Sunday, August 12, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Three

I'm going to go through each book in M&D one at a time, but I'm not going to restrict myself to things in that book. I may speak of something Po tells Cerebus, for instance, and then compare it to similar or contradictory bits from the other books, and when I get to Reads and Minds I'll be hearkening back to the first two books. So although I'll be using the structure of M&D itself to some extent, I will very much be discussing M&D as a whole throughout.

While most of what I have to say about Flight revolves around Po's extended chat with Cerebus over their chess game, I would be remiss in ignoring completely the last bit of evidence that Cerebus fulfills some long-ago prophecy as the "redeemer" of Iest. On page 30 of Flight, a character we'll soon learn is named Bryan spots Cerebus killing Cirinists outside and points it out to his wife, who doesn't believe him at first, until she sees Cerebus for herself.

"He's killing all the Cirinists," says Bryan. "He's been resurrected -- that's what! By Tarim! And he's come back to redeem Iest! Just like the prophecies said."

(emphasis in original)

Now, on the one hand it would be hard to find a much more explicit comparison to Christ than to claim a character had been "resurrected" and was sent back by God (whom the Iestians identify as "Tarim" to "redeem" Iest. But the redemption here isn't at all a Christian redemption. Is much more like the kind of "redemption" that the Jews of Jesus' day who believed in the messiah were generally looking for, which Jesus definitely did not provide: someone who would rout the Romans and set up a Kingdom of God with its seat in Jerusalem. To the extent that Cerebus is seen by people as a "redeemer" in Cerebus, this is what they mean. No one is looking for him to redeem their soul, to help the in the afterlife. They are all looking for redemption in the here and now, and it generally means vengeance and glory and a return to power for downtrodden people who remember or imagine better days.

Did Dave not understand the Christian concept of the redeemer? Did he understand it but, like the people of Jesus' day who had something else in mind, reject it? I don't know, but there seems to be no doubt that an explicit Cerebus/Christ analogy is being made here, but with a definition of "redeemer" that is seriously at odds with the Christian one. I think that's important, because to the extent that Cerebus ever fulfills the prophecy, it is definitely this earlier, more violent vision of redemption he embodies.

Of course, Cerebus can't defeat the hordes of Cirinists by himself. He rallies the people to his cause -- or rather the men. And those of them within the sound of his voice obey him, and are slaughtered. Then he disappears.

It takes a while, including a number of encounters with fake Pos -- including, apparently, the one he met during "Mind Games II" -- but eventually, this leads to Cerebus encountering the real Suenteus Po. Or one of them, anyway. The primary Suenteus Po, if you will, though he is neither the first of that name nor, as it turns out, the one whom Cerebus thought of immediately when we first encountered the name back in Mind Games I -- the founder of Illusionism.

This Suenteus Po has had several lives. We hear about two of his earlier ones in some detail. Despite not being the first person -- or even the first notable person in Estarcion's history -- to use the name, the first life we are told about is the person who is apparently known to Estarcion history (and the Judge) as Suenteus Po the First. A bit disconcerting that the man known as the first wasn't really the first, but it's sort of like the English Kings -- no one thinks Richard the Lion-Hearted was the first man named Richard who ever lived in England, but he's still King Richard I.

Po tells us that as Suenteus Po I he was was a "reformer." This is an important word in his vocabulary, one he uses many times in his talk with Cerebus. He says of Cerebus that he has a "reform-minded spirit." Just before Cerebus finally meets Po, he goes through a literal "out-of-body" experience (indeed, the entire encounter with Po takes place between Po and *part* of Cerebus' consciousness that has left the rest of him behind), narrated by Po, who says, almost immediately upon their meeting:

Reform is the centerpiece of the story I told you. Formation and reformation. The fragment detaching from the whole; its disposition and course. All that encompasses human experience is contained therein.

Now, the pages in question (139-146 of "Flight") do not describe anything that remotely resembles what I think comes to most people's minds when they hear the word "reform." Sim -- or at least Po -- has taken the word and deconstructed it to an abstraction that bears little, if any, relationship to its everyday meaning. In the course of those pages, in the brief recap quoted above, Cerebus is "re-formed" in some sense, first growing immensely large, then a fragment of him detaching from the rest. But is the resultant Cerebus "better" or "improved" in any way?

Po, as we shall see, would argue that reform in the ordinary sense is impossible. That while a reformer may seek to make things better, all he can possibly do is just make things different, and that he cannot even predict what kind of changes he will end up making.

For what it's worth, and against the charges of those who claim that Dave Sim became conservative when he converted to monotheism (and for that matter, to Dave Sim's own claims that he is in fact a "real" liberal), this is not only a conservative position, but in fact the heart and soul of true conservatism. Change is something to be deeply suspicious of, because it never works out the way the "reformers" intend, and some of the consequences will always be bad. Even changes that turn out to be "for the best" are really not uniformly good, but merely over time and on balance the good changes outweigh the bad ones.

It's important to keep this abstract view of "reform" in mind throughout Po's talk with Cerebus (I say "with" although it's really a monologue -- Cerebus says nothing throughout the encounter, just as he says nothing in his encounters with the Judge and with "Dave"). It's the only way it makes sense to call Cerebus a "reformer" -- he's a thug, after all, who seldom thinks of anything but his own immediate pleasure. When he said near the end of "High Society" that he thought he could "make a difference," many people thought he was suddenly evincing a desire to save the city from its financial disaster, or make it a better place, but it's clear that what he really had in mind were the daydreams of conquest we see him having during the campaign. That's the kind of "difference" he wants to make -- and only the most radical restructuring of the term can think of that in any way as a "reform."