Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Inverted Christology of the Alien film series:
A Speculative Review of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus"

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” – T.S. Eliot, the Wasteland

What is it that terrifies us?  The merit of the horror-genre of film and literature is inexplicable without some answer to this question. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle contends that we have reason to fear all evils which, might be avoided, and yet might potentially befall us: “plainly the things we fear are terrible things, and these are, to speak without qualification, evils; for which reason people even define fear as expectation of evil.” (Bk.III, vi) Thus, following Aristotle, the question of what it is that we fear may be understood as simply the question of the essence of evil. On the essence of evil, there have, in the history of philosophy, been two contrary opinions: the Platonists, Aristotelians, and Augustinians have held evil to be the negation of a further universal original substance, while the Atomists, the Materialists and the Manicheans have held evil to be self-subsistent, or a substance unto itself. These contrary opinions parallel the contrary opinions in the history of logic regarding the essence of negation, the logical function of ‘not’ some term or proposition. Plato, in the Sophist, and Aristotle, in the Organon, held negation to be derived from some prior affirmation of a term or proposition, while the Stoics held negation to be a logical operation independent of any prior affirmation. Thus, we find that when the question of the essence of evil is abstracted from all considerations of substance, it is simply the question of the essence and origin of negation, e.g. of not-A, is either conditioned by some prior absolute pure identity, e.g. A=A, or it is absolutely unconditioned and totallyindependent of all identity. Yet because negation, abstracted from all substance, can never be found among the substantial things of our experience, this question, of the essence and origin of negation, could never be answered empirically, but must rather be speculatively deduced from the very nature and conception of substance; and not through natural scientific experimentation, but only through metaphysical speculation. Metaphysics is the sovereign science of being, and the nature of substance that speculatively deduces from the first principles of all science to the special and derivative principles of special sciences. Metaphysics questions what is the ultimate and absolutely original principle of thought and being; whether this is subject or object, affirmation or negation, being or non-being. The speculative deduction of negation from affirmation, or, of negation as absolutely independent, is, however, the beginning of all philosophical science that may only ever be irrefutably confirmed through the ultimate completion of science. Absent of any such completed philosophical science, the speculative deduction and, thus also the nature and origin of evil, must remain an analytically indemonstrable theory, given over to realm of faith rather than scientific knowledge.

Why do we find it pleasurably to be terrified? If we fear all avoidable evils that may befall us, then how is it that we find evil to be pleasurable? For something to be found to be intrinsically pleasurable, it must possess some intrinsic power, and only that which is constituted by some substance may possess powers intrinsic to itself. Thus, were evil to be a substance unto itself, then it may, by its own intrinsic power, be the cause of our pleasures. But were, on the contrary, evil to be merely the negation of substance, and thus also parasitic for its very affirmative existence upon substance, then it could only possess the power to cause pleasure through its negative effects upon some other substance. With the former theory, of the self-subsistence of evil, we must admit evil to be intrinsically pleasurable; with the latter theory, of the derivativeness and parasitism of evil, evil must be pleasurable only through its effects upon some prior substance. Following the latter theory, Aristotle in the Poetics describes the pleasure of tragedy as catharsis, as the purgation of negative emotions such as the fear of death: through their participation in such dramatic catharsis, audiences may experience these emotions and know them in the completeness of their finitude. A finite thing is negated and thereby limited by things beyond its finite boundedness and causal reach (determatio est negatio). Therefore the experience of negative emotions in their finitude is simultaneously the negation of these negative emotions, or the negation of what is negative, which, as double-negation, produces a new affirmation, just as the quotient of negative A and negative A is positive A. For this reason, catharsis may be understood to be the experience of negating some harmful and negative emotion through an experience of its finitude, to produce some substantial and pleasurable affirmation. The pleasure of catharsis is, following Aristotle, found, not intrinsically within substantial evil and negation, but rather in what evil contrasts with, i.e. the contrast between negation and affirmation, and the triumph of  some good over evil.

The Alien film series, beginning with Ridley Scott’s 1979 film “Alien”, depicts the discovery of a mysterious craft of extraterrestrial origin by the salvage ship, the Nostromo, bearing mysterious eggs that hatch spidery-limbed parasites, or face-huggers, that attach to human faces to implant alien fetuses that afterwards violently burst forth from the hosts’ chest. The infant alien which emerges from its gestation in a human host rapidly matures into a murderous beast which annihilates or assimilates all advanced living organisms within the biosphere (not excluding cats and dogs). The evil of the alien-monster is threefold: the face-hugger parasite rapes its host through the forcible impregnation of the alien fetus via the mouth; the fetus assimilates its hosts’ essence and afterwards retains its essential morphology and powers; and the mature alien-monster hunts and murders all life. 
The theme of rape is implicit throughout the alien film series, not simply through the unwilling impregnation of the hosts, but moreover through the corruption of their essences: as the alien gestates within a human host, it thereby assimilates the essence of the host into itself, and afterwards emerges transformed in the hosts’ likeness. In the 1986 sequel, James Cameron’s “Aliens”, audiences learn that the alien-monsters live in insect-like hives commanded by an alien queen that produces the eggs within which the face-hugger parasites gestate. Alien hives are organized into castes of workers, warriors and queens which cooperate to perpetuate the three-fold evil of the alien monsters indefinitely: queens lay the eggs, workers retrieve the living bodies of hosts that may be sacrificed to produce new aliens, and warriors annihilate all enemies of the hive. Thus, the evil of the infestation of an alien hive may be understood to exponentially increase through the operation of its members.

The Alien film series is uniquely terrifying because it inverts, through contamination with negation, the highest conceivable idea of an absolute middle and personal mediator between the infinite universe and the finite self-consciousness being - the Absolute made finite in the person of Jesus Christ. Plato held the doctrine of the eternal forms, or Platonism, in which the finite things in our experience were ultimately derived from wholly immaterial forms which totally transcended the spatio-temporal universe. Neo-Platonism was a 3rd-Century revival of classical Platonism by the Roman school of Plotinus and Porphyry, and held all the forms and substances of the universe to emanate from a self-subsisting super-form, which is called ‘the One’. Alexandrian theology was a 4th-Century school of Christian theology which sought to explain the relation of Jesus Christ to God the Father and the Holy Spirit - collectively called the Holy Trinity - through the metaphysical doctrines of Neo-Platonism. Alexandrian theology held the Holy Trinity to be, like the Neo-Platonic One, a substantial form that, in its infinitude, wholly transcended the finite material universe, and yet, by its own innate plentitude of being, continuously emanated from within itself all matter, form and substance. The Alexandrian school taught that the nature of Christ, or Christology, was that of an eternally-existing person within the Triune Godhead of the Holy Trinity that, while wholly transcending the finite spatio-temporal universe, was yet was immanent in the reason, or Logos, of the universe and, moreover, became man for the salvation of the universe: the eternally existing Christ thus became man, through His incarnation by the willing acceptance of the Virgin Mary, to minister to mankind, and to sacrifice his life for the redemption of sins, for the fulfillment God’s providential restoration of His people Israel through the creation of the New Covenant the Church.

In the Alien film series, God is, for all appearances, neither a self-conscious creator nor a historical revealer of true religion. Characters search the galaxy, with neither the Holy Spirit in their breasts nor any hope of an ultimate beatific reconciliation with their creator. There appears to be no transcendent realm of superintending providence, but only the immanent here and now of our fragile, corruptible and finite bodies. Foreseeing the hopeless of his ruined of his own body, Job lamented to God: “Thou renewest thy witnesses against me, and multipliest thy wrath upon me, and the pains of war against me. Why didst thou bring me forth out of the womb: O that I had been consumed that no eye might see me!.. Suffer me, therefore, that I may lament my sorrow a little: Before I go, and return no more, to a land that is dark and covered with the mist of death: A land of misery and darkness, where the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwelleth.” (Job 10:17-23) The ends of man are, in the Alien film series, merely those of liberal-capitalism and scientific positivism: the calculated expectation of monetary profit and the expansion of natural scientific knowledge – both of which are the endless tasks of accumulating and cataloging the finite. The living and loving God of Christianity is hidden, and His absence is as hollow, dark and cold as the infinite void of space. Staring into the vastness of the uncounted stars the characters may expect to discover staring back at them only what is likewise wholly absent of self-consciousness and wholly alien from human nature. Platonism holds that the forms of identity and multiplicity emanate from the One. A=A to our minds and within our experience only because the One is eternally absolutely identical with itself. Yet, without the absolute identity of the One God, there must remain only the absolute multiplicity of totally differentiated substances: nothing can be expected to be identical with itself or within anything else. The absence of God means the absence of both superintending providence and supervening design: what has originated beyond the terrestrial biosphere may not be expected to share with man either any common essence or any hitherto known substance. For this reason, neither a common origin nor a common purpose can be expected to reconcile man and alien through a pre-established commodiousness of powers and propensities. Thus the qualitative difference which separates man and alien - of the very alien-ness of the alien - may be as infinite as must seem the unknown depths of space wherein, it may be thought, lies the solution to the mystery of the origin and essence of man and alien. The frightfulness of the alien-monster may, on this account, be understood to be conditioned by the notion of the hiddenness of God: without God there can be no absolute identity; without absolute identity there is only absolute non-identity; with absolute non-identity there exist a potentially infinite variety of essences and substances beyond the scope of all human action and understanding.

The alien is a monstrous embodiment of the principle of alienation as such, of an otherness without any precedent in human experience. As a consequence of the absolute non-identity of a godless universe, the alien is held to be absolutely non-identical to, and thus totally distinct from any concept of essence or substance hitherto known to man. As the alien is not identical to any known substance or essence, it may embody for the characters the very principle of absolute non-identity. In Ridley Scott’s 2012 film “Prometheus”, the aliens are shown to have originated from a mysterious black liquid that is contained in egg-shaped viles. Upon the release of this liquid, hosts are contaminated by an airborne pathogen that produces both frenzied zombies and face-hugging parasites. While holding aloft a drop-sized sample of this mysterious black liquid, the android David remarks “big things have small beginnings.” Substance may no doubt be known through sensory perception, as a consequence of its extended body, but essence is wholly formal and thus super-sensuous. The essence of alien, like the essence of evil, is empirically unknown except through its parasitical contamination and impregnation of its hosts. In the absence of God, and of absolute identity, both the principle of negativity and of substantial evil may be theoretically deduced to be absolutely independent of any prior affirmation or substance. Were there no God the absolute principle of all thought and being could quite conceivably be absolute non-identity, finite being, and morally indifferent substance. Thus substantial evil, in which negativity is most fully embodied, may plausibly be the mysterious black liquid found aboard the derelict alien craft. Through the collective activity of the alien hive, the negativity of this substance; manifested in rape, corruption, and murder; may be expected to exponentially and infinitely expand to consume all substances and corrupt all essences in an entropy of ceaseless self-annihilation – of absolute negativity! And were man to be bereft of a benevolent and guiding deity, the safety and satisfaction of mankind would not at all be guaranteed but would rather sit precariously beneath the sword of Damocles in expectation of its sudden death from unknown extra-terrestrial dangers.

 Wherein might hope be discovered when man is set upon by the rapacious frenzy of such and absolute evil? Hope is understood to be a movement of the will towards some expected good. An intellectual apprehension of some good must thus precede any movement of the will towards its realization. The striving to oppose a thing must, for this reason, originate with a self-determined choice to oppose a thing, in a manner appropriate to its essence. What is essentially evil and non-identical may be opposed by a striving for reunion with the pure identity of absolute being. Might this apprehension of goodness and hope be discovered in the expectation of an escape from imminent death; in the innocence of a child; or in self-sacrifice for the future of mankind? These are answers which the Alien films have previously offered audiences. The answer may, however, be speculatively reconsidered according to the preceding deduction of the essence of the alien, as the absolute non-identity and negativity of a Godless universe given a substantial embodiment via the rapine corruption of the essence of man through a bodily host. The alien is the corruption rather than fulfillment of man’s essence, in an unwilling victim rather than a willing mother, for the death rather than the salvation of mankind. The purgative catharsis of tragedy is held by Aristotle to be compelling through a contrast of what is negative with what is substantively posited: the brilliance of goodness twice-brightly illuminated under the shadow of evil. Thus may the opposition to the evil which terrifies us in the Alien film series be known only through an intellectual apprehension of its opposite; that which it inverts; that which it negates; and that which simultaneously reciprocally negates it. The evil of the alien monster, as substantially embodied absolute non-identity, is opposed only to the substantially embodied absolute identity of infinite God and finite man in Jesus Christ, through Whom man is reconciled with God, and the absolute middle of the Kindgom of God is restored.

Although entirely absent in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film “Alien”, Christian themes become more and more prominent throughout the Alien film series, including a group a Christian milleniarianist monks in Alien3. In Ridley Scott’s 2012 film “Prometheus”, scientist Elizabeth Shaw pursues the mystery of man’s origin for the purpose of meeting her creator, the Triune God of the Christian faith, and places her lasting hope in Jesus Christ’s promise of divine benevolence, providence and final beatitude. To her profound horror, Elizabeth Shaw discovers, not the God of the Bible, but the absolute non-identity, moral indifference and malice of the Alien-monsters. Jesus described the Kingdom of God as “like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mt. 13:31-32) The evil of the alien-monster, the supersensuous essence of evil as non-identity, begins in the miniscule substance of the black liquid, yet afterwards cancerously expands with infinite destructive potential. By this corrupt seed, Elizabeth Shaw is impregnated, not as the virgin mother of man’s redeemer, but as the mother of man’s annihilation; and not to restore the original unity of man with a benevolent God but, by the workings of an indifferent non-identical universe, to consume mankind in ceaseless self-destructive negativity! Therefore, while expecting to see God face to face, Miss Elizabeth Shaw assumes, in the inverted Christology of the Alien film series, a pseudo-marian role: to become the mother of all death rather than of eternal life.

Two deductions of the nature of terror, of fear, and of evil are, according to the opinions of philosophers, available to our minds: the Materialist deduction which holds evil to be totally independent and self-subsistent, and the Platonic-Aristotelian deduction which holds evil to be totally derivative and parasitic. The former deduction, ostensibly presumed by the hiddenness of God in the Alien film series, conditions an explanation of the essence of the alien-monster as the substantially embodied essence of evil within a Godless universe of absolute non-identity.  The latter deduction denies the independent self-subsistence of evil and affirms evil to be merely an illusion, parasitic upon substance, which must ultimately be triumphed over by the
goodness of God’s absolute identity. Throughout the Alien film series the characters pursue an altogether empirical examination of the essence of man and aliens, through both the experimental study and physical combat with the alien-monsters. Because the empirical method is methodologically restricted to an examination of finite objects of sensory experience, the characters’ pursuits altogether follow the latter deduction, i.e. an attempt to explain the essence of the aliens as evil that is substantially embodied and totally non-identical to anything hitherto known to man. Yet precisely because of the method of this empirical pursuit of the alien, as finite self-subsistent evil, also thereby limits the scope their actions to what may be theoretically understood and the totally non-identical alien-monster may not possibly understood, this method of pursuit simultaneously dooms all opposition to the exponential threat of the aliens. The cathartic thrust of the drama, through the opposition of what seems wholly evil with some hope for goodness, necessitates, no conceivable rationale, but rather an inexplicable belief in what is most praiseworthy and good. Any hope of the success of this latter concept requires a prior intellectual apprehension of the concepts in their exact and essential opposition. Yet while hope may precede and motivate action it is nonetheless insufficient for its own fulfillment: mere intellectual apprehension of the concept is not yet the realization of the concept. In this instance, when the whole towering edifice of finite understanding crashes down and proves utterly inadequate to encompass and explain what is totally non-identical, practical reason proves its worth, spectacularly triumphs over theoretical reason, and the will emancipates the soul from the binding aporias of finite knowledge. The characters then place their trust and hope in a greater power than either man or alien; in the absolute identity and providence of the living God; to deliver them from the terror of iniquity. There is, on this account, an inner dramatic necessity of the power of the will to overcome the intrinsic limitations of the intellect. Christian theology is therefore shown, through the opposition of the most evil and profane thing with the highest and most cherished idea, to be the hidden theme of that at once conditions the horror and the grace of the Alien film series.

This article is dedicated to Mr. Fawcett who inspired me to consider horror films theologically, and extract the hidden gems from the rough.