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Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante

BY Norland Tellez February 13, 2022

Mark Rylance as BASH CEO Peter Isherwell alongside Meryl Streep as President Orlean. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Despite all rumors to the contrary, Don’t Look Up is not about climate change (spoilers ahead). An incoming comet, being a purely natural phenomenon independent of human influence, would in fact be a bad analogy for the problem of climate change. For the latter is a problem of the influence of human industry on the impending disaster, but human industry plays no role in determining the direction or speed of the comet. 

To reduce the symbol of the comet to climate change pure and simple would be to miss the broader implications of its symbolic functioning within the film. 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. A symbolic reading thus stays away from a purely allegorical reduction of the comet, dispensing with the need to import external referents or additional hypotheses beyond those provided by the film.

From this mythic or uroboric point of view, the meaning of the action of the comet is, of course, the reaction it creates in the human race and our systems of organization and first response, bringing into the open our failing sense of collective responsibility. The comet depicts a narcissistic culture of indifference, caught in a “post-truth” spiritual atmosphere whose catastrophic finality is finally pushed over the edge by the most obscene element of all: the existence of BASH CEO Peter Isherwell.

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Romance of the Grail.

Critics who took the film much too seriously and forgot that it was, after all, a comedy, also overlook the fact that Peter Isherwell is the true comic hero of Don’t Look Up. Where the scientists play the role of tragic heroes who ultimately fail but die honorably as decent human beings, Peter Isherwell actually succeeds, at the end of the film, in fulfilling his obscene dream of ushering in a New Golden Age of humanity—even if it was short-lived.

Moreover, the critics miss a crucial insight of the plot, one which really surprised some first-time watchers who were not expecting the positive turn the film takes during the first half of the story, when a fresh wave of scandal forces President Orlean to do the right thing and embrace the mission to destroy the comet.

At this point, the film’s mockery of people caught up in social media, disinformation culture, and mass entertainment, reaches its limit. By means of the very power of scandal, President Orlean finally does the right thing and steps up to the plate. Although corrupt and slow to act, the government does succeed in putting together a mission that could save the planet.

Leading up to the very launch of the mission, the film is incredibly optimistic, suggesting that there is hope to work with the system as it is, fake news and all, and still avoid catastrophe. But of course, this was only an illusion; we cannot work with the system as it is and still avoid catastrophe. For it is the functioning of the system as it is—a system that produces the obscenity of billionaires—that is the real source of the catastrophe. For this reason, Don’t Look Up drops the hammer with BASH at the last minute, reintroducing Peter Isherwell when it was almost too late to derail the mission. His intervention causes the mission to abort in mid-flight, showing us that the meteor they were looking for had already struck the earth in the shape of BASH.

As Peter Isherwell breaks into the situation room with a casual “Hey everyone, mind if I join?” Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Kate Dibiasky, is prompted to ask: “Is he allowed to be here?” to which Jason (Jonah Hill) responds: “Yeah, he’s a Platinum Eagle level donor to the campaign. He has full clearance.”

The billionaire intervention of BASH is the mirror image of the comet itself. The writers suggest as much by naming the tech company BASH, like the sound a meteor would make when smashing into the earth. The meteor is BASH and BASH means the meteor. The meteor is the obscene existence of Peter Isherwell, the true unsung hero of Don’t Look Up.

Peter Isherwell is not only the personification of self-centered consumerism, he is also an embodiment of archetypal power as the mythic figure of the Old Wise Man. Like a Saint Peter standing at the gates of a golden age promised by Silicon Valley, Peter Isherwell is a kind of hybrid between Steve Jobs and Joe Biden. In his last name, Isherwell, we get the connotation of a wishing well—the fulfiller of wishes and the well-wisher of our final farewell. 

The figure of Peter Isherwell can be said “to illustrate the libidinous association of the dangerous impish ogre with the principle of seduction,” as Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, naming “Dyedushka Vodyanoy, the Russian ‘Water Grandfather’,” a mythic being who was “an adroit shapeshifter and is said to drown people who swim at midnight or at noon. Drowned or disinherited girls he marries. He has a special talent for coaxing unhappy women into his tolls. He likes to dance on moonlit nights.” (66)

To discuss the film further from this mythic perspective, join us in another amazing Conversation of a Higher Order with our outstanding community leader Stephen Gerringer.

Yours, Norland Tellez, PhD Norland TellezNorland Tellez is a visual artist and teacher as well as writer and mythologist, combining the art of story-telling with the power of philosophical thought. He is both a visual development artist and a writer, as well as a story analyst in the realm of Mythological Studies. He attended CalArts and graduated from their character animation department in 1999. Norland went on to pursue his masters and doctorate degrees at Pacifica Graduate Institute, graduating in 2009 with a dissertation on the Esoteric Dimensions of the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Quiché-Maya. Find more at mythistorian.com.

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The Mythology of Love (Audio: Lecture I.6.2)

Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

Love is central to all of the world’s mythologies. Why does love—that most transcendent, yet most personal, of emotions—occupy such a primary place in our most fundamental myths? The Greeks saw Eros, the god of love, as both the oldest of the gods and as the infant reborn “fresh and dewy-eyed in every loving heart.” In one Persian myth, love is the reason for Lucifer’s fall he loved God so much he would not bow to God’s creation, Man. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet has a vision of a strand of love connecting the lowest depths of Hell, through Purgatory and Heaven, to God Himself.

News & Updates

All agree February 14 is Valentine’s Day in Western tradition. Fewer agree on its origin. The Roman emperor Claudius may have inadvertently created it when he outlawed marriage for single men believing that bachelors made better soldiers. A priest, Father Valentine, was beheaded for ignoring the edict and marrying the young conscripts anyway. Chaucer records that the day derived from the perceived beginning of bird-mating season “whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Competing origin stories are even stranger.

February 15, Nehan-e (Nirvana Day) is the beginning of the Mahāyāna liturgical year. More importantly, it marks the death of Shakyamuni and his final sermon in which he identified the core delusion of human beings as the belief that body and mind are permanent features of the self.

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The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world—no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every  hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment,  which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable  impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence  is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his  mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions.

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The Spell of the Sensuous

Animal tracks, word magic, the speech of stones, the power of letters, and the taste of the wind all figure prominently in this intellectual tour de force that returns us to our senses and to the sensuous terrain that sustains us. This major work of ecological philosophy startles the senses out of habitual ways of perception.

For a thousand generations, human beings viewed themselves as part of the wider community of nature, and they carried on active relationships not only with other people with other animals, plants, and natural objects (including mountains, rivers, winds, and weather patters) that we have only lately come to think of as “inanimate.” How, then, did humans come to sever their ancient reciprocity with the natural world? What will it take for us to recover a sustaining relation with the breathing earth?

In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abram draws on sources as diverse as the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Balinese shamanism, Apache storytelling, and his own experience as an accomplished sleight-of-hand of magician to reveal the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural environment. He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language, which–even at its most abstract–echoes the calls and cries of the earth. On every page of this lyrical work, Abram weaves his arguments with a passion, a precision, and an intellectual daring that recall such writers as Loren Eisleley, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez.

Romance of the Grail

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Romance of the Grail

The Arthurian myths opened the world of comparative mythology to Campbell, turning his attention to the Near and Far Eastern roots of myth. Calling the Arthurian romances the world’s first “secular mythology,” Campbell found metaphors in them for human stages of growth, development, and psychology. The myths exemplify the kind of love Campbell called amor, in which individuals become more fully themselves through connection. Campbell’s infectious delight in his discoveries makes this volume essential for anyone intrigued by the stories we tell—and the stories behind them.

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“We crave poetic and mythological narratives and the vast, lyrical palette which they offer us. In Joseph Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss, together we’ll explore a joy that can coexist with darkness as we open ourselves up to the transcendent realm and its potential to illuminate and transform us. When we consider the quest to live mythically, we touch into a depth of consciousness that is an inherent, essential tenor of the soul. Both our suffering and bliss can be mirrored back to us in an honest, unvarnished way because the eternal truths expressed in universal myths guide us to unlock the beauty, majesty, mystery, and sacredness in our own personal experiences.”

Kristina Dryža
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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