Sunday, January 21, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Part Six

Religion comes to the forefront of the Cerebus storyline in “Church & State,” when Cerebus becomes Pope again.


Cerebus was actually the acting pontiff during part of “High Society,” I refer the reader to pp. 427-428, when Cerebus has his conversation with the two drunken Bishops, where he learns the importance of the Albatross. On p. 428, we find the following exchange:

BISHOP: You were suppose’ a find th’ albatroz

CEREBUS: Cerebus was?

BISHOP: Yes! Yes! Yes! . . . With th’ inodux exward you technic’ly became th’ Eas’ern Pon’iff

The Bishop means “Exodus Inward,” of course, the Pope and all the top church hierarchy sealing themselves up and severing connection with the outside world.

This seems to have actually happened before the election, as it is later implied that Blakely and Filgate and the rest supported Cerebus specifically because of the Exodus Inward (when it ends, they decamp). So perhaps Gatson was “technically the Eastern Pontiff” for a short while. In any case, it’s another example of how “High Society,” ostensibly about politics, is in fact supported throughout by a superstructure of religion.

In any case, after trying to escape Iest and its intrigues and being dragged back by President Weisshaupt and made Prime Minister again, Cerebus is named Pope early in "Church and State" (technically, between issues 61 and 62, but we don't actually see him in his papal robes until #64). He immediately moves from the Regency, not to the papal palace and grand cathedral on the other end of the Upper City, but to a hotel "on the east wall." It's interesting to note that he chose a location that was neither in the Upper City nor the Lower City. He spends the next 85 issues in this neither/nor position, with time out for a trip to the Upper City for the Trial and, of course, his trip to the moon. Jaka and Rick's apartment is also on the wall, and Dino's Cafe is just inside the gate on the road to the Upper City. Cerebus is seen going out that gate into the Lower City on the penultimate page of Melmoth.

Clearly, the author of "Church & State" was extremely critical of the whole notion of religion and religious belief. The true believers in the story are the suckers who give their gold to Cerebus and the "limp-wristed pucker-faced sack of suet," Bishop Posey, a thoroughly ineffectual sort who ends up later martyring himself uselessly for his belief in Cerebus. The only believers in Tarim that we see who are not taken in by Cerebus are Powers and his fellow Western Church officials, who are not exactly presented as positive role models. Although before he became Pontiff we are twice told that Cerebus is an orthodox Tarimite and raised in the Church (once by Harmony IV, once by Sophia), once he ascends to the papacy he certainly acts like he has no real belief in Tarim -- wouldn't a believer be afraid that Tarim would strike him down for his misuse of His Name?

And yet, weirdly enough, he does act and speak as if he does believe, even though his belief is shallow and he remains self-centered. He seems to think that it must be Tarim's will that he be Pope, since he is, and therefore it's perfectly all right for him to do whatever he wishes and Tarim will approve. When he goes on the roof with Boobah to be "closer to Tarim" so he can say "the perfect things that come into Most Holy's head," he seems to be serious and sincere, even though the scene reveals just how shallow and simplistic Cerebus' thoughts are, and how self-centered he really is ("Most Holy has a feeling, Boobah, that Tarim wants to talk to Most Holy tonight. You must write down whatever Tarim says, because, in his own way, he is almost as important as Most Holy.").

Notice that "he," referring to Tarim, is not capitalized here. This is written down by Boobah, not the all-caps of captions and dialogue, so the non-capitalization is in the original -- and throughout Boobah's transcript. "Most Holy," on the other hand, is capitalized. Is this a mistake on Boobah's part? The result of instructions from Cerebus? Dave's own thinking on Tarim being a "god" not God so therefore not needing capitals (despite the Church of Tarim obviously standing allegorically for the Catholic Church that does worship God)? It's hard to say, but it's an interesting note.

While it makes dramatic sense, there's never a real explanation for why the populace becomes so overwhelmingly loyal to Cerebus. If previous popes had commanded that kind of loyalty, there wouldn't have been a need for an Inquisition. It's true that his popularity is largely among the "peasants and livestock," as Weisshaupt dismisses them early on, but Lord Draser is surely not the only member of the middle and upper classes to be withdrawing money from the bank, or the bank wouldn't be in such trouble. As Cerebus' demands for money are loosely based on televangelists like Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts, it's important to note that no single Christian leader -- even the Pope during the Middle Ages -- ever really had the hearts and minds of all the faithful, or even all the faithful in any large city, like Rome, to this extent.

Speaking of Oral Roberts, it's tempting to look back on Cerebus' "Tarim will destroy the world unless you give Him all your gold!" as lampooning Roberts' famous assertion that God would "call him home" if his flock didn't come up with $8 million in two months, but it is in fact one of those life-imitating-art instances. Cerebus #65 ("Anything Done for the First Time Unleashes a Demon," where Cerebus first makes his demand for gold, was cover-dated August 1984 (it may have come out in September or even October - Dave was running behind back then and would slip several months before finishing C&S, but still, certainly some time that year). Oral Roberts made his plea on January 4, 1987, with a deadline of March 1. (He claimed to have made it by the way, reportedly raising $9.1 million by the deadline, but of course, his books weren't open to the public so we have to take his word for it.)

Despite some indications of a sincere belief in Tarim, however, Cerebus seems to have no problem whatsoever using his new-found position in the most cynical and even vicious ways. Throwing the baby is almost accidental, an impulsive act without forethought, but kicking the old man off the roof is a deliberate and calculated act.

Cerebus apparently believes the words of the sermon he preaches in #65 that launches the influx of gold into his hotel:

Many of you have been told since you were small that Tarim loves you . . . That is NOT TRUE . . . Tarim loves rich people! That is why he gives them so much money . . . Tarim loves strong people . . . That is why he gives them enough strength to beat everyone up . . . Tarim HATES poor people which is why they don't have any money . . . Tarim hates weak people which is why they are always getting beaten up by strong people.

This sermon is intended to soften the huddled masses up for the pitch for gold, but it can also be seen as Cerebus' real beliefs. It seems certain that he is not orthodox in his beliefs, even if he is technically an Orthodox Tarimite. One can certainly see how what little we know of his early life would have led him to disbelieve the things he was taught about Tarim when he was small (and let's leave aside for now the probable upbringing of the barbarian we saw in the early episodes and accept as given that Cerebus was indeed brought up an Orthodox Tarimite in a small town in a place that more resembled Canada than some Conanesque barbarian hinterland).

Although this is the opening to a pitch, I think Cerebus is also being absolutely sincere here. He really does believe that it is self-evident that Tarim loves rich people, and that is why they are rich. Tarim loves strong people, and that is why Cerebus worked hard as a youth to make himself strong, to be the beater rather than the beaten. He believes that his elevation to the papacy is a sign of Tarim's favor. Whatever he does, Tarim approves of it. Tarim, after all, made him Pope. This even his explains his disregard of what many would consider his blasphemy -- he can't commit blasphemy. He's the Pope. Whatever he says, whatever he does, it's OK; Tarim has already approved it in advance by making him Pope.

Early on, he gets a warning that this may not be exactly true, when he tries to stop the rain. But Cerebus soon forgets this and gets caught up in his "perfection."

And what does Dave think of all this? It's often hard to tell, but I think the scene where he orders Bishop Posey around, orders his mother-in-law around, orders the rain to stop (actually, with his eyes cast skyward, he is literally ordering Tarim to stop the rain) and then settles for "two out of three" is a direct message from Dave -- not so much to the reader as to Cerebus, that he is not necessarily the Anointed of God, that his position is a fluke of circumstance and not the Choice of Tarim, and that he is about to get himself into deep, deep trouble.

Dave says that at this time he was an atheist. While I don't believe that's true, I think it's clear that his beliefs were extremely nontraditional, that he didn't believe in "God" as described by any mainstream religion. Church & State is intended, first and foremost, as a full-on critique of religious belief in general and religious power in particular.

In the middle of "Church & State," Cerebus' papacy is interrupted by Necross, the magician from issue #13, inside the big stone Thrunk, who shows up in papal robes claiming to be Tarim. He claims the gold and throws Cerebus off the cliff.

This sets us up for Michele's commentary early in the second volume:

For some reason you all apparently want to be Tarim. Not a pope or a prophet or even a messiah . . . you want to be the creator of all things . . . Well you can't be can you? I mean what would you do? Create the heavens and the earth again? You don't have to . . . they're already here

Of course, an interesting subtext here is that by now everyone who says "Tarim" means pretty much the same thing we mean by "God" with a capital G -- an eternal, unchanging being so far above the level of human experience, not at all like the small-g gods of pagan mythology ("He who is eternal . . . unchanging" says Powers at the trial), yet it's quite clear that there was a human being named "Tarim" who lived sometime long ago, probably about 1400 years ago, and is somewhat, at least, analogous to Jesus Christ. It's as if Christians never, ever said "God" but referred to Him only and always as "Jesus." But as logical as Michele's statements are, they are also contradictory, because Tarim himself did indeed do what she's saying can't be done, at least in the beliefs of the Church of Tarim, and if she's not a believer, then why does she use the name "Tarim" to refer to God?

Cerebus eventually meets George, the Judge, who says he's not Tarim and tells a story about Tarim that could only be true of some infinite being that George apparently calls Tarim for convenience but is obviously not the human being of that name. Eventually, it is clear that "Tarim" as a word is less analogous to "Jesus" than it is to "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" -- it is simply God's name. Dave will use this idea to establish his position that God does not have a name, that it is indeed blasphemous to put a name on God, but that's a ways down the road.

Part of the message in Cerebus' downfall and return is the fickleness of followers, for the people who cheered Cerebus' ruthlessness (calling for him to throw another cripple) now cheer his removal and turn their worship to the big stone Thrunk. Later, when Cerebus kills Necross they will cheer him from saving them from the "false pope" and go back to believing every word he says.

(Cerebus says, "Anyone who moves before Most Holy comes back out will spend the rest of eternity sipping lava through an iron straw!" Several hours later (the next day?) Cerebus comes out with Lord Julius, who refers to the still motionless crowd as a "rhapsody in rags still-life" and points out that one fellow was balanced on the big toe of his left foot. "I'll wager you could build a mighty fine suspension bridge with his tendons about now.")

The ending of "Church & State" seems to posit an almost wholly atheistic world, one in which any God that might exist doesn't concern himself with human affairs at all. Tarim is the Void. Terim has been exploded into all the suns and planets (this idea is actually not so far from Dave's eventual ending place in his spiritual search, with YHWH as the Earth and other YHWHs out there as other planets). The universe is a lonely place. The moon is not Vanaheim, but "a dead and nearly airless hunk of rock."

Of course, Dave still exhibits a serious lack of understanding about the fundamental nature of religion, based on his limited experience (apparently primarily from televangelists). According to George, after each and every one of the many "great floods" that have occurred, "The religious leaders tell them that . . . as long as they never have fun . . . Tarim will never make it rain that hard again." I suppose "never have any fun" could be an accurate-enough-for-satire depiction of American Protestantism and perhaps even the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole, but it's hard to align it with, say Hinduism, with its Kama Sutra and Tantric sex practices. And although there's a long tradition of making fun of fundamentalist Christians that way, they would assure you that one doesn't need to engage in sinful practices like drinking and whoring in order to have "fun."

But let that go. Dave is obviously striving to tackle the Big Issues here, and doing a good enough job that he engages the reader on a far deeper level than mere entertainment, making you think about things and consider the positions Dave is outlining here. Even if you end up finding yourself at odds with his destination, following his journey is fascinating.