Saturday, August 25, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Five

Last time, we stopped where Po was instructing Cerebus on the lesson Bishop Posey represents for him. After that, Po goes on to describe his second life, and this is the one with the analogy to Christ's passion and the echo of the Trial we saw in "Church & State" (all quotes below are from pp. 194-196 of "Flight," and I'm quoting the entire text):

At a very early age, I evinced interest in the primitive gold-smithing tools in my father's small workshop. Ours was a small and impoverished village and there was little gold to practice on except the gold coins which served, as they do to this day, as the foundation of each family income in Iest; whether entrusted to a patriarch in the Lower City or to a matriarch in the Upper City.

There are several curious things about this passage. First, Po had introduced this section with a sort of cliffhanger at the end of his description of the lives of his earlier incarnation, Suenteus Po the First, and his son, Suenteus Po the Second: "In my subsequent incarnation, I was born to a gold miner and his wife in Rivershire Province, twenty years after Alfred's death." If there's anyone who would have access to gold, even in an impoverished village, one would think it would be a gold miner. Perhaps this was an attempt by Dave (or Po?) to make sure we thought of his father as a poor worker, and not a skilled craftsman as Po himself later became. But the two things seem to contradict each other.

Another is the whole set up of gold coins entrusted to a patriarch or matriarch as the "foundation of each family income." I never really understood the economic system of Iest, and this passage makes me wonder if Dave understood money and exchange and how investment works and such. If so, I wish he had given us more detail about the system he worked out, because in the few isolated passages like this one where he touches on it, it just doesn't seem to make any sense. Each family had gold coins to invest? For most of human history, the foundation of the income of 99% of all humanity has been labor, and an economy where almost everyone had not only some investment income but enough investments for that to be the foundation of the family income would be so radically different from anything that we've known that most of the analogies Dave consistently made between Estarcion, particularly Iest, and the modern world would just fall by the wayside. Actually, if there were that much gold that evenly distributed, gold would almost certainly cease to be of value as a unit for monetary trade and something would have had to replace it.

And finally, we touch on the time element again. I suppose it's just meant to show Po reminding us that when he lived, the patriarchs (under Suenteus Po III) ruled the Lower City while the Matriarchs (under the Great Andrena, apparently from the Trial echo Astoria in an earlier incarnation) ruled the Upper City, but the whole thing is confused by the "to this day." This is probably just meant to apply to gold coins still being the foundation of family income, but in any case seems to be wrong. If we take the whole sentence literally, he's saying that matriarchs rule the Upper City and patriarchs the lower "to this day" -- well matriarchs are currently running the Upper City, but it's a very new proposition, not a continuation from hundreds of years ago, and patriarchs certainly do not rule the Lower City. Even if you give Po the benefit of the doubt of an awkward construction and take the phrase to refer only to the coins, it's *still* wrong -- gold coins *aren't* the foundation of family income anymore. Cerebus gathered them all up and Cirin has them all.

Po continues:

One side of the coin is struck with the emblem of the local governor at the time it is issued. The other side is blank and is traditionally carved with a symbol of the family who possesses it. I grew adept at carving these symbols, each more elaborate than the last and soon families were coming from neighbouring villages to have my design added to their coins. I learned to scrape traces of gold from the coins to melt and use as inlay. I invented new tools for engraving finer lines and patterns. A devout Tarimite, I carved His Name in ancient Pigtish rune letters on each coin brought to me.

OK, we don't have the actual tenets and the equivalent of Commandments and such for the Tarimite faith, but it's pretty obviously meant to be an analog of Christianity (or, historically speaking, Judaism in this particular scene), and besides there are certain constants in pretty much every major religion that has ever existed, so I think it's safe to say that there's a disconnect here when Po professes to be a "devout Tarimite" in the next breath after describing how he stole gold from his customers. "Oh, well, it's was only trace amounts, they never noticed." So? It's wrong to steal dollars but OK to steal pennies? He's a thief. A devout Tarimite thief, but a thief nonetheless.

The sin of Pride, almost unavoidable for an Artist. Dave said in Reads that the Artist's work must be more important than "the wife and kiddies," or rather that it should be, but many would-be Artists get sidetracked by the latter. Here, he presents a Pure Artist to whom fairly fundamental morality must fall by the wayside so that he can practice his Art. He's not doing it out of Greed. He doesn't want the gold to spend. He needs it to make Art.

Healers and apothecaries began using the coins in their treatment of family ailments. Miracles were spoken of in hushed whispers and soon more people came from the larger villages and then from the City itself; nobles, lawyers and merchants. As whispers became words and words became legend, the coins seemed imbued with the belief of the people made manifest. Priests of the Eastern Church grew jealous of this faith; felt their influence and control of the population waning with each passing day in Rivershire Province and elsewhere. They took their case to Suenteus Po III, informing him that I was building a kingdom within Iest and that I had declared my family carvings as more worthy of loyalty than the governors' emblems on the obverse.

He doesn't say, exactly, that they are lying about him. He implies it, certainly. I've read that passage several times over the years and I've always assumed that he never said what they said he said, that they were slandering him (Bearing False Witness) because of their jealousy. But it doesn't actually say that. Jealous people can tell the truth, too -- Deep Throat turned out to be an FBI guy passed over for the top spot who was jealous and hurt and had an axe to grind, but everything he said about the Nixon White House turned out to be true. Just because someone's motives for going to the authorities are less than pure, just because the accuser is vindictive and spiteful, doesn't make the accusations wrong.

Did Po say these things? Was he "building a kingdom within Iest?" On the whole, I'd say probably not, but I'm struck by the wording, the very careful wording, I'd say, both on the part of Po and also on Dave's part, not to let us know for sure, either way, just as Jesus, at his trial, refused to answer his accusers.

When they came to arrest me, I knew this had all transpired before many times; as if I was an actor in a play. I remembered my life as Suenteus Po I. As they read the indictment I had a curious sensation that I was imprisoning myself.

As they led me away, there was a flurry of resistance and some blood was spilt. I told my defenders to stand back; not to make it any worse than it already was. They complied and I could see from their expressions that they, too, now felt like actors in a play.

Many of them wept openly.

More Christ analogies. The servant of the priest who lost his ear at the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus telling his followers to put away their swords.

I was brought before Suenteus Po III, a bloated caricature of his father, my son, Alfred. He was amused by my threadbare appearance, my regional dialect. The mages and charlatans who held posts in his Illusionist court were amused as well; they felt that the priests of Tarim had finally lost their minds, seeing a threat in this misshapen peasant. Their questions had a comic turn to them. I answered each question as simply and as honestly as I could. I felt I was part of the joke and that soon they would tire of me as an amusement and I would be set free; though what my fate would have been, then, I have no idea.

But, Po III was seized with the thought of enlarging the jest. He asked if I carved only coins that were minted in the Lower City. No, I said, a number of them had been brought to me by representatives of the Great Ladies of the Upper City. He asked if I felt no qualms as a good Tarimite in crafting coins with the Goddess on them. I admitted that it had troubled me, but I felt that the Word of Tarim should be given freely everywhere and paid witness to. He turned then to his senior advisors and asked what they thought Great Andrena, leader of the Council of the Goddess in the Upper City might think of my heresy. There was much levity at the very prospect.

The play had resumed its course.

Like and yet unlike. Here, Suentus Po III plays Pilate -- except that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, who then sent him back for judgment. Note that Po III seems to tacitly acknowledge that the goldsmith Po is no threat. There is no reason to do him harm. He is being sent to Andrena -- and surely Po knows what is likely to happen to him -- for amusement.

He asked if I had any further words for the illustrious body before me. I said nothing. He informed me that arrangements would be made to transfer me to the custody of the Guardians of the Upper City. With a theatrical gesture, he drew forth a small bowl of scented water and dipped his fingers lightly into it.

I wash my hands of you, he said, and I was led away.

The washing of the hands seems to be an essential part of the proceedings, at least as Dave sees it, or saw it. He made it an unmistakable part of the Trial in Church & State.

That night I was led before Great Andrena. There is no need for me to relate our conversation; the course of the Trial. You experienced it yourself when you tried Astoria as Pope.

You didn't sentence her to death. Events intervened and you ascended instead.

That gives us small cause for hope, does it not?

I was taken to a courtyard in a small prison attached to the Council Building. The charges against me were read again and then the fagots were lighted and I was burned as a heretic.

Obviously, there are differences. History does not exactly repeat itself, but themes repeat themselves, and echoes. Of course, it's denigrating the New Testament Jesus to be just one more echo of that endless list of faces we will see on p. 25 of "Reads." Dave probably doesn't quite believe that anymore, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't consider it blasphemous, either, and more of a "slightly wrong guess" than a serious mistake.

I wonder, given Dave's use of the "homosexualist" (as he calls him) Oscar Wilde in Jaka's Story and Melmoth and his later commentary, whether he is deliberately toying with the audience by using "faggots" (the misspelling is in the original) in its original context, knowing surely that all current North American readers, at least, will inevitably have the other meaning brought to mind. I'm positive he's aware of it. I'm just not certain whether it's a deliberate choice of something he decided he can live with because it's precisely the right word there.

Suenteus Po tells us of his life as a would-be conqueror who really, truly, he assures us, was just trying to preserve "Vanaheim on earth" before it corrupted into something mundane by forcibly installing it in another place. Then he tells us of his life as a Christ analogy, complete with the washing of hands and the martyrdom.

And what lesson are we supposed to learn from this? What lesson has Po himself learned?

My experience taught me that there is no benefit and little wisdom in attempting to influence the minds and the wills of the mass of people. In both my lives I have described to you, I sought that kind of influence and effect; I was a Reformer. In my succeeding lives, I have seen the long-range effects that profound change always brings about. Each Great Movement is sown with the seeds of its own destruction; its corruption and decay as inevitable as Death itself. In each succeeding life I've led, after leaving my parents' house, I have sought a simple and uneventful existence. My quarters are always mean and rudimentary; a bed where I might sleep, a table where I might eat and a chair for sitting on. At this moment, I live in a one room apartment in Iest's Lower City. I have no friends and no contact with any of my relatives. My one luxury is a crude chessboard, made from a discarded packing crate; the pieces carved by hand from scraps of firewood.

Queen's bishop to King's Bishop Four.

I'm sure the first thing that will strike most of my readers is the "one room apartment" with "no friends and no contact with any of my relatives" and how much this sounds like the life Dave Sim has chosen for himself, and indeed, the fact that this is both Po's ideal and the lifestyle he himself practices is one reason why I find myself inescapably drawn to conclude that his viewpoint here is essentially Dave's own, that this lesson is meant to be taken to heart, that Dave believes these words to be essentially true.

Certainly it cannot be denied that every Great Movement -- at least every political and social movement -- "is sown with the seeds of its own destruction. Any student of history can tell you that. Religious movements are a bit trickier, but one can certainly argue that the Christianity that so upset the Roman Empire early in its existence was in fact destroyed by becoming co-opted to the Establishment, and that the overall message is indeed true of all great movements of any kind.

Notice that Po almost openly admits that he has not been telling us the whole truth. When he presented his life as a simple goldsmith, he was doing what he did purely for the glory of Tarim and as an Artist, and only jealous priests charged that he was creating a movement. Yet now he admits that he was "attempting to influence the minds and the wills of the mass of people."

Again, I think Dave is deliberately undercutting Po's trustworthiness here precisely because he feels such an affinity to him, and because back in these days the relativity of truth and inability of anyone to be sure of anything was one of his chief messages. In interviews in those days, he often said things like, "the reader's guess is as good as mine." I think he wants to make sure we don't just see Po as Dave's mouthpiece and automatically trust what he says.

And of course, to underscore the point even more, the passage ends with Po's next chess move -- and it's one that is impossible. It can't be made.

The correct next move in the "fool's mate" Po is luring Cerebus into is "King's Bishop to Queen's Bishop Four." What Po says is "Queen's Bishop to King's Bishop Four." But White's Queen's Bishop is still trapped behind two pawns, and can't possibly move.

When this came out in the original comics, I immediately wrote Dave a letter. I had a chess set out, you see, and was doing each new move when the issue came out, so I knew right away it was impossible. I thought he had made a mistake. I didn't hear back from him and he didn't print the letter, and in fact about the time it would have made print if he did Po realized his mistake and it became part of the book.

To this day I can't say I'm 100% sure whether it was deliberate or Dave "fixed" it by inserting it into the story as Po's mistake on the basis of my letter and/or similar letters from other readers, but I'm quite confidant it was deliberate. It fits so perfectly, the pompous, pontificating I'm-so-smart-I'm-going-to-lure-you-into-the-
fastest-checkmate-possible Suenteus Po misspeaking and screwing up, with potentially disastrous consequences (when you play Cosmic Chess, you have to expect Cosmic Consequences).

The one niggling thing that hints it may have been a retcon is the apparent lack of such disastrous consequences. Despite having eschewn interfering in affairs, Suenteus Po is trying to arrange the meeting that ends up taking place in Reads, and, well, the meeting does in fact end up taking place. His plan works, as far as I can tell. So the mistaken chess move doesn't seem to have mattered.

Except to make him look like a doofus.