Naming is difficult for beasts and books: the worst, though, is to be given a forgettable name. A name that slides off the eye, that slips off the tongue and gets lost in the grass underfoot. The name of a work should be a signal-light from a great distance, something that catches the attention and compels the reader to chase it, because they simply have to know. So it befuddles me when books are published with what sound like placeholder titles that were only supposed to keep the cover warm while waiting for something better.
I’ve been thinking about names—the names of books, the names of stories—partly because I’ve been trying to title better, or at all, in the case of some as-yet untitled projects. I like my published story titles from this year individually, for instance, but three out of four have a bit of a repetitive pattern, all “the something”. Look, they were not written as consecutively as they were published? Anyway, this probably doesn’t even matter; I’m not even sure the repetitiveness of the titling structure is particularly noticeable to anybody else since it’s rare for uncollected short story titles by the same writer to be juxtaposed. But on the other hand, what if I wanted a bit of variety when trying to put a collection together? What about that, titling-brain? Well.
I like odd titles the best—the meander of “Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes” and the little joke in “On the Origin of Specie” remain personal favourites. Specie(s) is a cousin of speculative, incidentally; they are both about the seeing of things, the spectacle, the suspicion, the all-too-spicy haruspicy. Sometimes there is reason to agonize over titles. Last year’s “Apologia” was almost called “The Big Sorry”, after a phrase in the story, mostly because I worried that the distinction between apologia and apology wouldn’t be clear enough in casual reading (and titles are frequently encountered more casually than texts) to be striking—but I kept it, in the end, because the distinction was just too good to waste. Is it a good title, though? Hmm, no, I think probably not. Sometimes it’s like that.
What separates a good title from a forgettable one is specificity; that should really be the first axiom of titling, to try to find title-words in something particular to your work, ideally without limiting yourself to common words or phrases that will only confuse your work with every other work in the universe also using the same common words or phrases. For example, you should never title a work “Dust”, no matter how much dust is in it.
What do these three books have in common? Mostly just that I read them all recently and enjoyed them in different ways—but no, they’re here because of their godawful titles. I picked them specifically to illustrate this point because I did like the books; the strands of dislike would be harder to disentangle if I were talking about bad titles on books I didn’t like. But here, it’s easy for me to say that in each case the title is something of a disservice to the book: the books deserved to stand out more.
Miles Cameron’s Cold Iron (2018) is a well-made generic high fantasy written in a meaty, interestingly tangible style and setting. Arguably it is a kind of historical fantasy. The title is egregious, though, a cliché in not one but two contexts—war and magic, both of which unsurprisingly figure heavily in this book and its two sequels. (For me, it also evoked to its disadvantage Michael Swanwick’s 1993 novella “Cold Iron”, also a lacklustre titling especially given that in the same year the same text also appeared as the opening section of Swanwick’s iconic novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a far stronger title even though it too is a bit of an overused snowclone; still, even though the pattern is hackneyed, the phrase itself is unusual enough to be striking. The novella version ends, if I remember correctly—I did in fact read this in Asimov’s sometime in the late 90s—at the point where Stilt runs past the Time Clock. Is the comparison unfair and probably meaningless? Yes, but that’s what you get for using clichés in titles: accidental juxtapositions with everybody else who ever used the same cliché.) The sequels to Cameron’s Cold Iron also have deeply uninspiring generic titles, it turns out: Dark Forge and Bright Steel. The books were fine: I enjoyed reading them and now remember little of them, which is about what I would expect. But I almost didn’t read them at all, despite a friend’s recommendation, because the titles were such yawners, and that would have been my loss, in our time of dreary coronation.
Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons (2019) is an even more extreme case of this problem, both in that I liked this book better than Cold Iron and I groaned even louder at its title. In fact, I made a horrible low-pitched noise like this: eeeeearrrgwhyyyyyyy. This is a book that works harder at breaking the well-worn patterns of high fantasy, so why this title? Though, I suppose, it’s true that when you get down to it both of these books do heavily rely on following the career of one special young man who spends a lot of time becoming ever more special through truly excessive amounts of sword-training, which gives the whole thing a kind of anime feel. Both books do manage to refresh that tired material, mostly through setting—especially Rage—which is certainly welcome in the formulaic world of high fantasy. And it should be said, in both cases, the titular cold iron and rage of dragons actually do mean very specific things in the story, not simply what they sound like. So these titles are not actually the random fantasy cliché title generator product they sound like, which is really almost as bad, or perhaps worse. It’s no good a generic-seeming title being meaningful in secret until someone reads the book; it’s no good having the reader hindsightfully plumb the hidden depths of titles that still have the shrinkwrapping on. So here is a second axiom: a title’s work is to bring readers to the story. Revealing futher hidden depths afterwards is great, it’s just a bit pointless if that primary obligation remains unfulfilled.
The sequels to Rage are yet to be announced, as far as I know: I suppose at this point it doesn’t matter so much how they are titled, since they will be read by people like me who’ve read and enjoyed the first book enough to follow it to its conclusion. But I still find myself wishing for the introduction of a striking series title, perhaps—something to separate it from this endless, undifferentiated flight of enraged dragons that surrounds us on all sides.
Antonio Moresco’s Distant Light (2013, translation by Richard Dixon in 2016) was originally called La lucina, I think, “the little light”; I think even that would have been a much better title in English. “Distant light” just comes off so much more leadenly portentous than either the original title or the text itself seems to call for. It suggests a sort of exaggerated hand-shading-the-eyes pose, eyes affixed to a horizon—what distant light through yonder window breaks? Or perhaps it is just this word distant that has grown wearisome from overfamiliar, mandatory social distancing. Distant already means “to stand apart”, the stan being the same in both words, not to mention the same stan as in having no choice but to stan—i.e., to stand together, which will not stand, man, because we are distanced, standing apart. The title aside, the book is a beautiful thing, a small, gentle novel of decay, isolation, and death. In a bizarre twist, it has apparently been made into a film starring Antonio Moresco himself as the protagonist. The book relies so heavily on the narrator’s intimate, conversational voice that I dread to think of how a film might handle it, even/especially a film starring the author. I have not yet ventured to find out. I am tempted, I admit, but I might not. Not all things are meant to be known. Sometimes you don’t have to chase down every unidentified and possibly otherworldly signal across the valley of the shadow, as Moresco presumably does in this film, as the narrator does in the book. The author is dead—he is not dead, to be clear, only acting—and it’s safe to stay home and safe, to close your eyes, to forget that which we are not compelled to chase. You feel for that lonely little light, though.
“Even your darkness shall be treasured then, and all your pain made holy.”
Cazaril to Ista, The Curse of Chalion (2000)
This scene, I believe, is unique in all Bujold: the moment where Cazaril, the protagonist of the first Chalion novel, formally passes the torch to Ista, the protagonist of the second. This kind of transition definitely does not occur anywhere else in the Chalion novels and novellas, or to give them their proper title, the books of the World of the Five Gods, Bujold’s most expansive fantasy sequence.
Bit of a clunky name for the series, though, I’m not typing it all out every time. Let’s just agree to disagree and refer to this series as 5G.
The first two 5G books, The Curse of Chalion (2000) and The Paladin of Souls (2003), are paired in this way, in time and consequence: so close that they are practically twins. This separates them from the third book, The Hallowed Hunt (2005), a prequel set a few centuries in the past, and from all seven Penric novellas to date, beginning from Penric’s Demon (2015) through to The Orphans of Raspay (2019), which are set in the middle of that temporal gap in the original trilogy. So Penric is separated by at least a century from both tortured Ingrey, in the past, and from traumatized Cazaril and Ista yet to come.
It’s strange to read the Penric novellas soon after reading the early 5G novels. The most striking difference between Cazaril, Ista, and Ingrey on the one hand, and Penric on the other, is that Penric has no trauma. Penric is something of a cartoonish vessel of consolation: he is brilliant, beautiful, good-hearted, educated, dedicated, comes from moderate wealth, has never suffered a day in his life. The demon that possesses him is urbane and sophisticated and no trouble at all, if anything being greatly helpful in sharing her powers and knowledge. This is a jarring shift from the agonies of life and death that Cazaril underwent (or rather, will undergo) in a theologically similar situation. So the 5G books divide neatly by decade of publication: a first decade of trauma and pain and guilt, and a second one of, well, not that. It’s as if Penric’s charmed life had been paid for by the traumas that bracket him in time. Arguably this is true in some sense that lies outside the texts proper and more in the experience of the reader, or at least the reader moving in publication order. I wonder how the 5G sequence would read to someone who read the Penric novellas first: they are light fare by comparison, and perhaps without the anchoring effect of the older novels would seem even lighter. There is a late attempt to give him some depth, but even that is through the pain of being the doctor who just can’t save enough lives—still a far different order of pain.
But it’s true that there is something of that sense of consolation about every 5G protagonist. When we first see Cazaril, he has already undergone all his traumas: he has been abandoned, enslaved, tortured, but all that is in the past. We meet him, a broken man, as he begins on the path of healing. Victories come to him one after the other, small ones and then large ones. And because he is so broken, we welcome them: it feels deserved. He rises in rank and esteem, and while we can see it, he doesn’t always: his traumatized internal narrative takes much longer to catch up with the change in his fortunes than the story itself, allowing us to take comic pleasure in his unknowingness—it feels like a kind of humility, which only strengthens the feeling that he deserves better things. It helps, too, that Cazaril is blameless; all his woes stem from a moment where he was just too virtuous, thus earning a great enmity that almost destroys him. It is that near-destruction, though, that makes him a character worth reading his story through: it is only with his aristocratic privileges and delusions about himself and his society shattered that his perspective is meaningful.
“Stop saying that. We slaves. You are a lord of Chalion!”
Cazaril’s smile twisted. He said gently, “We lords, at our oars, then? We sweating, pissing, swearing, grunting gentlemen? I think not, Palli. On the galleys we were not lords or men. We were men or animals, and which proved which had no relation I ever saw to birth or blood. The greatest soul I ever met there had been a tanner, and I would kiss his feet right now with joy to learn he yet lived. We slaves, we lords, we fools, we men and women, we mortals, we toys of the gods—all the same thing, Palli. They are all the same to me now.”
The Curse of Chalion (2000)
Ingrey, the chronologically earliest protagonist, is quite similar except that he is not (at first) quite as obviously broken as Cazaril; he too shares that sense of blamelessness, the absence of an originary sin, having suffered at his father’s hands as a child, not even understanding what was happening until much later. Though deep in his past, his trauma is ever-present in the form of his deeply, painfully repressed shamanistic inner wolf, which is not technically possession by a demon in the same sense that Penric or Cazaril would understand it, and not technically possessesion by a god in the same sense that Cazaril or Ista would understand it.
Still, despite the technical differences between saints, sorcerors, and shamans in 5G, they all work the same way and perform the same function, which is to connect a character operating in the laukika world with a lokottara power that has its own agenda.
Disease as possession is a familiar metaphor. The rites of the yaktovil, the daha ata sanniya, are about this: the identification, challenge, and exorcism of the demons that cause disease. As a metaphor, though, sanniya exorcism is adaptable. Variations of it have extended beyond the realms of disease per se: it includes exorcising bullet wounds, for instance, in the vedi sanniya, and, most tellingly, in some variations it includes exorcising the other, in the blatant racist xenophobia of the demala sanniya. Sanniya exorcism is therefore ultimately about the demons of fear rather than disease. It is the fear of the bullet, the fear of the other, the fear of disease, in the face of which the rite attempts to provide consolation. Fear is an infection in its own right. Fear is the ur-infection, the plague that runs ahead of every plague, folding them all into its slipstream.
Every imagined society is built upon the coagulation and institutionalization of that fear into its own death politics, the grouping and typing theory by which it defines its selves vs. its others. The foundational relation of that politics is always that there is a superior category, sovereign and supreme, to whom death is a stranger, and then there is an inferior category, the stranger who is, and therefore deserves, death.
Ingrey of The Hallowed Hunt is suffused with pain and loss in the same way as Cazaril, but he is less obviously a good person; he is himself violent and dangerous, and only gradually comes to seem more sympathetic and deserving of being rewarded by the narrative. By the end, though, the redemption of Ingrey’s pain follows the same arc as Cazaril’s. Each of them is rewarded with power, with status, and as if that were not enough, with a romance that integrates them fully back into the laukika world. Heterosexual pairing off is a classic, if tiresome, device of signaling the return to normalcy, and 5G uses it shamelessly: everything ends in a marriage.
Well, not quite, yes—Ista of The Paladin of Souls gets an arrangement rather than a marriage, because she is royalty and the boyfriend is too junior an aristocrat; he becomes her seneschal and lover instead. Ista is not quite like the others in several ways. Her traumas are more complex, more involved. We see her first from a distance in Cazaril’s book, accused of madness; we learn later that her strange statements and behaviours are in fact not insanity but accurate observations of a haunted world. She has been trapped by her marriage into a family doomed to death and misery because of an old curse, a “miasma of ill luck and subtle bitterness” that kills her husband and is accumulating around her children, filling her with anticipatory terror for so long that when her son dies, she responds with a kind of relief. (“The waiting is over. I can stop fearing, now.”)
But perhaps worse than the curse and the deaths is the guilt. Ista was part of a secret experiment to break the curse years ago, in which her friend dy Lutez participated at first willingly—and then, under Ista’s desperation for results, unwillingly, dying in the attempt. To cover up this death, Ista lied about dy Lutez being a traitor, and so perpetuated her guilt. Ista has been not only a victim of the curse but its instrument as well; she feels guilt, similarly, about unknowingly entangling her children into the curse. She can never stop grieving, for the one dead and slandered at her own hand, for the many dead that she lost, for the loved ones who are not yet dead.
MARK: I used to be afraid of you. But I don’t think I am any more.
HEINRICH: There’s nothing to fear except God … whatever that means to you.
MARK: For me, God is a disease.
HEINRICH: That’s why through the disease we can reach God.
This exchange, from Andrzej Żuławski’s film Possession, is both more and less than it seems. At one level it is just banter: Heinrich is cock-of-the-walk playing with Mark’s hostility and antitheism to show off his own moral, spiritual, and sexual superiority. Mark and Heinrich are the erotically rivalrous husband and lover respectively to Anna, played with legendary intensity by Isabelle Adjani. Where the 5G books use romance as a reward for suffering protagonists, Possession is about a marriage not merely disintegrating, but exploding, propelling its protagonists deeper into suffering and self-destruction.
Anna and Ista have a lot in common: for one thing, they both are targets of severe gaslighting, both the regular portion that accompanies the roles of wife and mother, as well as the extra load that comes from marrying grand liars and conspirators.
ANNA: And then I read that private life is a stage, only I’m playing in many parts that are smaller than me … and yet I still play them!
Both Anna and Ista have spent some time in acquiescence to those roles. Ista (under the curse, at least) lives for years in a state of deeply repressed resignation. Anna begins the film by asking for a divorce, she’s been cheating on Mark for a year while he was away, but they do seem to have loved each other once. So Anna, too, must have spent years in resignation and loneliness.
Ista’s husband, the king, is already dead when we meet her. We only learn of his gaslighting ways in flashback—he was a manipulative aristocrat who already had a boyfriend and a generational curse, who wanted to ensure an heir before his wife found out. (She adapted to the boyfriend, but not the curse.) But the drama of the marriage and its destruction is an old ghost in Paladin of Souls, long since exorcised. In Possession, the violent death of the marriage is centre stage. Anna’s husband Mark is played bug-eyed and violently clingy by Sam Neill.
The story is set in West Berlin during the Cold War (the wall is frequently visible) where Mark is some sort of clandestine agent for hire. He is debriefed by a committee of men in dark suits—we later learn they are the authorities, since they will be accompanied by uniformed police in a clearly subordinate role—about a “subject” Mark has cultivated while being away for a long time. Perhaps on the other side of the wall? It is not specified. The subject is a powerful figure who wears pink socks, who Mark appears to have negotiated with or suborned. The committee want to hire Mark back to continue to work with this subject, but he’s come home from spy shenanigans to his marriage falling apart, so he refuses. He insists that they should hand over working with the subject to a successor. Even at the end of the film, though, they’re still trying to recruit him. There is no successor. Whatever Mark has started, they want him to finish: they appeal to him for his help with “the drowning world”. When Mark’s handler approaches him at the end, though, he too has exchanged his anonymous dark suit for a colourful outfit—a green suit, yellow shirt, and … pink socks. It seems that the powers that be are not immune to influences; perhaps the feared power of the “subject” has reached across the boundary and infected them.
Anna says she doesn’t want to leave Mark because she met someone else, though we soon learn she has—but she’s not lying, either. She has not one but two lovers, one laukika, one lokottara. Heinrich is the mundane lover, and he is not the reason Anna is asking for a divorce: he is accepting of her ways and content in his contained role. She wants a divorce because of the other lover, an otherworldly, demonic being, though this is not revealed until we have run the jagged gauntlet of Mark and Anna’s relationship, fraught, violent, and claustrophobic. They cannot coexist any more, they are always violently opposed. It is a marriage bisected by a wall, like the city; instead, they recreate versions of each other within themselves, a reproduction of the other within the self, a version that they can love. They each want to possess their other as completely as possible, no matter who needs to be broken or carved up to make that happen—themselves, their others, or the people around them that they turn into raw material for their desires.
Mark, for instance, is attracted to another woman, Helen, his son’s teacher. He sees—and therefore we see—Helen with Anna’s face, except for her eyes. She’s a gentler, softer Anna, a green-eyed Anna happy to occupy the space that the original blue-eyed Anna so violently rejects, the safe, available carer and nurturer, for Mark and for his son alike. What Mark does to Helen is the same thing he did to Anna: by unseeing her real face, he has replaced her true identity with his version of her. This remains firmly in the laukika however, though; other people do not remark on Helen and Anna’s doppelgänger status (and in fact, Helen and Anna have been well-acquainted as teacher and parent for years), so the transformation is in his perception.
Much of ordinary life may have been disrupted in the extraordinary situation of a global pandemic, but it is telling which parts persist untouched: the social and domestic violence, the racism, the superstitions, the grifts, the failures of crisis response, the ever-ratcheting upswing of state surveillance, the opportunism, the unabated stink of the discourse. This is a constant hazard for Cazaril, Ista, and the others as much as Anna: they are each in constant touch with numinous lokottara powers, they are each graced or cursed by the otherworldly, but at the same time they must navigate the petty violence and politics of mortal life, which has far more power in the world than all the gods and demons put together. In 5G, it is the god that must pass through the eye of the needle to enter and act in the mortal world. In Possession, the otherworldly power relies on the fragile body of Anna for its protection against armed intruders and worldly powers.
Cazaril says to Ista that he is a cup and she is a sword, which is something more than the mere truism that Cazaril is absolutely a bottom and Ista a top. Cazaril is trying to articulate something about possession here, the uses to which a tool may be put by its possessor. A cup is to be filled and emptied out; a sword is for killing. Because of the disparate vicissitudes of their lives, Cazaril is saying, they have each been chosen to fulfil different roles in a divine drama. Cazaril was crafted on a potter’s wheel; Ista was hammered out on a forge. His role is to die as many times as is necessary to break the curse; hers is to kill demons. They are both exorcising functions of different valence.
If Ista is a sword, she spends her first book blunted. Anna is a flail from the opening scene, spiked and always whirling, always striking around corners and past the defenses of men who are older, more violent, more cunning, more experienced, better armed, and more manipulative. Like Ista, she is a paladin, a protector of something that is itself both holy and illegitimate: a bastard god.
Anna’s madness/possession is unlike Ista’s because instead of burying it deep as she is supposed to do, Anna allows it to tear itself out of her, to become self-but-separate as distinct from other. This is the famous “subway scene”, recreated in this much gentler homage by Rosamund Pike: I’m yours, I’m yours, why does the blood never stick to your teeth?
(I like that Pike here also re-enacts Zimmerman’s death scene in brief, the slow slide down a wall on buckling knees.)
Anna’s version of this is raw like a panic attack allowed to run riot. Part of a panic attack is the fear of the panic attack itself—will this be the one that breaks my body, my heart, my mind? So it must be controlled, contained, smoothed out, ridden out. Anna does not smoothen it out; it rips uncontrolled out of her like being possessed by Pan himself, howling at the moon and clawing at the walls. She seems and is possessed, but not by anything more or less than her self, her frightening, wild, undomesticated self infecting the pale and constrained body of this woman-wife-mother doing the grocery shopping. She smashes the groceries because they are abominable, a tangled rat queen’s tail of gendered shopping and religion, motherhood and mealtimes, grim loveless tradwifery under capitalism without end.
In a grimy West Berlin subway passage, her infected body reproduces like a virus, the organic matter that bleeds from her every orifice coagulating eventually into a demon lover, a bloody, tentacled, monstrously unfinished creature. But she protects it and feeds it the meat of threatening men for over a year, until it is at long last finished, at which point it looks exactly like a green-eyed Mark, a doppelgänger husband, her mirror-other, the only version of him that she can stand to love—the version that she (mis)carried within herself.
Unlike Anna’s faux-doppelgänger in Helen, Mark’s doppelgänger is a different order of being in the world. A god, according to Anna, or a disease, infecting and influencing anybody who comes near it—the same thing after all, in the gospel according to Mark. A mirror-other, in Possession, is not othered; it is back on the safe side of the boundary, a green-eyed shard of the self. People are hurt and used up in its making. We can no longer see the bodies of the men who were fed to the demon so that it could grow into the green-eyed Mark. We never once see the true face of Helen, who Mark sees as a green-eyed Anna. Possession is full of possession but there is no exorcism in it, only endless infection, the wilful, repeated violation of the boundaries of the self in the attempt to capture and domesticate the wild other, to reproduce it in an unthreatening form, or at least with its threat reoriented to face outward.
But no matter how much it looks like this has succeeded, possession can never escape that substrate of violence, the death politics of the de-othered body. There is no self in the end, only other: only faces that must always be masked, only collateral meat to be fed to monsters. Both the blue-eyed originals die bloody and bullet-riddled. Only the green-eyed others are left, pristine and untouched, flawless while the world drowns around them.
Chalion’s curse brings a miasma of ill-luck and subtle bitterness: I would have said it reminded me of ours—Kuveni’s curse—except there is nothing about it that is subtle, and none of it was about luck. The divi-dosa, the leopard’s bane, is a curse for kings, much like the curse of Chalion; it is a curse for the guilty, for the murderers, for the oathbreakers. This is an old story, and the magic that was developed in black laboratories to break the curse, the kohomba kankariya, is itself millennia old. Of course, you could quite plausibly argue that the ritual has never worked and the curse remains active to this day. One can only hope that our guilty rulers, our murderer-kings, our oathbreaker parliaments, all someday see the harbinger leopard in their nightmares, its red tongue hanging long and gory. Long may that curse endure.
To be possessed by a curse—to have that shadow fall on you, envelop you—is a fourth kind of possession in 5G, after animal spirits, demons, and gods. In Possession, all of those types are interchangeable. But we can learn from the adaptability of the daha ata sanniya here. To be possessed is a broad category: it means to be violated by the virus, the bullet, the un-person. The integrity of the self is violated through infection, through contact, through the tainted touch. Exorcism is a rite for placing the trauma of that touch in the past; to minimize and mock the demon, the other, to reduce the fear to nothing so that consolation can take its place. Of course that consolation is racist, by design: exorcism’s curse-breaking is not possible without grouping and typing theory, without firming up the boundary between selves and others. The virus, like the bullet before it, must be made to be borne by the un-person. This is why a pandemic does not bring the people of this island together. The language of infection, even comfortable middle-class possession like Penric’s, is always framed in the language of violation. The century-old death politics of this island have constructed Sinhala supremacism as the boundary wall between death as tragedy and—on the outside of that boundary—death as tainted, infected, viral, threatening. The former is mourned in public; the latter must struggle to even be mourned in private.
As a background character in Cazaril’s novel, we see Ista living her pain long before she becomes the protagonist of her own: she is reduced to prayers that go unanswered, even in a world where gods are real. Her every true utterance is treated as evidence of madness; her husband lets her believe herself mad rather than tell her of the curse. Her family and her keepers collude to treat her as insane; therefore, she is definitionally insane. Small surprise, then, that her own book begins with her running away from them. First as runaway, then as pilgrim, and finally as saint, Ista establishes her independence along with her sanity. She never goes back; one way or the other, she never stops moving.
In her own book, The Paladin of Souls, we finally get the same experience of post-traumatic consolation for Ista as we do with Cazaril and Ingrey: it is pleasurable to see her relearn how to be in the world and how to survive in it, and eventually, how to be a power in it again. But unlike Cazaril, who ascends to laukika power through lokottara means, Ista leaves her laukika power behind to take up full-time sainthood. Having defeated her own demons, she finds her life’s work in defeating everybody else’s.
Pain must be made holy: it is not, in itself. It is possession, according to Cazaril, here speaking for his possessor, that retroactively sanctifies pain. Or rather, not even possession itself, but the holy purpose of that possession, the uses to which the infected might be put. Holiness is utility to a higher power.
In the absence of gods, this is a lesson well understood by our possessor, the state—they possess us because they can dispose of us, to paraphrase Paul Atreides, and at this time more than any other, they may dispose as they wish, to homes, to hospitals, to courts, to prisons or out of them, to quarantine camps, to locked-down streets and neighbourhood, out of our houses en masse to the supermarkets and pharmacies, and then back home again, and ultimately, to crematoria regardless of the rites of our choice.
The practical use of those infected (with the coronavirus, with the fear of the coronavirus, with the fear of the other wrongfully blamed for the coronavirus) is to serve as a mass weight of support—the people have spoken, the people who are sovereign—behind the abandonment of fiddly little weak and superfluous details like the choice of last rites, civilian oversight, antiracism, the necessity of more than a single branch of government. We are told that the people have spoken, and what they want is the raw meat of the executive stuffed into the mecha-suit of the military, firing pew pew lasers at the corona till it goes away in time for avurudu, kokis for everyone.
And many people do in fact want exactly this. Like the heart, the people will want what they want. Sometimes, often by default, that is the pew pew lasers of fascism. Sometimes that is a hollow-laugh desire for a measured response to a health crisis that shows some signs of learning from everybody else’s failures rather than painstakingly replicating them, and doesn’t visibly have “can we still get a two-thirds majority in parliament out of this situation somehow” written in crayon on a post-it stuck to the forehead of the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of &c. Sometimes—perhaps most of the time right now—it seems that what the people want is just to run away and hide, and also simultaneously to have a good time while you still can, and perhaps most of all to not have to think about it. Sometimes it is to avoid the baleful robot eye of the mecha-state at all costs: is it surprising that some people will do anything to escape possession? Perhaps these collectively explain why people now violate curfew in numbers unimaginable during wartime, why people run away from quarantine and lie about symptoms. Perhaps a consequence of the state attempting to possess so many, so thoroughly, all at once is the inevitability of a steady bleed of lesser self-exorcisms slipping through their mechanical fingers. What gets lost in the usual masturbation over discipline at about this point is that this reaction is the consequence of an excess of fear. Ruling through fear, in a culture built so strongly on fear of the other, in the time of a pandemic of fear: fear overspills; we are swimming in it.
Fear is not intrinsically bad, nor are all fears fungible. A healthy fear of the virus, coupled with accurate information about it, would save lives. This tremendous excess of fear in all directions is not that. All that well-established xenophobic cultural machinery geared to blame Chinese or Muslim people for all ills adapts easily to blaming them for the coronavirus, too. This is an exorcism of that healthy new fear of disease, replacing it with the comfortable old fear of the other, providing consolation by allowing those so exorcised to fall back on racist demonization and other familiar instruments of the death politics—to be the cup or the sword at the need of their possessor.
We are all sick, now. We are to act as if we are, in public space, whether we are or not, whether we can tell or not; we could be asymptomatic carriers, curfew-breakers, critical-speakers, always and already in violation, one of tens of thousands to be arrested, surveilled, or quarantined. Of course, we are not we, and that pre-existing condition of fragmentation, the grouping and typing theory of social organization, determines the contours of crisis response in the pandemic.
It is long-standing practice in Sri Lankan death politics, for example, for the powerful to police, deny, and violate death customs to those they victimize: from the JVP forbidding the coffins of the people they murdered from being carried higher than the knee, from the Sinhala-dominated state forbidding post-war memorial rituals for the Tamil dead in the war, to the Buddhist-dominated state forbidding burial for the Muslim dead in the pandemic. Each of these forbiddings is petty, vindictive, punitive; they are each not only acts of violence in themselves, but follow-through on existing conditions of violence. In each instance, for the powerful, their fear of the other is so total that the defeat or subjugation of the other is not enough; they must be brought lower than death. We are all sick, but always, some are sicker than others.
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