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Reply To: Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante,” with mythologist Norland Téllez”


I apologize for being tardy to the party – the multiple demands of the mundane, workaday world have gotten in the way of composing long thoughtful posts . . . and even this comment is an all too fleeting response.

Robert – I appreciate the reference to Spengler (whom I never would have read if it weren’t for Joseph Campbell); though I wouldn’t exactly call that final scene around the dinner table a solution (which, at least in the popular sense, implies a fix that remedies the crisis), I agree that moment of authenticity is indeed the most appropriate response.

And Norland – thank you for focusing the discussion on the imagery in the film, and emphasizing a mythological reading of the symbolism in the film. And I really love the resonance of that final dinner scene with the Last Supper. Of course, there are significant differences (one never finds an exact, point-by-point correspondence between symbols), but the feeling-tone is much the same.

Though I know you are both already aware of the following, I’d like to share a couple relevant observations by Campbell on symbolism and image, so that anyone following the discussion who might not be as conversant doesn’t get lost. And I’ll have to ask you to trust me on the source of these quotations, which are from an unpublished manuscript I’ve edited for JCF, slated for release in 2023, drawn from multiple obscure interviews with Campbell, as well as audience Q & A sessions with Joe after his lectures.

First, Campbell on symbolism:

I’m calling a symbol a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder. What you’re learning in myth is about yourself as part of the being of the world. If it talks not about you finally, but about something out there, then it’s short.”

And a slightly more detailed excerpt on visual imagery:

The logics of image thinking and of verbal thinking are two very different logics.⁠ I’m more and more convinced that there is, as it were, a series of archetypes which are psychologically grounded, which just have to operate, but in whatever field is available to them. In the myths, they are represented pictorially. There’s a big distinction to be made between the impact of the image, and the intellectual and social interpretation and application of the image.

. . . Mythology talks through the image.⁠ And what transforms consciousness is not the language, but the image. The impact of the image is the initiating experience⁠. So by understanding—or trying to understand—the communication of the imagery of myth, just as trying to understand the communication of the imagery of your dreams, you bring yourself into accord with your own deeper nature.⁠”

So what is the primary image in this film that precipitates the crisis?

That damn comet hurtling towards Earth.

Sure, this of course can be seen as an allegory for climate change, especially given the filmmaker’s intention – but, as Norland so elegantly points out in the second paragraph of his essay, “A truly mythological reading of the comet would show its reflected meaning in the many mirrors it contains, drawing from the internal resources of its archetypal imagery.”

YES! That’s one reason why I find myself nodding my head at every post in this thread, as a mythological symbol contains so many possibilities – parallel and paradoxical – enfolded in a single image.

So I’d like to throw one more thought into the mix. As opposed to a reductive interpretation (the comet is exclusively a stand-in for climate change and nothing else), this might be an overly expansive and all too simplistic reading, but it’s been stirring my imagination for a couple months now.

The comet is on a collision course with Earth. All efforts to prevent it, or escape it, are futile; in the end, everyone dies. (Granted, for comedic purposes Jason [Jonah Hill], the president’s son, does survive impact, but the odds for long term survival aren’t exactly in his favor – and even the privileged and powerful find their escape comes up short.)

What is it that’s coming for each of us, regardless of wealth, status, or privilege? What is the one inevitable and inescapable conclusion each must face?

Don’t Look Up is described as a dark comedy – or a tragicomedy, which brings to mind Campbell’s reference to Stephen Dedalus’ interpretation in Joyce’s work of Aristotle, who labels the tragic emotions pity and terror:

‘Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer.’ Not the poor, the black, the jobless sufferer, be it noted, but the human sufferer. We are penetrating the local, ethnic, or social mask to the human being.

‘Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.’ Here we are moving toward an experience of the sublime. What is the secret cause of any moment of suffering? . . . [E]very life, either knowingly or unknowingly, is in process toward its limitation in death, which limitation is of the nature of life.” (Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space 102, 103)

Part of the adverse reaction to the film is what some have referred to as its pessimism, manifested in that moment when all efforts have failed and it becomes clear there will be no rescue, no deus ex machina, no happily ever aftering – and every human becomes aware they are about to die (save for the comparatively small handful who abandon the rest of humanity, believing, like many cultists, that there is a way out – though, as we see in the penultimate scene, there is no escaping Death).

It’s hard for any viewer not to share in that sense of terror that the bulk of humanity in the film feels in the face of certain death. Who wouldn’t feel the same, to know the exact day and hour one will end?

On the same page, Campbell speaks of this awareness in one’s own life of what is “grave and constant” as an affirmation: “And in this affirmation itself the mind is carried beyond, purged and cleansed of the fear of death.”

Which brings me back around to one of Robert’s concluding sentences, in post #6837: “We should not live life in despair – we must go on living, not a provisional life in fear, but an authentic life, affirming and embracing Life as it is.” That is indeed the vibe of the gathering of scientists and friends around the dinner table, breaking bread together and enjoying each other’s company in their final moments

. . . and also resonates with that sense of communion depicted at the Last Supper (though only the Christ knew in that company what lay ahead).

My thought is that placing Death in its archetypal aspect – inevitable, inescapable, and universal – front and center is what stirs such an intense reaction in viewers. Of course today, when it comes to mortality, the default setting for most people is “don’t look up”; rather than examine that existential dread, far easier for most to focus on partisan wrangling over climate change.

Norland and Robert, I know this post is sloppy, lacking in nuance, a touch hurried in comparison, and sort of peters out at the end – and I apologize for that.

Thanks for bearing with me!