Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Deus ex Caelis

My Fabulous Wife and I watch crime shows on Roku. We regularly hit pause to discuss new clues, spy something that may be a clue, and refine or propose new hypotheses. We try to figure stuff out before the detectives/ cops/ lawyers do.

Last night we watched a murder mystery in which the victim was one of a group of academics at a college campus, who were held there by the cops until they sussed out who the killer was. We were keeping up with the plot, adjusting our theories, when out of the blue in the final scene a cop reveals a critical datum. The killer, whom we never suspected, was a martial-arts expert. The cop had looked him up (and the others,  I suppose) in the school library's copy of  Who's Who.

So I was way unhappy with this clunky solution. I whined to The Beautiful One, "I can't stand to watch a mystery and have the writers pull this Deus ex Machina (DeM) crap." DeM isn't always a bad thing, but the phrase usually carries a negative connotation. In this case it was definitely bad. Anyway, that got me thinking about the whole Deus ex Machina history, dating back to Greek actors playing gods, and being hoisted onto the stage with little cranes. And I thought out loud, "Hey, the most memorable DeM I can think of is at the end of Lord of the Flies (LotF) when the naval officer saves Ralph." I Googled around on Deus Machina Lord Flies, and confirmed that the officer is widely understood to be a Deus ex Machina. But in the case of LotF, I believe the author, William Golding, wasn't simply resorting to DeM as a cheap fix, but carefully using plot devices to make puns on the very term Deus ex Machina in its literal sense of a god plopping into the scene to fix things.

 [I assume y'all have all read Lord of the Flies (1954) in school. If not, here's a way-brief synopsis: the Cold War has turned hot, and a group of English boys are being flown to a place of relative safety. The plane is shot down, and the boys are thus left to their own devices on an island (the TV series Lost was partly inspired by LotF). The boys try to be responsible and civilized, but in short order become a mob of little murdering savages. There are thousands of words on the net discussing LotF, its symbolism, its themes; I'm confining this post to Golding's literal use of Deus ex Machina.]

Midway through the book, the boys have become about half-savage. Following an air battle, a pilot parachutes onto the island. The pilot and his parachute drive the plot for a while, which I'm not concerned about here. What I like is that the pilot is a literal Deus ex Machina, that is, he descends God-like from his machine (American note: other countries colloquially have used the word machine in lieu of airplane or automobile), out of the blue (so to speak) into the boys' world. This is very much unlike my detective movie, in which there was a DeM in an abstract sense, but not a literal sense. Indeed, the pilot would be better described as a Deus ex Caelis, a God out of the Sky. The parachutist isn't just a plot device, but a pun on the original idea of Deus ex Machina. If he had landed intact, the story could have ended right there: a responsible adult restores order, drama over. But he floated down dead, foreshadowing the arrival of another literal DeM.

By the last chapter, all the boys but one (Ralph) are weaponized killers, and they are hunting Ralph down. The boys set the island on fire to flush him out. Chased onto the beach, Ralph is saved by the abrupt arrival of a naval officer whose machine/ship drew near, having seen the fire. Chastised by this bigger, stronger Deus ex Machina, the killers revert to their prior status of little boys.

I see Golding carefully creating this second literal, recognizable, Deus ex Machina partly as an amusement. But he also makes a point about the wider world. By using Dei ex Machina, Greek playwrights acknowledged humans' inability to manage their own affairs. The audience of a play sees an imaginary problem resolved by an imaginary god; but within the play itself, real human problems are being resolved by a real god. In other words, in the story a real Deus comes down out of the sky without need of a Machina.

Golding is drawing a literal Deus ex Machina parallel: in a Greek play the DeM is a literal, fictional device that represents a real god, without whom a problem is insolvable. In Lord of the Flies, there is also, oddly enough, a literal, fictional DeM who also represents a real god. Not so much in terms of the fictional story; the naval officer is clearly not a god (although he's commonly understood to represent God). But as the story is an allegory of humans beings in general, making a mess of everything since Eden, the officer, as a literal Deus ex Machina, points directly to the real Deus, who of course isn't just an actor on a pole.

Until Deus really does come down out of the sky (with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man) the mess will continue. So in Lord of the Flies, the Deus ex Machina isn't a cop-out: it's the point.

illustration by Houston Trueblood