Several years ago, I had the privilege of spending some time with Oliver Stone, a visionary genius who in his extraordinary films has portrayed the shadow side of modern humanity. At one point, we talked about the movie Alien, for which H. R. Giger received the Academy Award. I expressed my deep admiration for Giger’s art and his uncanny capacity to depict the deep dark recesses of the human psyche revealed by modern consciousness research.
Oliver Stone described his own opinion about Giger and about his contribution to modern art. In this context, he shared with me an original insight about Giger’s place in the world of art and in human culture. “I do not know anybody else,” he said, “who has so accurately portrayed the soul of modern humanity. A few decades from now when they talk about twentieth century, they will think of Giger.”
Although Oliver Stone’s statement momentarily surprised me by its extreme nature, I immediately realized that it reflected a profound truth. Since then, I often recalled this conversation when I was confronted with various disturbing developments in the western industrial civilization. Giger’s art has often been called “biomechanoid.” Is there a better word that describes the Zeitgeist of the twentieth century, characterized by staggering technological progress that enslaved modern humanity in an internecine symbiosis with the world of machines?
In the course of the twentieth century, modern technological inventions became extensions of our muscles, our nervous system, our eyes and ears, and even our reproductive organs, to such an extent that the boundaries between biology and mechanical contraptions have all but disappeared. The archetypal stories of Faust, the sorcerer’s apprentice, Golem, and Frankenstein became the leading mythology of our times. Materialistic science, in its effort to gain knowledge of the world of matter and to control it, has engendered a monster that threatens the very survival of life on our planet. The human role has changed from that of a demiurg to that of a victim.
When we look for another characteristic feature of twentieth century, what immediately comes to mind is unbridled violence and destruction on an unprecedented scale. It was a century, in which internecine wars, bloody revolutions, totalitarian regimes, genocide, brutality of secret police, and international terrorism ruled supreme. The loss of life in World War I was estimated at ten million soldiers and twenty million civilians. Additional millions died from war-spread epidemics and famine. In World War II, approximately twice as many lives were lost. This century saw the bestiality of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the diabolical hecatombs of Stalin’s purges and his Gulag Archipelago, the development of chemical ad biological warfare, the weapons of mass destruction, and the apocalyptic horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We can add to it the civil terror in China and other Communist countries, the victims of South American dictatorships, the atrocities and genocide committed by the Chinese in Tibet, and the cruelties of the South African Apartheid. The war in Korea and Vietnam, the wars in the Middle East, and the slaughter in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are some more examples of the senseless bloodshed we have witnessed during the last hundred years. In a mitigated form, death pervaded the media of the twentieth century as a favorite subject for entertainment.
The destructive abuses of modern science and the nature and scale of violence committed in the course of the twentieth century gave this period of history distinctly demonic features. This was further augmented by a renaissance of witchcraft and satanic cults, terrorist organizations, such as Charles Manson’s gang or the Symbionese Liberation Army, acting out distorted mystical impulses, and escalating interest in books and movies focusing on demon worship and exorcism.
Yet another important characteristic of the twentieth century is the extraordinary change of attitude toward sexuality, of sexual values, and of sexual behavior. The second half of this century witnessed an unprecedented lifting of sexual repression and polymorphous manifestation of erotic impulses worldwide. On the one hand, it was lifting of cultural constraints leading to sexual freedom and early experimentation of the young generation, premarital sex, promiscuity, popularity of common law and open marriage, gay liberation, and overtly sexual theater plays, television programs, and movies.
On the other hand, the shadow sides of sexuality surfaced on an unprecedented scale and became part of modern culture – teenage pregnancy, adult and child pornography, red light districts offering all imaginable forms of prostitution, sadomasochistic parlors, sexual “slave markets,” bizarre burlesque shows, and clubs catering to clients with a wide range of erotic aberrations and perversions. And the deepest shadow of them all – the rapidly escalating specter of worldwide AIDS epidemic forged an inseparable link between sexuality and death, Eros and Thanatos.
All the essential elements of twentieth century’s Zeitgeist are present in an inextricable amalgam in Giger’s biomechanoid art. In his inimitable style, he masterfully merges elements of dangerous mechanical contraptions of the technological world with various parts of human anatomy. Equally extraordinary is the way in which Giger blends deviant sexuality with violence and with emblems of death. Skulls and bones morph into sexual organs or parts of machines and vice versa to such degree and so smoothly that the resulting images portray with equal symbolic power sexual rapture, violence, agony, and death. The satanic potential of these domains is depicted with such artistic skill that it gives them archetypal depth.
There is one recurrent motif in Giger’s art that at first glance has very little to do with the soul of the twentieth century – the abundance of images depicting tortured and sick fetuses. And yet, this is where Giger’s visionary genius offers the most profound insights into the hidden recesses of the human psyche. Adding the prenatal and perinatal elements to the symbolism of sex, death, and pain reveals depth and clarity of psychological understanding that by far surpasses that of mainstream psychologists and is missing in the work of Giger’s predecessors and peers – surrealists and fantastic realists.
Mainstream psychology and psychiatry is dominated by the theories of Sigmund Freud, whose ground-breaking pioneering work laid the foundations for modern “depth-psychology.” Freud’s model of the psyche, however avant-garde and revolutionary for his time, was very superficial and narrow, limited to postnatal biography and the individual unconscious. The members of his Viennese circle who had tried to expand it, such as Otto Rank, with his theory of the birth trauma, and C. G. Jung, with his concept of the collective unconscious and the archetypes, became renegades and were excluded from the psychoanalytic movement. In official handbooks of psychiatry, their work is usually discussed as historical curiosity and considered irrelevant for clinical practice.
Freud’s work had a profound effect on art. His concepts of the Oedipus complex, mother fixation, and the castrating father became a treasure trove of ideas for novelists and film-makers. Freud’s discovery of sexual symbolism and interpretation of dream symbolism was one of the main sources of inspiration for the surrealist movement. It became fashionable for the artistic avant-garde to imitate the dreamwork by juxtaposing in a most surprising fashion various objects in a manner that defied elementary logic. The selection of these objects often showed a preference for those that, according to Freud, had hidden sexual meaning.
However, while the connections between the seemingly incongruent dream images have their own logic and meaning that can be revealed by analysis of dreams, this was not always true for surrealistic paintings. Here shocking juxtaposition of images often reflected empty mannerism separated from the truth and logic of the unconscious dynamic. Giger’s art is diametrically different in this regard. The combinations of images in his paintings might seem illogical and incongruous only to those who are not familiar with the findings of pioneering consciousness research in the last several decades. They reveal that Giger’s understanding of the human psyche is far ahead of mainstream professionals, who have not yet accepted the new observations and integrated them into the official body of scientific knowledge.
Clinical work with various forms of powerful experiential psychotherapy and with psychedelic substances has brought incontrovertible evidence that the Freudian image of the psyche is extremely superficial. People experiencing deep psychological regression with the use of these new techniques very rapidly move beyond the memories from childhood and infancy and reach the level in their psyche that carries the record of traumatic memory of biological birth. At this point, they encounter emotions and physical sensations of extreme intensity, often surpassing anything they previously considered humanly possible. The experiences originating on this level of the psyche represent a strange mixture of a shattering encounter with death and the struggle to be born.
This intimate connection between birth and death in our unconscious psyche is logical and easily understandable. It reflects the fact that birth is potentially or actually a life-threatening event. The child and the mother can actually lose their lives during delivery, and children might be born severely blue from asphyxiation, or even dead and in need of resuscitation. The birth process also involves violent elements in the form of the assault of the uterine contractions on the fetus, as well as the fetus’ response to this situation. This reaction takes the form of amorphous fury of a biological organism whose life is seriously threatened. Suffering and vital threat engenders anxiety in the fetus.
The spectrum of perinatal experiences is very rich and is not limited to the elements that can be derived from the biological and psychological processes involved in childbirth. The perinatal domain of the psyche also represents an important gateway to the collective unconscious in the Jungian sense, both in its historical and mythological aspects. The intensity of the suffering can be so extreme that it can bring identification with victims of all ages and evoke archetypal images of evil – the Terrible Mother Goddess, scenery of Hell, and various demonic beings.
The fact that the reliving of birth is typically associated with violent and terrifying experiences abounding in images of sacrifice, death, and evil makes good sense in view of the emotional and physical ordeal of the fetus. More surprising is the fact that individuals involved in this process regularly experience intense sexual arousal. It seems that the human organism has a built-in physiological mechanism that translates inhuman suffering, and particularly suffocation, into a strange kind of sexual arousal and eventually into ecstatic rapture.
The connections between the experiences of the consecutive stages of biological birth and various symbolic images associated with them are very specific and consistent. For example, the reliving of episodes of intrauterine disturbances is associated with a sense of dark and ominous threat and a sense of being sick and poisoned. Sequences of this kind can be associated with archetypal visions of frightening demonic entities or with a sense of insidious all-pervading evil.
Individuals reliving the onset of biological birth typically feel that they are being sucked into a gigantic whirlpool or swallowed by some mythic beast. This can be accompanied by images of devouring or entangling archetypal monsters, such as leviathans, dragons, whales, giant snakes, tarantulas, or octopuses. The sense of overwhelming vital threat can lead to intense anxiety and general mistrust bordering on paranoia. Another experiential variety of the beginning of birth is the theme of descending into the depths of the underworld, the realm of death, or hell.
In the fully developed first stage of biological birth, the uterine contractions periodically constrict the fetus, and the cervix is not yet open. Subjects reliving this part of birth feel caught in a monstrous claustrophobic nightmare; they experience agonizing emotional and physical pain, and have a sense of utter helplessness and hopelessness. Feelings of loneliness, guilt, absurdity of life, and existential despair can reach metaphysical proportions. A person in this predicament often becomes convinced that this situation will never end and that there is absolutely no way out. An experiential triad characteristic for this state is a sense of dying, going crazy, and never coming back.
Reliving this stage of birth is typically accompanied by sequences that involve people, animals, and even mythological beings in a painful and hopeless predicament similar to that of the fetus caught in the clutches of the birth canal. This can be a medieval dungeon, a torture chamber of the Inquisition, a smothering and crushing mechanical contraption, a concentration camp, or an insane asylum. Archetypal versions of the same portray the intolerable tortures of sinners in hell or the agony of Christ on the cross. In this state, people are unable to see anything positive in their life and in human existence in general. Through the prism of this experiential matrix, life seems to be a meaningless Theater of the Absurd, a farce staging cardboard characters and mindless robots, or a cruel circus sideshow.
In the next stage of delivery, the uterine contractions continue to encroach on the fetus, but the dilated cervix allows gradual propulsion of the fetus through the birth canal. From an experiential point of view, reliving of this stage of birth is extremely rich. It does not involve an exclusive identification with the role of the suffering victim like the previous stage; it also provides access to enormous reservoirs of pent-up murderous aggression. This leads to images of cruelties of astonishing proportions – scenes of vicious fights, torture, ritual sacrifice and self-sacrifice. Sexual experiences that occur in this context are characterized by enormous intensity of the sexual drive, by their mechanical and unselective quality, and their exploitative, pornographic, or deviant nature. They depict scenes from the sexual underworld, extravagant erotic practices, sadomasochistic sequences, and sexual abuse or rape.
At this stage, many people experience also satanic motifs, particularly if their birth was very difficult, painful, and life-threatening. The most common themes observed in this context are scenes of the Sabbath of the Witches (Walpurgi’s Night), satanic orgies and Black Mass rituals, and temptation by evil forces. The common denominator connecting this stage of childbirth with the themes of the Sabbath or with the Black Mass rituals is the peculiar experiential amalgam of death, deviant sexuality, pain, fear, aggression, scatology, and distorted spiritual impulse that they share.
Giger has a profound understanding of this aspect of the perinatal domain of the unconscious. He is fascinated by Eliphas Levi’s picture of Baphomet, a mysterious, obscurely symbolic figure combining human, animal, and divine features. This creature, appearing in medieval manuscripts of the Templars, served for him repeatedly as a source of artistic inspiration. Giger intuitively grasps the full range of meaning of this archetypal figure; his rendition of Baphomet includes not only elements of violence, death, and scatology, but also sexual and fetal symbolism.
Satanic motifs, intimately interwoven with fetal and sexual elements and images of violence and suffering, form an integral part of many of Giger’s paintings. In some of his works, the satanic represents the main thematic focus. This is particularly true for Satan I and II and the paintings of the Spell series – the Kaliesque female deity flanked by phallic fetuses or Baphomet with a female figure resting with her mons pubis on his horn. “Departure for Sabbath,” “Witches’ Dance,” “Satan’s Bride,” “Vladimir Tepes,” and “Lilith” are additional salient examples.
As the ultimate master of the nightmarish aspect of the perinatal unconscious, which is the source of individual and social psychopathology and of much of the suffering in the modern world, Giger has no match in the history of art. However, the perinatal dynamics also has its light side and harbors great potential for healing and transcendence, for psychospiritual death and rebirth. In the history of religion, a profound encounter with the Shadow in the form of the Dark Night of the Soul or Temptation has often been a prerequisite for spiritual opening. The arduous ordeals of Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Anthony, as well as similar elements in the story of The Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed testify to that effect.
It has been repeatedly noted that Giger’s art, like the Greek tragedy, can mediate powerful emotional catharsis to those who are open to it. And Giger himself experiences his art as healing and as an important means of maintaining his sanity. It seems that he also intuits the spiritual potential of a deep experiential immersion in the world of dark perinatal images. He is intrigued by the motif of crucifixion and uses it as part of his perinatal compositions, as exemplified by Satan I and II, The Crucified Serpent, Spell I, or Tide.
In one of the paintings in the interior of the Passage Temple, he depicted a throne bathed in light, standing at the top of seven steps, and flanked by biomechanoid virgins. He described it as “the way of the magician that has to be taken to become on a level with god.” Similarly, his image of the staircase to the Harkonen Castle (Dune I), lined with dangerous phallic death symbols, seems to lead to heaven.
In general, however. the transcendental potential of the perinatal process has so far received little of Giger’s attention. It would be interesting to speculate about the possible reasons for it. The great American mythologist Joseph Campbell once commented that the images of hell in world mythology are by far less intriguing and interesting than those of heaven because, unlike happiness and bliss, suffering can take so many different forms. Maybe Giger feels that the transcendental dimension has been more than adequately represented in western art, while the deep abyss of the dark side has been avoided. It is also possible that Giger’s own healing process has not yet proceeded far enough to embrace the transcendental dimension with the same compelling force with which it has engaged the Shadow.
I personally hope that the last alternative is closest to the truth. I would love to see Giger’s genius to use his incredible imagination and masterful free-hand airbrush technique to portray the transcendental beauty of the imaginal world with the same mastery, with which he has captured its “terrible beauty.” I have heard this comment from many others from the circle of his admirers. But Giger has always pursued his own inner truth and has disliked taking orders from his customers. It is unlikely that the wishes of his fans, however sincere and passionate, would be more successful in this regard. He will follow the inner logic of his Promethean quest, wherever it takes him, as he has always done, and those of us who love his art will continue enjoying the extraordinary products of this process as they keep emerging into the world.
Stanislav Grof, Mill Valley, California, January 2001