Humorous or exotic collective nouns for animals—a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks and so on, known as terms of venery—apparently date back to a fad in 15th century memes. Venery comes from a PIE root which is probably a cousin of both வேட்டை and වැදි, all meaning to chase, to pursue: to hunt. So these various collectivities are terms of the hunt, but in their excess and general ridiculousness they are also, obviously, supposed to be funny. They are Bits, of long standing and continued memeability. From a perspective of naked utility, if you think in terms not of Bits but of Data concerned with the efficiency of the hunt, they are redundancies at best, errors at worst: a useless ornamentation of language.
Which, of course, is frequently repeated advice to the writer, usually parroted without attribution or explanation beyond the claim that it is self-evident: to kill your darlings, to murder your darlings, to avoid ornament. Specifically, the advice is to avoid superfluous ornament, but this has long since become streamlined through relentless citation into repudiating prettiness in general: down with the floral, the lyrical,the baroque. And obviously to some extent this is both perfectly reasonable—in that superfluous ornament is by definition superfluous, the extraneous has extra right there in the name, look—and useless by itself, because the trick is to be able to tell if it’s extra or not, isn’t it? If you could tell that it was unnecessary, you wouldn’t write it that way in the first place, thanks. But it’s not as simple as stripping out all the Bits and leaving only Data. For one thing, that would leave your language dead, which after all is what happens when you kill something. For another, and more complicated problem, there is the small problem that words mean things.
The meaning of a text isn’t only discrete units of data transmitting information in dots and dashes, but a vast and mutable weather system of connotation, subtext, and allusion that shifts and fluctuates as your mind moves along the sentence and reconstructs both it and the world around you. So killing darlings means changing what is being said: saying it a different way means saying something else. Another writers’ truism and a more useful one is that there are no true synonyms, if you account for the worlds they make.
But this is all besides the point, in a way: what made me want to add my own small note to this overcooked topic is that I have heard this advice cited a thousand times but rarely heard it correctly or fully attributed to its fascinating origin, which we begin by going back slightly over a hundred years to 1916:
Now you will find much pretty swordsmanship in its pages, but nothing more trenchant than the passage in which Newman assails and puts to rout the Persian host of infidels—I regret to say, for the most part Men of Science—who would persuade us that good writing, that style, is something extrinsic to the subject, a kind of ornamentation laid on to tickle the taste, a study for the dilettante, but beneath the notice of their stern and masculine minds.
Such a view, as he justly points out, belongs rather to the Oriental mind than to our civilisation: it reminds him of the way young gentlemen go to work in the East when they would engage in correspondence with the object of their affection. The enamoured one cannot write a sentence himself: he is the specialist in passion (for the moment); but thought and words are two things to him, and for words he must go to another specialist, the professional letter-writer. Thus there is a division of labour.
To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914 (1916)
So Quiller-Couch is asking us to murder our darlings so as to avoid this trap of the Oriental mind, this “extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation” which is something other than Style. But who is this Newman that he himself is citing for support? For that we have to go back another half-century t0 1852.
Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one: style is a thinking out into language. This is what I have been laying down, and this is literature; not things, not the verbal symbols of things; not on the other hand mere words; but thoughts expressed in language. Call to mind, Gentlemen, the meaning of the Greek word which expresses this special prerogative of man over the feeble intelligence of the inferior animals. It is called Logos: what does Logos mean? it stands both for reason and for speech, and it is difficult to say which it means more properly. It means both at once: why? because really they cannot be divided,—because they are in a true sense one. When we can separate light and illumination, life and motion, the convex and the concave of a curve, then will it be possible for thought to tread speech under foot, and to hope to do without it—then will it be conceivable that the vigorous and fertile intellect should renounce its own double, its instrument of expression, and the channel of its speculations and emotions.
Critics should consider this view of the subject before they lay down such canons of taste as the writer whose pages I have quoted. Such men as he is consider fine writing to be an addition from without to the matter treated of,—a sort of ornament superinduced, or a luxury indulged in, by those who have time and inclination for such vanities. They speak as if one man could do the thought, and another the style. We read in Persian travels of the way in which young gentlemen go to work in the East, when they would engage in correspondence with those who inspire them with hope or fear. They cannot write one sentence themselves; so they betake themselves to the professional letter-writer. They confide to him the object they have in view. They have a point to gain from a superior, a favour to ask, an evil to deprecate; they have to approach a man in power, or to make court to some beautiful lady. The professional man manufactures words for them, as they are wanted, as a stationer sells them paper, or a schoolmaster might cut their pens. Thought and word are, in their conception, two things, and thus there is a division of labour. The man of thought comes to the man of words; and the man of words, duly instructed in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the page of desolation. Then the nightingale of affection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow of expectation. This is what the Easterns are said to consider fine writing; and it seems pretty much the idea of the school of critics to whom I have been referring.
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852)
But who is Newman even arguing with, this “the writer whose pages I have quoted”? For that we go back almost another century, to 1766.
This is Laurence Sterne. While I delight in the long s and the little ligatures of the c and t (a useless ornament if there ever was one) let me reproduce the relevant part, as quoted by Newman, in a slightly more readable format:
There are two sorts of eloquence, the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, but convey little or no light to the understanding. This kind of writing is for the most part much affected and admired by the people of weak judgment and vicious taste; but it is a piece of affectation and formality the sacred writers are utter strangers to. It is a vain and boyish eloquence; and, as it has always been esteemed below the great geniuses of all ages, so much more so with respect to those writers who were actuated by the spirit of Infinite Wisdom, and therefore wrote with that force and majesty with which never man writ. The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the Holy Scriptures; where the excellence does not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty, which is a double character, so difficult to be united that it is seldom to be met with in compositions merely human. We see nothing in Holy Writ of affectation and superfluous ornament … Now, it is observable that the most excellent profane authors, whether Greek or Latin, lose most of their graces whenever we find them literally translated. Homer’s famed representation of Jupiter—his cried-up description of a tempest, his relation of Neptune’s shaking the earth and opening it to its centre, his description of Pallas’s horses, with numbers of other long-since admired passages, flag, and almost vanish away, in the vulgar Latin translation.
Let any one but take the pains to read the common Latin interpretations of Virgil, Theocritus, or even of Pindar, and one may venture to affirm he will be able to trace out but few remains of the graces which charmed him so much in the original. The natural conclusion from hence is, that in the classical authors, the expression, the sweetness of the numbers, occasioned by a musical placing of words, constitute a great part of their beauties; whereas, in the sacred writings, they consist more in the greatness of the things themselves than in the words and expressions. The ideas and conceptions are so great and lofty in their own nature that they necessarily appear magnificent in the most artless dress. Look but into the Bible, and we see them shine through the most simple and literal translations.
Laurence Sterne, Sermon XLII, The Sermons of Mr Yorick, Vol. III (1766)
It seems the original Orientals with their gaudy, artificial, affected prose—those dashed darlingmakers—were the writers of the Greek and Roman classics from Homer and Herodotus on down, being chastised by Sterne for not matching up to the unornamented ſublimity of the Bible. Newman then argues with Sterne, attempting to rescue the profane writers by shifting the source of iniquity to the East and its dastardly scribes and freelance copywriters, filthy practices not behooving the white writer; Quiller-Couch agrees, and suggests that Style is that which the East is not, and that the path to racial purity lies in the ruthless purging of all that is Oriental within (and without, of course, as was a habit of the culture.) And from there this advice becomes a miasma that infects and endlessly reproduces itself tommyknockeresque in the bloated carcass of literary advice culture, from Stephen King in 2000 (On Writing) to, as recently as a month ago, some scam called MasterClass dot com, where you can sign up to be told the same thing by Neil Gaiman for $180 a year.
This blog has been quiet for a little while: I was here the whole time, but writing a book. In the meantime, I’ve had a number of new short stories published, most notably “The Translator, at Low Tide” in Clarkesworld, “Redder” in Nightmare, and “The Bombardier” in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, as well as a tiny nightmare for the Tiny Nightmares anthology from Catapult Books, called “Joy, and Other Poisons.”
Creator is a flattering but ominous title. Even creative, that horrible adjective hacked free of nouns: for all its ugliness, the word was meant to flatter, and perhaps to protect. Apart from the usual ways in which such flattery is intended to mislead in the outer world—that is, to make you think your kind of work isn’t work and that you shouldn’t care about fair payment or treatment—it is also misleading in the inner world, in what it might say to you as an artist about what is expected of you. You don’t, e.g., actually spew forth raw creation from an ineffable singularity nestled in your insides to put it out in the world, though it may sometimes feel that way, and though the idea of being a creator might seem to demand a self-image in this genre. The problem with this self-image is the accompanying self-expectation that when that intestinal spigot stops working you should take a wrench to it.
What it is, I think, is more that this you is more porous than you might know, or if you know, than you tend to remember. You are a vessel, if you like, a giver of shape, a shaper of form, and what you are giving shape to, what you are shaping the form of, is an expression of the experience of being in, of, and against the world. This is a nebulously vague definition because it’s necessarily a vast universe of expression: all of life’s expression is art, imo, and almost none of it is considered art, partly for the sensible reason that if you make a word mean quite so many things it stops meaning anything at all, and partly for the ugly reason that art—or Art, rather—has always been carefully bounded by privilege and prestige.
The reason I’m flouting the sensible reason here is because I think it’s often useful to go back to first principles. At root, there is something concrete and valuable in the idea that to be a person is itself art. A person is a knot, both Gordian and Möbius, tangled and tight, of self in friction with the world; personhood cannot be unknotted from this because personhood is the knot, and self/world only different surfaces of the same plane. The world moves through the self; art is everything that expresses that movement. It can be sublime, ludicrous, ordinary, ugly, or awful, just like the world, or anything in it. It doesn’t matter, to this perspective, what kind of art it is, or whether it’s a prestigious form or not. (Well, it matters to gatekeepers of prestige, but those are the opinions that matter the least.) It doesn’t even matter, at this juncture, whether the art, the thing itself, is any good.
For a title, I’ve always preferred the plainness of writer, myself; for a long time I thought of artist and creator as alternatives undesirable in the same way, to be avoided as pomp or pretension. They are both still those things, sort of? But now, at least, the two seem to have grown apart to me. They go in different directions.
All this is because I wrote (or rather, when I wrote this essay, was still writing) a novel. Part of the excess waste product is thoughts like this. I already know it’s a load of wank, you don’t have to tell me.
The functional affordances of the writer’s self-image have material consequences, it seems, from day to fucking day. I can’t afford to think of myself as a creator because of the problem of the spigot and the wrench; it can be paralyzing. I’m not suggesting this is a universal or even shared problem with these specific words and images, necessarily. I am suggesting that any writer might find it helpful to reconsider the words they write on their own meat and bone, much the same way as we edit the words on the page. So, for instance, I’ve learned that artist doesn’t grate on me the same way now. I think creative and creator became popular partly out of that class discomfort with artist, as a defense against accusations of pretension. And that’s understandable, it’s the same reason I still prefer good old writer, for its purely descriptive plausible undeniability. People can always point at your shit and say it’s not art because it’s crap, for instance—this is a nonsense but also a commonplace. But they can’t very well say it’s not writing, is it? There are words on the page and everything.
This is why I think going back to first principles is helpful. It broadens the horizons of what we consider art; it puts art in its proper place, which is everyday life, in our artful living. Do we not all sing and dance and make jokes and tell stories? These things bring us joy because we recognize the life and the death in them. There is no higher art than a perfect joke told to a loved one at exactly the right moment. There is no higher art than their answering laughter.
There’s a little note scrawled on the calendar on my table to remind myself that the work is itself the reward. I don’t care if that’s corny: I care if it helps, which most mornings it does.
There are always layers of intention and desire going on when you sit down at your desk to write. There are many implicit questions. Do you hope to get paid for this? Do you hope that it will be read and loved? Of course you do: of course I do. But my note reminds me those are questions about what you want—and which outcomes are, ultimately, in other people’s hands—not what you’re doing. About the latter, the only question is: will you be glad to have done this work, even if the doing was all you got for it?
The answer ought to be yes, I think, for a writer of fiction, but things aren’t always so clear. It depends on the project. So it’s a good question to ask, I think. It clarifies.
But yes, for me this time, the answer is yes. I wrote that sentence first when the manuscript was around fifty thousand words: I still had half the book left to write. It’s easy for me to say yes to it now, I think. It was harder then. This is not the first book I’ve written (I wrote that one fifteen years ago and promptly put it in the bin) nor even the first draft of this book (which it seems I’ve been writing in some form or the other since 2016) but this time was different. This time I knew it would work, and it did.
This is the sentence the draft of this essay ended on, abruptly, several months ago when I was halfway into the book: it feels like a fever, hyperreal, like the book is writing itself while I try to keep it from burning through or leaking off the page.
I do feel like I’ve come very late to the game of novels (though I’ve also gathered over the years that this is a common feeling among first-time novelists.) I didn’t intentionally set out to spend most of a decade selling a hundred thousand words of short fiction (and reading probably a thousand novels) before writing a book of my own, but … well, that’s how it’s worked out. Except in the very general sense that experience is experience, I don’t think of writing short stories as practice for a novel—a notion that has long annoyed short story writers by subordinating one entire form as junior apprentice to a rather different one—but on the other hand, reading novels is, especially if one reads widely and a little wildly. So I think the long wait was well-spent.
The book I wrote (that I was still writing, at the beginning of this essay) is strange. I think you’d like it. Or I hope so. I hope I will too. Do I think of it as art? Yes, kind of, even though the whole concept is still a little cringe when it comes so close to home. Well, it’s my bloody book so it’s high art to me, of course it is, and high gramarye besides. Or perhaps I mean low magic, though I wouldn’t know whether to call it high fantasy or low. That’s a question that revolves around the idea of a secondary world, and that seems wrong on some levels (and right on others.) But this is what happens when you attempt to speak with the stones of somebody else’s typology in your mouth. Look, with any luck you can peg it on the scale of high to low yourself, some day; in the meantime I’ll call it middle fantasy, perhaps, like a middle kingdom or a middle child. A middle world, a muddle, a midden.
Art is, in the parlance of our times, inessential; we don’t need it to survive, only to live. To make art is to receive art—these are the isomorphic, symmetrical movements into and out of the vessel, i.e., that the cup is filled and the cup is emptied. Art is made, which is to say it is received, by the flow of the world through this strange elongated vessel which is the span of a life, the great human centipede of a life lived in time, mouth questing to the future, asshole aimed at the past.
To be received, art must be given; this is grace, which here does not presuppose a god or a deep pool of accumulated cosmic star points but is only the recognition that unearned privilege is as much part of the inner world as the outer. Sometimes a gift is given, and we must learn to accept it gracefully. Given such a gift, and pain for a catalyst, sometimes, and time spent huddled in the tunica intima, right up there against the rushing red flow, there may result some new expression of the world in the world—some glorious coughed-up hairball, some sublime gut-slime, a great and mighty shit that the world will struggle to flush away. But it still won’t have been created, exactly: only in dreams do we hold the hammer and stand at the forge.
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.
This essay, like all my essays, brought to you with the support of my patrons: please see https://www.patreon.com/vajra if you’d like to be one of them!
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.
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 a 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.
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 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.
I’ve written a review of two more novels shortlisted for the 2019 Clarke award, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Sue Burke’s Semiosis: I paired them because of their structural and thematic commonalities, as I probably will also with the Whiteley and the Saadawi.
Many thanks to my patrons for supporting these! Greatly appreciated, you all are why these essays can fungally exfiltrate the biodome and successfully infect the noösphere.
Still noodling over the options of how to actually use Patreon’s posting features. I plan to continue to have both public and patron-only posts: the latter will be on Patreon out of necessity, but in future I think I’ll switch to putting the public posts here and linking them from Patreon rather than the other way around. Mostly because I much prefer the very flexible and extensive WordPress formatting options to the stark and rudimentary formatting features that Patreon provides for text posts. It is not exactly friendly to the longform essayist, that place: one gets the impression it’s designed more for embedding or linking to content than actually containing it. What I like about the new WordPress interface (the controversial Gutenberg editor) is that it seems equally at home with both. The paragraph should be treated as a quasi-magical high technology from a Lost Age, to be hoarded and dreaded for its dangerous powers, not consigned to poor implementation of paragraph and line break tags.
I’ve been reading what one might call the Marriage Triptych: three unrelated books by writers who are part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, each with “marriage” in the title and each about, among other things, the Sri Lankan civil war. They are: Love Marriage (2008) by V. V. Ganeshananthan, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (2017) by S. J. Sindu, and The Story of A Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasam.
The titles are perhaps deceptively mellow, in the same way that you can’t tell just from the title of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that it’s a gothic horror. The titles’ echoes in each other seem resonant, too: the books are not very alike, but of course they are brought into the same frame by their connecting theme, in much the same way that communities—ethnicities, diasporas—are imagined and re-imagined.
Love Marriage was published a year before the war ended, and is set, I believe, during the same timeframe. The other two are more recently published, but Thousand Lies is set during the second Obama election in 2012, and the reason the titular Brief Marriage is brief is because it’s set in the holocaust at war’s end in 2009, which has shaped the decade since: the decade that ends today, the tenth Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day.
For the first half of that decade, Remembrance Day was called Victory Day. That tells you a lot about the Sri Lankan state, but what it doesn’t tell you is that the change of the name is meaningless. The apparent sensitivity of it, the sudden self-awareness: these things are cosmetic at best, and in so being, they are a mockery of the ideas of sensitivity and self-awareness. It’s much like the original post-war big lie: “zero civilian casualties”. The purpose of a lie of this nature is not to deceive, because nobody could possibly be deceived. It is to demonstrate utter contempt for the very concept of the truth, for the idea of being called to account. Victory Day became Remembrance Day to briefly whitewash the public personas of a new government and president—personas which are quite sullied again by now, of course, through every fault of their own. The name change was superficial: it did not lead to demilitarization in the North, or to reforms. In fact, today we are pointed quite in the opposite direction, towards increased militarization against a new enemy, because the Sinhala-Buddhist state cannot function without a marked enemy minority. Without this, they no longer know who they are.
Love Marriage is about Yalini, who was born during Black July and lives in North America, gradually finding out about her family. Much of that history comes to her from her dying uncle Kumaran, who was an LTTE member, and with whom Yalini’s relationship rapidly grows complicated: she loves him and his obvious love for her mother, and she loves him for his kindness to her, his willingness to share the history she has been denied, but she cannot reconcile herself with everything he has done, the people he’s killed, the ways in which he has compromised her and her family simply by coming to them to die, and bringing his daughter to marry an LTTE financier. The book treats Marriage as a kind of technology: always stylized, always formal, often figurative. Apart from the marriage of Kumaran’s daughter, which Yalini opposes, there is the mirror-marriage of Yalini’s parents, which Kumaran once opposed, and the marriages of her grandparents, in the alien worlds of the prewar past. And then this, the alchemical marriage of individual and family, of person and history:
This is an arranged marriage too, something ordained not by the stars, but by me: this meeting of girl and country.
This encounter with history doesn’t happen all by itself. Yalini only begins to learn about her family as an adult, after the tsunami, after her uncle. Partly it’s because her family keeps secrets, but it’s also that learning history—whether of your family or the world—is work. This is not only a problem for the diaspora: those of us who lived through those years in the South also have to work at encountering and uncovering our histories, of comparing versions of it, of trying to understand. This is especially true of those of us enculturated as Sinhala-Buddhist, because a century-old propaganda campaign effectively is culture and disassembling it is labourious. The absence of this work can be seen in the tightening cycles in which history repeats itself. When political memory is shorter than an electoral cycle, it gets harder and harder to argue for the relevance of historical context. And like for Yalini, the problem is as much a dearth of information in some cases as an oversupply of competing histories in others. The problem is learning how to sift through both silences and lies.
Marriage of a Thousand Lies is the book most distant from the war, I think, even though it’s inevitably shaped by it. In Boston, Lucky is a lesbian married to Kris, a gay man, in an attempt to form a superficially heteronormative brown marriage unit that keeps her conservative family happy and his visa intact (she eventually decides to divorce him, of course, but that’s not the climactic decision). Lucky is hopelessly in love with Nisha, with whom she’s been on-and-off forever, but who is now being arranged-married to a straight man, Deepak, and who is going ahead with it out of a sense of filial duty and confusion. Lucky, who is herself struggling with how she feels, does the work and makes her move: she asks Nisha to abandon her marriage-which-would-be-a-lie, and to run away with her. But of course Nisha says no. That’s how it works in this sort of book, and all too often in real life. Just because one person has done the work and figured out a truth they can live with doesn’t mean anybody else is ready to hear it.
Unlike Yalini, Lucky is not consumed with the need to learn and engage with her family history, but her grandmother is her most direct connection to the war, the family’s historian:
Hobbling out of the room on her walking stick, [Grandmother] says, “It’s always about the ones who aren’t here. Remember that.”
Grief is political. Grief is a politics. Every movement, every cause is founded upon its dead. And so the state fears grief, not because they fear that it will lead to violence but because they don’t care for grief’s accusations.
(The current wave of anti-Muslim violence, both organised and disorganised, shows how violence against minorities is, rather than a problem for the Sinhala-Buddhist state and polity, rather a cyclic process of identity-renewal. It is how that identity, both as held by large numbers of people and as encapsulated into law and practice by the state, defines its boundaries, reinforces its hegemonic position, and reiterates its own existence. Without that violence, ‘assimilation’ would more naturally flow in the other direction: the strict borders of the unmarked Sinhala-Buddhist identity would dissolve the moment they are not being enforced and reinforced.)
One of the ways in which we grieve is to dwell on things that hurt to remember: the faces and gestures of those that are lost, the ways in which they might have spoken or acted.
The wedding has probably started. Both sets of parents will give their children away. Nisha’s male cousin, stepping in for a brother, will guide Deepak to the flower-entombed altar. The priest will make a ring out of reeds and start the ceremony, his nasal chanting filling the room. When Deepak’s sister comes to guide her to the altar, Nisha will stand up, grab the chair for support.
Lucky’s not present at this wedding to see any of this: this is imagined. After she’s rejected by Nisha for the last time, Lucky goes home to make peace with, and come out to, her mother (the struggle is real!) This makes it the most hopeful book of the triptych, a book that’s thoroughly brown and queer (including in its awkward collisions with white queerness) and looking for and perhaps finding a future despite how much of a hold the past has on us. The voice of speculation here, the lie-of-the-imaginary with which she visualizes the marriage-which-is-a-lie on the way to finding and speaking her truth, mirrors a scene in Love Marriage where Yalini imagines Kumaran’s funeral in a different way than it really happened: a lie, but perhaps one that is more true than the truth. He dies in Canada, but she thinks, what if he had died in Jaffna?
Both death and marriage require fire. If we were in Jaffna, having a funeral, the sons of the dead man would gather around an ayer, a priest, a Brahmin.
Yalini goes on to imagine, in detail, maintaining the subjunctive for many pages, an entire traditional Tamil funeral for her uncle—which is, not incidentally, very similar to a traditional Sinhala funeral. (The rites in which we mark marriage and death are cousins, having drifted only a little in the few generations that we have been marked as separate peoples.) Yalini’s imagined funeral is her marriage to her own history, the coming together of woman and nation. Lucky’s imagined marriage is a funeral for her love for Nisha, a formal leavetaking of that which is gone and never coming back. Neither Yalini nor Lucky end their books with any interest in marriage for themselves.
Brief Marriage brings us as close to the war as fiction is capable of. It is set in the very heart of the war’s end. Where Thousand Lies spans years of life and Love Marriage spans generations: Brief Marriage spans a day or so. Dinesh is a young man in a camp along with many other refugees, all starving, many wounded. They are all sheltering, often futilely, from constant shelling by the military. Dinesh is also in hiding from being recruited by what the book refers to consistently as “the movement”. He and everyone else in the camp are living on the very brink of either slow or sudden death. Unexpectedly, he finds himself the object of an arranged marriage to a young woman in the same camp, Ganga. Her father, Mr. Somasundaram, simply accosts him one day.
He was an old man, he was going to die soon, and it was his duty to find someone to take care of her once he’d gone. It didn’t matter whether their horoscopes were compatible, or what day or time was most auspicious, for obviously it was impossible to follow all the customs all the time. Dinesh had some education and he was a good, responsible boy, he said looking up again, and that was all that mattered. There was an Iyer in the camp who could perform the rites, and if he said yes then the Iyer would get them married immediately.
Dinesh and Ganga marry, rites and marriage curtailed by circumstance. The narrative is similarly contained. Dinesh is a thoughtful, precise person, undone by trauma and exhaustion but otherwise clear and methodical in his thinking. The shelling has made him all too conscious of his body, its fragility, the filth that encrusts it, the air that moves through it. He sees the people in the camp around him similarly affected in various ways, including some men so deep in grief that they become unresponsive:
the men reminded him of the frogs he’d learned about long ago in school, whose spinal cords were cut by scientists to study the difference between the higher and lower brains. Unlike the frogs you saw in ponds and puddles, whose wet skin was always expanding and contracting and whose deep, satisfied voices were always rising and falling, the embodiment of organic flourishing, these mutilated frogs were completely still and silent, oblivious to all stimuli, passive even when poked or prodded. Whether they were hungry or thirsty, calm or scared, it was impossible to tell for the only movement they made was when they were pushed over, in response to which they merely righted themselves and resumed their blankness, a blankness they kept till they died.
When Ganga dies, Dinesh too retreats into himself like this, and we finally see this state from the inside, the utter extremity of grief, of sympathetic dying.
Throughout, the book treats his perspective with deep dignity, because the events of the narrative do not. As Subashini Navaratnam says in her extremely thoughtful review:
It occurs to me that there is an ethics to this kind of careful, precise writing. Someone who writes like this must value the moral in the process of creation and the responsibility that comes with it. It is not merely to “tell a story”. It is to fundamentally disturb the reader.
The book depicts just one person’s interiority in all its depth and intelligence, and with all the attendant horror of those things being abused and destroyed. Its politics is contained in the crushing gravity of that stubborn singularity. In its refusal to simplify (or complicate, depending on how you look at it) it has no access to statistics: it cannot ask these questions in the way that we are more accustomed to. It does not ask any questions at all: it merely says that this is how one person might live and love and die in a place like that. It leaves to us to try and encompass the vast expanse of what one single person truly is, and to multiply it, and to multiply it, and to imagine a hundred thousand funeral fires, to imagine who they might have come home to, made peace with, come out to.