ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON REPUBLIBOT ON 10/27/09
“And the Prophet said, ‘And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.”
—Old Arabian Proverb
quoted at the beginning of King Kong
“It was a woman in the flower of her age; she was so tall that she seemed to him a Titaness, a sun-bright virgin clad in complete steel, with a sword naked in her hand. The giant bent forward in his chair and looked at her.
‘Who are you?’ he said.
‘My name is reason,’ said the virgin.
‘Try now to answer my…riddle. By what rule do you tell a copy from an original?’
The giant muttered and mumbled and could not answer, and Reason set spurs in her stallion and it leaped up on to the giant’s mossy knees and galloped up his foreleg, till she plunged her sword into his heart. Then there was a noise and a crumbling like a landslide and the huge carcass settled down; and the Spirit of the Age became what he had seemed to be at first, a sprawling hummock of rock.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress
I’m sure many of us were surprised by Peter Jackson’s choice to move from the stately world of Middle Earth to the savage jungles of Skull Island. Rather than taking up The Hobbit (the prequel to his monumental Lord of the Rings films), as many had hoped, he opted for a remake of King Kong. Perhaps, having worked with hobbit sized people for six years, his penchant for actors of varying size moved him to want to direct a larger star (trolls, I suppose, just weren’t big enough). That he said no to The Hobbit didn’t surprise me—even I might have been sick of Middle Earth after six years and three films. But why King Kong? What fascination is there to be found in an uber-gorilla, for Jackson or for his audiences? The greater surprise for me came when I began researching Kong’s history. I knew of the original 1933 classic, its 1976 remake, of Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young (and its more recent redux). But I was surprised to find or had nearly forgotten the dozen or so additional spin-offs in film and television, everything from Japanese monster movie Shtick (how could I forget Godzilla vs. King Kong?), to pornographic camp, to a children’s cartoon series. That’s when it hit me. Nothing keeps its pop-culture staying power, especially not for seventy years, but that it some how resonates with the mass, connecting with a large group of people in a way that first defies analysis (even when it was first released, the original film had an impact, breaking all box office records of its day). This Kong thing had to mean something.
Karl Jung gave us the concept of inborn, archetypal (or foundational) images of a universal human unconscious that well up into our conscious understanding through art, literature, myth. And in these images is incarnated a primal understanding of hidden patterns in Being itself. To first view an archetypal image—a serpent, a paradisal garden, a hellish underworld—is to experience something absolutely familiar to us in a picture or story we’ve never before seen. In King Kong we’re presented an archetype as old as Enkidu and the Sumerian harlot in the Epic of Gilgamesh: the Beauty and the Beast myth. But neither Jung nor the great myth gurus Frazier or Campbell ever discovered an archetypal story featuring a giant gorilla (though Jung predicted its inevitable appearance in the title of his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul).
The picture of a mighty ape resonates like an ancient archetype in the mind of modern culture, as if we’ve invented a new element among those rock bottom atoms that form the chemistry of all human experience. Dragons and giant serpents roam our imaginative past. But in 1933 a new image emerged, brought to life in one of the first mythic films in history. In Kong we have a new Beast for Beauty to subdue. He entered our cultural consciousness in the thirties, but his origins harken back to the previous century. And though his image may float in semi-conscious recesses of the imagination, he is born of scientific rationalism, conscious deliberation and cold philosophical abstraction.
King Kong is indeed a mythic story. It is a parable of Modernity, a vision of twentieth century humanity bequeathed to us by nineteenth century thought. In short, King Kong is a parable of nineteenth century thinking’s legacy to twentieth century culture, what we call Modernity: a vision of man which elevates us to godhood while turning us into animals, which raises the human spirit to the heights of Divinity, but which it can only do by denying the existence of Humanness and Spirit. It builds a tower to heaven, our own Empire State Babel, but forever denies the Beast the heavenly bliss of marriage to the Beauty. King Kong is the story of Modernist man’s vision of what human kind is: a mighty god who turns out to be an oversexed gorilla.
Transcendence or Ascendance
The difference between Pre-Modern and Modern thinking has been described in terms of dichotomies: faith vs. skepticism, superstition vs. rationality, religion vs. science. All wrong: examples of what Owen Barfield called the modern predilection to “chronological snobbery.” The real difference has been a top down vs. bottom up approach to pursuing knowledge.
Pre-modern thinking was dominated by a belief in Transcendence. This isn’t merely a belief in God and religious faith. Plato’s philosophy, foundational to Western thinking, argued that everything from abstract ideas (like Reason, Truth, Justice and Goodness) to physical objects themselves was rooted in a higher, Transcendent reality. Knowledge, in their paradigm—their complete system of thought—was a thing to be discovered not determined. The paradigm shift began with René Descartes (1596-1650). Again, the change did not come because of science or skepticism but because of an epistemology?, the Cartesian approach to knowing. Descartes shifted the seat of knowledge to the individual human mind. He did not, himself, reject Transcendence; he initiated a methodology of thinking that would lead others to do so. The resulting paradigm, born of the Enlightenment, was Modernism and the bloodiest century in human history.
King Kong is a parable of that paradigm.
Darwin and the Ape
Carl Denham, maker of adventure documentaries, takes an expedition by ship to the South Pacific. His goal: to make “the greatest picture in the world, something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of.” How like Darwin who, a century before, documented creatures unseen in his South Pacific sea voyage to the Galapagos islands. What he returned with was indeed something no one had ever heard of. We cannot underestimate the impact of Darwin’s Origin of the Species on Western thought. Though alternatives to Divine Creation had been entertained in the history of philosophy and the shorter history of science, none of them were taken seriously. Certain questions are foundational, among them the question of Existence. Till Darwin, the most widely received answer was a top-down answer: the Immanent (or immediately visible) universe was rooted in a Transcendent source (primarily thought of as a Creator God). But Darwin proposed an intellectual framework for biological processes which eliminated the necessity for a Divine/ Transcendent/ Non-Materialistic origin to the universe. He suggested a bottom-up explanation for existence, an idea no one had ever before “seen or heard of.” Like the New York marquee’s description of Kong, Darwin’s theory was a veritable “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The Darwinian element of the parable continues in the description of the island. It is, first of all, a place known by its most prominent feature: a mountain shaped like a skull. Certainly among the chief images that shapes evolutionary vision are skulls, so-called human-ape hybrids argued to be links in a chain of natural history dug up by heroic Leakey’s in Africa (where Denham made most of his movies). Furthermore this island contains a wall built in the ancient past by a forgotten civilization but kept in repair by superstitious natives who fear what’s on the other side: a Darwinian past—a primordial jungle of dinosaurs and death. The wall stands as the metaphor of superstition and rejection, of a Gothic civilization intent on hiding itself from Darwin’s evolutionary cosmos (and Freud’s animalistic Id, as we’ll see).
The ship’s captain and first mate ask Denham what it is the natives fear behind the wall. Denham replies that it is something “neither beast nor man.” That’s what Darwin gives us: humanity no longer born by Divine spark in a paradisal garden but by survival of the fittest in the jungle slaughter house of natural selection. The ship’s crew experience this world first hand where more than a dozen deaths are dealt out among people and beast alike (it’s a wonder enough dinos survive on the island to propagate with Kong on his constant killing rampage). The crew proves unable to survive (all but two), apparently having lost too much of their animal nature. Most important, though, is Kong, “neither beast nor man,” symbol of the Darwinian definition of the human race handed to the twentieth century. Humanity descends from its special place in God’s creation but rises from the slime to stand on his own two feet (homo erectus indeed), a king of the natural world, like Kong, the anthropomorphic ape (he smiles, grasps his throat, and rubs his eyes like a human) who loves the beautiful woman. Darwin’s gift to Modern Man’s self-myth was a vision of man as neither man-the-Divine-creation nor merely insignificant beast..
Nietzsche and the Giant
Nietzsche’s contribution to the Kong parable was the death of God (which doubtless came as a surprise to the Almighty). Nietzsche saw, in Darwin, the foundation for the destruction of top-down morality. In a biological explanation for existence, a whole new ethical system was required. With God no longer necessary to explain the universe, not only should the moral foundation of culture shift, but morals themselves. Every Transcendent thing—God, Ideals, Morality—was human invention. Reality was survival of the fittest, and the new morality had to be born of this reality. The will to power was Nietzsche’s new ethic. He claimed that Christianity had given rise to the good of the masses: values like meekness, long suffering, and forgiveness in which only the unprivileged, the disenfranchised could find solace. The new Darwinian world proved that the values of the privileged, the aristocratic few—power, aggression, ascension—were true to human history.
But of course such ethics are only for the privileged few. Selection of the fittest means that some must rise above the masses. In fact, the goal of humanity ought to be the purposeful continuance of their evolution: the production of the Superman. This is not the elevation of all men to greatness; aggression and ascension mean the few will rise above the mass, will step on common men to do so (as Kong literally does). God is greatness, conflict, war, and the sacrifice of the many to the will of the one. This Superman, this giant among men, is Nietzsche’s final ethic. Freedom and democracy were its great enemies. By hindsight we know that he laid the philosophical foundations of Fascism.
The parable of Kong, then, is a parable of a giant, kicked up from the average by Darwinian processes, a giant among men, a god. Says Denham, “Did you ever hear of Kong?”, to which Captain Englehorn replies, “Why, yes. Some native superstition isn’t it? A god or a spirit or something?” This is when Denham says it’s something “neither beast nor man,” and continues: “All powerful, still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear.” In Kong, the human spirit is elevated to godhood; however, since Darwin has eliminated the divine spark in humanity and Nietzsche the existence of Divinity, the giant is an anthropomorphic ape, a homo-gigantus whose only Transcendence is extreme savagery and strength. In true Nietzschean fashion, however, modern man conquers this god. Seeing the strength in Kong, Englehorn says, “No chains will ever hold that.” But Denham replies, “We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world. But we’ll teach him fear.” Nietzsche rejected God and freedom and chained Modern humanity to Materialism and power. They drag Kong to a new jungle, one of steel and concrete, where, true to prediction, he cannot be held. Superman, the great Darwinian Beast, breaks his chains to wreak havoc on the lesser creatures of his new realm and climb the jungle heights of Manhattan. Using Darwinian nature, Nietzsche gave Modern Man a vision of himself as capable of replacing God. But once God has died and Transcendence with Him, Man’s ascent slams into the ceiling of his material, his natural self. And as big as that self may be, it is, in the end, still only an animal.
Freud and the Rape
And according to Sigmund Freud the animal is a horny one. If Darwin killed creation and Nietzsche God in Modernist thinking, Freud killed the existence of a human soul. As Darwin believed that humanity ascended out of creatures less complex, so Freud believed that human personality ascended from unconscious regions of the mind (or we might more accurately say brain since a completely Materialistic view of the cosmos must deny the existence of a mind). At the base of human personality was a subconscious Id which, like its animal predecessors, was chiefly concerned with survival and procreation. All human behavior, in Freud’s thinking, could be reduced to sex and aggression: dominate your environment and continue your species—survival of the fittest. Morality and civilization, then, were mere products of a more evolved Superego which struggled to keep the Id in check.
Freud’s vision of the human animal is a perfect example of Modernity’s rejection of Transcendent vision—seeing reality from the top down—in preference of a bottom-up approach. At the beginning of this essay, I quoted from C. S. Lewis’s philosophical allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress. In the story, the giant “Spirit of the Age” is challenged by the beautiful woman “Reason” to solve a riddle: “By what rule do you tell a copy from an original?” The giant cannot answer and is slain. Lewis said every age had a blindness, a preconceived way of looking at reality of which the people of that age were completely unaware. Among others, the great blindness of the twentieth century West has been a failure to know the source of human Ideals and experiences.
Where, for example, does love come from? Do human beings love because love is an evolutionary inflation of the instinct for sex, or do they love because Love is a quality of Spirit that permeates the universe from the heights of heaven (or, if you prefer, from a higher Transcendent Reality) down to the very act of biological procreation? Is morality the product of a herd instinct—an attempt by the mass of human animals to control the alpha males—or is Goodness an absolute, a Transcendent Concrete as real and necessary for governing the human condition as are the laws of physics? And what about our longing for an afterlife: is it simply the survival instinct gone steroidal in an over-developed cerebrum, or, is it that, just as hunger proves the existence (if not the immediate presence) of food, so our hunger for Transcendent Life proves its existence and attainability? Whence the copy, and whence the original?
We can look at reality from the top down, with Plato and Christ and the long standing vision of Pre-modern thinking: Beauty, Goodness, and Love are Transcendent Realities, more real than atoms, more dense than a collapsed star. Or we can look at reality from the bottom up with Darwin and Freud: beauty and love are illusions of an over-evolved sex drive; morality and spirit are illusions of an over developed survival instinct. They are all mere wish-fulfillment. So which is the copy, and which is the original?
Kong is a creature built from the bottom up at the art-deco height of the Modernist vision when Nietzsche’s own hideous creation, Adolf Hitler, had only begun his rise to smash the utopian longings of the age. Kong is the beast of the Id, whose longing for the beautiful woman is mere lust. She exists in the story to satisfy voyeuristic desire. Without her there can’t even be a movie: Denham: “Alright. The public wants a girl, and this time, I’m gonna give’em what they want.” And though Denham swears to Ann that he has only honorable intentions, Driscoll, the ship’s first mate, understands the disturbing power of her sexual presence on board an all-male sailing ship. She is a “nuisance” and the ship is “no place for a girl.” Women, he claims, “just can’t help being a bother. Made that way, I guess.”
Yes, made (through natural selection for the sake of survival of the species) to raise male sexual desire and its accompanying aggression by their mere appearance. The crew gawk at her from every available perch. Denham notes that, once even the toughest man “gets a look at a pretty face,” he inevitably “cracks up and goes sappy.” Voyeurism and the woman reduced to image, to property, become dominant themes in the film. Denham is on a life long quest to capture images. He admires Ann’s choice of the “Beauty and the Beast costume” which she chose because it was the “prettiest.”
When they arrive on the island, the “white men” (and woman) of the West are witness to a marriage ceremony. “Holy mackerel, what a show!” exclaims Denham as he tries to capture the images on film. But the bride is more property than person, a half naked sacrificial offering to the desires of the island’s hairy king. When the tribal chief sees Ann, he offers six of his own women in trade. When he is refused, he later exercises his role as alpha-male and takes her against her will. In a ceremony that looks as much like an orgy as a sacrificial ritual, the natives offer Ann as a bride to Kong.
Kong’s anthropomorphic expressions—wide eyes and wide tooth-filled smile—indicate that he is as attracted to Ann as any man. He protects her with furious vengeance and, upon reaching his mountain top cave, strokes her body with a clumsy finger, tearing off pieces of her clothing (the sexual imagery is even more obvious in the Kong remake of 1976 where the heroine ends up topless and Denham’s counterpart Wilson flat out says that Kong “raped” her). Thus, the “Beauty” in this Beauty and the Beast story is an object of lust, obtained by violence, and possessed for the purpose of rape.
The theme of satisfying voyeuristic lust does not end in the movie with the rescue of Ann. In a role reversal, Kong becomes the object to possess, an “eighth wonder of the world” held in chains to be ogled by Western audiences. Denham steps out on stage in a Broadway theater and says to the audience, “I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization, merely a captive, on show to gratify your curiosity.” The power of the Id subjugated by the civilizing Superego for the sake of gratifying lust in a civilized veneer—the “lust of the eye.” Neither man nor beast, Superman that is only an animal, creature of the Id whose only desires are sex and aggression—Kong is the image twentieth century Man had of himself, received from his nineteenth century fathers.
Beauty and the Transcendent
Is it merely wish-fulfillment? Our longing for greatness may be born of sub-conscious aggression, but perhaps its source is a Divine spark in a truly existing central soul. And Love may be born of the sex drive to procreation, but perhaps its roots are eternal. If there is a single best argument for the existence of Transcendent Powers governing human being, it is another human longing: the desire for Beauty, a hunger which a bottom-up approach can explain but not in so compelling a way as to satisfy our experience of it.
King Kong is not merely a story of a beast. There is a beauty in the equation, and the film itself belies its Modernist vision. Neither Kong or Driscoll, nor perhaps even Darwin, Nietzsche or Freud, can long stand against the Beauty that is Ann. You see, “the public, bless’em, must have a pretty face to look at,” and there isn’t “any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it” (says Denham). But what do romance and adventure have to do with Darwinian biology or Freudian psychology? Sex and aggression I suppose. Over-evolved desires turned into wish-fulfillment. Except that those desires cannot explain actions that go against the instincts for survival. As the proverb at the film’s beginning suggests, Beauty can kill the Beast.
The controlling theme of King Kong is spoken by Denham in reference to his own movie: “It’s the idea of my picture. The Beast was a tough guy too. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him.” The “little fellas” are Nietzsche’s mass/majority who try to contain the Superman. The “wisdom” is the philosophy of man handed to Modernity by Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. And the Beauty is that longing for Transcendence that defies the wisdom of Materialist Man. Most especially it defies his sense of self-preservation. Backstage before the New York show Denham tells reporters, “Kong could’ve stayed safe where he was, but he couldn’t stay away from Beauty.” Modern Man rejects Transcendence and then risks captivity in his quest to have it back.
Ann is the “golden woman” to the island natives, more valuable than six normal women. She is the figure of Divine Presence at her marriage to Kong: In one moment, as we look back through the doors at the altar to which Ann is tied—this just before the doors are shut—her outstretched arms and S-bent form mimic the figure of Christ in traditional crucifixion images. More than the object of lust, Ann is the object of longing; she is heaven come to an earth which has written heaven from its rational belief. Consider her power even on our popular culture: Few people remember the names Robert Armstrong (who played Denham) or Bruce Cabot (Driscoll). Conversely, the character name Ann Darrow is all but lost while the actress Fay Wray endures in name in our cultural memory as the Beauty who tamed Kong.
That the longing for Beauty is not merely lust is evident in the film during the scene where Kong finds a woman he thinks is Ann, pulls her from her hotel room, and, upon seeing that she is not his Beauty, drops her to her death. Shortly thereafter, he finds his true love and makes his best escape.
Hear Then the Parable…
King Kong is a parable of Modernism, specifically of the definition of humanity handed to the Modern world by its nineteenth century intellectual forefathers. Kong is Modernist Man, rejecting Transcendence and God and thereby elevating himself to the place of godhood (of power) by reducing himself to the place of an animal. Simultaneously he loses those Transcendent concepts—Beauty, Divinity, Goodness, Love—which gave his life meaning while longing to have them back.
The parable culminates atop the Empire State Building, the Babel-like tower built by Modern Man to his own godhood. There Kong climbs to the edge of heaven, that high throne like his island mountain, only to find that heaven in gone, replaced by a naked sky populated no more by winged angels, nor even living Pterodactyls (a creature from which he could easily save his Beauty). Instead demonic bi-planes, lifeless machines, now inhabit his cosmos; he cannot defeat the Materialist world he has created where all life is but machine and thus the strongest machines shall claim godhood over him (precursing visions of The Matrix here?). Having rejected Transcendence, he can neither keep his throne of Divinity, nor join in marriage to his Beauty. He cannot save her, and so he leaves her atop the unconquerable tower, lost forever in clouds of hope to his evolutionary jungle. Like Lucifer, he falls to a hell of his own making (but that was only a fable, wasn’t it?—and this only a movie), there to die and become meat for the survival of the fittest worms.
Modern Man began to die in the sixties, though a few intellectual vestiges yet remain. But if we do not learn the lesson of the Kong parable, we will suffer. It will not be the Modernist nightmare—Nuclear holocaust—that kills us, no longer machines that fly. Nor will it be religious fanaticism as many in a post-9/11 world fear may be the case. Religious fanaticism gives us the paradoxical horror of holy war, but Secular/Materialist fanaticism gave us Hitler, Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and forty million dead. This is the lesson of the Kong parable: the real danger is a return to philosophical systems that reject Transcendence for Materialist/Evolutionary visions of humanity and morality. To reject Beauty is what will kill us. Such is Denham’s profoundly sappy conclusion: “Oh no; it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”