In the wake of the attempted QAnon putsch, and in the run-up to the inauguration of Joe Biden, when Trump’s supporters are expected to take to the streets again, Aleks McHugh considers QAnon hysteria and social media generally as incarnations of Meyrink’s Golem, as portrayed in the 1920 film by Paul Wegener.
I recently re-watched The Golem, Paul Wegener’s 1920 black-and-white version wherein, faced with the expulsion of his village, a rabbi in 16th century Prague uses an old spell and some clay to conjure a protector. The pandemic has vastly expanded the occasion for isolated viewing experiences, and Netflix is wearing thin. It is as much a coping mechanism as film appreciation. As is true of many Weimar era films, Fritz Lang’s M and Dr. Mabuse being others, the movie is steeped in the foreboding of pre-Nazi rule (along with the weight of centuries of Jewish persecution, recent Russian pogroms). It is prescient.
And a century later, the only instalment of the director’s Golem trilogy to survive intact, it’s also timely. The resurgence of a militarized White nationalism, under the MAGA slogan and QAnon, Jewish conspiracies, great swaths of the population addled as if under a malignant spell as a dumb creature lays waste its environs. Its themes and problems are recurring.
Also in the line of Prague Golem stories, Meyrink’s 1915 novel, sometimes credited with inspiring the film, draws more on Jewish mysticism and folklore. No longer a straightforward Frankenstein creature (albeit one enlivened by summoning the evil spirit Astaroth), Meyrink’s Golem is an elusive shifting presence occupying many positions at once. At times appearing with the face of an antique dealer who lived 30 years earlier and who inhabits the narrator doppelganger-style, it also symbolizes the city of Prague itself and the spirit of the Jewish ghetto.
As the spirit of the disenfranchised and its manifestation in a larger-than-life protector—in fact, the dialectic between these—the Golem’s power can be channelled in any direction, and perverted. And so it is. As every iteration of the myth teaches, the Golem is the thing that turns—the invention that overtakes the inventor, no matter the original intention. The old couple in the story of The Gingerbread Boy only wanted a child to keep them company. Who could have predicted he would devour everything, including them? Well, centuries of folklore actually.
True to its origins in the Talmud and Psalms where ‘golem’ simply means ‘amorphous,’ and where Adam, possibly its first embodiment is “kneaded [from mud] into a shapeless husk,” the Golem has proved a “highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be a victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both.” The mystery, if there is one, is what causes its turn. Is it the consequence of messing with evil spirits, or that the act of giving life always amounts to playing God? Or is it simply the nature of power that it has unintended effects? Yes to all, but also by some precise mechanism.
In the first (partially lost) movie of Wegener’s trilogy, Rabbi Lowe’s clay statue is found in the rubble of an old synagogue in the 20th century by an antique dealer. Using a spell, the dealer revives the Golem and puts him to work as a menial servant in his shop. It seems a good plan, cheap labour and all that, until the poor lunk falls in love with the shopkeeper’s daughter who is, of course, unattainable. He isn’t the most appealing of suitors, with his grey pallor and meaty fists. And it’s possible his sub-grade looks make the rejection all the more painful, although one might speculate his economic exploitation is a contributing factor. In any case, confused and furious, he goes on a murderous rampage and destroys the town. He becomes a monster, a latter day Incel.
Embitterment syndrome, which thanks to the Internet, has solidified in the double bind of every virtual thing available (enviable) at your fingertips but utterly unattainable in real life. Or in the realm of the market proper—possibly attainable with this product.
Inceldom is only the most stark example. There are also botox parties for 20-somethings—not an exaggeration, but ‘a thing.’ Also, rates of self-harm and suicide, depression and anxiety, eating disorders amongst youth are all correlated with the advent of the Internet and social media use. Compare and despair.
It is no stretch to cast Trump in the Golem role. He does bear a striking physical resemblance and his appetite for destruction is impressive
And in political realm, Robert Guffey points out that: “Just as the militia movement of the 1990s served the needs of average working people alienated from the elitist corridors of academia and effete liberalism, QAnon came along during a moment of crisis and provided what all cults offer their beaten-down followers: an explanation of why they’re living in such extreme poverty while everyone else around them—half-real phantoms seen haunting Facebook, Instagram, television—seem to prosper and flourish. Is it because someone’s keeping them down? If so, who is it? Who?”
Or if not in ‘extreme poverty,’ they felt they had lost their rightful seat of power and wanted someone to blame. They wanted a defender whose hideous soul mirrored their own, who wasn’t going to apologize for it, and who would oppose—no holds barred—those who made them feel ‘small,’ or worse ‘deplorable.’
It is no stretch to cast Trump in the Golem role. He does bear a striking physical resemblance and his appetite for destruction is impressive. What is harder to accept is that this apparent idiot savant—whose sensationalist tweets worked by challenging one’s capacity to think—and his repository of lulzy trolls are the bringers of Dada and Chaos Magic.
Yes, so any technology can turn into its opposite—that truism of Marshall McLuhan. In a sense, that’s what the Golem is—an early machine. The inventor-creator is human.
Despite Meyrink’s interest in the occult and esoteric works, the Golem belongs to the psyche, and to some extent reflects the narrator’s inner state. Having suffered some sort of breakdown, his sanity in question, so too is the integrity of memory and identity. Contributing to this, is an atmosphere of secret machinations, of being watched, of events directed by powers beyond our perception, for a synergy of psychic and physical conditions.
“Just as on sultry days the static electricity builds up to unbearable tension until it discharges itself in lightning, could it not be that the steady buildup of those never changing thoughts that poison the air in the Ghetto lead to a sudden spasmodic discharge.”
It should not be surprising then that the technological rejigging of society as a whole which promised to advance humanity, connect us in one great Gaian mind and democratize media has also spawned Cambridge Analytica, QAnon and the multi-pilled Manosphere. Not to mention, it has attended the rise in discord, extremism and tribalism and the fracturing of shared reality. The democratization of speech has become the democratization of lies. And it is not as democratic as it appears. As Rushkin, a former Internet cheerleader, says: social media is used to alienate and isolate and atomize us from one another because “that’s the way it can serve the growth mandate of the stock exchange, which is an artificial system, rather than the collaborative mandate of humanity which is a living system.”
In the myth associated with rabbi Loew, the Golem reappears every 33 years. If only.
The all-devouring invention that outpaces its master is an obvious metaphor for a capitalism premised on continuous growth. It is already in the self-destructive bend of the Death Drive. It is less evident how the most recent technological mutation accelerates it. Surveillance capitalism. The attention economy. Those are part of it. It also has something to do with reach—that the modes of surveillance, propaganda, marketing are pervasive and invasive at once, via such banal techniques as data mining and user modelling.
Its magic is to combine technology with politics as a form of mass psyops—psyops in the sense that it works largely on the unconscious, on emotions which purpose is to compel the user’s behavior in a certain direction without twigging awareness, to appear to anticipate our authentic desires and interests. The algorithm is an alchemy of the will.
For those who wield power at this nexus of data, money and politics, headspace can be accessed fairly cheaply. It is possible to incite genocide in Myanmar, affect voter suppression in Nigeria, and boost the Brexit vote in rural Wales with a few well-placed articles on Facebook. Correction: a few entirely fabricated articles coupled with the innocuous-sounding personalized newsfeed. Each unto their own rabbit hole.
This isn’t the Frankenstein myth. Trump’s troll army (which is to some extent an actual army of paramilitaries that includes members of law enforcement and intelligence) is as much a part of the story—a sort of Golem repository—as is the gaslit atmosphere of behind-the-scenes tinkering, the mental fragility of its targets along with real conditions of disenfranchisement.
Apparently post-rampage, we are left with a trashed information space (post-truth and pre-fascist according to historian Tim Snyder) and a suggestible citizenry afflicted with something akin to hysteria, ripe for further manipulation. In the myth associated with rabbi Loew, the Golem reappears every 33 years. If only.