Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Religion in Cerebus - Part Four

By the time he started "High Society," Dave Sim had a pretty good idea of what the major religious movements were that he wanted to use in his tale, how they did and didn't match up against the real religions in our real world (although he had some blind spots there because of his upbringing and ideas -- the doctrines of his analog to the medieval Roman Catholic Church is based more on the doctrines of the Protestant Fundamentalist televangelists he was watching, for instance).

More importantly, I believe that prior to this time he had already decided on religion, belief and the nature of reality as the overarching theme he would weave into his funny animal comic to raise it above the Conan parody it had started as. The power of religion would be the major theme of the rest of the series.

Cerebus had encountered priests of Tarim before (#13 and #15), and had disguised himself as a priest (#17). We had also discovered the Cirinists, who worshipped Terim, although we didn't fully understand yet that she was either a female perversion of Tarim or the truth behind the Tarimite church's perversions of Our Lady, depending on who you listened to. And we knew that Cerebus knew about Tarimism (if that's the word), although we didn't know the source of that knowledge. After all, all the way back in #1, Cerebus had said, "Though I was born to be a warrior, the ways of sorcery are not unknown to me." (Yes, he spoke of himself in the first person back in the early days.) He had been trained by the conjurer who created the energy spheres of Imesh (#9). So he could have come upon that knowledge many ways without actually being a member of the Church of Tarim.

If he *is* a member of the Church of Tarim at this point, he is not, as we will see, a particularly faithful or obedient one. And indeed, through most of "High Society" Cerebus acts as an outsider, not only to the city of Iest but to its culture, still more the northern barbarian who wanders into town than a member of the society.

Like most readers, I was surprised at the denouement at the end of "High Society."

(Do I really have to post a spoiler warning here? For the second book in a series most of my readers will have read all of, and which was published 20 years ago? Sigh. I suppose so. Consider yourself warned.)

The Church's return, and the fact that all of Cerebus' followers immediately bolted, to be "neatly tucked away . . . in His Holiness' humble silk frock," as Astoria puts it, came as a complete shock. But it shouldn't have. We were told every step of the way that in Iest, politics was essentially a subgenre of religion, its handmaiden and helpmeet.

As early as issue #27, we are told flatly that the Iestian government is beholden to the Church:

Day Three

By now, the Prime Minister would be going through the charade of convening a meeting with his cabinet, ostensibly to discuss whether or not to pay the ransom. In actuality, he would be sizing up his ministers . . . trying to find one who owed him enough favours to hide a twelve thousand crown ransom in his Ministry's quarterly statement of expenses to the Sacred Church's Government Accounting Office." ("High Society," p. 42)

The very next page refers to an excerpt from a transcript of "His Holiness' Parliament of Iest."

Eventually, of course, we even get a sketch of the history and evolution of the Iestian government through a long excerpt from "The True History of the 1413 Election," by Suenteus Po. In this, it is firmly established that it is but a branch of the Church of Tarim.

This comes in a big block of text not all that unlike the kind Dave Sim would later be known for, barely illustrated with the picture of a paper seal and some documents at the bottom. (This wasn't the first time he did this, either, but it went unnoticed at the time, partly because these blocks of text were still hand lettered, almost always white on a black background, and usually illustrated in some fashion -- still he was playing with how much he could stick in ordinary text into what was ostensibly a comic book at least as far back as issue #14 (see p. 299 of "Cerebus"). Here's part of the what I'm talking about:

Unless one understands the sequence of events, in context, which led to the election, it becomes difficult to appreciate the profound chaos the city-state of Iest lived through in those tumultuous days. The legislature had never been intended as a governing body. The Church of Tarim instituted it when it became apparent (some hundred years earlier) that a disproportionate amount of His Holiness' time was being spent adjudicating economic matters. His solution was to allow each district of the city-state, in proportion to their contribution to the economy, to send representatives to debate and form economic policy for the Mother Church. These representatives were appointed by the local churches and then elected by the local people to serve either as conservative or libertine economists in Iest. It was strictly a matter of evolution which led to Prim Minister Gatson's corrupt regime; the borrowing of millions of crowns; the inter-connected house of cards that was Iest's international trade balances; all discretely hidden from Papal authority and overview by several tons of obfuscating paperwork. ("High Society," p. 333

That's actually only about 1/3 of it, but it's enough to make my point.

I wonder how many people saw that big mass of white-on-black text and just skipped it after the first sentence or so, just as many skipped the text parts of "Reads" and even more skipped the Cerebexegesis. Anyone who did missed an essential puzzle piece necessary for understanding everything that happens in both "High Society" and in "Church & State."

So in "High Society" we have what seems on the surface to be a political parody, but underlying the entire political structure is the Church of Tarim, which hovers in the background through most of the novel, taking center stage only in a few key moments, mainly involving the Inquisition (until the final denouement).

We also learn early on that there are in fact two separate Churches of Tarim, the Eastern Orthodox and the Sepran Empire.

The Sepran Empire appeared early on, referred to in #4 as "a loosely-knit and militant empire," a description which obviously no longer applies, as we will discover that the Empire is highly organized and hierarchical. The capital is Serrea, and although there is a city called "New Sepra" there doesn't seem to have been a city called "Sepra."

In issue #28, the third chapter of "High Society," we learn from Suenteus Po's conversation with Cerebus that the Sepran Empire constitutes a second branch of the Church of Tarim, at least somewhat analogous to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches of the Middle Ages:

The Church of Tarim feels it has solid grass-roots support and a general sense of unity prevails in Iest and Serrea to all outward appearances. The rift between the two Churches is quite permanent, however, by this point. Either pontiff could quite contentedly watch his counterpart sink screaming into the midst of a domestic revolution or foreign invasion. Would delight in fact, to an almost impious degree, in not lifting a papal finger. ("High Society," p. 54)

Which brings us to another puzzle: Suenteus Po. The Suenteus Po that Cerebus meets in "Mind Games II" seems very, very different from the Suenteus Po he met in the original "Mind Games," although less than a year separates the two in original publishing time. (#20 - Sep. 1980; #28 - Jul 1981). Cerebus makes a very weak allusion to the fact that "the last time we talked, you were surprised when Cerebus told you the Cirinists had plans -- and even more surprised when he told you they were dangerous." Cerebus calls it catching him in a contradiction, but in fact it's far deeper than that. There seems very little connection between the whacked-out stoner we met in #20 and the wheels-within-wheels conspiracy-meister we meet in #28, although the latter is far more in keeping with the Po we will eventually come to know much better years down the road.

More fodder for the idea that the whole elaborate structure did not, in fact, take shape immediately, but only the broad outlines of it, during the trip/vision/breakdown, and as late as #20 (a whole year after #11) Dave was introducing a character he hadn't fully grasped the nature of, and had to reverse course and totally change him by his next appearance.

In any case, Suenteus Po details for Cerebus -- and therefore the reader -- the broad outlines of some of the conspiracies going on in Estarcion at the moment. And again, although the conspiracies are political and economic, they are rooted in religious and philosophical differences. Cirinists, Kevillists, Illusionists -- we don't know exactly what they believe, yet, but we know that they believe something different from the Church of Tarim. And those differing beliefs drive their political movements.

So the religious basis for the political turmoil in Iest in particular and Estarcion in general is established very early on, in the second and third chapters of "High Society," #27-28.

"Mind Games II" also establishes two other things: whatever his upbringing, Cerebus is not himself a believer. He could of course be lying in the following exchange, but it seems to be emblematic of his attitude in general, and also of the outlook of his creator:

CEREBUS: Cerebus has a lot of trouble trying to figure out what to believe, sometimes.

PO: What do you believe?

CEREBUS: Cerebus believes it is easier to see during the day than it is at night.

PO: And not much else besides?

CEREBUS: And not much else besides.

On the other hand, he is also considering throwing his lot with the orthodox Tarimites and even trying to influence the direction the church might take (talk about foreshadowing!):

PO: Forgive me, but I have great difficulty picture you as an orthodox Tarimite. Or a Cirinist for that matter.

CEREBUS: You said yourself that times are changing. Last year, Cerebus played Diamondback with Leopold, the famous Gambling Priest. Ten years ago, he would have been burned at the stake for carrying a deck of cards. How many of Tarim's priests do you suppose have a few bottles of Borealan whiskey tucked away behind their holy books?

CEREBUS (cont): Perce is an inner circle Cirinist Priestess and also a prostitute. Exceeding the proscribed boundaries seems to have become a continent-wide phenomenon.

CEREBUS (cont): Who knows what advances would be made if Cerebus was around to assist in the decision-making; advocating his own variations on doctrine and discipline. Inside of five years, getting drunk and lying in the gutter could be sanctioned by the Church as an official means of worship.

PO: You're free to do what you want, of course, but I feel I should warn you. The flexibility you see in the Church of Tarim is a peculiarity of the Eastern Orthodoxy. So long as you never stray west of the Osiris River, you'll probably be reasonably safe.

PO (cont): You'll probably have Sepran assassins dogging your every footstep. You won't be the first Eastern Reformer to be killed by the Western Pontiff's agents. ("High Society," pp. 65-66

I thought it worth quoting at length for a couple of reasons. First, to point out just how text-heavy "Mind Games II" really is, the first place where Dave used typeset text rather than hand-lettering. It's ostensibly dialogue, and it is broken up into sections not unlike the way he'll break a long speech into several word balloons at times, but it is definitely lots and lots of text -- the above is about a page and a half.

The other reason is the way so much of what is going to follow is set up right here, slipped into this meandering and arcane dialog so that many readers, I'm sure, miss it altogether. Even on rereading, it's easy to skim through this and not realize that Cerebus is talking about "assist(ing) in the decision-making" of the Church and Po is talking about the assassination of Orthodox Church leaders by the Western Empire, and we'll be seeing both of those things in spades in the next book.

So even though "High Society" seems to be, and indeed is, about politics and corruption and how elections are won and how government works (or doesn't work) and bureaucracy and war and economics and all those other things it parodies, behind all of it the Church of Tarim looms as the dominant figure. "Church & State" seems at first like an afterthought, Dave floundering around for a few issues trying to decide what to do, bringing Cerebus back as Prime Minister but married this time, and then making him Pope almost on a whim. But in fact, "Church & State" moves inexorably closer and closer to the heart of all the issues that were exposed in "High Society," and the power of religion is first on that list.

Also posted to the Cerebus Yahoo list.