Month: May 2014

John Constantine and the Ethic of Redemption

By now, everyone who is interested in reading this post has likely seen the trailer for NBC’s Constantine. It certainly has a surprising degree of fidelity to the trappings of John’s world. He’s in Ravenscar, from an exorcism gone wrong. He rides around in a cab, has a Liverpudlian accent (or Walsh’s best attempt at one) and has the signature look pretty much down pat. He even says “bollocks” which is a nice touch. Hopefully after the watershed they’ll let him swear properly.

Beyond all the shallow, surface material though, they’ve hit a couple of beats perfectly. By choosing to set the adaptation during and immediately after John’s incarceration in Ravenscar, they actually pick up on one of his least detailed periods of history, and one of the principal times when his character is in flux. They paint John as having had his old arrogance, his risk-taking, early confident occult behaviour, and now accept him as having fallen into self-castigation and remorse. In essence, they capture John Constantine at a low-ebb, ready to rise from the ashes of his dead self into a more world-weary, but active, human being.

All good. So why the vague tone of reservation that pervades these opening remarks? Well, because of one line in the trailer. To begin with, I should note that it is one line in a trailer, easily taken out of context, but that I still fear might indicate an overall tone for the series: “Are you suggesting that it’s not too late for me to save my soul?”

This brought my overall enjoyment to a screeching halt, because it has, potentially, massive ramifications to the overall personality and philosophy of Constantine. Not because the attempt to obtain ‘redemption’ is inherently antithetical to his character. Far from it. I (along with my erstwhile comic-book colleague) have already written about John’s disappointed idealism, and his guilt, so to suggest that part of him might want to assuage that, to make himself into a better person should be nothing new. There’s nothing wrong about wanting to rise above his inner demons – John has tried it many times, and usually fails. If the expression itself were isolated, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all this, but the press release indicates it might be more of a thrust of the show.

The problem with this remark is that it buys into something I’ll call “the redemption scoreboard”. The idea that if you gain a certain number of “good deeds” your past sins will be forgiven and you will be a righteous person again (often escaping damnation or reaping a reward). Constantine, the Keanu Reeves adaptation actually fell into the same trap. “I need to save my soul”, says John, implicitly from the torments of the damned that he has now earned through all the things he’s done. There’s just one problem: John should not be accepting that the work can ever be done, or that there is anyone capable of making the judgment that a soul has now been ‘saved’. This is ‘gamist’ morality, a sensation that you mark up your points here or there and that if you manage to accrue enough points in one column, that’s the category you fall into. Good or bad. Learn how to game the system.

Firstly, I have to question the premise that there is a point at which a certain amount of good “washes out” the bad. A murderer who gives to charity is still a murderer, even if on a strictly utilitarian viewpoint the charity provides more benefit than the murder provides a detriment. There is no practical point at which a magic light turns on and says “You are now a good person again”. Many narratives attempt to create this story, with varying degrees of internal logic and success, but it always strikes us as a little hollow, an attempt ultimately to trick moral accounting with a numbers game. The idea of good and evil as qualities which can be “bought off” has a sickening corollary, that a certain amount of good justifies evil. Redemption does not, and cannot function like this. Doing good doesn’t erase the bad you’ve done, even where the narrative is set up so as to have you seek to directly contradict the consequences of your mistakes. It’s just that continuing to do good enables you to look at yourself in the mirror. Redemption isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. There’s nothing you can do that will ‘save your soul’, because your soul is fundamentally your own, and redemption is about acting in such a way as to enable you to look at yourself in the mirror and say “hey, at least I’m trying to do better”. Trying to do better. That’s all there is.

Now, of course, that’s an atheist’s perspective. There are many religions which hold directly with redemption and atonement as a discrete act of salvation, the redemption scorecard maintained by the almighty judgment of a higher power. I will note, however, in most of the religions that subscribe to the concept of sin, there are two critical distinctions which take the focus away from the scorecard. The first is that sin is, in most incarnations of the sin based religions, inevitable, either from original sin carried from birth or from the particularity of human nature which inclines people to wrongful behaviour. Sooner or later, you will become a sinner. The other critical issue is that redemption by those metrics is usually an instance of grace. That a higher power takes pity on you as a poor sinner, and forgives you your sins because you believe. Christians can go check Romans, Chapter 11, Verse 6 if they’re looking for an easy breakdown, because it lays it out pretty clearly: whether or not you do good works is irrelevant under the Biblical construction – you are a damned sinner until belief in God pays the way for you.

Much of Hellblazer turns on the issue that no-one, from God to the Devil, can make a complete accounting of character. God is, at one point, suggest to be a violent, sadistic masturbating maniac eating flies in the corner. But more important than this lack of complete accounting is that Hellblazer is, and to be true to itself must be, anti-authoritarian. Hellblazer founds itself on the principle that to allow a higher power to clear you of moral accountability in return for worship is anathemic. Is disgraceful. Is a betrayal of humanity. That’s the real sin of Constantine the movie, not Shia LeBeouf or Keanu Reeves’ accent. It’s that John wants to get back on God’s good side, that the movie universe cannot conceive of taking issue with the ultimate creator.

My experience of American media tends to be that it will concede God is absent, and the universe is without moral order, but that it will not accept that perhaps the forces arrayed against us are actively disinclined towards our interests. Hellblazer posits that the measure of a person is that in the face of overwhelming odds, in the face of God saying you are damned, that the only thing to do is take a complete accounting of your own soul and determine whether or not you can live with your personal accounting. And if you can’t, to take your lumps. Not necessarily from God or the Devil, but from yourself. John falls so low so many times because he falls short of his own self-estimation. It’s only when some holier-than-thou bastard comes down from on high to remind him that they have the audacity to try and keep score of the complexity of human interactions that he’s galvanised back to being himself.

The brilliance, the uniqueness, of Hellblazer is that it posited a universe where the supernatural existed, and beyond that, where there was a mystic order to the universe, a battle between light and darkness so common in fantasy texts, and a man slouched into it and spat that the world was more complicated than that, that to divide it into Manichean terms was a profound injustice to the poor bastards who had to live in it. This stood in for governments and churches and police officers, but it also stood in, yes, for God and the moral order.

It’s still early, early, early days yet. I’m still excited by the show, and I like the trailer more now I’ve watched it a few times. It’s just something I’m going to be live to in looking at it in future, because for someone who truly believes that we need to look away from the idea of a big scoreboard in the sky, John’s moral character is pretty damn important to me, and that includes not buying into the idea that God functions like Santa, coming to give gifts to the good children and punish the wicked ones. 

John Constantine shouldn’t accept an ethic by which someone else can say that he’s okay now. That he’s done what he needed to do. He knows that’s a battle that’ll never stop, that he’ll sometimes fuck up and sometimes succeed at and sometimes fall somewhere in the middle. He’s not on the side of the angels, but then, who would want to be?