Anime Diet Audio Column – Art and Soul 02: Evangelion and the Gnostic Impulse

Your fantasy come true. Squeal.

Contains spoilers for Evangelion (what, you haven’t seen it?!) and Serial Experiments Lain.

Well, I suppose my hiatus ends a few hours early today. Here I am. I’m back!

Right now, I’m basically pinch hitting for both Jeremy and Ray, who couldn’t do an audio column today…this is the fastest thing I could concoct in a few hours. It just happens to dovetail nicely with the fanfic I posted today, too! Basically, I talk about the Gnostic desires in Evangelion, and also in Serial Experiments Lain. Seems to fit the fact that the Eva remake movie comes out tomorrow…or actually, it’s already out in Japan time, if I’m not mistaken.

This one is a lot less dire and Bible-heavy compared to my first one, so all of you bracing for a sermon, you can stop hiding in the corner now. :)

Show Notes

  • –OP: “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” by Yoko Takahashi (OP to Neon Genesis Evangelion…duh!)
  • –ED: “Fly Me to the Moon, 2007 Mix” by Utada Hikaru (ED for the Evangelion Remake)
  • –BGM: “Beautiful World,” by Utada Hikaru (theme song for Eva remake)
  • –BGM: “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” by The Smiths
  • –BGM: “The Heady Feeling of Freedom,” by Shiro Sagisu (from Neon Genesis Evangelion ep. 26)
  • –Offerings sacrificed at Hideaki Anno shrine: zero.

Transcript below the cutaway.


Issue 2: Evangelion and the Gnostic Impulse Tomorrow, September 1, marks the release of the first Evangelion remake movie. I got into anime because of Eva, so any revamped version of Hideaki Anno’s frustrating, raw, and utterly brilliant creation is news for me. Am I excited about the remake? Well, this first film covers the equivalent of episodes 1-6 in the TV series, so unless there’s some drastic plot twists already, it probably won’t hold any surprises for a show I’ve seen something like 5 times. I remember I didn’t really get into the show or appreciate its depth until well into the second half of the TV series. That’s when the show unleashes its genuinely unique and harrowing properties, its exposed emotional S2 engine. And that’s also where a lot of the genuinely Gnostic characteristics of the show start to come through.Now, I have to admit, I was initially drawn to the show because of its title: anything that’s called Neon Genesis Evangelion is going to at least raise a few eyebrows for ol’ Christian, theology-loving me. I do remember, though, feeling disappointed at the rather superficial use of Christian imagery. I mean, come on: cross shaped explosions? Big white mama goddess hanging on a cross? What kind of crack or cult manual was Anno smoking? The psychological stuff made a lot more sense, since, in many ways, the journey Shinji goes through is not a religious or spiritual one but a psychological one—a journey from self-hatred and self-absorption to an acceptance of others. I remember back then seeing all kinds of other strange things, and I was wondering where a lot of that came from: and, the answer really made everything make sense. And that answer is Gnosticism, and its medieval Jewish stepchild, Kabbalah.

What’s Gnosticism? Lately, because of The Da Vinci Code, people have been hearing a lot more about it, but the version Dan Brown concocts is more than just heretical—it’s just wrong factually. Genuine Gnosticism was a variant of Christianity, plus Platonic philosophy and a few other mystery religions, most popular between the 2ndto 4th centuries, when it was violently suppressed by the newly dominant church. It’s quite complicated in the details—that was one of the things that made them special—but basically, Gnostics believed that human souls are divine sparks trapped inside our corrupt, mortal, and material bodies. Our souls originally came from God, or the One, and we long to be reunited and reincorporated into the One again. But we chose to fall into material bodies instead long ago: Gnostics really hate the body, hate physical existence. The physical world is an illusion, it’s unreal, compared to the world of the spirit, which is your true home.The goal of Gnosticism, then, is to wake up to what you really are—a divine spark, a soul trapped in your shell of a body—and to do everything you can to pay as little attention to your body as you can. You live a purely spiritual life, usually with extreme fastingand other ascetic exercises, until, having said the right passwords and gotten past the right spiritual guardians (eons and archons), you can be reunited with the One.

Does that sound kind of familiar? It should. It sounds just like the Human Instrumentality Project in Evangelion, doesn’t it? Or sort of what happens at the end of the first Ghost in the Shell movie. Or what the bad god wants to do in Serial Experiments Lain. In all those shows there’s a desire to overcome the limits of bodily existence—loneliness, separation, misunderstanding, frailty. Sometimes it takes the form of being joined to a big computer network, or becoming one big slop of orange goo, but it’s the same desire nonetheless—to become perfectly united with all.

You notice something all those other shows have in common, too? Their main characters are often alienated, or at least feel apart, from everyone else. This is no accident. Eric Voegelin once noted that Gnosticism always appealed the most to the alienated and the outcast in society. It starts with a sense that something in the world isn’t right, and that everyone else seems oblivious to it, but you see it. So you can’t be happy like everyone else because you see the way things really are. Nobody understands you because they can’t. They don’t know what you know. And they pick on you because they don’t.

Doesn’t that sound, well, like adolescence? Like the geek experience? You can sort of see why Shinji would want to turn everyone into goo at the end of End of Evangelion. You wouldn’t have to hurt because of all that misunderstanding anymore. If you were Lain, you could be literally someone else in the Wired, not a little girl dressed up in a bear outfit. In both those shows, that’s the temptation—to succumb to the oneness and become an indistinguishable mass, no one having to hurt or feel or be misunderstood anymore.

But only a temptation. What’s interesting is that in the Eva movie, and at the end of Lain, the characters find their way to reaffirm being in a body again. Shinji returns from the sea and sees Asuka. Lain gives herself up so that the Wired won’t swallow everyone, and discovers that her Father-Creator is holding her together. Both of them are saying, a life where you can’t tell the difference between yourself and everyone else isn’t really life anymore. There’s an even deeper human need to just be ourselves, and not others. And to do that, you have to also choose to be limited, at least in this life. You have to accept that there will be misunderstanding and pain and rejection and bad memories. But the price of becoming One with everyone is just too high.

In the end, it’s about learning to love yourself, and loving yourself is, as the other half of the great commandment says, is the basis of being able to love one another.

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