Game of Thrones and the Aesthetics of Fascism

Yeah, I went there.

[It’s Game of Thrones Week here on Overthinking It, which requires a fiddly spoiler policy.  Some of these posts have spoilers through the end of the first season of the HBO show.  Some of them are just generalized discussions of the world of the Westeros, safe for any reader.  This post in particular has spoilers straight on through to the end of the latest book, which means that Belinkie can’t read it.  Nyah, nyah!   It also gives away some plot points from the competing epic fantasy franchises The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth, so if you’re the kind of person who cares about spoilers, maybe just skip this one. —Ed.]

It is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached…

—Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism”

Let’s just get this out of the way.  I am not calling George R. R. Martin, or any of the other authors discussed in this post, a Nazi. Nor am I calling them Blackshirts, nor connecting them with any other historical group of totalitarian assholes.  The aesthetic principles I’m discussing here are neither the result of fascism nor indicative of fascism, they just take advantage of the same emotional circuitry that fascism takes advantage of.   These are not politicized aesthetics, rather, fascism is aestheticized politics.  It’s not quite accurate to claim that aesthetic similarities don’t imply any ideological similarities at all, but that’s a lot closer to the truth than the other way around.

That said, it cannot be denied that the fascist aesthetics described by Sontag (and read that whole article here if you haven’t, or if you need a refresher) is a big, big part of the epic strain of sci-fi and fantasy.

Triumph of the Will, 1934

Star Wars, 1977

And it’s also an important element of the “Blood, Tits, and Scowling” genre codified by Perich yesterday,

Olympia, 1938

Spartacus: Blood & Sand, 2010

at least in some of its more baroque manifestations.  And since the HBO Game of Thrones series is both of these things, it’s certainly worth considering the degree to which it partakes in the fascist aesthetic.

So yeah.  The fascist aesthetic.  What is that, exactly?

Fascist art depicts, in Sontag’s words, “unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying.”  It “celebrate[s] the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader.” It focuses on “the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical.”  It fetishizes “the holding in or confining of force; military precision.” Its characteristic subject matter is “vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death.”  In short, fascist art depicts the perfected, disciplined body in service of the perfected, disciplined state.  Its aesthetic principles are, in visual terms, clean geometric lines, chiseled physiques, and slow motion; and in musical terms, brass fanfares, pounding drumbeats, and pipe organs.  Its moral principles are strength, skill, obedience, order, joyful submission, and apocalyptic dissolution… and it’s this last that really set it apart from other aesthetics that glorify strength (of which, to be sure, there are plenty to go around).

Fascist storytelling always hinges on a moment of transfiguration, a one-way-only gate through which the agonized hero cannot pass without being transformed into a thing unrecognizable.  Crucially, what lies beyond is not something that we get to know.  It has to be utterly alien and eternally remote. It was not given to Moses to enter the Land of Caanan, but at least he got to look at it.  Fascist art contents itself with less.  We see the moment of transition, the event horizon as it were, but we get only the barest glimpse of what lies beyond. The proto-fascist mountain-climbing films described by Sontag arguably fail to capture this aspect, because mountain peaks are reachable.  (I mean, we’ve done it, you know? The peak of Everest is pretty well covered with litter.)  The ultimate fascist mountaineering narrative, then, would be that of Sisyphus — but a joyful Sisyphus who has chosen his own punishment.  Or better still, a thousand joyful Sisyphi.

And so stories of agonized struggle tend to end with ceremonies. The hero becomes the king, ushering in a golden age, but we don’t ever get to see the king, like, paying down the national debt, or building a lot of libraries, or doing whatever else a golden age would really entail.  Superhero franchise reboots tend to work this way as well, at least when they end with the moment where Peter Parker affirms once and for all that he is Spiderman.  We know more about the day to day business of being Spiderman than we do about the day to day business of running a nation-state (which may explain why our society is in decline), but nevertheless, there’s an important vacuum here.  You don’t get to see the day to day life of a superhero because that would be boring, and it wouldn’t solve all the problems of the world.  To make the audience believe that the heroic agonized body has ushered in a utopian society, you need to focus solely on the moment of transformation.  “I am Spiderman!” he declares, and then we see one more glorious swoop of the CGI-perfected disciplined physique in motion over the New York City skyline — and then credits.  In 2001, the moment of apotheosis is the stargate sequence, after which the movie rather pointedly just up and ends.  But this kind of creativity is pretty rare.  Other than coronations (actual or self-imposed, superheroic), there seems to be a certain limited repertoire of events that work well for this kind of apocalyptic closing gesture:  graduations, migrations, weddings, childbirth, sex (especially first sex, or first sex for that couple), and — this being the big one — glorified death.