Thursday, July 15, 2010

Naked in the World

"I reckon we're doing this 'cos we are goin' to die, d'yer see? And 'cos some bloke got to the edge of the world somewhere and saw all them other worlds out there and burst into tears 'cos there was only one lifetime. So much universe, and so little time. And that's not right..."

- Cohen the Barbarian, from The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett

There is a difference between a hero, and a bully. We all know this, we know it in our bones, in the marrow that makes our blood and the heart that moves it. There is a difference between a warrior, and a grunt-for-hire. Between an act of courage, and an act of arrogance, ignorance or cruelty. And that difference does not lie in nobility, or honor, or wisdom, or even mercy.

Last night, Jeff and I finished reading Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable. With illustrations by the marvelous Paul Kidby, the book is more an homage to the fans of the Discworld novels than anything else. Though my favorite character in all the Disc — Captain Samuel Vimes of the City Watch — sadly did not make an appearance, cameos by Vetinari, Mr. Slant, Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian, Leonard de Quirm, Rincewind, Offler the Crocodile God, a few sad-eyed swamp dragons, and Great A'tuin herself, a giant turtle swimming through the black, starry sea of space carrying the discworld on her back, kept us in giggles for the past several nights. Still, I had been looking forward to some piercing satire and cultural commentary, and for most of the book had to rest satisfied with friendly, conspiratorial winks towards Pratchett fandom instead.

But not last night. In the final pages of the book, Pratchett's genius for story-telling flexed its muscles once again, pulling all the threads of humor, character and destiny tight, weaving a climactic show-down with the gods themselves (and a face-off with the many-eyed Blind Io is not something to sneeze at!). The blurb on the book's dust-jacket sets the mythic tone of the book, introducing the ancient and increasingly decrepit Cohen the Barbarian, who has watched most of his friends die soft and senile of old age, and who is angry, very angry, at the gods. So "the last hero in the world is going to return what the first hero stole" — Cohen intends to bring fire back to the peak of Cori Celesti, right into the halls of Dunmanifestin. And he plans to bring it back with a bang.

I admit, it's hard for me to talk about the book without slipping into my "movie trailer narrator" voice. The book is beautiful, and the story is epic. Somehow Pratchett manages to ride silliness and satire right into the heart of the human condition. There is nothing particularly noble in Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, this band of scrawny, mean-tempered living legends. They are not particularly committed to any honorable ideals, beyond that of the Hero's Code that has kept them alive for so long (and which dictates that one brave man against seven heavily-armed ones will always win, but the ultimate evil villain will always get away). They are not overly prone to mercy and forgiveness, especially not when it comes to the awesome powers and sublime presence of the gods who have allowed old age and death to creep into the world. Cohen and his Silver Horde are ignorant, uncouth, uneducated and yet, for all of this less-than-noble savagery, they are not very wise, either, nor are they deeply in touch with some basic human nature. They're a bunch of stubborn, grumpy old men who don't like change and resent their own inevitable deaths when there are so many palaces to sack and wenches to ravish.

So what is it that makes them heroes? The quest of Cohen the Barbarian and his Horde — reveling in their battles with insane monks and monstrous fish, and obsessing over the glorious tales of their deeds immortalized in the songs of a terrorized minstrel they've kidnapped for the task — is compelling not because they are ugly, deaf and uncivil bullies, but because they are old, rheumatic and ready to die. They go nearly naked through the world, armed in one hand with a sharp, practical sword and in the other with a rubber-tipped walking stick. Swollen joints and varicose veins exposed to the freezing cold of the mountain climb, they are icons of stubborn bravery and barbaric audacity.

Therein lies their warriorship, their nobility, their honor, even their mercy and wisdom. It is in their nakedness, their willingness to be merely human, to be vulnerable to everything the gods might throw at them. They refuse to rely on the wretched mechanisms of "civilization," its zero-sum politics, its hypocrites and manipulative magistrates. When Cohen slits your throat, at least you know the hand that kills you — and this is a kind of mercy in itself, a gift of honor, coming face-to-face with your own destruction. In the end, the rage of Cohen and his Horde is not that they must die — they've always been ready to die, that's why they've lived so long — but that death comes "like a thief in the night," sneaking in to choke an old friend on a cucumber or quietly kill another in his sleep. The tragedy is not that we will die, but that our will to live cannot be overcome even in death, and this will to live makes the dishonest limits placed on us by the gods seem cruel and underhanded.

This morning, Jeff read me Ursula Le Guin's short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" (found in her collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters). It is a story of a joyful and perfect town, sustained by the wretched and tortured existence of a single child locked in the dark and filth of a cellar broom closet. It is a story about those who go to see this child, and cry and rage and ruminate in gloomy resentment on the injustice and the pain and their own impotence... but then slowly come to accept all this as necessary, as the natural way of things, the price of freedom and comfort, and learn to live a sweeter, richer, happier life because they carry with them that knowledge of the suffering child. But it is also a story about heroes: the ones who see the child, who do not rage or wail but simply never go home. Instead, they walk away.

The ones who walk away from Omelas refuse to accept the blood-money price for joy. Rather than clothe themselves in a civilization bought by another's suffering, they go out into the wilderness, the wildness and uncertainty of a world without safety or structure. They go naked into the world, supported by nothing but what it is they carry within themselves. In this way, they are like Cohen the Barbarian: they are ready to die. Ready to die not because they are sick of life, but because they are full of it, full of a love for life so profound that they would not barter or trade it away even to secure their own safety or their own happiness.

This is what I mean when I talk about the nakedness and vulnerability of pacifism. It is not a weakness or a refusal, it is not a rejection of life to put aside the complicated machinery of weapons and warfare, to turn our backs on the excuses and justifications that insist that "freedom isn't free" and security comes at a price steeped in violence. It is a heroic devotion to life that allows us to embrace our nakedness and all that it implies, to prefer to live vulnerably, face-to-face with the possibility of our death. We leave the protective arms of "civilized" rationalizing and we own our violence as we own our destruction.

It is no longer enough for us to say "all life feeds on death" or "destruction is necessary for creation" as though this were merely the way of things, abstract platitudes of wisdom we have come to accept as part of the system. Without our vulnerability, without our willingness to go naked, we are only bullies and parasites.

But when we are naked in the world, all violence is personal. All destruction touches us, for we know that we are all interconnected, intimately and vulnerably woven into the world with our very flesh and breath. Yet because of our willingness to face this violence and destruction, to experience its sorrow and grief and tragedy, in this way we also embrace the will to life more deeply and more authentically. We accept our capacity for empathy and suffering as a treasured expression of our love for the world and for the life of the world, and we give up anything and everything — the walls and rules of our institutions, the rationalizations for war and economics, the very clothes off our backs and the roof that shelters us — that would seek to limit or deaden our senses and cut us off from this sacred vulnerability.

To quote from one last piece of science-fiction brilliance, this time a television show:

Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever for one moment accepts it.


  1. "There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared: it is the great venture; it can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security... To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God... Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, August 1934, Fanø)

  2. Compelling ruminations. And thanks for the reminder of Ms LeGuin, who was one of my favourite authors when I was younger. Truly a source of many incredible metaphors for aspects of the human condition in nuanced ways that few have managed to touch :-)

    I'm not sure on the pacifism, though I have the deepest respect for those for whom it is the core of their acting in the world. I will and have used force to restrain in order to protect myself and others (including in some circumstances those being restrained)... but I do hold to the principle that the force used is only that necessary to prevent the harm done, and it is not the beginning or the end of the process. Peace and peaceable resolution is my driving motivator. So I've never been sure about the generic label "pacifism". I've never been able to understand where the boundaries lie.

    I don't know if you will have seen it yet in the US, but there is another Dr Who episode carrying a very similar metaphor to Omelas.

  3. Adam,

    Yes, the word "pacifism" is a broad and complicated one (kind of like the word Pagan ;). For some, it simply means holding a generally anti-war stance and seeking diplomatic alternatives to warfare in politics. For others, it goes deeper than that, but how much deeper depends on the person. Some pacifists understand and support the use of force in self-defense. Others, like Gandhi, intentionally use nonviolent resistance (i.e. refusing to use physical force in self-defense) in order to break down the barriers between the perpetrator of violence and the victim of violence, based on their belief that all human beings are capable of compassion and empathy and even the worst bullies cannot persist in their violence in the face of someone suffering patiently under their hand.

    To me, peace-making is both a political strategy and a spiritual discipline. I look to both Jesus and Brigid as gods of peace-making and social justice as ways of seeking Spirit in community and within ourselves. For me, that means spending time contemplating "spiritual" questions like what is the nature of violence, honor, love, death and peace, and how does our engagement with the world reflect these aspects in various ways.

    Also - no, sadly, I haven't been able to see any of the current Doctor Who season! Don't give anything away, though, as I'm eagerly awaiting the eventual DVDs. ;)