Smoke and Visions
‘Feet don’t fail me now,
Take me to the finish line,
Oh, my heart, it breaks every step that I take,
But I’m hoping at the gates, they’ll tell me that you’re mine.’
Lana Del Rey, ‘Born to Die’ (from Born to Die, Polyador/Interscope Records, 2012)
The final scene in the Delphyne narrative is her death at the hands of Apollo, and her subsequent metamorphosis. Shot full of arrows, vanquished, her body falls into a ravine in the floor of the cave and emits smoke and fumes (she is a fiery dragon, after all). The priestess of Delphi inhales these fumes, and intoxicated enters a trance that allows Apollo to send her prophetic visions. Therefore, Delphyne’s death enabled an era of a new generation of divinities, facilitated countless prophecies, sagas and epics, and brought the worlds of gods and men closer together. Though her life’s purpose was to guard the Oracle, it was in death that she was really useful. If her story has any kind of meaning, then she was born to die.
In early Hollywood film, censorship by the Production Code policed morality by banning any kiss or physical touch with a sexual undertone, even between married couples. Cigarettes covered for sexual activity in films very effectively. The burning flame was an easy metaphor for desire, the oral fixation of lips and breath, the phallic shape, the offer of a cigarette interchangeable with a sexual proposition. “Thin and long and easily slipped between pursed red lips, cigarettes were safe metaphors then,” writes a New York Times journalist. They could be especially effective when conveying female desire, seduction; an actress could blow smoke in a man’s face, proffer him a cigarette, play with her hands and lips while smoking, spark the lighter or match, in an explicit display of eroticism that would otherwise have been unthinkable.
Burning at the stake was a popular execution method in the Western world for several hundred years, capital punishment for the worst crimes of all. Joan of Arc and many other virgin martyrs and saints met this smoky fate. Burning was specifically a theatrical punishment for treason, heresy and witchcraft: crimes directly against God, and his representatives on earth. Heresy and crimes of sodomy, or homosexual activities, were closely interlinked as the practice of one suggested the presence of the other; the punishments for either were often the same, and mostly involved burning. These crimes when committed by women suggest abuses of power, demonstrations of agency, transgressions of desire; begging the question if female desire itself is also against God?
‘If … a woman commits this vice or sin against nature, she shall be fastened naked to a stake in the Street of Locusts and shall remain there all day and night under a reliable guard, and the following day shall be burned outside the city.’
Law from medieval Treviso, Italy
The smoke from Delphyne’s body created a link between the immortal and mortal worlds, between gods and men, a portal into the future. The visions enabled by Delphyne’s corpse experienced by the priests and priestesses of Delphi echo those described by Joan of Arc or St Teresa of Avila. Whether or not these visions are considered miraculous or heretical (like Abbess Benedetta Carlini, whose over-enthusiasm eventually earned her a life sentence of imprisonment), reflects the philosophical, political and religious thought of the contemporary secular and Christian rulers; whether the visions could enhance or would threaten their power.
Delphyne’s unlit cigarette is a reference to countless paintings of virgin martyrs like St Agatha who are depicted alive, carrying a symbol of their torture or execution, like Agatha’s severed breasts on a plate or St Apollonia’s tooth. Like with the prophetic visions, these saints exist in a circular flux of time, at once dead and not dead. They show triumph over suffering in their confident brandishing of their wounds and torture, as they look back at us from a place beyond death, beyond pain, dressed luxuriously with perfect skin. They suggest that, to be safe and beautiful like them, we must also glory in our suffering.
The message is an encouragement to be grateful for your suffering. We are supposed to lift our eyes from the dirty, painful world of toil that we inhabit and focus on our mysterious, intangible future salvation. As capitalism made the plight of the workers honourable, we are taught that there is honesty and purity in suffering; that though enslaved you will have your reward, and it will be a greater, more meaningful reward than that which may await those who have not suffered. Whether that reward is a place in heaven or owning one’s own home, or other impossible dreams, the repressed class is told by their oppressors that in another life, in another time, they will come out on top.