Monday, March 22, 2010

A Long Road Out of Hell: Jacob's Ladder & The Book of the Dead

This is an update of a piece I wrote on Alterati in 2007, and follows up on my previous post about the initiatory crisis. I hope you enjoy it-- and watch Jacob's Ladder!

Like most kids in America, I grew up on the programming that is made available through the mass media. We take it in as a given. The innocence of childhood is not so much innocence as a simple willingness to take in everything as face value. Whether or not it represents a lack of critical thinking, I don't know, but it is a kind of wonder that is incredibly easy to manipulate. How advertisers must wish we could remain so unjaded?

I grew up before the internet boom, even before the real boom of cable television, so I remained relatively inexperienced about what was out there, and what the possibilities of cinema really are. I watched PBS like it was crack, which I guess is somewhat unusual; the rest of my subconscious was populated by the likes of Transformers, or a sneaked peek at Friday the 13th. (Which, if I remember correctly, frightened me much less than it frustrated me at the relative brevity of all the sex scenes.) Movies were entertainment: nothing less, nothing more. I thought the only way to tell a story was from the beginning, to the end. This is precisely the view of movies and television that most people hold throughout their adulthood, from what I can tell.

Then, still relatively young, I saw Jacob's Ladder. I can't remember how. Maybe it was on late night. It doesn't really matter. The main thing I remember is a first inling of a sensation I had never before experienced: gnawing, existential terror. Despite its somewhat lurid imagery, Jacob's Ladder is not horrifying because of what it shows, like Hellraiser, not even because of what it doesn't show, as with Hitchcock's Psycho. It is horrifying because you really don't know how solid the ground beneath you is. If you let you take it in, if you begin to apply it to your perspective of your own life, you might begin to wonder: am I dead already, living in the feverish flash-forward of the impending end? Is my entire life a moment like this, a white-hot moment lived and relived from different angles, a moment simultaneously already finished and not-yet-begun?

This, before I'd ever encountered hallucinogens, before I explored the occult or read James Joyce; this was my first contact with that kind of uncertainty.

At the time, I didn't know why it made me feel so uneasy. Not really. At the time, it seemed like a weird movie about a troubled Vietnam vet who was uncovering some kind of government conspiracy. I wasn't at first aware of the fact that this "story" was just the feverish delusions in a dying man's mind. But I couldn't get the movie out of my mind, I found myself playing it over and again in my mind, piecing it together in different configurations, and then it dawned on me.

Later, I came to understand and to love the idea of a tale that contains many stories or layers within it; a story which changes, like a hologram, depending on where you are standing or what you bring to it. (A non-linear meta-narrative, if you will.) Jacob's Ladder isn't the only instance of this approach, I later found it in Grant Morrison's Invisibles, in Alan Moore's Promethea, a technique changed and rendered differently in the hands of hundreds of different artists. This is an idea and approach to myth and media making that has inspired my work ever since. I can't say it is the technique I employ in every work I've done, but certainly most, and it is one that I hope to master before my eternal moment is finished -- before it has ever begun.

The odd truth is, by the time I had started writing my first novel in my early college years, I had completely forgotten about Jacob's Ladder. It was only by sheer chance that I recently saw this movie again, and was reminded where many of these seeds were first sewn. Now, almost two decades since I first saw it, I could recognize this piece of storytellig for what it really is, and just how much I was indebted to it, (which is not to say I ever stole from it. This is not how inspiration works.)

So let's get to the movie itself, since I've talked around it so much. If this story isn't really "about" Jacob Singer, a man with post-traumatic stress disorder, forced to re-live his past again and again, then what is it about? It is a modern re-interpretation of many of the ideas of the Christian Mystic Meister Eckhart, and the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is about the timeless final passage into the hinterlands which all of us must take - and which, in a manner of speaking, we have already taken. And which we are taking right this very moment. This is the only true hell, which results from clinging to the things of this world as they are stripped away, one at a time. The beings we encounter there, they too will be demons should we resist them.
 Or like Jacob's chiropractor, they can be angels, if we follow the natural order of things and let the bliss shine through. Every character serves as a metaphor for this psychological process: Jezebel, clearly an emissary of the lower realms of lust; Sarah, his wife in an alternate life, Sarah, mythologically, the first wife of Abraham, the princess, and the counterpoint of Jezebel, who could just as well be considered a stand-in for Lilith. There comes a point in film analysis where clearly the analyst is projecting, but there is amble evidence that most of this symbolism is intentional. Even when it isn't, a truly successful work of art succeeds both through intent and as a blank mythic canvas: it is what we say it is.
    In the process of building a modern myth, original sources must be bent and re-worked to fit the new form. Purists will snub their noses at this, but artists should recognize it for what it is: progress and creativity at work. For instance, an original Eckhart passage relevant to the subject of this movie goes:
"They ask, what burns in hell? Authorities [the Fathers] usually reply: “This is what happens to willfulness” [to individual will, self-interest]. But I say it is “Not” [it is the Nothing] that is burned out [that burns] in hell. For example: suppose a burning coal is placed in my hand. If I say the coal burns me I do it a great injustice. To say precisely what does the burning, it is the “Not”. The coal has something in it that my hand does not. Observe! It is just this “Not” that is burning me – for if my hand had in it what the coal has, and can do what the coal can do, it, too, would blaze with fire, in which case all the fire that ever burned might be spilled on this hand and I should not feel hurt." (Speech 5b, DW Ι)
    An interesting point but not exactly riveting material for a screenplay. In the movie, it becomes:
"The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they're not punishing you, they're freeing your soul. If you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. If you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth."
This idea of the dual nature of heaven and hell appears in Buddhism, in Hinduism, and Christian Mysticism. The same can be said for this idea of the duality of angels and devils, after all the root of the words "devil" and "deva" (angel) means "divine." They are the psychological agents of the "inbetween lands," depicted as the River Styx in Greek Mythology. The Bardo is the "inbetween state," the state between here and there. When we reach divinity, or unity, or nothingness, as we choose to call it, there is no room for ego, for separate divinity. All of those things have been burned away. That union is annihilation. As we see in the Jewish tradition, in Greek mythology, and many other places: to look upon the face of God is to be annihilated in fire. Heaven or hell. The end or the beginning. Neither and both. They are right here, if we open our eyes.

The name "Jacob's Ladder" originates from the Book of Genesis, where Jacob sees a ladder ascending into heaven. On the way up, one encounters different "spheres of existence," which were associated by Christian and Jewish mystics alike with the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life. There can be little doubt that all of these inferences were intentional on the par of the script writer and film-makers, they say as much in interviews on the Director's Cut of the DVD.

Psychological facts such as these, which transcend cultural boundaries (even if they wear different garb or go by different names) can truly be called "myths," and so, in the end, Jacob's Ladder is precisely what I mean when I refer to a "modern myth," and say that modern media, and art, can serve as modern myths. They can occur in the public sphere rather than in a pedestal or in some rarified temple in Tibet. They can happen in a place so profane as a movie theater. The producers just need to learn the tricks of the trade to sneak it by the profane gatekeepers that fund such endeavors.


  1. I've been following your posts with an ever increasing interest.
    Your story about Jacob's Ladder made me think of a film which I somehow link with my experience of initiatory crisis. I saw it last year, once. I will watch Jacob's Ladder, and will have another look at Wim Wenders' Palermo Shooting.

  2. hi james,

    found your 'masks 1' piece on reality sandwich. very interesting reading..

    just wanted ta share a thought on this subj inre:
    "Psychological facts such as these, which transcend cultural boundaries (even if they wear different garb or go by different names) can truly be called "myths," and so, in the end, Jacob's Ladder is precisely what I mean when I refer to a "modern myth," and say that modern media, and art, can serve as modern myths. They can occur in the public sphere rather than in a pedestal or in some rarified temple in Tibet. They can happen in a place so profane as a movie theater. The producers just need to learn the tricks of the trade to sneak it by the profane gatekeepers that fund such endeavors."

    i think, that the unbroken line of 'myth' and its eternal archetypes are contained w/in what a dr. livergood defines as 'perennialist philosophy'.

    although livergood tends to reside more in the xtian camp... he none the less has served to me, to solidify my mental wanderings on this subject...and furnish what had been a series of fortunate events' w/a collective term.

    over my lifetime i had noted seemingly disconnected 'popups' of truth & beauty scattered among media from all ages, ancient/classical right up to (at the time) even jk rowling's writings.

    i really had no idea as to a term w/which to describe them, even having cut my baby teeth on campbell...

    it seems, no matter what defilements/profanities 'the current age' heaps over the ideas/ideals expressed w/in perennialism, it still finds finds a way to shine through...

    truth always outs...

    if you're interested.. i'll link to some of livergood's offerings..
    the site is quite original in that, there are many trap doors, dependent on what you seek.. it's a self sorting endeavor.. enjoy :)

    i fell into the site by an alice in wonderland trap door, and thru trial and error blundered my way along to even just find the index...

    p.s. the 'guru' section is a hoot!

    p.p.s. the doc is pretty good about answering emails, if you're so inclined:)



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