God’s Voice and Its Dummies

Richard-Wagner-Denkmal Berlin © Lodewijk Muns 2018Divine Ventriloquism

The gaze upward – it’s supposed to be where inspiration comes from. The composer’s inspiration is a frequent and fascinating theme of 19th and early 20th century iconography. Compare the Berlin Wagner statue and the Weber painting I discussed in two previous posts. There are striking similarities and striking differences. Similarities in trivial details: winged lions on the chair, the classical cloak over the contemporary costume. But while Weber looks somewhat overwhelmed among the spirits that have invaded his study, Wagner seems to have no interest in the very fleshy beings that crowd the steps beneath his throne.

The composer as a conjurer of spirits, or communicator of the spiritual realm. Wagner’s case is different from any other composer’s, because he was not just a composer, but also a perniciously influential ideologist, whose authority in matters of art and society was based on the compelling persuasiveness of his music.

“God’s ventriloquist”, in Nietzsche’s often-quoted, mocking characterization (Zur Genealogie der Moral, III, § 5). It refers to the belief, ancient in origin and revived in a romantic guise, that music taps into the depths of philosophy, and is able to convey a meaning beyond the control of language: the revelation of a metaphysical Beyond, or Essence of Things. It promotes the role of the composer (says Nietzsche) to that of a priest, oracle, “a kind of mouthpiece of the essence of things [das Ansich der Dinge], a telephone from the beyond” and “ventriloquist of God”. Bauchredner Gottes – it is a favourite but not quite fortunate phrase. The ventriloquist, I should think, is God; the composer is the dummy.

Destiny Speaks

Seven billion people inhabit planet Earth. Of those alive today, only a small number will leave a lasting impact. And only a very few will make decisions or take actions to renew their homeland, or change the course of history.

 

Here speaks the Voice of Destiny. A White House propaganda clip (the W.H. GOV. logo is permanently in view) that at the same time masquerades as a movie trailer by a production company called Destiny Pictures. It might have been a practical joke, but it isn’t; it is diplomacy à la Trump. That there is a real company called Destiny Pictures that has nothing to do with this production is characteristic of the sloppiness with which things are done around Trump.

Trump’s infamous North-Korea clip is an easy target for persiflage. But Trumpism being a very consistent caricature of itself, any attempt to trump that will ultimately remain ineffective.

Still, the parody very quickly produced by the New York Times is well worth watching and listening to. Its voice-over is actually more convincing and closer to the Hollywood stereotype than Trump’s struggling furniture salesman.

Seven billion people inhabit planet Earth. And their fates rest in the hands of these two men … What if we’ve been overthinking foreign policy all along, and what the world really needed was a movie trailer…?

 

God’s voice? It’s actually the nickname of one of the two actors who for decades nearly had a monopoly on the Hollywood movie trailer voice-over, Don Voice-of-God LaFontaine, who died in 2008. Both were men, of course, as were nearly all of their minor competitors: God is not a woman. And apparently He likes to speak in a low, throaty, gravelly, lustfully breathy voice.

The other voice-over actor who dominated the industry is Hal Douglas, who died in 2014. In 2002 he participated in the satirical trailer for a documentary about the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Launching one cliché after another from within the sound booth, he is constantly cut short by the director, who finally fires him. It signalled the moment that the God’s Voice cliché and its associated stock phrases had outlived itself. It may have seemed that with the death of these two of God’s most famous and best-paid dummies, the world had entered a Godless era in which movie trailers are pasted together from scraps of dialogue. No voice-over, no detached, superior, omniscient narrator-sermonizer. Nowadays the spectator is dumped into the middle of movie chaos, helpless and unguided.

But to say that God’s voice has been silenced in the movies is premature, witness not only the White House Voice of Destiny, but also the trailer for Wim Wenders’ recent documentary about Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (in passing the posters on a street in Berlin I twice misread: A Man of This World). I didn’t see the movie itself; inexplicably, it is not scheduled for release in the Netherlands.

 

Starting with the familiar growl from nowhere (“No matter what divides us, his words unite us”), the trailer rehashes all the clichés of the genre. If it distinguishes itself from countless others, it is mainly by the superior ethics and personality of its subject.

When demagogy is involved, caricature cannot harm its target. Exposing the rhetorical cliché does not diminish it effect (Two men, two leaders, one destiny …; Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer …). But it may help us in the daily effort not to be stultified. To preserve our outrage.