This one of the first lectures I gave – a teensy bit dated now – but sentimental value and a few comments and observations that still hold true – enjoy for old time’s sake
FAITH, REASON AND DOSTOYEVSKY IN THE X FILES
Before I start I should remind you that you can purchase videos of the X-Files and Millennium from any good retailer and that you must never forget that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment holds the copyright to all these programs and of course the company deals out the cash earned from purchase with fairness and justice – so buy your tapes legally and for anyone who is of a nervous disposition please be assured that whilst I will refer to one or two clips there will be no sloppy bits.
Every Picture Tells a Story
Every magazine cover, every glossy photo of a Hollywood star is a narrative. They may all only be pictures but they tell a story. They tell the story of modern wealth but not because the men and women (particularly the women) are glowing and are a healthy size but precisely because they are not. They are thin and that’s the narrative. It seems nowadays that the wealthier you are the thinner you have to be. 300 years ago that would not have been true. Then you needed your fat to prove your wealth because it proved you could afford to eat luxury foods and it proved you could survive a famine or a serious illness. Now you need to be thin like any number of women celebrities in order to show that you are wealthy enough to eat the right foods, exercise frequently and that you need to carry nothing spare in case of illness or famine. In the same way as we were once made white with lead powder in order to prove that we did not have to work in the fields and so get a tan now a tan means wealth. It means that you don’t have to work in the fields you can lie in the sun.
Hence the Lolliwoods – the Lolliwoods are the women celebrities of Hollywood who have dieted so much that their heads look too big for their bodies. They look like lollipops. Our modern narrative of beauty has gone a little haywire don’t you think? But if these women are not an American size 6 or less they don’t work – because that’s what the narrative demands. Apparently you need to be small in order to fit into the small screen.
Every picture tells a story – every image has a narrative. The language of image is semiotics and narrative. Grand narratives, time and narrative, linear narrative and non-linear narrative are the modern buzz words for the explosion in storytelling that modern technology has inspired. However, in order to understand why we narrate, how we narrate and how narrative is used is modern TV, in this case the X-Files and Millennium we need to go back. We need to go back quite a long way in fact. We need to go back to the cave paintings of the pre-historic era, to the simple pictures that human beings painted on the walls of their caves as an effective first narrative.
Words and Pictures
There are in circulation in mainstream studies two theories as to how language developed. One theory suggests that language began like this
Ugh ugh ugh
which roughly translated means “Me Jane you Tarzan”
and then there are the pictures which, after a while, developed into small cartoon strips on a cave wall – narratives in fact. In Alberta Canada the narrative drawn on the walls there is used to advertise the Museum at Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump a title that needs little explanation. There’s not much ambiguity in the name Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. The First Nation Indians trapped and pursued the buffalo until they leapt from a precipice and smashed their heads in – food for the winter. Pictures on the wall simple statements and human beings began to understand each other – they began to narrate for the sake of their survival. But language has developed by whatever means to come to mean more than just the portrayal physical act. It has developed into a means of portraying the invisible and the unbelievable and it is perhaps this ability, more than any other to use language to mean more than just one thing at any one time that separates us from the animals. After all even my dog can understand “sit” – well most of the time anyway.
It is impossible to do more than speculate whether language came with pictures first or words but somewhere in the development of the picture, and an understanding of the meaning of the activity of hunting, the narrative and the act have come to mean more than just killing a buffalo – or in this case a lot of buffalo. It will have come to mean a feeling, a feeling that could be applied to more than just the physical act of hunting, but to the feeling of being a predator of the feeling of being hunted. The language came to be applied to concepts, relationships, to feelings and to the metaphysical
HOUND OF HEAVEN
But with unhurrying chase
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
Come on the following Feet
And a voice above their beat
Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter me
Francis Thompson uses the metaphor of the hunt and pursuit to describe his relationship with God.
Let’s Take a Look at the Contract
What language has become, certainly since we started to write it down in Western culture with the aid of the alphabet is a contract. We have all agreed that each letter will make a certain sound, or several certain sounds, we have also all agreed that (in English that is) on occasions our contract will make no sense at all phonetically as in the case of rough and cough. Thus over thousands of years we have agreed a contract whereby words can have more than one meaning. Context and history offer meaning as well as sound and physical applications
The pun is, of course one obvious form of a contracted double meaning – anyone watching a Carry On film will soon become clear that the terms balls and knockers do not just refer to tennis and door furniture.
I’m sure there are entire PhD’s on the way in which cockney rhyming slang operates – it is a truly contractual language – after all how else would barnet come to mean hair?
But the dual meaning of words also comes from context and history – the word “boss” does not mean the same thing in the deep South of America, when uttered by a black man, as it does on the streets of London when uttered by an employee. The context of the southern states and history loads the word boss with connections and prejudice that are contained in the narrative of that nation’s history. To quote Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale “Context is all”.
Doubletake in words and narrative – is more than just a pun and more than just innuendo and when written and I am of the opinion that some American TV series, not just the X-Files do this well. Now this may be because they pay their writers a lot more than we do in the UK and they pay for retainers and development money – or that could be sour grapes on my part – and I am aware that Americans do tend to burglarise the English language in order to legitimisate an ongoing normalisation of their language situation – even so they can still write a ripping good yarn that works on more than one level – you only have to watch the Rugrats to know that.
X-Files on the Doubletake
In the X-Files – it is their use of a grand narrative and a little narratives that allows them to discuss all kinds of aspects of the human condition within the context of a mythology that they both perpetuate and use. Anyone living the religious life in fact functions on the level of little narratives – otherwise known as everyday life and the grand narrative – their relationship to their god, ethical ethos or in film language the “controlling idea” and their belief in him or that and how that affects them. In the X-Files of course, the little narrative consists of pursuing, paranormal psychos across the United States, punctuated only by the odd weird bug, community or genetically freakish human being. The Grand Narrative in the X-Files is not God but Mulder’s belief that the earth is being colonised by aliens who intend to make slaves of us all.
Against this context a whole lot of the series is about how we interpret the stories we are told. It is about phenomenology, how our influences act upon our beliefs and how our beliefs act upon what we see. Mulder’s belief in aliens could all come from the childhood trauma of seeing his sister kidnapped by some psycho, an act that he could do nothing about. An act that left him bereft and unable to face up to the truth about human evil. He would rather believe she was kidnapped by aliens and, perhaps remains alive somewhere else than that she was murder by some random act of an evil man. Or maybe he is absolutely right.
In order to balance Mulder’s obsession the X-Files starts by challenging one very traditional narrative convention. They were not the first to do this, and by no means the last – as every pathologist seems to be a woman now, but even so, in early mainstream horror the narrative seemed to go something like this.
Woman – Darling, I bought this ancient trinket in a junk shop the other day but I think it’s haunted.
Man – Oh really why’s that dear?
Woman – Well when I put it in the car a pair of invisible hends grabbed the steering wheel, drove me 50 miles the wrong way up the M1, transmuted me to the South Benk whereupon we flew across the Thaemes and crashed into Westminster Abbey which is now burning furiously.
Man – really dear, well there’s no need to be emotional, I’m sure that there is a rational explanation.
Now when Scully and Mulder deal with this kind of conversation she’s usually hanging over the gore of some dead body, finding a scientific explanation for the fact that I just got up and went to MacDonald’s and Mulder sees, demons, devils and aliens.
By placing Scully in the rational role they do more than just strike a blow for women’s rights they place the whole series in the context of a debate between faith and reason. A debate which many now suggest has nothing to do with developments in science, but once again with the way in which we developed our language. Once we started to write things done , once we agreed our alphabetic contract, and started to write linear histories we made ii inevitable that everything we believed in would become subject to rigours of reason, rather than faith, but what we failed to recognise in the early days is that the potency of the narrative relies on the narrator, whoever writes the history creates the truth. To certain extent Scully is written evidence and Mulder is the oral tradition.
Now oral traditions have had a bit of a bad press in this post rational age. There are those who suggest that the oral tradition functions like a Chinese whisper, it changes with every retelling. However those who have studied such traditions in more detail would suggest that the accuracy of an oral tradition need not be doubted. The direct repetition of the story exact in every way has always been important to the culture’s that carry it. In Talitha Cumi the episode opens with the claim that history is written by the men of blood and at the end of this episode the information on a valuable disk is committed to memory by the Navajo friends of Mulder – a truly oral tradition
The narration of history, religion and even our individual self image such as that of the Lolliwoods is a narrative written by the men of power the men and women who have an interest in telling the story to their benefit. The 20th century has made many of us in Western culture a bit more wise to the rewriting of history by interested parties. All the X-Files does is embody that tendency and that knowledge in the context of an alien conspiracy. It is no coincidence that a lot of the main conspiratorial action led by the smoking man, the big bad guy, takes place in the Watergate Apartments – or that the early series featured and still do feature, to some extent a “Deep Throat”
The nature of the conspiracy doesn’t actually matter – in this case it is a vehicle for a ripping good yarn about conspiracy itself, it could be about a military plot, a series of shark attacks or bad workmanship in a nuclear plant – does anyone remember Edge of Darkness – now there’s a conspiracy thriller for you.
Cancer Man and the Grand Inquisitor
However, like Edge of Darkness, the conspiracy allows the writer to touch on other things. I once wrote a book about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the writer of the Idiot and Crime & Punishment, so I do have a tendency to drop him into the conversation every now and again – but it does seem that I’m not the only one. In an interview on Chris Carter concedes that the prison cell scene between the Smoking Man and the resurrected alien Jeremiah Smith played by Roy Thinnes, who as famous in the 60s for his series called The Invaders, where he plays a character called David Vincent who is convinced that the earth is being invaded by aliens. The X-Files producers concede their debt to the Invaders.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor contained in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky was a nineteenth century Russian writer, reputed to be one of the greatest novelists of all time. Like Dickens he exposed the social degradation and conditions of his fellow countrymen, like Tolstoy he had a political point of view, a view which changed dramatically in his lifetime. This may have had something to do with being sentenced to death by the Tsar for sedition, a sentence which achieved a last minute reprieve and set him on his way to Siberia one Christmas Eve. Amongst the many other narratives that Dostoyevsky explored, he was fascinated by the relationship between choice and certainty. How was it that human beings demanded both freedom to make their own decisions and freedom from responsibility. In some strange way human beings seemed to prefer to be slaves.
Grand Inquisitor is one of the greatest fables ever written. It takes place in the context of the usual Russian discussion over tea in Dostoyevky’s novel the Brother Karamazov Part 1. Dostoyevsky always said that he could write a novel that everyone would be talking about in a hundred and fifty years if he could just get a big enough advance and if the sub-editors would stop trying to edit his text. He never got his big advance, and he always complained about the editors but a120 years on and the Grand Inquisitor still seems to embody the definitive discussion of power, God and the nature of the human condition.
As an aside I think he would have liked the X-Files. His first novel Poor Folk about a poor couple who cannot marry for poverty was hailed by a leading socialist at the time, Vissarion Belinsky, as the greatest socialist novel ever and Dostoyevsky as a champion of social realism in a novel. Then Dostoyevsky wrote a book called The Double about a man whose evil double takes over his life and replaces him whilst he carted off to an insane asylum gibbering about some evil doppleganger. Belinsky was appalled by this novel and saw it as a betrayal of the people. How could Dostoyevesky by a great writer of social realism – if he could write supernatural crap? I think he would have enjoyed the X-Files and his Grand Inquisitor was the inspiration for Anasazi
The basis of the story is that Jesus returned to Spanish Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. He preaches on the steps of the cathedral, is recognised and performs a miracle, he raises a young girl from the dead. Whereupon the Grand Inquisitor, unhappy about this, promptly arrests him in order to discuss with him the finer points of starting and maintaining your own religion.
Let me read to you a couple of excerpts before I play the X-Files representation of it. Listen particularly to the description of the Grand Inquisitor himself.
“He (the Grand Inquisitor) is an old man of nearly ninety, tall and erect, with a shrivelled face and sunken eyes, from which, though, a light like a fiery spark still gleams. Oh, he is not wearing his splendid cardinal robes in which he appeared before the people the day before, when the enemies of the Roman faith were being burnt – no, at that moment he is wearing only his old, coarse monk’s cassock………………….
………I want you to know that now – yes, today – these men are more than ever convinced that they are absolutely free, and yet they themselves have brought their freedom to us and humbly laid it at our feet. But it was we who did it. And was that what you wanted? Was that the kind of freedom you wanted.”’
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand again,” Alyosha interrupted. ‘Is he being ironical, is he laughing?’
‘Not in the least. You see, he glories in the fact that he and his followers have at last vanquished freedom and have done so in order to make men happy. “For,” he tells him. “it is only now (he is, of course speaking of the Inquisition), that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men. Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy? You were warned.” He says to him. “There has been no lack of warnings and signs, but you did not heed the warnings. You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately, in departing, you handed on the work to us. You have promised and you have confirmed it by your own work. You have given us the right to bind and unbind, and of course you can’t possibly think of depriving us of that right now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” The Brothers Karamazov 1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, P291 & 294
The episode of the X-Files – Anasazi begins when a man is resurrected from death by a man, or an alien, after a shoot out at hamburger restaurant – for the Spanish culture is represented by the cathedral at Seville for the Americans – it’s a fast food restaurant.
The alien is captured and confronted by Cancer Man, the X-Files, very own Grand Inquisitor their discussion echoes that of the parable of The Grand Inquisitor if not word for word then in paraphrase – with a little morphing thrown in.
The essence of this discussion, this double narrative is the nature of the human condition. Is man happier enslaved in a certainty that takes away his conscience or is the only thing of value that constitutes humankind its freedom of will which must be valued always despite the price of unhappiness that it carries. It doesn’t matter how many adventures Scully and Mulder go through, the conflict remains as it does for humankind between, freedom and power, history and truth, interpretation and evidence. All questions that confront the believer in anything every day. Elsewhere in both the Grand Inquisitor and this Episode of the X-Files the discussion is preoccupied with the fact that only a few people seem able to cope with having free will – the justification that The Grand Inquisitor offers is that free will doesn’t make humankind happy – that humankind prefers to be an automaton, one who is told what to do and give the opportunity to do it without having to refer to ethics.
Entertaining the Eye of the Beholder
The X-Files is first and foremost an entertaining package that started out as a dark little series and turned into the series of a decade. However its attempt to present a quality narrative within the context of sci-fi adventure stories as allowed the curious minded to gather more from it than just the sloppy gore and the a look at the dark side of government conspiracies. Ine essence it is a about the way in which we view stories. The fact that we can all look at the same facts and find a different interpretation. In the episode Vampires both Scully and Mulder have fun with the re-telling of the exact same story as they saw it – it is after all in the eye of the beholder.
Selected X-Files Episodes
Story by: David Duchovny, Chris Carter
Teleplay by: Chris Carter
Director: R W Goodwin
Hollywood AD 7X18
Writer: David Duchovny
Director: David Duchovny
Leonard Betts 4X14
Writer: Frank Spotnitz,John Shiban
Director: Kim Manners
Bad Blood 5X12
Writer: Vince Gilligan
Director: Cliff Bole
Talitha Cumi 3X24
Story by: Chris Carter, David Duchovny
Teleplay by: Chris Carter
Director: RW Goodwin
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor The Brothers Karamazov, Part 1
Milbank J., The Word Made Strange: Theology,Language, Culture (Blackwells, 1998)
Ricouer P., Oneself As Another Trs Kathleen Blamey (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven
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All pictures from the X-files are © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Ten Thirteen Productions.