Socio-Psychological Nature of Theological Imagination (Self-Aggrandizing Heroism As a Multi-melody of Human History Commented upon by Schoenberg’s Music)

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf… Then they said, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt”. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it… Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands… When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it… Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” The Levites did as Moses commanded…
Exodus 32

If man is dust those who go through the plain are men
Octavio Paz

In Schoenberg’s opera – about the conflict between demagogy and prophecy – the populist Aaron’s words are set for a mellifluous tenor voice; Moses never sings, but only speaks, in the rugged voice of the seer… Oblique angles, long takes and static tableaux allow Straub and Huillet to go straight to the drama inherent in the story and the composition.
Richard Brody, “Opera on Film: “Moses and Aaron”, “The New Yorker”, Oct. 14, 2011

In 1973 Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet produced a film version of Arnold Schoenberg’s great work (which has now been issued on DVD). Straubs sought to strip their cinema bare of anything that could be seen to deliberately dramatize the story, establishing with exquisitely subtle, mathematically plotted camerawork and formalized direction, a visual counterpoise to Schoenberg’s complex score.
Allen Shawn, “Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron meet Straub and Huillet”, Filmcomment, 2013

Straub-Huillet eschew dubbing in favor of direct sound, to the extent, that background noises and even the static noise caused by wind rustling on a microphone are kept in their integrity, and the original sound of each individual image is retained. This, of course, has a huge impact on editing, as cuts cannot be made arbitrary, but have to defer to the exigencies of the sound. Similarly, they reject all manipulation of the image in post-production (color-matching, etc.)
Daniel Fairfax, “Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet”, Senses of Cinema, Sept. 2009

And when Moses saw that the people were naked, for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies, then Moses stood in the gate of their camp, and said: “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me”. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel – Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor .” And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.* **
Introduction/epigraph to the film by Straub and Huillet quoting from Exodus 32

Wrinkles have no face
Octavio Paz

 Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet
Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951)


In the beginning of the film we witness how Moses is awakening to the necessity of becoming a national hero and people’s leader. He shares with us via Schoenberg’s music and Straub/Huillet’s framing and composition of shots – his hesitations, his lack of confidence, his fear of ordeals and responsibility. But he is opened to receive people’s projections – people’s need to have a leader of prophetic status. Using Schoenberg’s music analyzing the growth of Moses’s soul under the influence of people’s unconscious aspirations, Straub and Huillet create much more than just a visual equivalent of Schoenberg’s analysis. This shot registers the first phase of Moses’ awakening to his monumental task, when he is not a leader yet, but something like a faceless creature, visually resembling a plant or an animal, that step by step develops in his vision of the world – we see how his background becomes not only bare land, but gradually – grass, shrubs, trees and, eventually, the sky as an opened perspective signifying the beginning of historical process as a part of spiritual evolution of life. The directors visually symbolize Moses’ way from just a creature to a giant through what he sees around himself, in front of himself, ahead of himself.

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Moses and Aaron, the elder and younger brother, a popular leader whose power and will over the population are aggrandized by people’s belief in the power of God’s wisdom Moses personifies, and a propagandist who resourcefully “translates” Moses’ ideas and beliefs into a metaphoric/parabolic language understood by simple people.

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Schoenberg and Straub/Huillet show people’s reactions on ideological points (Moses) and seductive images (Aaron) that express/embellish them. This makes the film an elaborate examination of masses’ vulnerability in front of the power of ideological persuasion. The first step of traditional system of power (based on leader-people psychological dyad, when people identify with each other by the principle of identity/commonality on the level of the ego, and simultaneously with the leader as with their super-ego) is to persuade a certain group – here, the Jewish people tormented by their humiliated condition of life “under Pharaohs”, that they are, somehow, in the eyes of God, “better” than their life in social misery – more superior (chosen) than other human groups. The second step is to persuade them that because of being closer to God they have to be specially respected by other people and even to “teach them how to live, to define for them their future. In human history we see endless examples of similar prophetic propagandist alchemy that can be based not only on religious beliefs but on politically-ideological ones, like it was in Soviet Russia or in Nazi Germany. Sometimes it takes for various countries many centuries or decades full of horrifying historical ordeals to complete these two steps. To feel themselves “chosen” was, probably, the only way for the subdued and the humiliated people to start to believe in and respect themselves to be able to build a unique historical destiny of their own.

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A traditional (instigating mandatory collective belief for everybody) leader (Moses) meets his propaganda tsar (Aaron), master of hypnosis who uses pleasing metaphors appealing to people’s pride in “being chosen” in comparison with others nations.

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What do we see here? Is it Moses’ staff or serpent? If the answer is – “serpent”, we see what Aaron, the master of mass propaganda, wants us to see. His task in the scene referred to by this shot, is to create in people unconditional belief in Moses’ power – so, he is taking the staff from Moses’ hands, throwing it to the ground before the crowd and proclaims that it is not a staff but a serpent. Something like this Bush Junior achieved with American masses when he claimed that Saddam had WMDs or recently, under Obama, was done by right wing talk show hosts, suggesting that president is Moslem socialist and “anti-American”. Suggestions of powerful leaders (helped by propaganda specialists) are always successful because people are prone to believe in power. It is social power (factual or communicated through psychological cues like hateful intonations or accusatory and denouncing/debunking statements) what makes influential leader.

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This shot registers the historical tendency toward a fundamental shift in the nature of social power from the traditional, direct one, when political leader legislates beliefs and norms and values, to the power of money, that is, from ideological power to a financial one. This transition happened in history many times, and the last one takes place right now between the traditional totalitarian systems of 20th century and a new financial totalitarianism of the 21st century. Today, we are privileged to see (not without Straub/Huillet’s help), that the Golden Calf too, not only the iron fist, can be a metaphor of absolutist power. If Moses expected and demanded direct obedience to himself in the name of God (like Stalin – in the name of Marxism), Aaron suggests the obedience to money: to money elite and orgiastic consumerism. In this sense, money-power is a child of ideological power, its descendant, more perfect than its parent. Money as a substance of power is a more effective version of ideology for all.

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The Golden Calf is a symbol of money power as more sophisticated and “sexy” version (strategy) of power than traditional (direct) power of manipulating human beliefs and behavior by command instead of seduction. Of course, traditional power seduces too – into believing in your grandiosity and your “natural” right to oppress other people, but money-power materializes and makes look commonsensical the ideological motif of power, it transforms it into a power to corrupt people through money. Now people follow a totalitarian leader not only because he promises people glory and a power over others but because he promises them a power plus money. People are more prone to accept a totalitarian leader if he promises them to live not just more prosperously but with ability to multiply their money.

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The Golden Calf is encouraging human orgies: ecstasy of prosperity amidst the poverty of the world – Golden Calf is a leader who encourages pleasures and unites the people to subdue other nations in order to live more prosperously.

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Women sacrificing to the “new master”, the Golden Calf are like female workers who agree to make less per hour than men for the sake of helping their men and increase their family income. A system based on the Golden Calf as an anonymous leader makes people no less conformist than the direct power does, but more happy conformists.

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Philosophical argument between Moses and Aaron concentrates on their difference between a leader in posture of a prophet and a leader in posture of propagandist/advertiser, a strict-and-tough leader appealing to moral obligations and self-restrictions – the carrier of God’s authoritarian wisdom, and the one who encourages people to indulge in consumerist orgies (worship of Golden Calf) and be proud to be “chosen by wealth”.

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The commanding voice of a demanding prophet becomes empty without the sweet language of propagandist/advertiser. Political ideology is impotent without metaphors, ideas – without images. But ideological statements are also metaphors, ideas themselves are images. Moralistic language is that of self-aggrandizement and as such orients people on righteous scapegoating. Money is a (materialized) image of power. In Straub/Huillet’s representation, we feel how the ruling ideology of direct power is transformed into ideology of money power – ideology into money, how money (Golden Calf) becomes the image of power of the most insidious kind. In this sense, Straub/Huillet’s film comments about today’s transformation of direct power into the money power, that happens right before our own eyes when austerity for the 99% is simultaneous with the growing profits for the 1%, when Golden Calf is loudly laughing at us who pathetically misperceived its politically totalitarian nature as a “vehicle of democracy”.

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The arrest of Aaron leaves Moses without language, hurts the communication between the pop-leader and the masses. Here, according to Straub/Huillet, lies the reason for the ultimate collapse of a directly totalitarian systems and their miraculous resurrection into a neo-totalitarianism of Golden Calf worship.

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Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet in their old age

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When Schoenberg composed the two acts of the opera “Moses and Aaron” in the beginning of 30s, it was his reaction on growing anti-Semitism in Europe – he wanted to support the Jewish people’s spirit and belief in themselves by reminding them about their “heroic past”. But Straub and Huillet in early 70s were rather interested in the sociological and socio-psychological analysis of Moses-Aaron ground-breaking episode of Jewish history. By concentrating on Schoenberg’s music (too intense for being just an expression of private emotions and depicting clash of historical and cosmic powers) and having studied the opera’s libretto, they found enough material to examine in their future film the socio-psychological roots of the Old-Testamental theological imagination. By the very juxtaposition/combination of their images framed by Schoenbeg’ music, they made a comparative analysis of the two types of totalitarianism – traditional, authoritarian, based on a single ideology despotically ruling over population, and the neo-totalitarianism, when the real leader of the masses is the Golden Calf (made of their own contributions as the Stock Market financial machine [Exodus 32.2]) and people are seduced into a cult of financial obsessions.

In Straub/Huillet “Moses and Aaron” Moses is depicted not just as a popular leader and people’s hero with authority of prophet but as a traditional totalitarian ruler whose task is to make his people able of re-inventing and liberating themselves according to one inspiring total idea and regardless of what it takes. Aaron, on the other hand, is characterized as, at first, Moses’ helper, his, kind of, “propaganda minister” who knows how to make people to believe in Moses’ extraordinary powers and super-human wisdom, and, later, as an alternative leader on his own – as an apostle of proto-financial power, creator of the Golden calf cult in his people and today’s world. While Moses was smaller only in comparison with the Heavens, a mediating force between the humans and the Godly powers, Aaron was just the first among the equals, under the Golden Calf as a real leader. According to the film, socio-psychological relationship between a totalitarian leader and the masses can be of two types: traditional totalitarianism is based on strict father-obedient child model, when son’s will is overwhelmed by father’s benevolent will and his soul is fascinated by father’s charisma, but in financial totalitarianism the will of the Golden Calf is shared by everybody, everybody dreams of the gold-prosperity and reproduction through money-magic.

According to Straub and Huillet, Aaron has a double function, propagandist for Moses, an ideological master-trickster, and an independent leader – innovator-inventor of financial totalitarianism. Is there a smooth transition from Aaron’s first to his second role? If Moses expects and demands human and existential sacrifices to the solar radiation of the Commandments, Aaron seduces people into making sacrifices to the Golden Calf. The sacrificial nature of consumerism and profit-worship is not obvious in comparison with obligations in front of and self-abnegations for the sake of following God’s Commandments. The myth of unlimited orgiastic power of money is a virtuoso propagandist strategy to enslave people to the gluttonous orgy of consumption extending itself to the orgy of self-sacrifices. Consumerism makes people regress emotionally and intellectually to the degree of stopping to be adults and transforming into children with adult limbs and self-destructive behaviors.

Today’s austerity programs for the populations in different Western countries are a typical example of sacrifice to the Golden Calf. Austerity in 21st century sense can be among the images of “Moses and Aaron”. When pop-prosperity is coming, it is exactly a time for people to expect austerity that will come next (according to the economic cyclicality of booms and busts). Prosperity and austerity are like day and night of the Golden Calf kingdom of financial totalitarianism. We observe in the film how quickly the consumerist and sexual orgies are transformed into self-sacrificial ecstasy.

Worshiping God and worshiping the Golden Calf have the same essence of the total and enthusiastic obedience to either ideological or money-logical power believed by totalitarian masses as being a super-naturally benign. In the first case it is obedience to direct power, in the second – obedience to the power of the financial power. In both cases external power is mixed with human (internal) dreams through projective identification with the idol.

In history the achievements of humanity are doomed to go together with the socio-psychological seamy side of behavioral proclivities of individuals, groups and societies, and it is here that the anti-democratic organization of our psychological nature becomes an alerting symptom of our inability to be decent human beings in the very moment we want to “survive”. Godly wisdom and super-wealth don’t exist not only without wars, slavery and slavery-like human associations, and obscene exploitation but also without the morbid manipulation of a pathetically credulous public through ideological and financial deceptions, mass-cultural triviality emptying the human soul, and because of maniacally predatory nature of prosperity itself recruiting human indifference and cruelty as its guards and clerks.

Straub and Huillet teach us how to read/perceive the Old Testament without unconscious or cynical desire to use its pompous and very often tasteless mythology for our self-aggrandizing projective identification, and they show us how to read the human behavior without monumentalizing and idolizing it (without transforming grains of sand into galactic clouds). Megalomaniacal heroism of historical narratives is commented upon by Schoenberg’s music.

Straub/Huillet’s examination of socio-psychological nature of theological imagination is a permanent feature of the film’s semantics and stylistics. In the scenes of communications between people’s leaders (Moses and Aaron) and the masses we see the grandiose resonance between both sides when horizontal power of human togetherness is interpreted by the people themselves as a vertical power of rapport and communications with god. At this point Schoenberg’s music itself becomes the object of the directors’ deconstruction.

*To become fierce with enemies you have to become fierce with your followers – this is the “law” of totalitarian states as much oriented on wars as on repression of its own citizens. Cruelty to the same people as you is a kind of training experience for sharpening the cruelty to dissimilar others – your enemies. In other words, the ability to be cruel to your neighbors puts your chances of winning over your enemies up. That’s why during the war even democratic societies tend to become less democratic and more totalitarian.

**The point of the film is not to “debunk” Moses and Aaron but to remind people that totalitarian leaders tend to justify their dishonesty and cruelty to population by invoking in front of their people the messianic (super-human) tasks which always connected with achieving grandiose future of happiness and glory for the “chosen” people where “chosenness” implies not only advantage over others but extra-tormenting ordeals.

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The Golden Bull of the Wall Street (the actual statue of the “Raging Bull” in front of the building of New-York stock market) grown with centuries from the Golden Calf of the previous cultures.