Sunday, April 06, 2014

Wolfgang Giegerich, Joss Whedon, and the Soul

There is a soul dimension to everything we do. It’s not eternal. It is an attitude, found in between the practical “what’s in it for me?” selfishness and the dogmatic altruism of the religious or political martyr. Those who can appreciate it know a boundless source of hope, even in times of sadness and suffering. [paraphrase of Wolfgang Giegerich, What is Soul?]

Joss Whedon's television series Angel (the spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) talks explicitly about the soul more than any other TV drama. Although in Angel, the soul is hypostatized as a separate essence of a person that continues on after death as with the traditional Christian narrative, there are other elements of the show that imply that the issues of the soul is about this life, and not the Orthodox Christian vision of the after-life:
  1. Angel cannot die naturally, so why plan for something that might not ever happen?
  2. Multiple episodes depict human souls stuck somewhere as ghosts, brought back from the dead, or trapped within various artifacts, implying a more complex narrative than the black-and-white, either-Heaven-or-Hell version preached in traditional Christianity.
  3. Heaven or Hell are presented as places that you have chosen for yourself, not as places you are assigned to by the dictates of some “jealous God” as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Cordelia's time as a higher being is a parody of the Orthodox Christian idea of Heaven. The first line she speaks during her brief stint in the "higher realms" is, "God, I am so bored."  In season 5 of Angel when Lindsay is being held in Hell by Wolfram and Hart. Angel, Spike and Gunn are surprised to find that this layer of Hell is actually a suburban neighborhood where everyone lives the same cookie-cutter day over and over again, condemned by their own choice to conform instead of developing and applying their personal values.
So what does it mean in the context of Angel if we view his soul as being more about attitude than about anything else?

I think Angel has a lot to teach us about achieving a healthy balance between everyday human priorities and soul-level priorities. "Psychology" is derived from the Greek "psyche" for soul and "logos" for science, so in other words, the whole series of Angel can be read as an exploration of social psychology within capitalist society.

In coming posts I will use this lens to explore some of the series’ recurring themes.

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