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Gnosticism and Modernity, Supplement 2
(The following is an essay of mine that first appeared on 24 November 2009, in a journal whose name seems now to elude me; it is also found in my collection A Splendid Wickedness and other essays. I reprint it here so that I need not recapitulate its contents in my final article in this series.)
For my sins, I suppose, I subjected myself last week to all six hours (counting commercials) of the AMC-ITV “remake” of the late 1960’s television series The Prisoner. To persons d’un certain âge there should be little need to explain what the original series was. Somewhat dated in some of its features now, perhaps, and not to everyone’s taste, it was probably—at its best—the most perfectly realized fantasy ever to appear within the deadening confines of episodic television drama.
Conceived by, occasionally written and directed by, and starring the Anglo-American actor Patrick McGoohan (born in New York, raised in Ireland and England, living his later years in California), “The Prisoner” was the seventeen-episode tale of a recently resigned secret agent’s abduction and imprisonment in a surreal community called The Village, governed by some mysterious power on one side or other of the cold war, or perhaps on both sides, or perhaps on neither (we never find out really). It is a community that values and ruthlessly enforces social, mental, and civic conformity, and whose inhabitants have no names, but only numbers assigned to them from above. The protagonist of the tale—called simply “Number 6” throughout—has been brought to The Village, at least putatively, so that his captors can learn why he left the secret service; he, however, refuses to divulge anything; and the drama from week to week consists mostly in the attempts of the community’s leader Number 2 (played by a different actor almost every episode) to overcome Number 6’s resistance, on the orders of the unseen Number 1.
Actually, lest I give a false impression of my age, I should note that I was only four (if I have the dates right) when “The Prisoner” first aired on American TV. My brothers—both of whom are considerably older than I, and even now hobbling into contented senility—got far more from it on its first run. My earliest recollections of the program all center around Rover, the large white rubber bubble (a mechanism or organism of some sort) that chases down and nearly asphyxiates those who attempt to escape The Village. It was only in subsequent airings during the 1970’s that the series made a deeper impression on me. But from fairly early on I was able to recognize the allegory at the heart of the story. The Village was, primarily if not exclusively, a satire upon the modern world. The various attempts of its masters to bend Number 6 to their will almost all depend upon the manipulation of the principal forces of conformity by which the contemporary world—at least, seen from a healthily paranoid perspective—functions: politics, psychology, advertising, drugs, and so forth. And Number 6 represents the indomitable—if not necessarily victorious—sovereign soul, captive but raging in its chains, but also perhaps (it is hinted at the end) a collaborator in its own imprisonment.
Much of the program reflected both the intellectual stance and personality of its creator. Patrick McGoohan was a very likable but fairly flinty soul, by all accounts, with a gift for playing characters with a very sharp edge; he was also a believing Catholic with a deep streak of Christian humanism in his vision of reality, with moral convictions that were firm and non-negotiable. An old story says that he turned down the role of James Bond because he objected to a “hero” whose chief accomplishments were killing and copulating at random. His most famous character before Number 6 was John Drake (who, incidentally, may actually be the same character as Number 6), the protagonist of Danger Man (or, as it was called in this country, Secret Agent), far and away the most intelligent entry in the fanciful espionage genre of the 60’s; and it is remarkable now, when one reviews that program, that its central character—a handsome man in a dangerous line of work—is entirely devoid of any impulse towards brutality or sexual opportunism. And yet, for many of us who came of age watching him, McGoohan was the very quintessence of what it was to be cool.
Anyway, this is a very roundabout way of getting to my more immediate subject, which is last week’s miniseries, in which Jim Caviezel played “6” and Ian McKellen “2” (in this version, the same character throughout). My interest in the program is that of a cultural pathologist only. As a piece of entertainment or a work of fiction, it was pretty irredeemably dreadful. Told in a willfully incoherent fashion, of the sort that makes one suspect the premature issuance of a film-school diploma or two, and culminating in an annoying conclusion, its principal flaw was that it was excruciatingly dull. The first virtue of the original series, which continues to recommend it even to those who are indifferent to its moral allegory, was that its individual episodes were—with a few exceptions only—extremely diverting in their sheer cleverness, with in each case a well-crafted plot inevitably ending in an ingenious twist. By contrast, the new version was an often dreary amble alongside an entirely uninteresting and diffuse lead character through a series of disconnected and tedious situations, whose narrative and moral logic was impossible to discern, or at any rate not interesting enough to be worth trying to discern.
What was interesting, however, were certain of the ideas that inspired—but were never properly realized in—the story. In this telling of the tale, the allegory has become consciously Gnostic. The Village, as it turns out in the end, is not some actual place in our world, but a realm deep within the layers of the subconscious, created or discovered by a dreaming woman who has the power of drawing the subconscious selves of other persons into its meshes. Its purpose is a kind of psychotherapy, by which imperfect or damaged persons in this world are repaired through being captured, strictly controlled, and recreated from within. Its coercions and terrors are all guided by some great moral rationale, as conceived by Mr. Curtis (the terrestrial original of “2”) and his wife, the dreamer who holds the inner realm together.
The Gnostic themes, moreover, are not hidden. It is made clear that the Village contains two sorts of persons: those born there, who can never leave because it is their only home, and those who come from the other world, “up there,” who cannot remember their true home, but who nevertheless often long for escape. The secondary world in which the action occurs is in some sense illusory, the work of the demiurgic 2, who insists that there is no other world beyond the Village, and his wife, the dreaming Sophia who first descended into the previously unexplored abyss of the deep unconscious; in another sense, it is entirely real, as it has the power to contain within itself the inmost personalities (or souls) of those whom it has ensnared—or whom it has rescued, perhaps. There is even a brief harrowing of hell scene, very badly done, as well as a vision of the underlying nothingness (the Gnostic kenoma) above which the illusory world of the Village is suspended. And then, what’s more…
Well, actually there is not much more. It was boring to watch and it is boring to recount. Having gotten hold of a number of Gnostic motifs, the writer of the program (Bill Gallagher) seems not to have known how to do anything interesting with them. Instead, the story simply stumbles towards a faintly nihilistic ending in which Michael (the terrestrial original of 6) is convinced by Mr. Curtis to take his place and to keep the Village running. Curtis does this by playing upon Michael’s compassion, showing him how hopelessly psychologically wounded one of the characters from the Village is in this world, and how impossible to save her from her suffering if she is taken out of the Village. And so, at the end, 6 becomes 2, or becomes 1 (one or the other), and at the end takes control of Curtis’s organization in this world while also taking over the supervision of the Village in the other. And this despite the fact that 2 is not only a ruthless tyrant in the world of the Village, but is also—we learn, or seem to learn—quite willing to kill people in this world to keep his operation going.
This may be intended as tragedy, or as irony, or as emotional realism; it is hard to say, because one does not care about any of the characters in this version of the story, so one cannot sustain the effort of thinking about them for very long. What is disquieting about this particular dénouement, however, is that one cannot be certain that, for the writer, this was not simply the corner into which he had painted himself. The Gnostic elements in the allegory were always there in nuce in the original series (and were occasionally quite explicit, as in the very best episode of all, “Dance of the Dead”), but were made intelligible by the essentially humanist (or Christian humanist) protest at the core of the story, the absolute and bloody-minded refusal of Patrick McGoohan to concede any moral ground to the forces of dehumanizing conventionality, even (and especially) those that represented themselves as therapeutic. The original version of The Prisoner started from the exhilarating moral certitude that there is something inviolable in the soul worth jealously preserving against the temptations of a world that all too easily dulls the conscience and offers comfortable conformity in place of spiritual liberty. Its ending involved certain moral and narrative ambiguities, but it left one with a sense of moral victory all the same, because it seemed to insist, against various modern social pieties, that it is better to be a broken and suffering person than a contented and functioning number: better the fallen image of God than a fully working part of the system.
I am not at all sure, however, that the new version presents us with difficult questions or ambiguous answers, rather than confused answers to foolish questions. At the end of the tale, 6 seems to have been converted to the position that the Village is not ideal, but may have to do until a better way of fixing people comes along, and until then it is a project that can perhaps be conducted in the right way. Perhaps we are meant to see this as a defeat, a final moral subversion of our main character, a bitter comment on the temptation to play God for the sake of others—the final and most irresistible temptation of the noble heart—but that is not the impression one gets. It is just as plausible to see this way of ending the story as a reflection of the uncertainty of its writer’s position. Having established that the Village has a therapeutic purpose, how precisely can one reject the Village as a whole? After all, if it succeeds in knitting together certain broken souls, it might well be a defective but necessary corrective to a suffering world. If McGoohan’s Number 6 represented an ultimate rejection of the therapeutic, come hell or high water, this new 6 may very well represent a complete uncertainty regarding what true liberty or true personality is, and what the relation between the individual and society ought to be, and whether human suffering might best be cured by subjection to the regime of the therapeutic. At the end of the original series, Number 6 destroys the Village; at the end of this revisionist version, 6 rescues the Village from destruction. Then again, maybe I am mistaken and the whole thing is meant as a delightful Origenist allegory, from which one should conclude that this world is in fact a place of therapy for fallen souls, to prepare them to return to the divine. Really, one can read it in any number of ways. But, again, as I have already indicated, one really does not care all that much by the end. Before one can be moved to deep reflection by a story, the story must succeed as a story.
That said, the experience of watching the program—punctuated howsoever it was by my occasional exclamations of “Why the hell am I watching this?”—did leave me with one observation and one question. The observation is simply the one that I made in my earlier column at some length: that the return of the Gnostic imagination is in some sense an inevitable circumstance for us, in our disenchanted world, and this should tell us something both about the nature of spiritual yearning and about the nature of the world in which we are now obliged to explore that yearning. The question though, which I find slightly disquieting, and which does not presuppose any particular conclusions regarding the intentions of the writer of the miniseries, is whether it is possible for Gnostic discontent to coexist peaceably with a certain degree of nihilistic resignation: that is, can the sense that we are imprisoned in a world that defies the aspirations of the soul lead naturally towards a decision for reconciliation with that world and suppression of the soul’s aspirations—or, more simply, a decision against salvation and for therapy? I mean, is this a genuine imaginative and moral possibility? And I suppose, all things considered, that it is.