Monday, March 21, 2011

Kennedy Goes Galactic - Televisual Imagery, Mythology, and Cultural Consciousness

tags: Grail myth, imagery/symbolism, , media, assassination, television

The Zapruder Film - The first time it was shown on national TV. 

“This last voyage on the Roc? I’m too aware of all the archetypal patterns it follows. I can see myself now, turning it into some allegorical Grail quest. That’s the only way I could deal with it, hiding all sorts of mystic symbolism in it. Remember all those writers who died before they finished their Grail recountings?...The only way to protect myself from the jinx, I guess would be to abandon it before I finished the last” (Delany 241)

It’s hard to imagine a way in which Samuel R. Delany’s allusions to the quest for the Holy Grail could possibly be more blatant. After Katin specifically recalls the way in which so many portrayals of the Grail myth have been incomplete, and then contemplates writing a retelling of the myth without completing it in order to avoid the jinx, Delany himself leaves his story incomplete – heavily suggesting that the reader consider the story of Nova itself to be, on some level, itself a retelling of the myth.  

But what does it mean to write a novel whose “plot is derived from the legend of King Arthur and the Holy Grail”, as Jasmine has described it? The search for the Holy Grail is the ultimate symbol of a difficult and challenging quest that requires the seeker to prove his spiritual purity and worthiness before reaching the object of his pursuit. But as with all things surrounding the legend of King Arthur, there are few other aspects about the Holy Grail that remain unchanged from one retelling to the next. Most agree that it is some sort of sacred vessel with miraculous powers and that it has some sort of association with Jesus and the Last Supper. Beyond that, most elements of the tale seem to be up for grabs. There are a number of theories as to the origin of the Grail myth, including some that trace its roots to early Celtic myth and folklore. Ultimately, the Grail is only a symbol, not unlike the symbols which make up the Tarot cards that Katin describes as “images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history” (113). 

But the power of symbols, of certain images, must not be underestimated. Opening with the decisive Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, and closing with the lunar landing in 1969, television in the 1960s would demonstrate like never before the power of images to connect people instantaneously across the country and across the globe. And the most striking televisual imagery of the decade was undoubtedly the assassination of JFK – a news event that, years later, caused people to recall exactly where they were the moment they heard. It is no surprise, then, that Nova features an assassination that takes the experience of the JFK assassination to an entirely new level. Katin’s description of the assassination of Morgan by Underwood describes the way in which people across the galaxy were united in the sensations of the assassination. (Delany 138). The assassination of JFK, the assassination of Morgan – both become symbols that remain in the cultural consciousness of their respective society for years to come.

But it is particularly fitting that JFK should take on such significance in the novel, for the administration of JFK has itself been compared to Camelot, Arthur’s legendary kingdom. In some sense, then, Kennedy has become part of the mythology, the symbolism of modern day. What happens when the object of the psychorama, when the object of media coverage, and the popular consciousness, is elevated to such levels of mythology? And if JFK’s presidency is to be compared to the reign of Arthur over Camelot, what happens to the retelling of the myth of the Grail after the fall of King Arthur?


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