Blood and Dust is a trio of essays about, among other things, Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies and what it means to be, or ideally not be, a Sinhala Buddhist. This is the third and final essay in the set, all brought to you by my patrons, those paragons of virtue and taste. Part 2 was Ruinous; Battering. Fair warning, this one is probably the most depressing of the three.
Theſe Elements in Mutinie
වඳ-fear, the fear of extinction, is widespread, deep-set, and powerfully tied to the root and founding myth of Sinhala Buddhism, which moves simultaneously in both directions: Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country because-therefore Sinhala Buddhism must have the foremost place in Sri Lanka. The possibility of losing that primacy, the threat of losing status and power for the race relative to other races, is what that dreaded extinction looks like in the present day: not losing life, but soul. The fear of extinction is not truly fear of the hard stop at the end, which is after all in the distant future even in the wildest nightmares of the Sinhala supremacist, but of the long decline on the way, which is where they believe we now are. The fear of the slippery slope, the ground already uncertain underfoot.
Of course, in Sri Lanka, race as such (especially in English) is often not how we talk about what are, nevertheless, clearly race-coded issues. We talk instead about ethnicity, culture, religion, majority/minority, north/south, specific historical actors and events. These do all have specific meanings: I don’t mean to suggest that they are always reducible to euphemisms for race. However, they are frequently used in a euphemistic way when what is actually being talked about is race/racism, with the result that many seemingly sober analyses begin by impatiently dismissing race/racism as either irrelevant or insignificant, the province of fringe extremists, and promptly rendering their analyses hollow, no matter how ascetic their sobriety. We are usually told that it’s all actually about something else—class, or the “economy” if you don’t want to say the c-word. Or to put it another way, that the problem is not about race but poverty and precarity.
It would indeed be a simplistic to suggest that all seven million people who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 are racists in the narrow sense of practioners of the local extreme of racist violence. Seven million people might not have seven million distinct reasons for that vote, but there will certainly be many reasons with permutations beyond easy counting. But all those individual reasons are founded upon shared fears, and while the justifiable fear of poverty and precarity is undoubtedly present, perhaps even primary among those fears, in this country all common fears for the self-identified Sinhala polity are framed, organized, and directed by that root වඳ-fear, the fear of slippery soullessness, the fear of a barren Sinhala no-future. It’s not poverty per se: it’s Sinhala poverty against the prosperity of others.
Precarity, economic disenchantment, youth disillusionment: all these things are real social problems, but as long as these anxieties are framed by race, the energies they generate are channelled and directed by racism. Not necessarily the firebombing kind of racism (that too); not even necessarily the kind that deplore-supports (supplores? deplorts?) the firebombing (that too); but rather the kind that sees Sinhala poverty as a problem distinct from වෙන අයගෙ poverty. It is impossible to bridge this fracture without first acknowledging how deep it goes. To even speak of bridging is wildly premature while the state of affairs is deep and ingrained denial.
Much commentary insists on that denial, framed as an optimism less of the will than of the gut. There is something digestive about this optimism, something masticatory. Hope is the fiber of psephology, the reduction of politics to electioneering and the elevation of electoral results to mythic resonance. In victory it manifests as the inability or unwillingness to see naked but tactically useful hypocrisies; in defeat it manifests as imitating the action of the (wounded) lion, stiffening up the sinews, summoning up the Sinha-le. I don’t want to make—and yet so often find myself making—an argument against hope, but the problem is that so much hope is dragged out like last year’s decorations and dumped in public in the very moment of defeat. The moment of defeat is too valuable to be so soiled. There is a clarity that comes from understanding the depth and extent and texture of defeat, its structures and histories. Without that clarity, hope is shallow.
By defeat I don’t here mean electoral defeats alone, or any particular election: I mean also this long defeat of progressive politics, perhaps what Stuart Hall called “the Great Moving Right Show” about the rise of the right in the late 70s—he’s mostly speaking about the UK, but the same is true across much of the world, and certainly here as much as anywhere. This was a rise that never stopped, and which some of us have lived in all our lives, and which continues without serious challenge to date. This is also why recurring post-election discourse in recent years about a newfangled “wave of strongmen” or a “rise in populism” is ridiculous: it’s not that this isn’t happening, it’s just that it’s been ongoing for decades. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not our first strongman president. It would be more accurate to say we have never had a non-strongman (or strongwoman) president, any more than we have ever had a non-racist politics. As an occupied colony or dominion, as an independent republic, even as something that once bore a distorted resemblance to a democratic socialist welfare state, our politics has been defined by racecrafted Sinhala supremacism. That abyssal history is the truth of our defeat.
Perhaps we are also fooled into too-easy hope by stories: it is a popular narrative convention that protagonists must begin deep in defeat to end in triumph. But the sharpest part of that kind of story is not in the triumphant ending; it is more often to be found in the troubled beginning. Not the very beginning but a scene soon after, usually a moment of utter defeat, where the story shows you the depth of what is at stake.
In the 2019 TV adaptation of His Dark Materials, they made two changes to that scene as it is in the book. First, they replaced Tony Makarios with Billy Costa, which makes sense. It’s one fewer Tony to keep track of, and presumably one fewer child actor to wrangle, not to mention making the scene that much more painful because we see and relate to the Costas more in the show, which is of course the whole point. But the second change is trickier. They took the dried fish away from Billy.
Taking the fish away is the heart of the scene in the first place. In the book, the boy—who has been severed from his daemon by the villains, having had his soul cut away—is near death, and is pathetically clinging to a dried fish in its place when Lyra finds him. When she and her allies are attempting to make him comfortable, some adult thoughtlessly takes the fish away from him because he doesn’t understand its symbolic value to the boy, or to this scene. When Lyra asks where the fish is, people respond with nervous laughter, and Lyra responds:
“Don’t you dare laugh! I’ll tear your lungs out if you laugh at him! That’s all he had to cling onto, just an old dried fish, that’s all he had for a dæmon to love and be kind to! Who’s took it from him? Where’s it gone?”Lyra Belacqua, in His Dark Materials
This is one of the ways in which we know that Lyra understands instantly the true horror of the intercision of souls, well before any of the adults have processed it. It is important because it shows what happens when you lose your soul, which is that you cling to whatever you might find at hand that at least looks like a soul, something that approximates a lost soul’s shape and size and the memory of life, even if it is long dead and dessicated.
It’s important to the story that we see Lyra understand the cost of the dried fish: that it is beyond price. It is even important that someone should take it away from the boy, because that is how the story is able to demonstrate that the appropriate response to that loss is rage. The story, at least in that first book, understands the value of exploring defeat.
On the other hand, when the show removes the fish from the narrative entirely, when there is no fish, only a boy—when the text itself is playing the part of the random man who does not understand the value of a symbol—it is left to the watcher (or perhaps more accurately, the reader) to play Lyra’s part and ask, who took it from him? And of course, it does make sense that a TV adaptation in 2019 would do this. The Great Moving Right Show has done a lot of moving this quarter-century: perhaps a scriptwriter found it too obvious, too belaboured, too sentimental. Of course this is about defeat and loss, they might say, but what is even defeat and loss except the whole world as we know it? There has never been an alternative, so why dwell on a fish?
(I feel like I am arguing for the space between samudaya and nirodha here. Between cause and cure there are many questions to which the answers are beyond price: is this proximate cause or ultimate cause? Is this cause or correlation? Are there biases in the questions? Are there buried assumptions in the questions that are still there in the answers? Is the apparatus faulty? Who paid for this? This is why this essay will break with genre tradition and not end on a note of hope and exhortation. This essay is only meant to trouble.)
We—and here I mean Buddhists, including unbuddhists like myself—don’t have souls. This is not exactly what anatta means, but also, it sort of is. We are not, or at least were not supposed to be, a tripartite array of discrete components. Except we are that, now, like everybody else. For us, the horror is not intercision of souls but the grand intercession that ensouled us in the first place: the invention, between the late 19th and the mid 20th centuries, partly imperial and partly postcolonial, of the Christianized, modern, political Buddhism, which today is the standard establishment Theravada of Sinhala Buddhism, and more importantly, the selfhood that it makes out of us. The soul grafted on to us, dead on arrival: we have an old dried fish in our hands and are beating ourselves to death with it.
The ſtedfaſt Earth
In the long run, you can think of the Sinhala fear of extinction as a straightforwardly true prophecy, in one (or both) of two ways; it’s just that neither of those ways are the one that the fear itself is concerned with.
The first is the way of hope. This is the idea that the painful fiction of “race” can become extinct through people collectively, gradually learning how to disengage from it, to harmlessly discharge the energy, the mythic resonance, and the emotion that it has been imbued with for several generations. Nothing becomes extinct here except an idea that was never even ours, and which has caused only horror. The optimism of the spleen, if you will. It’s a lovely idea. I wish I believed it was possible.
The second way, which has the unfortunate quality of being real and underway, is the way of despair. It is that the greater crisis will overtake this fear of extinction and annihilate it along with much of the contested sacred land. This is the pessimism of the gallbladder. It is full of bile, you see.
These are Sri Lanka’s final decades as we know it. How do we know this? We are neck-deep in true prophecies.
The pessimism of the gallbladder teaches us that grandiose climate agreements will not be enforced or followed. Meanwhile, we are deep into the business-as-usual scenario already. Many writings on the subject still persist in the unearned optimism of the spleen and waffle about 1.5 degrees when we are already looking at much worse than that, and that is only going to accelerate. Weather, like racism, can no longer be defined as the local extreme of itself, because extreme weather is already becoming, simply, weather.
Our low-lying coasts will go under: the island whose territory was mythically sanctified by Buddha’s three-point landing, that sacred, prophesied island whose perfect unity vs. unitarity has been fought over for so long, will be unceremoniously redelimited by the sea. Almost all of us will live in moderate to severe climate hotspots in just three decades—there will probably still be Rakapaksas in politics at that time. Between the sea, the storms, the floods, the landslides, the bad air, the heat, the food shortages, and the indifference of our elites who will simply decamp when it gets messy, many Sri Lankans will become climate refugees.
All of this is in the next few decades; many of the people who will live it are already alive. By the next century, given the ongoing net global failure to act on climate change, Sri Lanka will be uninhabitable, along with much of the rest of South Asia. For this nation, there will be no twenty-second century.
For Sinhala climate refugees, the fear of racial extinction will lose some ground to true fears, but it will also become a rallying cry, a performance of the devoured past ever more frantic because of its attenuation. Sinhalaness will not, more’s the pity, simply go away by itself. This is the business-as-usual scenario of race and its story of blood: unlike climate, it doesn’t change. It is a fixed idea, still the hammer that made a nail of the world. It does not go away; it can only be relentlessly recognized and disavowed at every turn. How to do that, how to break it so it stays broken, is not an easy question. Any easy answer is a trap.
In this multiverse, there is no Dust to grace us, like Lyra, with the gift of understanding deep truths without effort; like the other readers of the alethiometer, we have before us only the possibility of doing the lifetime’s work to understand those truths on our own—and while we read and think and try to understand, to not allow ourselves to be co-opted by the grinding Magisteria of our worlds as most alethiometer-readers seem to.
“We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”John Parry, in The Amber Spyglass
When Parry, Will, and Lyra speak of the Republic of Heaven in The Amber Spyglass, they are contrasting it with the more traditional Kingdom of Heaven: the idea is, stripped to the bone, is simply that people must try and make life on Earth a heaven instead of waiting for bliss in a next life. This is a profound idea but also a greeting-card truism, or perhaps more charitably a well-worn slogan, that the point is not to interpret the world but to change it.
What becomes of this idea when we have already made of Earth a hell? Given its own premises—because for us there is still no elsewhere—it would seem at first that nothing changes and we must work toward a People’s Republic of Hell. But those premises are themselves shopworn. Heaven and Hell are not fungible: this is the error of shallow hope, the hope that does not reckon with the depth of defeat.
Like Parry’s rejection of the Kingdom of Heaven, Sinhala Buddhism’s political turn in the 1940s and 50s—during the slow process of independence from the British Empire—put away childish things such as questions of soul and spirit and salvation, nirvana banished not just to the next life but to a future life unimaginably distant from the concerns of the day, to instead build the infernal republic of their heaven where they were. In this they succeeded: the Citizenship Act, the Sinhala Only Act, the 1972 constitution with Buddhism’s primacy written down in black and white. “For us there is no elsewhere” is to this day their rallying cry: that they have only this one sanctified island.
But perhaps John Parry is not the right voice for us to hear about the Republic of Heaven. In his mouth it just turns to ashes. Let’s hear it from Lyra instead, so we can hear the better version, too.
“He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place […] we have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build …”Lyra Silvertongue, in The Amber Spyglass
Ever since the rise of the right forty years ago—which is to say, ever since the neoliberal turn, the pilot episode of the Great Moving Right Show —the rulers of the world posited a new Kingdom of Heaven of their own: endless growth, endless prosperity, an end to troublesome history, capitalocene without end. And in that same forty years, at the very same time, those same rulers went to war with that same Kingdom of Heaven and overthrew it: plundered and exhausted its resources, burned through the world. A future conjured and destroyed at once, in the same movement. The price of this necromancy—in exchange for that beautiful moment of value for the shareholders—is the transition from capitalocene to chthulucene, or, more likely, the very cthulhucene that Haraway refuses, Black Tom’s revenge. This long moment of our lives when, it seems, the mask is always coming off.
Lyra’s tactical injunction to study, think, and work hard is straightforward regurgitation of Protestant work ethic; her definition of the republican affect is composed of childishly sensible commonplaces—kind, curious, patient—but cheerful is where the British child-hero’s sheer grating Britishness becomes disturbing, evoking that old chinuppery, a stiff-upper-lippery, a calm to keep in all this carrying on, the colonizer’s smug self-soothing. For everyone else, it is a reminder that overthrowing gods and heavens is far easier than overthrowing empire and its hellspawn, race and nation. As Lyra learns, overthrowing heaven is easier than overthrowing the church, too.
Sinhala culture will never overthrow its temples in the time it has left, of course, no matter how degraded its gods have already become: the pessimism of the gallbladder teaches us that. The temples will not be overthrown by too-few hands and too-weak wills, but they will fall to smog and sea and storm anyway. This is what it means to have one crisis overtaken by another. It’s been only a few decades since the Muhudu Viharaya was excavated and restored to the beach where it now stands—and where it has spent a lot of that time being a flashpoint for Sinhala anti-Muslim racism—and soon enough to be moot, when the sea takes back what it is owed.
I don’t argue against hope and cheer out of a love of misery; I argue against them because they manifest too soon in their shallowest form, as denial. Even this could seem harmless but for the things that are lost to drowning in those acidic shallows; grief, despair, and rage are a fragile mangrove biome, but somewhere in that swamp grows the ability to finally learn from plentiful defeat, to look for not only the roots of things but the underwater joins between those roots, the connections at once occulted and obvious, to find the everyday Sinhala/Buddhist daemon that’s been in our face the whole time, to understand how desperately we need intercision.