Table of Contents
- A plausible 70s theodicy
- Making sense of a mostly absent God
- The problem of evil and the Christian devil
- The naturalized devil of The Visitor
- The incarnation sequence
- The devil is DNA
- Mother of God: natural or visitor?
- Christ tells the backstory
- The plans of tiny gods
- Naturalizing gods as aliens
- God: ameleorative engineer
- God: arrives with the Rocky theme
CSH: We are watching The Visitor (1979). I was thinking: This movie is a bit cheesy and it’s a bit dislocated. But it’s great material for analyzing a perfectly workable mythology:
- It explains evil. Evil is the survival instinct inside limited resources plus the trauma of meiosis.
- It explains our relationship to the divine. It’s that sad one from Christianity. God relates to us as a visitor.
The Visitor is a sci-fi-religious film from 1979 that Roger Ebert called “a masterpiece of modern mythology … on a par with Star Wars.” It was written and produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who wrote and produced the Exorcist copycat film Beyond the Door and some other trashy movies (such as Tentacles). Story elements are copied from The Birds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen.
But the most interesting aspect of the film is its depiction of the Christian god’s visitation relation to humanity. If you are so used to the visitation model that you no longer see it as strange, this movie can help.
Q: What kind of god is the god of Christianity?
A: He is a visitor.
His visit lasts less than 30 years. In the whole infinity of the time of the universe, God visits for a measly 30 years. Less actually—I don’t think the visit counts until he can speak. So less than 25 years. That really is a brief visit.
How neighborly is the Christian god? The Universe is currently 13.82 billion years old. If we define visitation score as the ratio of presence to total time passed, so that total absence scores a 0 while total presence scores a 1, then the Christian god has a visitation score of 25/13,820,000,000, or 1/552,800,000, or 0.000000001808973.
Or: for every one minute of visitation, we have to endure 1,051.7 years of alone time.
Or (to render this spatially): if the volume of visitation were the size of one grain of sand, the volume of alone time would be 55.28 liters.
God’s visitation score is therefore 1 grain of sand out of 55.28 liters of sand. In US units, that’s one grain of sand out of 234 cups of sand.
In certain Hindu systems, by contrast, Vishnu visits repeatedly throughout history on an as-needed basis during times of crisis. In this regard, the visiting god of The Visitor is more like Vishnu than Christ.
God isn’t visiting just to commune. He’s visiting only because there is a problem—evil. Actually there are three problems of evil, but the visiting god only cares about the third:
- First, there is natural evil—that is, it is the source of animal suffering. Evolution produces natural evil in the form of pain, anxiety, danger, disease, and death.
- Second, there is moral evil, or cruelty—also produced by nature. Natural selection selects for cruelty because cruel animals have enhanced survival inside the context of competition.
- Finally, there is an evil agent that sits behind nature who increases cruelty by increasing the frequency of cruelty genes. Specifically, he mates with women and modifies their DNA so that their children are more evil (than average).
So the universe is evil in its infrastructure, evil in the attitude of its animals, and is additionally impinged upon by an evil external agent. For our tiny treatment here, we should give evil a more definite definition. Let evil mean feeling pleasure from destruction and death.
Is there really an evil agent who desires to increase cruelty and suffering? No, there is only an indifferent nature that produces cruel animals—a tendency for matter to organize into selfish sentience.
It is the nature of our universe to produce selfishness and cruelty. This tendency can be isolated and abstracted from its basis and treated as a principle (as Evil) or it can be both abstracted and personified (as Mr. Evil).
Contemporary Christians call Mr. Evil the devil, by which they mean a kind of counterpart to God. The Christian devil is a mixture of earlier characters—Serpent, Satan, Lucifer, and Pan. None of these characters, however, is evil in its original context:
- Serpent: Serpent is very wise—he knows the secret of immortality. The association originated with cavemen misinterpreting the molting of snakes as an act of death-and-rebirth.
- Satan: Nearly all Christians believe that Satan is a source of evil—that he enjoys being cruel himself, and that he encourages others to be cruel as well. But Satan is a character from Jewish mythology, and Satan is not a proper name but an office—Crown Prosecutor in Commonwealth realms and District Attorney in the US. The DA is requited to enact his prosecuting duties. The functions of Yahveh’s offices are generally fulfilled. Angels and demons are generally dutiful bureaucrats. Catholic grimoires, for example, treat them as specialists that have an almost mechanical reliability. But Satan the person—Satan as he really is under his uniform—hates his job. The Talmud states that he roots for Job and regrets having to torture him.
- Lucifer: Lucifer denotes the planet Venus. The Jews had to explain why the third brightest (“most beautiful”) sky light never makes it to the zenith. It must be because it was naughty and tried to start a revolt.
- Pan: Gods of the old religion must become devils of the new. Pan was the most popular god of the countryside and the top competitor to the new Christian god. The best way to deal with gods (or practices) of rival cults is to co-opt them, often as evil. Pigs, for example, were a sacred animal in Judaism until a priesthood squabble inverted their status. Competing gods that cannot be ignored are best coopted as bad- or under-gods.
The Visitor uses a different character, though an analogy with Satan is clearly implied by homophony, named Zatine. Zatine enjoys destruction and death, and infects the material world with pleasure in destruction and death.
Zatine is what philosophers of religion call a super subject—a consciousness that takes other consciousnesses as its object. Of course, we all have a theory of mind and we all see the souls of others alongside their bodies. But the field of perception for the super subject is primarily the experience of other souls.
Zatine takes pleasure in destruction and death and wants to see more of it. He makes good on his desire by weaving his own pro-cruelty DNA into the DNA of humans, thereby making pro-cruelty humans. The Devil enters our world through our genes, and through acts of genetic engineering. Well, crude genetic engineering. He splices our DNA with his own by impregnating women.
Such crude genetic engineering was performed by Yahveh himself. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Holy Spirit (God the Breath) brings God the Son into the world by raping (albeit gently) thirteen year-old Mary. This story helped explain the Johannine doctrine that Christ was God-in-flesh and in turn the Pauline doctrine that the crucifixion was a kind of super sacrifice. But in the context of divine visitation and our interest in God being-with-us, intercourse with God would be an attempt to amplify God’s (genetic) presence in (genetic) nature.
Cruelty is a biological trait. It’s here because its pro-survival. So, question: Why would a non-biological god, one whose traits were not acquired through evolution, be cruel and desire destruction and death?
The answer from a naturalistic mythology like The Visitor is, as we have said, that gods are animals and so have acquired pro-survival asshole traits. If Zatine is cruel, it is only because the physics and biology of his realm has selected for cruelty for its pro-survival benefits. Satan, like Hitler, is merely a function of biology and environment.
The visitor in The Visitor is God the Father, played perfectly by John Huston. God is naturalized as an alien—specifically, an alien with the rank of commander.
In The Visitor, it is the Father who visits while the Son stays at home and runs a kindergarten. The movie opens with Christ telling the backstory to his class.
This inverts the Christian division of labor. In Christianity, God the Father stays home and God the Son visits.
Yahveh knows that Zatine’s genes are in Katie because he saw her soul leave the soul-realm for Earth in a lovely opening sequence.
Behold … Yahveh. Yahveh, standing alone on a dream-like de Chirico plain/plane, takes it all in. But he has come because he sensed the presence of another. This is the Before Birth domain—the place from where between-life agency can effect an intentional incarnation.
Then, in the distance, a figure. Another figure in robes. Another self. A counter, in this case. What arises is an interventional incarnation. Some souls incarnate naturally, via karma, which simply means mechanical necessity. But some souls have internal locus of control even between lives. Some souls have developed perduring self-consciousness.
And so, in a bit of bad writing that contradicts Christ’s definitive lecture, evil is not being propagated through genetic engineering. A soul—a between-life self-steering soul—is incarnating. It is already a mature girl. Incarnating soul theories usually have the soul enter the body when it is a much younger—namely, at the moment when the sperm cell vomits its contents across the egg membrane.
If the soul is a ghost that runs the body by permeating it, then the incarnating soul would have size and form of a fertilized egg. In fact, the soul would be a ghost egg filled with ghostly counterparts of all the egg’s innards. For every atom controlled, there must be a ghostly handle which is isomorphic with that atom.
If the soul were visible, it would be a 0.1 mm diameter sphere, not an eight year-old girl. To save the biological thesis of the film, we can just ignore this late-age incarnation sequence.
The method of incarnation is the classical cover-and-dissolve process used in Altered States and other psychedelic films. It's this one:
It is a lesson on how to leave any domain.
The method is:
- Let yourself be covered by a stuff that constitutes the changing matter of the domain. For example—here, inside the 3-space of this physical universe where you “are” right now, macro-sized objects (dust, planets) are made of atoms in combination. The thing about this world is: atoms-in-combination are always shifting, and every material system is an open system (even, it turns out, black holes). So if you want to experience the thrill of decay and death here, just make your body out of atoms and start the clock.
- Then let the entropy carriers in the domain dissolve you.
Normally, this process is taken purely negatively: a being that is a form has its matter replaced by something soluble, and then this new matter is blown or dispersed. The being of the object is revealed to be merely formal. The “triangle of marbles” does not firmly exist since kicking it destroys it.
But in The Visitor the process is used to transport the formal soul from realm to realm.
The way Zatine carries out his pleasure in destruction and death is by embodying himself biologically. The Devil enters our world through our genes.
Zatine was a mutant. His genes: transformed.
Thanks to competition for food and sex, bio-machines that are selfish and sadistic have a reproductive advantage. If hurting others who get in your way pleasures you, you are more likely to survive moments of vital competition. The Zatine Effect is in no way unnatural.
Moreover, if Zatine himself is evil it is only because natural selection and biology have made him that way. Intelligent animals are still subject to laws of biology and reproductive fitness.
Fara: He spreads his seed. It’s the same seed.
CSH: The seed that Satan spreads is, in fact, seed. Yes! That sums up this film nicely. The seed of Satan is seed—biological seed.
This deflation of evil to biology reminds me of Crowley’s The Devil tarot card, The Devil is a pair of testicles. And in the testicles you see men fighting with each other and with satyrs. They are fighting each other for dominance inside the testicles. Domination is a necessary element of survival thanks to competition for (1) limited resources and (2) sex.
So how does Yahweh (embodying the principles of fairness and compassion) combat biological tendency? He gets birds to kill Zatine. Zatine turns into an eagle and kills all of Yahveh’s birds except three, and these succeed in killing Zatine. But before Zatine dies, he impregnates some women.
That’s the backstory, told by Christ to a room full of bald Italian children.
The Visitor is a symbolist masterpiece for one reason: its consistent use of that electric eagle screech. Every time something bad happens, there’s that screech. It’s very coherent.
A question came up in the movie which is a core question of Catholicism. There is the divinity of what Mary makes, and there is the divinity of Mary herself. Jesus can be divinity only if Mary herself was somehow completely outside the sin world.
Mary is a unique human being in all of human history. But she’s just human. But she’s unique, in that she was born outside of the sin stream. So Mary is a Visitor.
This ambiguity is in The Visitor. Barbara’s metaphysical status is unclear.
On one hand, she is portrayed as someone who is raped by Zatine. Katie is the result of Zatine manipulating the genes of a particular egg—like God the Breath did with Mary.
On the other hand, she is portrayed is someone who carries Zatine’s manipulations permanently, so that every baby she has is special. She carries something of Zatine in her content—something that shows up in her ova but not expressed in her phenotype. Which raises a question: What would it mean for her to be a good-natured person who was physically or biologically Zatine-carrying?
I side with the latter view in this famous controversy. The definitive explanation of Barbara’s metaphysical status is given during the first council meeting held by Zatine’s wealthy human worshippers (capital’s power elite) we are told by the council leader (Dr. Walker, Barbara’s OBGYN) that …
She is the only woman of this generation who carries the genes … of Zatine.
She was assigned to you … so far, without success. We wanna do everything in our power to assist you, Raymond.
And we feel that events in the next few days will help your mission, and that you will achieve our intent.
But we've invested a great deal of time and money in you. And we cannot wait much longer.
We need another child like Katie. Barbara must give birth to a brother for Katie.
Power corrupts, Raymond. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. But we must have that power.
After the incarnation sequence, we cut to Christ lecturing the heavily preteens. It’s delivered in the way that fairy tales are told to children—slowly, crisply, and didactically:
Christ: Once, far away, light years, distances beyond thought, a great, slender ship with a tail of fire slid through the black reaches of space. On that ship was Zatine … a prisoner named Zatine.
Words cannot describe his evil, his criminality.
He had been captured by Commander Yahveh, after decades of search and evasion in a blood-drenched battle that claimed hundreds of lives.
But shortly thereafter, Zatine escaped in a tiny scout craft. A fantastic escape from that spaceship. And soon, he found a hiding place on the planet Earth.
Zatine was a mutant. His genes: transformed. A mutant with a primal wish to kill, but evolved to new psychic and occult powers.
He used these powers to spread destruction and death.
In order to find and destroy Zatine, Commander Yahveh tried many methods. One of these methods was an immense army of birds, trained to hunt and to kill. But when these birds did discover Zatine, he transformed himself into an eagle, and managed to destroy them all … except for three, which survived and wounded him fatally in the brain.
But Zatine, now dead, lived on in another way. Before he was killed, he mated with Earth women, procreating numerous children and thereby transmitting his wicked spirit and evil powers through new generations.
Yet the struggle continued and still goes on. For Yahveh’s descendants pursued the progeny of Zatine lest their contamination spread through the cosmos.
Then, right when Christ says “procreating,” Yahveh shows up at the door with the bad news.
Yahveh walks to Christ in the most beautiful scene of the film.
Before he shares the sad news, however, he sits down with the gaggle of heavenly preteens.
Once he is seated, he shares the terrible news:
Commander Yahveh comes to Earth whenever a Zatine-enhanced human is born. And …that’s it! That’s the whole divine relation to humanity! Zatine tries to increase evil, and Yahveh visits in order to undo these increases.
When things go really wrong, Yahveh intervenes. Really wrong means that Zatine is messing around with DNA. But what about the other two levels of evil—moral evil and natural evil? They are part of nature. God turns a blind eye to them.
This picture of God is called deism, and it’s out of fashion these days because loneliness is systematic and epidemic. For us, the idea of an real but absent god is worse than atheism. Why invent an imaginary friend if you then make a rule that he can never come over? Better no friend than the friend who ignores you.
A really good God would do more than nothing after starting everything. Who plants a garden and then abandons it? We want an interactive god digging into us, at least sexually, but hopefully maternally as well. Our desire for love—that survival-enhancing instinct meant to foster childhood mimetic education—never really evaporates. The belief that X loves you is different from X actually loving you. Real love would include some kind of presence-revealing meddling.
Actually, the picture of divine–human interaction in The Visitor is not one of strict deism, because in a strict deism the deity does not meddle at all. Commander Yahveh does meddle with human experience, but only when Zatine is artificially meddling with DNA. If evil children are born naturally, God does nothing. If massively suffering children are born—anencephalics, cyclocephalics, hydrocephalics, iniencephalics—God does nothing. Earthquakes, bombing campaigns, fires—nothing. Only Zatine-engineered children will bring God’s intervention.
These days the idea of fixing the universe once and for all is no longer plausible. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that will happen. The world cannot be radically fixed. The world is evil because of physics. To rid the world of evil would require ridding the universe of its own laws—that is, of itself. Naturalized gods can only help in physically feasible ways.
In recent times, it has become customary to naturalize traditional mythological elements into plausible (physical) ones. Heinrich Paulus, for example, wrote naturalistic accounts for all the miracles in the Gospels in his Das Leben Jesu (1827). In his Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung of 1906, Albert Schweitzer argued that Jesus’ water walk was a matter of misperception.
Since the 1960s, the gods themselves have been naturalized into animals—intelligent human-like animals, commonly called aliens. To become plausible, religion must become science fiction. Coding gods as aliens lets them exist physically, albeit at the price of losing their absolute otherness.
Gods can exist and interact with us only if they are embodied, and so subject to the One Physics. Gods cannot undo the One Physics without deleting the entire universe. Gods can help us through small acts of ameliorative engineering, but they cannot get at the root of our problems. Gods can increase altruism genes and decrease sociopathic genes, but they cannot make life altruistic at root. Being and selfishness must arise together. Atoms inside the organism exploit atoms outside it mechanically. The mechanics of survival are selfish.
The visiting carried out by the visitor is concerned with one thing. God comes into the world, not to commune, not to prevent suffering, not even to undo genetic evil—but only to undo surplus genetic evil. He comes into the world to find the children of Zatine, purify them, and bring their souls back to heaven—to the very classroom in which Christ is lecturing.
And that brings us to the only and most troubling aspect of the film—one that is highly odd and very interesting. Children can be assumed into heaven, but only the purified evil ones. Only those souls whose evil is trans-mundane because it was created by an evil super subject get assumed into heaven.
Only the children of Zatine can come to heaven. Not the naturally pure, not the naturally evil, but only those who were artificially evil and then made pure by the magick of Yahveh.
This is what makes The Visitor an important film. Everything that comes from nature returns to nature, and can never enter the heaven, a zone of perpetual peace outside of nature:
Jane: Jerzy... where do you go to?
Jahveh: My home, where I come from. It's a lovely place, beautiful and peaceful.
Jane: Beautiful and peaceful. Where would that be?
Jahveh: Far away. Beyond the imagination.
Jane: It sounds wonderful. Jerzy, I'd like to go with you.
Jahveh: I'm afraid no one may enter there except the children.
Jane: I remember. But, you know, I've been around children so long, I think there's something child-like about me. I … I’ve never met a man like you. Ever.
Jahveh: You've been of great help to me, Jane.
Jane: Thank you.
So the relationship between Man and God in The Visitor is a relationship between Man and a person who occasionally reduces worldly evil by purifying children. And the humans that are in heaven are just these children.
That’s the basic structure of the myth. God is the absent father who occasionally visits in order to purify humans who have too much of the mutant gene of selfishness.
What a measly myth. It’s the myth of slight intervention and minimal tinkering. This visiting god isn’t very gung-ho about helping us. He’s not coming in and saving things all at once. He’s more of an ameliorative engineer—just adjusting the artificial selection process a bit. It’s a mythology for ameliorative engineers, just tweaking the machine slightly.
God: Hmmm. It looks like some additional evil DNA has been artificially added to the large amount already there. Well, then it’s time for me to intervene in the reproduction process so I can slow its spread and dampen its effect.
Or maybe—and this scenario is much more likely and encouraging—God’s “visiting” in actual human history will be human beings’ genetic engineering away of their selfishness.
CSH: Do you hear that? This is the action music that you hear when you see God preparing to engineer that DNA. This is the equivalent of the Rocky theme. When saw God’s face appear you heard the blast of trumpets, a la Rocky.
This encouraging music is so embarrassing, but it makes the film so endearing.
CORRECTION: Actually, the music is quite good, it just contradicts the spacey-eerie moode. Here is the full song in stereo (the excerpt above begins at 0:44 below):
At 3:44 the violins do a really great descent series. It sounds like an Ace Frehley guitar solo. It is the best ascending descending cascades I’ve ever heard:
Why am I writing about this?
One day in 1984 I went into my parents bedroom, turned on the TV, and saw this:
A girl playing Pong. My God! Video games hadn’t been introduced into movie plots yet. This was something new. Something was wrong, maybe with spacetime, or art. Humans were doing something new. This was the most important moment in history. A gem of extreme novelty.
I got the TV Guide and looked it up. It was on Showtime. The idiotic description said, “A girl possessed with the power of Satan.”
My first thought: cable guide writers don’t actually watch what they describe. My second thought: I may be in store for some Exorcist calibre sexiness.
I knew a pop-up was nigh. Anytime a young girl says “Mommy” in a sweet voice while looking away (or from behind a door), you know that a climax is coming.
Mommy should know better.
Only a few days before, Katie shot her in the back with a pistol.
Then, her housekeeper (Shelly Winters) told her that Katie was bad before singing a mournful rendition of James Whitcomb Riley’s “Shortnin’ Bread”:
Mom: Oh. Jane, what do you think of my daughter?
Jane: You want the truth?
Jane: She’s bad.
Mom: (GASPS) What are you talking about? Bad? She’s just a little girl.
Jane: ♪ Mammy’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’. Mammy’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread ♪.
While Yahveh (John Huston) hides Katie’s evil from Mommy, he does let her know that she’s being used again to produce a child-tool for Mr. Evil. Which ought to affect her feelings for Katie, her being the produce of devil rape and all.
Then Katie rammed Mommy’s wheelchair—with Mommy in it, and just a day before—directly into a giant aquarium.
Given these recent events, you’d think Mommy would think twice about the kiss idea.
Something bad is going to happen very soon. The TV Guide said “Satan” and I took this to mean Satan, where Satan means special effects and violence. The ensuing blend of supernatural effects with ordinary violence is unique in cinema history.
Soon after this, Katie is killed by birds. Then she goes to heaven: