Friday, May 13, 2011

Note on the Plan of Lady Gaga's Judas: The Counter-Revolution Will Be Televised

Upon the release of Gaga's latest music-drama, Judas, the Catholic League issued the following rather curious statement:

In her 'Judas' video, Lady Gaga plays fast and loose with Catholic iconography, and generates several untoward statements, but she typically dances on the line without going over it. The faux-baptismal scene is a curious inclusion, as is her apparent fondness for the Jesus character. But if anyone thinks the Catholic League is going to go ballistic over Lady Gaga's latest contribution, they haven't a clue about what really constitutes anti-Catholicism. The video is a mess, incoherent; it leaves the viewer more perplexed than moved.

The League deserves considerable credit for refusing to be drawn into contretemps with Lady Gaga, and it is right to recognize the fundamentally pro-Catholic character of the piece.  Indeed, it is likely the single most "Catholic" popular artwork in living memory, though it hints at, inter alia, Gaga's lingering discontent with the position of the curia since Vatican II.  It is perhaps in order to paper over these differences that the League sought to blunt some of Gaga's more pointed symbolism. 
For although the single may be quick, it is anything but loose.  And if it arouses controversy, it is because with this work Gaga rejects in total the political ideology of modernity, both of 1789 and of today.

Lest some pedant discount Gaga's imagery as uneducated affectation, it is important to note that Gaga herself has stated that she is "obsessed with religious art," an admission tantatmount to declaring that 'all mistakes have been corrected.'  Norman Reedus, who portrayed the title character in the cinematic accompaniment, described Gaga to Rolling Stone as "super Catholic, and gets everyone together for a prayer before everything she does, she's super religious."

Of course, such commentary is unnecessary, as Gaga literally wears her heart on her sleeve in this video, donning the insignia of the Sacre Coeur, emblem of the Counter-Revolution.  Such a brazen display of fealty to King and Faith would have brought Gaga to the guillotine barely two centuries ago.  But for Gaga, it is only the beginning, and points to a vision even more radical.

Gaga's vision combines theological, political, and philosophic elements, the admixture of which results in the "perplexity" that the League chose not to resolve.  Nevertheless, the lengthy Wikipedia treatment, likely authored by Beckian scholars, in alluding to but not elaborating upon the "private" Gaga and the "public" Gaga, offers an opening through which this Gagaean knot might be untangled.

What is most striking about the public Gaga is her outward piety, in that she speaks more of Peter than of Judas.  However, Gaga makes a subtle change to the Christian concept of the rock upon which the Church is built, substituting, "I've learned love is like a brick/you can build a house or sink a dead body."  (1)

In the video, Gaga conspicuously utters these words directly to the character identified as (Simon) Peter (2:28), to whom Christ originally spoke: "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church..." (Matthew 16:18).  In specifically drawing out the person of Peter, Gaga plants her banner squarely within the Roman Catholic tradition, as opposed to the Protestant view, which would claim that Peter's profession of faith, irrespective of Peter himself, constitutes the "rock."  Gaga, in visibly recognizing the authority of the first pontiff, reveals herself not simply as an opponent of rationalist anti-clericism, but as an unreconstructed ultramontanist. (2)

Gaga thus retraces the strategy of the eminently Protestant "Brown Eyes," beginning with a bald assertion of the doctrine while providing only the most devoted students with a glimpse at the roots of her thinking.  Thus in the same breath she highlights not only the figure of Peter as the rock but contrasts it with two other episodes from the Gospels: namely, Peter's failed attempt to walk on water--"sink a dead body"--(Matthew 14) and Peter's desire to build a dwelling in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17).  In the first case, Peter begins to sink when he "sees" the wind, and in the second he is rebuked by the voice of God for seeking to tangibly instantiate an Holy mystery.  In each case, it is precisely Peter's attachment to the empirical world which leads to his downfall, just as, immediately after he is named as the rock of the church, Peter is harshly rebuked for seeking to prevent the death of Christ, thus reinforcing Gaga's rejection of empiricism as rooted in the inability to transcend the "dead body."  For Gaga, any compromise whatsoever with empiricist modernity is entirely unacceptable and may constitute the only act which could threaten the legitimacy of the established church.

Yet more perplexing still is the fourth mention of Peter, specifically his three denials, which Gaga in the song attributes to Judas (again, piety seems to prevent speaking ill of the Saint and symbol of the Roman church), an apparent "mistake" which cannot be anything but intentional.  This conflation of Peter and Judas can only be explained by Gaga's identification of Judas' treachery with reason: "forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain" (cf. John 12:4-6).

And yet, moving from politics to philosophy, it is this quality of Judas which Gaga is in love with, and it is her refusal to renounce it, or the continued "vomiting of her mind," which renders her beyond repentance.  Gaga agrees with the justice of her stoning in the "most Biblical sense," i.e., according to Mosaic law.  But "in the cultural sense," Gaga speaks only in "future tense."  In other words, Gaga appeals to the prophets and the New Testament against the Pentateuch, not, as it were, to subtract one letter from the law, but out of a desire to dwell in the truth.  Similar questions led Haydn to consider Beethoven an atheist after hearing his music.

In order to unravel this paradox, it is necessary to examine Gaga's understanding of truth.  The truth, in Gaga's view, is inseparable from judgment, or, more accurately, the impossibility of non-judgement.  Hence her choreographer's enigmatic statement concerning the "non-judgment" of Jesus and its meaning.  This "non-judgment" of Christ is an oblique, yet unmistakeable, reference to Pilate, who in John's Gospel utters perhaps the most philosophic question of the entire New Testament, namely, "What is truth?"  Yet whereas 'secular' philosophy prevents judgment, Gaga's philosophy requires and perhaps even presupposes it.  The public, pious Gaga, however, only alludes to this, showing Thomas (the Doubter) with the character of John in the video (3), thus highlighting the parallel trials of Christ in another attack on rationalist empiricism.

The "private" Gaga speaks, significantly, in the middle eighth of the song, which corresponds to the image of Gaga's baptism, in which Gaga is simultaneously portrayed as Aphrodite. This inclusion of obvious pagan imagery into such an overt Christian context seems intentionally provocative. Gaga uses it, above all, to insert a discussion of classical Eros within the above described narrative of sacramental baptism and original sin. 

Gaga's 'repentance' in baptism takes the form of returning to the classical interpretation of philosophy as a pursuit of beauty, fundamentally irrational in its origins.  Gaga implies that the ultimate betrayal of reason was to take Socrates too literally in naming the reason the absolute monarch of the soul.  Reason is instead a tyrant, a "king with no crown."  Gaga "takes down" the modern rationalist tyrant by asserting the links between reason and the appetites, while at the same time elevating classical philosophy in spiritualizing the quest for beauty.  On a political level, the clear implication is that a king with a crown is the rightful sovereign, hence Gaga's identificaton with the Eye of Horus, symbol and protector of royal power.  Gaga here makes obvious the latent connection between Burkean political conservatism and a philosophy of beauty: for something to be loved, it has to be lovely.

While at times perplexing, Gaga thus negotiates the eternal divide between reason and revelation by posing the cosmic riddle to which the two lead to the same answer.  Gaga not only endorses her lawful punishment but accepts it willingly under the spell of her daimonion.


(1) Immediately, Gaga's interpretation of "rock" as "brick" draws upon the Being and Time Heidegger's identification of existential Dasein with its equipmental involvements. Gaga's choice to foreground this existentialist interpretation of the New Testament deserves further explication in a subsequent essay, but roughly communicates humanity's inability to escape the plight of Gaga's narrative (also known as Gaga's Wager).  At this point, however, it is unclear whether "love" in this context connotes eros or agape.

(2) In retrospect, the signs were present all along. For Gaga titles herself Lady Gaga, not Citizen Gaga, or Ms. Gaga, or any other pretentiously demotic title. Moreover, the political statement of Judas requires a complete reinterpretation of the entire "Born This Way" corpus (cf. vornehmheit vs. noble), as it now appears less a critical appraisal of the literary significance of Oscar Wilde than it does a clarion call for the restoration of hereditary nobility and divine right monarchy ("just be a queen," etc.). In fact, Judas may not represent Gaga's first well argued dismissal of the social contract tradition in political philosophy. Exciting new scholarship has already pointed out the links between Gaga's "Paper Gangsta" and King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia's statement that he would "never allow a piece of paper [constitution] to come between God in Heaven and this land."

(3) Characteristically, Gaga hews to the early Church tradition which holds that John, son of Zebedee, and John the Evangelist were the same person.

1 comment:

  1. Although I cannot improve on Aristophanes' clarity of vision in this analysis I would note the double meaning of "king without a crown." That reason is a tyrant is indeed one implication, hence Gaga's calling herself a "holy fool," i.e., the holy man in Alfarabi's story who to escape attention pretended to be the town fool: Socratic ignorance crossed with apophatic mysticism. But there is another king without a crown evoked by the imagery of the Sacre Coeur to which you draw attention: Prince Louis Alphonse of Bourbon, Duke of Anjou, by right Louis XX, King of France and Navarre.