I WANT TO KISS YOUR APOCALYPSE
Corniness is the other side of marvelousness. What person believing in a fantasy can bear to have its other side discovered.
Although D.H. Lawrence's posthumously published Apocalypse and the 1932 horror flick The Mask of Fu Manchu appear within a year of each other, they could not represent more opposite views of the primitive and exotic symbology of Orientalism. Apocalypse makes a strong case for the poetics of ancient and mystical archetypes, while the classic B movie, starring Boris Karloff as the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu, reveals a paranoid Western attraction for Orientalism. While the fantastic language and proto-psychedelic imagery of the DHL essay is inspired, it is, however, difficult not to view its exotic and primitive passion through the simulated cartooniness exemplified in a flick like Fu Manchu.
DHL's last essay, Apocalypse, is probably the most coherent record of his Romantic and individualistic personal politics, and proposes an extremely unselfconscious celebration of Orientalism. DHL, in fact, perversely chooses "primal stupidity" over what he calls the "new impudence" — the contemptuous disregard we have for the great cultures that have come before ours. While, at the other extreme, The Mask of Fu Manchu presents a deeply acculturated example of pre-war Hollywood's absurdly comical caricature of Asian culture. There is a self-contradiction in the movie that would later become integral to Camp iconography. More than anything else, Hollywood is in the business of producing desirable images. No matter how anti-Orientalist and paranoid the movie's sentiment is, it needs to idealize its subject. Even when the outsider is demonized, a perfected stereotype is required to heighten the fantasy. In his novel The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer provides the first description of the film's villain. Rohmer writes: "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man." Fu Manchu's xenophobia sharply contrasts DHL's naive optimism of direct and unmediated involvement. In fact, the movie manifests many of the same traits DHL is critical of in Revelation, especially the random redistribution of primitive iconography into simple polarities, like Us vs. Them.
Revelation is, admittedly, much more bizarre than Fu Manchu. It is the vision of John of Patmos, in which he is transported to a parallel universe where half-human/half-animal beasts with amazing powers still rule the day. The attributed author and protagonist has disturbing visions of Armageddon and a bejeweled golden city afloat on shiny crystals in outer-space. And it doesn't stop there. Revelation Christ is not the hippie-Christ who rides around on a donkey preaching love. John envisions the first rider of the apocalypse with silver hair, fiery red eyes, day-glo green skin, and a long bloody saber jutting out of his mouth. What DHL finds so loathsome in Revelation, are not so much the strange visions — a pregnant woman perched on the crest of the moon and "clothed with the sun," horses with scorpion tails, or monsters made of eyeballs — but the pan-mythological mix-and-match of these clearly Pagan symbols. In the strange world at the end of the portal, there's no shortage of primitive and primal figures. Very old and archetypal powers abound. They are equally at play under the emerald rainbow of the heavenly throne where six-winged beasts mix up designer drugs that are methodically dispensed to desexualized white-frocked men so they can plague the mortal world, as they are present among the racier earthbound men and woman who live among dragons and leopard creatures with bear's feet and lion's teeth. And, who's to say which apparition is more monstrous? Still, somehow, the six-winged beasts who dispense poison and the white frocked man — whom William Blake portrayed as a bearded, plump, pink skinned and big bosomed androgen — are the winners!
Even as a negative example of vengeful browbeating, it's hard to tune out the righteous tone of Revelation's blood lust. This is the infamous book wherein the number of the beast is revealed as "Six hundred threescore and six," and where the jeweled Whore of Babylon sits upon a "scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns." In taking on such loaded language, DHL faces the same kinds of obstacles that Black Sabbath did in its Gothic self-styling. Both are equally attracted to the mystery of a sensual and powerful pre-modern sensibility. DHL's point is that in our self-policing (Christian-psychoanalytic) world, the poetic fantasy tends to get pre-figured in the kind of visionary language that DHL criticizes as "moralistic or ecstatic." In order to appropriate primitive cosmologies, symbols are redeployed as metaphor. The dragon, or ancient Logos, for example, is no longer recognized as the natural/amoral power of cosmic energy that it was once understood to represent. It is, instead, recast as Satan, or the metaphor for pure evil with 666 branded in the middle of its forehead. Like DHL's attraction to the cosmic Pagan iconography so oddly prominent in Revelation, Sabbath's attraction to the poetic iconography of Alister Crowley and the Occult was not meant to reflect their own off-the-shelf Catholic tastes. When asked about the bands supernatural symbolism, John "Ozzy" Osbourne went so far as to say that the band's only real interest was due to how fashionable it was in London at the time. And, yet, even though it was probably not their intention, a clawing preachiness lingers in the band's Medieval sensibility.
DHL, who is clearly no saint, comes similarly close to his subject and gets caught up in the infectious nastiness of Revelation. No doubt, Apocalypse, drafted within months of DHL's death, literally represents the final words of a complex psychology that is still hard at work to liberate its own personal cosmology from the ecstatic language of detached absolutes — and fittingly, the essay is left unfinished. On numerous occasions, however, DHL expresses surprisingly uncharacteristic anti-Semitic sentiments. The Jewish Messiah is described as vengeful... as opposed to DHL's celebration of imaginative and sensual vitality, the Jewish people are characterized as "bookish" and "great keepers of accounts: reckoning up sins throughout the ages," etc. As a result, the essay is not able to fully account for one of the misconceptions attributed to Orientalism. In exalting the barbarian as exotic, DHL denigrates the transcendental fantasy-scape as monstrous. The animal is placed above the intellect (a sentiment not uncommon in our super body-con culture of personal consumption). An age-old paradox, not lost on the horror movie genre, is somewhat obscured in the essay: if the monster is by definition that which we are not (Oriental), then shouldn't it encompass both what is divine and what is animal?
Dr. Fu Manchu is just such a monster of the silver screen — supposedly doubly frightening for his feline features and extreme intellect. Where Revelation represents more of a suppressed Orientalism, Fu Manchu is totally anti-Orientalist. Gone from the picture are the magic six-winged beasts that lord over heaven and lend the pale androgens their powers of absolute destruction (whether or not they still count out their cryptic numerology in the boardrooms of trans-national corporations is, however, not clear). The heroines and heroes of Fu Manchu are perfectly white-bread ladies and gentleman, fresh from the Banana Republic outlet store in their oversized safari gear. Their mission, which they accept with unwavering zeal, is to foil the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu's plot to take over the world. The race is on. In order to prevail they must unearth the sword and mask of Genghis Kahn before it gets into the hands of the diabolical genius. There is no attempt to psychologize Dr. Fu Manchu as a perversion hidden in the recesses of the human heart. The villainous Fu Manchu is not the monster within that emerges in the scientific era. Rohmer simply tells us to "Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present..." The movie's overt bigotry is not diminished by the blankness of the monster. What is diminished is the ability of the demon to frighten (which is probably why, for many years, horror movies did not like to reveal their monsters). In order to make the beast truly horrible and frightening it must be differentiated from the norm, and made exotic. Since the effect is generally achieved by idealizing the subject, the monster has to be extra-special — more splendid than the world it haunts. In order to make Dr. Fu Manchu horrible, in order, in other words, to set the villain apart from the rest of the world, the movie monster has to be astonishing, quite literally bigger than life, and is represented as an excess of artifice. The beast literally becomes a caricature of itself: a joke monster! The short-lived Tales of Bizarro World series of Superman comics is a great example of how absolutely idiotic the spoof-villain can get. Bizarro World, as the reader was reminded on the first page of every new installment, is the inverse dimension of our universe. Everything in this world is the exact opposite of the world we live in. The Bizarro World planet is square, baseball players hit the bat with the ball, failure is the highest possible achievement, monsters are hailed as heroes, every building is crooked except the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the U.S. flag is hung upside down, etc. The only really creepy thing about the strip is that Bizarro Superman is rendered crystalline like a pseudo-modernist robot, and the entire adult male population of the planet consists of his identical replicants. Dr. Fu Manchu is, of course, not meant as a spoof. Boris Karloff plays him marvelously and he's intended to look every inch the "yellow peril incarnate." Yet, in constructing the exotic monster, the film has to simulate the very aspect of Orientalism that it finds so disturbing — Orientalism's undeniable allure. It is forced to invent its own artificial version of exotic primitivism; a sense of desire whose exoticism is determined by the monster's excessively indulgent self-caricature — its simulacral otherness.
Humor also inadvertently creeps into Apocalypse, generally resulting from some odd juxtaposition of language in sentences like, "But our modern police-women have no nakedness, they have their uniforms. And who could want to fight the dragon of the old form, the poisonous old Logos, for the sake of a police-woman's uniform?" Otherwise, DHL is railing against Democracy, "Whose motto," he writes "is: we have nothing and therefore nobody shall have anything!" Or, he is promoting the rugged individualist who sets out on his own — whom he calls the "noble aristocrat" — to escape the "meaninglessness" and "powerlessness" of the "modern world." DHL's is a kind of back-to-nature ethos, a preference for ancient knowledge, and his Orientalist take on the vital power of the cosmic life-force is probably best updated by a quote from The Soft Boys: "They say you pass through life, but it seems more like life passes through you." As a consequence, Apocalypse can be difficult to penetrate. Aside from the inherent Dungeons & Dragons corniness of Revelation that practically reads like the latest Marine Corps ad campaign, there is a more general sense in which the Pagan symbology has been received in the West primarily as caricature. From the outset, it is clear that DHL's intention in Apocalypse is to recuperate the pantheism from Revelation. Direct access is, however, as difficult today as it was then. Such a pantheism has not only been subsumed by the morality of Christian dogma (the apocalypse which Revelation describes), it has also been recast in horror movies, pulp fiction, heavy metal, etc. (white culture Orientalizing itself). To regain some sense of the primal meaning DHL is intent upon requires working through the moral metaphor and artificial exoticism of its popular reception.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2001, originally published for the show I Want To Kiss Your Apocalypse the same year at London Street Projects