Der Golem and Vitalism

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Der Golem

Der Golem appears, at first blush, to be very different from other roughly contemporary films – such as James Whales’ version of Frankenstein - in which “dead” matter is reanimated. For a start, it features kabbalistic magic, not science (or rather perhaps a “spectacle” of science). Nonetheless, there is perhaps more, at a deeper level, that unites the two films than is immediately obvious. Frankenstein, with its humming lab apparatus and its evocation of galvanism, and Der Golem’s depiction of the uncanny power of the Word, both depict their cinematic worlds from a vitalist perspective. This is one of the reasons, perhaps, why both films continue to have profound cultural resonance today, as vitalism is still all around us –in mass-market magazines’ astrology pages, in new age evocations of “energy”, in alternative medicines such as homeopathy. Vitalism, as a fundamental metaphysical view of how the world works, is a constant temptation to the philosopher inside all of us, who wants to explain why things, in the most general sense, are as they are. It is also a temptation for science itself, as I discuss later. So what is vitalism? Its history is particularly lengthy, and also embraces along its route a wide variety of cultural manifestations. In the Book of Genesis (II, 7) and the Koran, Adam (from the Hebrew for earth or mud, and the original golem) is formed of dust or earth by God, who brings him to life by breathing the spirit or breath of life into his nostrils – literally “in-spiring” him. Greek philosophy contains examples of vitalism, such as that proposed by the 1st century BC Stoic thinker Posidonius who proposed that it is the sun which provides all living beings with an energy which differentiates them from non-living matter. In Chinese philosophies, yin and yang produce qi or vital energy which animates the universe. Vitalism is therefore a metaphysical theory which views matter itself as inert, but explains the difference between non-living and living beings with reference to an additional, non-material “life principle” which inhabits, or is made to inhabit, matter and thus bring it to life. Vitalism, in this sense, inspires both magical views of the world, which live on in popular culture in a variety of forms, and, as we shall see, continues to haunt modern science. Magical beliefs and practices, such as those depicted in Der Golem, were viewed by some 19th and 20th century anthropologists, like James Frazer, as an undeveloped form of science, as both were designed to manipulate and control the external world. Although this view has since been much criticized by anthropologists, it is arguably true that what science and technology do in relation to matter that is subject to mechanistic physical laws, magic attempts to do for the hidden life principle. Just as science and technology enable us to control, to some extent, the observable, measurable physical world, magic attempts to control, channel and manipulate the life principle itself. Where science is exoteric, concerned with the material world and what can be concluded about how it works through rational reflection, magic is esoteric, concerned with mystical, intuitive knowledge of the unobservable world. Language is important to both forms of knowledge, but magic operates with symbol and allegory, viewing the world as a script which has to be deciphered, as when Rabbi Loewe interprets the configuration of stars at the beginning of Der Golem as a portent of catastrophe. God breathing life into the original golem, Adam, might be interpreted as speaking the Word, logos, that represents the power of creation in the Greek translation of the Bible. The creation of the golem in Wegener’s film, and in other literary and folkloric versions of the Rabbi Loewe legend, typically involves the inscription of the Hebrew word for truth, Emet, whether onto the golem’s forehead or on a charm, which apes the original creation. Der Golem and Frankenstein run parallel to each other once again when it comes to the consequences that result from hubristic attempts to control the world. Whether magic or science is used, the result is an imperfect creation, lacking completeness: the golem cannot smell the flower it holds, cannot fully participate in life. It is the imperfection of the reanimated being, and the implied failure of the practitioner of science or magic to fully understand and/or control the principle of life, which ultimately produces unintended consequences. I mentioned at the outset that vitalism, as well as being associated with magical beliefs, is also a companion to science. This has its roots in the concept of teleology and its applicability to some areas of natural science. Teleology is the idea, championed by Aristotle among others, that to understand living systems, it is necessary to understand them as not only pushed along by mechanical or efficient causes, but as pulled along by purpose. Much of modern science, since Galileo and Newton, has sought to exorcise teleology from scientific explanation, yet it has proven difficult to fully banish, particularly where the study of biology has provoked philosophical reflections on the limitations of the new mechanistic science. For example, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) argued that, in order to understand what differentiates living and particular sentient living systems from non-living ones, one had to affirm that matter, living matter and mind are different degrees of organization of the same vital principle, implying that the universe therefore develops from a less organized to a more organized state overall, reflecting perhaps some overall teleological order to things. The idea that there had to be something outside matter that breathed life into it soon came under increased attack, particularly from Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesis of the organic compound urea from inorganic ammonium cyanate in 1828. The to and fro between vitalism and mechanism in science has nonetheless continued, to some extent, ever since. The advent of complexity science as an approach to understanding living systems reintroduces the idea that matter is, under certain circumstances, self-organising. But here the idea is that simple, iterative processes, which may themselves be entirely mechanistic, can give rise to self-regulating processes (such as metabolic systems). The question then might be: do we still need to think teleologically in order to understand such systems – does the frequent call to “think holistically” about natural systems constitute a call for a more esoteric, intuitive kind of knowledge which cannot be captured by exoteric, mechanistic science? In addition, the ghost of vitalism has returned in a very unexpected shape in the latest technological application of molecular biology, namely the “synthetic biology” championed by scientific entrepreneurs like Craig Venter. Venter’s claims about his company’s creation of a new, entirely synthetic unicellular organism rest on a particular view of how biological information incarnated in DNA functions. For Richard Jones, professor of physics at Sheffield University, this evokes a new form of vitalism: "The idea that his cells are entirely synthetic depends on a particular view of the flow of information – we have the sequence of his genome stored on his computer, this information is given physical realisation through the synthesis of the information carrying molecule DNA, and it is this information, when inserted into the lifeless husk, the shell of a bacteria whose own DNA has been removed, that sparks that cell into life, re-animating the cell under the control of the new DNA. In language Venter and others often use, the cell is “booted up”, as a dead computer with a corrupted operating system is restored to life with a new system disk. This idea that the spark of life is imparted by the information of the DNA seems perilously close to another kind of vitalism – let’s call it 'digital vitalism'." Richard Jones (2010), Soft Machines, “Digital Vitalism?” 6 June,

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At almost the same time as the film was being made, another version of the golem myth was being transformed into a modern art-work. Nicolae Bretan composed a one-act opera on the topic in 1923. Bretan was the first composer of Romanian opera, being of Transylvanian origin. Based on a poem by Mihali Eminescu, ‘The Ghosts’, the opera is yet another version of a European Jewish myth that has a long history and exists in many transformations. In the opera and the poem, the focus is much more intimate than the film.

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I appear to be here as a combination of token film studies expert, token folklorist and token Jew; and that’s not an altogether negative position to be in. I’ve had a close relationship with Wegener’s Das Golem for many years now; it has been a film which seems to follow me around. For example, I wrote the short piece on the film in the book 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, and when I was curating the St. John’s Jewish Film Society, back in Newfoundland, Canada, it was one of the first films I screened.