Ruinous; Battering [Blood and Dust: Part 2 of 3]

Blood and Dust is a trilogy of essays, or perhaps a unitary tripartite essay about, among other things, Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies and Sri Lankan mythopolitics—it is brought to you by my patrons, who are the most brilliant and most beautiful. (This sort of elaborately ridiculous essayistic exercise is actually exactly what I had in mind when I set up a Patreon in the first place.) Part 1 was last year’s Abyss & Brink. This is Part 2. As is known, the middle part of a trilogy is always the best, or the worst.

Noiſes loud and ruinous

Fantastical worlds, like alternate universes and nation-states, are generally accompanied by what is (often tiresomely) called “worldbuilding”. This is the purpose of a root and founding myth, such as “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country”. Here founding is not a dating—in Sri Lanka, in any case, the myth dates only to the middle 19th century, not the twin 5th centuries AD and BC that the myth claims for itself—but a description. This is the work that a founding myth does: it founds, from Middle French fondre, to melt and pour into a cast. It shapes. It moulds. And so in this molten place we come to race/racism, and its dark prophecies of extinction, from the Great Replacement to the Rivers of Blood to the Rising Tide. Power is expressed as the fear of losing that power; there is no castration without penis, but also no penis without castration.

In Sri Lanka, too, we have the same fear-claim, except adapted from its white supremacist origins to serve postcolonial Sinhala supremacism, most usually expressed in this context in the form of anti-Muslim racism—as Gangodawila Soma claimed in the 90s and Udaya Gammanpila claimed last year, the prophecy of the Sinhala supremacist is that the Sinhala race is going extinct.

Where do these strange fears come from? How did that adaptation happen?

In the case of Sinhala Buddhism and its association with land, however, it was not God (or a god) who established the island for the Sinhala people in the beginning, but rather the Buddha […] according to the Mahavamsa and its story of the island’s primordial charter, in his three visits to the island, during which he cleared the land of inimical forces and meditated as he went along, the Buddha sanctified the island, one aspect of which was his proclaiming that its human inhabitants—commonly assumed by the Sinhala people to be the Sinhala people—would be responsible for its preservation.

Tessa Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Sri Lanka

The Mahavamsa is important to Sri Lanka’s root and founding myth, but not as a source. The Mahavamsa is itself produced as an object of racist thinking, being “discovered” and translated into English by the British during the occupation in the early 19th century, only after which it was first translated into Sinhala in the 1870s. The Mahavamsa becomes the Mahavamsa in the same span of time that it takes for the British imperial census-takers to invent and harden racial categories.

It seems that at least until 1824 Sinhalese and Tamils were perceived not as clear-cut ethnic groups, but first and foremost as members of a number of caste groups of various sizes […] In 1835 a detailed statement of the total population had been prepared from headmen returns and registers of births and deaths. The population was grouped under the following headings: whites (9,121), free blacks (1,194,482), slaves (27,397) and aliens and resident strangers (10,825). The categories were no longer castes, but they expressed more clearly the feeling of exclusion-inclusion that permeated colonial situations. The British were whites. The ‘others’ were their antithesis—blacks, an all-encompassing term. In the 1871 and 1881 censuses the term ‘race’ appeared for the first time along with the category of nationality. In 1871 there were seventy-eight nationalities and twenty-four races.

Nira Wickremasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age

By the 1880s and 1890s, this new-old Mahavamsa was being routinely cited in letters to a wave of new Buddhist periodicals, a confused (but not confusing) hotbed of nationalist, anticolonial, and racist sentiment. This type of rhetoric does not significantly evolve, any more than anything changed in the quarter-century between Gangodawila Soma and Udaya Gammanpila. What Dharmapala said a hundred years ago is what is said now. What we see in the 1890s is not even a simpler or more primitive version of the argument we see in the 1990s: it is identical.

For instance, the outspoken monk, Venerable Sobitha, reflecting a common reading of the Mahavamsa, has argued that “everyone [knows] that Sri Lanka was a Buddhist country and Buddhism has been the country’s religion for 2,500 years.” […] In his line of thinking, if devolution of powers were granted in the north—thereby legitimating the territory as non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist—the integrity of the Buddhist island would be undermined. This, for Venerable Sobitha, would be unthinkable: from his point of view, which is based on the Mahavamsa, the Buddha himself claimed the entire island, including the north, as the Buddhist promised land. The 1997 remark of the Venerable Sobitha had been foreshadowed for over at least one hundred years; a Buddhist layman, writing in 1893, referred to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, as the “sacred Island” as he described the island as the “centre” for Theravadin Buddhists.

Tessa Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Sri Lanka

If you’re wondering, yes, that is the same Maduluwawe Sobitha from the battle for the Republic of Heaven in the previous instalment of this essay, the same man who now gets an annual memorial lecture. He has ascended into myth now, a lifetime of racist activism obscured so that he can reappear as a newborn elder of liberal democracy. Of course, this is political mythmaking: it is (presumably) understood by most (or at least some? I prefer to imagine manipulation rather than mere gullibility) that these are lies, but pragmatic lies, tactical obfuscations that serve a partisan and purportedly antifascist purpose. But at the same time, it is also the kind of myth that becomes hyperreal, becomes factish, becomes a source of distorted thinking.

Racecraft—a deeply useful word I keep borrowing from Karen and Barbara Fields—is that which creates race as a credible reality in social consciousness. The only purpose of race as a category is racism: to discriminate based on ancestry, to create double standards. In what is generally referred to as British divide-and-rule policy in occupied Ceylon, race was the fundamental unit of politics. This is why the history of the censuses matter. Independence didn’t change this: race determined representation in the Legislative Councils then as much as it determines party politics and electoral blocs today.

More importantly, independence didn’t change the colonial relation that racial hierarchy had imposed. The imperial project to redefine the entire world on racial lines largely succeeded—the whites, the free blacks, the slaves, and the aliens, in the typology of the 1830s, a basic relational structure that has remained intact through all the fine-tuning and euphemistic renaming it has undergone since—and the formal end of empire did not undo it. Rather, what independence and the 20th century accomplished was that the Sinhalese self-determined themselves as the inheritors of the role of whiteness: a movement commonplace across the Commonwealth. Sinhalaness, defined into being by racecraft census as the demographic “majority” in the context of a generations-old politics of representation-by-race, could then be weaponized by the universal franchise in 1931 and strengthened by the Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1948 to divide and disenfranchise the largest “minority”. The Mahavamsa ideology of the island as a sacred Sinhala Buddhist country smoothly becomes the ideology of tactical electioneering (as witnessed most recently in November 2019). Sinhalaness claimed that white space, becoming the new unmarked default, the inheritor-owners, and therefore by definition being set against the still-marked exceptions. The relation of marked to unmarked, of owner to interloper, has no mode other than domination.

This racial relation, which could not be any older than itself, was nevertheless (and still is) projected backwards in time as the filter through which to understand all Sri Lankan history, including the precolonial, the ancient, and the mythic. The racial framing posits ancient, destined, and enduring divides that stretch into deep time, obscuring the much simpler truth that the divisions are the largely arbitrary product of racist colonial policy in the lifetimes of our great-grandmothers. Race is a predatory framing: it eats the past, including the past that predates it.

Some clarifying distinctions are probably called for. Race is not language-speakers or culture-practitioners, which are things that anybody could learn or forget. Rather, race is the framing itself: the assortment of humanity into hierarchical subgroups based on ancestry to justify the violence of present and historical domination. Race is power’s claim of inevitability. It is power’s assertion that injustice is natural and necessary.

Racism, similarly, is often (re)defined in casual usage as a subset of itself, referring exclusively to the local extreme of racist violence. So, for example, in contemporary Sri Lanka that would be assaulting minorities, firebombing mosques and churches, setting people’s houses on fire. But most racism is neither notably “extremist” nor physically violent. Racism is a much larger structure than only its local extreme, its sharp end: by the time a situation arrives at racist violence, it has already been racist for a long, long time. Even the 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom was predated by decades of Mahavamsic belligerence.

Racism at its broadest is an insistence: to always see the world through race. To be unable to see it otherwise. To constantly speak race into being, because it is a necromancy that cannot sustain itself without endless blood sacrifice. To speak “the Sinhala race” into being is to simultaneously bemoan its impending extinction, a demise possible because race is something in the blood—an ancestral biological essence of Sinhalaness, something that can be diluted or made extinct by preventing the Sinhalese from breeding. Or to return to Udaya Gammanpila’s claim, by the Sinhalese being outbred. This last link is a “fact check” contradicting Gammanpila, one of several that I’ve seen in recent weeks, that refutes his claim in exactly the wrong way. That wrongness is important, however, to the understanding of Sinhala racial thinking common to all wings of the southern polity.

The idea underlying Gammanpila’s claim, that the Sinhalese even exist as a distinct breeding population that can go up or down, is absurd and racist. But the liberal argument against it, as represented above by the fact-checking website but mirrored in all the other responses I’ve seen so far, is merely to contest the arithmetic of the race between races. Censuses and rates and ratios are cited to postpone the demographic extinction for future so distant that it is of no concern, and to argue for the relief of continued demographic supremacy in the long present. This is not a counterargument but a confirmation, which is why this entire genre of response has never had the slightest effect on the racist claim in all these decades.

By reinforcing the idea of races as biological realities, as distinctive breeding populations competing for demographic and therefore electoral supremacy, this genre of refutation merely echoes the racist position that there is in fact potentially something to fear. If it is the arithmetic that is wrong, that leaves open the possibility that future events will change that arithmetic, and agrees that if the arithmetic some day happened to confirm the claim, that Gammanpila would then be correct, instead of being merely racist either way.

The claim cannot be refuted from within the racial framing, because the racial framing exists in order to make this claim. It is the entire purpose and definition of being Sinhala that one should fear Sinhala extinction: this fear of extinction, this වඳ-බය, is the core of the identity. A more reasonable counterargument would be to point out that there is no such thing as Sinhala people; therefore the Sinhala people cannot go extinct. The “Sinhala race” is a relation, not a population: it exists only as privilege and domination. This is what it means to be a race, as invented by British racecraft, as distinct from the myriad older ideas of allegiance and fealty that might have once defined what it meant to be a Sinhala, Chola, Kaurava, Pandava, Stark or Lannister. The explicitly racist Sinha Le/Blood of the Lion movement, for example, isn’t only trying to invoke bloodshed with that image, as that article surmises: it is also invoking this mythic ancestry, the legendary descent from the lion, to evoke this core fear of extinction.

Since the fear of Sinhala extinction cannot be argued away without arguing away the category of Sinhala itself, in a way, the fear of extinction can only be ended through a kind of extinction, the undefinition of a category, the ending of an insistent way of seeing the world. So you could call it a true prophecy, one that fears fruition.

With all her battering Engines

A perfect prophecy encapsulates the (original, inner, interrupting, idyllic) Dust trilogy. By “perfect” I mean that it is not only a true prophecy, but that it is the kind of prophecy that isn’t and couldn’t be subverted. Destiny is fixed, from the perspective of Dust, which is greater than time. Dust participates directly in that fixation within time and plot. It answers questions. It directs characters. It gives gifts: Lyra is able to read an alethiometer without training and without reference books, an impossible thing except by grace.

An alethiometer—a device that when questioned by an adept answers any question truthfully—would seem to confound the very nature of plot. How is possible to have drama if the protagonist has access to perfectly accurate and reliable information at all times? So this ability is constrained in various ways. Sometimes Lyra simply does not know the right question to ask, or fails to ask a question at the right time, or actively avoids knowing the future out of exhaustion or despair. Sometimes Lyra subordinates her will to someone else—she does this with Will for a while, allowing him to decide whether to use the alethiometer or what to ask it.

The alethiometer itself is not, despite its coldly scientific name and its apparently impersonal mechanism, a neutral source of answers: it is Dust that speaks through it, as it does through other such interfaces, and Dust has an agenda. The war against God is part of that agenda, but so is the preservation of the social status quo. Dust is all about things staying as they are fixed: heterosexual, paired off by destiny, socially stratified, godless but priest-heavy. Dust is quite literally attracted to sexually adult humans, presumably because in this multiverse, bodily sexuality represents the pinnacle of all being, a state envied even by angels. It is eros, not agape, that is a cosmic force. Two teenagers make out after (accidentally) killing God and this is enough to reverse the flow of Dust across worlds. Of course, drama requires the frustration of eros, too: at the end of the interrupting trilogy, Will and Lyra must separate into their respective universes for ridiculously contrived plot reasons.

But the outer, encapsulating second trilogy has already prepared a backup romance for Lyra: Malcolm, who as a young boy saves a baby Lyra from various threats in La Belle Sauvage and then reappears as an older man in The Secret Commonwealth when she’s a young woman—after the interruption of the entire original trilogy and all its contents, including Will and the war against heaven—as a spook, a secret guardian, and perversely, one of her teachers at university and eventually, it seems, her love interest. At least, this seems to be where it is going, though one hopes the as yet unpublished third book will go somewhere less creepy with it.

(God forbid that Lyra go unattached to some kind of male guardian figure/romantic interest for any length of time in these books—well, yes, God would have forbidden it if he were not already dead, and in fact did try at one point, sorry to Father Gomez. Lyra’s longest stretch of independence from such a thing, I believe, was in her mother’s custody in The Amber Spyglass, during which Lyra was kept unconscious.)

This possible-romance is not the most encouraging development, plotwise: it is still less discouraging than the other main plot of the second trilogy, which is that Lyra is reading some popular books that insist that daemons aren’t real and Pan is mad at her because he finds this insulting.

The Secret Commonwealth is largely Lyra’s journey in (re)discovering that magic is real, the same magic that she was so familiar with as a child, after a young adulthood tainted by trashy postmodern novels that have taught her to be sceptical of magic: a journey that seems rather unnecessary, and perhaps would have been persuasive material for a book that was about somebody else altogether rather than Lyra Silvertongue, who was named by a bear, became an honorary witch, talked to ghosts, visited the land of the dead, fought harpies, and personally fulfilled a prophecy that involved the death of God, all before puberty.

Or perhaps it would have been more persuasive even if it was just set in a universe where magic was not the most everyday and commonplace reality. Daemons change shape without conserving mass and speak human languages in bodies that don’t have a human vocal apparatus: every day in every human life in this universe is filled with violations of physics and biology. Is it possible for anybody in this universe to even develop a concept of science or scepticism, never mind whatever strawman Pullman is attempting to beat here? It is a magic universe made for faith. Its philosophies and cultural controversies should not so tiresomely resemble ours. I dread that the next book will elaborate Lyra’s battle against political correctness.

The Secret Commonwealth is, therefore, about Lyra absurdly losing touch with the root and founding myth of the Dust universe, which in a magical universe is also its truth: that humans have daemons. Unsurprisingly, she finds out that the clever authors she idolizes are hypocrites and liars, and of course their scepticism is a false god. Unlike the inconsequentially grand stakes of the original trilogy, we are two-thirds of the way through the second and so far it’s an extended spat between Lyra and Pan, and some creepy hovering/grooming from Malcolm. But perhaps this also makes sense, if you think of encapsulating narratives as smug realpolitik and interrupting ones as the hypocrisy of false idealism. Or perhaps the Dust trilogies are simply cursed to have weak middle episodes.

What does it mean to deny the fundamental structures of your world so thoroughly that you question the reality of the everyday daemon in front of your face? This is what Lyra is doing in The Secret Commonwealth, and it is what we must learn to do every day in the regular, exposed Commonwealth, the gentrified husk of the former Empire. In a magical universe built on faith, Lyra is wrong to question her daemon; in an all-too-unmagical world built on violence and racecraft, we must question our demons if we are to ever be free of them. Otherwise, the racecraft that organizes our politics and analyses alike, that reinscribes and reinforces itself every day, will never stop trying to cut—with its unsubtle knives, always further up and further in—through the veil of intervening human bodies into some perfected raceworld, some sacred island where that old necromancy is real at last.


Thanks again to my patrons, who did nothing to deserve this. Part 3 is Earth, in Mutinie.