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Albion’s Hidden Numina
Peter Shaffer’s Equus

Uffington-White-Horse-sat

The Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire

2,486 words

Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, is arguably the most pagan work of art created in the 20th century. Ostensibly an extended dialogue between a mentally ill boy and his psychiatrist, Shaffer’s play goes far beyond the realms of psychoanalysis and begins to stir the surface of an incipient numinous awakening. That the numinous is dialectically equated with mental illness is, interestingly enough, not problematic because the context of the play insists on the essential mystery of the condition and certainly allows for a reading whereby the illness is itself a symptom of a far deeper malaise.

The inspiration for Equus came from a friend of Shaffer’s who told him about an incident involving the blinding of some horses. There were no specific details, and the friend died shortly afterwards and so was unable to expand on the story, but it made enough of an impression for Shaffer to use it as the basis for the play.

Equus begins with an overworked child psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, being visited by a magistrate friend. She explains that she has recently tried the case of a boy who blinded six horses with a metal spike. Her fellow magistrates wanted to send him to prison but she has managed to persuade them to allow Dysart to see the boy instead. She seems to intuit that the extremity of the crime – the very thing that repels others – would exert a fascination for Dysart. He agrees to see the boy and the play unfolds with a mixture of counselling sessions and flashbacks, skilfully integrated into a powerful theatrical experience resonant with ritualistic touches.

The boy, Alan Strang, is initially uncommunicative and belligerent, but as the play progresses we learn something of the background to his savage act, and of the strange, idiosyncratic forms of religious worship he has created for himself.

Alan has developed a complex and rich mythos around the god of horses, Equus. His first memory of a horse was from the age of six when he saw one at the beach and believed that it spoke to him. The horse tells Alan that he is the God Equus who lives in all horses. This seems to have made such a deep impression on him that throughout his childhood he developed a continuing obsession with horses. His mother tells Dysart that as a young boy Alan insisted on being read the same book about a talking horse again and again. She also recalls telling Alan that when the Christian cavalry arrived in the New World on horseback the American Indians (the “pagans” as she puts it) thought that horse and rider were one being, “a God.”[1]  Later on Alan’s father, who disapproves of Mrs. Strang’s religious sensibility and the influence it has on Alan, tears down a picture from Alan’s bedroom of Christ on his way to Calvary. Significantly, it is replaced with a picture of a horse.

This accumulation of personal mythos results in Alan’s peculiar religious activities centred around worship of Equus, and ultimately culminates in the blinding of the horses. As Dysart puts it:

A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs – it sucks – it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why?[2]

Alan’s father tells Dysart that he once inadvertently saw Alan in his bedroom kneeling before the picture of the horse and reciting a made-up pseudo-Biblical genealogy which culminates with, “Behold – I give you Equus, my only begotten son!”[3] Alan then places string reins in his mouth and beats himself with a wooden coat hanger. This appears to be part of the strange ritual worship that he has constructed for Equus. Ultimately, he finds work at a stable where he can be with his God in his temple. When a girl, Jill, who works there takes him back to the stable one night for sex, he is unable to perform. Seemingly from frustration at his own impotence, he stabs six horses in the eyes so as to blind Equus.

On the face of it, all of this is interesting as a portrait in psychological breakdown, and that is certainly the means by which the narrative progresses. Dysart describes Alan as an “advanced neurotic”[4] and treats him as such. Such a diagnosis has since fallen out of favour; Alan would now probably be diagnosed as belonging to the autistic spectrum. But what elevates Equus above a mere psychological study is Dysart’s suspicion that Alan has in some obscure way achieved a direct confrontation with his God. And for this Dysart envies him.

Dysart is a deeply troubled character. Middle-aged, sliding through life in affluence and a sterile marriage, he comes to see Alan’s illness as a perverse form of health. That is, he recognises that Alan has departed entirely from conventional notions of religion and has discovered a radically authentic form of worship. Dysart, a cultured classicist, considers himself a pagan with his statue of Dionysus and his love of the Peloponnese. But when he encounters Alan he suffers the shock of discovering his own shallowness when measured against the extremity of Alan’s disturbed metaphysics.

I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field! . . . I watch that woman knitting, night after night – a woman I haven’t kissed in six years – and he stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek! Then in the morning, I put away my books on the cultural shelf, close up the Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus, touch my reproduction statue of Dionysus for luck – and go off to hospital to treat him for insanity. Do you see?[5]

In the conflict between Alan’s instinctual and wild sense of religious worship and Dysart’s intellectual, classical paganism, many critics have seen Nietzsche’s dialectic of the Dionysian and Apollonian. On this reading, Dysart’s growing sense of disillusion comes from the realisation that he is not, as he had previously believed himself to be, a Dionysian rebel but instead a highly polished Apollonian failure. Alan’s shocking ritualistic behaviour shatters Dysart’s conceits to the contrary. This Apollonian/Dionysian reading is supported by Shaffer’s own notes to the play where he comments that, “all the cast of Equus sits on stage the entire evening. They get up to perform their scenes, and return when they are done to their places around the set. They are witnesses, assistants – and especially a Chorus.”[6] The Chorus is expected at certain points in the play to make noises to suggest horses: “humming, thumping, and stamping . . . This Noise heralds or illustrates the presence of Equus the God.”[7] Of course, it is no coincidence that Nietzsche conceived of the Greek chorus as satyrs who dream their God into being.

A different, and perhaps more provocative, reading of the clash between Dysart and Alan could see it in terms of Spengler’s idea of the second religiousness and the numinous. In Decline of the West Spengler observes that the innermost impulses of any particular culture will eventually reach a point of fulfilment. This point is achieved when the ultimate potential of the culture has been articulated in the highest artistic forms it is capable of achieving. For Spengler, this cultural high watermark was achieved in the west with the development of the sonata form in music. Once that point has been passed there is no possibility for further development of those inner impulses, so the culture will turn to outward expansion as a means of furthering its necessary imperatives. This phase is referred to by Spengler as the Caesarist age and is a time of outward expansion as a substitute for inward development. The culture itself has succumbed entirely to money values and in the absence of a higher sensibility there is instead the emergence of party politics and democracy.

Now, as this Caesarist age progresses, there is an increasing sense of spiritual aridity and boredom as people become fed up with the limitations of money values. Everywhere, there arises a longing for older and nobler values, a nostalgia for a time when values actually meant something. This is what Spengler calls the Second Religiousness. It is a period of spiritual longing emerging in a spiritual wasteland. The only place to find anything capable of evoking authenticity is in the past, and so more and more people turn to spent religions and cults.

By contrast, Spengler asserts that the beginning phase of a culture is characterised by an ahistorical peasantry starting to become aware of the numen:

He feels about him an almost indescribable alien life of unknown powers, and traces the origin of these effects to ‘numina’, to the Other, inasmuch as this Other also possesses Life . . . Now it is important to observe how the consciousness of each Culture intellectually condenses its primary ‘numina’.  It imposes significant words — names — on them and thereby conjures (seizes or bounds) them.[8]

In this context we can see that Dysart is clearly a man in whom the sense of the Second Religiousness exerts powerful longings. He has come to a point where he is disgruntled with his way of life and, even more importantly, he has realised that psychiatry can only provide part of the answer to the problem of human existence. His classical leanings are worn with a self-conscious pride as an emblem of his desire for something other than mundane life. But crucially, he is unable to immerse himself fully in this “pagan” mind-set; it remains distant and foreign to him. His encounter with Alan merely stirs up feelings of frustration and discontent that he had already been dimly aware of.

What Dysart begins to intuit is that neither psychiatry nor classical paganism is capable of shining a light into the darkness resting at the heart of human life. And the voice of Alan’s newly discovered/created God begins to taunt Dysart with the idea that there is something entirely inexplicable, wholly other,[9] from which all metaphysical speculations emerge:

I can hear the creature’s voice. It’s calling me out of the black cave of the Psyche. I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands – waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says – ‘Why? . . . Why Me? . . . Why – ultimately – Me? . . . Do you really imagine you can account for Me? Totally, infallibly, inevitably account for Me? . . . Poor Doctor Dysart!’

Dysart continues, “Of course I’ve stared at such images before. Or been stared at by them, whichever way you look at it. And weirdly often now with me the feeling is that they are staring at us – that in some quite palpable way they precede us. Meaningless, but unsettling . . .”[10]

Here, Dysart confronts a particularly disturbing idea, at least for the modern, secular mind: that the Gods are not just cultural tokens symbolising particular states of mind, but instead prior entities, at once wholly other and yet integral to human life. The dark shadow of the Gods prefigures our emergence into comprehension and circumscribes the bounds of our understanding. And this would seem to be a structural necessity of the human soul.

Alan’s tragedy is that he encounters one such prior entity at a young age, directly and without any social guidance as to its character. The only way that his Christian mother can begin to understand what has happened to Alan is to attribute it to the Devil, which is not far off the mark. At least she senses a prior force working through Alan; she just locates it in a spent Manichean scheme. Perhaps due to Alan’s autistic character he is compelled to interpret his numinous encounters with Equus literally. And due to the unique nature of these encounters he has no possibility of articulating them save through falling back to a pseudo-Biblical structure which is entirely incommensurate to the force being dealt with. When he is on the verge of losing his virginity, he sees the face of Equus in the place of Jill’s face and he is rendered impotent. He has a literal understanding of his God’s omniscience and he responds by stabbing the horses in their eyes. A very literal solution to the guilt engendered by divine omniscience. No wonder Alan is unable to cope with what is happening to him.

But the numinous presence of Equus itself is a prior force that is but one incipient stirring of a numinous consciousness. The important point to realise is that Alan’s encounters with Equus are direct and forceful. This is partly what jolts Dysart into an unsettling understanding of Alan’s condition. After all, Alan “stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek,” in a Hampshire field. Dysart’s own longings towards the numinous take him away on thoughts of foreign vacations and to times in the distant past. Alan is presencing something of the numinous here and now, regardless of consequences. He is incomprehensible. Even the characters’ names indicate something of this distance between them. Alan Strang is caught somewhere between “strange” and “strong,” a perfect description of the power and otherness of the numinous. Dysart is literally “bad art,” conveying something of the sterility of his cultural preoccupations.

The reason that Equus is a particularly pagan work of art is due to its extremity. Dysart’s worldview is specifically designated as pagan only for it to be immediately undermined by contrasting it with Alan’s peculiar religious activities and their violent apotheosis in the blinding of Equus. The religion that Alan presences is not merely radical it is incomprehensible, wholly other.

The encounter between Dysart and Alan takes place at a particular time of civilizational development. Religion has ceased to operate as a positive force in society and individuals will either abandon it altogether or attempt to seek some outer form or other that operates in place of authentic religious observance. Dysart has chosen classical Greece and he succeeds in making a fetish out of it. Alan is unsophisticated and instinctual. He appears to have autistic tendencies and so takes things literally, without a sense of social nuance. He is like Spengler’s ahistorical peasant, seeking to name that which he cannot fully comprehend. But he nonetheless perceives it as a prior being. This apprehension of a prior God-form gives Equus its disturbing power and reveals it to be one of Albion’s many hidden numina.

Notes

1. Peter Shaffer, Three Plays (Middlesex: Penguin, 1976), 223.

2. Ibid., 268.

3. Ibid., 243.

4. Ibid., 252.

5. Ibid., 275.

6. Ibid., 204.

7. Ibid., 207.

8. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: The Modern Library, 1962), 200.

9. “Wholly other” is used repeatedly to describe the numinous in Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.

10. Shaffer, op. cit., 267–68.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Donar van Holland
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I saw the movie, with Richard Burton. It certainly revolves around the very pagan and very Aryan theme of the horse gods. But the movie struck me foremost as an illustration of the utter failure of Christianity to deal with the numinous. It disfigures completely its manifestation. In fact, the boy Allen would not have been in psychological distress except for the Christian interpretation he tries to force on the numinous.

    The first encounter of the boy with “Equus” is a ride on a horse on the beach with a stranger, and is not spoilt by Christianity yet. However, the time before the second encounter is filled with Christian propaganda by the mother. Allan even buys a horrendous picture of the suffering Christ with his own pocket money. His anti-religious father rips the picture from the wall, and Allan cannot stop crying for days.

    His father later replaces the picture of Christ with a picture of a horse to calm the boy. However, the religious fervour Allan had developed for the image of Christ is then displaced upon the picture of “Equus”, so that all kinds of Christian ideas sneak into the cult he develops for Equus. Equus becomes the suffering, sweet animal tormented by humanity. Like the medieval “flagelantes” Alan develops a cult of self-torture and identification with the suffering of the victim. However, there was nothing in the exhilerating encounter on the beach nor in the beautiful picture of the horse to warrant such an interpretation. It is a Christian disfiguration of the numinous experience.

    Later in the movie Allan fails to perform with a girl, and this is also due a Christian misinterpretation of Equus. Allan feels the omnipresence of Equus during sex. A pagan interpretation would be one of support of the holiness of the sexual encounter. But Allan interpretates it as obstruction by Equus, whom he believes is a jealous God, like his judeo-christian colleague. The violent reaction of Allan against the living images of Equus (the blinding of the horses) is also an old Christian tradition.

    The “War on Christianity” may therefore be an important cause of the enduring popularity of “Equus”. However, the stripping away christian interpretation may clear the road towards an authentic manifestation of the numinous. And this may be an enormous source of power against the enemies of our race. Hail Equus!

    • Christopher P
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree with this interpretation. But it’s not just Christianity that comes across badly. Dysart’s psychoanalysis also appears as a restrictive procedure (as Dysart himself increasingly realises). Less obviously, Alan’s father is also an adherent to an abstract ideological construct: socialism. Perhaps it’s significant that the tension surrounding religion in the Strang household comes from a conflict between Christianity and Socialism. Alan is a boy with a gift for experiencing the numinous but he is thrown into a world of rigid religious/ideological abstraction and it drives him mad. No wonder it’s such a powerfully enduring story; it must have a profound (if buried) resonance for most viewers.

  2. Stephenn
    Posted March 23, 2015 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I read the play in high school and was captivated by it. Thank you for this fascinating analysis which has deepened my understanding of it. I do have one question regarding the final paragraph, namely the line, “…or attempt to seek some outer form or other that operates in place of authentic religious observance. Dysart has chosen classical Greece and he succeeds in making a fetish out of it.” Are we too making a fetish out of the pagan gods? I am new to paganism and I appreciate that what I’m about to ask is a novice question. Do the practitioners of the new right propose that we should return to a belief in the actual existence of the pagan gods or are we to simply use them as symbols of our values? I’ve wondered that about the ancient greeks, whether they believed Apollo, for example, really existed or whether the gods were simply useful literary anthropomorphisms for telling stories with didactic intent. Thank you for either answering my questions or directing me to a place for answers. Kind regards…S

    • John H
      Posted July 6, 2015 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I love this series of articles on Ablion’s Hidden Numina and find this one utterly fascinating, but I wish someone would respond to this comment or write an article on this topic, because I’ve been chewing on this question since I read this article some time ago. As a Christian who’s belief is almost entirely intellectual, in that being a Christian and believing all the tenets of traditional Catholicism simply “makes sense,” I don’t know what a numen is or looks like or feels like to “experience” and I suspect that the neo-pagans of the New Right are in the same boat. We are all really Dysarts. The Second Religiousness is not an authentic religiousness and no matter what vestments we put on, what little stone figures we carve, what chants we utter, we are not an ahistorical peasantry emerging from the womb into darkness all around, and for us the numena are at best inaccessible. To me, and since nothing human is alien to me I will project on the rest of the New Right and use the royal “we”, we have too much crushing knowledge, too much awareness, too much self-consciousness and cynicism to really BE worshipers. The return to paganism is a conscious choice rather than a spontaneous response to the great unknown. I think somewhere inside we are aware that we may be, for lack of a better term, LARPing as true believers. How many of us who profess paganism would go out into a sacred grove, build a shrine to Odin, sacrifice a goat and drink its blood? Of course I’m being facetious, but only a little, because true belief has that element of extremity in it, or at least the willingness to be a little extreme. Granted I don’t have much contact with pagans, but from what I’ve seen, neo-paganism seems to lack that certain edge, that fire or even spark of those who really believe they are treading softly in the territory of the gods. There is no great fear or wonder. Its as if we are turning off all the lights in our room and trying to imagine there aren’t any walls. I suspect we haven’t really shined a dim lantern into the abyss and seen the faces of the Norse gods staring back at us. Rather, we are holding simulacra of them in front of us at arm’s length to avoid actually looking into the abyss. It is as you say, a projection of our values.

      • Christopher P
        Posted July 8, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for prodding me to write a response to Stephenn’s question. It really is a huge question to which I can offer no easy answers. I can only say that this is something I have grappled with myself for some years. I don’t suppose there are many pagans/heathens who think that Thor and Odin are currently living in a place called Valhalla that can be reached by crossing a rainbow bridge. Just as fewer and fewer Christians believe in the Virgin birth or transubstantiation. But the important point is not the authenticity of miracles or the physical existence of gods, it is whether there is something beyond mundane reality of which these things are symbols. After all, if all of the gods from various religions are symbolic of some other, transcendental reality then that would more than justify our believing in them. So, the question really is about the existence (or not) of a deeper, hidden reality behind mundane appearance. If we accept that such a reality is possible or likely then the actual existential status of the gods becomes much less important to us, because we can see that they are representatives of this deeper reality and we would be willing to believe in their miraculous attributes. In essence, what I’m trying to say is that scepticism regarding the gods is just a symptom of a deeper scepticism regarding a transcendent reality behind mundane appearance. And why does this deeper scepticism become so appealing? Because we have become more and more distant from people who have directly experienced the numinous, and so we increasingly suspect that they were suffering from seizures, hallucinations, etc. And this is why we need to seek out new numina.
        By the way, I love the phrase, “LARPing as true believers”. It really is perfect for our current predicament. As Frederic Jameson said, in postmodernity everything is pastiche.

  3. David Halevi
    Posted March 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Nice bit of synchronicity that 1973 was also the year of The Wicker Man, with a screenplay by Peter Shaffer’s twin brother Anthony. Both are Jews.

  4. Greg South
    Posted March 23, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi Greg,

    “..The only place to find anything capable of evoking authenticity is in the past, and so more and more people turn to spent religions and cults. …”

    It is this sort of thing that makes Spengler worth reading. The hell of it is, not only can we not re-create the status quo ante by aping defunct religions, neither can we simply convene a committee and invent a new one as was attempted during the Second Vatican Council. The modern rite has ersatz written all over it.

    A faith (any faith) must have the consent and support of the Culture, or it is just a cult.

    In America today, as it was once said:

    All religions that avail themselves of the provisions of the 501 (c) (3) portion of the tax code are state religions, whose beliefs are circumscribed by the IRS.

    Regards All,

    ~G. South

  5. rhondda
    Posted March 23, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Christopher. I had no idea as to how to read that play. This reading makes sense to me.

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