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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: religion

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.

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Breaking the law

America has a cop problem. Black people everywhere have a cop problem. Humanity has a cop problem.

More than ever. In the last few days, cops in Cleveland murdered the 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice for playing with a BB gun in a public park. A grand jury in Missouri failed to indict the cop that murdered the 18-year-old black teen Michael Brown as he held his hands above his head and shouted Don’t shoot. A grand jury in New York failed to indict the cop that murdered (on tape) the 43-year-old black man Eric Garner as he repeatedly gasped I can’t breathe. There’s a lot to be said about all this, but I’m not the one to say it. There are plenty of essays by black writers and activists that expose these travesties with far more anger and elegance than I ever could; among the most powerful are The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a Nigger Nation by Ezekiel Kweku and Not another death: Black Lives Matter by Wail Qasim. What I want to talk about is something very specific: the process and the meaning of the failure to indict the murderers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Under the grand jury system a failure to indict isn’t the same as a court finding a defendant innocent; by failing to indict the two grand juries have found these killer cops to be so utterly and impeccably innocent that there can be no actual trial on any charge. Something is seriously wrong here. Grand juries usually function as a rubber stamp for the prosecution; it’s hard to imagine a grand jury throwing out a case against someone accused of plotting an act of terrorism, for instance, however spurious the evidence. These cops appear to have broken the law and got away with it. Faced with this travesty, a few familiar slogans are being thrown around: even if you don’t agree with the outcome you have to respect the decision; justice is a process, not a result; we live under the rule of law. It’s time to clear out this bullshit. Despite appearances, the law is not broken when white cops kill black people; it’s strengthened. The law is a fetish, a piece of hocus pocus magic, a ceremonial mask for power, a primitive superstition for white folk. The law is a transcendental secret, the centre of a mystery cult. It’s not a normative ideal to which actual events must conform themselves: all signifiers refer only to other signifiers – and never more so than in the case of the law, in which most pieces of legislation primarily refer to and amend other pieces of legislation. Instead the law is the hidden core of an institution of differences; more than anything, it’s an object of veneration.

The founding scene of legality is pretty familiar. Moses climbs up a Mount Sinai wreathed in fire and lightning to receive the gift of the law as a divine inscription on tablets of stone. As he descends, he sees that the Children of Israel have abandoned their faith and melted their earrings into a golden calf for them to worship: in his fury he breaks the tablets, and only when the idol is destroyed and three thousand of the Israelites have been killed can he return to the mountain and bring back the law. It’s a myth that conforms to the Benjaminian theory of law-founding violence: before the law can begin to function, the sons of Levi must first, by virtue of might, slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. There’s something else too: what’s objectionable about the golden calf is that it is a graven idol, a representation of a tangible thing. The true object of worship (see how even now the Torah is kissed and venerated) must be what Deleuze calls the paranoid, despotic, signifying regime of signs; an abstract and unknowable code for an abstract and unknowable God.

Given that it’s an idol, what the law says is of little importance when compared to what the law does. After smashing the tablets Moses divided the Children of Israel into those on the side of the Lord and those with the golden calf; the former to be saved, the latter to be slain. The law institutes an othering system based on a principle of proximity, in which this proximity to the law becomes an ontological attribute. Michael Brown was a criminal, a thug, a menace, because he allegedly shoplifted some cigars – because he was black, because he was distant from the law. Eric Garner was a criminal, a thug, a menace, because he allegedly sold some roll-up cigarettes – because he was black, because he was distant from the law. Without a modern-day Moses to draw the lines of distance and demarcation, this role has fallen to the police. The role of the cops isn’t to enforce or uphold the law, but to set the order for its worship. Something is legal because a cop does it, or illegal because a cop forbids it. Cop action constitutes legality. The law is a function of the cops, and cops are a function of privilege.

The word privilege comes from the Latin for private law, but (as dramatised by Kafka) the law is always a secret and always private: privilege is the law, and the law is privilege. More accurately: white supremacy is the law, and the law is white supremacy. The founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to which all US laws refer, spoke of the inalienable right of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while millions of black people were enslaved. This isn’t a contradiction, or at least not a meaningful one; the thetic content of law is irrelevant. What these texts did was to form a political subject, one which had life, liberty, and happiness, one that was landed, male, and white, one that would be protected by the holy magic of legality.

Why won’t grand juries indict cops that break the law? Because it’s impossible for a cop to break the law. White people – those close to the law – are taught from an early age to see cops as living embodiments of legality, and in a way this is true. (Black people are taught from an early age to see cops as an imminent danger to life, and this is true in every way.) The law can’t break itself; by letting killer cops go free, jurors are just acknowledging its catechism. But the law can still be broken: Moses broke it once, shattering the tablets of stone on his way down from Sinai. It can be done again. Breaking the law means eradicating its system of distances and divisions: overturning capitalism and demolishing white supremacy, so that no more innocent people will have to die.

Death to the moderates

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

They live among us, the moderates, if what they have can be called life. You’ve probably seen them, strolling on the streets and driving in their cars and looking every bit like the human beings they aren’t; maybe you happen to be one yourself. There are (but why?) people who will go out in the evening and drink exactly one half of a bottle of wine; people who think the new Simpsons episodes are still pretty funny; people who can look at the sheer swirling insanity that surrounds us, the artificial famines and the drowning refugees and the suffocating alienation, and declare themselves to be moderate in relation to it. Things aren’t perfect, but a few tweaks here and there should set things straight: raise the top income tax bracket (but not by too much), legalise marijuana (but not any of the interesting drugs), overthrow the Assad government in Syria, casual Fridays at the office and police action against internet trolls; forge a world that’s basically the same but a little bit nicer. For those of us suffering from compulsive self-destruction, chronic back pain, vague and unexplained sexual guilt, amphetamine withdrawal, and a quiet but persistent voice in the back of our heads that regales us with a nightly lullaby about every shitty thing we’ve ever done – in other words, for those of us with a normal and healthy response to life under late capitalism – the moderates take on demoniac proportions. There’s nothing quite so revolting as another person’s happiness. In the United States prescription drugs are routinely advertised on TV: the pictures show attractive middle-aged white people taking picnics, riding bicycles, not being dead, etc., while a cheery voice quickly runs through all the drug’s potentially lethal side-effects. It would take the forbearance of a coma patient not to wish every single one of them – from dizziness and erectile dysfunction through to thrombocytopaenia, atrial fibrillation, and instant death – on these blithely fictional ghouls. The foundations of social and biological life are collapsing around them, and they ride their bikes through a verdant meadow drenched in sunlight, just so grateful to finally be rid of their osteoarthritis. It’s a fiction, but one the moderates yearn for, a transcendent ego-ideal. They’re not just myopic or unimaginative, they’re utterly insane. So why on earth would anyone want to give these maniacs weapons? What carnage could they wreak if they were armed not just with condescending smiles, but heavy machine guns?

We might be about to find out. The Obama regime has asked for $500 million to arm and train ‘moderate’ forces in Syria to fight both the cartoon supervillain Bashar al-Assad and the unstoppable demon army of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). These moderates don’t really exist as conventionally imagined (genocidal civil war is not usually a hospitable environment for nice guitar-strumming liberalism), but even by itself this a monstrous idea. The everyday awfulness of moderation becomes something far stranger and uglier when imposed on Islam; armed moderation might sound like an oxymoron, but in fact it’s a very real and very horrifying possibility. Muslims in the West are still allowed to follow Islam, just about, but not too much. It’s not bloodshed or misogyny that need to be moderated, but the religion itself: Islam and dangerous threatening foreign violence lie along a single axis; any public display of belief equals extremism equals homo sacer. The demand for a moderate Islam is for a watered-down Islam; you should treat your absolute faith in the transcendent oneness of God in the manner of someone warily inspecting a supermarket curry. Outside the West, it’s a different story. A Saudi cleric can advocate the continued ban on all Christian worship, the continued relegation of women to a status somewhere above household furniture and somewhere below household pets, and other such non-Islamic idiocy – but as long as he doesn’t oppose Western ambitions elsewhere in the Islamic world, he’s a moderate. Abroad, moderate Islam means acquiescence to imperialism. The gestalt ideal of the moderate Muslim, then, is this: a monstrous figure, clothes drenched in the blood of innocents, inflicter of hideous tortures and gruesome executions, someone casting terror across the blasted landscape seemingly for no particular reason, but in a manner that doesn’t disturb the mechanisms of profit.

Being moderate means destroying all possible futures and replacing them with a listlessly cheerful nihilism. The philosophy of moderation has always been one of bloodshed. Aristotle, who in his Eudemian Ethics celebrated the virtue of Mildness and argued that the moral good always lies between two extremes, was a tutor to Alexander the Great, who slaughtered hundreds of thousands so that modesty might conquer the world. Bloodthirsty prudery has always dispatched its victims because their misery or their enjoyment was too excessive.  In our age, the armed moderates of Syria are just the beginning. One of the groups under the FSA umbrella likely to receive some of the $50m jackpot is Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ll need it. Having the dual support of the Western intelligence apparatus and the stuffy old pedants that succeeded bin Laden doesn’t really do them any favours; they’re like a jihadi group officially sanctioned by your dad. The fighters joining Jabhat al-Nusra instead of the Islamic State are the gangly nerds of international terrorism: people who ride scooters, drink Pepsi, eat cashew butter, and spent their teenage years listening to prog instead of punk – impeccable moderates. They’ve also been filmed eating human hearts. Like all forms of mass discipline, this tactic of violent moderation is unlikely to stay in the imperial periphery. It didn’t take long for Victorian imperialists to start conceiving of their metropolitan working-class populations with the same eugenic horror in which they held the repressed colonial multitudes; it won’t be long before the moderates among us take up arms, and if we don’t stop them, their reign will be brutal.

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.

In defence of Fred Phelps

God is a “no” to the world.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The primal scene takes place on red earth and under red skies. It’s close to sunset; it’s always close to sunset here. Tangled thorny shrubs gasp in the thirsty Levantine scrubland, leaves caked with dust, roots twisting up through the ground. Two men walk through this flat and deathly expanse, one as knotted and bended by age as the small desperate plants that surround him, the other still young, carrying wood and kindling. They walk in silence; both knowing what has to happen. The wind shrieks an unworldly, callous laugh; a chorus of distant vultures takes up its refrain. Far on the horizon cliffs tower like grim fortifications, and beyond them the mountain of Moriah stands wreathed in storm, the clouds looking as hard and jagged as the rocks they obscure. Abraham, father of nations, is afraid. He is despised by the idolaters of the world, he is forced to live alone in the desert of his God, but through all this he took comfort from the promise that through his son Isaac a mighty people would arise. Some promise. As father and son hobble ever closer to the forbidding foothills of Moriah, a voice booms out from beyond the infinite. ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM. A voice in which cities are reduced to rubble calls for its prophet. Here am I, says Abraham. What else can he say before the majesty of the true God? By what right can he argue his case? The voice of the Lord sounds out again. ABRAHAM. DID YOU SEE FAMILY GUY LAST NIGHT? THAT’S SOME FUNNY SHIT MAN. FREAKIN SWEET LOIS HAHA.

Kierkegaard had it easy; in the light of modernity his fear and trembling before God’s infinite qualitative difference is child’s play. He asks us to consider the anguish of an Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son, confronted by a God who suddenly appears as a monster, vicious and cruel, but one whose pronouncements still carry a terrible duty; a teleological suspension of the ethical. No problem. There’s still terror and glory in a cruel God, as Job would soon discover. The real anguish begins when we’re forced to confront a teleological suspension of good taste, the possibility of God as a dull, cretinous boor. Not a Father dressed in celestial robes, but a flabby and balding God in polyester tracksuits and a white t-shirt stained beige by the centuries, dropping His cigarette ends in empty beer cans and subsisting off a diet of 7-11 hotdogs and instant mac’n’cheese. A mediocre, sexually frustrated, perverted, boring God. This isn’t the God that exists, or one that’s held to by any of the world’s major denominations. Still, there are those that really do believe in Him and hold Him to be all-powerful; somewhere in the world He carries the same teleological gravity as the God of Abraham, Mohammed, and Kierkegaard.

This is why the late Fred Phelps was our age’s heir to the greatness of the biblical Abraham. His tiny Westboro Baptist Church (they of the ‘God hates fags’ signs) is doctrinally not too different from the other Primitive Baptist congregations that sprout up across much of the Southern and Western United States like a fungal infestation: thin, grey, mycetic churches, damp to the touch, with unavoidably phallic caps. Unlike the rest of them, however, his church seems to really believe what it preaches. Not just the stuff about homosexuality, which is still commonplace and usually just mere bigotry given a religious gloss, but the whole lunatic doctrine. There’s no point in hating the Westboro Baptist Church; hatred for them is the one point on which the world presents a united front. They want this. If the only thing that distinguished them was the virulence of their God’s hatred for homosexuality, they’d be unexceptional among the ‘Christian’ right – but they also picket the funerals of dead soldiers. If they only picketed military funerals they might have allies among Code Pink and other anti-imperialist movements – but they insist on insulting gays, Jews, and religious minorities. If they abhorred homosexuality and American troops they could conceivably find some common ground with unreconstructed Stalinists – but they won’t budge on their devotion to God. The universal revulsion in which they’re held makes them an easy target for civil rights activists, but at the same time it makes them a useless target. Nobody supports the Westboro Baptists; they have no influence – it’s institutional violence that creates misery for queer people across the world, not a travelling band of placard-waving loonies. At the same time repugnance for Fred Phelps isn’t just a cheap shot, it also blots out his Abrahamic dedication.

The Westboro Baptists famously believe that when a convoy of Humvees in Afghanistan is hit by an IED or a bus full of schoolchildren plunges off a bridge, this is God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. This seems to be a fairly singular fixation, given the number of other Old Testament laws that are carelessly and blasphemously disregarded by modern society (Clothes made from mixed fibres (Leviticus 19:19)! Seafood restaurants on every corner (Deuteronomy 14:10)! Men with flat noses in church! (Leviticus 21:18)! Abominations! Blasphemy! Horror!). Still, it’s arguable that their homophobia is ontologically derived from their religious belief, rather than being the fleck of dirt around which the pearl of their theology forms. Phelps was a lawyer, and a good one too (in his early career he took on a number of civil rights cases, and helped overturn the Jim Crow establishment in Kansas); his faith starts from first principles. The Westboro baptists hold that nothing happens on Earth that is not according to God’s will – how could it, when God is all-powerful? Unlike other Christian sects, they don’t believe that homosexuality is a personal decision to defy the laws of God and Nature; it’s a punishment. Their God doesn’t hate queer people because they’re queer; they’re queer because He hates them. Phelps held to the idiot hyper-Calvinist logic of double predestination: an omniscient God must have known from the beginning of time which souls would be saved and which would be damned – and if some souls are damned, it can only be because an omnipotent God decided that they should be damned, because  He hates them. And so to ensure their damnation He makes them disobey His law, and then He punishes them accordingly. The God of the Westboro Baptists is a lawyer-God, taking guilt as an axiom – in other words, an absurd clownish pervert. And they love Him.

In the strict Freudian sense, homosexuality is a fetishistic perversion – but then so is heterosexuality. Every pleasurable activity beyond procreation is some kind of confusion of sexual object or aim. A married couple, holding each other in bed, delighting in the electric sensation of skin against skin and the warmth and security of their love: foetid Sodomic perversion, vice and infamy, deviance, ungodliness, filth, filth. It’s not even as if there’s some original state of purity and propriety; infantile sexuality is dominated by oral and anal eroticism, with the genital stage following on as something of an afterthought. The base-state of humanity is described by Freud as polymorphously perverse; the movement towards a socially acceptable hetero- homo- bi- or pansexuality is just a matter of refining this multiplicity of foundational deviances. If fetishism is a necessary component of a normal healthy sexuality, you have to look elsewhere to find the real perversions. Things like trying to fight the legal system on its own terrain, or eating deep-fried butter on a stick, or playing a blandly brutal millennia-long game with the eternal fates of billions of souls, or reaching out from beyond the veil of the cosmos to proclaim with a divine finality: NO BUTT STUFF.

The fanatical hatred the Westboro Baptist Church has for queer people, their willingness to blame sexual minorities for everything from natural disasters to political unrest to disease epidemics, can only be because of this. Perversion is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. In such a context homosexuality can only be read as a Tower of Babel, an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It takes faith and courage to submit yourself to a mighty and glorious God whose ways and whose love are entirely beyond our comprehension; it takes far more to do the same for a God at once sick, sadistic, depraved, and at the same time incredibly insipid, a transcendental pedant. The Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t founded in the holy wastelands of the Middle East, surrounded by mountains and idols and warring cities. It was founded in Topeka, Kansas, among big-box supermarkets and low suburbs and endless flat fields of genetically modified corn. The gods that reveal themselves there generally turn out to be obnoxious pimply brats. Despite all this there’s a heroic dimension to the faith of the children of Fred Phelps, who embrace every evil and injustice in the world because they think God made it. It’s almost Nietzschean. In a religious landscape full of feeble cringing Hinterweltlern, only Fred Phelps really believed; only he could face a dull God and a dull world with fear and trembling and love.

There’s courage in bad doctrine, but it’s still bad doctrine. The Westboro Baptists write that the modern militant homosexual movement poses a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah. The crime for which the God of Abraham destroyed those cities is often held to be that of sodomy – but the Book of Genesis never really identifies the nature of their sin, only its gravity. Fred Phelps  give the impression of being a man much interested in Jewish theology, but there’s a passage in the Talmud that’s relevant here. In Sanhedrin 109a it is written: [The Sodomites] said: Since there cometh forth bread out of our earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Pirkei Avot goes further: One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ is of average character, and some say this is the character of Sodom. When the wrath of God descended upon these cities and a rain of fire blasted their green fields to red wasteland, it wasn’t because of any perverse sexual enjoyment: it was because they refused their ethical duty to be open to the Other.

Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?

Philosophy means asking difficult questions. Not the questions that actually make up philosophical enquiry – those tend to be quite simple, which is why they can be so easily worked into summer blockbusters – but the tiny, dark questions that swarm around them. The questions that you can never quite get out of your head, even though you know full well that the answers won’t bring you any hope or solace. Questions that form miniature doorways into small tight universes of unrelenting horror. A field philosopher of an earlier century, his brain slow-cooking in his pith helmet, tramping through the sweaty heat of a tropical rainforest with the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him down into the muddy ooze below, trying to discern the mating call of his prey in the jungle’s unending din, might stop and ask himself – if I do manage to track and shoot the synthetic a priori proposition, will that make me happy? These days, the rainforests have mostly been cleared to grow soybeans and palm oil, and the old briery questions that used to hide in their shadows are now everywhere. Why do I keep making such a tit out of myself at parties? Was romantic love really invented by a conspiracy of medieval poets and soft toy manufacturers in collusion against the world? Does Alain de Botton actually fuck? And if he does, then what could that kind of monstrosity actually look like?

Alain de Botton is the most banal man alive and the most banal man to have ever lived, but it’s not enough to just complain about banality as itself, because banality doesn’t exist. Banality isn’t like misery, or ecstasy for that matter, which swallow you up completely, admitting no outside or differentiation, like Badiou’s grey-black that negates even the possibility of a light. Banality is a spectral relation between something real and something that used to be real; it speaks to something that’s been lost. If everything in the world were completely banal and always had been, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it; we’d have nothing to compare it to. There has to be something significant, somewhere. The problem is that most things are pretty dull. Look around you; try to find one non-boring mass-produced object, anything whose existence you could really uphold in the court of eternity. It’s not easy. The sense of banality is the ghost of a significance that has been thoroughly and deliberately wiped out. These concepts are all the products of a particular set of material and historical circumstances: the idea of virtue would be impossible without classical slavery, ennui came out of the stillbirth of modernity, and banality is the cultural logic of colonial genocide. Dig around near the roots of any piece of tritely inspirational advice, and it won’t be long before you unearth the mass graves.

You can see this in the suburb, an urban form so monolithically banal its structural violence rivals that of the temple complexes in Tenochtitlan. The vast bloated suburbs of the western United States could only be built once the native Americans had been completely wiped out and any mystical autonomous connection between humanity and the earth had been eradicated; only then were the hills and the desert reduced to mere land, which could be parcelled out in lots for tract housing and strip malls. In France, meanwhile, the suburb-form appears as a drab concrete prison suffocating the ancient heart of the city, a holding pen for the survivors of the state’s imperial killing sprees abroad. Britain’s commuter belt villages, coma-quiet but for church bells and the dying yelps of the foxes, built their sleepy tedium on the superprofits extracted through the rape of three continents. The strange tendency for acolytes of the supremely boring New Atheism to be from Australia makes a lot of sense in this context: once the songlines have been scrubbed out and the unburdened creativity of the Dreaming has been extinguished – along with the continent’s original inhabitants – the land becomes a flat and empty space for the exercise of instrumental reason. Israel, one of the few actively ongoing colonial projects in the old mould, is fast getting in on the act: it’s official propaganda is now laced with dull affirmatory homilies. Banality is the quiet revenge of the societies we’ve destroyed and the lives we’ve extinguished, its stiflingness is the traumatic echo of the bloody chaos that suddenly descended on them. And Alain de Botton is the most banal person to have ever lived. How many massacres must he have committed?

I’ve mentioned de Botton a few times before in these pages, but only because I find him an object of gruesome fascination and psychotically obsessive hate. According to his own personal website, he is ‘a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.’ He’s also presented a couple of TV series and is the founder of something faintly ominous called the ‘School of Life.’ He is, we’re expected to believe, a philosopher: someone with the same basic job description as Heraclitus or Kant or Hegel. What the site fails to mention is that he looks like nothing of this world. Generally it’s bad form to make fun of someone’s physical appearance; they can’t really help it, after all. (In any case, philosophers shouldn’t really look like normal people. They exist to seek out the strangeness in life: Heraclitus was a ragged he-crone, Kierkegaard was a hunchback, Adorno was an absurd Humpty Dumpty figure; if these people weren’t weirdos they would’ve ended up getting a normal job.) With de Botton it’s different; his bodily strangeness is inseparable from the bland conventionality of his thought.  Alain de Botton looks like a human being as designed by HR Giger. His forehead rises high up to a vaulted dome, a tapering lizard’s egg of a cranium. His eyebrows jolt and shudder with his shoulders. His nose has a lubricious gleam; his mouth is a dark stain, red wine or fresh blood, and when he talks his deathly-white teeth seem to slide oilily against each other. His skin is faintly rubbery, and while it mostly seems to fit him there are still a few places where is bunches up or stretches out, like a cutaneous gimp suit. He looks weird, interstellarly weird; half Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, half sentient rock formation. The general impression given is that of a reptilian alien awkwardly stuffed into a human form – not a particularly malevolent alien, just one that in its own unknowable way is making an honest and doomed attempt to fit in among us Earthlings. It’s a lie. He’s evil, and his evil is entirely human.

Alain de Botton specialises in a kind of humdrum potted sagacity, the kind of stuff that has all the outward appearance of insight while managing to avoid saying anything at all. This mushy nothingness can take the form of pointless tautology (‘In a meritocracy, success comes to seem earnt – but failure deserved’), excerpts from the Dictionary of Twee Vacuousness (‘Magnanimity: the one who was right does not say ‘I told you so,’ the one who was wronged does not seek vengeance’), outright untruth (‘Choosing a spouse and choosing a career: the two great decisions for which society refuses to set up institutional guidance’), inspirational pap (‘Our real motivation comes from people who don’t believe in us’), and the final spluttering descent into total incoherency (‘The end logic of our relationship to computers: sincerely asking the search engine “what should I do with the rest of my life?”‘).

These nuggets are all from his inevitable Twitter account; for the really heavy froth you’ll have to turn to his books. To be fair, Alain de Botton is a man of great intellectual breadth. In his many published works he has managed to be boring about Proust, anodyne about art and architecture, tedious about travel, and spend several hundred pages completely failing to understand love, sex, and religion. Aside from the general awfulness of his writing, it’s on these last two subjects (I don’t really like Proust) that his peculiar monstrosity really shines through. In Religion for Atheists (Penguin, 2012) he tries to reconcile the virtues of religious faith with a non-belief in an objectively existing God. That’s perfectly fine; plenty of worthwhile thinkers (Bloch, Althusser, Agamben, Badiou) have tried to do the same. However, for de Botton religion is useful because it ‘teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober’ and because it can help us learn ‘how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper.’ No it’s not. Religion is fire and passion, a point of connection between humanity and the infinite, the cry of the oppressed creature, the foundation of universalism. It’s meant to be vast and terrifying and emancipatory. In the face of the vastness of the Absolute Other all human distinctions are meaningless; that’s why so many radical liberation movements have been religious in nature. What this book does is try to turn six millennia of blazing fervour into a half-baked set of minute consolations. It’s an act of hideous violence.

That’s bad enough, but How To Think More About Sex (Picador, 2012) might be the worst book ever written. It’s not too long, but de Botton manages to squeeze into its pages an entire compendium of some of the most grotesque and ungodly sexual acts ever committed. There are the infamous blood orgies of the Mughal emperors, in which the slit throat of a young harem slave was used as a lubricant; there are the thanatophilic séances of certain Theosophist sects, in which the spirits of the dead were summoned and subjected to days of sexual torture; there’s the story of the medieval Saint Quasivermus of Caenumia, who held that congress with earthworms was the only unsinful carnal activity. His book describes every possible interposition of body parts with orifices: there are toes in nostrils, the practice of ‘elbow-fucking,’ and one instance in which an entire dwarf is inserted into an anus. The whole book is awash in a queasy sea of bodily effluent – blood, vomit, bile, cum, pus, piss. Of course, none of this is in the text itself, but it’s the unvoiced content of de Botton’s continual refusal to follow his title and actually think about sex. What he does is recoil from it. For him, sex is for procreation and to stave off loneliness; it’s always a fundamentally selfish act. Most of the time it’s a case of ‘squandered human energy;’ he continually resorts to the idea of sexuality being somehow base: a vestigal, degrading, primal urge we’d all be better off without. At one point he even upholds impotence as an ‘achievement of the ethical imagination.’ None of which is necessarily objectionable – maybe we would be better off without libidinality, free to concentrate on more important things like compiling spreadsheets of sporting statistics and overthrowing capitalism – except for the fact that de Botton never actually makes any argument for this position; he just presents it as a given. He doesn’t seem to even consider the idea that sexuality might be fundamentally related to how we can conceive of ourselves as people, or even that it might actually be enjoyable.

Alain de Botton doesn’t understand sex or religion because sexual and religious experiences are fundamentally transcendental; they allow people to escape the bounds of the atomised subject. They point, however darkly, to something we can’t quite name or describe. They are experiences that are not yet completely banal, and there’s no room for that kind of thing in his watered-down gruel of a philosophy. Does Alain de Botton fuck? Of course he doesn’t. What happens is the female of the de Botton species releases her eggs in the water, and the male comes along later and fertilises them. But supposing he did?

It’s all very well to make fun of Alain de Botton for being an intellectual lightweight and looking like a monster from a cheap B-movie, but these facts should be immediately obvious to anyone. The point is that his brand of fluffy philosophy-as-self-help isn’t just annoying. It’s an enemy; it’s bloodthirsty and dangerous. The usual charge levied against de Botton is that he ‘isn’t a real philosopher.’ This isn’t true at all; he’s a philosopher in the highest sense, as described by Marx and Nietzsche – in the sense that philosophers are ‘advocates who refuse the name, wily spokesmen for their prejudices,’ or those who try to interpret the world when the point is to change it. Despite his small nods to the idea that maybe the senseless and continual catastrophe of capitalism might not be the best way to run a planet, de Botton isn’t really interested in changing the world. He thinks people should be a little bit more reflective, he thinks he can help people cope with the stresses of the workplace and the perils of romance, he thinks everyone should have a ‘sunlit room set with honey-coloured limestone tiles’ in which to relax – and that’s basically it. No passions, no fury, no grand and wild ideas, just a dull life with a few small pleasures and a few small worries, instantly soothed. He’s standing atop a pile of corpses and suggesting that they might be arranged more pleasingly. Alain de Botton isn’t just banal, he embraces his own banality; he tries to dress vacuousness up as significance. If the sense of the banal is the whispering reminder that there was once something important and our society has since then expended every effort in wiping it out, then de Botton’s achievement is to close up that anxious gap, to make dullness a universal with no horizon. With that achieved, the slaughter can continue. Alain de Botton would see the seas turned to acid slime and the sky filled with iron and smoke. He is directly responsible for every evil act in the world today. He wants us to kill our young.

He’s not alone. De Botton is just the thin edge of an enormous and boring wedge, the Blitzkreig of banality. This stuff is dangerous, and it needs to be fought with every weapon available, with all the puerile and tasteless fury we can muster. What if Alain de Botton actually fucked? What could such a monstrosity actually look like? His tiny, shiny pebble-head gleaming with sweat, his weird lips twisting into a grimace of enjoyment. His flappy, skinny torso heaving, pale as milk, brushed with dark greasy hairs. He’d go too far. He’s coming into contact with something he’s disavowed his entire life; all his symbolic violence is coming into brutal reality. First the blood, then the fragments of bone tossed around the room, a screeching, scrabbling fury. Alain de Botton rears his head and howls – then stops. He looks down at himself. He looks at the carnage he’s responsible for. Finally, he’s come face to face with what he really is.

PS: I might have been a little unkind to Mr. de Botton. He’s not a total stranger to outright fury – after a negative book review, he left a comment on the author’s blog, writing ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’ I await his comments on my own appraisal of his work with anticipation.

Philosophy for the weak

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.
I Corinthians 1:27-28

A sick man, a spiteful man, an unpleasant man; a cruel and strange weirdo, a loser, a stateless foreigner living alone in a single room; in other words, a man who can’t bear to see a horse being whipped. He hugs its neck, he wails, he collapses. Eventually the police are called. What’s the deal with Nietzsche and horses? Twenty years beforehand, when he was young and strong, he’d abandoned his ancient books and joined the Prussian artillery, quickly distinguishing himself as an excellent rider. Then, one day, as he jumped happily into the saddle, something went wrong. He tore two muscles down his left side; he couldn’t walk for months. A fracture opened up. No more games with horses and cannon for young Fritz; an unhappy return to his old childhood world of classical philology, Hölderlin and Schopenhauer. From here on his body would only disintegrate: syphilis turns his bones to mush; indigestion sets his entrails on fire; genius, the worst sickness of all, sends him mad. All because of one horse. It’s hard to see Nietzsche angry at the horse, though; it’s much easier to imagine him bent over in pain as the horse watches with placid incomprehension, looking up into its dark eyes and suddenly conceiving of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. All this could happen again, exactly, to the last detail, and he’d be glad. Nietzsche trying and failing to mount his horse is a philosophical encounter. He loves horses, wild horses, war-horses, cart-horses. We could ask instead: what’s the deal with Nietzsche and his father? Ever since Freud’s Little Hans we’ve had to look at horses suspiciously. A horse isn’t just a horse, it’s a big snorting priapic dad. It’s strange, though: the same furious Nietzsche who tears down gods and nations speaks in only the kindest terms of his timid Lutheran pastor of a father; through him he invents an entire lineage of Polish nobility to be his ancestors. A delusional man. A man whose life isn’t so much a life as a constant writhing agony. His apartment in Turin is full of dust and little else; no wonder his lungs are playing up. It’s dark, and faintly moist, and it smells of decay. Moths flap about in gloomy corners. A single trunk, a single desk, a single bed. The gas-lamp outside sends the odd flicker of orange light, Dämmerung-deathly, across the room. In the middle of all this, Friedrich Nietzsche sits down at his desk and writes works of cold bright Arctic clarity.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull confronts the modern-day ubiquity of that strange and lonely man going mad in Turin. Nietzscheanism is everywhere; Bull points out quite rightly how strange it is that a philosopher famous for his oppositionalism is so scarcely opposed. Socialists, feminists, and Christians swear their fidelity to the ideas of the anti-egalitarian, misogynist and atheist Nietzsche. However, Bull points out that defeating him isn’t an easy thing to do. Nietzsche writes about the will to power; if you try to critique his ideas, you’re only asserting your own will to power over his. Nietzsche writes about master and slave morality; if you try to overturn his principles, you’re only proposing your own master morality. Nietzsche’s works are full of conflict, war, and dynamite; if you try to fight him, he’s already won. So Bull doesn’t try. As he puts it, Nietzsche wants us to ‘read for victory,’ so he reads for defeat. Bull’s tactic is for us to accept Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety but to position ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of every opposition. Rather than trying to raise ourselves to Übermenschen, we should become less than human; we should abandon the aesthetic; we should arm ourselves with nothing except our weakness, because we are weak. Bull encourages us to ‘read like losers.’ It’s a fascinating idea, but I think there’s something he’s missed. There’s no need for us to read like losers, because Nietzsche writes like a loser.

I usually don’t like this kind of biographical argument. When people claim that Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealism was just a philosophical manifestation of his life-long constipation and inability to produce matter, I find it hard not to have a vague objection. It’s the same when there’s an attempt to reduce political ideologies to some kind of cod-psychopathology: you’re only a conservative because of your dominating father, I’m only a communist because I never got over my infantile egotism, whatever. These are ideas, they should be confronted as such. With Nietzsche it’s different. His great achievement was to drag philosophy down from its pretentious heights and roll it around in the mud a little. He was the first to see philosophy as a ‘kind of unintended and unwitting memoir’ of its author – as a symptom. There’s no reason to think that Nietzsche ever excluded his own (anti)philosophy from this perspectivism. When he tells us not to believe everything written down in fine style, he’s talking about his own writing. There’s a note of sad irony in all his works: his chapters with titles like ‘why I am so clever’ and ‘why I write such good books’ refer to nothing more than his migraines, his blindness, and his loneliness. Nietzsche carefully cultivated this image of his own lack: even as he was dying of syphilis, he continued to maintain that he’d never slept with a woman. In his Introduction to Antiphilosophy Boris Groys writes that ‘when Nietzsche praises victorious life, preaches amor fati and identifies himself with the forces of nature that are bound to destroy him, he simply seeks to divert himself and others from the fact that he himself is sick, poor, weak and unhappy.’ I don’t think diversion is what’s going on here. He’s coding or communicating his sickness; the incredible strength of his works and the incredible weakness of the man himself are one and the same thing, and neither one can be understood without the other.

Ignoring Nietzsche’s weakness can get you into trouble. I’m not talking about the fascists, whose Nietzsche is more a signifier than a thinker, but people like Georges Bataille. Bataille was a great philosopher but a really shoddy Nietzschean. While he famously confronts Hegel with laughter, he takes Nietzsche far too seriously – because Nietzsche’s laugh is that of the weak, choked with phlegm. Bataille wasn’t weak, even despite his tuberculosis. He lived an affirmative life of the kind that Nietzsche recommended: he wasted several fortunes in bars, casinos, and brothels; he founded secret societies; he was an enthusiastic participant in the partouze, he masturbated over the corpse of his mother while his pregnant wife slept in the next room. He was outwardly courteous and handsome; he didn’t need to hide his face behind a ridiculous moustache. He didn’t quite get it. You can see this in some of his most overtly Nietzschean texts; The Practice of Joy before Death, for instance. Bataille writes that ‘man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.’ Later he shows us how to do this: ‘I AM joy before death. Joy before death carries me. Joy before death hurls me down. Joy before death annihilates me. I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I picture nature as a play of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.’ It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a glaring lack of irony here, a very un-Nietzschean didacticism. Bataille doesn’t quite get it because Nietzsche is a hypocrite, and he isn’t.

Bataille’s attitude to weakness is one of disavowal: Je sais bien that I am tubercular, mais quand même when I scream I AM THE SUN the verb être is the vehicle of an amorous frenzy. This is particularly evident in his writings on ritual orgy. In Eroticism Bataille rejects the idea of the orgy as an agrarian ritual, or at least the idea that the ritual orgy is entirely reducible to agrarian ritual. Instead it’s seen as an intrusion of the sacred world (that characterised by continuity, deindividuation, violence and ecstasy) into the profane world of work and discontinuity. The ritual orgy is a religious experience in the highest sense; it has no primary purpose other than unleash the transgressive forces of violent and frenzied eroticism. Bataille likens the orgy to war, another explosion of the sacred whose secondary, political purpose is only assigned to it later; it becomes enmeshed in his doctrine of excessive life and overabundant strength. He refers to ‘the men who ordained these orgies,’ but the men who ordained these orgies were women. The Dionysian Mysteries were a grotesquerie, a festival of the weak and the excluded in Greek society: women, slaves, cripples and outlaws. Their power was like Nietzsche’s: the paradoxical power of weakness, a power Bataille has disavowed. When the weakness goes; so does the power. Last year I took part in a masquerade orgy in London’s South Bank; the principle of female ordination was there (men could only attend if accompanied by a female partner, only women could approach men) but it was immensely different from the ancient mysteries. Afterwards many of my friends wanted to know what it had been like; more specifically they wanted to know if the whole thing had been tinged with horror and if it had left me feeling dead inside. They were quite disappointed to find out that it had just been quite fun. The people there were young and wealthy, bankers and investors; before we could go we had to send photos to the organisers so they could make sure we were attractive enough. In Bataille’s terms, it was libertinage rather than dissolution. There was no element of the sickness or the weakness that expresses itself as lightning and dynamite.

It’s notable that the discussion of ritual orgy in Eroticism is immediately followed by a critique of Christianity. The reason the Bacchic orgy no longer exists as a mass phenomenon has to do with Christianity’s reappraisal of the sacred and the profane; Bataille argues that in Christianity the sacred is associated exclusively with purity and the non-erotic love of agápē, while the ‘bad’ elements of the sacred (frenzy, violence) become part of the profane world, which is condemned as evil. In doing so Christianity loses much of the religious spirit, replacing it with sterile piety. Even so, it can’t abolish the impure aspect of the sacred, which finds its medieval expression in the Witches’ Sabbath and the Black Mass, inverted representations of Catholic liturgy. Again, Bataille’s argument loses something from the absence of any sense for weakness; he doesn’t see what really distinguishes Christianity. As he himself notes, the ‘sacred world is nothing but the natural world.’ It’s the order of the profane, with its division into work-time and leisure-time, that’s an artificial world formed through societal rites. However, the formation of the profane world is itself a product of religion; the laws which set up taboos and demand diligence in work are universally held to be a product of divine or cosmic revelation. Religion doesn’t belong to the sacred; it establishes a boundary between the sacred and the profane. The innovation of Christianity is to cast the profane world as the site of evil, to reject the world of work and to uphold the radical continuity of the weak. It’s true that the medieval Church tried to suppress the unruly side of the sacred, and that this impurity nonetheless found a way to express itself; but it wasn’t in the Witches’ Sabbath and its inversion of Christian prayer. Instead, frenzy, violence, and liberation were expressed precisely within the fabric of Christianity, in the form of the peasants’ revolt. These uprisings, generally led by radical preachers and taking inspiration from Biblical communism, erupted with all the thunder and fury of the sick and the weak, flaring up across Europe from the 1300s until they reached their apotheosis in the French Revolution. In Christianity, the sacred is class struggle.

Nietzsche would have called this slave morality, but Nietzsche loved horses. He saw a horse being whipped on the Piazza Carlo Roberto in Turin and rushed over to the animal, cradling its neck, trying to protect it. Then he collapsed. His Zarathustra surrounded himself with eagles and serpents, but Nietzsche loved cart-horses, slow and docile animals cowering under the whip. This doesn’t invalidate his philosophy; it opens it up. Master and slave morality aren’t in absolute opposition; just like Nietzsche’s power and his weakness, they form a dialectic. At a certain extreme point an identity of opposites is reached: the weak are the strong, and the strong are the weak. All it takes is a little will.

The image at the top of this essay is from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which you should watch.

Richard Dawkins and the ascent of madness

 The fossil later received £250,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Richard Dawkins wakes some time before dawn. He doesn’t blink or yawn or stretch – his eyes clang open with all the force and suddenness of a steel door. He stares at his ceiling, blue and brown swirling in his irises like cars and livestock in the centre of a tornado. Richard Dawkins’ head is fizzing with mad thoughts. He chatters under his breath as he strides out of bed and down the stairs of his Oxford home. His wife gives a small grunt and goes back to sleep. Outside a shimmering band of turquoise near the horizon brings a soft sparkle to the beads of dew hanging from trees in early bud; the heavy clouds in the distance look peach-pink and insubstantial; so do the old pale brick houses that line his street. The birds are singing in riotous chorus. “Accept my genetic information, females of my species!” they sing. “Observe my superior fitness for survival, as evidenced by the strength and clarity of my voice! Oh, and, by the way, as a bird I have no concept of God or metaphysics, but I do believe in strict gender roles and the principles of Aufklärung!” Richard Dawkins sets off into the world.

As he shambles down his street a few small birds burst from a shrub, scattering at his approach. The famous scientist suddenly breaks from his mutterings and watches them carefully. “Horses!” he says, finally. “Flying horses. Nonsense. Balderdash. Not now. Not yet. One day. Tiny flying horses, tiny flying horses, millions of tiny flying horses. One day. One day.” Later, an upended bin gives the bestselling biologist some cause for reflection. Foxes have tipped it over, sprawling its contents over the pavement. “Hitler’s brain!” Dawkins exclaims. “Save Hitler’s brain, study Hitler’s brain, gain Hitler knowledge. Hitler science. Science Hitler. Hitler Hitler.” Soon he is heading down from his wealthy suburb into the medieval heart of Oxford, towards the University, seat of learning and discovery for over nine hundred years. A few vans making early-morning deliveries trundle past him. He smiles and waves. “You want to see some films of a lady giving birth?” he shouts happily. “Fantastic stuff. Two million years old. Baby porn, baby.” By the time he’s on Market Street the sky has lightened and there are already a few pedestrians on the road – postgrad students with their morning coffees, undergraduates still stumbling home from the previous night. Some stare as he passes; some turn their backs. Suddenly, Richard Dawkins stops dead. He raises an accusatory finger at a horrific building standing in front of him. His face is twisted in fury. It’s not a church, though – it’s a charity shop. “WHERE DO AMPUTEES BUY THEIR SHOES?” the internationally renown secularist bellows, spitting and grimacing, tears rolling down his face. “DO AMPUTEES THROW AWAY ONE SHOE?”

His journey is almost complete. As the sun, burning with nuclear fusion’s blasphemous glory, begins to float above the crenelated urban horizon, Richard Dawkins is climbing Magdalen Tower. Finally he is at the summit, surrounded by its magnificent Gothic spires. As dawn becomes day, Richard Dawkins looks out at a gloriously mechanistic universe, and begins to laugh. “There is no God!” he shouts. “There is no God! There is no God!” As he does so, his testicles sway freely in the breeze, swinging slowly, with all the dignified solemnity of old church bells.

~

Richard Dawkins has gone insane.

It’s probably for the best. In his more lucid moments his proclamations tend towards an unselfconscious misogyny and Islamophobia – his thought bears the ugly stamp of the bigot who thinks that not believing in God lends his opinions some kind of Rational Objectivity. His links with the far right are extensive; it might not be a coincidence that his personal foundation shares a logo with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Far better for him to be endlessly wittering about Pleistocene porn and Hitler’s brain. I’d like to think I helped in some small way: I am, after all, one of the voices that reminds him daily of an inconvenient truth. But really it was inevitable; it’s inscribed in his ideology. The ‘New Atheists’ should, I think, more properly be called the New Young Hegelians; much of their bad politics comes from their refusal to accept that their ideas were thoroughly refuted by a pair of bearded weirdos over 150 years ago. This is aggravating enough, but the madness comes in when their insistence on rationality turns from an irritating ideological quirk into a full-blown psychosis. You can’t talk to these people. “I prefer tangerines to oranges,” I say. “I’ll believe that when I see the proof,” they thunder in response, glutamated granules falling from their beards like dandruff as they shake their heads in scorn. “Maybe the juridical categories of proof and evidence aren’t universally applicable?” I suggest. The whining chorus: “Got any evidence for that?” Wander too far down the path of rationalist dogma and it’ll be no surprise if you’ll end up like Richard Dawkins, sunning his genitals in a world that no longer makes any sense.

But what if it’s something more? What if Richard Dawkins’ madness isn’t the end of his story, but the start of his elevation to something entirely different?

~

Richard Dawkins is not new. Richard Dawkins has been with us for thousands of years. Xanthus of Lydia writes of the presocratic philosopher Empedocles:

Having reached the summit of Etna, he threw himself into the flames, believing that with the scourging of his body by the fire he would arise as a god. From that day he was known to the people as Μαργίτηἅγιοσ (Margithagios).

What is a margithagios? The word recurs several times in Greek writing without much in the way of elucidation. In Latin it was translated as furiosus sanctum, or the holy madman: the Roman jurist Sextus Pomponius wrote that ‘the holy madman is he who, having been a great man, places himself by his own will beyond the limit of the law and its reason. Thereafter he is the property of the gods; he is theirs to kill or take in sacrifice.’ That the gods will claim their sacrifice seems to be a given. Of the individuals later described as margithagies or furiosi sancti, few tend to meet a peaceful end. The fourteenth-century German theologian Thomas von Klöt was born to an aristocratic family but renounced his worldly wealth in the service of the Church; he was at one point considered a candidate for posthumous canonisation. However, his preaching became steadily more bizarre and began to verge on the blasphemous: he began to insist that God manifested Himself in vegetable life and forbade his followers to eat any plants or anything which fed on them (flies, worms, etc were at the time believed to emerge through spontaneous generation and were therefore considered safe to eat). He was killed with two of his disciples when he was crushed by a falling tree. Comte Xavier de Mazan, commonly considered to be an inspiration for the Marquis de Sade, took to calling himself Priapus Invictus and walking around Paris in specially designed breeches that allowed his penis to protrude through an opening surrounded by rubies and sapphires; he died in 1761 when an improperly cut diamond tore through his femoral artery. At the close of the nineteenth century, the British imperialist and industrial magnate Harry Suggle began to take an interest in Hindu cosmology and eventually proclaimed himself Īshvara, the supreme ruler of Vyāvahārika or the World Inside the Veil, to a crowd of his workers. He was killed when a rotary blade in his beet-processing factory came loose and sheared off the top of his head.

A general theory of margithagies was first devised by the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1972 work Les Hommes à l’extérieur. Lévi-Strauss connected the figure of the margithagios with the Outside Men of Amerindian society – those madmen who, unlike prophets or shamans, would live within the camp but not take part in its rites. The position of the Outside Man was an ambiguous one: at once man, god, and beast. In times of grave general danger (such as drought or war), the holy madman would be ritually sacrificed; however once the rite was carried out it was forbidden to speak of it on pain of death. Perhaps the most systematic analysis of the sacred madman, however, is in Giorgio Agamben’s 1996 Margithagios: Dissent and despotism from the classical to the modern. Agamben argues that the margithagios formed a ‘state of exception’ allowing ancient societies to allow for dissenting or contradictory opinion to be at once openly expressed and rejected as madness (and potentially cut short with the life of the holy madman). In his conclusion, Agamben explicitly identifies the margithagios with freedom of speech in liberal democracy, proclaiming that ‘in the twenty-first century, we will all be furiosi sancti.’ Notably, Deleuze and Guattari refer to the holy madman in Plateau 10 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

We refer not to prophets or seers, molar aggregates all, but the margithagios, for whom the revelation is always a becoming: becoming-God, becoming-flames, becoming-ashes. Can we say with certitude that Empedocles did not, in the end, adopt the trajectories of an Apollo? In the margithagios space becomes a field of n points, n-dimensional movements, intersected by n plan(e)s. Margithagios haecceities form lines of flight extending in every dimension, the contagion of the sacred madman is effected through these backchannels, in which deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation form a loop or sequence connected not by graduation but consistency. There is never a city, there is only a city and a volcano, never a volcano, only a volcano and a sandal, never a sandal, only a sandal and a god. Rhizome.

The theoretical margithagios is diverting, but you get the sense that Deleuze and Guattari have missed the point a little. The holy madmen existed. For a short time they transcended our world while continuing to walk within it, and then they all fell. They were sacred to something. Something took them back to itself, something greater and more powerful than we can imagine. As he babbles about tiny flying horses and people with more shoes than legs, a question is forced upon us – is Richard Dawkins about to prove the existence of God?

~

Richard Dawkins stands on the top of Magdalen Tower. The sun is rising over Oxford. The fires of Etna shine their feverish light over his naked body. He smiles.

Gestas

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do

We did it all Dismas and I we took ‘em all I’m not sorry out in the desert we’d wait for the caravans and ride on over slice ‘em across the throat real quick the poor fuckers they had no idea we were coming before we were there and then we’d ride off with their stuff all the camels everything the camels never once faltered they never looked perturbed they don’t give a shit about people frankly and if you ask me they’ve got the right idea I’m not sorry sometimes we were out in the desert for days on end drinking as little as possible thinking about eating our horses the first time I did it with Dismas I was ashamed it’s an abomination I said we’re bandits he said we’re evil in the sight of God anyway and back in Jerusalem we got some whores and I felt better and eventually I wasn’t ashamed at all it’s not like I wasn’t brought up right or nothing our mum knew right from wrong all right she’d never fail to impress the wickedness of my actions on me she could swing a rod like nobody’s business I guess that’s why I went out into the desert because if I’m so bad I might as well do it properly but also because what the fuck else was there to do I could have joined the legions and died in some fetid bog up along the Rhine by the sword of some half-naked barbarian for an emperor who’d never know my name for the fucking Romans who killed my old man or I could hang around in Jerusalem doing odd jobs and living hand to mouth fuck that I’m not sorry every time we came back we’d get completely pissed on that good wine only the Romans can afford and get some girls and I’d see my mum and she’d cry that always left me feeling weird like someone had scooped out all my guts but it’s the life I chose and this is the death I chose too even if I didn’t realise it at the time I’m not sorry

Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise

When they first hammer the nails in it’s all you can think about the pain screams at you it blocks out everything you can’t see there’s nothing except you and the pain but it fades it fades everything does until it’s just a dull ache and after a few hours you forget about your wrists and your feet because it’s every part of your body hurting now being stretched out every time you take a breath you can feel it in your stomach your legs your arms they start to ache but it’s a slow ache you’ve got time to reflect all the time in the world you can hardly speak though it hurts too much but Dismas is trying he’s trying to talk to Yeshua kook if you ask me never had any time for God myself all those priests up in the Temple eating the burnt-offerings they’ve got a pretty good racket going on next to them I’m holier than fucking Ezekiel and Yeshua’s lot I liked even less because they all had this terrifying sincerity about them like they actually believed and all that shit about no more rich men and no more poor men well that’d put me right out of business wouldn’t it if there were no more rich men to steal from I can’t see Yeshua’s face from here but I bet he’s got that look of smug serenity and I croak out even though it hurts so much save us I say if you’re the Messiah then save us why don’t you and Dismas turns to me and I see the sweat running down his face and his blood clotting in the pores of the wood and he says we deserve this Gestas we fucking deserve this we killed all those people and Yeshua ain’t done a thing wrong Dismas of all people coming up with this shit it was his idea to start with I liked the money and the leisure but I think he really enjoyed it when we robbed those people he got off on the violence and he turns to Yeshua and says I believe in you don’t forget me and Yeshua says he says he

Woman, behold thy son!

The aching is worse but I can still see not Dismas he can’t his head is bowed down I think he’s unconscious not sure  his ribcage is still rippling under his chest still breathing I feel betrayed almost but I can’t blame the guy if he really thinks Yeshua can get us into Paradise I envy him there’s people around Yeshua’s cross women disciples his little band of weirdos and outcasts wailing and sobbing soldiers too of course holding them back there’s nobody weeping for me most of the mob’s gone now I thought they were there for us but it was for Yeshua although a good heavy rock to the head would send me off nicely right now better than the alternative if you know what I mean and then down the hill from Golgotha there’s the brown smudge of Jerusalem all the smoke coming out from all the chimneys across the city the whole place is choked by its own miasma and the sounds drifting up an amorphous hubbub the squawk of chickens the cries of traders the clacking of carts everything sourceless formless it swirls around me the Temple though you can see the Temple its crenulated walls with their big cyclopean stones it rises right out of the noxious haze it seems to burn in the sunlight yellow and gold the thin black line of smoke from the burnt-offerings while in the cloud below a thousand colours swirl in the gyre you can’t see exactly where it ends but the hills rising up all around soft and green somewhere in them a little stream is winding merrily through the trees hares are dancing the air is full of the joyful buzzing of the insects everything is throbbing with the sheer vitality of it all there are no trees here no shade only dry earth and rocks scattered about and the holes in the ground where they plant the crosses the dirt is stained sienna piebald with dried blood when the wind picks up it blows all about my face I close my eyes but it still gets in my nose my mouth tastes of my own breath so dry my sweat-salt crystallises everywhere I itch all over so dry

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

The wave of darkness I saw it cross the hills sweep across the forests wipe clean across the city I’m plunged into it the sun’s changed now it’s a thin ring of light and just black in the middle fuck everything’s dark it’s like an eye the eye of God looking down and I shrivel up before its gaze yes I have done wrong yes I have sinned every evil thing I have done it and I am sorry I really am I know I cannot be forgiven cast me into Sheol let me wail in its darkness for eternity only avert Your eye I can’t face its accusation I can’t bear Your presence everyone’s terrified the soldiers too the disciples are praying because they all know that they’ve done wrong they all feel the interrogation of its eschatological gaze I can see them cower I can still see my body is a pallid purple glistening like a cadaver but from him from him from Yeshua there’s a glow faint but there’s a glow tendrils of light barely visible spiral around his head they reach out to the disciples to the Romans too even them encircling them winding around them all over Dismas caressing his face not to me though not to me I know I don’t deserve it I wonder if they can see it or if it’s only me shapes now bursting out phantasms made of light they’re

I thirst

Everything I can see everything still I don’t understand galaxies collide stars burn and fade nebulae swirl and on our little rock our tiny island in a vast empty sea our pinprick speck hanging in the middle of so much emptiness we pull ourselves up from protozoa to Praetors from eukaryotes to Yehudim apes band together and shed their fur they build cities they crucify people outside the walls Golgotha this planet the rock of the skull I don’t understand

It is finished

Torn concrete and the mangled wrecks of cars rubble in every corner no surface is even fractures everywhere fissures running across the ground the churning swirling blackness of the sky not black not black exactly the dim light of the sun up there somewhere its light diffused in the cloud so all its furrows glow with an unearthly light that cloud looking more solid more real than the ruins the broken glass the chunks of concrete the twisted steel littered about in the jagged husks of the skyscrapers a few fires still burn flashes of orange scattered across the scorched landscape the only colour nothing is alive here no birds no insects there’s only the wreckage the charred skeletal trees the bones and the ash hanging in the air twirling in the wind finally coming to rest like it’s snowing heaping on the branches of the dead trees more now a flurry of ash carpeting the craggy ground make it smooth again blanketing the burnt-out tanks the contorted cars hide their shame make everything white again make it white and blank I can see everything still I don’t understand the mud a sea of mud shells bursting overhead the sky glowing with artillery a group of men running across the mud rifles in hand they are mired in its stench a machine-gun rattles and they fall they sink into the mud and in the distance far off but visible villages and vineyards trucks rattling over the unpaved roads I can see men with arms like sticks in striped shirts clinging to barbed wire eyes blank just looking stripped of all feeling not speaking I can see a wooden ship crammed with people shitting and vomiting in cramped cages gaping sores seeping pus rocked by a tumultuous ocean I can see soldiers in red uniforms before a moaning crowd children clinging to their mothers’ saris they fire gunsmoke billows and there is silence I can see a line of people their hands bound slowly walking up the steps of a pyramid to an altar where a man cuts out their hearts with an obsidian knife I can see the riders of the steppe bursting into the city I can see helicopters clattering over thatched roofs I can see missiles streaking through the sky I can see arrows arcing over the green fields I can see Cain weeping over the body of his brother I can see everything but still I don’t understand

Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit

When I was ten years old I stole a trinket from a market stall a ring I think I didn’t know why I just saw it and took it and afterwards I walked with a strange gait like I wasn’t sure if I should be slouching with shame or striding triumphantly I had this feeling like an insect was gnawing away at me from the inside I showed the ring to Dismas and he said it wasn’t real gold and I said it looked cool anyway and I wore it on my finger just to show him and later that day near dusk when the slow-burning sun drapes a golden veil over the whole city I ran into the market-trader’s son and some of his friends and they recognised me at once and really laid into me they kicked the shit out of me I didn’t cry though even when I was spitting blood I didn’t cry because I remembered my dad didn’t cry when the Romans nailed him up for sedition I limped back home scuffed and bleeding my lip swollen one of my eyes all bloodshot none of the people on the street paid me any attention it wasn’t their business they didn’t want to get involved but when I got home my mum made an awful fuss she was wailing and raging and I told her everything the whole story and she didn’t get out her rod to strike me for stealing she wrapped her arms around me and I cried finally I cried and she said it’s OK now you are safe you are forgiven you are safe and I was I was home and I was safe and I was forgiven.

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