Sunday, September 26, 2010

Et In Arcadia Ego

I went to see the latest Resident Evil movie: Afterlife. It might seem like a strange thing to discuss here but, since most screenwriters have been to school, I have a point. The name Arcadia did not register with me when it was used in the last movie as a sanctuary, a place where there were people unaffected by the T-virus and society was rebuilding itself. The name Arcadia gets used for many things. In this case, it really did refer to paradise.
Arcadia is a sort of Eden in pastoral elegy. The Romans and the Greeks used it as the name for an idyllic place where shepherds lounge around composing beautiful verse in the verdant fields while the sheep gambol around them. Arcadia is a real place in Greece on the Pelopponesian peninsula. When the Renaissance rolled around and people rediscovered the Classics, Vergil became popular once more and so did pastoral elegy. It was a natural fit with the Christian world since the word pastor is Latin for 'shepherd' and the ministers of the Church were after all 'shepherds of men'. The rustic, natural world of innocence in Arcadia is a sort of Eden.
That being said, when Arcadia becomes the last decent place on earth in Resident Evil, you expect it to be a rustic sort of paradise. If one can ignore the evidence of all those airplanes and lack of signs of life, when Alice arrives in Alaska to rejoin her friends, her picking up her notebook and turning to a page on which the words "Et in Arcadia ego" are written should leave you with no doubt. Arcadia is not meant to be a paradise.
For those who do not know, this phrase is famous for being written on a tomb in a Nicholas Poussin painting called 'The Shepherds of Arcadia'. (For a glance at the painting, click here.) It is an ambiguous phrase. It could mean that the person buried in the tomb had also been to Arcadia but, since the tomb seems to have been placed in Arcadia, the general view has been that it is Death that inscribed that line - I exist even in Arcadia.
The word 'et' can mean 'and, even, also'. The verb in this phrase is understood. which is a perfectly acceptable Roman practice. The lack of a verb has lead to an amusing misunderstanding in the Da Vinci Code from the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail that it was based on. Latinists are a dying breed, it is true, but a call to any university ought to scare up at least one to check your facts. Nicholas Poussin is added to the list of mysterious members of the Priory of Sion and 'Et In Arcadia Ego' became a complete sentence that was also an anagram with a hidden message, ignoring the unstated but understood verb.
To return to the movie, since this is Resident Evil after all, you know that she will find Arcadia and the generally accepted interpretation of the phrase, that death exists even here, will ring very and savagely true. I do not want to spoil the movie for anyone but I give it both thumbs up. It might not be Shakespeare but not everything need be great art.

7 comments:

anachronist said...

Ok, Resident Evil is now on my "to watch" list. I've always liked that painting of Poussin.

Tracy said...

Any talk of Arcadia always reminds me of Shakespeare, it was a favourite setting/theme of his, and features in several plays including As You Like It and The Winter's Tale, even slight echoes in Hamlet, when Ophelia goes mad after Hamlet kills her father, and constantly gathers wild flowers, as though trying to return to an innocent Arcadia, and again in Macbeth when the trees appear to move from Birnham Wood to Dunsinane, thus heralding the death of Macbeth and the return of order.

And yes, this lack of verbs in latin is one of the reasons I find it so difficult - I guess when everyone who counted spoke fluent latin, it didn't matter, because they understood it without thinking about it, unlike us lesser mortals.

I have a copy of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail - bought it from a charity shop last year but haven't read it yet - wasn't sure whether to classify it as non-fiction or fiction :)

The Red Witch said...

It appears to be mostly fiction. Yes, Arcadia appears in so many places that the choice of it for a name did not register until I saw the line.
It really is only a small part of the film, which is your usual zombie-action film. Mila is looking good for her age but I wonder how long she can keep that up. I tried to tell the kids what that line meant because, although it is a little thing, it adds to the enjoyment of the film when you are in the know.

anachronist said...

Oh. Zombie-action in Arcadia. Well it explains a lot.

The Red Witch said...

It makes a nice change from all the vampire stuff that is out. :-)

anachronist said...

True, I am sick and tired of vampires this season.

Tracy said...

I've read the first few chapters of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail so far - and I see what you mean about 'Et in Arcadia ego'. So they turned it into an anagram, on the grounds that there's some real mystery about this lack of verb.