An Interview with Heathen Chinese by Accipiter Nisus
AN: For me the ‘No Masters’ element of the Gods & Radicals by-line qualifies the ‘Many Gods’ clause (notwithstanding the demonstration of mutual respect or the existence of opportunities for cooperation). What are your own feelings about ‘No Masters’ in the polytheistic context?
HC: I don’t have a problem with my gods being emperors and kings: I don’t think that human societies “create” the gods in their own image, because I don’t think that humans “create” the gods, but it’s inevitable that we interpret the gods’ power in terms that we understand. In societies without kings, many Powers might be understood better in terms of “mothers,” “fathers,” “grandmothers,” “grandfathers,” or other familial terms. Or “good neighbors.” In Imperial China, on the other hand, there are not merely monarchs in heaven, but there is a concept of a divine bureaucracy paralleling the human bureaucracy on earth (note that the word “parallel” does not definitively state whether one gave rise to the other or not). Bureaucracy inherently depersonalizes, but I’ve found it easier to relate to the individuals said to operate within the “divine bureaucracy” than to individuals within human bureaucracies.
My synthesis of “Many Gods” with “No Masters” lies in a slightly different emphasis than yours. Namely, I read it as speaking to the difference between pride and hubris. Thus, I will joyfully ketou to my gods, but will abase myself before no man. Anti-theists will find this to be an arbitrary distinction, proponents of hierarchical social organization will find it to be insubordinate and rebellious. But I think a willingness to honestly examine the reality of power differentials, rather than either burying one’s head in the sand by pretending they don’t exist or unquestioningly accepting them as “natural,” is crucial.
AN: Over at The Wild Hunt you recently described Nietzsche as “’quintessentially’ pagan’ in his values and worldview”. In Beyond Good & Evil Nietzsche cites Blanqui’s slogan ‘Ni dieu ni maître!’ when criticising the socialists and anarchists of his day as inheritors of the ‘herd morality’ of Christianity. He seems to suggest that the attitude embodied in the slogan has a levelling effect that prevents the development of new human possibilities. Do you find Nietzsche’s work informs your paganism and, if so, how comfortably does that influence sit alongside your involvement with community-building and social activism?
HC: For many years I’ve asked myself these same questions, but as the syncretic Nietzsche-Dionysos himself no doubt willed it, his philosophy sits alongside others extremely uncomfortably, his books take up arms against their neighbors on the shelf. There is no easy reconciliation, only strife and a going-under. “Have you understood me? Dionysos against the Crucified.” The paganism is blatant, but I’m highly skeptical of anyone who claims to have fully “understood” Nietzsche, especially when it dovetails neatly with their own personal ideology.
I find that these two maxims go hand in hand, and are relevant to the conversation at hand: “In every party there is one who through his all too credulous avowal of the party’s principles incites the others to apostasy,” and “Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” So it’s not a matter of fervently avowing Nietzsche’s principles instead of Marx’s or Bakunin’s, but rather of continuously thinking one’s way out of the party. I would say social activism isn’t a very accurate descriptor for anything I engage in, and any community that I seek is a community not just of principle, but of value. “With his principles a man seeks either to dominate, or justify, or honor, or reproach, or conceal his habits: two men with the same principles probably seek fundamentally different ends therewith.”
Nietzsche’s misogyny is highly problematic, of course. I also find that he needs to balanced against James Baldwin describing black children in America as coming from “a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche explicitly framed his ideas about nobility in reference to the distinction between polytheism and monotheism: “For many who are noble are needed, and noble men of many kinds, that there may be a nobility. Or as I once said in a parable: ‘Precisely this is godlike that there are gods, but no God.'” The phrase “of many kinds” strikes me as deserving especial attention here.
The Melian Dialogue
AN: Nietzsche famously admired Thucydides for his supposed “stern, hard matter-of-factness” and “Courage in the face of reality”. Much commentary on this has focused on the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In light of your theological work on god-human alliances (such as in Are the Gods on Our Side?) – is there anything we can learn from this famous classical dialogue?
HC: The Athenians claim that “divinity, it would seem, and mankind, as has always been obvious, are under an innate compulsion to rule wherever empowered.” The Melians, slyly referring to the Athenians own victories against overwhelming odds when fighting the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, observe that “warfare sometimes more of impartial fortune than accords with the numerical disparity of two sides. For us, to yield is immediately hopelessness, but in action there is still hope of bearing up.” The Melians also “have faith that we will not go without our share of fortune from the gods, as righteous men who stand in opposition to unjust ones.”
I plan on doing much more research into polytheist theology around conflict, but for now, I will say that the Melians’ refusal to yield did not win them the battle, but it has won them what I call “heroic immortality:” the life after death that comes with being remembered and honored for one’s deeds. We anti-capitalists and rebels today are the spiritual descendants and heirs of the Melians. It is our duty and our responsibility to see that they did not die in vain, to vindicate their decision in our own struggles. The Melians used the language of “hope,” which I have criticized elsewhere, but ultimately I think they displayed “courage in the face of reality” by choosing to fight despite knowing full well the consequences should they lose.
All Things Shining
AN: As a Classics student and polytheist I’m guessing you’ve read All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly which could perhaps be characterised as an attempt to develop a solution to contemporary disenchantment from Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘profound superficiality’ of the Ancient Greek world. I’m always surprised this book doesn’t get discussed more in contemporary polytheist circles but perhaps it’s because their suggestions are already taken as self-evident?
HC: I’m liking what I’m reading so far! Given that I hadn’t heard of the book until you recommended it, I would guess that many other polytheists (well-read though they tend to be) haven’t come across it yet either. I know that certain Polytheist writers have recently taken umbrage to what they perceive to be attempts to “politicize” Polytheism, and yet I think that one of the core strengths of polytheism’s resurgence is in it’s ability and willingness to challenge modernity. I think we should be talking and writing about this a lot more.
Anomalous Thracian recently wrote, “Western Society — from a Polytheist standpoint pertaining to Polytheistic religious process and practice and undertakings — is fucking broken, and has broken off inside of basically everyone, leaving behind awful fucking splintery septic shrapnel even in attempts to wrench it bodily the fuck out of one’s heart.” That about sums it up, I think.
AN: From your tumblr it looks like you’ve been reading Genet lately? Sartre famously ‘sainted’ Genet by writing a hagiography celebrating the way he lived “all the social curses” and “transformed them into a work of art.” (Cohen-Solal) But Sartre’s celebration of his subject as a sort of Nietzschean ‘re-valuer’ had the effect of turning Genet into a ‘monument’ (Genet’s own word) and arguably robbed him of a voice. Sartre’s biographer Annie Cohen-Solal even characterised this treatment as ‘nearly a rape’. Obviously Genet was still alive at the time, but do you think this saga raises any ethical implications for how contemporary polytheists and pagans engage in hero cultus?
HC: The ethical implications are incredibly important, especially in a polytheist context, which stresses the agency and will of the hero as well as that of the cultist. And in polytheism, we have the understanding that death doesn’t change that agency and will. The modern conception of hero cultus is still very different from the ancient: in ancient Greece, it was understood that the spirits of cult heroes are dangerous, propitiated to avert their posthumous wrath as much as honored for being “inspiring” (and certainly not for being moral exemplars, in many cases).
I haven’t read the Stalinist-existentialist’s Saint Genet, but Genet himself wrote of it, “I saw myself naked and stripped by someone other than myself. In all my books I strip myself, but at the same time I disguise myself with words, choices, attitudes, magic. Sartre stripped me without mercy. He wrote about me in the present tense.” Especially when speaking of a writer, I prefer to read Genet in his own, explicitly magical, words. The distinction that Genet draws is subtle, but crucial, and I absolutely think it applies to hero cultus as much as to biography.
Approaches to Anti-Capitalism
AN: Erik Olin Wright has modeled anti-capitalist approaches into a four quadrant diagram consisting of: smashing capitalism, taming capitalism, escaping capitalism, and eroding capitalism. Where do you primarily see your own energies directed?
Wright also talks about how capitalism can look very monolithic and unassailable but is actually “prone to disruptions and crises [that] Sometimes […] reach an intensity which makes the system as a whole fragile, vulnerable to challenge”. Have you witnessed such moments of intensity in your own life and what are your reflections on them in terms of opportunities grasped or wasted by anti-capitalists?
HC: Capitalism cannot be tamed—those who seek to do so show only their own domestication, for capital and domestication are synonymous. It cannot be escaped, not materially—the tentacles of what Fredy Perlman called Leviathan have encircled the world, though that does not mean it actually is everywhere at all times. And it cannot be eroded faster than it reproduces itself: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Alas, precisely because this undead monstrosity is notmonolithic, it has no central heart that can be staked by some hero. But there is still a need for heroism and the heroic ethic.
Those prisoners who carry escape in their hearts, those saboteurs who labor at the truly Sisyphean task of erosion, those modern day Melians who refuse to yield the field of battle…perhaps in moments of disruption and crisis, they can realize their goal as a microcosm—for a moment, in the moment of kairos or messianic time. Sympathetic magic and the ethic of direct action are the same thing: the means contain the ends within them.
The most intense moments of revolt I’ve seen have been uprisings in the names of the Dead, specifically people of color killed by the police. While it is tempting to declare in hindsight that anti-capitalists should seized those opportunities and acted more boldly to challenge all repressive, recuperative and reformist attempts to suppress those moments, “Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors/and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads/on the back of a stout horse.” Though what Walter Benjamin called the “memory” of revolt may be possible to take control of on a microcosmic level “as it flashes in a moment of danger,” the macrocosmic is, as far I as I can tell, in the hands of the Gods. If we’re to place faith in a “historical subject,” we’re in the realm of religion anyways.
AN: What words would you use to convey the general feeling of your polytheism. I’m thinking of a succinct phrase along the lines of Flaubert’s ‘melancholy of the ancients’, or the ‘Shining nothingness’ of Kabir’s poetry as characterised by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.
HC: In the opium-induced words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Ancestral voices prophesying war!”
AN: What, if anything, makes you optimistic about the future?
HC: Optimistic might be a bit strong of a word, but I look forward to the continuity of family, of friendship, of joy. To the certainty that the struggle will continue, and that me and mine will carry ourselves with dignity within it. In the most literal and value-neutral sense of “looking forward,” to the certainty of death, when the time is right, and to joining my ancestors.
AN: Thanks for taking the time to share these reflections. I think the other readers and contributors of Gods & Radicals would agree with me in saying that your work has greatly contributed to deepening and extending the range of contemporary polytheist thought in recent years.
HC: Thank you. I’m honored
Look out for part two in the New Year where Accipiter Nisus and Heathen Chinese will dialogue further on some of the issues raised above.
Accipiter Nisus is a writer and Mahāyāna-influenced animist, based in the U.K. East Midlands. His practice is eclectic but particularly emphasises divination, drift-walking, and mandala offering.
Heathen Chinese is the son of Chinese immigrants. He is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s. He writes sporadically at https://heathenchinese.wordpress.com.