Masters, Messiahs, and Tricksters

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I was not surprised to find Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master a stunning artistic achievement, and certainly one of the year's very best films. I don't find it easy to be objective on this topic, as I place Anderson (together with the Coens and John Sayles) among the greatest of American film-makers. But The Master also has much to say for anyone interested in religious matters.

Do note: although I include no spoilers here, I will explain the key to understanding the film, a key that many critics seem to have missed. (No false modesty here).

The Master tells the story of fictitious religious entrepreneur Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a mesmerizing performance. Around 1950, Dodd is seeking to convert Americans to the doctrine of The Cause, a religious/psychological system that helps clients rediscover past lives through intense encounter and analysis techniques.

The film obviously recalls the career of L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, but it is of much wider interest in what it suggests about the nature of charismatic religious figures. This is true both of so-called "cult leaders" and perhaps of others who have achieved more respectable reputations. It is also relevant to understanding controversial political leaders and demagogues. Rather than focus on any supposed biographical links to Hubbard, I would rather see Dodd as a composite of dozens or hundreds of other spiritual heroes and villains.

Anderson's Dodd is a wonderfully self-composed figure who amply conveys his inner passion and compassion, whose eloquence (glibness?) hints at great wisdom and access to higher truths. It is all the more fascinating, then, when he slips occasionally to reveal his underlying fury, coarseness and greed. In his mixture of the otherworldly and the utterly worldly, he is wholly amphibious.

The main point is not that Lancaster Dodd is uniquely talented or spiritual, but that he speaks perfectly to his target audience, and fulfills exactly what they want to hear. Leadership is a function of followership. Put another way, a "charismatic" figure can be defined as one who other people believe to be charismatic. It is a matter of audience response, rather than of any innate characteristic, and The Master does a superb job of showing how Dodd appeals to his credulous audiences. Does he need to present himself as wealthy and powerful? Why, then he simply borrows a yacht from a devotee, and rides the con until the law catches up with him. The content of his teaching is almost irrelevant, and the film explicitly suggests that he is in fact making up his doctrines as he goes along.

I was irresistibly reminded of a brilliant parody -- I think it was a parody -- by Alan Watts, the British author of massively influential books on Zen Buddhism. In his essay on the "Trickster Guru," he offered complete instructions for the would-be messiah seeking to attract and convince followers at a time when millions were "searching desperately for a true Father-magician."

"The first step is to frequent those circles where gurus are especially sought, such as the various cult groups which pursue Oriental religions or peculiar forms of psychotherapy, or simply the artistic and intellectual milieux of any great city." Subsequently, a mysterious persona can be invented, and projected: "When some student asks, 'Where did you get all this,' well, you just picked up a thing or two in Turkestan, or 'I'm quite a bit older than I look,' or say that 'Reincarnation is entirely unlike what people suppose it to be.'"

And there is much more in the same vein. In no time at all, you will have dedicated followers convinced at the very least of your charisma, and perhaps of your godhood. Not wishing to derail the course of the divine plan, they will diplomatically ignore any embarrassing examples of dubious conduct, whether financial or sexual.

Though written as an extended joke, Watts' article is all too convincing in its portrait of the opportunities available to gurus and messiahs, tricksters or otherwise. It fits the picture of Lancaster Dodd perfectly (and incidentally gives a pretty fair portrait of Alan Watts himself).

So does a real-life Lancaster Dodd figure actually believe what he teaches? Is he maniac or a messiah, con-man or prophet, saint or psychopath? My clear answer would be: yes to all of the above. Whatever he may have thought at the beginning of his career, he probably comes to believe that some or all of his message is inspired. The persona absorbs and overwhelms the real individual. Or to adapt John Updike's phrase about the nature of celebrity, the mask eats the face. And The Master shows that process in operation in Dodd's life.

Even admiring critics were largely baffled by many aspects of the film, not least its denouement. I think I understood the conclusion well enough, and how it ties together so many otherwise puzzling aspects of the plot, but I will not describe that process in detail here. Let me though say one thing, which in no way should affect your enjoyment of The Master. In one short scene, we find character Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at a Seaman's Hall signing up for a long voyage, some time before he actually becomes a Dodd disciple. Although the scene seems barely relevant to the overall plot, do pay careful attention to it. If you do, you might well experience a "Eureka!" moment towards the film's conclusion. I say no more.

I'm just passing along some things I learned in Turkestan. Honestly.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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