Matthew Goldin

Cults, Schmaltz, and Gestalts: The Canon of Everyday Life


Imagine you’re at a coworker’s son’s birthday party. He’s showing you and the other guests a slideshow of a vacation the family took the year before to a wholesome locale by the sea, when suddenly the edifying images of tourist sites give way to hardcore pix and gifs of men and women merrily defiling each other. You expect your coworker, red-faced, to desperately click the little remote in order to skip these accidentally included photos, but instead he sits by your side impassively, giving you plenty of time to appreciate each one before skipping to the next. You look to the young birthday boy, who is pensively contemplating a booger he’s just extracted from his own brain. Then, after this interlude, the slideshow returns to the photographs of local handicraft, quaint locals, and historically important cornices.

This is rather what it’s like to encounter the Song of Songs while reading the Old Testament for the first time. It is hard to imagine how such a blatantly erotic poem, one that moreover mentions God only once, was included among more obvious scripture. Most scholars believe that the Song was composed and treated for a long time as a work of popular entertainment. Eventually it was incorporated into the canon. Why? Many scholars believe that the poem’s emphasis on sex and sensuality, while seemingly at odds with religious austerity, was written as an exalted expression of Covenant theology, which emphasizes procreation and lineage above all else (“And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth: and the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters”). But this is a secular-historical understanding of the Song’s canonicity, and it does little to assuage its incongruity.

Theologians of different stamps need find different strategies. Jewish scholars have frequently interpreted the Song as representing God’s love for Israel, Christian scholars as representing Christ’s love for his Church. Since the canonicity of the Song is no longer up for debate, it is and will remain, for believers, necessarily an authentic document. But given the Song’s anomalousness, the burden is placed on different communities in different times and places to interpret, justify, and explain the how and why of this authenticity—hows and whys that are constantly changing to reflect social needs. It is actually the very rigidity of canonical truth that allows for a flexible universal applicability.

But what of open canons? It’s highly unlikely that R. Kelly’s “Remix to Ignition” will become the next book in the New Testament, a groovy follow-up to Revelation. Equally unlikely is the possibility devout followers will find Genesis, after all, to be lacking in the requisite zest, and will discard it as blasphemous apocrypha. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s almost an offensive thought. Indeed, one is often tempted to deride religions that have open canons for being “cultish.” The early Christians were considered one such dangerous cult. These heretical Jews pried open a long-closed canon, the Old Testament, extending their faith from extant documents to God’s continuous revelation. What presumption! What gall! It seems ridiculous today to denounce Christianity as a cult, but many do the very same thing now with the Mormon Church, which believes that God is even now revealing his Word to them. This canonical openness allows room for doubt and debate on the inside and disparagement from the outside.

In Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film Ordet, a father attempts to marry off his youngest son, but is prevented from doing so by bitter sectarian tension with the other family—also Christian. Johannes, the middle son, spends most of the film raving about being an incarnation of Jesus Christ. Apparently he went mad in his theological seminary from too much stress and Kierkegaard. His family and the town’s hyper-modern pastor dismiss his lunatic ravings and gently reprimand him for his unwitting blasphemies. Johannes, however, finds their lack of faith in him quite objectionable, not out of egotism, but because they refuse to believe in the possibility of miracles or an act of God in the present day. Their closed canon, which radiates authority, also allows them to relegate their beliefs to a distant past, and reconcile such beliefs with a quite secular and practically faithless way of life (look to the doctor and pastor’s chummy conversation over cigars towards the end of the film). Furthermore, the very authority of the closed canon is what results in this bitter sectarian tension between the two families; both believe they have that authority on their side. Johannes, however, has no authority backing him up; he, like any cult leader, might very well be just making up a story.

What, asks Ordet, is the difference between a raving lunatic and a prophet? At the end of Ordet, Johannes’ family, in a moment of crisis, chooses to believe in Johannes and, by extension, the possibility of a miracle. The moment they have faith in Johannes is the moment a miracle actually does manifest itself. The literal interpretation would be to say that the family was wrong in considering Johannes a lunatic up until that point, that he had in fact been right all along. But in a film about the power of faith, perhaps it would be more apt to say that until that moment of faith, Johannes was indeed a lunatic, and it is only their faith—a kind of social consensus—that made him a prophet.

Stories, they say, bring people together. But stories can just as easily separate people. Perhaps rather people bring stories together, and they do this to create a world for themselves. An individual story, of course, has a world as its setting, characters to people it, etc. But once people put stories into relation, into a collection or a canon, they manifest a world and characters that exist on a higher plane than the stories that originally gave birth to them.

Dune, the 1965 eco-fiction novel by Frank Herbert, is more than a novel. When people mention it, they are often actually referring to the Duniverse, as the franchise is largely known. The Duniverse [] has a rigidly hierarchical canon. Frank Herbert, as the writer of the first six novels, is considered the main arbiter of canonicity. Then you have the “official, but questionable, canon” of the novels and short stories written after his death by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Readers take these quasi-canonical novels (they were written with help from Frank Herbert’s original notes) with a grain of salt. Then you have the Dune Encyclopedia, written by Frank Herbert’s close friend Willis E. McNelly, who only recently avowed that the work was non-canonical, despite receiving Frank Herbert’s blessing upon original publication. Then there’s the rest of the franchise, about which the Dune wiki says, “Dune movies, mini-series and video games are non-canon but official licensed products.” And lastly, there’s fanfiction, which “has no canonical significance at all and no place in the wiki.” This kind of secular apocrypha abounds online.

Why must there be such regulation? As works of fiction both, there’s no reason why the original Dune novel should be held in higher esteem than the fanfiction, except insofar as Frank Herbert was a better writer than most 13-year-old fanfiction writers. This kind of canonical systemization is understandable for sacred texts, which purport to tell great truths and impart wisdom, but less understandable for mere yarns, which, if they’re any good, claim no such thing. But perhaps we experience all fictions on some level as sacred. I have always wondered, for instance, why a disappointing ending in a film or a novel should upset me, when, in my head, I can easily rewrite it. But the fact is, I simply can’t change the fact that Bambi’s mom was hunted down and slaughtered, even if I'd like to.

My wariness about resurrecting Bambi’s mom for my own sense of the cruelty of her death, stems from an understanding that the Bambi story we all share extends beyond the film itself. It can be said that any story, and especially a collection of stories projects forth its own Universe of Discourse, to take a term from formal logic (I like the term because it captures the idea that a proposition can be true in one Universe of Discourse, but not in another), in which everything proposed by the story within a Universe comes to exist in a circumscribed way within it. But the canon that allows for this independent life is a strict club, and must restrict deviations, not out of some fascist mentality, but in order to ensure the continued existence of this Universe. In restricting stories, the canon also restricts membership—one who does not acquiesce to the authority of the canon risks exclusion from the social grouping that shapes the canon. If I decide to save Bambi's mother's life, I transgress against not only the story but against the shared reality of Bambi lovers.

Fanfiction appropriates the fruits of social consensus for private ends. Indeed, the majority of fanfiction reflects individual fantasies. When I was an adventurous young boy, I used to exchange short stories I’d written with other pre-adolescents on a creative writing club I’d made on my Neopets account. Most of mine were about men mourning the tragic fates of the jaw-droppingly beautiful women they were in love with. To my chagrin, the stories I received in return were almost without exception about Neopets, Pokémon, or Harry Potter. The Harry Potter stories were erotic in nature, and commonly featured unlikely but long-harbored dreams of Ron Weasley and Harry Potter finally hooking up, or The Boy Wizard and Hermione exchanging the kiss of a lifetime. The most disconcerting of these fantasies were about Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, and He Who Must Not Be Named. I was horrified by how naked these fantasies were, though arguably it was because they made me feel vulnerable to the accusation that my own stories reflected my own unfulfilled wishes of mourning for some dead babe. In a hurry to be rid of such shameful private fantasies, I excommunicated the other members of my club and I closed my account, burying myself for the next 10 years in the Western Canon.

By personalizing a medium whose authenticity rests on social consensus, these fanfiction writers were doing something in fact quite radical. It was, after all, my (or rather, our) Harry Potter they were subjecting to hardcore BDSM practices at the hands of the unrelenting Severus. And thus, the limit: no, they cannot do this; the story is closed. The closing of a canon establishes a sharp divide between the truth of the real world and the truth of the universe of that canon, and allows for mutual contradictions in a kind of parallel existence. In Ordet, the families and their sectarian bickering emphasize that canonical truth is a matter of social organization, and that the issue of what to exclude or include extends from books to people. The threat Johannes poses is the threat of an anti-social form of faith, in which the dam-like fourth wall of their universe of devotion breaks open, and God spills into the natural world as a fact.

This serves to explain a kind of sectarian tension that everyone faces, even if one isn’t devout—the canon of stories that makes up ones own banal existence. Like religious sects, it is quite impossible to convey to outsiders the insular truth that a family experiences. Many aver familial traumas perpetuated by those who, to the uninitiated, look like teddy bears; or alternatively, you find the mothers of serial killers insisting, not necessarily on the innocence of the criminal, but on his or her essential goodness. This is gospel. We bury stories and highlight others, and there is always someone at the dinner table who insists on unearthing something unseemly that must be shushed or disavowed. A family, like a sci-fi franchise, is fundamentally fictional, a collection of stories about people who would otherwise have nothing in common, but who take on the characteristics of a group by elevating the same fictions.

To accept that a Universe of Discourse has a fictional basis but nonetheless to find validity in the truths therein—this is a challenge of faith for the devout and the nonreligious alike. Anyone torn between two social worlds, whether the case is that of divorce or a recent immigration, must, to survive, accept the parenthetical nature of their overlapping and contradictory canons. Or sometimes it boils down to having an affinity, like the ancients with their Song of Songs, for erotic love poetry in concurrence with austere religious ideals. For a while, you live in two separate worlds. But give it some time; let the poetry in—or the religious ideals. At the point of synthesis, when the canon swallows what appears otherwise contradictory, the worship of God, like the reading of Harry Potter, can become, for a committed group of fans, an erotic experience.

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