own side for Propaganda. Thus he isn’t really exposing propaganda he is talking about ‘us and them’, which is the essence of Propaganda. But not the definition of Propaganda. (To be clear I am capitalizing the word propaganda when I refer to the thing not when I refer to the practice.)
Before I attempt that working definition of Propaganda let me give you a few sources for my own thinking. Source ‘A’ Number One is the French thinker Jacques Ellul. Around 1982 I first read his 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (first published in French in 1961 as Propagandes). And frankly even though I was around 27 then I wondered why I hadn’t read his book much earlier. Few experiences in my life have been so illuminating. It was as though someone had simply unblindfolded me. I had been wondering why so much in our society had been moving the way it did and here was a solid chunk of the answer. We all in our advanced technological society had been pickled in Propaganda for years. So much so that we could hardly distinguish the contours of our prison distracted as we had become. How good is his book? Well let’s put it this way, read from one perspective the book could be seen a propaganda manual. One could easily take the principles he uncovers and become a successful propagandist. But, of course, that is not his aim. His aim is to expose the beast as nakedly as possible. It is not an easy read. But once you wrestle with it you can no longer plead ignorance. The panoply of techniques for adjusting us to our milieu are staggering. And there is no way I can do justice to his work, which remains as valuable today as when it was written, though it requires some historical knowledge to really make it come alive. That was also just as true the day it was published. But I will dip into his ideas freely as I write.
Other folks who have in one way or another contributed to my thinking on the subject include: C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and a few other scattered essays. Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. The works of French thinker Paul Virilio. Marshall McLuhan’s writings on the nature of media. Anthony Rhodes’ Propaganda, The Art of Persuasion: World War II. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. And various works by many other writers, Susan Sontag’s On Photography was helpful, likewise Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam, though here as with the whole Adbusters mentality, like Chomsky, we enter upon Propaganda disguised as anti-propaganda. And I have also of course studied the real Propaganda itself. Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, Communist propagandas from various eras and countries. (I highly recommend the documentary East Side Story about Communist musicals.) And of course there is American, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Advertising, Pop Music, Feminist, NRA, LGBTQ, Alt-Right, etc ad nauseum. Everyone makes propaganda these days. The real issue is who doesn’t?
But that still doesn’t answer the question: What is this thing? Propaganda. And then there is another question lurking in what I’ve already said. If everyone is already making it maybe it’s not so bad. Why even bother?
A quick answer to the second question first, which we will return to in more depth later. I do not believe I am alone in feeling the viciousness of the divisions of the present age. More than one soul has pointed out the fact that we all seem to be shouting, nay screaming, at each other in this time of polarization. Whether in scorn or fear people are walking around separated and isolated from those holding divergent opinions. (Or is it that Propaganda has actually isolated all of us from each other?) And it is NOT going to get better in the continuing course of events. Nor through anything that might call itself a Revolution. There are a few, very few, good signs, and they do not at present constitute any remotely optimistic forecast for the future.
Because as long as we remain pickled in our Propaganda marinade we shall continue our downward slide.
But I haven’t defined this Propaganda thing yet? What am I really talking about?
Well I’ve run out of space… You’ll have to visit again for our next essay, A Working Definition of Propaganda.
Swim Against the Stream
I have been writing mostly about what I saw in Tbilisi Georgia in March and April 2016. And in these observations I have been mostly noting what challenged my perceptions. These ‘Georgian Lessons’ have been primarily about what I learned. But now I’m going to flip the rules inside out and write a little something about what the Georgians might be able to learn from an outsider, a representative of a world that they both aspire to and wonder about. These will not be sweet little tidbits of practical knowledge. And some of these observations will be sharp. Again I am not romantic about the country. Since much of what I say deals with Georgia moving into the future it might be tempting to treat the country as a quaint land of happy peasants with their folk dances and songs with a desire to keep them as folksy as possible. But you’d be wrong. I want them to face the future squarely, but also to realize the many tragic errors that have already been made in the name of hypermodernity. I do not set myself as an expert on geopolitics, economics, legal reform et cetera. These are predominately cultural observations from one who has spent a good healthy chunk of his life weighing the nature of the cultural changes of our times. And mostly it friendly concern, for what I still find in the uniqueness of Georgian culture far outweighs its problems. Consider it advice that can be applied if it is found useful.
First a speck of history, Georgia as a country was buried in Russia, then the Soviet Union, for nearly two centuries. Many Western Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the like, still consider it a Russian speaking country. Georgia for them is more obscure than Barbados, Vietnam or Fiji. Georgia was only released from its Russian servitude in 1991, which was then followed in quick succession by a corrupt government, a civil war or two, a revolution and finally, in 2008, a five day war with Russia. And most of that is also as unknown to outsiders as the 20th Century conflicts in Laos or Angola. But the main point is this. Georgia didn’t really opened up to the non-Russian world until very recently. And this is reflected in two main areas: First in the Georgians’, particularly the younger Georgians’, desire to be like other Europeans and Americans culturally. And secondly in the looming discovery of Georgia by the outside world, which will result in the descending vulture of tourism, with its truck-fulls of tempting hard cash.
My meeting with younger Georgians revealed a kind of wide-eyed fascination with the results of pop culture and technology. And this is only to be expected. The Soviet system certainly brought in certain kinds of modernity. Georgia is a very educated country as far as scholarly standards go. What is not realized though is just what this postmodern tide will bring along with it. Take the Smartphone, nearly ubiquitous in Tbilisi. The Smartphone may connect you all the time and everywhere. Yet it completely changes the habits of its users. Riding the Metro one did not see much in the way of reading anymore. But one did see the usual scrying into the palms, the games being played, the neurotic gazing at email and Facebook, the endless selfies. In other words though the Georgians have some cultural features, more conversation, even musicians playing for friends on the train, that help to fight against this particular curse, they still aren’t that strong. Because no one is. The Smartphone is stronger than those that use it, without exceptional choice.
Likewise when it comes to one of the prime features of Georgian culture, its music and dance, that hasn’t really stopped the arrival of the dance club. A short British documentary on the subject celebrates the electronica being produced in Georgia as a step towards cultural liberation. Which I find about as honest a thought as recommending cages to tigers. As a former sixteen year resident of New York City I think I can safely say that the dark deafening pulsing womb of club life has never led to freedom, unless your idea of freedom is to shake off the past and bath only in a perpetual now. Yes indeed the discos, raves, parties and clubs will make you more like the Europeans. But is that a worthy goal? The night life produces alienation first and foremost. Yes you can experiment sexually. You can add various chemicals to the mix. You can flee from the philosophies of the Orthodox Church. But where will you end up? It ends with people having atomized relations all round. They no longer sing together except as a joke. They live alone. There is no meaning to anything. Along the way there is a lot of laughter and fun. As well as a lot of hurt and emptiness. No matter what it seems like now, the club life, which late rising Georgians are quite tempted by, will end in a void. I am reminded of a song from Italy in the 1980s and a big American hit for Laura Branigan in 1984: Self Control. The chorus went like this. “I, I live among the creatures of the night, I haven’t got the will to try and fight, Against a new tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just believe it, That tomorrow never comes.” And that sums up that world perfectly. 1984. That’s how long we have understood the problem. The electronica and DJs may seem new and cool, underground, rebellious. But it is a well-paved overused road. It doesn’t have a gram of the integrity of real Georgian music and dance. But I understand. I really do.
There are many other ways in which Georgians are encouraged to seek parity with their Western cousins. Most damaging of all are postmodern cultural and philosophical choices and institutions, which if taken straight would drain the soul from the rich fountain of Georgian traditions. And one of the most threatening of those institutions is Tourism. And the eye of tourism is slowly turning its gaze upon this most unusual of countries. Georgia is still quite underdeveloped for tourism. I would say as of 2016 they still haven’t developed a real structure to support the kind of industrial tourism that feeds many corners of the world now. And I’m not against people coming to Georgia to visit. Not at all. Right now Georgia is getting many thoughtful tourists, the people who are more adventurous. (I don’t know if this assessment applies to the Russians who have been visiting for centuries and are still the most common tourists.)
But here is the problem: As the Germans, English, Australians, even a few Americans go home they spread the word to others. So far so good. And so more folks come, as they have been in the last six years. Then more hotels are built. Fancier hotels. (I hear Radisson Red is on its way, after the success of the Radisson Blu.) More infrastructure changes. A massive chunk of Tbilisi was being polished and renovated as I visited, at the expense of the people who used to live on that street.) That’s where Georgia is now. They are still a bit out of the loop. (Try mailing a postcard home? Nearly impossible.) Transportation is still quite a pain. And these are the kinds of things that keep foreigners happy when they come. But here is what the Georgians may not understand yet. When tourism as a postmodern entity finally arrives in full. Great pieces of Georgian culture will become imitations of what they once were. Everywhere that industrial postmodern tourism shows up it turns whatever remains of traditional culture into simulacra of what they once were. People want to see Georgian dancing and hear Georgian singing. And so shows will be set up just for them. (This has happened in Alaska with Native American culture and the Russian culture of the past.) This effect is nearly universal. And when you combine that with the youth exodus towards postmodern pop dance culture. The past becomes a bad museum. And the present is trapped in the sensations of this eternal moment The Big Wow.
Now I don’t think that it will happen that way in Georgia for a variety of reasons. But I give you my friendly concern as one who has the watched the process replicate itself over and over. At the moment Tbilisi is where Prague was in 1991. Tourists are coming. But the infrastructure still won’t hold them efficiently. TripAdvisor just recommended Tbilisi for hot new destinations for 2017. My dear Georgian friends do you know what that means? Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Next time, to wrap things up, I will be returning to the lessons that I learned from the Georgians I met on my travels. And why I really have to get back again.
Here then are the observations that began to accumulate around me after my journey to the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Tsminda Sameba) in Tbilisi Georgia. I don’t mean these to be anything definitive, nevertheless I did begin to comprehend something that had been tickling my eyes and ears for a couple of weeks.
First of all there was this: If in an Orthodox Church the actual times do not matter the way they do in America or Northern and Western Europe, to different degrees, then that helped to explain the rather casual attitude towards work and punctuality. Why only this week I stepped into my local Presbyterian Church and they were discussing whether it was exactly 10 o’clock or not. (‘No we still have a minute to go.’ ‘Well my watch says 10.’) This attitude would be positively incomprehensible in Georgia and I suspect many Orthodox countries. And this would make it quite difficult to enforce Western or East Asian standards of business production. Thus anyone coming from outside Eastern Orthodoxy expecting a certain kind of timeliness would feel very disappointed. But I adjusted my own expectations accordingly. When I went to see Nino Sukhishvili I was constantly playing tag with the times. I didn’t really lose a beat over this. People seem to come and go. And when I went to the theatre or the ballet the shows did start generally, though never precisely, on time.
Next and much more to the point. The Orthodox church service did not revolve around the sermon. In an American church, Protestant or Catholic, in many ways the liturgy builds up to the message. It’s a little less with the Roman Catholic Church who focus upon Communion, but it’s certainly still there. And when one leaves you discuss the message to compare what one already believes with the words of the minister. Did the sermon stick with the Bible? Was it delivered well? Did the words ring true?
Now what this means is that not only is the emphasis upon the truth of the message, but in fact this weighing of the message for truth is a hallmark of Western Christian culture. And it is also a fact that although the vast swaths of Europe and America think about God as much as they do the country of Vanuatu they nevertheless have inherited the same approach to ideas. So that an atheist judges the truth of a thing the same way. A third wave feminist who blames the Christian patriarchy for the sins of the world still will react with a miffed ‘That’s not true.’ Or perhaps ‘That’s just so wrong!’ So our churches have grown stale over the years but the assertions of truth don’t end, even if the speaker claims that Truth doesn’t exist.
Now look at Georgia and the Orthodox Church. I’m sure people care about the Truth in Georgia. But not in the same way. In fact, unlike the western branches of Christianity, the Orthodox Church believe the Bible is true and yet don’t really try to harmonize science and the Bible. In other words the Bible is true AND science is true. And I see no force trying to reconcile the differences. Now again I don’t see everything going on, but I do know that is a feature of Orthodoxy. In other words there are no ‘creationists’ in the Orthodox faith. There is paradox. Two truths held together. Looking from my position on the West Coast of the USA that strikes me as, well, radically different. So what this means in practice is that there is a lot of leeway in belief. But God created the world and Christ died for us and was resurrected. And maybe things most likely evolve or maybe not. It’s just a human idea.
What this means practically in international relations is this. Remember Russia is an Orthodox country. Even if that Orthodoxy is suppressed as it was during the Soviet Era. What happens when Americans come over with their true or false mentality? It just seems rather silly to them. Especially since publicly we change our truths like we change our socks. One minute, after World War 2, one must be a good member of the Christian Democratic world. The next they see us haranguing them about homosexuality, which only a few years back we weren’t in favor of. Is it any wonder that there are major conflicts? Neither side is even on the same page. How to communicate? Now Georgia isn’t Russia. That must be said. But many of these issues still hang over them as well.
And here’s one last Orthodox observation. The point of the service seemed to be the glorious mystery of God. The words seemed secondary. But the music, the actions of priests, the reverence of the congregation definitely seemed focused upon that aspect of faith. And that affected everything. For one thing the music was not being passed around to amateurs. The five women singing may have been mere congregants, but the sounds coming out of their voices put to shame anything I’ve heard in a western church service for my whole life. Only once in a while have I ever heard a church choir come anywhere near the beauty of that music. In America we value inclusiveness over the quality of the music. It is rare that I hear good music in churches these days. The songs we sing together are again more about collective feelings than anything to construed as depth. Every now and then we sing the old standards, which still are glorious (Amazing Grace, O For A Thousand Tongues, How Firm a Foundation) But even those get updated. (How on heaven or earth is Amazing Grace improved by adding a chorus???)
Or here’s another comparison: If I enter the standard Protestant church, or even many Catholic churches, is there any reminder of God’s mystery, his Otherness? If I walk into that same local Presbyterian church the answer is a resounding no. Not in the folksy/poppy music. Not in the various activities of the church, not in the potlucks, not in the architecture, not in the quilted wall hangings, occasionally the sermon gives hints. And that’s about it. So our inclusive faith essentially makes God into our pal. Make sure no one squirms.
Now again what is found in our churches is found in all aspects of our culture. And it’s a two way street. We’ve just become folksy dorky self-conscious people. Real things bother us. Even the approach to nature among folks who would never step into a church these days is often mostly recreational. We could all stand to watch and understand the great Russian films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Our walks into nature would change immensely. In his very Orthodox films the textures of the environment become alive and mysterious. But again we like to make things casual, cool, no biggy. And thus we live in a neutered world, as we gaze into our hands and make magic swishing motions over the devices at our fingertips. So yes I was overwhelmed to find God’s mystery in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
My feeling is that a cross-pollination between Western questing for Truth (capital T please) and Eastern Orthodox Mystery would be a beneficial thing on both sides. But I’m not sure they need our postmodern casualness however. Yet that seems inevitable as the ‘blessings’ of pop culture descend like crematorium ashes across the whole world.
(But we’ll get to that soon enough… Come back again for our next Georgian Lesson.)
November 14th 2016
The Švankmajer Effect Comes to Life
In 2005 I traveled through Europe tracking down puppet theatres and talking with puppeteers. I spent several weeks in the Czech Republic and in Prague in particular. I was thinking about Švankmajer the whole time, half hoping to run into him. At one point I wandered through the library of the Strahov Monastery on the castle hill. I looked through the shelves and glass displays at objects like a desiccated baby dodo bird when I saw a portrait from hundreds of years ago of a face made of seeds. I knew that Švankmajer had seen this too and found inspiration in its pronounced Mannerism.
I had visited tourist friendly puppet shows on a earlier Prague visit so this time I was determined to find something a little closer to the heart of Czech puppetry and also if possible to the spirit of Švankmajer. Jakub Krofta, a director from DRAK in Hradec Kralove, had recommended I look for Buchty a Loutky (meaning Cakes and Puppets in Czech, a parody of Bread and Puppets) whom he said, along with the Foreman Brothers (both sons of the film director Milos Foreman) were making intriguing innovations on Czech Puppetry.
I descended into the brick walled basement of the Švandovo Theatre in the Smichov district, a 15 minute walk south of the Charles Bridge. Buchty a Loutky performed an absurdist take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles, retitled Pes Baskervillský. There was no stage as such only crudely constructed wooden boxes and cubby holes. Then I watched many strange things that I had never associated with puppetry before. At one point the puppets request tea. On the side of the ramshackle assemblage a Czech puppeteer pours liquid out of samovar into a teapot. Meanwhile the small Holmes and Watson puppets are given full sized teacups. The puppeteer steps up and pours the ‘tea’ straight down into the cups, liquid splashes out of the cups of course, yet some of the refreshment does indeed remain within the porcelain containers, upon which two suited puppeteers stand off to the sides of the little cage-like wooden puppet stage as the puppets and their life sized human doubles sip gently as the tiny figures do the talking. This doubling effect serves Buchty a Loutky as a sort of signature style. A puppet has a gun. Suddenly a human hand in another small box directly below the main puppet theatre is holding a gun as well. At another point we hear the sounds of train while a tiny HO scale train circles the aimlessly around the wooden boxes. Even the intermission midway through the show was handled in the most unpredictable way imaginable. One member of the troupe, Tomáš, began to read from a boring scientific textbook about swamps as an eco-system. He read this for perhaps ten minutes. The time it took a majority of folks to ken to the fact that this was indeed the break and that a small snack bar had opened up. I, of course, was one of the last.
In another performance entitled the Urbild Remix, a variation on one their older shows, a tiny, perhaps seven inch tall, crudely made puppet wanders out into a ‘stage’ about ten inches by fifteen, with a teensy beer bottle in his hands. He sits on a miniature bed drinks a little. And then falls to sleep. The rest of the show is his dream. And takes place in the multiple small boxy stages below him. Then all mayhem breaks out as a mermaid breathes bubbles in a large water filled jar, carnal relations ensue, one character is killed and very red stage blood streams off the already red stained set, enlargement doubles with weapons take place in the space below the dream stage, live acoustic music encircles the audience and an American Indian figure plays a sort of heroic role while a skeletal figure brings a warning. And this state of brilliant theatrical anarchy was as funny as could be even for a non-Czech speaker. Especially when Marek Bečka, the Buchtys de facto leader and founder stood up before the show and recognized a few English speakers. He told us he would explain everything. Then spent several minutes talking to the Czech audience who were sitting on bleachers then turned back to us and said “That was important information.” Then continued on in Czech.
In a discussion with Buchty a Loutky’s Tomáš Procházka, the director of Pes Baskervillský, I asked him about the groups connection with traditional Czech puppetry. He replied “We don’t feel such a strong connection between the puppet theatres and stuff. We are very interested in film and in bringing the film style into puppet theatre.” I was fairly certain I had seen a Švankmajer connection. He confirmed that, “Švankmajer is the only name we can say we all love it.” As I was still about to see the Urbild Remix he added, “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” Among the objects that caught my attention was a vortex shaped chunk of rusty iron that looked like it been unearthed in someones’ back yard. This was definitely not standard theatrical gear. Later after Urbild I observed that, like Švankmajer, they must be pack rats of odd artifacts. Procházka explained, “Our office is full of rubbish. When we find something that looks interesting we just keep it.”
This approached struck me as something I’d really never seen before in puppetry. And it was clear that that the Buchtys were using the junk and detritus of the past less in a postmodern spirit than in an almost entropic patchwork mode. Tomáš Procházka said “Now is the moment when (Czech) people need to find a new way to get the rich life of puppetry, to find some new way to do puppets, what is the modern theme for puppets, to say what is the use of puppets at all. And there are only a few people who really want a new direction. Otherwise it is very classical and conservative, it’s still the same from the 50’s to now.” That is to say that they were seeking something beyond the Modernism of the mid to late 20th Century. To me there was an affinity to Punk rock; not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. Procházka concurred “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.”
In an age of artificial surfaces, hollow objects, virtual screens on every angle of perception, Buchty a Loutky had taken hints from Jan Švankmajer about the importance of the dense inhabited tactile object, perhaps what Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor called the l’objet pauvre, the poor, ruined, or miserable, object. Švankmajer’s film work and experiments in tactility open up the possibility for a breed of puppetry that is not interpreted through the artificiality of theatrical tropes. He not only breeches the fourth wall but the other three as well. It was seeing Buchty a Loutky’s version of this as well as coming across the works of some of the students of l’École Supérieure Nationale de le Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in France that convinced me to hijack this style and to apply these principles to the puppet troupes we would soon form in Haines Alaska. But that is another story.
For more information about Buchty a Loutky read this:
Or to visit them in Prague:
or to find the Divadlo Švandovo:
Explorations in Texture
In 1989 I first came across the puppet films of Jan Švankmajer at the Film Forum in New York City. I remember feeling an oddness popping through the screen. I couldn’t put my finger on it. A little later I also discovered the films of the Brothers Quay, which also touched a similar, if indefinable, nerve. (Someday I’ll discuss the Quays in more depth.) I wasn’t consciously interested in puppetry then. My interest was primarily in film. But over the years I kept returning to the works of Švankmajer. I eagerly bought my tickets at obscure venues to watch Švankmajer’s Alice and Faust as they were released. These works were bellwethers for me.
Švankmajer’s films, with their manic crosscutting and hyperreal sound effects, reflected the preoccupation of the filmmaker with his pet obsessions; childhood nightmares, food, the difficulties of dialogue and, certainly, puppets. As an American I saw puppets mainly as a folk art relegated to the nursery where fluffy Muppets amuse toddlers. Švankmajer’s use of puppetry was a revelation. Yet throughout the early 90’s only slowly, dimly, did it occur to me to seek out puppetry in New York. A little diligence would have amply rewarded. Yet in a way I’m glad that it was only in my last year in the city, before moving to Alaska, that I began to realize that much of the strength of the Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay lay in their puppets. In 1994 I discovered their VHS tapes at Kim’s Video. Only as I began to closely examine these films that I began to understand what I was seeing.
But even before I lay hold of the videos I knew what it was that really grabbed me in Švankmajer’s works. In a word it was texture. By the late eighties I was already convinced that something was off in the modern preoccupation with flat empty surfaces. Whether it was the white walls of galleries, offices and apartments, or whether it was the flatness of of our appliances, fixtures and electronic gadgetry, it occurred to me that humanity was not meant to live in sterile empty environments. Nature was a system at once soothingly simple and extremely complex. Their was the visual sweep of the forest and the unique singularity of the bark on one tree. Traditional art and design had many of these elements as well. But Modernist aesthetics, say Bauhaus or minimalism, had been commercialized and sold to people in a variety of packages. Take a walk through the average postwar office building; look for the cheese in the sterile rat trap. What would be the effect upon humanity living in an environment as dead as the surface of the average refrigerator? While it would be almost scientifically impossible to calculate I think we already know the answer.
Švankmajer’s puppet films fly in the face of the sleek modernist ethic by pushing your face directly into the path of dense textures. There are few simple textures in a Švankmajer film. Instead you get a riot of corrosion, fracturing, old wood grain, rotting food, vegetation, dank metal and dry bone. He even animates cow tongues and pieces of raw pork.
In Rakvičkárna (known in English as Punch and Judy or it’s more literal translation The Coffin Factory) textures and puppetry go hand in hand. From it’s opening shots of decaying musical automaton monkeys it pushes texture to the foreground. The textures that then assault us include mechanical toys and carousel horses, a dead animal eye suddenly slipped in among the painted. Then we are forced to observe the ripped patchwork of gunny sack burlap that makes up one of the backdrops. And then come the two puppets, each a masterpiece of textural complexity. While called Punch and Judy, there is no Judy figure represented. Instead we have Punch and what seems to be Harlequin (which touches of Pierrot). Punch is fashioned in an antique manner a la the 17th Century. But this is not an antique puppet, it is purposely aged. The face of this punch is like a painted moonscape, designed to appeared cracked and dented. Likewise the Harlequin wears an extraordinarily colorful ragged patchwork gown. Then to really up the textural ante, as if it wasn’t already thick with cracks, crevices and features, Švankmajer throws in a live guinea pig then proceeds to show us its fur, eyes, teeth, and moving tongue. All of this is still only the opening salvo. There is a strange house wallpapered with antiquarian clippings from books and newspapers. There is a coffin papered in a puppet sized engraving of a skeleton. The coffin is then hammered, nailed and dripped upon by candles. Finally in a frenetic battle holes are drilled in the wooden floor and carnivalesque paintings are punctured as we are reminded that at the beginning these puppets were merely the extension of fleshy human hands.
Similar textural studies can be found in Don Šajn (or Don Juan) where the Švankmajer thrusts us into further conundrums: Are the puppets old or merely painted that way? Are the puppets real or are they actors in puppet garb? Is that a set or is it a very non-theatrical reality? Švankmajer distinctively blurs such distinctions. At one point two human-sized puppets are sword fighting in a decayed medieval setting, which is overgrown with weeds and shrubbery, when they pass a wing of the Baroque stage they have also been seen on. And it isn’t the front of the stage. We instead get a casual sidelong glances at the back of the painted set. No attention is paid to this detail. This breakdown between the theatrical or the filmic illusion and the grittier denser textures of reality are a hallmark of Švankmajer’s work. It doesn’t matter if you see the hands or the back of the set. He does this without breaking the illusion of the piece at all. What matters is to bring the animated figure or the object freely back and forth across the borders of our reality, much as messages, books, music, etc had to be smuggled in and out of the old Communist world. And texture is one of his chief means for accomplishing this feat.
And so Švankmajer uses real bones in Neco z Alenky (or Alice), his version of Alice in Wonderland, and stuffed rabbits, various socks, actual false teeth, glass eyes and many other objects not generally associated with puppetry or animation. In Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions in Dialogue) he uses most of the objects found on a desk, in a kitchen, in a refrigerator, not to mention shoes, butter and toothpaste. And not content to merely use these things he crushes or destroys each in its turn changing the textures from the rather hollow items purchased in stores into symbolically charged objects.
People sometimes use the phrase object theatre. And just as often they mean something which is taken from the outside world and treated theatrically. The object in Švankmajer’s hands retains the mystery of the thing in itself. He points us away from the slick surfaces of modernity towards the haunted characteristics of older inhabited used materials. In doing so Švankmajer displays an aspect of his professed Surrealism. And old school Surrealists valued the displaced object highly.
(To be concluded next time.)
For more Anadromous puppetry essays:
The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990’s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. Ascension Day? Evidently the day of Jesus’ ascent back into heaven is celebrated pretty widely across secular Europa while we more religious Americans hadn’t even been informed that it was a holiday. I felt gypped. (Hey wait a minute isn’t gypped from gypsy? Uh oh I feel something politically correct hovering about. Down damn you!)
Meanwhile back in Salzburg everything was closed except the Hohensalzburg Castle, which fortunately contained the small puppet museum of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. I also discovered there that it would be impossible to interview any of the Salzburg puppeteers because the office was closed for the holiday. But I did have tickets for the theatre that night.
I found my seat in the Salzburg Marionette Theater, amid children and Japanese tourists, for an unseasonal (to my mind at least… Or maybe it fits the Ascension Day festivities?) performance of The Nutcracker. This was the most expensive puppet show I had attended on my entire trip through European puppetry: 28 euros (nearly $40 US) and hardly the best seats in the diminutive antique theatre. But after all the Salzburg Marionettes had toured the world. And when I saw their show I knew why. Their technique was elaborate, flawless. It was like watching a three dimensional film without the glasses. The use of lighting was particularly good. But it was the actual movement of the marionettes that was stupefying. Whether it was a parade of snowmen or a Middle Eastern dancer, the performance was truly lifelike. The puppets appeared to be actual miniature beings rather than mere pieces of wood, wire, fabric and paint. As the ballet concluded the possibilities of puppetry appeared nigh endless to me. Although it was curious that the group with the most refined style moved about primarily to prerecorded music. If Buchty a Loutky in Prague had this kind of technique what would they do with it? Indeed many of the students at Charleville would eventually have this level of technique and they were already beginning to move far beyond traditional concepts of puppeteering.
As I walked back to my hotel in the darkness over the Salzach River I stopped on the bridge and looked across to the lights Salzburg and the castle reflected in the dark water. I reflected on what a journey it had been. I could see that puppetry was still an untapped artistic treasury, from the folk art of Guignol to the philosophical experiments at the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM, from the savage comic timing of Der Weite Theater to the gentle humor and earnest ideas of DRAK, from the pure displays of light and shadow at the Fuguren-Zirkel to the dark seriousness of play’s like Groteska’s Balladyna and from the perfect professionalism of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre to funky absurdism of Buchty a Loutky. And I could also easily see how much was left, acres, countries, galaxies to be explored in the puppetry matrix, including masks and objects. Puppetry had been a folk art for so long, with only tentative steps towards art having been made in the 20th Century. It was as though though this art form was still in its glorious silent movie stage awaiting the advent of sound.
I also had another reflection: I remembered back in Berlin going to a rock club to watch three indie bands play. I left before the third one started. Why? Well I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen a lot of music in my lifetime. And these bands were doing what so much music does these days. They were providing a rather predictable experience for the people who like that sort of sound. The club was full of the usual suspects: hipsters standing around looking coolly bored or the folks who invariably bob their heads in approval of the beat. But nothing surprising was occurring. And without some element of surprise nothing new can be said. The musical conversation that had stretched back into the mists of the 20th Century and before now looked to have become stale. (Yes I’m well aware that there is plenty of good music out there. The problem is that it has ended up as our personal portable soundtracks.)
But in puppet theatre after puppet theatre my mind was being blown all ways from Sunday. Puppetry, by retaining its tangible, tactile character, had stepped up to the artistic task of confronting the infernal virtuality of the 21st Century. The European puppets that I saw raised questions that most of the other arts could no longer confront in our maelstrom of hi-tech simulacra. Puppetry can be used effectively in films, but it is barely contained by them. And the best puppet films by Wladyslaw Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay or Genevieve Anderson throw us back upon the textures of the real world with its mysterious essence. But the only way to truly know why the once and future art of puppetry is able to speak into our dismembered reconstituted times is find a real puppet show (not some muppety kiddie show either) and get thee henceforth. And that’s the point puppets require our presence, which gets us out of our isolation.
As I stood on that bridge crossing the Salzach River watching the lights of Salzburg it occurred to me that everywhere you go there are endless musical bands, singers, organizations. But where were the puppet troupes? Why shouldn’t there be just as many? The punk puppets of Buchty a Loutky provided an excellent model. But why not shadow puppets? Marionettes? Toy theatres? Rod Puppets? Puppet films? Crafty automata? Reconditioned action figures? Recycled junk? And not just to make kids laugh either? (But then again why not?) And not just to make adults giggle? (And again why in the name of heck not?) But why not make versions of Shakespeare, Faust or Alice in Wonderland? Why not make versions of movies? Buchty a Loutky did Rocky IX why not The Maltese Falcon or Night of the Living Dead? Or my own personal dream – a live outdoor version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a small audience following the Stalker puppet to the Zone. Puppetry is an ancient art with a deep past that ranges from Punch to King Kong, from Captain Pod to Michel de Ghelderode. But it is also an art that is still discovering its grammar, especially since it is not just a language of homunculi and funny animals but of all objects. On my journey I saw stones, grapevines, electric trains, water and light all used as puppets.
And so I determined right there on that bridge that I would take on this art myself and see if I could get it to work back in Alaska, back in North America. And take it I did. And I believe it has worked… But that is another story. It was time to leave Europe and the rich panorama of faces and characters, both human and animated, I had encountered on this astounding journey.
In early May during my last stop in Europe I had one closing benediction related to puppetry. At my hotel in the Latin Quarter in Paris the desk clerk, whom I had known for years, told me that the man on the night shift, Jorge, was a Bolivian puppet master. He introduced us and I interviewed him. As he discussed puppets made out of paper in the shape of condors I realized how much more of the world of puppets I had yet to encounter. There were indeed puppet shows all over the world. I asked him if he thought puppets would have problems surviving in a world of televisions, computers, video games, etc. “No!” He replied with passion. “People need puppets.” “Why?” I asked him. For him all of puppetry came down to one word “Simplicity.” And after all I’d seen I couldn’t help but agree with him: simplicity and a tangible reality.
March 4th 2012
And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 6 – On The Czech Puppet Trail
I stole my way into the Czech lands by train. I arrived at the obscure town of Chrudim, looking for the Muzeum loutkářských kultur Chrudim (The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim) in the heart of its medieval core. Passing the central plague monument I eventually found the museum located in the Renaissance Mydlář building. Museum Manager Alena Exnarova, a very knowledgeable woman, and one of her assistants, a spark-plug of a guy named Radek, graciously spent an hour and a half giving me the Czech history of puppets. (A history I’ve already spent some time writing about back in Antidote Art #1.)
What was curious to me then was that Czechs had been doing mature puppet plays ever since the 1700s. They had been performing medieval church puppetry before that but were highly influenced by wandering Punch and Judy Men and other homunculoid riffraff drifting over from England and Germany. The traveling Czech puppeteers would give miniature versions of famous plays and novels for people who might not be able to see the real thing or read. It was during this time that classics like Macbeth, Don Juan and Faust put down their puppet roots. And this also proved to be a significant influence in helping to keep the Czech language alive while under a ban from the Austrians after the devastating Battle of White Mountain in1620. This was the battle that destroyed the Reformation that Jan Hus had started nearly a century before Martin Luther. Puppets therefore occupied a very special place in the Czech psyche for while their Austro-Hungarian overlords spoke German, the puppeteers performed in Czech: a language too far beneath them for the Austrians to notice.
Puppets were sometimes a way of presenting messages that the authorities overlooked. Kašpárek, the Czech Punch, sometimes made salty comments about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 1800s more was being done for children as the trend was developing in many countries. Many children looked forward to getting miniature puppet theatres as Christmas gifts. Yet before World War One there were thousands of roving puppet troupes, some for children many still for adults. They even started a puppet magazine called Loutkář (puppeteer) in 1912… and it continues today. Later Joseph Skupa invented the characters Spejbl and Hurvinek who actually made such anti-Nazi remarks so as to get Mr. Skupa thrown into a concentration camp. The Soviets, ironically, as they had done in other Iron Curtain countries, encouraged puppet theatres. And yes there were many times when the audience saw something beneath the obvious surfaces, they were used to reading the allegories. I realized that alone of all the countries in the world the Czech Republic was the only country I could think of where puppetry was not just woven into the warp and woof of its history but was positively heroic! Astounding.
It was a fascinating history from a fascinating museum in an undiscovered little medieval town. They also housed a library of 70,000 multilingual books, magazines and other items pertaining to puppet history. The museum was supported by the Czechs because puppetry is respected as a vital art form by the Czech government. The museum also serves as a focal point and aid to the Amateur Puppet Festival in Chrudim. The amateur festival is held each July for Czechs only, but foreign guests are also invited. It is a pretty big deal and might warrant a return to Chrudim someday.
As I concluded my interview with Alena Exnarova I asked her about the meaning of puppetry. “The puppet has limitations but then again it can do things actors could never do.” She explained that there is a life to puppetry that will continue even with all of the modern digital screenal gadgetry. What were some of the new trends in Czech puppetry I asked? Radek explained that there was a movement translated as something like Illusion Theatre. It was a return to certain aspects of the roots of traditional puppetry particularly the used the hidden puppeteers. In other words while Americans hardly knew much beyond the Muppets except in a few isolated zones, most of us having not even seen puppeteers standing on the stage with their puppets performing, some Czech puppeteers have already been there, done that and have started to return to the mystery of the hidden hand by behind the puppet.
There is no European spiritual program that allows one to return to states feeling vaguely in touch with the ineffable. It’s not like a trip to Asia. Instead one often just feels as stupid as a laundry bag in need of some real education. (Oh thank you American public school for partially teaching me English and English alone!) And I was hardly finished with my lessons in puppet history. I was now on my way to receive a few more instructions and to tag along with a Czech puppet troupe across some of the most dangerous roads in Europe.
A short one-hour train ride the next day took me to my next destination Hradec Kralove. My purpose in coming to this town was to visit the DRAK (an acronym that spells ‘dragon’ in Czech) Theatre. And to meet with Jakub Krofta, son of Professor Joseph Krofta, who did, and continues to do, so much to change Czech puppetry. Jakub is the de facto director of the theatre most of the time and was rehearsing a new play with actors in bear costumes. When I arrived I spent the first two or three hours interviewing and chatting with Jakub. After giving me a tour of the facilities, that I must say inspired a little wistful envy, Jakub gave me much of the history of the theatre and so many interesting perspectives that it would be difficult to begin to unravel it all here. As I watched them rehearsing their bear play I felt a need to speak out from the Alaskan perspective. Bears sniff around with their sensitive noses. If you ever see this play you might notice the bruins sniffing around a bit… now you know why.
I was temporarily adopted by the troupe and was even invited to travel the next day with them back and forth to Prague on the crazy Czech roads. I felt honored. I got to know several of the cast and crew, including the petite Petra Cicáková an unusual actress/clown/puppeteer and folk musician Filip Huml. Driving on the narrow Czech roads to the wild music of a Balkan brass band was one of the more disturbing adventures I’d ever experienced. Cars passed each other in waves on the two lane highways. Once a car drifted out into the opposing lane from some three cars back and passed three more in front of us an instant before a semi-truck plowed forward on that same lane. It didn’t comfort me to later read that indeed the fatality statistics for the Czech roads are basically the worst in Europe, all fueled by the incredible (and incredibly cheap) beer. Our able driver passed at least 60 cars on the night time ride home.
And the play, The Enchanted Bagpipes, contained a life-size puppet or two and several actors and musicians in devil costumes. The music was curious, rewritten versions of Czech folk tunes while the lead character, Filip Huml, a Czech musicologist as well as actor, played the gajdy, the Moravian bagpipe. Quite an earful! DRAK had over time been moving more into an area that used circus techniques and masks as much as puppetry. This coincided with some of the developments at Teatr Lalka and Teatr Groteska. The message of the piece was intriguing as well. The bagpipe symbolized the Czech soul. The devils tempted Filip to surrender his bagpipes. They used the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the cold uniformity of the communist system and finally the randy cash of the Americanized West. I was happy to see that the old Czech tendency to use puppetry and theatre for questioning the reigning powers was far from moribund.
Finally in a side note, as I strolled around Chrudim, Hradec Kralove and Prague I noticed something. There is a kind of connection between Alaska and the Czech Republic. Back in the U.K. men often wore a sort of uniform short post-skinhead hairstyle. In the Netherlands a very absurd waxy hairstyle predominated for male fashion. Poland was a bit formal. France a bit more stylish. But in the Czech Republic men didn’t seem involved with any particular hair trend: Short, long, beards, mustaches, shaved headed it just didn’t seem to matter, just like back in Alaska. I felt visually quite comfortable. This has nothing to do with puppetry, or does it???
Next time we finally enter the puppetry capital of Europe… Prague.
For more information on DRAK:
Go see them in Hradec Kralove!
The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim is remodeling until June 2012
But this website might be helpful until then:
Eventually their English page will be back up.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 5- Finding the Roman Polanski Puppet
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. Eventually the next day I would find it in a massive colonnaded grey cement building. I also discovered that all cultural venues in the country were closed for a week. This included puppet theatres. I also found that no one in the offices of Teatr Animacji spoke a word of English.
I continued on to Warsaw. And I met my friend Marta Czanik at the train station. Again the city was in mourning for the Pope. I attended one outdoor service that was extremely moving amongst over 100,000 thousand Poles. Although the puppet theatres were not performing that week there were a few people in the theatre. Marta came to my rescue in regards to the titanic bulk of the Teatr Lalka (teatr = theatre & lalka = puppet) and set up some meetings for me. We interviewed the artistic director for Teatr Lalka, a Polish woman with a strong character named Joanna Rogacka. Sitting in her dark office in the Palace of Culture and Science, the massive Stalinist Gothic building at the center of Warsaw, listening to this regal woman unravel the history of puppetry in the communist era, provoked quite a few thoughts. The gray morning light drifted through the windows shading the woman and her assistant Anna Bojarska is high contrasts. The furniture surrounding us was old heavy dark wood. Pani Rogacka explained that the Soviets encouraged puppetry as a form of art, though Teatr Lalka had a more elaborate history. She explained that how back in the forties a man named Jan Wilkowski began to change the presentation of puppets by stepping from behind the curtain to work with the puppets themselves on stage. Also there was clearly an influence upon the Polish style by the Russian puppet genius Sergey Obraztsov. This moved the world of Polish puppets closer towards a more artistic idea. She showed me photos of elaborate stage shows, including some tantalizing images from their version of Homer’s Odyssey. I was missing one performance because I was on my way to Krakow. But I certainly got the idea. At a certain point the interview, rather the monologue, was over. I had been granted my time. I was brimming with questions. But she was indeed a busy woman, and I was indeed fortunate to have been granted an audience. I watched a rehearsal of a story about a noble bunny rabbit, some strange looking black creatures and shadow plays. I also watched the troupe put on a clown play that reminded me of a cross between Laurel & Hardy and a child’s version of Waiting for Godot. I owe Marta good words for translating the entire interview for me. I couldn’t have done this without her.
It was soon time to go to Krakow. The city was thoroughly fascinating and well worth several visits. I also detoured for a day to visit Auschwitz, which left me with conflicted emotions about the nature of our presentation of the tragedies of the past. At last I made my way over to Teatr Groteska, which was housed in another large old domed cement building. Inside, up the four or five flights of wide marble stairs, were housed examples of the theatre’s sixty-year history. I was also allowed into the puppet storage facilities. An usher named Olga told me that she had become so fascinated with the reactions of children to puppets that it had become the thesis of her doctoral dissertation. She arranged interviews for me with one of the actors of a mature puppet play, Balladyna, which I would see later in the day. But first it was time to watch a kooky version of Little Red Riding Hood. The interesting thing about all of the daytime performances was that they were all full. The theatre had made arrangements with schools across southern Poland to bring kids to the theatre. I was told that over 90,000 students a year viewed the various shows. Now that’s how it should be done!
The afternoon show, Balladyna, was full of high school students. This was a serious work with some eerie raggedy puppets, puppets that reminded me somehow of Auschwitz, used in a way I’d never seen before. Live actors interacted with the humanoid shapes as they manipulated them. And somehow at one moment they were actors and in the next they were the puppets. The story was a dark Polish legend of sorts from a work of classic Polish literature. It was clear to me that puppets could easily do work as serious as Shakespeare’s plays if they so chose. Afterwards I spoke with one of the actors, Franciszek Mula, about the differences between puppetry and standard acting. This was actually his first puppet work. He explained that puppetry was far more humble than theatre work; that the actor had to give space to the puppets, which actually went against the obvious inclination of actors to be seen. When I asked if he would pose for a few photographs with the puppets he replied with a knowing smile, “Of course, I’m an actor.”
A couple of days later, after seeing one more performance with a Chinese theme and a wild use of masks, smoke and balloons (!), I had an interview through a translator with the slyly sagacious director of Groteska, Adolf Weltschek. He too explained that the theatre started as a result of the Soviet push towards classical culture at the end of World War 2. Essentially the way it worked was that the Russians thought that there were four pillars of culture: Ballet, Opera, Theatre and Puppets. That is why every Polish puppet theatre was so large. They had been financed at great expense by the Soviets. He also explained more of how the censorship issues worked. How the text of the play would be submitted to the censor for approval and then how the images might contradict the text to get another message across. He also offered me his theory that all Polish artistic puppetry was influenced by the Russians. And in fact, unlike the Czechs, the Poles did not have such an involved history of puppetry. There were some folk puppets. But the real burst in Polish puppetry had come after the Second World War. When I asked how this transference might have occurred he said probably during the war when Polish and Russian troops were fighting side by side. Before the war he said puppets were nothing special in Poland, just a folk art, but in Russia… And there was no way to get to Moscow on this trip!
As I was leaving Adam Weltschek, descending the marble stairs, my translator stopped. She pointed to an older funky looking puppet and remarked with pride, “This is the Roman Polanski puppet. When he was 12 years old he used to work with this puppet.” Teatr Groteska in Krakow had just become yet another crucial element of this poetic topography of puppet history.
Next we travel to heart of puppetry in Europe – the Czech Republic
January 25th 2012
For information on Krakow’s Teatr Groteska run this page through a translation tool
And this one on Warsaw’s Teatr Lalka
And get yourself to Poland!!!
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 4- Puppetry Can Do Everything
On to Berlin… The name alone conjures up some powerful images: Prussian soldiers, 1920’s decadence, Hitler, the Russians ripping the city to shreds, the Cold War and dances on the crumbling Wall. It’s all there and much more: A city obliterated by the past and a perpetual construction zone preparing for an unrealized future. City workers spend time erasing neo-Nazi graffiti, while the overwhelming Turkish presence raises questions yet to be answered. What does Islam mean in secular Berlin?
My very good friend Millay Hyatt met me at the Ostbahnhof. Millay has an endless curiosity about many subjects. She took me to a Stanley Kubrick exhibit, an abandoned amusement park, rows of endless communist era buildings and a monumental Soviet World War 2 memorial, among other places. She also aided me immensely by becoming my interpreter for two puppet theatres.
The first theatre, a shadow theatre called the Fuguren-Zirkel (Figure Circle), was run by an affable Austrian named Georg Jenisch. We watched romantic and psychedelic displays of light and shadow along with the music of Mozart’s Magic Flute. His entrancing figures were elaborately cut from malleable plastic or even flexible plastic mirrors to give an effect of not only shadow puppets but of light figures as well. Strange little figures danced around in a large circular window, the size of a pair of outstretched adult arms, and it seemed impossible that there was only one man behind the stage. His figures were based partly on Turkish shadow puppets. But he was also clearly influenced by the work of the brilliant silhouette filmmaker and shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. He was also a musician himself and composed music for his performances at times. Georg thought his figures should only move to music and never speak. This was similar in style to the Salzburg Marionette Theater where he had indeed worked. Puppet art had been more innovative in the 90s, he felt, yet he seemed to feel it was regrouping. Overall it was a courteous and friendly interview.
It was then time to see Das Weite Theater performing a piece called The White Hammer at Die Schaubude Theater, which was the funniest piece of puppet art I’ve yet to see. A small cuddly white bunny hops out onto the stage. It eats what appear to be real carrots. A sinister female puppet slinks out onto the stage and then without warning pounces upon the critter and slices open the rabbits throat in an exceptionally bloody scene of red cloth blood. I know this doesn’t sound funny. But trust me the abrupt U-turn between cute little bunny and mad slasher was outrageously funny. I mean who expects a white rabbit to be mercilessly slaughtered within the first few minutes of a play. (Don’t worry though the bunny’s ghost returns near the end of the evening.) The rest of the play was a comic farce based on whodunnits. Blockheaded puppets carved by Czechs moved in frantically satirical actions. One buck-toothed woman spun around in circles every time some the possibility of danger was even hinted at. The farcical movements were given to them by Torsten Gesser and Irene Winter. It was mostly just the two of them with as many as six large wooden hand puppets at a time. And they turned out to be excellent interview subjects. Millay Hyatt provided excellent help by translating their predominantly German speech.
As we spoke I began to piece together the story of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain. The Communist state, through direct Russian orders, funded puppet theatres. For years an artistic council planned the repertoire, which was mostly Russian Fairy Tales and folk tales. Before the Wall fell there were 17 serious puppet theatres in East Germany. Shows for adults began in the early 1980’s, notably a puppet presentation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper or as it is know in English the Three Penny Opera. (Brecht was known for his leftward leanings.)
Was criticism of the government present in these puppet shows?
“The puppet theatres did not feel as much pressure as the standard Theatre and the Opera did.” said Irene. “There was always a way to express criticism through puppetry in the GDR. You didn’t do it in a blatant way though, you used subtlety. People in East Germany were used to reading between the lines. So the audience could tell when something was being said.”
Was it done by allegory?
“Here’s an example?” Irene continued. “ We did a version of satirical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were soldiers in the forest watching everything. They were spies for the Queen. You didn’t have to spell out what this meant. Everyone knew it was a criticism of state paranoia. The spies in the forest were even wearing the uniforms of the state police. So we always expressed criticism. And sometimes the audience would read criticism into works where none was intended. And they would be thinking ‘Wow! They are so daring! They actually said that?’ But there were colleagues of ours who did try to speak in a more directly political way. And they did have trouble with the authorities”
Torsten added, “ Then, you did have a feeling that people actually heard you when you were being critical. Nowadays when you are critical they laugh; they don’t listen, nobody cares. But then, you definitely had the sense that criticism was effective.”
Did more people come to the puppet theatres then?
“Theatre was much more affordable back then.” Torsten remarked. “And it was considered a necessity. People were encouraged to go to the theatre from a very young age. The thought was, ‘If we can’t provide them with consumer goods, then we’ll provide them with culture.”
And after the Berlin Wall came down?
“It was a 180º turn.” Torsten said, “We had a professional career. Now we are freelancers.”
“In West Germany they weren’t working with puppets in a professional way.” Irene pointed out. “There weren’t university courses on puppetry. So West Germans were more self-taught or following older folk traditions. But there was no professional training.”
They had been cut off from puppetry in the West. And so it was a bit of a shock for them to see the accommodations that might have to be made to continue as puppeteers in the Western mode. Irene lamented some of the changes.
“So after the Wall came down the East German style began to become more of a popular entertainment mostly for children, although there was some movement the other way. But in the West is was more of an entertainment and in East Germany it was an art.”
When I asked them if they did shows for children they said “No! We do shows for families.” And the distinction was important for them. They didn’t want to be confined to the kiddie ghetto.
“When we have material, we think about what we are trying to convey, we don’t think about age groups.” Torsten explained. “ We try to get across the central idea, what we find fascinating in the material.”
When we did speak of contemporary children and their fixation on screens, they concurred with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost about the tangible reality of puppetry in communicating with modern kids. Irene called it the “live sensual nature” of the puppet.
Finally I just asked them the most basic, yet most difficult question: What is Puppetry?
Irene burst out laughing “Puppetry can do everything!”
Torsten agreed “It can portray thousands of images and fantasies.”
(Next: We travel to Poland to find some of the largest puppet theatres in the world.)
When in Berlin you MUST visit…
And Das Weite Theater
And don’t miss The Figure Circle
And remember to run these through translation tools if your German isn’t up to snuff. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak German, you’ll still find yourself truly impressed.