Under my byline

D.e.m. clones

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 25 July 2009

Hergé, Prisoners of the Sun

OVERLEAF 39

Trapped by the Inca! For violating the sacred temple! Tied to stakes atop a pyre which will soon be lit by the rays of the sun, concentrated by a lens! But why does Tintin look so calm? Ah, it is because he knows something these colourfully dressed Incas don’t: there is going to be a solar eclipse. Tintin calls out to the sun to hide his face, and lo and behold! the god obeys. Tintin and his friends are saved; nay, they are hailed as demigods by the hapless Incas.

In that sequence from Hergé’s Prisoners of the Sun (1949) the most memorable scene is of the Inca public’s reaction as the sun gets obscured. There they are, scattering in terror in the sudden gloom, mouths agape in mid-yell, hands pressed to their heads, falling to their knees…

Silly. As we know, pre-Columbian South Americans had studied the sun and stars — and no wonder, if they revered the sun as a god. Even if the ignorant masses ran, surely the priests and astronomers would have been expecting the eclipse? So I wasn’t surprised to fail to discover any such deus ex machina-style turning point in the accounts of the Spanish conquistadors.

Admittedly, this was a quick and cavalier search in which I passed an eye over Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain and Agustin de Zárate’s History of the Discovery and Conquest of Peru. A celestial portent, a comet, did precede the arrival of Hernán Cortés in the Aztec empire — but it didn’t precipitate instant capitulation.

The idea of the deus ex machina is typically theatrical. It means, as most people know, “the god out of the machine”. Used as metaphor, it identifies, according to one literary dictionary, “An unrealistic or unexpected intervention to rescue the protagonists or resolve the story’s conflict.” Literally, it is a term from ancient Greek theatre, where an actor playing a god could be mechanically lowered to the stage from the high god-walk, where he would speedily resolve all the mortals’ problems.

Dionysos is a pitiless deusIt wasn’t always pretty — such as Dionysos’s pitiless dispensation at the end of Euripides’s play The Bacchae. That at least suited the context. But Euripides inflicted a much more typical, and frequently commented upon, deus ex machina in his Orestes, in which Apollo arrives on stage to forestall further bloodshed and restore order. One is acquitted, two are married, peace is assured.

It’s not a method the serious writer should use. If one disregards the Christian substance of the Narnia books, as most children will, it seems perverse to go to so much trouble when one roar from Aslan will cure all. And Harry Potter wouldn’t be the Boy Who Lived without huge helpings of deus ex machina. But you also have highly sophisticated use, such as in the final scene of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The thing is, as it evaporates from literature, the deus ex machina lives and thrives in public life. War is a great arena for the deus to play. Suicide bombings, special forces, Predator drones, nuclear bombs. What is the United States’ nuclear umbrella for non-nuclear Asia and Europe, if not a case of deus ex machina? Or the financial bailout and implicit sovereign guarantee for big banks? Commandos from a helicopter? Powerful friends or relatives?

Our rulers, even in democracies, are like gods to us — capricious, they can strike anywhere. Thanks to our own machina, the computer, none of us is out of reach. Responsible citizenship now involves a constant, active self-defence in the face of the over-ample authority of the state. There is a new degree of fatalism in our civic life, a siege mentality more reflective of a paranoid city state than a global civilisation. We seem to be almost hoping for a god to descend and save us.

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