American Gods, the Starz Adaptation
Reviewed by John David Ebert
In the later work of Martin Heidegger, he developed a theory in which he described how authentic Things “thing” through the resonance of the Fourfold which they activate through their very authenticity: thus, the age old jug or the ancient bridge are not mere objects but authentic Things insofar as they resonate between Earth and Sky, Mortals and Divinities. The commodities of the world unveiled by capitalism, however, are mere objects, not Things proper, objects shorn of any contact with Being. We live in an age, he insisted, of beings abandoned by Being, for the gods have fled from Modernity and left behind a waste land of empty objects and technologically enframed people.
But Heidegger had no interest in popular culture, which he regarded as decadent and degenerate products of Modernity, for had he bothered to investigate it, he would have found the gods surviving alive and well in the pages of pulp fiction magazines and in movies where figures like Tarzan, Zorro, or Conan the Barbarian were thriving–and in comic strips where characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon lived. These, of course, were the New Gods of the Media Age–as I have written about in my 2015 book Gods & Heroes of the Media Age–although the later superheroes of comicbooks like Batman and Spiderman were retrievals of the Native American gods of the New World.
In Neil Gaiman’s 2001 pop novel American Gods, he creates a narrative that makes visible the fate of the gods: the gods of the Old World–i.e. Odin, Vulcan, Czernobog, Ostara–are in danger of fading away and being forgotten, and most especially they are in the process in America of being supplanted and replaced by the New Gods, that is to say, the gods of modern media and technology. These turn out to be characters from television shows like Lucille Ball, or movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, or pop characters like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. The New Gods who form the villains of Gaiman’s narrative–brought more clearly into focus on the Starz TV show adaptation of the novel, which has just completed its first season of eight episodes–also include the gods of technology who inhabit our machines like Technical Boy, or the gods of globalization like Mr. World, played by Crispin Glover. Indeed, it was Rudolf Steiner who insisted that gods, of a special kind, do indeed inhabit our modern machines, and he called these gods “Ahrimanic gods,” the gods, that is, of a materialist world order. Gaiman, with his astral intuition, is simply making visible for us–unconcealing, to use Heidegger’s terminology–what is going on at the astral level of contemporary hypermodernity: the New Gods, the Ahrimanic spirits that inhabit our machines, are indeed at war with the Old Gods and are threatening to replace them and render them obsolete.
So there is a cosmic war gathering, an epic Mahabharata-scale battle of Old Gods against the New Gods of media and machines. It is an interesting fact, however, that Gaiman’s Old Gods are all gods of Old Europe and its colonies: Odin, Anansi (from West Africa), Slavic Czernobog, Ostara (i.e. “Easter”), Vulcan, etc. are all Old World gods. Not one of them is a Native American god or a god of the New World. One does not find, in either Gaiman’s novel or the Starz adaptation, any Mesoamerican gods like Coatlicue or Tezcatlipoca or even the more well known Qetzalcoatl. For the strange fact is that many of these gods–a point missed by Gaiman apparently–have through the mysterious process known as acculturation reappeared in the vestments of comic book superheroes: the Mayan bat god has reappeared as Batman, technically a New God, while Native American Spider Woman and Spider Man have both resurfaced in the narratives of Marvel Comics. The same goes for Wolverine and many other characters such as the villains Sandman and Lizard Man: all are characters of Native American myth who have been absorbed and reterritorialized into the narratives of the New York comic book industry. So some of the New Gods, at least, are really old gods in a new guise, and are indeed still present amongst us.
In my 2010 book Dead Celebrities, Living Icons, furthermore, I there treated the myth of the dying and reviving post WWII media celebrity–characters such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis Presley–as a modern electronic resurgence of the cult of the Catholic saints. Many of these characters, especially Elvis Presley–deemed the first Protestant saint–have taken on the characteristics of the worship of saints, such as the relic fetish–evident in the cult surrounding the personal possessions of Elvis, the mysterious car that James Dean died in, or the lucky coin that JFK rubbed during the Cuban missile crisis–or the tendency to name one’s offspring after them (the names of Elvis, Diana, and James Dean are quite common, as it turns out). So much about these new gods are really retrieving the myths, arcana and rituals of the old gods anew.
However, the gods inhabiting our machines are certainly new, but such narratives as George Lucas’s Star Wars films or James Cameron’s Terminator movies are making these new gods visible for us in characters like R2D2 or Darth Vader. The machine gods are indeed new, and they are wiping out all our traditional values, as Baudrillard liked to point out. Technology is liquidating all traditional values and is inherently nihilistic. The Old Gods are going down the drain along with all those values, and it is difficult to foresee whether the New Gods have any staying power as gods of the future. They may be as evanescent and ephemeral as the eight track tape or the LP or analogue cinema. Once the technology disappears, the god inhabiting that technology tends to disappear along with the vanishing of the medium in question.
And of course that is what Gaiman in his narrative is trying to “unconceal” for us. A war is raging all around us, a war that most of us are hardly even aware of, but which is being brought into high visibility in the narratives of our movies, graphic novels and popular fiction. Indeed, it has always been the job of art to make the invisible visible: that is to say, to make the transformations inflicted upon our environment by new media visible in the form of stress reaction narratives that dramatize the newly configured environments in the form of metaphors and symbols.
The Starz adaptation of Gaiman’s novel is an entertaining narrative that expands Gaiman’s original novel with lots of material not included in it, such as the subplot with Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney, or the episode in which Mr. Wednesday (i.e. Wotan, or Odin) murders the god Vulcan for betraying his and his assistant Shadow Moon’s whereabouts (in the novel this character is known only as Shadow). Odin has only one eye, an all seeing solar eye (his spear represents its rays) while his missing eye was sacrificed at the well of Mimir (i.e. “memory”) for knowledge of the art of writing the magical runes (his missing eye is the moon, which is now suplemented by “Shadow Moon”). The pair are, in turn, a retrieval of the common Native American myth pattern of the Twins, a pair of heroes that characterize such narratives as the Popol Vuh or Where the Two Came to Their Father and who often incarnate and represent the polarized powers of sun and moon, or the warrior and the shaman.
The Starz adaptation done by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green is interesting and entertaining and will undoubtedly run for several seasons. I look forward to its visualization of the novel–its translation from an abstractly visual medium to a sensuously pictorial one, just as the Byzantine mosaic artists made the Word of the Bible visible as the Icon.
The icons, that is, created by our contemporary media constitute the gods, saints and divinities of our contemporary age, and it is a fascinating process to watch how an outsider from Britain, transplanted to the United States, is making its various acculturation processes clear in his popular narratives. Gaiman is a master of these narratives and Starz, so far, has done an excellent job of adapting and making these processes visible for the disliterate masses who don’t like to read (Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century AD remarked that “painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read”). Likewise, we might modify Gregory’s statement to say that our contemporary visual media, such as television, cable and the Internet, can do for the illiterate masses what writing can do for those who read, and so an important narrative excavation of contemporary processes of mythic acculturation thus becomes available to a much wider audience than it would ordinarily ever have.
I look forward to the second season.