Abyss & Brink [Blood and Dust: Part 1 of 3]

Blood and Dust is a trilogy of essays, each one a house divided against itself. It is brought to you by my discerning and excellent patrons, by the apocalyptic gurning of the history we are cursed to squat in, and by the letter B: for bitter, baleful, and bileful.

Into this wilde Abyſs

In the weeks before 2019’s much-dreaded Sri Lankan presidential election, I read and (re)read Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies (of course, spoilers abound in this essay for all of the above, including the election) partly for light relief from the apocalyptic mood and partly to remind myself of the story before watching the new TV adaptation. The first is the original trilogy from the 90s: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The second is the still-incomplete ongoing trilogy: La Belle Sauvage, this year’s The Secret Commonwealth, and the as-yet untitled, unannounced finale. Instead of being entirely either a prequel or a sequel series, the second trilogy encapsulates the first: La Belle Sauvage is set about a decade before the original trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth about a decade after it. Or to put it another way, the first trilogy interrupts the second.

And of course, this made me think about, as everything does right now, the very election I was attempting to distract myself from, because Sri Lankan political history of this decade is also framed this way: a narrative of encapsulation, the interruption of one history by another. There was fascism, interrupted by an idyll of liberal democracy, and now, again, there is fascism; this is the story. The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe UNP administration of 2015-2019 as an interruption between the prequel and sequel fascisms of the Rajapaksa brothers. This interruption, this idyll, is temporary by design and destiny, a storm’s eye surrounded on all sides, a definitionally brief respite.

This framing is at best only partly true; what truth it can bear is based on the visible reduction in both harm and fear during the idyll, relative to the preceding decade. But this framing is also absurdly pollyannaish, not only because that idyllic administration protected its predecessor from prosecution but because various forms and degrees of harm continued to be perpetrated throughout this ඊනියා idyll. Was the violence really more constrained than before or only better targeted? Instead of attacking journalists in both north and south, the focus shifted to harassment of northern journalists alone. Did the idyllic administration not provide uninterrupted state sanction for Sinhala-Buddhist violence and harassment of minorities and dissenters? From the idyll’s failure to prevent, counteract, or successfully prosecute the perpetrators of the Digana anti-Muslim pogrom to the absurd imprisonment of the writer Shakthika Sathkumara for having the temerity to mildly critique Buddhist hypocrisies in a social media post, we see the continuous sharpening and strengthening of the tools, policies, and strategies of a Sinhala Buddhist fascist state exactly like the one it purportedly interrupted. From the ongoing military occupation of the north to the niqab/burqa ban and totalitarian surveillance fetishism after the Easter bombings, we see continuities, not interruption. To the extent that there was in fact a change, that much-celebrated, much-cited visible change we began this paragraph with, that idyll also visibly understood itself as an interruption. When the time came, it put itself away as a childish thing, undoing itself.

Any assessment that plants itself firmly on the ground of principle must acknowledge that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration was not an idealistic effort that ended in dismal failure, but a grand and shameless hypocrisy in the first instance, and a tremendously successful one. There is no better demonstration of that hypocrisy than the campaign’s original whitewashing of Maithripala Sirisena—a man who until that point was best known as a proudly self-proclaimed war criminal in his own right and a vocal defender of the execrable 18th Amendment—as a humble soft-spoken saintly rescuer of democracy against autocracy, a characterization that only held very briefly, but long enough.

But why even bring this up now? Isn’t it all long since moot? The interruption, whether it was an interruption or not, is over; is it not petty to argue about whether it was actually an idyll or not? No, because without plucking out these deep-set hypocrisies, clarity of thought is impossible. This peculiar framing of 2015 continues to distort thinking in the present day. Propaganda repeated often enough acquires a factish sheen. Now we routinely see commentary citing it seriously as fact, despite all evidence to the contrary. It is long past time for southern commentators to acknowledge that the yahapalana campaign and its associated “movements” were a cynical, self-serving, partisan myth constructed as part of an electoral strategy. And more importantly, that this myth is not dead but still alive, serving to obscure the unbroken fascistic continuities, the long collusion of our purportedly divided ruling class, and the depth to which Sinhala Buddhist supremacism is not a fringe ideology but the core of all southern politics.

The election is not the subject of these essay, of course. This is a book review only. But if you like, the reading of events is also a history that interrupts—and does not interrupt—the reading of the books. This is about rhetoric. This is about myth, and lies.

The distorting myth of idyll, of interruption, leads the unwary reader to be more and more susceptible to a world of lies about where we are and how we got here. Some of these lies are told to us. Some of these lies we tell ourselves. Sri Lanka is a mangrove swamp of such myth, of course, but if you follow the roots until they come together, what seems at first like a forest comes together into a single organism with many manifestations, a particular dark fantasy told and retold every day since our great-grandparents were young. This is the root and founding myth that goes largely unchallenged in the south, that encapsulates everything from Mahavamsa to Dharmapala to Sinhala Only to the war—how it began, how it ended—and to the recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa: that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country.

The warie fiend stood on the brink of Hell

The most memorable thing about Pullman’s Dust universe—pretty much the only thing I still remembered about the original series after twenty-odd years, before rereading it recently in preparation for the TV adapatation—is that it is part of a multiverse where sentient life is tripartite in the Christian theological sense: there is body, spirit, and soul.

This multiverse includes our own universe, where spirit and soul are both tucked away within the body, and the Dust universe where most of the story takes place, where spirit is similarly obscured by body but soul exists outside the body, in the shape of a magical talking animal called a daemon. The animal is always symbolic in some way, and its form is fluid until the body’s puberty, when original sin—which here is the self-knowledge of sexuality—fixes the shape of your animal daemon into the form it will always occupy in your adulthood.

That fixed shape in turn is a visible marker of character, which the books fully identify with social class. Working-class humans have dog daemons because dogs are seen as naturally subservient; antihero aristocrats have unique exotic animals to symbolize their nobility and specialness; more openly contemptible villains have “bad” animals like snakes and hyenas and insects and suchlike; cute children have cute furry animals.

This is of course at the level of craft a convenient and frequently lazy device of characterization, among other things, but at the same time in the world of the story it is also deeply essentialist and casteist—adults not only have souls which are fixed and unchangeable and representative of fixed moral character, but also of fixed social role in societies that are deeply hierarchical caste systems. Destiny is fixed, if not at birth, then at puberty. This is, if you like, the root and founding myth of the Dust universe.

And of course, in the fantastical Dust universe, destiny is in fact truly fixed, because this entire cosmos is predestined and perfectly, fully known, not by God (who does, fantastically, exist) so much as by an immanent cosmic Spirit greater than mere gods, which is itself sentient and omniscient. That Spirit is variously known in different universes as Dust, as Shadows, as Dark Matter. Mortals can imperfectly access this knowledge of destiny through a variety of methods: prophecy, for example, or by directly interrogating this cosmic spirit using techniques such as the I Ching or technology such as the titular golden compass, a truth-telling device of mysterious origin called an alethiometer.

The golden compass is one of three transcendental objects that the books of the original trilogy are named for: the golden compass, the subtle knife, and the amber spyglass. The first is, as just noted, for accessing omniscient knowledge of destiny. The third object, the amber spyglass, makes it possible to see otherwise invisible movements of spirit in the mundane world—this ability to see the unseen spirit appears to be one of the big ideas of the second trilogy as well, perhaps because it is a relatively minor part of the original books.

The second object, though, is set in opposition to the others. The subtle knife allows its destined bearer to cut anything—body, soul, spirit, the veil between universes, God himself. It seemed inevitable that I should read it as representing Science, from the Latin scindere, meaning to cut. It is immensely powerful and ultimately dangerous: it must eventually be broken and its works undone. Or more broadly, it could stand for Reason, rationality, logic. This is a plot that operates on faith and grace. It acknowledges the subtlety and power of the laukika, especially in the hands of the master technocrats of Cittàgazze, but remains firmly occidented toward the lokottara. Cittàgazze is, after all, long dead of its own hubris.

As all this suggests, the books are thoroughly Christian, in the anti-establishment form of a renewed Gnostic heresy. God exists, but is not the true creator but rather a powerful, villainous demiurge; the Church, as the depoped Magisterium, is a similarly oppressive ruling body. The original trilogy is a rebellion against God, in the most literal form imaginable, via the gathering of an army of allied powers—humans, bears, witches, rebel angels, Gallivespians, Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil and the UNP, Chandrika, the National Movement for a Just Society, the Purawesi Balaya, Maduluwawe Sobitha—to overthrow God through force of arms and establish good governance, a yahapalana Republic of Heaven.

This great revolution is ultimately successful, but it does not appear to have had any effect in the mundane world. By the time of The Secret Commonwealth, the Church is still the same violent, repressive force it was in the (interrupting) original trilogy. The cruel powers of the world do not appear to have noticed the death of their God.

Thanks again to my patrons, to whom no blame attaches; meanwhile, I shall nurse this migraine as if it were a black dog, and cultivate my despair and unreason.

Part 2 of this series is Ruinous; Battering.