Thursday, August 23, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Four

OK, where was I? Oh, yeah: Po.

Po tells Cerebus that as Suenteus Po the First he was a reformer, and accuses the Judge of lying about him. He also mentions that "Suenteus Po the First" had taken that name in honor of a great historian from several hundred years before.

When did all this happen, by the way? Alexx thinks it was long, long, LOOOONG ago (he puts it before year zero in his timeline). But this is directly contradicted by the second life Suenteus Po tells us about in detail, the one we saw and heard echoes of during the trial. Since he was making coins and worshipping Tarim, he couldn't possibly have lived before the human Tarim who invented coins came along. I'm guessing it was just a few hundred years ago, but in any case I suspect Dave is either carelessly or deliberately playing fast and loose with the chronology (probably the latter), and you'll never be able to pin it down.

Anyway, Suenteus Po, for all the cultured sophistication and belief in "the greatest freedom for the greatest number," did build his army in exactly the brutal and ruthless way the Judge described, by his own admission. "His description of the raising and training of my army is accurate in every detail." Po objects only to the claim that he pointed them toward Iest and said "Kill!" What he really said, he claims, was "Freedom."

He uses this occasion to mock and scorn the judge, saying that "it is the nature of the judgemental to see only Death in Freedom and to see them as interchangeable." This is the reason the Judge got it wrong: "He saw me as saying 'You are free to kill and cause wide-spread destruction. Do as thou wilt.' What I was saying was 'What we have in this place is dying, atrophying, becoming corrupt. We must go elsewhere and begin anew.'"

Well, this is all very fine and high-sounding, but let's recall the raising and training of that army, which the Judge accurately described "in every detail":

Suenteus Po the First -- thank God he's not alive today -- began his military career recruiting young boys barely out of adolescence into the harshest imaginable training program twenty miles within the disputed boundaries of the Red Marches . . . directly above the extensive network of underground cities which were constructed and have been occupied by the Pigt races for several thousand years since the sudden and relatively untimely demise of the Black Tower Empire . . . about which little is document, less is suspected and almost nothing is known for sure.

Three thousand-one hundred and fifteen boys walked into the disputed area, armed only with short swords and a change of underwear -- having been instructed to forage for food, built shelters for themselves, and for four days defend the area at all costs in the name of the Sepran Empire. At the time little more than a loosely knit collection of hamlets, ports, cities and provinces, strewn across the Northwestern lands of Estarcion.

On the third day, driving nearly insane by black flies, a lack of fresh water and a shortage of food, they were set upon by a large band of Pigt soldiers, who were tied of six thousand-two hundred and twenty-nine feet -- one of the boys was an amputee -- knocking small clumps of earth off their secret underground ceiling into the secret underground soup bowls . . . by dinner-time half of the boys had been killed . . . by midnight when the Pigts retreated, there were only four hundred and eight of the original expedition.

Through the spring, and summer, and into the fall, Suenteus Po continued the process . . . each time sending exactly three thousand one hundred and fifteen boys into the wilds of the Red Marches . . . each time demanding the defend the area with their lives for four days and each time ending up with a few hundred and some-odd survivors who returned to the Sepran lands scarred, weary but alive -- and with a definite enthusiasm for bloodshed . . . until at last he had a force of four thousand six hundred and twelve dedicated and practised killers . . . four thousand six hundred and four of whom could have shaved with an abrasive wash-cloth.

Finally . . . that harvest season . . . just after the grain had been stored and the apple cider was starting to turn . . . he led the four thousand six hundred and twelve survivors out onto the salt flats north of Serrea -- formed in part by the detonation of the sodium chloride bomb by the smart punk Redwoods -- and THERE showed them -- row upon row -- gleaming in the brilliant sunshine -- three thousand one hundred and fifteen full suits of armour -- short swords, long swords, long bows, cross bows, shields, chain mail . . . and assorted dirks, daggers and helmets . . . they got the idea.

The battle raged for most of two days. Into the valleys of the surrounding hills, back onto the flats . . . great clouds of dust raised by the conflict, visible from a distance of twenty-two miles UNTIL . . . by sunset of the second day . . . with the dust beginning to settle . . . there stood two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six survivors armed and armoured from head to toe . . . . . . and one hundred and nineteen leftover sets of equipment -- the boys' enthusiasm having gotten the better of them towards the end there.

Now, does this sound to you like someone trying to preserve a Golden Age, a "Vanaheim on Earth" someone who sees a free society becoming corrupt and wants to institute it elsewhere? More to the point, with an army raised and trained in such a way, is there really a difference between pointing to Iest and saying "Freedom" and pointing to Iest and saying "Kill!"?

It is perhaps instructive just what innovation in governance made the Sepran Empire fall, in Po's eyes, from a system dedicated to "the greatest freedom for the greatest number" to a corrupt system that must be abandoned: the introduction of taxation.

Despite his high words and current austere lifestyle, I mistrust Suenteus Po when he speaks of Suenteus Po the First, and it colors everything else he says. And yet, to the extent that Dave has a viewpoint character in the book other than himself, to the extent any character might be said to be speaking for Dave himself (up until the Cerebexegesis, anyway), it seems clear that it would be Po.

I'm reminded of Jerry Rubin. When he told kids at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, "Don't trust anybody over 30" (a phrase he never claimed was original and seems to have been coined by Berkeley activist Jack Weinberg), he added "-- or under 30, for that matter." More to the point, he had had his own 30th birthday a few weeks before.

Don't trust anyone, kids. Including me.

Once upon a time, that was a major part of Dave Sim's message, so it's not that surprising that he places a seed of doubt in setting up the character who may be his mouthpiece in Flight.

Suenteus Po the First's son, Alfred, took the name Suenteus Po the Second. It is he that conquers Iest (by the simple expedient of ignoring the Upper City altogether). And it is he, it turns out, who is the founder of the religion/philosophy/political movement known as Illusionism.

Driven nearly mad by his precipitous fall from grace, realization came late to Alfred that the Great Forces which he had believed himself to Contain, he had merely Held. Further, that what he had Held was now slipping, like sand, between his fingers. He replaced his governors and his Statesmen with Conjurors and Mages. He declared that all who would follow him were to be called Illusionists. All Life was an Illusion, he said, which explained (to his satisfaction, at least), the mire of failure in which he found himself. He conferred his name on the circle of devotees which surrounded him and empowered them to do the same.

By the time of his death at the age of forty-one, fully one third of the population of the Lower City was named Suenteus Po and believed themselves to function within a single, divine consciousness. Since that day, Illusionism has alternately flourished and declined across the length and breadth of Estarcion, rising and then falling, gaining influence and prominence one day, and being subjected to persecution and purge the next.

Since the Suenteus Po who narrates this entire history at no time expresses either affection nor respect for his son, it seems clear that he is not, in fact, an Illusionist, despite Cirin's misapprehensions in that direction. He seems to be fairly dripping with disdain for Illusionism in this passage, for instance.

I skipped Cerebus' first move in the chess game, but his little visit with Bishop Posey gives Po another opportunity to call Cerebus a Reformer. Again, the word has to be seen in its simplest abstract form -- one who wants to "make a difference" by making his mark on the world, by changing things, by leaving evidence of his passing, not necessarily one who has the desire to help his fellow human beings live fuller and richer lives.

"The hardest lesson for the Reformer to learn," says Po, is that he chooses not whom he inspires, no does he choose the form and substance of that inspiration."

Of course, Dave, who wants to "reform" us all by way of persuading us that his theory of gender differences is correct, has found this to be all too true, since two of his three biggest fans are a lesbian and a self-described "hippy," as far from the kind of person he was *looking* to inspire as Bishop Posey is from, say, Bear. And it's clear that the form and substance of the inspiration the Yahoo group, the most visible and vocal group of Cerebus readers on the planet, has taken from his work is largely not what he would have wished (though there are exceptions to that).