Wherefore the Despair?

“I offer you a different reason to fight, beyond hope and despair, beyond a hollow victory that only restores Status Q. A reason that can exist regardless of the chances of victory, regardless of the size of that dragon.”

From Patacelsus

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It was an ancient mound. The thief was sure that only he knew where it was, and in the dark, it looked even more defenseless than in the light of day. He could hear what sounded like a moan, as he broke through the outer wall. He broke through, and then he saw it all in his torch light. The gold. Wrought into plates, cups, torques, cuffs, rings, coins, so many coins. Gemstones rough and cut, silver pooled in solid lakes lapping shores of those gold coins. A hoard. And it was all his. But he heard it again. Louder, a rasping exhale, from deeper in the mound. The hairs stood on his skin. And for a moment he started. But he laughed at his own cowardice. Ghosts and spooks were for cowards who didn’t have the courage to seize hoards like this. It is just wind, air allowed to flow for who knows how long.

He reached out and took hold of a golden chalice, and the rasping exhale became an angry groan. A sound rolling like thunder from the depth of the barrow, a feint green light coming from the passage leading down. The hairs stood on his skin again, but now could not be banished by false bravado. He ran, the chalice in his hand forgotten but held fast. He ran, heedless of the laws of fate. He ran, a coward and thief whose avarice must now be put right by others.

Cornwolf had been king for many years. He sat and listened. He sat and listened to the descriptions of the dragon. He sat and listened to the stories of its green poisonous fire. He heard the laments of his people. The villagers, of how their homes have burned. The farmers, their crops burned and the land laid waste with poison. All knew that such a beast was the product of the wrath of the ancient ancestors. The thief was unknown, his whereabouts unknown, what he had stolen also unknown. The only option, aside from restoring what was stolen, was to slay the dragon. For any mortal this was certain failure, and certain death. But Cornwolf was no normal king, no normal man. When the fates branded his lot, they decreed him to be a hero. And hero he was, but the fear of his subjects were many. What would they do without him if he dies? What of the dragon? Should he not send his younger warriors in his place? But Cornwolf would not do this, send others to fight for him, like a coward sitting on a mound of gold? No. “Bring me my armor.” Only a hero could slay a dragon. The words having passed his lips, joy returned to his heart, long forgotten. The joy of living the truth of his soul had returned. Whatever the gods pronounce of his doom this day, he goes to meet it in joy. Even though he may fail and die, he rides out, heedless of the danger. For it is right that he should fight, even though it may well be hopeless. Cornwolf refused to live a life yielding to despair, and letting that despair lead him to wrongdoing and cowardice.

He died, killing the dragon. His people were indeed left to fend for themselves, but their worries, had they lived his example, would have been unnecessary. However, Cornwolf’s people were conquered in his absence. Instead of living a truth that he showed them, they mourned the loss of his person.

I often feel it now. I see the world to come, and the despair laps at the edges of my consciousness. The apathy, threatening to sap every activity of vitality and meaning. This is the danger inherent in Capitalist thought, meaning, and ideas. That if it can’t go on perpetually, that it doesn’t mean anything. That it has no purpose. It betrays how deep seated, in me at least, of how far the Capitalist indoctrination goes. Buddhism helps, as long as we’re talking the real deal, and not the “Boomer Buddhism” that Mark Chapman goes on about at length. But the ultimate truths of Sunyata can be difficult to integrate living in this world, in the day to day flow. I find a much more immediate antidote in the inspiration of our ancestors. In the heroes who understood what was required, what was needed of them. Above is a part of the final act of Beowulf. The old wizened king, rides out to slay a dragon. Modern interpreters point to this and say it is a cautionary tale, of a king casting aside his cares for his responsibility to his people, and tries to recapture his youth. Because of course they would; hollow scholars dreaming of recapturing their youth with some adventure, projecting that internal reality onto the material.

So I offer you instead another interpretation. Maybe this too is a projection. I leave it to you to decide if that matters. My interpretation of this portion of the tale is a hero, knowing the truth of his life, stepping up to do what is necessary. He gladly goes to give his life, knowing that for it to be any other way would be a lie, and bring nothing but personal misery, and misery for his people. The world burns, blasted by metaphorical poison fire, our due for the theft of riches from the Earth, from the burial mounds of long dead things, our ancestors. Indeed, our doom is pronounced, why fight it? Our rulers know what is going on. As they pronounce the devastation as a hoax, they build infrastructure to face the world to come. From the sea walls around Trumps golf resorts, to doubling down on coal, to hoarding resources, selling weapons, and building walls to keep refugees out; make no mistake, if that wall happens, it will be to fight off throngs of displaced people, hungry and violent like the ancient sea peoples, themselves displaced by disaster. Why fight climate change, environmental disaster, and the ultimate venusing of our planet? It is a hopeless fight, our doom, as I said, already pronounced.

It is a mystery to anyone who hasn’t touched mystery. It is a puzzle for those who live in a puzzle. Why do the Aesir and Vanir fight at Ragnarok? Why do the einherjar and the Ljosalfar fight? They know they will lose. And yet, when the blessed Queen of the Dead, in her guise as Hel comes to claim her due, they fight all the same. When the lies, broken oaths, and betrayals of Odin can no longer save the gods and delay Ragnarok, why does he still fight? Why do they all fight? The answer is simple for anyone to see, yet so hard to see in our modern times.

The environment can’t fight for itself. It is trying, the hurricanes in the years to come may destroy much carbon generating infrastructure, but this dragon is no mortal thing. It is the karma of Capitalism. The cause of our effect. Is it not heroism to defend the defenseless? Is it not heroism to fight for what is right, despite the outcome being known to end in failure? To use your gifts to help defend those who held you up when you were defenseless, who fed you when you hungered, and watered your thirst, who taught you and loved you. To not defend them is worse than cowardice. It is villainy. Capitalists are the worst sorts of villain. Their community holds them up, only to have them take a big ol’ shit on that community. “Why should I have to pay taxes, I only use the roads, public services, public resources, etc etc.” They paint themselves as heroes, but have nothing to offer that cannot be provided by a thief in a barrow. And you see them now, they don’t even think they need to lie effectively now. Show them real courage and they melt. They are heartless and soulless. They are dead already.

I offer you a different reason to fight, beyond hope and despair, beyond a hollow victory that only restores Status Q. A reason that can exist regardless of the chances of victory, regardless of the size of that dragon. That reason is: because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do even though you will likely, at a 99.9999% chance, fail. It is the right thing to do, even though you might die. You were going to die anyway, the coward gains nothing in his cowardice, but loses his chance to die a hero. I’m not saying you have to run out and die today. I’m not saying you should be reckless, or ready to throw your life away. I’m not saying your life is cheap, to be traded for a small victory. But as things “heat up”, I think you will all find your moments, where you must face death and choose your path. You won’t know your heart until truly until you meet that moment. If you understand your obligations, you who are noble of spirit, then you will know what to do, and why you are doing it. And your courage and strength will not have its foundation in hope or despair. It will have its foundation in the truth of your soul, in doing what is right, of living the life of a hero. Be more like Cornwolf.


Patacelsus

mal1A Discordian for 20 years, Patacelsus finally got comfortable when the 21st century “started getting weird.” When not casting sigils, taking part in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, or studying the unfortunate but sometimes amusing stories of the dead, he’s been known to wander the hidden ways of the city, communing with all of the hidden spirits one can find in a city. As Patacelsus sees it, we’re all already free; after completing the arduous task of waking up to that we can then proceed, like a doctor treating a patient, to try to rouse others from the bitter and frightening nightmares of Archism. He laughs at Samsara’s shadow-play in lovely California, in the company of his wife, two cats, and two birds.

Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

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