Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Whedon, Rimbaud, and Cicero: Introduction to the Angel Rewatch

Moi ! moi qui me suis dit mage ou ange, dispensé de toute morale, je suis rendu au sol, avec un devoir à chercher, et la réalité rugueuse à étreindre ! Paysan !
Arthur Rimbaud, Adieu, Une Saison en Enfer

Before we talk about the pilot episode of Angel, I want to consider a couple of keys that I think help unlock the character Angel's place in the milieu of Joss Whedon's Buffyverse. But first, a Very Brief Discussion of the history of literature, especially as it relates to the Gothic and horror genres.

Gothic literature was profoundly influenced by Romanticism, and the philosophical search for meaning, elevation of imagination as a virtue, humanity's eternal quest for perfection, and the perpetual struggle to overcome our own darkness and internal failings. It's no coincidence that we associate the Romantic movement in literature with an age of political revolution. The Romantics were greatly motivated to explore and present nature as theme and as metaphor. A Romantic writer, then, was more concerned with capturing the beauty of the butterfly outside the window, and riffing on that butterfly as an elaborate metaphor, than he would have been concerned with catching, pinning, and dissecting the poor little bug, then drawing elaborate diagrams and writing detailed descriptions—which would have delighted the Neoclassicists, just previous.

From the Romantics evolved the Decadent movement, particularly in France. Oscar Wilde might be the best-known English representative of the Decadent movement, though, if (like me) you don't spent a lot of time reading late 19th century French poetry. These were the poets and writers personifying sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll in their lives and art. Marked by cynicism, self-loathing, paradox, artifice, excess, fascination with death, self-indulgence, shock value, and really fabulous costumes, Decadence was simultaneously a parody, an exaggeration, and a rejection of the more naive age of Romanticism from which it grew.

Moving right along, because we've now pretty much exhausted everything I know about late 19th century French poetry, the same way gothic literature evolved from Romanticism, the contemporary horror genre owes much to the Decadent movement. The horror genre especially grows directly out of the 19th century Decadence movement and its obsession with artifice over nature, and an increasingly urban population's rejection of and alienation from the simplicity and rustic ideals of Romanticism in favor of embracing carefully-staged perversions, taboos, and shocking excesses. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and Guy de Maupassant directly informed Bram Stoker's Dracula. Published in 1897, Dracula essentially defined the contemporary concept of vampires; in turn, the novel directly influences and informs Whedon's Buffyverse. That, finally, brings us to where we'll begin discussing Angel.

BtVS and Angel are a contemporary take on ( and a particularly American take, at that) Gothic and horror storytelling. (You won't catch me saying "post-modern" because mostly the term just kind of pisses me off for reasons I won't bore you with, here.) We can make a natural connection between the Buffyverse and previous writers of gothic or horror literature and film; from that connection, then, there's a clear lineage from the Decadent poets in general, leading us to poet Arthur Rimbaud, in particular. Indeed, Angel will make specific reference to Rimbaud repeatedly later on in season one. I cheated and watched ahead, so I know this to be true.

Rimbaud wrote an extended prose poem called A Season in Hell dealing rather bitterly with most of the over-arching themes we've seen Angel grappling with throughout his appearances in BtVS, and we might reasonably expect to see further developed in Angel. By the time Angel opens, we've been introduced to the Angel/Angelus dichotomy during season 2 of BtVS. We've also been introduced to Angel's agonized and tiresome soul-searching and perpetual brooding about his own essential nature. Season 3 of BtVS is Angel's final season, so we're going to look back just briefly at what we've been told about the character, before he apparently has the ultimate mid-life crisis at nearly 300 years old, leaves Buffy, buys a convertible, and moves to LA.

The central question informing the character of Angel is asked during season 3, first in the episode "Amends."  Angel's been having really bad dreams. Except they're also teh sexy and over-the-top with all the blood and pain and dying and the—wait for it—decadence of Angel's sordid past. So a suicidal and tormented Angel asks Buffy (BtVS, season three, "Amends"), "Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I a righteous man?" (You can watch the BtVS free streaming episode "Amends" online, here, until July 1, 2010.)

There are a couple of immediate associations with "righteous man" that are dead easy for us to make, from our seats here in the cheering section. First, since we're already thinking of decadence, there's Rimbaud's "The Righteous Man" and then by association the deeper exploration of what it means to be a tortured man in his famous "A Season In Hell."

The second association is rather more contemporary, and that's the Pulp Fiction fake-quote atributed Ezekiel 25:17, delivered by Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson):

Jules: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

Then, if you've seen the movie, blam blam blam, blam blam blam, the guy tied to the chair—the guy Jules is talking to—gets shot to rags., leaving us to conclude that the righteous men are the ones with the biggest handguns and wittiest dialog.

Now, there are a great many time-honored stories about violent men who are also, paradoxically, righteous. Cú Chulainn, Gawain, Arthur, Natty Bumpo, and more recently, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. This brings us right to where we can begin to consider Angel without the lens of Buffy's teenaged crush on him; we can now consider the ongoing question: Is Angel a Righteous Man? Just what constitutes goodness is a central question to Western literature and philosophy, famously posed in quite straightforward fashion by Cicero, who argues that goodness is defined by a combination of careful attention to duty and personal virtue.

So next post, when we approach the pilot episode of Angel, Season One, "City of Angels," it's with the question of what constitutes a righteous man firmly in mind, and with an eye out for various genre conventions related to soul-searching, violence, decadence, romance, and great clothes.