Imagine if we took responsibility for our actions
Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase used to describe a dramatic convention from Greek tragedy. When the playwrite painted himself into a corner, he used a crane or other mechanical device to lower a god-figure onto the stage representing an act of God delivering a resolution. These acts of “god from the machine” are as old as antiquity itself. For Greek tragedy, the acts of gods provide an opportunity to change the fate of cause and effect and create a happy ending.
Imagine the impact of a meme so strong in society. If you paint yourself into a corner, some hand of god will be lowered to change your fate. I can’t think of a tale that doesn’t use some form of this magical convention.
For the Old Testament, when God’s children act poorly, he causes a flood and wipes most his creation away. He is God from his own machine. The only happy ending is for the folks on the ark.
Magical intervention to bring about change permeates our cultural treasure chest of literature.
Snow White is dead, but is awakened by a kiss and lives happily ever after.
Sleeping beauty is awakened by a kiss and lives happily ever after.
In Medea, a dragon drawn chariot arrives after she has killed her children to spite their father. The dragon whisks her away to the safety of Athens, where she lived after.
I believe the sequester was supposed to act like a deus ex machine. Congress was supposed to be so afraid of it, they changed course, and lived happily ever after. It’s an archaic meme stuck in our brains. We want intervention because the hard work of change is just too hard.
I remember sleeping on a textbook in college in the hopes that the book learning would seep from the pages and into my head as I slept. And I would live happily ever after. I hadn’t developed good study habits yet, and actually working for the knowledge was just too hard. I’ve grown since then.
Isn’t the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz” a brilliant image of deus ex machina? I love the part where he is standing there pulling levers, a god of his own machine, and he turns around and is exposed as a regular man. Isn’t it blasphemy? Isn’t is a rich example of looking at the convention of divine intervention for what it is… a device to change fate without the hard work of change?
This meme is so deep in our little Judeo-Christian, post-Greek tragedy heads, that we pray for a Hail Mary pass at every football game. We ask God to bless our team. Put the hand of God over the Raiders! We also expect that we will not have to be responsible for our toxic habits because God will take us away. How cute. Don’t you just want to pinch that cuteness in the cheek?
Isn’t the rapture, the apocalypse, the ultimate deus ex machine? I am thinking of the Catholic church’s inability to look at all their child molestation in the eye. If saving souls for the apocalypse that can come any minute is the most important meme in the brain, why would the long term effects of a few pesky molested kids need to be faced? Put it off. God from the machine will come. Why bother with all those molested children when the message of salvation is more pertinent? Come on Apocalypse…. clean this slate and let’s move on. Maybe a prince needed to kiss the Pope? Or maybe a dragon drawn chariot could whisk him away to the safety of Athens. Where is that lever-pulling Oz guy when you need him?
The thing is, we must be careful about the enforcement of our memes. Some memes close the doors to real creativity, equality and fair solutions. For example, when I was a child, all the princess stories centered around a guy saving the girl from her ordinary, entangled life. When I read “The Paperbag Princess,” by Robert Munsch, it was the first time the meme of passive female without a plan was shattered. This princess slays the dragon herself, but in the process, her dress burns up and she dresses in a bag. When the prince is saved by her, he doesn’t know what to do. His ideology hadn’t caught up with hers! He could only focus on why she wasn’t “dressed right.” He couldn’t accept the change. She didn’t want that kind of limited mindset either. It’s brilliant. If our only meme for girls is physical beauty, we objectify them in society. If our cultural meme says that only men can be in leadership positions, we lose half the brain trust of society. Beliefs are dangerous when they close doors for to equality, or in the case of the Catholic church, justice.
What would happen if all the end timers, preppers, born-agains, evangelicals, Catholics, all embraced that there will be no deus ex machina, and we will have to take responsibility for our own pollution, political wranglings, education and extremism?
The only tragedy of epic proportions is us.