Specifically, has the Pope read Ex Machina numbers 32 and 33? I wonder, because the very day after I had put down issue #33, in which the man-machine hybrid Mayor Hundred undergoes a forced exorcism by the Pope, I read the news that Pope Palpatine--or whatever his name is--will be introducing new "exorcism squads" to fight the rise of godlessness and the occult.
This "Say No to Satan" campaign will be led by the Chief Exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. It's too bad that the AMPTP is allowing the writers' strike to drag on; I think these exorcism squads could be the subject of a S.W.A.T.-style drama, with special guest targets like Christopher Hitchens and J.K. Rowling.
Perhaps the timing of Ex Machina's storyline and the Pope's announcement was just synchronicity (a godless concept, I'm sure), since I just encountered an instance of exorcism in the novel I'm currently reading as well. The novel, Trance by Christopher Sorrentino, is set in the 70s and includes a passing reference to the bestselling book, The Exorcist, which it describes as being about authority figures trying to change a young girl's personality.
I mention this third instance of exorcism because it dates from a time period, the early 70s, that has many interesting similarities to the current period in U.S. culture and politics. Why is this significant? Well, as Fr. Gabriele Amorth states in an excerpt from his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, there are times in history that are more oppressed by Satan. I find it fascinating that Amorth points to another period often compared to our own, the period of Rome's decline:
Even if this battle against Satan concerns all men and all times, there is no doubt that Satan's power is felt more keenly in periods of history when the sinfulness of the community is more evident. For example, when I view the decadence of the Roman Empire, I can see the moral disintegration of that period in history.
Amorth sees "decadence" as the point of connection between today and the end of the Roman empire. I'm sure he'd find the early 70s, once dubbed the "me decade" for its individualistic (or narcissistic) concern with human potential, were morally decadent, although Amorth is quite approving of both the book and movie versions of The Exorcist, artifacts of that era. So there is one conservative interpretation of a connecting thread between these three periods.
One doesn't have to stretch to see political connections between the 70s in the U.S., the U.S. present, and the late Roman empire. The continuing debate over presidential impeachment, the comparisons between Nixon's and Bush's approval ratings, and the presence of former Nixon administration officials within the Bush White House make that part of the equation a no-brainer.
The last several years have seen a profusion of dramas and documentaries about the rise and fall of Rome in which comparison to the present is implicit. The HBO series Rome, which recently covered this subject matter, took its inspiration from the famous 70s series, I, Claudius. One of the most pointed documentaries I have seen linking the Roman empire to present day designs on empire is the four-part BBC series billed as "an alternative history of Rome," Terry Jones' Barbarians.
A mashup of these three periods in history results in quite a vision of the powerful under pressure: Pope Benedict XVI herding the diminishing faithful under increasingly authoritarian doctrines; the Romans deploying their army and an arsenal of rarefied torture techniques to subjugate the far-flung nations and peoples under their rule; Nixon's stonewalling under the scrutiny of the press; U.S. neoconservatives' brute use of propaganda to deflect and contain criticism.
But now let's turn away from the powerful and towards the voice that must be silenced, exorcised, disciplined, or reprogrammed. There's Regan, of course, the possessed girl of the Exorcist. Women often stand in for the demonic in patriarchal religions; she is a demon's most conducive host. (And a casting natural: women played the role of the devil in the Catholic horror films The Exorcist and in The Passion of the Christ.)
But more importantly, women are the voice of hysteria, and it is their image in popular culture that the voice of society's hysteria can be heard. Women like Linda Blair's character, Regan, who are seized and possessed by the public. Women who are, to be sure, interesting in their own right, but become sensations for their ability to stage the public's fear and anger, to vomit the culture's resentment and loathing into the face of unjust power and authority.
There are other women in 70s popular culture who serve as vehicles for public hysteria: kidnapped and converted Patty Hearst, whose free will became a national obsession; abused Sybil, whose shockingly multiple personalities seemed to mirror the emergence of variant and controversial lifestyles existing outside the confines of the traditional and fragmenting family unit.
Rome in its decline had many female virgin martyrs--thousands, according to legend--whose crimes of declaration inspired many creative applications of torture. Today, we have Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, celebrities whose main role appears to be acting out the culture's embrace of and revulsion towards material excess. It is a cycle of hysteria that, like Regan's head, spins round to look you right in the eye.