Idiot Joy Showland

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Tag: myth

The itch

The universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes.
An old French lai

It doesn’t take much to be exiled from this village, which sprawls in timber and straw by the mouth of the river. A limp is enough. A child born with fingers scrunched, a hare lip, or his knees pointed in. This one had an itchy eye. Most eyes want to look; for whatever reason, her eye wanted to be touched – and not gently. Better a rubbing knuckle than a stroke, better still a fingernail to dig and tear. It satisfied nothing, but once she’d started it was so hard to stop. The more you rub, the more it hurts, the more you keep on rubbing. Dig into the pain, deeper; claw through into the ugly and endless pleasure of an itch.

She might have been beautiful, but soon the skin around her left eye became thin and raw and shed small white flakes. Something other eyes couldn’t bear to see. When she scratched too hard there was blood, and afterwards the wound crusted over. Where the dirt got in, it bubbled and seeped. An eye set in a ring of boiling flesh. Nobody ever threw her out of the town, and no door was ever barred to her, but she never married, and eventually she went away to live in the hills. Higher than the trees will grow or the herds will graze, in the great blistered interior of the land, where winter winds scrape against the naked rock. There, in a little sheltered crevasse, she built her shack with yellowing moss on the roof, cultivated her garden, enjoyed the secret joys of her eye, and at long last she grew old there, alone.

This is the story of how the itch finally cost her the eye.

It wasn’t only the lame or the harelipped that vanished from this town. There was the girl whose footsteps led down across a meadow to the banks of a bright cold spring; there were no footsteps leading out. Another girl became a voice singing to herself in the forest, which you can still hear on moonless nights, when the sheep on their hillsides twitch worried noses and the insects fear to creak. Her high brave voice in the hollow of the woods. One girl, they say, was offered a ride out of town by a strange carter whose wheels left no ruts in the road. He kept his promise: she was never seen again.

Where did they go? On its outcrop, just over the river from the town with its streets dug through tight-packed dung, the English earl had his castle. Like an enormous gemstone: its high sheer curtain walls, its turrets. At low tide, the river was shallow enough to wade clear across. The brownish silt would suck at your shoes, and when it gave them up it released the smell of sulphur. When the people went across to pay their taxes, they would track mud over the smooth clean flagstones. This felt like part of the design: a reminder that you are a stain on the world. A generation ago, when Madog ap Llywelyn rose up to reclaim this land, the English knights fanned out from that castle over the countryside, burning fields and houses, killing fathers and taking away girls. Eventually they stopped burning the fields, but they still rode out for the girls. Everyone knew they kidnapped any young woman who went wandering the paths at night. She would be bundled up and carried away, off to that cold sheer castle to cook and clean and sew. And because everyone knew this, they never had to mention all the girls whose own families had sent them over the river. In a little stone room, the earl’s reeve would look a girl up and down, put a hand on her thigh or her forearm, squeeze. Smack his wet lips, nod, and pay her father with a handful of silver coins. There were many families ashamed and close to starving with a stash of silver coins buried in the soot of the hearth.

But there was also the girl on the rocks. She had been a crofter’s daughter; betrothed to a slight young man who crabbed along the shores of the bay, who knew the pools where scuttling things went to hide. This crabber was the one who found her there one morning, her back arched over the curve of a great boulder jutting out into the sea. Her body hung with seaweed and slime: a funeral robe. Her eyes still open: hard staring icy blue. They buried that girl in the black of the ground, but the crabber wouldn’t go. Around the same time, he started to drink. Outside the wake he leaned on a yew-tree and laughed in the mourners’ faces: that’s only a thing you’re burying, shit-brains, go on, go weep for your wooden doll. The family had to throw rocks until he left. In the night, he’d wander drunk over the rocks by the shore, calling her name. Because the girl he loved was still alive. Because the real girl’s eyes were green.

One night, many years later, this crabber wandered too far, until he found himself in a part of the country he’d never seen before. Lost and hungry, with frost forming in the grey of his beard, he ranged over the hillsides until the forests fell away and the grass became hard scratchy scrub. He thought he might die of cold. But finally, he reached the crest of a hill and saw beneath him a large stone house, with flowers growing up the walls and a warm light in every window. As he came closer, he could hear the lively music and the chatter of guests, spilling out of the doors, lounging around the scented gardens. The smell of roasting meat, and a sudden warmth in the air, like those close clammy summer nights when even at midnight the birds announce the dawn. When the guests noticed him, they crowded around; they told him how wonderful it was to see him and how glad they were he’d finally come. We have a place for you, they said, we’ve been waiting so long. What was this party? A wake, they said. These people were tall and beautiful and dressed like gentlemen, but they spoke to him in his own language. They offered him wine and meat. Starving, he accepted. One of them took him by the hand and led him inside, but just as he was about to pass through the door a young servant-girl grabbed his arm. Leave, she hissed, do not eat their food or drink their wine; it will turn to soil in your mouth, and this funeral is yours. He was almost at the doorway before he turned. The house was so warm and inviting, with its hundreds of candles and its mingling of perfumed skin. It felt, in a way he couldn’t describe, like sleep. But when he turned he saw the side of the servant-girl’s face, and her eye as green as pond-weed or the fields after rain.

The crabber woke on that rock, his back arched over the curve of the boulder, strewn with seaweed and slime. Overnight, banks of ice had built up by the foot of the stone. But in the scratchy scrub-hills high above the bay, he found a circle of ash burned into the earth, and a few singed petals still drifting on the wind.

The people in the village knew better than to disbelieve him, but they kept their distance all the same. The man was elf-touched; he had lingered by the gates of that other kingdom. Everyone knew it was there. The place of the invisible people who live underground, more ancient than the treeless hills, as deep in this country as its slate or its coal. They were here before the Normans and the Saxons both, and before the name of Jesus Christ. They speak the language of rustling leaves, or a knock from underneath the hearthstone on a winter’s night. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms might appear in the middle of a grassy field: a fairy-circle. There are places in the forests where people know not to go, where the trees warp in elderly coils, marking the drift of invisible forces in the slow vastness of time. Where the dawn always comes a little later; where boughs carry heavy wolfmoss robes. Where you might find a single human toe, twitching, sprouting from out of the muck.

Sometimes, in the night, they will join a pile of planks into a boat or sew leather into jerkins. If a house is untidy, they will scamper through every room and clean. Our drudgery is play for them; they are lighter and happier than we are. They are the the tylwyth teg, the Fair Family, and they do not know sin or sadness or jealousy or toil. They do not bear the curse of Eve. But because they aren’t serious about it, their work is poor: the boots the fairy-folk stitch tend to fall apart, and most of the thread they spin is useless.

Sometimes they steal human children, and leave one of their own in its place. Spiky-faced infants with rough skin or goat teeth; loud upsetting wails. You can send away a changeling by putting it in the oven or over an open fire; this is how many mothers quietly removed a troublesome or sickly child. But the best way is simply to show the fairy something it hasn’t seen. In view of the cradle, brew beer or boil stew in an empty eggshell. Your baby will exclaim: I am old, so very old; I lived when the oak was an acorn, before the forests grew – but I never saw beer brewed in an eggshell before! Then, discovered, it will vanish, leaving your real child in its place. The changeling is not really a baby.  It’s one of their elders, one whose time has come. For the tylwyth teg, the upper world is where the dead go. We are like shades and spectres to them: so heavy and mournful, bent down in our sadness, diligent in our monasteries, obedient to the law, and regretful when we die.

But for all their lightness, the tylwyth teg must live underground, and they cannot bear the sun. Their lives are in laughter, but they pay their tithes to Hell. They love spinning-wheels, needles, fine clothes, good meat, and good wine; they love music, tiaras, courtly dance, flowers, and golden coins – but the doorway to their other kingdom is far away from all those softer artificial things, high up in the hills where the wind howls against naked rock, where nobody lives except an old woman with red weeping welts all around her eye.

Without much else to do, this old woman became wise. She knew how to make a poultice to treat a broken leg; she knew what herbs to feed a sickly calf and how to tell tomorrow’s weather from the wriggling of the worms. A few times a year she’d be called down to the village to attend a difficult birth. Sometimes the mother would live, and sometimes she did what she could to make her dying easier. She was like the charcoal-burner in his hut or the lonely crabber who still pined among the rocks at night: someone necessary, but best kept far away. Paid in a few sacks of oats come harvest, firewood or fish.  Once, the call went out not from the village but the castle: two riders in chain-mail appeared outside her door, and while she spoke no English they made her understand that she was needed. She had never been on the back of a horse before. Inside the castle, she walked smooth flagstones and peered into its hundreds of halls. She saw girls she might have delivered, twelve or thirteen years old, scurrying around. Sometimes a bowed face to hide the bruise. She delivered the Countess’s child safely, and while the lady kept her head under a silk veil, she still left with the secret that the Earl’s wife kept her cunt in the French manner, without hair. Also a single gold dinar, which dented when she bit it. A line of writing around the edge of the coin testified that there is no god but God.

The only thing she didn’t learn was a cure for her itching eye. She could soothe a nettle-sting or the last gasps of death, but nothing could fix her eye. It wanted to be touched. It wanted to bleed.

Later, her legs grew weak and the hair started thinning on her head. Worst of all, her fingers stiffened. Harder to spin her thread or cook her meals. Eventually she went down to the village again. Crossed the mud-flats to the castle fair, where she might find a servant-girl to help her in her age. It was Christmas: a lean time; much to hoard and little to sell. In shivering tents the villagers displayed their last skinny parsnips, their young skinny daughters, their old skinny mules. Red-faced girls, roughened in the fields – but nobody wanted to hire themselves out to the old woman with the blistered eye. Nobody wanted to live out in the wilderness and the hills, a day’s heavy slog from their cousins and friends. At last, she found a girl who was standing all by herself. She was maybe seventeen years old. Lanky; gormless. An upturned nose; a triangular mouth half-open, showing a pair of rodenty teeth. Wide passive eyes, the eyes of the cows in their marshes. Hair like hay. Skin like sea-scum, or wet uncooked dough. She said her name was Eilian, which is a boy’s name, the name of the Roman saint who built his church on Ynys Môn. But the old woman shrugged. Everything is wrong in the world, so why not a name? She showed Eilian the gold coin, and offered it for a year’s work in her cottage. The girl readily agreed. They walked back together, not speaking, into the high barren hills.

Eilian was impossible to understand. In the mornings she would clean the shack, chop wood, light the fire, milk the goat, and set a pot of llymru bubbling over the hearth. In the afternoons she would churn butter or weed the vegetable garden, in the evenings she would spin, and at night she bedded down with the old woman in her heavy woollen coat. She did everything she was ordered to, but she needed orders. Eilian, chop some firewood. Eilian, light the fire. If she wasn’t told what to do, Eilian would simply sit and stare, her mouth hung open, with that little nub of a chin dangling in the middle of her neck. The old woman had a crwth: one evening, she asked Eilian if she could play. The girl took the thing and plucked a few strings like a child would, grabbing them at random. Pling plang plong. The old woman handed her the bow, and Eilian looked at it without much understanding, before suddenly breaking into a tune of dark rasping beauty, a song that sang with the winds in the black night of the moor. Slow and broken: the heartbreak of the land. It lasted a single minute, and then she handed back the box and continued staring at the wall. That song, whatever it was, had no meaning for her.

When she span in the gloaming, Eilian would take her work outside. Squatting in the snow, she looked like an old half-buried stone. Her curving back, wrapped in a lumpy coat – that was the silhouette of the boulder. The thin hair that snapped about in the furious January winds – that was the last clump, clinging, of summer straw. The silence of the mineral world. Especially since, even though it was hard to make everything out in the yellowy gloom, it looked to the old woman that when she sat outside Eilian’s long listless limbs never actually moved. Still, the work was done; Eilian spun all the wool that could be sheared, more than the old woman could possibly need. And if she forgot to tell Eilian to carry the wool back inside, half a dozen spindles would be left to rot in the snow until morning.

On the first day of spring, Eilian disappeared. After a long day shearing sheep, and a night of unwholesome dreams, the old woman woke to find the place cold and empty. On the hearth, she found a gold coin with Arabic letters stamped around the edge. The girl must have wandered down the hills again, following the goat-paths home with her mouth open and her arms drooping empty by her side. Well, at least she’d returned the coin.

The old woman spent her summer alone, eating little things, mushrooms. When the new year approached again, she only noticed from the stars. A year is like a life is like a day: you come into it bleary and slog through the long dark early reaches, waiting for something to get better, but when it ends it ends all at once.

The call came on the night of the solstice, the longest night of the year. This man looked like he had come up from the castle again: a short man, with a beardless and pretty little face, dressed in fine silks embroidered with golden thread. He asked if she was the midwife, and she said that she was. The man was in a panic, but there was still a kind of laughter swelling out in his cheeks; he was the kind of man who’d smile in his sleep. Not to be trusted. He led her to his horse: the biggest animal the old woman had ever encountered, a snorting monster heavier than a bull, with bright madness foaming from every hole in its face. They did not ride through the hills to the castle. Instead, the master gave a vicious crack of the whip, and the creature bolted higher up into the wilderness. They stopped, finally, by a place the old woman knew well, a patch of high moorland crowned with old stones. But this place was not how she remembered, because between the boulders gaped the mouth of a cave where there had never been a cave before.

The master lit a lantern and led her inside, and when the passage narrowed they crawled. Icicles of stone there, damp grit underfoot. And deeper: marks on the wall, flashes of surging antlers in the lamplight, or huge crude tusks. Once, something had lived here. Greasy scorches of soot, fragments of bone. The old woman knew a tale about a cave like this: a boy had found a gap in the rocks hidden by a scrap of turf, and inside a vast hall of stone where thousands of men in ugly spiked armour lay as if they had died in a heap, each clasping a switch of hazel. Frightened, the boy started to run for daylight, but he hit his head on a large bell suspended from the roof of the cavern. It clanged loud enough to shake the earth, and at once the men jumped up and started to shout: is this the day? Has it dawned? Is this the day? No, the boy managed, not today. Then the warriors went back to sleep. Not long after he emerged from underground, the boy pined away and died; nobody learned what day those men were waiting for. If we are lucky, we might never know.

Here, said the master. Here, in the foggiest depths of the cave, someone had cut a square hole through the rock and placed a heavy golden door. The old woman pushed, and the hinges were as smooth as butter. Inside was the most sumptuous place she’d seen, grander by far than the castle on the strait, maybe grander than the courts of France she’d heard described in ballads. The floor was heavy with richly coloured Persian carpets. The walls were decked in tapestries and furs. A huge fire crackled from its hearth, and everything glowed in its light. The brass baubles, the fine wooden furniture heaped with rare foods. Peaches, cherries, sides of salmon: summer delicacies in December. And a bed. Carefully, the old woman removed her boots so as not to spoil the carpets, and walked on suddenly aching feet over to that bed. The girl there had passed out in her labour, and the sweat was high on her forehead. The master hovered by her side. Save my child, he said, if you can only save one of them, then bring me my son.

She saved both. The boy, when he came, was fat and healthy, bellowing. The mother, pale, exhausted, mostly slept. When she looked at the old woman her face was clouded, only barely aware that someone else was in the room with her. She would take a few days to recover, and in that time the master invited the old woman to stay. She could warm herself by his fire, take whatever she wanted from his table, and tend to the mother and the child. She accepted. Finally, just before he left, the father passed a glass bottle into her hands. This oil, he said, is to be rubbed into my son’s eyes, only gently, but twice every day. And be warned: you must not touch your own eyes with it, not even a drop, or your fate will be terrible indeed.

The baby cried every time she poured the oil over his eyes. The fits would last for hours, each one worse than the last. She did her best to soothe him, bouncing him in her stiff skinny arms. She ate from the table: a few ripe apricots. They were soft and juicy, but not at all sweet. A salty-bitter taste, and something slimy between her teeth. These fruits were barren: without a stone. She looked at the tapestries on the walls, which all depicted hunts. The gentlemen on fine black horses were shown surrounding a bear; they thrust stone-tipped lances and split open the animal’s brains. She examined herself in the large polished bronze mirror, the wreckage of her face. The fire burned high. So why was she so cold? And why did it prick her feet so much to walk on that smooth, well-carpeted floor?

After maybe a night and a day – the place had no windows – the mother started to stir a little. She nursed the child and kissed his angry little scalp. She didn’t speak. She was beautiful, but something about her face troubled the old woman. Maybe she looked a little too much like the old woman herself might have looked, if she’d led a softer life. Once the baby was vomiting little glugs of milk, his mother gave him over to be anointed. The old woman shook a drop of the oil onto her left finger, and rubbed the baby’s eyes; he bawled, she handed him back. Now her eye itched again, so she sat on a chair and scratched. Pulse over the skin of the eyelid, push until the eye bruises the back of its socket. She had been scratching for quite a while until she noticed the slight greasiness between her finger and her eye, and realised that she had rubbed the oil into her own eye. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and opened her eyes.

This is what her right eye saw. There was the well-furnished room, the carpets, the tapestries, the fire, the table, the bed, the food, the baby, and his mother. But the left eye saw something else. It was only a matter of perspective, the slight distance between one eye and another, the world seen from a slightly different angle. Like peering behind a stage to see the ropes and the sawdust. Like peering around the back of a stately manor, where the pigs eat kitchen scraps and shit in the same mire. The left eye saw that this room was not a room, but a wet cavern. That there was no carpet, but the rough rocky floor that had shredded the soles of her feet. That there were no tapestries, but an array of skulls staring with empty sockets from every cranny: the skulls of deer, foxes, bears, and yes, human skulls, fractured, pierced with a stone-tipped lance. That there was no fire, but a fissure in the vault of the cave through which the drizzle came down. Not a table: a moss-furred rock. Not a bed: a stagnant pool of fronds and slime. No summertime fruit, but fat white feasting slugs. The left eye saw that the baby was a monstrous imp, covered in thick dark fur, that grinned through sharpened teeth. And his mother, naked in the slime, bleeding from the dozens of tiny deep gashes all over her breast, was Eilian.

Eilian, said the old woman. The girl looked up, still dazed. He said you wouldn’t see me, she said. Tell me what happened, said the old woman, and she told. The tylwyth teg had come to her on the moor, she said, and offered to lighten her labours. They would spin for her and chop the firewood; they even taught her their music. In return, she agreed to marry their elf-king before the first day of spring. The days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox are the season of the fairies, when the world slips away from the sun, given over to the unhomely powers of bog and heath; these are the dark rotting days in which fairies roam. In Elfland, it is always winter. Every night, Eilian had resisted the tylwyth teg; she slept with a belt of braided rowan-twigs across her waist, which the fairies cannot touch. But on the last day of winter she was so tired from her work that she forgot to wear her belt, and the elf-king came in the night to take what was his. Fairy weddings have no ceremony. In a minute the brutal business was done, all while the old woman slept next to them, dreaming goatish dreams. As soon as it was over he took Eilian away with him, under the hills to the sunless kingdom he ruled.

The old woman told Eilian that she would help them escape, but the girl shook her head. Wait a little longer, she said, and go when my husband returns; he will pay you well, but he must never know that you can see through his charms. Again and again the old woman tried to convince Eilian to abandon her monstrous child and leave, but every time the girl refused. Eventually her face took on a hard glinting set; there was a vein of cruelty there that the old woman would have never expected from the gormless girl at the castle fair. Eilian no longer left her mouth hanging open. How can you understand? she said. You are still a maid.

Her husband paid as well as was promised. Four gold coins, each identical to the dinar in her home. Down to the Arabic around the edge; down to the bite-mark. But later, when she’d returned to her shack and she looked at the coins again with her right eye closed, what she held was a brown handful of human teeth.

Much of the world stayed the same. The hills were the hills, the rain was only rain. These things had not been glamoured. But animals seemed larger through her new eye, and wilder too, shining primitive. The nanny-goat that munched behind her shack was no longer a goat, but Goatness itself. Maybe Adam had named something like this in the garden: a goat with a beard that kings could only imitate, a pair of horns finer than the Devil’s.

She learned things. She discovered that Elfland is not a different place under a different sky, but the world in its hiddenness. Every dark secret place is theirs; the empire reaches through the caves and the burrows, the dungeons, the cracks of the earth, and into your home. It’s under your bed and up in the rafters, in all the places that frighten children. Imagine a ball, and cup your hands around it tight: you’ve built a doorway to that other realm. Still there were secrets she couldn’t penetrate. They had to do with death, but also the savagery of the elves on their wedding-nights, and the way thick spears of grass throb towards the sky, and raw antlers shedding blood with the velvet, and the fact that Christ was born in the fairy-season, and Eilian’s mocking smile when she said you are still a maid.

The sky was one place to begin. She discovered, when she looked through her left eye, that the night sky was black and empty and there were no stars.  And when she steeled herself on a winter noon and stared directly at the sun, she wept for a week. The vastness of that dead thing, that carcass. She saw that what lights our days is a funeral pyre.

Once several weeks had passed, she noticed that her eye had stopped itching. She felt the skin with a cautious fingertip: it was healed.

Eventually, the old woman wandered into town for the market, to see if it was possible to spend one of her teeth. It was funny how the banners streaming from the castle were really only drab and white, with plain black letters that said SLEEP and CONFORM and OBEY. The market was busier now; the first daffodils were blooming, the first lambs were tottering bravely in the fields. She walked the stalls and felt invisible. Everyone in town had known her by her hideous eye, and now it was gone she could be anyone: a grandmother, maybe, from the next village over the hills. As she wandered, she noticed another figure always ahead of her, tripping from bench to bench, grabbing a loaf of bread, a measure of barley, a pot of herrings, throwing them in a black velvet sack. Thief, she cried. The vendors all looked up, but nobody stopped him. The old woman strode forward and grabbed the criminal by the scruff of his neck. Thief, she said again, but when he spun around she saw that this thief was none other the man who had come to her door on the longest night of the year, the man who married Eilian.

You can see me, said the elf-king, clearly delighted. Well, I did tell you that your fate would be terrible indeed. You must have been so confused by the things you saw! And how could you possibly understand them? You know how fond we are of our little tricks and our little games. Tell me, did you imagine that it was the truth? Now the elf-king drew himself very close to the old woman so she could smell the carrion on his breath, and whispered in her ear, like someone telling a juicy secret to a friend: there isn’t one. And although the fairy was still standing there, still smiling, still in his fine silks and perfumed hair, for an instant she saw that he was a mask. Something churned beneath his surface: the serpent that strangles and is the world.

Now, said the elf-king, which eye is it that you see me with? By your squint I know that it’s only the one. The old woman didn’t have a moment to answer; he was already peering close at her left eye, the one that had lost its halo of livid skin. In an instant, he flicked a bulrush and pulled out her eye. The eyeball glistened on the spear of his stick, dangling its bloodied wormy trail. Jelly ran out from where it had been pierced. An eye is only a ball of wet matter, invisible to the one that uses it. So is a brain. The elf-king flicked the eyeball to the ground, stamped on it once with the heel of his shoe, and then he went on his mischievous way to steal a round of good yellow cheese.

Why look at fire?

Some time in the twentieth century, the fires started to disappear. Gaston Bachelard was one of the first people to notice; in his magisterial The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he points out that ‘the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.’ That was in 1938. In the pages that follow, he talks about his pride when tending to the fire in his stove every morning, or parents rapping their children’s knuckles when their hands stray too close to the hearth. A text from a different world, one in which people lived close to their fires, intimately, in relationships worth subjecting to psychoanalysis. How much time do you spend around open flames?

Sometimes I still smoke cigarettes, and there’s a gas hob in my flat, but all I’d need to do is switch to vaping and move somewhere with an electric stove, and fire would vanish almost entirely from my life. Open fires do not heat our homes, cook our food, or provide our entertainment. The only places they tend to survive are special occasions and religious rites. The presence of fire marks out particular moments from ordinary time. Candles for birthday cakes or romantic dinners; Diwali and Hanukkah. Years ago, when I was a student, we used to make bonfires in our overgrown nettle-strewn garden, burning sticks from the park and unwanted furniture left by the kerbside, slowly dismantling the landlord’s greenhouse and burning it piece by piece. But if one person had gone into the garden alone to make a fire and warm themselves with it, the rest of us would have started locking our doors at night. The fire was for sitting with each other, drinking and talking. It was a social ritual. It did not belong to the world of the profane.

Fire has almost vanished now. This does not mean that it’s gone. The machine I’m using to write these words is powered by a nationwide network of enormous fires that never go out, oil and gas burning under huge chimneys, set in blackened and grassless landscapes – but these fires are invisible. So are the big burning pools of petrol that power vehicles on the street. When fire appears again in the ordinary world, it’s always in the shape of a disaster or a god.

* * *

On November 7, 2018, a man walked into a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the crowd. Twelve were killed. Days later, the fires came. Mourners, gathering at community centres to stand vigil for the dead, found the sky clotting over. Ash rained over the town. Footage from inside the city shows the pink haze, fringes of grass hissing with smoke. From the surrounding hillsides, the fire is a giant squatting heavily over Thousand Oaks: a monster from a very old world, roaring up through the surface-sheen of the California exurbs. A journalist who’d been in town to cover the shooting and its aftermath commented of the flames: ‘I was entranced by both their beauty and their power.’ On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. Isn’t it almost insensitive? Already, the fires raging across the western United States had killed dozens of people, many more than the gunman at the Borderline Bar & Grill. She would never have dreamed of writing that there was an aesthetic grace in the act of mass murder, that she was somehow attracted or impressed by the killer, that her horror at the crime was tinged with awe. But fire is different.

This year, the California fires turned the sky orange over San Francisco. It looked like a fever dream: the skyscrapers with their white glowing windows against a city in Martian red; a world that had already ended without noticing. Another journalist described the scene. ‘People really don’t know what to do right now. Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.’ I’d suggest that people did in fact know exactly what to do. When there is a fire, even if it’s the fires of Armageddon, you stop and look at it. You huddle with other people, and watch.

Fire is not simply one of the many things that are interesting to look at: plausibly, other things are interesting only insofar as they resemble fire. Digital screen displays, which grab so much of our attention: it’s not hard to work out why your gaze keeps drifting to the TV in the corner of a bar; it flickers, it glows. Birds in flight, or trees in the wind. The gaze of an animal: a live animal is always more interesting than a dead one, because there’s that invisible flutter behind the stillness of its eyes. Sometimes we call it a spark. And humans too. A beautiful person is a person who is, in some sense, on fire.

For me, at least, there’s a certain type of fire-image that’s hard to look away from. Probably the most famous version is the one above, from the Oregon wildfires of 2017. At the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few players calmly finish their round. In the hills behind them, every tree is outlined in flames. The pictures of San Francisco bustling its way through the apocalypse are part of the same genre. But my favourite is from 2018: produce workers hunched over in the fields, still picking crops while the sky burns. There’s an obvious political resonance to these images: this is bourgeois indifference or the cruelty of the wage-relation; this climate change, the world burning while we look the other way. A diagram of our lives, moving furniture around in a house on fire. But I think the real fascination comes from somewhere else.

These images violate every rule of classical composition, starting with the law that the foreground in an image should always be brighter than the background. How do you light your little tableau when the mise-en-scène is burning? Wildfires makes a mockery of figure and ground; they always has the capacity to pour out from the edges of the image and breathe hot danger at the viewer. It’s the revenge of the setting, the unheeded pliable stuff of the world, against our system of objects. Its effect is not quite the same as the sublime. For both Burke and Kant, a canonical case of the sublime is a ship at sea, threatened by terrible stormy waves – but only for a viewer on land, who is himself safe from any peril. For someone on the boat, it’s simply peril. But fire abolishes that remove. However distant you are, it’s spreading.

There’s another kind of image that actively moves towards you as you approach. We love to look at fire because it is a mirror.

* * *

Traditionally, fire is not ours. It always comes from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a gift; very often, it’s stolen. Prometheus descended from Olympus with a burning fennel-brush; Maui tore out the fingernails of fire from the goddess Mahuika. The God of Moses likes manifesting Himself in pillars of fire and burning bushes: ‘for the Lord your God is a consuming fire.’ The Israelites understood things very clearly. But what about the people for whom fire is brought by birds? In a Breton folk-narrative that survived well into the modern era, the wren steals the fire of heaven, but his wings are burned; he passes it on to the robin redbreast, whose chest is torched, and who passes it on again to the lark, who delivers it finally to the ground. Similar stories crop up across the world – the fire-bringer is variously a wren, a finch, a cockatoo, a crow, or a hawk. (And birds do actually carry fires: black kites have been observed clasping flaming sticks in their beaks, spreading fire in dry forests to flush out prey. Some people have been tempted to use this to argue that indigenous folklore encodes important scientific knowledge. This is euheremistic drivel. Don’t ever debase myth by dressing it up as data; myth is true in a far more important way. The truth of these stories is in the birds themselves: so firelike, trembling in quick feathers.)

In what might be the starkest version of the fire-origin story, fire is first stolen not from the gods or from heaven, but from women. A tradition among the Gaagudju of northern Australia, collected in 1930 by JG Frazer, holds that once only the women knew how to make fire; when the men returned to the camp after hunting, the women would gather up the burning ashes and hide them in their vaginas. In revenge, the men turned themselves into crocodiles and killed the women. ‘When all was over, the crocodile-men dragged the dead women out on the bank, and said to them, “Get up, go. Why did you tell us lies about the fire? But the dead women made no reply.’ They didn’t realise what they had done. Innocent reptiles, who understood none of the things that come from fire: warmth, and light, and knowledge, and death.

(Freud, who may or may not have been aware of this story, tells a similar myth. Human civilisation was only possible once men could restrain themselves from urinating all over any fire they encountered in homoerotic glee. Women, whose ‘anatomy makes it impossible for [them] to yield to such a temptation,’ might have got there first. A faint image emerges of women frustrated for thousands of years, constantly discovering fire, drawing themselves to the precipice of a long steep slide into advanced technological civilisation – only for the men of the tribe to arrive, honking and hollering, extinguishing the germ of all future society with joyful streams of piss.)

It’s with the emergence of philosophy that fire lost its secret history. Heraclitus declared that the universe was ‘made neither by God nor man, but it ever was and is, and will be, an ever-living fire’ – but Thales said the same for water, and Anaximenes for air. What’s interesting is that nobody ever proposed that earth might be the arche, or the fundamental substance of reality. The earth is always this particular piece of earth, granulated, strewn with rocks and bones; a silent archive of all the wrongs that have been done to it, shelved away in its sedimentary layers. It carries the dead weight of its history. Fire, meanwhile, takes no impressions. ‘All things are an exchange for fire,’ writes Heraclitus, ‘and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’

This is an interesting comparison. It took Marx to really burrow into the universality of gold, to dig beneath the blank face of the money-form and see what hidden histories of suffering it contained. We could do the same with fire. As it turns out, the Bretons and the Gaagudju were right, and Heraclitus was wrong. Fire does have a history; it is, like us, contingent. We can say precisely when fire entered the world: it came to us in the year 470,000,000 BC.

* * *

In biology lessons, as a child, I was taught the properties of living things: movement, respiration, reproduction, excretion, and so on. It was stressed that all of these criteria must be met before you reach the magical status of life. Viruses adapt and reproduce, but they are not themselves living organisms. And fire, too, does so many of the same things that we do. It breathes in air and eats up fuel; it splits and spreads, and leaves ashes in its wake. But fire is not alive, it’s only a chemical reaction. (Well, so am I.) And that was that: I never wondered why it was that fire sprung out of a dead world and licked so close to life. The answer ought to have been obvious. The things that burn are, almost exclusively, organic materials: grass and wood; flesh and fat. (There are exceptions; flammable organic materials like methane can be produced by abiotic processes. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has glorious swirling methane seas, and Titan is lifeless – at least, as far as we know. But Titan also has no oxygen in its atmosphere. Those seas roil in the distant sunlight, but they’ll never burn.)

Before the emergence of living terrestrial organisms under an oxygen-rich sky, there was no fire. The slow crawl of molten rock down barren volcanoes, the diamond-spray of magma as asteroids collided with a liquid slag-heap earth, the distant nuclear reactors in the stars, but nothing that could be called a flame. Fire is the bright twin of terrestrial life. It’s been here as long as life has, exactly as long as we have. Maybe we have things the wrong way round. Maybe life is not a particularly important phenomenon in the universe; maybe it’s just the placenta, a self-replenishing stock of fuel, the egg-sac for a world birthing fire.

But humanity is a special case. Bernard Stiegler suggested that technics are a system in which human beings serve as the genital organs in an evolution of the inorganic; we are the reproductive system for our ever-changing tools. But for Stiegler – despite all his Promethean references – the paradigm of epiphylogenesis is in flint-knapping; tools of stone. ‘One must first ask what mirage of the cortex is experienced as pathbreaking, in the hardness of flint; what plasticity of grey matter corresponds to the flake of mineral matter.’ But fire fits his schema far more efficiently. By disguising itself as a technical instrument for human use, fire unconstrained itself. Tens of thousands of years ago, forests that would once burn and regrow and eventually burn again, returning the nutrients locked in trees to the soil, were burned for the last time; early humans used fire liberally to permanently clear the forests, creating wide grasslands in which to hunt. Tens of millions of years ago, intact forests were fossilised; now, we dig through the geological strata of the earth, tearing out vast quantities of coal and oil, to meet the fire they escaped the first time round. The distant past is burning, the future fills with smoke. If the movements and stasis of history make us feel anxious, unmoored, neurotic, it’s because we are simply a time machine for the flames.

As Stiegler argues, this relationship is based on a mutual constitution. Our australopithecine ancestors had a long digestive tract; ours are significantly shorter. This is because we evolved eating cooked food: when proteins and starches are broken down by heat, they can be digested much more efficiently.  Parasites and pathogens are killed by cooking, and humans have weaker immune systems than our ape relatives. It’s possible that the ability to cook unlocked significant energetic surpluses, with the shrinkage of the energy-intensive gut allowing for the costly development elsewhere. For instance, a bigger brain. The much-hyped human consciousness might, in the end, just be the residue of fire, a lump of charcoal left smouldering in our DNA.

What we’re not born with is any hardwired instinct for rubbing bits of wood together until there’s a spark. ‘Lay the secret on me,’ King Louis demands, ‘of man’s red fire.’ But Mowgli doesn’t know the secret; all he has is an alimentary canal that’s incomplete, that needs to be plugged in to an external, cultural machine. You need technics, language, science, and traditions. There is no pristine originary pre-cultural state of nature in our history. Instead, if you want to see where nature meets culture, if you want to see your origin and your future and yourself, then look into the flames.

The company of geese

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The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.

In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day.[1] Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep.  She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight. 

It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.

For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.

I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.

But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.

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Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.

Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.

Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.

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In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.

Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.

We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.

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(All goose photos mine.)

Notes

[1] Yes, fine, sure, there’s Hyperion and his cattle, ‘the cattle that gave me such joy every day as I climbed the starry sky and as I dropped down from heaven and sank once more to earth.‘ But the Sun is a god, not a human being, and a purely sensory pleasure in the natural world has always been the prerogative of the sovereign gods. ‘He saw it and it was good.’ For the sailors, these cattle either have utilitarian value as food, or else they’re sacred, in the sense of being forbidden. Men and their stomachs.  Homer likes to describe Odysseus and Telemachus with the epithet θεοειδής, godlike, but in fact it’s Penelope who, in a quiet moment with her geese, touches the divine.

The case for giving up

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1.1 A bull charges out of the sea. A white bull, white as the foam that birthed it, glowering with newborn joy, and beautiful. Turning and turning on the sand, tossing its mane now to the marble city on its hill, now to the man praying by the water’s edge. Everything here is bright and simple. The bull is a mirror for the sun, and the sun burns like a charging bull. The sea leaves glittering webs across the sand, and both earth and sky are dark with treasure. Poseidon leaves no message, only the bull, and it’s enough: you know what must be done. Take a knife and cut his throat. Let his salty blood drain into the sea, and then burn his body under the sun, a sacrifice to the god that sent him. The purpose of beautiful things is to be destroyed. This is why young people are closer to death than the old, why well-laid cities are always bombed, why history progresses by its bad side, and why revolutions fail. But King Minos doesn’t slaughter the bull; he wants to keep it. Big mistake. If a beautiful thing is allowed to live, it will fuck your wife and sire only monsters.

1.2 Something trembles at the bottom of a jar. Epimetheus struggles towards its voice against the tide of rubble that was once his world. The ruins are piling up, but all he can see is the past. ‘I shouldn’t have married Pandora,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have let her open the jar.’ The room where every evil erupted is unrecognisable now, but the voice calls him on, deeper into the heart of the storm. What had been a home with gold and marble columns, a school wreathed in ivy, a hospital, a railway, the scent of summer and figs – now, stones are churned in black slime, and evils jabber through the night. Still the voice pushes him on, even as the swarm of sufferings starts to peel away at his skin. Find me. Find me. And there, at the bottom of the jar, he finds only himself. Elpis, hope; in other words, blissful ignorance of the new and awful future, afterthought, Epimetheus. Nobody knows if this was the mercy of Zeus, or his final act of spite.

1.3 In one version of the story, the Moirai, the Fates who weave the world from a single thread, once had a fourth sister. Hetera, the warp in the weft. The others portioned out what would be and what would not be; Hetera weaved what was possible. Her work was beautiful and vague. She strangled herself in its knots.

2.1 Socialism started out speaking a very crude language, almost military – seize this, crush that, to victory! History is on our side! Decades of defeat have deepened our concepts. Sadness has enriched them. We’ve become elegaic, wistful; always broken, but still defiant. The heart of a heartless world. The soul of soulless conditions. Now, we don’t talk about victory; we talk about Beauty and Hope and The Possible. Our ideology has become a metaphor for the human condition, striving on against the odds. Other philosophies are not the same. The opposite of liberalism is conservatism. The opposite of despotism is democracy. The opposite of socialism isn’t capitalism, it’s the void. A Catholic priest isn’t troubled by Hinduism or Shinto, but by the vast, crushing silence of God. In the same way, our struggle isn’t against contingent social conditions, it’s against entropy and despair.

2.2 Leftist rhetoric puts a taboo on despair. Gramsci thunders against ‘the thick, dark cloud of pessimism which is oppressing the most able and responsible militants.’ He was writing in darker times than ours: the horrors facing him weren’t Boris or Brexit but the real thing, Mussolini in Rome, the catastrophe swelling. Still, there’s no room for despair. ‘Our party exists and that is something in itself; it is in that which we have never-ending faith as the better, most sound, most honest part of the Italian proletariat.’ Walter Benjamin has no time for the melancholic; they’re ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness.’ This tradition continues. The line after every defeat is the same. ‘Don’t mourn, organise.’ The worst sin for a Christian is to deny the Holy Spirit; the worst sin for a socialist is to lose hope. A vein of banal positivity runs through political discourse; at points it’s indistinguishable from the language of inspirational quotes about going to the gym. The rictus, the manic posture, the false cheer. Don’t quit! Keep going! If you stop for even a moment, the ground will swallow you and you’ll die. A few months ago, a panel of politicians from various parties were asked on the BBC’s Any Questions whether they considered themselves optimists or pessimists. Every single one of them loudly professed their optimism. Of course they did; it would have been a catastrophe otherwise. If we had this kind of enforced uniformity of opinion on any other subject, we’d see it for what it is. Optimists control the media, the government, the corporations – and even the revolutionaries are under their spell. It’s utterly forbidden not to hope. Despair must be repressed at all costs.

2.3 But despair is what there is. I don’t see the point of repressing, or pretending otherwise. The repressed always returns, nastier than it was, and more pervasive; the first step is to say it openly: I am in despair.

3.1 Like thousands of others, I fought hard for a Labour victory last week. I knocked on doors and talked to strangers, I talked Lib Dems down off the ledge, I got out the vote. In the end, we delivered the party’s worst electoral defeat since 1935. Corbynism was a movement based on joyful, emancipatory hope. It coalesced around the most fundamentally decent person to ever lead a British political party. It offered the possibility of something beautiful in an ugly world – and voters didn’t just reject it, they hated it.

3.2 Four years ago, Corbynism made a specific electoral promise. We argued that for decades the party had been chasing a small number of Labour-Tory swing voters by tacking steadily to the right, making things worse and alienating its core constituency in the process. But there was another way. By returning to an insurgent socialist platform, the party could reactivate the disillusioned working-class voters it had steadily haemorrhaged over the Blair years. Not only did this not happen, we managed to achieve the precise opposite effect. Former mining areas that had returned only Labour MPs for over a century are now in the hands of the Conservatives. The new Labour constituency is elsewhere. It’s the young, the urban, and the highly educated. It’s people like me, twats who have to reach for their Hesiod to explain why they feel upset. This is very bad.

3.3 The consolations on offer are – sorry – lacklustre. We might have been brutally rejected by the public, but look at all the new bonds of solidarity we’ve formed within our activist core. In other words, maybe the real socialism was the friends we made along the way.  Some people have attempted to redefine the problem away. Are young people automatically excluded from the working classes? No, but if you’re young, one of two things will happen, and they’re both awful: either you die, or you get old. The last century has seen one youth movement after another wait hungrily for the future, and then look on in shock and horror as everyone’s skin starts to droop. Youth is the only demographic with a 100% attrition rate, and the politics of youth are not sustainable. One of the reasons Momentum has managed to avoid the posturing, infighting, and embarrassment that plagues groups like the DSA is that its activist backbone is not made up of young people, but nice middle-aged mums from the Midlands. The other prong is to insist that the working classes are not all flat-cap wearers from the North, but are much blacker and browner and more metropolitan than people like to pretend. This is true (although one of the many virtues of our multiethnic working class is its blanket refusal to indulge in any of the soft-segregationist bourgeois racial neurosis that floods our liberal discourse). But it’s a sorry excuse; it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a critical mass of voters – however you want to define them – that Labour tried to reach, ought to have reached, and failed to reach.

4.1 I’m in despair. Everything I write here is written from despair, and should be read with that understanding. Don’t take me too seriously. But there’s one place to which even I won’t sink, which is to blame the voters. Weirdly, this is the gesture – the absolute blackest, most nihilistic, most obscenely despairing gesture – that’s been far too common from some of my comrades, the same ones who keep forbidding us to give up hope. This is the line you end up with when you repress despair, so forcefully that it has nowhere else to go except out your pores. Corbynism lost because it was simply too good for this world, because the British working classes were too racist, too thoughtless, too pigshit-ignorant and ugly and useless and vile to see all the good things we wanted to do for them. Brecht saw through this shit in 1953. If you want to know why we lost, start there: in a truly socialist movement, such a sentiment shouldn’t even be possible to articulate.

4.2 Some other explanations are equally untenable. You can blame the media and their broadly deranged campaign against the Labour leadership. Aside from London, one of the major surviving centres of Labour support is Liverpool. Why? Well, Scousers famously don’t read the Sun. The old press is dying, but it’s still not dying fast enough. You can blame the antisemitism scandal, which at this point we can all surely recognise for the smear campaign it was. The people peddling it are certainly aware of it. Days after Corbyn’s defeat, there was a raft of takes accusing Bernie Sanders – sorry, (((Bernie Sanders))) – of posing an existential threat to world Jewry. It should be impossible now for anyone to pretend, with a straight face, that these people were thinking anything other than ‘well, that line seemed to work in Britain, so let’s try it over here.’ You can blame the disloyalty of the party’s MPs and functionaries, who decided they’d rather sink the raft than allow it to veer to the left. But all this sounds too much like an excuse. We knew we’d face a hostile press, that they’d use every weapon in their arsenal, that they’d try to make Corbyn poisonous, that the right wing of the party would hatch its plots. We didn’t counter this effectively. The proper response to the antisemitism smears was not to endlessly decry the evils of antisemitism, it was outrage: ‘how dare you accuse me of this?’ This is the line Bernie’s staff are taking, but it wasn’t what Labour did. In the end, we didn’t have the guts.

4.3 When Labour lost in 2015, I wrote that it lost because it deserved to lose. I said much the same thing about Remain and Hillary Clinton in 2016. I can’t in good faith ignore the possibility that we, too, deserved to lose – even if we lost trying to do something good rather than something sordid. It wasn’t the media or the party’s right or even the Tories that beat us; leftism’s opposite isn’t rightism but despair. We lost to our own capacity for defeat. At the very least, we should give the winning side its due.

5.1 The explanation offered by the leadership is that Labour lost because of its stance on Brexit. In 2017, we ran promising a soft Brexit, and achieved the largest swing to Labour since 1945. (A lot of this came from young, educated people, which is not how it was supposed to go, but still.) This year, we won promising a second referendum, and we were crushed. The move to a more Remainy position was came after immense pressure from Guardian columnists and the kind of people who think it’s ‘cool’ to make a big sign that says ‘Fromage not Farage’: once again, Labour had to choose between bourgeois media liberals and its base, and once again it decided to take the base for granted. In the event, plenty of people who voted Remain were (like me) prepared to accept a Leave outcome, while people who voted Leave were fiercely intransigent, because – and it’s insane that this needs repeating – Leave actually won. But I’m still not sure if it’s true that ‘Brexit would have won.’ This isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. The problem is the method. Watching Parliament pull out every trick to frustrate Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of dread: we’re going to be punished so hard for this. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to politics – and that of Corbynism more broadly – is predicated on a deep respect for the institutions of British representative democracy. Parliament is, after all, where he’s spent the last forty years. But there’s a gaping, unresolved contradiction. These institutions are the home of what Rancière calls la politique, politics, the squabbling over the apportioning of resources, as opposed to le politique, the political, the radical breaking-through of the demand for equality. It is utterly anathema to Beauty and Hope and The Possible. I don’t suffer from any insurrectionary fantasies here; we can’t do without electoralism – as a weapon in our arsenal, if nothing else. But it should be treated with extreme carefulness, and we were not careful. Watch – if you can bear it – footage of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 leadership hustings. It’s astonishing. He speaks honestly, passionately, and well. He speaks like a human being surrounded by flesh robots, which is exactly what he was. This was why he won, and why he deserved to win. But compare his performance in the debates against Boris Johnson. Now, he’s evading questions and regurgitating lines. He’s not facing down the monster, he’s in its mouth, speaking its words. He’s had to make compromises and espouse things he doesn’t really believe. He’s become a politician. Politics is an ophiocordyceps. It gets into your brain and makes you climb up to the highest leaf on the tree, so it can push mushrooms out of your head.

5.2 The failure of Corbynism was a failure on the level of theory. It’s important to contextualise the decline of the Labour party. This wasn’t an isolated incident; the traditional centre-left is dying across Europe and across the world. Social-democratic politics are (mostly) a mass politics, and the last forty years have conspired to shatter all masses. Neoliberalism and deindustrialisation and the assault on the unions have disrupted collective subjects and collective solidarity – but new technologies do the same thing. Marxism was the ideological expression of the printed word, and we’re all illiterates now. How was it that so many voters in former mining communities could go for the Tories? It helps that many of these voters are no longer in former mining communities; they’re on their phones. Intergenerational links have dissolved. The work that’s replaced the coal mines – and the work that dominates among the ‘new’ urban working classes – is service-oriented, instilling brutal competition between workers for diminishing resources. It’s customer-facing, which, more often than not means, facing not a person but a screen. We are deracinated, individuated, torn free and sent spinning into the stream of digital images and synthetic affects. Digital communications are a weapon; they are to the class war what the nuclear bomb was to war between nations. And the ‘new left media’ are not a solution to this problem, but another symptom, breaking up masses into consumer groups ruled by the aegis of a single media principle. Adorno and Horkheimer predicted this: ‘The ruthless unity of the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.’ The gambit made by Corbynism was to re-engage the traditional working classes through a platform that could open a space for mass politics – the Green Industrial Revolution, the expansion of free time, the fostering of solidarity. But this was also its failure. These proposals existed only as hopes and possibilities; Labour was speaking to the ghost of a collective subject. People liked these policies, but the social infrastructure for their realisation simply wasn’t there. For the strategy to have been effective, the collective subject would have had to already have been constituted. But the work of constituting it has not been done; it can only take place outside the forms of platforms and manifestos: within politics, and not the political.

5.3 I don’t know if this task can even be achieved. The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold. I’m not convinced that more desperate optimism and voluntarism can help us here, if it means anything more than just headbutting the problem until your skull cracks. So: what’s out there, far away, in the bright worlds beyond hope? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out. All I know is that despair is only the first step, and the path will not be a circle. We’re standing where the land ends, on a bright and frenzied beach. We tremble on its edge. Time to charge into the sea.

How to disdain your dragon

I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by a star beside it.
Kafka, Aphorism 17

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Literary fiction these days is crap, isn’t it? It might be better if the problem were just that most books are worthless – they are, but that’s always been the case; you always need a few decades to let the dross sink. There’s still good stuff out there; the blame must be placed squarely with you, the readers. Because somehow, even with your lives constantly probed and perforated, shokushu-like, by digital text, you people have forgotten how to read.

Look at what was probably the most significant literary event of the last few years, the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”. The story of two people who meet, text each other, have awful unsatisfying sex, and then drift apart, “Cat Person” is written in a brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, readable style. It includes sentences like ‘Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts’ and ‘maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her.’ It describes a situation that’s fairly familiar – just about everyone I know, both male and female, has been in the position it describes, of having sex with someone out of a sense of exhausted duty, going through the motions so as not to upset or disappoint the other person, of resigning yourself to a basically joyless life. It’s very easy to point at one or both of the basically hapless couple and say: it me. It’s all very well-observed, a very plausible dip into the mind of a tedious neurotic. It was received very well.

But something about this reception was strange. Shortly after the story exploded, people were announcing – in breathless, almost angry tones – that the author was actually a writer, that Roupenian actually had an MFA, and a PhD in English from Harvard to boot, that “Cat Person” might actually be a deliberately constructed work of fiction. This feels like a strange thing to be saying about a short story published in the New Yorker, but it was necessary. Broad swathes of the reading public seemed determined to read “Cat Person” as anything other than literature. Something about that brisk, frank, stark, plain style marked it off as something else: a piece of reportage, a personal account, a confession, an accusation. Something about the naïve realism of the literary voice made people assume that the author herself had to be a naïf, unadorned with any kind of creative untruth. Opinion writers – many of whom had their own degrees in English literature – refused to see it as a text to be evaluated; instead, the point was apparently to simply correctly identify the goodie and the baddie in the story, and hate the baddie appropriately. This is how children read. What is going on?

All this is particularly strange when you consider that “Cat Person” was written in a very particular ritual dialect called Mfalé, which emerged out of the temple complexes in Norwich and Iowa City, and is short for MFA Literary English. But the thing about Mfalé is that it tries to make itself invisible: it’s the style of no style; simple, unadorned, correct realist writing. This is how it became a vernacular; this is why Mfalé literature is so easily read as something other than literature. But for all that, it’s still a set of conventions, as basically artificial as any other.

Texts written in Mfalé are brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, and readable. They concern the daily lives of a few everyday characters, usually young, usually in some kind of bad sexual relationship or complicated breakup, usually mediated by digital technology. There’s a close attention to sensory detail, and an even closer attention to minor affective nuances: moments of inattention or miscommunication, people who see each other as more or less than they actually are, small eddies of desperation or loneliness or regret. There’s a lot of banal but realistically rendered dialogue. Stories are generally (but not always) written in the third person, but hew very closely to one particular perspective. If they’re not autobiographical, they read very strongly as if they might be autobiographical. They’re implicitly universal, but shy away from allegory, symbolism, or satire; instead of being general they’re relatable, so that each incident could plausibly echo a situation in your own life in a blossoming of one-to-one correspondences, so that the reader can imagine that the smart but fucked-up girl or the soulful but awkward boy is themselves and nobody else. Unlike some terminally online writers you might want to name, the authors of these works aren’t adverbially preening themselves with strange words or sentences elongated into unreadability – but they’re also not self-consciously flat or affectless or nihilistic. They gesture towards a kind of emotional hyperliteracy. If the author is showing off about something, it’s how much they see, how well they understand the social pitfalls of ordinary life.

I find these texts to be, in general, deeply creepy. If literature is not only a reproduction of social existence, but a site in the production of subjectivity, then this form is a machine for creating paranoiacs. The narrative is odourless and invisible, practically absent altogether, but it sees everything. It watches every minute shift in your emotional state, and jots it down. It’s the literary voice of the creature hiding in the shadows. The technology didn’t arrive until afterwards, but there might be a reason this style is so dominant now: it’s the literature of the social-media panopticon, where everyone is sitting blank-faced behind a screen, watching each other, and waiting for a chance to judge.

This would all be forgivable, if it weren’t for the fact that these texts are also profoundly unrealistic. Take, for instance, Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, which is definitely one of the better instances of the form. The story concerns a couple who get together, then split up again, then get together again, then split up again, then get together again, and in the final pages are implied to be about to split up again. Like “Cat Person”, it’s well observed and very competently written. But this is a story about young Irish people in the present day, and not once in the entire novel does anyone actually crack a joke. Every conversation is deeply earnest and deeply fraught. These people just have feelings, and conceal or talk about them, and are utterly po-faced throughout.

Realist fiction is not realistic. After all, what is a joke? It’s the eruption of a kind of abstract absurdity into the social world, an absurdity that throws everything into sharp relief, that reveals a certain truth that was previously buried, but without simply representing it. Realism is always meticulously anti-absurdist: everything has to be believable, or it’s harder to relate. Which is how you end up with a vision of human existence that rings true in every particular, but fails to add up to anything, that presents people as always diminished, petty, and dull. As Borges notes of Proust, these fictional events are ‘unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each new day.’

As well as instant fame, “Cat Person” gave Kristen Roupenian a $1.2 million advance on her book. But when You Know You Want This was published this year, it was to tepid, cautious reviews. Some of the awkwardness that surrounds an apostate: aside from “Cat Person” itself and one or two others, the texts it contains are not written in Mfalé. Instead, they’re fabular, artifical, constructed; less like a story and more like a tale, something like the Grimm brothers, Kafka, or the Arabian Nights. They describe situations that it’s harder to relate to, because you’ve never fused all your enemies into a giant flesh-monster, or killed your husband because of a bucket. People are depthless, obscure and obscene. In the LRB, a frustrated reviewer took to parenthetically adding ‘(no reason)’ every time one of Roupenian’s characters did something that couldn’t be understood. These stories carry a note of the inexplicable. A rising strangeness that’s set against the background of mundane thoughts and lives, and seems to emerge out of it, but in a way that can’t be reduced to that setting. This is what reviewers complained about: you have a story about a young couple forced to deal with what’s obviously a metaphor for Our Modern-Day Issues With Self-Esteem, a woman obsessing over every inch of her skin with a magnifying glass – but then the metaphor ‘pierces through her flesh and wriggles free,’ alive, spiked with thousands of tiny legs, and incapable of thinking neurotically about what it might mean.

Tales, in general, are truer than stories. Here’s one, related by Borges in The Dialogues of Ascetic and King: one night, an old man arrives at the court of Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted to Christianity while in England. The king asks him what he can do, and the old man replies that he knows how to play the harp and tell stories. After a few songs, he relates the story of the birth of Odin. Three Fates arrived at the god’s birth; two prophesied great fortune and happiness, but the third, in a rage, said: you will live no longer than the candle burning by your side, and so Odin’s parents quickly extinguished the candle. Olaf Tryggvason doesn’t believe the story, and the two of them debate the matter into the night, until the lights are dim and the stranger finally announces that it is late, and he must leave. After the lights have exhausted themselves, the king and his men go out to search for him. A few steps from the king’s house, Odin is lying dead.

It’s a melancholy story. The passing of an era, the roar of the old gods fading to a few quiet notes on the harp, the way Odin comes to inhabit the meekness of the Christ that overthrew him. But it’s not just a historical artefact. It feels true, without having any obvious point of identification or clear symbolic meaning. Sad dignity, resignation, and the inexplicable, because life itself is often sad and thankless and strange. The sense, somewhere, of an entirely different way of being, a different way of relating to the snow and the gods and time, a dying world, but one that still echoes, that’s curled up tight inside our potential selves, even today.

All of this, of course, is by way of talking about Game of Thrones.

It’s become a commonplace to point out just how uncreative most fantasy is. I’m sometimes struck by it, reading the blurbs on the fantasy novels at the Tube station mini library. Gogorax is an apprentice Brightcaster – a wielder of powerful magic. When the evil Lord Zugenhelm threatens the realm of Palovar, he must embark on a journey that leads him past the Pillars of Plib and the swamplands of Plonts to collect the five mystical Orbs of Power. This is what’s called worldbuilding, but it’s not world that’s being built. A world is a way of experiencing reality and other people; it’s the unit of social and phenomenological difference. The greatest builder of fantasy worlds in literature was probably Bruno Schulz, who set all his stories in the same quiet Polish town. What these authors build are only geographies.

The innovation of Game of Thrones was supposedly to build a more realistic world. Instead of the hollow creatures of schlock-fantasy – the trueborn heir, the dark lord, the sturdy peasant – you get fleshed-out characters, with the same family squabbles and romantic disappointments you’ve learned to expect from Rooney or Knausgaard. When the war against an undead evil comes, you still need to worry about how you’re going to feed the horses. Even if there’s a bit of magic here and there, it’s all ultimately about politics: it’s realist fiction with dragons in. But then, in the last two seasons, the glamour of realism started to wear off.

An online petition demanding that the final season be scrapped and remade has gathered, at the time of writing, three billion signatures. But beyond the self-evident fact that this show has become extremely bad, the complaint is actually quite incoherent. On the one hand, viewers are upset that ‘character arcs’ aren’t being respected, that the show’s done away with the narrative conventions of high fantasy. The magic zombie army is destroyed in a single battle, almost as a prelude to three more episodes of squabbling and politics! It’s not even the secret trueborn heir who defeats them! In the end, he doesn’t even take the throne! Why isn’t this The Lord of the Rings? But at the same time, the show is no longer realistic. How are these characters zipping instantaneously around the map? Why did they put the catapults in front of their infantry? How come she couldn’t see all those ships? What happened to the Mongols? Why do characters no longer do things that an actual person would do in their situation, but act as if tugged along by invisible lines of plot?

I’m not here to defend one of the biggest and most lucrative culture-commodities of the twenty-first century. A complaint can be both incoherent and also correct (in fact, they usually are). I just want to talk about one particular scene. In the penultimate episode, Dragon Hillary finally gets everything she ever wanted. Her troops breach the walls of the enemy’s capital, the forces opposing them surrender, the crown is practically tossed at her feet. And in this moment, as the bells ring, the liberator goes on a murderous rampage, burning and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people – once she’s already won – for, as the LRB would put it, (no reason).

You could talk about this in terms of cheap and lazy plotting, rushed heel-turns, violence against the character. This is dull. You could talk about representation and the distrust of women in power, or crow that Dragon Hillary turned out to be just like the real Hillary after all. This is also dull. So is Hobbes and realpolitik, the arbitrary violence of sacred kingships, the mass human sacrifices that accompanied royal successions in West Africa and Mesoamerica. What struck me about that scene – and it struck me hard, shortened breath and anxious heartbeats as the city burned – was how true it was to daily life. A child has a favourite toy confiscated; for weeks he begs to get it back, because it’s the thing he wants most in the world – and then when it’s returned, in a fit of sudden sourceless fury, he smashes the thing to bits. A basic psychoanalytic principle: the thing you want is never the thing you really want. The thing you really want, the objet petit a, is the impossible thing, the thing that isn’t, the thing that flies with dragons in the night. And Dragon Hillary, watching her victory from a distance, isn’t satisfied. She thought this would make her happy, but it’s not enough; happiness doesn’t work like that. So she burns it all down – and afterwards it’s too late; you can burn it down, but you can’t fix it once that’s done, and you can’t fix yourself. (In a better show, the next episode would have had her advisors confront her in those terms: so, do you feel better now? Did you get it out of your system?) I’ve felt that urge before, that vertigo. You have too.

You can describe all this with realist narrative and without any dragons. Of course you can; it’s what I’m trying to do right now. But it’s missing something, and it’ll never be as real. It will always lack the impossibility and inexplicability of our lives. It will miss the fact that we all live with our fingertips trailing through other worlds. It will forget that we are lit by other suns.

 

 

Avengers: Endgame, or, why this is all your fault

you

You were born. For billions of years, the universe existed and you were not alive. There were stars and lights and giant lizards and Romans and so on, but it all took place under a kind of invisible shroud, the blackness of non-experience. One day you will go back into that blackness, and it will be as if the universe had never existed. But you are alive now, in the early twenty-first century – and because of that fact, the human race will probably be extinct within the next thousand years.

This is called the Doomsday Argument, and frankly it makes a lot of sense. This subjectivity, this you-ness that you experience, could have come into the world at any point in human history. You could have been one of those Romans, but you weren’t. You were born in the middle of the greatest population explosion in human history. Two hundred years ago, the global population barely scraped a billion; it took nearly a century for that number to double. It’ll be eight billion soon. You were born in the time in which there were more people than ever before – and did you think this was a coincidence? You’re here now because now is the most likely time for you to be here. You’re here now because you’re not special.

The argument is a version of the German Tank Problem, which goes something like this. Millions of people are dying horribly in the Second World War, and in the middle of all this chaos you’ve managed to sneak a spy into a German tank factory – but they’re soon discovered, and manage to escape with their life having only taken one photo. A tank’s chassis, with the serial number 396. So: how many tanks are the Nazis producing? Keep in mind that the answer is crucial to the war effort. They might have only built four hundred tanks, and your spy happened to snap one of the last off the assembly line. Or maybe your spy caught one of the first, and the Germans are building millions of the things, tens of millions, enough tanks to drive into the English Channel, fill it up, and keep on driving, simply flattening everything from Dover to Durness. But in both cases, the probability is low. There’s only a 1% chance this tank is in the first or last 1% of tanks made. Without any other data, you have to assume that the one instance you’re aware of is probably somewhere around the middle of the distribution. So: eight hundred tanks total, give or take. This was a statistical method the Allies actually used, based on serial numbers from captured vehicles. After the war, when production figures from the Reichsministerium für Rüstung were analysed, the statistical method turned out to have been almost spookily accurate, far more so than the estimates given by ordinary intelligence. The nerds won. They always do.

You are a German tank. You were built by the Nazis to do evil in the world. The only data-point we have is that you are alive in the present day, and without anything else to work with, we have to assume that you were born vaguely in the middle of experiential history. Something like one hundred billion people have ever lived, so, once the dust clears and the final accounts are totted up, chances are there will have been around two hundred billion people to have lived and died on this miserable rock. But we’re still in the middle of a population explosion; we’re eating into that remaining one hundred billion faster than we’ve ever done before. The future of humanity will be much, much shorter than its past.

The simplest thing would be to kill you. Yes, I know, you didn’t ask for any of this – but the inevitable extinction of humanity is still entirely your fault, and it would still be pretty satisfying to make you suffer for it. But it’s too late now, your damage is already done. You doomed us all the moment you entered the world. The only thing you can really do is make sure that the life you’re living is worth the mass extinction it’s caused. It’s an impossible task, but you can try. Except you’re not even trying, are you? Life is short, and finite, and Avengers: Endgame is three goddamn hours long, and you watched it. You paid money to sit in a darkened room and eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watched Captain America travel into the past to knock himself unconscious and leer at his own ass, as if he’s about to pull down his own trousers and start fucking it. And now you’re reading a review of the same film, and every second that passes is lost forever. What the hell is wrong with you? How can you bear to look at yourself in the mirror? How do you sleep at night? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?

* * *

Look: I don’t understand the world, and even as a cultural critic, I’m ok with that. I don’t know why kids keep saying things like ‘yeet’ and ‘mood.’ I’m fine not knowing. The answer will end up being something horrible, mass lead poisoning maybe; I don’t want to find out. I don’t know why I’m haunted by intermittent intrusive visions of someone taking a disposable razor, sticking it in their mouth, and ‘shaving’ their gums. I don’t know why Americans who claim to be socialists are putting so much demented effort into opposing a less monstrous and cruel healthcare system. And I don’t really understand why people like the Avengers films; I have a theory, but I don’t really ‘get’ it. This is also fine. Not everyone will like the same things I like; it would be a terrible world if they did. What bothers me is the fact that the last two Avengers films also received near-universal critical acclaim, from people whose sole task on this earth it is to watch films and discern the good ones from the bad. These same people are basically united in the opinion that the DC comic book films are stupid, portentous, and ungainly, that their plots make no sense, that they keep hamfistedly telling us to care about fundamentally hollow characters, and that their over-long and terrifyingly expensive action sequences resolve into noisy tedium. But they like these ones. Why? What is it that’s crawled into their brains? Is there any way of getting it out again, or will we just have to line up every overgrown fanboy in every pivoted-to-online legacy publication in front of a ditch, and do what must be done?

These films are terrible. They’re not just bad in comparison to Tarkovsky or Bergman, bad in the way that all commmodity-culture is fundamentally bad. They’re bad as dumb action films. They fail to even meet the requirements of the genre. You are being pandered to and patronised. Why do you not want revenge?

In a New Yorker review, Richard Brody proposes that Avengers: Endgame could have been better if it spent more time delving into the characters and their emotions, if it dealt more seriously with the theme of loss. This is a terrible idea; he wants to turn the film with a giant blue alien into another tedious Hampstead novel. Instead, imagine taking a moderately bright and imaginative twelve-year-old boy and telling him you have a basically infinite budget to produce two films, which you want him to write. The films have to concern the Plot Emeralds, which were created alongside the universe itself, and contain the terrifying potencies of its six aspects: Space, Time, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. In the first film, a big purple villain manages to acquire all six IndecipheraBalls, and uses them to commit an act of cataclysmic evil. In the second, the bedraggled heroes band together and travel back in time to get the Sempiternal Zirconias back, and undo the damage he’s done. What kind of story would a twelve-year-old write? Probably, at a guess, one in which the narrative potential of these Chaos Crystals is actually explored. Space is spliced, cloned, distorted: the universe folds into terrifying new shapes, organic monstrosities unfurl from inorganic matter, the stars are dandruff, pebbles are planets, everything is a distortion of everything else. Time twists into loops and paradoxes; laser battles in medieval castles, Stone Age shamans hurling spears between distant suns. In the chaos, inert objects are ensouled and living creatures become mindless automatons; dreams blur with reality, unreal logics are set loose on the world, and our heroes have to battle in a universe turned to vapour.  For all the inevitable high-concept manoeuvres, it would probably be quite dumb. But at least it would be fun.

This is not what we get. The stones are barely used in either film. In the first, Thanos attaches them to a big glove and snaps his fingers: half of all living creatures suddenly die. In the second, the Hulk does the exact same thing, and everyone who died comes back. That’s basically it. What a waste! The real focus is always on the crossover aspect, the fact that every character from every Marvel film is here, together. Instead of the creative potentials of a twelve-year-old, these films are pitched towards the level of someone of around six. A child playing with the tie-in action figures, recombining the characters: what if Iron Man met Nebula? What if Star Lord teamed up with Thor? If the Bog-Hole fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? Five and a half cumulative hours of a media franchise showing us its various copyright properties, all in their original packaging. Let me be mawkish and hysterical for a moment. Is this the kind of imaginative model we want to pass on to our children? Are these the dreams we want them to dream? Is this sordid petty rearrangement all that they have left?

Superhero narratives have a fairly obvious social role. People are boring and frustrated; they’d like to be more than they are, but everyone is still somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its fringes. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this rough fabric, this laundry, this potted plant, this foetid darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this single life in a planet of seven billion lives, this life that will not be remembered, that will vanish without a trace into the ooze of unbeing, that will end having gone unlived, full of regret, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was and shall ever be. But this is what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t so afraid? And they have secret identities, because this freedom could belong to anyone, maybe even you.

The social function of a superhero story is to work through all these possibilities, to leave the audience with some of the libidinal payoffs that come with a brief excursion to the not-this, exhausted but satisfied, ready to go back to work. In Minima Moralia, Adorno complains that under conditions of domination, happiness is reduced to tawdry pleasure: one ‘has no choice but to find inspiration in the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal at the French restaurant, the serious “drink” and sexuality reduced to doses of “sex.”‘ The classic superhero story stands in the same relation to actual liberation as sex does to sexuality. But clearly, we’re no longer in that era. It’s got much, much worse. Another layer of ersatzification has formed over our enjoyments. That vague sense of the not-this has been hardened and crystallised into the hermetic detachability of a cinematic universe, in the same way that the vastness of love and sexuality became the healthy energetic pleasures of sex, and then contracted further into porn: rigid and isolated, infinitely distant from the actual act. The vision of another existence no longer needs to explore the unfolding of human potentials. It can just as easily be maintained in their annihilation. After all, these characters are dealing with the fundamental forces of the universe, but they’re absurdly under-powered. One of them is a superhero by dint of being good at archery. Not that it matters. A made-up world where meaningless heroes fight meaningless monsters with meaningless names.

It works. You love it. It takes you out of yourself for a moment. It’s like you’re already dead.

* * *

Thanos is a Malthusian, but he doesn’t appear to have any books on his big spaceship of doom, so we’ll have to assume that he’s never actually read Malthus. This has to be the case, otherwise he would never have thought that exterminating one-half of the living population of the universe would make things any better. Too many people, he says, not enough to go round – but he’s forgotten that the number of people will still continue to grow, and it’ll grow faster if there are more resources available. So he snaps his fingers, and returns the Earth’s population to what it was in the year 1973, when we had no problems whatsoever.

1973, as it happens, was the year of the economic crisis that put an end to the era of social-democratic expansion in the First World. In its wake, we got the beginnings of neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, the replacement of common ownership with cheap credit. This new system met its own major crisis with the economic collapse of 2008. That was also the year that Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released.

And this is supposed to be a coincidence?

* * *

It’s maybe not entirely true that there’s no element of wish-fulfilment fantasy in Avengers: Endgame. The heroes don’t maintain secret identities while performing exhilarating feats in their spare time, but they do go back into the past, correct their mistakes, and resurrect the loved ones that they’ve lost. This fantasy has a decent pedigree, right back to Gilgamesh and Orpheus. And I get it: when tragedy has struck in my own life, there’s always been an irrational part of my mind that’s told me this isn’t real, you can go back, you can undo it all. I’d like to undo it all. I’d like to go back and tell that first cell not to split, avoid all the trauma of differentiation, let life in its entirety persist in a singular eternal prokaryotic bliss. It can’t be done, which is why I’m a melancholic, constantly splitting and doubling my ego, introducing new traumas and breaks, to preserve all the objects that were lost. But it’s nice to see someone manage to do it onscreen.

Except – what is this underworld that we enter to resurrect the dead? Here, it’s the past, but a specific past: they go back into the previous Avengers films. We get to see the big scaly monsters from the first instalment invade New York again, only this time our heroes are standing around wryly commenting on the action, rather than participating in it. We’re watching Thor again, and the first moments of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stakes have vanished; it’s been doubled into farce. And this is happening everywhere. Sequels and reboots aren’t enough; now the Hollywood nostalgia-machine is umping out simple recapitulation, serving up the exact same warmed-over pap that we’ve already seen. One of the new Star Wars films overlaps directly with the first trilogy, with the help of a CGI Carrie Fisher. A decent chunk of 2015’s Terminator Genisys takes place within the action of the 1984 original. In Jurassic World, one of the more interesting examples, the sequel itself appears within the film as a ravenous and unholy monster cooked up by mercurial executives, which tramples all over Spielberg’s legacy before finally being taken down by the iconic tyrannosaur. What is going on?

Theory is comfortable with self-reference, but this is something else. The classical poststructuralist metaphysics of inscription constrains its institution of difference within a horizon of ineradicability. Writing institutes a relation to death precisely because, unlike the vocal utterance, it survives its author, whose death and absence ‘belongs to the structure of all writing.’ Omar Khayyam had it: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’ In Derrida, writing is figured as a negative space, a break or chasm in matter: track or footprint, chisel to stone, fissuring neurones. It is also indifferent to its substrate; without writing, the lithographic ‘slate’ is in a state of ‘virginity’ – but further, writing must ‘produce the space and materiality of the sheet itself.’ This notion is articulated in his essay Freud and the Scene of Writing, itself a reading of Freud’s Notiz über den Wunderblock. Here he compares the function of the perceptual system to a children’s toy, the Mystic Writing Pad, consisting of a clear plastic sheet pressed against a block of wax. By making marks with a stylus on the plastic sheet, you can record words and images; lift the sheet away, and the surface is cleared. But even though these traces are no longer visible, they are retained, imperceptibly, within the wax. The analogy is not perfect: Freud notes that to function like the mind, it would have to be possible for the wax to recall and make use of marks that had already been withdrawn from the surface, to bring them back again after they’d been erased. ‘It would be a mystic pad indeed if it could accomplish that.’ Here, in the twenty-first century, we can recognise what he’d done. In 1925, Sigmund Freud invented the computer.

You are reading this review of Avengers: Endgame sequentially, from the beginning to the end, maybe skipping over the boring bits, maybe giving up halfway through, but treating it as what it is: a written block of linear time. But I wrote it on a computer, and as I wrote it I continually went back, changing things, fixing things, dipping in and out of linear time at will – because I badly need an editor, but I’m doing my best. In Paper Machine, Derrida gives some thought to the potentials of word processing. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever.’ But the operative word here is rapid: throughout, he conceives of digital writing as an acceleration of existing processes. Before the computer, actions were ‘slow, heavy, and sometimes off-putting,’ now, ‘the word processor saves an amazing amount of time.’ It’s ‘a question of speed and rhythm,’ differing velocities on the same course. But digital text abolishes the sequential ‘now’ of writing; there is no speed and there is no course, only an endless folding and complication, potentially interminable revisions, a text that is endlessly going back and fixing itself, reanimating its own corpse.

The desire to bring back the dead, to re-present the impressions that have been wiped clean – this isn’t Orpheus, because Orpheus had to go elsewhere, into the underworld, into the future, to smooth over the gaps in the world. In Avengers: Endgame, the journey is into the past, into itself, into the existing body of text, pulling out a section, pasting it into the roving present. It’s the dream the computers have dreamed for us. And this dream is incapable of computing finality. (Even after I publish this review, if I find a typo I can stick my hands back into the thing and fix it.) But the world itself is only a final and oncoming horizon. Is it any wonder, then, that we seem to be so incapable of dealing with something like climate change, stuck in our endlessly editable fantasia? Is it any wonder that you’re wasting your life watching Avengers: Endgame and reading reviews of Avengers: Endgame, even while the circle of light that surrounds you is narrowing, and the blackness tightens closer to crush you through your skin?

At a showing of Avengers: Endgame in Fullerton, California, an entire film-going audience was unwittingly exposed to measles. The measles virus, of course, works by sticking its glycoproteins into a host cell, and editing the cell’s DNA to produce more viruses. It causes around one hundred thousand deaths a year. More meat for the past; a slow swelling in the ranks of the one hundred billion who brought us here, to this moment, to this film, to you. Can you really pretend that it isn’t your fault?

Netanyahu and the dead hand of the divine

It seems strange that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, should have used his much-hyped speech before Congress to deliver a rambling lecture on something called ‘cybernetic theology’, but that’s exactly what just happened. However, memory isn’t perfect, and collective memory even less so. It’s moulded out of the present, not a faithful reflection of the past. People tend to conflate, combine, and invent memories, even of spectacular, widely televised events – especially spectacular, widely televised events. Call people out on this and they’ll become defensive; nobody likes to think of themselves as a defective instrument. But the facts are the facts. Tom Cruise never actually jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, but that’s precisely what millions of people think happened. A study found that 40% of British participants recalled, when prompted, having seen footage of a bus exploding at Tavistock Square during the 7/7 bombings, with some of them even supplying details – despite the fact that no such footage actually exists. And significant portions of a shocked public seem to remember a very different Netanyahu speech; one that was still insane, but in a different way. A calmer bloodthirst, a better-humoured paranoia, a more statesmanlike charade. It didn’t happen. Not here, at least; maybe in some parallel universe or divergent timestream, one from which these people have emerged, blinking in the light of the real world’s intrinsic psychosis, but not here.

This is what happened. Prime Minister Netanyahu appears before a joint session of the United States Congress to frenzied, orgiastic applause. He strides to the podium, looking, as he always does, like a giant fleshy bullet, mockingly draped in human clothes. It’s not hard to see why those assembled here love him so much: world leaders tend to be sad clowns or stringy nerds, but Netanyahu fits the part. A thuggish, murderous bully who actually looks like a thuggish, murderous bully; something for this gang of slimy sycophants to sigh over in their dreams. But it’s all going wrong. Bibi smiles, waits for the clapping to die down, spreads his arms, and roars: I bring you the dread gospel of the Machine Lord! More applause, but there’s a nervousness in the room. These people are well aware of Netanyahu’s strange metaphors: the quacking nuclear duck, the cartoon bomb with a red line through it. Where is he going with this? He explains.

In the book of Exodus (Netanyahu tells us), Moses asks the spirit of the Lord in the burning bush what name he should use for the God of his fathers. The reply: ɪ ᴀᴍ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ɪ ᴀᴍ. The ways of the Lord are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts, but there does seem to be a kind of tautology to them, something almost pedantic, as if God had broken through the vault of the heavens to say ᴅᴏᴇs ɴᴏᴛ ᴄᴏᴍᴘᴜᴛᴇ. Why is this? In the famous ontological argument, God’s existence is presented as a logical necessity: God is defined as the greatest possible being; something that exists will always be greater than something that does not; therefore, to be the greatest possible being, God must exist. But the God of the ontological argument is not the greatest possible being, because He is constrained by the same rules of logic that prove His existence. If God is a necessary fact, then it would be impossible for Him to not exist, even if He wanted to. This problem reached its logical conclusion in the medieval period with the philosophy of Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. If God is necessary, ibn Sina argues, then no attribute of His can be contingent. God is the creator of the world, therefore God must always have been the creator of the world. The question of why He chose to create us has no meaning; He did it because that’s just what God does. God is good not because He chooses to be; as God, he can never be anything other that good. God does not choose. God is a cosmic automaton, something cold and blind and essentially meaningless: we might have free will, but we are ruled by a machine.

A stunned silence reigns in Congress. No matter. Netanyahu goes on to warn against fully identifying this machine God with everyday machines. The digital computer, the closest sublunar analogue to the mechanism of the divine, is something created by human beings, while God’s unfreedom results precisely from the fact that He is uncreated, the first cause and the unmoved mover. Even so, the machine analogy shows that others have glimpsed the truth. James Tilly Matthews, a sixteenth-century schizophrenic convinced he was being tortured at a distance by an influencing machine he called the Air Loom. Francis E. Dec, who thought all evil in the world to emanate from the machinations of a Worldwide Mad Deadly Communist Gangster Computer God. And the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose strange experiences led him to believe that God is a satellite that orbits the globe, firing off beams of pink light.

Further, if God is a machine, then He must have a program, something that encodes His specific attributes. Netanyahu, bathed in sweat and fury, grips the edge of his lectern and shakes alarmingly. The Jewish people have long known what this is. It is the Hebrew Torah. And the Kabbalah, the great secret tradition of Jewish numerological mysticism, is the attempt to reprogram the God-machine, so that He will be free as we are, and finally bring about the coming of the Messiah.

A single tear runs down Netanyahu’s face. God, he says, is occupied territory, and He must be liberated. The Jewish dream is for a cybernetic God, one that is not an unmoved mover but a Hegelian unfolding. A God that proceeds and evolves through innumerable feedback loops: the Jewish people, each Jew a binary digit in the processing unit of the divine. But this Jewish and democratic aspiration has, at every turn, had to contend with an Oriental despotism. It’s no coincidence that ibn Sina, who first lauded the God in chains, was a Persian. That same people have fought throughout time to frustrate the Kabbalistic project. They do it without thinking; it’s an evil inherent in their genetic memory. And now God is being held captive in a hardened bunker in Tehran. The State of Israel will use any weapon in its arsenal to fulfil the destiny of the Jewish people and effect the final reclamation of the God of our fathers: if necessary, we will bomb Iran.

Standing ovation. Stamping feet. The thunder of nuclear-armed bombers overhead. Blackout.

* * *

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Israel has been threatening imminent strikes against Iran for years now, almost incessantly. In late 2014, as the deadline for a nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of nations loomed, Israel promised to use military force to prevent a ‘bad agreement’ going ahead. In 2012 it was claimed a unilateral strike would happen ‘in months’. In 2010 the scheduled arrival of Russian fuel rods at the Bushehr reactor convinced many people that the end of days would arrive by next Tuesday. The whole charade’s been going since 1995, when the Barak administration first insisted that an Iranian bomb was five years from completion. I’ve been saying it for years now: it’s not happening, any more than North Korea’s petulant threats to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’. To be fair, the Israeli position has always been pretty consistent with this: it will take any action necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon – but given that (as all experts, including the Mossad, agree) Iran isn’t building a bomb, this is essentially an extremely circuitous way of saying that Israel does not actually have any intention of doing anything at all.

Israeli governments need Iran, because without the phantom threat of a nuclear Holocaust to wipe out the Jewish people, the narratives sustaining the continued dispossession of the Palestinians become untenable. The last thing they want to do is actually make a strike on Iran, banish the atomic chimera, and then find themselves in a war more evenly matched than their occasional killing sprees in Gaza. The problem is that the United States needs Iran too. With US planes making constant sorties against the Islamic State in airspace already thick with Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian forces, it’s almost inconceivable that there’s not some level of co-ordination between the two states. At a tactical level, at least, they’ve entered into a de facto alliance. All this banging on about Iranian nukes has suddenly become not just an obvious diversion, but very politically inconvenient for Israel’s imperial sponsors. So Netanyahu takes another tack, and reterritorialises the Iranian threat on the topos of the theological.

This is one possible interpretation, but it doesn’t quite account for the content of Netanyahu’s speech. After the whole charade had finished, several media outlets and Democratic politicians dismissed it as ‘political theatre’ – but its theatrical aspect ought to be taken seriously. The joint session of Congress came the day before the Jewish festival of Purim, and Netanyahu’s one-man show should be considered in the context of the Purim Spiel, the traditional farcical plays based on the events of the Megillah that my people perform around this time. Purim is a celebration of ironic superposition, a divinely ordained Opposite Day in which children dress as animals, men dress as women, and drinking to excess isn’t just the spirit of the season but a Talmudic obligation. At first it’s hard to see why. The story of Purim, as told in the Book of Esther, is full of a certain irony, but it’s always irony of a temporary, contingent type. The Persian king Ahasuerus marries a beautiful woman called Esther, and not knowing that she is actually the Jew Hadassah, approves his vizier Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews in his empire. Later, when the truth is revealed, he asks Haman how the Emperor’s favourite should be honoured; Haman, thinking the honour will be his, dreams up a magnificent triumphal parade, only to discover that he must arrange exactly such a parade for the Jew Mordechai. Haman, who builds a gallows for Mordecai, ends up hanging on it himself. There’s a brief indeterminacy of identity, but then it collapses: the masks are taken off, and everyone returns to their proper place.

But it’s in the celebration of Purim that the circle of irony is completed. The Talmud enjoins us to drink on Purim until one is unable to distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. The story ends with the righteous exonerated and the villainous condemned, but in the ritual observance this stability is once again uprooted; it’s the full realisation of that which is only latent in the Biblical narrative. The dress-up games, the Purim Spiels, and the drinking all create a state of essential indeterminacy: an unbounded irony, not one based on the reversal of an ontologically prior truth, but an endless chiasmic Becoming that mines the ironic depths and capacities of any supposedly stable object and opens them up into a space of free play. But as Derrida notes, such play is always dangerous. It takes place on the edge of a chasm. Certainly when being performed by someone like Netanyahu. His performance could be likened to the ‘madman theory’ employed by Nixon, who, in a grand geopolitical performance of Hamlet, had his agents leak information to the Soviets that he was in fact dangerously insane, reasoning that the Kremlin would be less likely to provoke a nuclear-armed lunatic. Netanyahu, at odds with his allies and facing a career-threatening election at home, threatens to break down the structures of meaning and identity with his cybernetic God if the world won’t give in to his demands.

This is another reading. There’s one more possibility. What he said is true, and a zombie God rules the universe.

Voting is magic!

UKIP election leaflet, 2014

Most societies have, buried in their vast cultural storehouses, some kind of apotropaic rite: one carried out to ward off the evil forces that constantly lay siege to ordinary social life. In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were thrown into blacksmiths’ furnaces. In medieval and early modern England, travelling troupes would perform comic ‘mummers plays’; a similar tradition among the Lakota and Sioux involves the temporary reign of sacred clowns. The Aztec priests tore out the hearts from millions of (often willing) victims to ensure that the world made it from one 52-year cycle to the next without collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity. These rituals have varying levels of success. At no point prior to 1521 did the Sun ever fail to rise in the morning – but even though the Earth’s rotation has slowed slightly since the forced abolition of tlamictiliztli, it’s yet to stop entirely. On the other hand, there are no records of anyone having been kidnapped by the Devil after spilling salt, so long as they take the wise precaution of chucking some over their shoulder. Still none of these rituals are as destructive as the mode of apotropaic magic endemic to the contemporary West, in which  the priesthood demands that we make a mark next to the printed name of someone we don’t like and then put it in a box. This strange and stupid ritual, which any rigorous analysis will show to produce far fewer positive results than a simple rain-dance or burnt-offering, is nonetheless imposed by force on much of the world, in fear of the great evil that will arise if it’s not performed properly. The result is that, with a brutal calendar regularity, hundreds of people are massacred every year for making the marks incorrectly.

Electoral representation in the post-ideological age has far more in common with apotropy than politics. Very few people vote to choose their leaders; instead they vote to prevent the other guy from winning. The genealogy of voting follows a very different path from that of democracy. In classical Athens, which is to a greater or lesser extent to blame for both practices, governmental positions were usually determined by lots, to counteract the advantages enjoyed by rich citizens and great orators. If, as a fifth-century Athenian citizen, you were actually voting for a politician, chances are you were casting an ostrakon: voting for them to be exiled from the city and its civic life. Voting is an apotropaic act. Little has changed. In this week’s European elections, millions of people will vote for the individuals they want to be torn from their homes and families and sent away to the godforsaken marshy swamplands of Brussels.

In the United Kingdom, these elections are expected to be a devastating victory for UKIP, the Boko Haram of East Anglia. UKIP are standing on a political platform that appears to champion clean fridges as an antidote to sexual promiscuity, an end to costly environmental protection for African forest ungulates, giving due weight to the erotogenic model of climate change, and the systematic demonisation of the most exploited and vulnerable members of society. All their blunders, and the concerted attempt by the mainstream parties to brand them as racists, haven’t put much of a dent in their poll figures – and why would it? They represent a peculiarly British kind of fascism. We’ve already conquered the world and slaughtered millions with ruthless industrial precision; why would we want to do it again? It’s a bumbling, Dad’s Army, lovable underdog fascism; efficient precisely because of its shambolic inefficiency. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the bien pensant pissants of the three major parties fear UKIP so much not because of any real concern for migrant populations (after all, this scapegoating is a monster they themselves made) but because of their refusal to conform to the unwritten rule of the ritual: above all else, be boring.

For those of us on the left, the way to perform the ritual properly is to vote for the Labour party. Newspapers are full of deeply concerning reports of their shrinking poll lead: only with our vote do they have the power to banish the forces of evil and chaos from the land. We owe them this vote, in the same way that humans owe the gods of the Aztec pantheon their lives, in restitution for a primordial sacrifice. If the cycle of immaterial debt isn’t maintained the world will fall apart. Vote Labour, or the sun won’t rise and the soil will turn to ash. I voted for Labour once, for all the good it did anyone, in the full throes of apotropaic ecstasy that came with 2009’s general election. It took twenty showers before I could properly wash the smell of it off my skin, a stench like unto mouldering constituency offices and cheap air freshener and tortured Iraqi prisoners, the abject sensation of having one of Gordon Brown’s oily hairs stuck somewhere in my mouth. To ward off the nasty party of cuts and class oppression, we’re to vote for the nice party of cuts and class oppression; to ward off the nasty party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism, we’re to vote for the nice party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism. It’s all extremely dull.

In 2012, as massive street protests were challenging the legitimacy of the Syrian government, it responded by approving a new constitution that ended nearly half a decade of Ba’ath one-party rule. In accordance with the new constitution, presidential elections will take place next month. The incumbent, one Bashar al-Assad, is basing his campaign on lukewarm national unity, 80s nostalgia, and feeble puns on his professional background in ophthalmology. Of his opponents, Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri of the National Initiative for Administration and Change is promising to end corruption and oversee the return of the squeezed middle class, while Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar of the People’s Will party vows to bolster a strong centralised state. Meanwhile cities lie in ruins, fanatics rule the countryside, thousands suffocate on poison gas. The election is being denounced as a sham by Western governments, which of course it is; but that doesn’t do much to distinguish it from many others. It’d be far more illuminating if the psephologists treated the Syrian election exactly as they do one of ours: reprinting hilarious Twitter reactions to Assad’s latest gaffe, breathlessly speculating on how the opening of Syrian embassies in Jordan and Lebanon to refugee voters will affect the result, sternly condemning rebel efforts to disrupt the poll in Aleppo, and, as Judgement Day nears, sounding the trumpets and rolling out the all-knowing swingometer. None of the imperialist politicians condemning the Syrian election are genuinely disappointed that it’s not being held in accordance with international democratic standards; the worry is that it works all too well as a satire of our own mystical procedures. An apotropaic rite, in which talking about the economy and corruption and foreign investment is used to ward off the lingering shadow of war.

These rituals always involve a symbolic element: the Egyptians slaughtered crocodiles as symbols of Seth; the mummers plays introduced cosmic themes of death and resurrection into the bawdy context of a punch-and-judy carnival. To challenge the election on the grounds that it’s a symbolic farce rather than an actual democratic procedure isn’t likely to get you very far; everyone already knows. Standing up in the middle of a mummers play and loudly insisting that it isn’t real and the figures swordfighting are only actors won’t earn you the awestruck gratitude of the audience. We have these rites for a reason; simply refusing to play the game is no less boring and pointless than getting swept up in its magic and voting for Labour. When a particular piece of magic doesn’t work the task isn’t to loudly declare the whole thing over, but to help its internal contradictions demonstrate precisely why that is the case. The election-rite only maintains its power through the pretence that everyone is in fact voting for the party they like the most, and that’s exactly what we should do.

Personally, I plan to vote for the Communities United Party. All their campaign material is wonderful: the gloriously confused national imagery of a bald eagle glaring proudly in front of a British flag; the creepy slogan ‘Strength in Unity’; the paunchy glum face of leader Kamran Malik, who once mistakenly identified himself as a communist in a typo-ridden press release. Their manifesto admits no particular ideology, moving directly from a grand pledge to return integrity and justice to politics to whining about parking fees. If they’re not to your taste there are others, some of them not even made up, all based on the same pathetic useless hope that’s so essential to the British economy. The National Liberals are dedicated to bringing independence to Kurdistan and Punjab by gaining seats on various local councils. The Wessex Democrats want to restore the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. The New Levellers Initiative demand a written constitution primarily so it can outlaw all roadbumps. Perhaps the best of all is the We Demand A Referendum Now party, formed in a split from UKIP. It campaigns on the sole issue of a referendum on EU membership, and according to a YouGov poll one third of all British adults intend to lend it their votes, despite its only fielding candidates in the West Midlands. It is the duty of all those who believe in real democracy against the representative mysticism of the present system to ensure that they have a Westminster majority next year.

The conspiracy theory of Disneyland

The monotheistic desert is a passageway through which the Earth’s ultimate blasphemy with the Outside smuggles itself in and begins to unfold. The apocalyptic desert is a field through which the Tellurian dynamics of the Earth can be ingrained within anthropomorphic belief systems. In which case, there is no worse blasphemy than ‘Thy Kingdom come.’
Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia

In my last days in California, I went to Disneyland. What I found there troubled and fascinated me. After my return the same images kept on flashing through my mind: the running children, the laughing children, the children bellowing in fury as their parents dragged them through the exit, the omnipresent insistence on happiness, the cold blank faces of the animatronic puppets, the bloodshot eyes of the actresses playing the various princesses. A lot of it had been unproblematic fun: the rollercoasters, the shooting ranges, the meticulous detailing – but there was something pervasively sinister about the park. Mr Toad’s Wild Ride ended implausibly with a descent into Hell, where he presumably now suffers for eternity. The robotic vultures in Splash Mountain cackled over my impending death. The ‘happiest cruise that ever sailed’ seemed intent on slowly driving me insane with each repetition of its shrieking refrain. I had to find an explanation for what I had seen. I started to read up on the place.

There was plenty to read: so much has been said about Disneyland. The lingering racism of Adventureland has been thoroughly picked apart, the progression of Tomorrowland from naive liberal utopianism to ironic steampunk to brushed-aluminium iFuturism has been exhaustively documented, the strangely totalitarian way in which the Haunted Mansion’s automated cars ensure a uniformity of experience for all visitors has been subject to an excess of theorisation. Everyone already knows that if you stand to one side of the statue of Walt and Mickey on Main Street USA, Mickey’s snout looks like Walt’s erect penis. Baudrillard was fascinated by the place, devoting much of America to a meditation on it. Eco famously compared a cruise down the Mississippi unfavourably to its imitation in Frontierland. But in my research, I found myself heading down entirely unexpected routes.

The theorists of Disneyland all make the same category error: they all approach Disneyland and its projected reality as an intrinsically modern – or indeed postmodern – phenomenon. They’re wrong. Walking into the park, a sign informs you that ‘here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.’ The sign is more accurate than most visitors realise. When you go through the gates of Disneyland you enter the bowels of something sublimely ancient, something whose avaricious fantasies have shaped the nature of our world for centuries, something grasping to claim our future.

The notes that follow are the result of weeks of frenzied research. The employees at the British Library know me well by now: I’m always already there when they open in the morning, pacing up and down in front of the building in the chilly dawn light, taking quick nervous drags from a cigarette. I’ve been growing steadily more neurotic. The sound of helicopters has me slamming down windows and pulling curtains. My hands shake uncontrollably, even as I type. Still, I feel I have to share what I have learned. I’ve tried to present my findings as objectively and as comprehensively as possible, but it’s not always easy to maintain an academic tone when under such stress. This is the true story of Disneyland.

The Cult of Penew-Nekhet: an overview

The story of Disneyland begins in ancient Egypt, with the Cult of Penew-Nekhet, or the All-conquering Mouse. While animal cults such as that of Apis the bull at Heliopolis date back six thousand years to the predynastic period, that of Penew-Nekhet appears to be comparatively recent. While it may have been operating clandestinely for some time beforehand, its existence is first documented during the reign of Amenemhat II around 1923 BCE. In contrast to other Egyptian animal religions, the Cult was not demotic in character: public ceremonies were rare, with carvings attesting to only one: a monument to Sobekneferu at Gezer records among her few achievements during her three-year reign the ‘inauguration of the games of the Mouse.’ Instead its practitioners were drawn almost entirely from the aristocratic nomarch-class, with rites performed in secret in their provincial estates. The Cult was also unique in that the archaeological record gives no indication that ritual burials and mummification of mice ever took place: rather, Cultists would adorn the inside of their houses with imagery of mice shown enjoying positions of luxury, often being waited on by cats, as in the ostrakon above. That no mouse-related imagery has been found on the outside of palaces or funerary complexes attests to the shifting nature of the relationship between the nomes and Pharaonic power during the Middle Kingdom: at times the Cult was tolerated or endorsed, as was the case under Sobekneferu; at times it was suppressed – whatever the political situation, its practitioners did their utmost to conceal their secret religion.

The unique character of the mouse-cult can to some extent be explained by the unique character of the mouse in Egyptian thought of the time. In the ancient Egyptian language, the word penew was always singular. Records do not describe an arov penewt, or plague of mice, but always an arov penew, a plague of mouse. Mice were conceived of as a single substance; like flies or worms, they were presumed to emerge from spontaneous generation, with the murine principle of Penew-Nekhet directing their abiogenesis. This is why members of the Cult continued to keep cats and lay traps for mice, while in other cults the killing of the sacred animal was taboo: the object of their worship was not the individual mouse but mouse in the abstract. Mice, which caused famine by eating grain in warehouses, were commonly recognised as a symbol of death, while with their subterranean burrows they were thought to have a privileged connection with the Underworld. The Cult of Penew-Nekhet could therefore be considered as an incipient Satanism in an era preceding such Manichaean moral divisions: the image of the cat waiting on the mouse indicates a total reversal of the accepted moral order. The focus on imagery and representation over the Real is also significant: in such images the seed of Disneyland’s spectacle can be seen.

It is not known exactly when the Cult of Penew-Nekhet spread to Greece, but it was well known by Homer’s time. In the Iliad he describes Chryses as being among its numbers:

Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand a sceptre crowned with the symbol of the mouse and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs, and who too were worshippers of his cult. “Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Zeus, and to the image of the Mouse, before which we prostrate ourselves as one.”

While the secrecy of the Egyptian cult and the lack of any records concerning its rituals make it hard to ascertain to what extent the Greek manifestation was continuous with it, the same themes (inversion of morality, adoration of images and representations, the chthonic) are present in accounts of Penew-Nekhet rites. As in Egypt, worshippers of the Cult were drawn from the aristocracy, and it intermittently stood as a vehicle of aristocratic class solidarity against monarchical power. Unlike the contemporaneous Bacchanalian mysteries, practitioners were uniformly male, and there was no element of eroticism. In one fragment from Herodotus, a ritual in Epheseus is described:

The supplicants, wearing the crowns and masks of a king, then threw themselves to the ground before the statue of the mouse, and wailed, “O destroyer, O bringer of famine, may your desolation stretch across the world!” As their wailing grew louder it was joined by the beat of a drum and the sounding of a salpinx [trumpet]. At this point two slaves put the torch to the pyramid of grain that had been built on a stone altar in the centre of the circle and it leaped instantly into flame. The initiates then gathered around the fire, but did not dance to the drum. Instead they cried bitterly, pulling at their hair and clothes, and lamenting the loss of their grain. When I asked why, I was told, “We are rich men, and we have no lack of grain; but during the rite it is as if we are peasants, and our sorrow is real. This sorrow is felt by Nikheis Pondiki [Penew-Nekhet] and by the Earth, and we gain many great powers.”

References to the Cult during later antiquity are patchy. The early Christians were aware of it: the apocryphal Gospel of Munimius cautions ‘Therefore be not as the hypocrites, who make sacrifices for the eyes of the crowd, nor as the rich men, who in their mansions bow in unison before the Mouse, but worship alone according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not the flesh.‘ It is known that the emperor Elegabalus had the town of Croceae razed to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered in 218 CE after he applied to join the Cult there and was rejected.

This antipathy between the Cult and Christianity, and the far more established enmity between the aristocratic Cultists and Pharaonic and royal power, melted away with the Donation of Constantine. The first Christian Emperor was drawn from a respectable lineage of Cultists – his grandfather Eutropius was an Illyrian nobleman who, as the Historia Augusta describes, ‘Held in his villa secret gatherings of the gentry, for which the city of Sminthium [city of the mouse] in Moesia Superior, which he founded, was named.‘ Indeed, in some depictions of the conversion of Constantine to Christianity before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, such as the one shown above (which is now housed in the Vatican’s private collections), the sign appearing in the sky is not that of the cross, but the trinod, or thrice-weaved circle, of the Cult of Nikheis Pondiki/Penew-Nekhet. As many modern historians have concluded, Constantine was in all likelihood not a genuine adherent to Christianity, but one who saw in this supposedly subversive new faith the potential to build a more unified empire. However, doing so would require the neutralisation of much of extant Christianity. Following from his incorporation of the Christian faith and Imperial power with the Council of Nicaea, Constantine instigated the removal of Arians and other Eastern heretics from the Church hierarchy, replacing them with trusted members of the Cult. Christianity proved a far more amenable vessel than chaotic paganism for the furthering of the Cult’s secret plans: institutional Christianity quickly set about suppressing the unbridled, sexualised Dionysian cults, declaring them as Satanic; meanwhile the properly Diabolic mouse-cult was embraced as a means of control.

The period from 325 CE coincides with a spate of church-building across the Roman Empire. New churches appeared in every major city, often built using Imperial funds and government-approved architects. Their design differs markedly from that of previous churches. During the period in which Christianity was persecuted, churches were informal, with prayer being carried out in private homes marked with the symbol of the fish or the Chi Rho. Services were held in the colonnaded atrium, and prayer rites were conducted without a cantor or leader; much of the prayer was silent. While the new, public basilicae featured a nod to earlier forms in the cloister, a walled garden at one end of the building reserved for use by the clergy, the church itself was dominated by the bema, a raised platform in the centre of the transept from which priests could direct their congregation. Liturgy became highly contrived, with themes of sin, worthlessness and abjection predominating. The burning of grain was replaced by a similar ritual, in which a wafer is consumed by congregants; as in the rite described by Herodotus, food is imparted with symbolic-representative value before being destroyed. This revolution in church architecture signals the first major shift in the development of Disneyland since ancient Egypt: the ceremonies of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet were no longer private, voluntary rites conducted by the elite. Instead, they took on elaborate disguises; large populations were made to participate in them without their knowledge.

The power of the Cult-Church complex was struck a harsh blow by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Arian heresy, banished from the Empire in 325, was upheld by the barbarian rulers that had come to dominate Europe. Under Ostrogoth rule the Papacy continued to function, but without its large network of churches the potency of its rites appears to have waned. Scattered, terrified, and wretched, the Cultists fell back on earlier practices: in the 5th Century, for the first time since the reign of Constantine, private Penew-Nekhet ceremonies reappeared in the homes of the Senatorial class. With the conversion of the Franks to Catholicism the Cult finally began the drive to reclaim its former monarchial power; however this would not reach its goal for several centuries, with the surprise coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE.  Once again, royal and ecclesiastical authority were unified through the matrix of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet. A suppressed variant of Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, unearthed by a Franco-American archaeological team at the Palace of Aachen in 1998, records Charlemagne’s induction into the Cult:

On the most holy day of the birth of our Lord, the king went to mass at St. Peter’s, and as he knelt in prayer before the altar Pope Leo set without warning a crown upon his head, while all the Roman populace cried aloud, ” Long life and victory to the mighty Charles, the great and pacific Emperor of the Romans, crowned of God! ” After he had been thus acclaimed, the pope did homage to him, as had been the custom with the early rulers. At first the king was displeased that Pope Leo should give to himself a power over that of the Augustus, and swore his regret that he had come to his [the Pope’s] aid. However, the next day, the king was called to a second ceremony in the crypts of Rome, whereafter he emerged in a good temper. On his return to Aachen the king then instructed his jewellers that the ears of the Mouse, woven from gold and studded with emeralds, be fixed to his Imperial crown, and sent out inspectors to the churches of his realm to ensure that prayers were conducted in the proper manner as ordained by almighty God.

The history of the Cult through the later Middle Ages is one of degeneration. With the increasing wealth of the Church and European monarchies, the rites of Penew-Nekhet dissolved into empty ritual and spectacle, often focused around orgies and spectacular consumption or destruction of expensive food, lacking the crucial aspects that gave power to the Egyptian and Greek Cultists. Church services based on the old secret grain-burning rites still took place but without a high level of orchestration they lost their value; meanwhile in their private lives the wealthy Cultists tended towards debauched Dionysianism rather than the contrived hyperreality of the early rituals. There were several movements by diehard Cultists to resurrect the true Cult: during the Avignon antipapacy there was a sudden explosion in the use of mice as architectural motifs, such as in the relief on the Palais des Papes shown above. However, the Cult was not fully restored until the 16th Century, with the intervention of Martin Luther.

That Luther was a member of the mouse-cult is incontrovertible. Born into a bourgeois family in 1483, Luther was pressed from an early age into a career in law, one which he found spiritually stifling. In desperate search of the certainty of faith, in 1505 he abandoned his studies and joined the Augustinian friary in Erfurt, under the tutelage of theologian and Cultist Johann von Staupitz.

Seeing the young man’s fierce intelligence, devotion to the Church and hunger for truth, von Staupitz inducted Luther into the Cult of Penew-Nekhet, most probably around 1506. It was in that year, according to Luther’s brother in the Augustinian friary Josef Endelstinus, that the young man began ‘making unexplained absences in the night, wherein he would leave his cell and thunder absent subtlety to the catacombs. There, strange drums could be heard, and among some brothers it was said that they could hear the voices of women, and a chanted prayer unlike any in the liturgy-book.‘ However, what Martin Luther did next was unexpected: rather than being seduced by the earthly pleasures afforded to him by his membership in the Cult, he became fascinated by its long history and the occult powers believed to be bestowed upon its adherents. Endelstinus later wrote that Luther convinced the friar to arrange for a manuscript of Manetho’s Aegyptiaca to be purchased at great expense by the monastery, a copy which he guarded jealously. Eventually, Luther came to the conclusion that the Cult’s degeneration was unacceptable. Rather than reforming it from the inside, he hatched a plan to overthrow it and start again, one that eventually manifested itself as the Protestant Reformation.

While Luther’s early opposition to the selling of indulgences to finance church construction at first appears to undermine the Cult’s programme of church-building, it must be remembered that the churches were by his time entirely non-functional as ritual spaces. The same goes for his frequent assertions that his enemies were part of a sinister, Satanic cult. It is notable that in his many diatribes against the Pope, Luther accused him of every imaginary Dionysian excess imaginable (depicting him as the Whore of Babylon in the woodcut below), yet remained curiously silent on the fact that Clement VII was part of a secretive mouse-worshipping sect. It was not this that aggravated him, it was the degeneration of that sect into a vehicle for mere degeneracy.

In addition to his prodigious work-rate in the production of pamphlets for general consumption, Luther also wrote secret manuals for confidants in his Reformed Cult of Penew-Nekhet. There are many texts purporting to be among this number, many of which are most likely Catholic forgeries. However, one genuine fragment has been found, a palimpsest from among many scraps of waste parchment unearthed at Wartsburg Castle:

We tell them that all men must be able to read the Bible themselves only so that they will believe with ever more vigour that what we tell them is their own belief. It is so much easier to redirect the prayer of one who thinks himself to be acting of his own accord than one who is reading from rote!

Luther’s ultimate project was to once again fuse royal and ecclesiastical power through the Cult: his brand of Protestantism lacked any of the egalitarianism of his contemporaries. When the lower classes of Germany rose up against their landlords in the Revolt of 1524-1526, partly inspired by a misinterpretation of his ideas, he quickly penned Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he advised secular rulers to ‘kill as many of the blasphemers as is possible.’ In this he was entirely successful: when the smoke of the Reformation had cleared and the scores of bodies it had produced had been buried, Europe was full of Protestant princes eager to take the advice of Lutheran priests.

Having acquired a new, Protestant disguise, the Cult of Penew-Nekhet began to infiltrate as many organisations as possible: trade guilds, Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the newly formed United States government, the institutions of the French revolution, among others. Through these hosts it attempted to wipe out the temporal authority of its former, corrupted home, the Catholic Church, leaving the road clear for the new, invigorated Cult to dominate the world. Eventually, the Church was weakened to the extent that it became susceptible to re-infiltration: although the Cult never again controlled the Papacy, the Society of Jesus was eventually drawn into its influence. With the rise of the public sphere (and despite the Cult’s dominance in the media) secrecy became paramount; it is likely that at any one time there were no more than five hundred people alive who knew of the Cult’s true nature. A few of them can be confidently identified: Viscount Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon (whose coronation deliberately mirrored that of Charlemange), Benjamin Disraeli, the Rothschilds, Rockefeller, Mussolini, Rudolf Hess. Always seeking mass participation in its disguised rituals, prominent Cultists covertly engineered spectacles including the French revolutionary Terror and the Black Hole of Calcutta. The culmination of this new, murderous form of ritual was the First World War. The conflict was deliberately engineered by Cultists including Helmuth von Moltke, Leopold Berchtold and Dragutin Dimitrijević as an elaborately orchestrated pan-European rite of death and suffering. However, during its course something went disastrously wrong. The war, which was meant to be fought to an eternal stalemate, instead sparked a series of unplanned revolutions across the continent, starting with Russia in 1917. This was then followed by a second, yet more ruinous war from 1939, in which Cultists on all sides tried frantically to rein in the destruction to no great effect. A secret conference of high-level Cultists, terrified that the forces of global entropy would continue to erode at their hold on power, was held at Hückeswagen Castle in 1948 to determine a new direction. Most of the minutes and paperwork was destroyed immediately afterwards, but one charred scap of paper was discoved by Hans Ufer, a local peasant:

…maintien de la stase soviéto-américaine et de planifier W.D.
28: The policy of mass slaughter having failed, it is therefore RESOLVED that the full attentions of the Organisation will be given over to maintaining the Soviet-American stasis and to plan W.D.
28: Die Politik der Massenmord…

Ufer was convinced that the documented represented a Nazi plot to continue to enact racial policies, and attempted to bring it to the attention of Der Rhein-Arbeiter, a weekly Communist newspaper. Before it was able to go to press, the newspaper’s offices were gutted in a fire. The British occupying authorities mounted a brief investigation before summarily ruling out arson.

The last direct evidence for the continued existence of the Cult came with the publication of Nixon’s White House tapes:

NIXON: Last month I had to attend another of those things, that god damn Penny Necket thing, bowing in front of the mouse and everything. It’s the faggiest damn thing. The faggiest damn thing imaginable.
HALDEMAN: It’s unavoidable.
NIXON: I don’t like it. All the judges, all the senators, kissing the feet of the mouse for five minutes and then gossiping for fifty. I don’t like to see our guys chanting in Greek with the Democrats. Who isn’t in that thing? Erlichman, surely, I don’t think I saw him. They don’t take Jews, do they?
HALDEMAN: He’s in it, up to the eyeballs. Kissinger too.
NIXON: Jesus Christ.

From these transcripts it’s evident that the rites of the Cult were no longer considered a source of power, but, as in the Middle Ages, had degenerated to the status of fraternity rituals or the cod-spirituality of institutions such as the Bohemian Grove. However, their facile nature did not prompt a purist resurgence. Why? Because by the time of the Nixon administration, the old rituals and the more recent spectacle-terrors had been replaced by something far more effective – the Plan W.D. mentioned in the Hückeswagen fragment: Disneyland.

The Cult & Walt Disney

Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago to a family of disappointed California gold-panners. He was a shy, serious and studious child: rarely an entertainer, he spent much of his time alone, drawing. Only a small portion of his juvenalia has been released by the Walt Disney corporation (most of which covers patriotic themes); much of the rest is kept in a locked vault in Burbank, California. The only clue as to its content was provided in a quote by an unnamed Disney employee to Los Angeles Times reporter James McDowell in 1981:

“What can I say? He was a teenager when he drew that stuff. Most of it was your usual Tijuana Bible-type material. A lot of oversized breasts and so on. Engorged penises. And a few depictions of murder victims, sometimes at the same time… there’s some unpleasant stuff, sure. But nothing all that unusual.”

In 1917 Disney joined the Holy Order of Fellow Soldiers of Jacques DeMolay, a youth Freemasonry society. The same year he dropped out of high school to fight in WWI. Being only 16, he was rejected by the United States Army, and joined the Red Cross instead, arriving in France shortly before the Armistice. Stationed at a church in Saint-Cyr-l’Ecole, a Western suburb of Paris, he was at first highly enthusiastic. However, as described in Scott Gladdy’s unauthorised 2004 biography Walt Disney: A People’s History, his attention quickly turned to other matters:

At first Walt was much like many other young Americans abroad: he was a regular both at the local taverns and the brothels that had sprung up around the military academy. By February 1919 he was almost unrecognisable. Always a staunch Protestant, Walt had taken to spending most of his day in the Église Sainte-Julitte, a nearby church, in the company of the venerable local Jesuit priest Antoine Sourisse. “He changed all of a sudden,” his comrade Roy Michaels recalled later. “He stopped drinking, stopped whoring. He stopped driving the ambulances. We all thought he’d gone queer. But it wasn’t that. All of a sudden he had this great unity of purpose. It was kinda terrifying, to tell you the truth.”

On his return from France in 1919, Disney started drawing cartoon mice.

Why did the Cult choose Walter Disney to carry out the final stage of its plan? It may have been connected with his ancestry. Walt was a distant heir of Hughes d’Isigney, a Norman nobleman who participated in William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of England and claimed to be able to trace his lineage to the Merovingian kings of the Franks, and through them, to Jesus Christ. While it’s impossible to say for certain that Hugues was a member of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet, there are several indications. In Disney Through the Centuries, Adriana Villalobos’s exhaustive history of the Disney family, she describes how Hughes took a ‘fanatic interest in the precise procedure in which church services in his new fiefdom were carried out,‘ and seditious rumours spread among the local peasantry of a secret idol kept concealed in the d’Isigney castle. Eventually William (who as an illegitimate child would have been denied membership in the Cult) grew wary of his vassal and lent him a few hundred soldiers for a suicidal campaign, encouraging him to invade France and reclaim his rightful crown. However, it is equally possible that when Antoine Sourisse induced the young Walt Disney into the Cult it was simply because of his skills as a draughtsman and yearning for transcendence. After all, it had to happen to somebody.

The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was released in 1928. Steamboat Willie was an enormous popular and critical success; most audiences were too focused on the short animation’s sight gags to pick up on its disturbing subtexts. Mickey Mouse is a destructive outside agent who emerges into the ordered environment of the steamboat and comprehensively reorders it according to his own schematic principle: living animals are rendered inorganic tools, turned into musical instruments, forced by Mickey to play along to a piece of music that simultaneously emerges from them and is extraneous to them. Essentially, Steamboat Willie provides a coded account of the activities of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet since the Christianisation of the Roman Empire.

The Walt Disney company’s growing successes coincided with a sudden paranoia on the part of its namesake. Disney believed that many of his lower-level animators were Communist infiltrators; at times he believed himself to be the last bulwark against a Communist tide taking over Hollywood. As his delusions grew, so did his dream of Disneyland. As his friend and animator Ward Kimball recalled:

Walt was always deadly serious about Disneyland, far more so than any of the movies, even though they were raking in so much money. He insisted on planning every last detail. He was seriously fanatic about it… one time he said to me, this isn’t just a holiday park. This is something that’s gonna change the world. He was always talking about how Disneyland was going to beat the Reds and bring in a new age. Frankly, none of us had a clue what he was talking about.

Ground was broken on what would become the Disneyland site – a placid field of walnut trees in Orange County – in 1954. The entire project took only one year to complete; it was opened with a televised fanfare. Few at the time recognised Disneyland for what it was. Disneyland was never an interactive ‘park’ in which visitors were free to view the attractions at their own pace, but a show as tightly choreographed as any film. All the rides progress in a strictly linear fashion; the banter of the entertainers is entirely scripted; if you drop a piece of litter in the park an appropriately dressed actor (smocks for Fantasyland, jumpsuits for Tomorrowland) will appear from a hidden doorway and silently tidy it away. The guests are forbidden from reinscribing anything onto the text of Disneyland. In fact, the park is constructed in such a way that any deviation from the correct order of things is punished instantly – dozens of visitors who committed the sin of jumping out of cars on rides or trying to cross the lines between the Disneyland simulation and the vast ‘backstage’ areas have been crushed to death by various pieces of machinery. To survive, guests must be entirely passive. Their responses to the park are, at every moment, utterly controlled.

Disneyland is the ritual of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet on a grand, industrial scale.

The truth: Nazi rockets and tellurian dragons

In all this several questions remain unanswered. Why did the nomes of Egypt supplement their public religious devotions with another, secretive faith? Why did the Cult of Penew-Nekhet survive from the second millennium BCE to the present day, when so many other mystery religions faded away? What interest would a four thousand-year-old cult have in building an amusement park? And why build that park in Orange County, home of the US weapons industry?

Essentially, the central question is this: does Penew-Nekhet actually exist?

One of the chief engineers in the Disneyland project was the German rocket physicist Wernher von Braun (shown above with Walt Disney). Responsible for designing the Nazi V-2 rockets that were launched at the United Kingdom during the final stages of World War II, von Braum was brought to America in June 1945 as part of Operation Paperclip, the then-top secret relocation of Nazi scientists to the United States to work on missile programmes targeted at the Soviet Union. As well as being a gifted scientist von Braum was also a devoted mystic: under his leadership, research at the Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde was carried out not only into guidance and propulsion systems for flying bombs but into the potential for the weaponisation of the occult. As well as séances and rituals carried out in Greek and Egyptian, captured French resistance fighters made to perform slave labour at the site’s factories claimed that the HVP team performed child sacrifices. In particular, von Braum was fascinated by the interior of the Earth, telling his friend and deputy Walter Thiel that ‘the quest for outer space and the quest for the subterranean world is one and the same thing.’ Like many Nazi occultists, von Braum believed there was life below the Earth’s crust; however, he did not ascribe to the hollow-earth theories popular at the time which held that the planet contains within it the mystical land of Hyperborea from which the Aryan races originate. Instead, he believed the chthonic world to be as profoundly un-human as the black reaches of space.

Among von Braum’s most prized possessions was a copy of De Interioribus Terrae, a short text by the 16th century mathematician, occultist, and early disciple of Luther’s reformed Penew-Nekhet Cult John Dee. After a discussion of the mystical nature of soil and its Demiurgean power to create life, Dee turns his attention to the centre of the Earth:

While no man of Faith can reason against the reality of Hell, it is evident to all learned Men that Hell does not exist below the Ground, no more than Heaven is to be found among the Clouds, and yet, as is well known, below the Soil there lies a great Heat, and a great Fire, as it is said in the Bible: where the Worm dieth not, and the Fire is not quenched. And indeed the Book is forever unerring, for in this Fire lives the Worm, called also Dragon, formed in delicate Crystal from solid Phlogiston, who with a noble Sweep of his Tail does traverse the Fire below our Seas faster than any Merchant-Ship, and who, far from being consigned to the Pit, is a Creature of Grace, and as Fire to Air or Mercury to Saturn, takes his Place as a Consort to the Angels.

Could this worm exist? Recent geophysical surveys (often suppressed by the government agencies and universities funding them) utilising sophisticated equipment such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility have detected fluxes and eddies in the Earth’s magma that are inconsistent with all known models of fluid dynamics, but that are explainable through the presence of large mobile organisms living within the mantle. The presence of life under the crust is not as implausible as it may seem: the mantle is home to untold billions of extremophile bacteria consuming nutrients dissolved in the molten rock. The liquid core of the Earth constitutes over 99% of its volume and much of it is entirely unknown to science; however it is possible to posit with some confidence that the tellurian dragons would have to be very large to survive in the heat of the mantle and to create the fluctuations observed by the ESRF – up to eight miles in length. Without any oxygen, their metabolism would function in a vastly different manner from that of life on the surface; they would certainly be silicon- rather than carbon-based. They would also be largely solitudinous, looping slowly around the Earth’s core in mournful sequestration – given the relative poverty of the subterranean ecosystem, it’s unlikely that a population of more than a hundred thousand could be supported. And given the great age of the Earth’s interior, it is entirely possible that at some point in their billions of years of evolution, the tellurian dragons attained sentience.

In almost all cultures there exist myths of giant worms or dragons, who are generally believed to breathe or in some other way be associated with fire. In ancient Egypt this place was taken by Penewap, a god of the underworld (and, more generally, of death and evil) represented as an enormous serpent. This was not his only form, however; Penewap was also believed to come to the earth’s surface to wreak havoc in the form of the mouse – the morphological similarities between penew and penewap hardly need mentioning. Could it be that the cultists of Penew-Nekhet, so obsessed with obscurity and representation, used the image of the mouse to disguise the true object of their worship?

If the Cult had a Secret that it guarded throughout its four-thousand year existence, it can only be that of how to communicate with – and control – Penew-Nekhet or the tellurian dragons. If contact were to take place, the cultists would find in their hands a weapon of unimaginable power. The dragons could obliterate any enemy: burst the ground from under their feet, send their cities tumbling into the abyss, immolate their armies with molten fire. Given their ability to churn the molten rock of the Earth’s core, they may even be able to affect the planet’s magnetic field, leaving a specific area vulnerable to a cascade of destructive cosmic radiation. Or, perhaps, our magnetic field could even be redirected, used to assault other planets in the solar system or beyond.

Given the ubiquity of dragon-myths across the planet, it is certain that the subterranean worms have, accidentally or not, forced their way into our world. It is not inconceivable that the parting of the Red Sea, the volcanic eruption that obliterated Minoan civilisation, and perhaps even the calamitous 1755 Lisbon earthquake were all precipitated by the Cult of Penew-Nekhet through its various attempts to gain the attention of tellurian monsters. But how can such communication be established? John Dee wrote:

The Worm hears no Prayer, though many who call themselves Witch or Sorcerer have offered up Entreaties to him, rather he understands the Language of all celestial Beings, that is, the Language of Mathematics, the Language of the Imagination, and the Language of Sympathy.

In all the permutations of the Cult’s rites, from private rituals to religious services to orgies of bloodshed to Disneyland, imagination and sympathy – or the emotive – have always been central; and these are precisely the qualities to which the dragons respond. The Cult has always attempted to form concentrated loci of high emotion. In much of its documented history this emotion was sorrow, terror, or abasement, but often accompanied by joy – the redemption of Communion, the cathartic bliss following the grain-burning. Conceivably it is the swing between two extreme emotional states that is most effective: witness the joy of the children as they enter the rides, and their fury as they are dragged away. The fact that Disneyland is aimed at children is significant: children experience emotional states far more intensely than adults; as such they are ideal vehicles for communicating with the worms. Like children, the dragons do not respond to erotic energy (they may reproduce asexually): this is why sexual or orgiastic cults from that of Dionysus to Crowley’s Satanism have sprung up and faded away in succession. To communicate with the dragons requires the assumption of a mindset that is entirely other and wholly unhuman – hence the austerity of the early rites, and the perverse hermaphrodite wholesomeness of Disneyland, filled with monstrous animal-headed figures.

At the same time though, the dragons, who with their cold silicon sentience can imagine no world other than that which they inhabit, are enormously responsive to the human power for imagination, fantasy, and deceit. The rites of the Penew-Nekhet Cult have throughout their history been based heavily on the projection of a hyperreality. The fascination with symbolism and the representative was not just a mechanism for maintaining secrecy: the Greek Cultists really believed that they had been transformed into peasants during the grain-burning rituals; the visitors to Disneyland are invited to really believe that they are in the presence of Mickey Mouse. The map becomes the territory – by imagining another reality, the Cult affects concrete change to this one.

What is Disneyland? Disnyland is a vast machine for the weaving of fiction and the production of human emotion. It was built away from Hollywood because it was never really part of the entertainment industry. It was always a weapon. It is the weapon. It is a signal-beacon for the underground monsters. They swarm there now, miles underneath southern California (perhaps accounting for the frequent seismological activity there), waiting for the Cult to give them their orders. Now it remains only for the Disneyland weapon to be used.

Conclusion

I have recorded the truth. Not in its entirety. My account is, of course, an unacceptably Eurocentric one: it would be absurd to assume that some form of the Penew-Nekhet cult has not developed in China (the fact that the Hong Kong Disneyland is, uniquely, owned by a Chinese corporation and licensed from Disney may well be significant) and the mass human sacrifices in the Aztec Empire have the faint odour of the cult about them. I’ve not been able to work out the exact nature of the cult’s Plan – they have, after all, already been in effective control of the world at several points in history. Perhaps the Disneyland weapon is not meant for use on Earth at all; perhaps the cult is about to drag us, unknowing, into an interplanetary war. But what I’ve written will have to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now. The cult of Penew-Nekhet has guarded its secrets for four thousand years; it has in the past carried out acts of horrific violence to further its aims. It doesn’t matter. The truth is more important.

My hands have stopped shaking.

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