Deities at an Exhibition by Martin Heavisides

The Very Picture

Earl of Gurney: If only I knew then who I was now.

The Ruling Class

What can be said with certainty is that every depiction of God is either metaphorical or false. For the obvious reason if God doesn’t exist and if God does, for roughly the same reason a character in one of my stories would have little hope of describing me with any accuracy. Where words are scattered for perusal as transcribed utterances of the Divine (Mailer, whom we’ll soon consider at more length, notes this too) the odds are overwhelming that it’s false imposition rather than metaphor intended to broaden, heighten and deepen understanding of human experience.

What pictures of a Creator (or the absence of one; we’ll consider some of these in passing) reveal with uncomfortable clarity and at some depth (shallow depth in many cases) is the character of the particular creature essaying the description.

A good example is the evilly mean-spirited, endlessly punitive petty tyrant who is all Jerry Falwell, Timothy McVeigh, Pat Robertson, Osama Bin Laden and their ilk can conceive the Almighty to be. That’s how weak- minded endlessly insecure types imagine they’d abuse omnipotence, but while I might swat a mosquito that stung me, I’d feel very little inclination to trap it in some sort of jar and conjure it immortal for the pleasure of torturing it forever (monotonous or what?) even if I could; and if, being all-powerful and invulnerable, a mosquito’s sting couldn’t hurt me, I might be able to successfully resist even the urge to kill it. If that weren’t enough to prove the impossibility of these libels, there’s the world as we know it. Complaints are many and various I’m sure, everybody has their own private list, but it’s as easy to imagine a far worse world than this as it is to imagine a better. It would be impossible to imagine either if we actually lived in helpless thrall to the capricious whims of His Omnipotence the Universal Hissy Fit.

There are of course deeper conceptions, gentler, more generous, more expansive images of God, or self- portraits. . .


Mailer’s Creator

“The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. “
Jesus of Nazareth

“Irreverence, they say, sets stars to reel;. They surely must be dizzy by this time."
R.A. Lafferty

Malier would be annoyed, I’m sure, to hear that I’m with the critical consensus (not all that common a place to find myself) in preferring Mailer’s non-fiction to his fiction (in fact it’s possible he is annoyed, if he’s right about reincarnation and was fast-tracked-- somewhere petulantly rattling the wooden staves of his crib--even as I speak (so to speak). Or more likely, still in the waiting area, looking down through an observation window on us below, mortally installed as he soon hopes to be. Bourbon rocks on the table in front of him: fine sweat on the glass. He glowers at my presumption perhaps, then pulls back into a reflective pause, the better to ponder my argument.

If this is reminiscent of passages in Mailer, particularly the use of Limbo as a controlling metaphor in Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots, one of the reasons I prefer his nonfiction is that his finest flights of fancy tend to appear most often there--not in the novels and never the short stories. Something in the respectful attention demanded by the obduracy of fact, paradoxically, seems to lend flight to imagination in a way that none of his made up stories ever do: hardnosed journalism is never far, for him, from the frankest of hardcore symbolism. (“God and the devil do battle in a greased arena. “)

The last time Mailer expressed his displeasure at this general preference, I think in a Paris Review interview, he used the number of novels he’d written as proof that he took fiction seriously. Quality, however, changes quantity: the ten or twenty fine pages in An American Dream aren’t quite enough to make it a fine novel. The two hundred fifty best pages of Harlot’s Ghost, with perhaps twenty pages added to supply continuity, would have been a great novel; the five hundred best pages would have been a very good novel; which still leaves a clear majority of its one thousand-plus pages that are neither great nor very good.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was often as good in the interview form--which he cordially detested--as in his nonfiction generally; but I would go so far as to say that On God: an Uncommon Conversation with Michael Lennon is his last major work, a book almost equally agreeable to savour and to quarrel with. (If my task on earth is to be what I alone can be, there is scarcely a greater spiritual danger than to find myself in total agreement with anyone else, especially someone I admire: but to this point in my life I’ve largely steered clear even of the subtler temptation: to be in total agreement with myself.

There are those who think this is over-interpreting the lesson, but they’re in total agreement either with themselves or somebody else so what do they know?)

I mean only the highest respect when I say Mailer’s ideas in On God are marvellous to play with. Play is what learning is called before children know that’s what they’re doing, and any system of education will impede learning to the degree play doesn’t remain its core. Kept thinking it would be lovely, were it still possible, to spar with him over these ideas--definitely thought of a few questions I could wish Michael Lennon had asked.

So you contend, Norman, that God and the Devil are existent beings hid everywhere in the warp and weft of human life, indeed all existence on this planet?

That the Devil is not so much a fallen Angel kept in check (barely, if history is any indication) by the benevolent interventions of Almighty God, but nearer the power of God himself, so the contest between them is too equal for its outcome to be certain either way? But is it possible the Devil and God are more intimately related, as Tom Waits suggested in one of his great throwaway lines: “Don’t you know there ain’t no Devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk"? What about the possibility--which wouldn’t make them unreal necessarily, but alter the sense in which they are--that God and the Devil are vast shadow pictures cast by the mind on the great shadow cave inside our skulls where the unconscious is screened? Those are some of the points I’d like to take up--even like to consider whether they’re really logical contradictions. They may all have a measure of truth as part of a vaster picture we see too fragmentarily (as yet) to piece together.
There’s comfort of course in knowing that if we did debate these matters, neither of us would be inclined or in a position to lay the heresy card. Nothing takes the fun out of a rousing debate like being burned alive over an auxiliary proposition.

Is Charlotte Bronte a relevant touchstone here? I’m thinking particularly of the unhinging note of ambiguity on which her novel Villette ends--she called it in a letter, with impish mirth, her “little mystery". (Parenthetically, a far more virtuoso literary performance than the two endings of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, since Charlotte compresses her two endings into one.) Lucy Snowe awaits the return across the sea after five years in America of the man she loves and intends to marry; A huge storm blows up at sea--does he survive it or not? One of the two outcomes seems more likely, but the passage is written so as to decisively prevent any final determination. The fit may be jagged, but there’s a real point of connection between this and Mailer’s existential God, who is not foredoomed to triumph over the Devil but may lose. This is bound also to call to my reader’s mind the ambiguous landscape of battle in R.A. Lafferty’s The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney ...


No? God?
“A ridicule deferred is a ridicule lost forever. “
R.A. Lafferty

The last line of the above section should have signalled to initiates that I was about to consider the work of the author cited above, but I’m having at least as much trouble as I thought I would deciding just what to say and how to say it about Lafferty’s amazing and luminous body of work and its vision. You’ll have to make do with this section for now--it begins, at least, with a story about one of Lafferty’s favourite writers.

In a brief passage in one of his columns G.K. Chesterton records a curious debate on Christianity he had with Clarence Darrow. He talked about how Christian belief and practice compared with other faiths--for instance how Christian ascetic traditions, seen as harsh and extreme, may actually have been a softening of the extreme practices in other ascetic traditions. Darrow only wanted to know how Chesterton could swallow the story of Jonah and the whale. Given Chesterton’s long tradition of self-deprecation on the subject of his weight, I’m surprised he didn’t reply that of course he could swallow it, and had--give him an effective enough emetic and he could bring up the whale, and Jonah packed in for good measure, that very instant on stage.

Chesterton may have replied, as he was certainly entitled to, that in common with vast numbers of Christians from Christ’s death and possible resurrection to the present, he thought the book of Jonah a profound fable but didn’t feel obliged to believe it literally. (For Jesus’ thoughts on literalism, see his words cited at the head of section ii.) If he did, Darrow seems to have brushed it aside. Perhaps unsurprisingly. He’d fought an honourable campaign in the Scopes monkey trial against the proudly-masted ignorance of fundamentalist, or literalist, believers, who were an army of tolerable size in the U.S. then as they remain today. Unsurprising perhaps that when he went on the attack in religious debate thereafter, he always took for granted that any Christian must be a blinkered literalist and argued accordingly; which resulted in his becoming as much a fundamentalist in his non-belief as the believers he upbraided were in their non-doubt.

(His social activism might seem to argue against identifying him as a fundamentalist, but William Jennings Bryan was a tireless advocate of social justice--more than once allied with Darrow--before he took on the persecution of William Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee; and in both capacities his conviction about the literal truth of every word in the Bible was the same. If I were a U.S. citizen and hence had a vote I’d have campaigned for Louis Armstrong as greatest American, but I was happy enough with my country’s choice for greatest Canadian: Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister and the most tirelessly prolific social activist we had in the 20th century. It’s no surprise that devout Atheists sometimes give the impression they were the driving force and clear majority behind the freedom marches of the sixties and the anti-Vietnam protest movement--partisans would not be partisans if their perceptions were rigorously balanced and fair--and there’s no doubt Atheists and Agnostics both were an honourable presence in all of these. But I suspect every peace, social justice or civil rights action since the sixties, up to and including the peace rallies over both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan drew at least a slight majority of its participants from believers--with whatever degree of nuance between orthodox and liberal--in one of the three world religions that have their root in the Judaic tradition.

Because of a peculiarity in the tenets of Buddhism, it’s hard to know where you’d place the Buddhists (who I’m certain were also generously represented) on the religious scale. Buddhism is unquestionably a powerful religious system, prolific of shoots and branches, but on the question most consider central to religious belief--is there a God? (in some traditions are there Gods?)--the Compassionate Buddha was Agnostic. It wouldn’t do to call him an Atheist, but there was an unusual bluntness to his Agnosticisim: he said “Is there a God?" is a question not tending to edification. I could speculate on his reasons for thinking so, but it seems more in the spirit of Buddhism to leave the statement as it is, for believers and unbelievers alike to meditate on as they will.)

Do you know what Methusaleh used to say when he saw an attractive woman? “If only I were nine hundred fifty years younger." I’m pretty sure he also coined the saying: “Eight hundred fifty is the new five hundred fifty."

Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are fundamentalists of Clarence Darrow’s stripe. Maher is the wittier of the two--Hitchens has grown so crabbed, cranky and humourless of late that when he recently published in Esquire his thoughts on why men generally were better humourists than women, I was certain he was preparing us for news that he’d just completed a sex change.

Apparently not, so perhaps the overall thesis here is mistaken as well.

Maher has been accused of shooting fish in a barrel in Religious, which is a fair accusation but I think it’s less a deliberate than an unconscious approach: because his own attitude on religious faith is as dogmatic and unyielding, from the opposite end, as the faith of stif - necked fundamentalist believers, he confines himself exclusively to interviewing and ridiculing those. The approach might have broken down if he’d spoken with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The historical impossibility doesn’t make it less amusing to imagine the result had Maher tried his song and dance on Swift--or how deep in the shredding bin Maher would have buried the resulting footage.)

Hitchens could scarcely have chosen a more featherweight opponent than Douglas Wilson in his recent debate. (Is Christianity Good for the World?) Moore contends, with meretricious complacency, that while it’s not impossible for Atheists to live ethically, it’s impossible for them to express their ethical judgments coherently. Christians know what’s right and wrong, they have injunctions from on High to codify and prove it. Attend, ladies and gentlemen: the proposition before you is that the highest, subtlest, richest expression of human ethical sensibility is simple obedience to one plain injunction: “Do as I tell you." Gibberish! Forgive me, I had a brief argument to make here based on a rapid historical survey of evidence, but on reflection, the only rebuttal an argument so easily and cozily self-righteous deserves is: gibberish!"


Lafferty’s Theogony
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth in spades."

Beatitudes of the Antichrist

In a review of Harlan Ellison’s compilation Dangerous Visions R.A. Lafferty remarks about one writer who’s warned people not to read deeper meanings into his contribution: “There is no risk of that." After commenting on some stories he likes and others--not so much, he sums up by saying the title’s inaccurate: none of the stories, including his own, are dangerous. From what I’ve read of the anthology I’d say Lafferty is right-

-even about his own, which is perfectly pleasant, antic, amusing but conspicuously lacks the volatile hilarity of stories like Mud Violet, The Groaning Hinges of the World, Configuration of the North Shore, Old Hallowe’ens on the Guna Slopes, Ride a Tin Can, Brain Fever Season, Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne, Funnyfingers, This Grand Old Carcass Yet, From the Thunder Colt’s Mouth, Rivers of Damascus, Golden Trabant among many others; novels like Past Master, The Reefs of Earth, Fourth Mansions, The Flame is Green, Half a Sky, Okla Hannali among ditto: stories that persistently transgress and shatter social norms, then reassemble them mosaicwise: stories that are weapons, sometimes in battles long lost except. . . who knows?; stories that persistently urge their readers: “O get up and fight some more, dead people!"

These are my notes on the very sticky business. They are not in the form of a protest, which would be useless. Holly is gone, and the Shelni will all be gone in the next day or two, if indeed there are any of them left now. This is for the record only. Holly Harkel and myself, Vincent Vanhoosier, received funda and permission to record the lore of the Shelni through theintercession of that old correlator John Holmberg. This was unexpected. All lorists have counted John as their worst enemy.

“After all, we have been at great expense to record the minutiae of pig grunts and the sound of earthworms, “ Holmberg told me, “and we have records of squeakings of hundres of species of orbital rodents. We have veritable libraries of the song and cackle of all bird and pseudo-ornins. Well, let us add the Shelni to our list. I do not believe that their thumping on tree roots or blowing into jug gourds is music. I do not believe that their sing song is speech anymore than the squeaking of doors is speech. We have recorded, by the way, the sound ofmore than thirty thousand squeaking doors. And we have had worse. Let us have the Shelni, then, if your hearts are set on it. You’ll have to hurry. They’re about gone.

* * *

It is a sticky business. I tried to complain, but those people were still ringing that bell and chanting “All you little Pig-Shelni-Singers come jump on the cart. Ride a tin can to Earth! Hey, Ben, look at them jump on the slaughter wagon!"

“It was inexcusable, “ I said. “Surely you could tell a human from a Shelni."

“Not that one, “ said a bell ringer. “I tell you they all jumped on the wagon willingly, even the funny looking one who was crying. Sure, you can have her bones, if you can tell which ones they are."

I have Holly’s bones. That is all.
There was never a creature like her.
And now it is over with.
But it is not over!
Singing Pig Breakfast Food Company, beware!
There will be vengeance!
It has been told.
Ride a Tin Can

I seriously find myself at a loss how to explain Lafferty’s vision--at least in words other than his own.

Anna-Hata told her husband--a white man (did you know that there were now more white men in the Territory than Indians?)--to get a priest in Muskogee and bring him down to the Big House. There was then no priest resident in Eufaula. The husband did not grumble, nor did he wonder any longer how Anna-Hata communicated with her grandfather.

She was down at the Big House well before the middle of the morning, coming up with a music of harness and buggy bells and a clear voice that she had from her grandmother Marie DuShane.

“I come, I come, old bear grandpapa, we fix everything right will be left nothing undone, “ she burst into the room.

“This we cannot fix,“ said Hannali. “I die Anna-Hata.“

“Oh, I know that. What are we, white people, that we kid each other?"

White people! Anna-Hata was whie people from her mother Hazel and her grandmother Marie DuShane--white people French. She was white people from her father Jemmy Buster--white people Texas. She had eyes like blue cornflowers and hair like corn. But Hannali, looking at her there, knew that the world had not run out ofIndians yet.

“I turn white people myself, said Hannali, “I die of white people pneumonia that is better than the new Choctaw fashion to sicken and linger with white people tuberculosis to what lengths do the people not go to prove that we are now white.“

Hannali was born when Napoleon was still on his surge upward. As a boy and young man he had hear dall three of the Medal Mingos speak: Pushmataha, Apukshunubbee, Moshulatubbee. Who else still living had heard all three of them? He had been in every nation of the Plains during his long life; he had been in Florida of Spain and in Louisiana of France; he had been in old Mexico and in Texas of Mexico. He knew the nations of the Creeks and Seminoles and Osages and Cherokees, of the Quapaws and Absentee Shawnees, of the Wichitas and the Quahada Comanches and the southern Cheyennes, of the Kiowas and the Arapahos, of the Caddoes and Tonkawas. He had known nations of Indians that have since disappeared in every man of of them.

He had learned every common trade that a man may carry on with his hands. Never in his life had he availed himself of the services of a doctor, lawyer, or sherrif . He had not backed down from any man in his life, and he came fearless to the hour of his death.
He was a Mingo.
Okla Hannali

There’d be better odds in a single essay dedicated to Lafferty’s work alone “I will tell you about us, Dana, “ Nehemias said, “since what my daughter may have told you is probably from her own fancy. She is not my daughter by birth or by original blood, though she is my daughter by saving blood. Know you that a man who draws and dresses dead people will sometimes have experiences such as will not come to a tobacconist or a draper or even a cobbler.

“On one evening just four years ago, I had two such unusual experiences. It was in the quiet part of the night, one hour before midnight, and I had finished with all except two corpses on my slabs. One of these was that of an enemy of mine who had died naturally but passionately, of a stroke of the over-dramatic sort, as everything he did was over-dramatic. The other was of a poor girl of the streets, known to me but slightly and only by sight. She had died by a bloody attack, whether by her own or by another hand had not been determined.

“I worked on the man, my enemy, first. I began my incisions, and I made a discovery I had made only seven times before in my life at this trade. The weirdness of that night would bring it to nine times, and it still remains so four years later. There was something beyond the windiness and sounding which you heard a moment ago from one of the boxes. I discovered that the man I was working on was not really dead. "Tis sometimes said that this happens often. Is nine times out of the more than thirty thousand cases in my life what you would call often?"

“I am, was, a doctor and surgeon before I was unlicensed long ago in one of those movements when papers and prerogatives were taken away from people of my belief. With my doctor’s knowledge, I gave my old enemy an injection directly into the heart. He revived a little, with a purplish trembling and passionate ef ort on him: He rattled his chest. He poured a little brandy down his throat. He shuddered, he gasped, he spoke. "I am alive, Nehemia," he said. "I have been conscious and incapable of movement or sound for all this time that I have been here and you have been whistling over your work."

We are enemies, I reminded him. "We are enemies," he croaked in his awful voice. "Do not let me die."

“I tell you, Dana, I was fascinated by this thing. Might this not be the perfect murder case? This would be the murder that could never be proved or tracked. All I had to do was let him die, and I would have murdered my enemy free and with no suspicion ever to attach to me. No one would ever know. Even God dozes for a brief moment just before midnight, and it was that time exactly. After all, my enemy had been certified as dead when he was dumped on my slab. Relish it, Dana. Is it not a rich dilemma? It is quite likely that I could have saved him then, that I could have had his passionate emnity continued for years.

“Do not let me die, Nehemias, he croaked again. The God who you worship falsely and I truly will be revenged if you do this thing. I am preparing something that I may or may not give you in a moment," I said. "We will see." "You are preparing nothing, " he growled. "You are only rattling glasses and bottles. You are letting me die." "Not so," I said, "or not certainly so yet. I work rapidly, but it will be sixty seconds before I save you or do not save you. Ponder the drama of this in the meanwhile, enemy. Did you ever imagine such an encounter?’ But he groaned blackly. "Who gave you the power to decide whether I should live or die?’ he rattled then. "Are you God?’

"He isn’t, I am," the street girl said.

I dropped the beaker. I dropped the bottle. And both of them shattered. I was shaken, and I am usually a man of steady nerves. To have two of my corpses return to life on one night was shocking.

Half a Sky but in an essay mostly taken up with contemporary religious visionaries, he’s simply too much of a giant to leave out.

The flat, rock-mud area is the basic arena; it is the topos or location of the unconscious, and also of all of the limbi or border lands. At the present time there is a twelve year old boy in Figueras in Spain who paints this topos, this floor of the unformed and the unconscious every day. This is the unclutterd and primordial earth, and it looks like a mauve pavement. The twelve-year-old Catalan boy paints this landscape as inhabited by a few flat panthers and bears and bearcats, flattened as if melted down to the flatness of pancakes. The flat beasts are draped limply over the folded and stepped flatness of the land.

The paintings are of the early mornings, and shadows are thrown in contradictory directions from dawn and false-dawn (there is a selection-by-combat between them also). It is in the early mornings that these proto-beasts are as flat and limp as melted paper, for it then that they have belched themselves empty of dreams. These dreams or eructations are painted as flying in the low air with the vulture heads and bat-wings, or canvas-and-strut wings.
This topos, this unadorned and unconscious flatland, is subject to change; but the changes are very contingent for a long time. If hills are wanted, they are dragged in on skids by creatures pulling them with ropes. If mountains are required, they are rolled on in wheels or log rollers. This is analogous to the geological mountain-bringing process. The mountain always comes in on easy-flowing extrusions that are really wheels or rollers of magma. When a topos has acquired sufficient ornamentation, it is blessed, or it is cursed. If it is blessed, it becomes one of the Holy Lands. If it is cursed, we don’t know what it becomes.

* * *

Wars! Wars! Or at least the vivid pictures of wars. (And the blood is overflowing the pictures and running out of their frames and down the walls. )

Wars! Wars! Or at least the operatic sounds of wars.

“What if it should turn out to be true?" a person worries out loud, and he has just had a shoulder and arm blown of . Have people no longer any sense of physical or mental or moral pain. They certainly are tough, but don’t they overdo it?

“It’s all so real that it might as well be a real war, “ a child says, and the child’s flesh is on fire. “I think that they use thermite in the fire to make it look more real. It makes it feel more real too.“

“If the world were really on fire, “ a philosopher reasons with us, “then people would try to put the fire out. But they don’t really pay much attention to it. They gawk at it a little bit, but then they walk away and forget all about it. This proves either that the people have very slight attention spans or that it isn’t real fire that seems to be burning the world. None of it is real, perhaps, or it would be more noticed. That stench of burning flesh is a fair facsimile of the real thing though. “

The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney

Selective quotation has its own inadequacies--his themes, his narrative sweep are too large for easy capsulization. (Hell, his jokes are persistently too large for the sentences that contain them.) A few passages, however, might whet discerning readers’ appetites and send them eagerly off in search of more. One thing that is tolerably clear--apart from the religious aspect of his vision (no accident the revenant with the double sign in Past Master is Thomas More), so pervasive I suspect it becomes invisible to most of his dedicated fanbase (few we be but fierce in our devotion)--is how persistently he sustains in his fiction the existential mood Mailer sometimes sustains for long moments in his nonfiction, but only ever manages to winkle in briefly at long intervals in the novels proper. The details of Lafferty’s stories are bound to annoy strict realists, even more the flamboyant outre comedy (Samuel Delany: “One hears of black comedy? There are places in Past Master where humour goes positively ultraviolet.“)
--what is it about every new succeeding school of realistic fiction anyway? (What does any of them last, five years, ten years the most before a new one with its new stony dogma grinds into place as a universal standard forever?) Why is it not one style of literature that vaunts its realism has ever failed to disparage and trivialize humour? Are they actually unaware how often real people laugh or is it simply that it wells up so rarely within them it seems an unlikely rumour when told of others? Real people laugh at high and low moments in their lives, at moments of crisis and comparative calm. Real people live in a world whose tectonic plates are perpetually ashift, sometimes in ways that can be predicted, very often not. Real people are assailed, from birth at least, by a bewildering maze of signs and symbols they must learn to interpret if they don’t want to be interpreted themselves, to their diminishment and perhaps destruction. Real life is as extravagant an adventure (even if largely an invisible one) as any fairy tale or myth--it’s only the life recounted in realistic fiction that isn’t.

Lafferty’s fiction doesn’t suffer from that deficiency. His novels may begin at a moment of false calm or high crisis, but with one or two exceptions (not his best work) they all end at a moment of high crisis, and yet the mood at the end of a Lafferty novel is never panic; more often than not it’s exaltation. The humour helps in this, and also Lafferty’s talent for rhapsody. Some of the most notable writers of the twentieth century, fine writers of the most varied and delectable sensibility, passed entire careers without hitting a moment of true rhapsody. Two writers I know of--how did you guess they’re my particular favourites?--hit the mark of it so often it can be considered one (among many) of their specialties: Peter Barnes, R.A. Lafferty. They’ve both gone ahead, but if I can catch up with them Hereafter, and if I’ve still got the price of it on me, I’ll buy the first round. Of course there are others I’d like to meet at the same rail. . .


So Great a Loss

“Is this an age of Man to consider a crime improbable merely because it is great?"

Swift tended to write a poems in clumps within a short period of time: two, three, sometimes as many as five poems on the same subject, of which one tends to stand out clearly above the rest. Two poems, on the same theme roughly, written very close together, are The Day of Judgment and in my judgment the far superior Place of the Damned: whose exuberant bounce and high hilarity I’m now obliged to expose to you at full length (appy polly logies):

All folks who pretend to religion and grace,
Allow there’s a HELL, but dispute of the place:
But if HELL may by logical rules be defined
The place of the damn’d--I’ll tell you my mind.
Wherever the damn’d do chiefly abound,
Most certainly there is HELL to be found:
Damn’d poets, damn’d critics, damn’d blockheads, damn’d knaves;
Damn’d senators bribed, damn’d prostitute slaves;
Damn’d lawyers and judges, damn’d lords and damn’d squires;
Damn’d spies and informers, damn’d friends and damn’d liars;
Damn’d villains, corrupted in every station;
Damn’d time-serving priests all over the nation;
And into the bargain I’ll readily give you
Damn’d ignorant prelates, and councillors privy.
Then let us no longer by parsons be flamm’d,
For we know by these marks the place of the damn’d:
And HELL to be sure is at Paris or Rome.
How happy for us that it is not at home!

I’m obliged to quote it in full so that you know I’m hiding nothing--nothing up my sleeve, at no point do my fingers leave my hands as I pose the question: where is G-d in this poem? What’s particularly fascinating here, in contrast to The Day of Judgment is that he describes damnation as a human consequence of human action, social as much as individual, not requiring any special judgment on the Creator’s part to bring it about. (A character in Lafferty and a character in Dostoyevsky both make a similar argument more explicitly. You can look it up.) This is far finer writing than the clunky ex machina pronouncement in The Day of Judgment: “I damn such Fools!-

-Go, go, you’re bit." Though what is interesting is how even in Judgment he shies away from having G-d pronounce eternal sentence--instead the speaker is Jove, the Roman name of Zeus. Perhaps simple logic obliged him to remove God’s judgment in this case: writing directly in the voices of the damned in his fiercest satire, he was never able to restrain compassion; he certainly would never have been able to watch with pleasure for as much as two minutes while his worst enemy roasted in unquenchable flames; and was hardly prepared to believe G-d less generous, expansive and open hearted than his mortal minister Jon. Swift. How this impacts on notions of G-d’s Omnipotence is another question, but I do wonder whether we can expect to hear from an old Olympian sometime soon, in these fearfully litigious times, hoping for a libel settlement from the spiritual estate of Swift.

To conclude, whatever some may think of the great advantages to trade by this favourite scheme, I do very much apprehend that in six months time afer the Act is passed for the extirpation of the Gospel, the Bank and East India Stock may fall, at least, one per cent. And since that is fifty times more than ever the wisdom of our age thought fit to venture for the preservation of Christianity, there is no reason we should be at so great a loss merely for the sake of destroying it.


Burglar! Banker--Father!

God made a little Gentian--
It tried--to be a Rose--
And failed--and all the Summer laughed--
But just before the Snows

It’s easy to misconstrue Emily Dickinson--so I surmise at least by how often it’s done--in a way that makes her an easy comfortable read at the cost of diminishing her status as a poet to almost nil. Nature lover, recluse, wounded at love, curious sense of an almost personal relationship with God as she conceives him. All true as far as it goes, but you don’t need to read very far to discover strokes of amazing cruelty in her maker. She’s a little like the Old Testament patriarchs in the sense she gives of direct address to God--which Walter Kaufmann noted was often called trust but might more nearly be called intimacy; not invariably friendly intimacy, still less invariably slavish and obedient. It’s generally remembered what Abraham was prepared to do to his son at God’s command, less so the steely challenge he once delivered (partly no doubt because of the evasiveness of the King James translation): “I am as the dust at thy feet, but it’s a shame if the judge of all the world will not do what is right. “

There rose a Purple Creature--
That ravished all the Hill--
And Summer hid her Forehead--
And Mockery--was still-

The tone of her address to God is not in any one register--like any long term relationship it has its ups and downs--but she’s certainly capable of Abrahamic rebuke, in Apparently with no surprise, I reason, Earth is short and many others. There’s a slight sting even in the gently hilarious “Faith" is a fine invention. I don’t know what you’d make of the desertion implied in her creation of a new trinity: “In the name of the Bee "/And of the Butterfly /And of the Breeze/ Amen!"

The Frosts were her condition-- The Tyrian would not come Until the North--invoke it Creator--Shall I--bloom?

“I go to seek a great perhaps. Ring down the curtain, the farce is played.¿Â¿Â¿Â¿


One point where I was disappointed in Mailer was near the end of On God when he casually spoke of the corporate vision as psychopathic. Not that I necessarily disagree with the diagnosis in its strict clinical sense, but it’s become so much the go-to word that it’s lost all real kick. Should there be a production any time soon in our vicinity of Othello, I’m sure at least one reviewer will refer to Iago as a psychopath. In a book full of adventurous speculations about God and the Devil, couldn’t Mailer have reached for comparison a little farther into the supernatural ether? as I did in my upcoming novel UNDERMIND when I had a Toronto executive on his visit to the Tokyo branch remark enviously on the familiar demons they had sitting on the board of directors, and wondering if it wasn’t time they got one for his branch at First Canadian Place? Because they improve efficiency like a son of a bitch. I can stretch to that and I’m not certain I even believe in familiar demons as such.
A close reading of The Dream of a Ridiculous Man-- not that close, can’t you see how the print’s blurring?-- will show Dostoyevsky never lost the revolutionary convictions that nearly got him executed in Siberia when he was young, but he argued that Socialism as conceived in his era would fail spectacularly and disastrously because it had jettisoned God as an encumbrance. The Gulags and the mass purges in China, societies where Socialism and Godlessness were axiomatically linked, don’t exactly prove Fyodor Mikhailovich’s thesis mistaken. His isn’t necessarily the only possible explanation, any more than the innate depravity of the religious mind is the only possible explanation for the witch hunts, the Inquisition, the Aztec’s human sacrifices and the widespread massacres of native populations upon Europe’s discovery of the new world. (There were certainly priests who had no quarrel with extirpation policies, but the first to raise an outcry against them was also a priest. And you’re going to have a hard time crowding Hildegard von Bingen, St Francis of Assisi, William the Silent, Faruddin al Attar, Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Zusa, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Lao Tzu and Chang Tzu, Hakuin, Ryokan and Eshun, Pope Celestine, Erasmus, Boethius, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Theresa of Avila, Theresa of Lisieux and many others under the rubric 'totally depraved’ unless anti-religious partisanship has completely unseated your rational faculty.)

Mailer’s comparatively modest notion of a God (and rival Devil) whose contested demesne may be no more than our solar system, with perhaps an infinite regress of Creators with wider patches beyond, galaxy by galaxy on up to the universe, beyond speculation unless and until we voyage out to meet them (which is not automatic of course--the Devil might win his battle with God or worse, nothingness and extinction triumph over both (a live possibility in a number of Lafferty’s novels as well), long before we achieve any lift of materially or spiritually) has a great deal of poetic mileage as metaphor at least-- that is to say as instrument to investigate the reality of our situation where the static and interference of daily life prevents a straightforward view into the depths. Whether logically necessary or not, citing Occam and his famous gleaming razor, it’s at least logically credible in a way the universe-sized dementia praecox is not, whom Jerry Falwell imagined crowing in triumph over the 9-11 bombing because America’d become entirely too tolerant of Atheists and Homosexuals. If that God exists I’m one lightning scar from top to toe, from bolts of divine punishment and so very likely are all the rest of us.

Lafferty’s cautious about what he attributes to God, who looks on, just out of view, perhaps in the capacity of stage manager now that the original production He penn’d has gone on the road--but the world God animates (in Lafferty’s avid transcription) is a ring-tailed roarer and a wonder. I haven’t discussed any polytheistic creeds, but in a sense this essay is an exercise in polytheism, since the visions I’ve explored here are of Gods as unique to their creators as each fingerprint they are individually blessed with.

I’m far from conceding or imagining, given the moral imbecility that rages like happy Hellfire through any number of pious congregations, that belief in a God conveys on the bearer presumptive moral authority. When people pronounce moral judgments as tumbling down from God’s Paradise to our wicked Earth, it’s their own feeble human judgment they’re trying to divinize, the way a Bronzing machine galvanizes a baby’s shoe. Invariably if the delusion’s too extreme and persists too long, literal murder results. But religious views may be poetic, wide- sweeping, mind-expanding, in a friendly sense prophetic as opposed to delusional. And religious vision of all varieties, mythic and archetypal, has sunk roots so deep into human life it’s worth considering what damage might be done uprooting it, to apparently unrelated parts of the system. Who knows what catastrophes might be plaguing us to this day because of the unceremonial slaughter of the pagan Gods by the brutalest faction of ascendant Christianity? What demons may have rushed into the vacuum created by their sudden sighing absence, that continue to possess us in part to this day?

Literal demons or intense psychological projections for which this is a convenient mythic name? In one sense a meaningful question even if unanswerable, since if literal, they would certainly do much of their most effective work as psychological projections. If the question is do we burn as witches masses of harmless women and men after first driving them mad with torture to extract a confession, because the Devil literally exists, then certainly not; such a massacre of innocents would be a banquet spread for any imaginable Devil.

The question is trivial on the other hand if calling them psychological projections amounts to discounting them as unreal. It’s very likely we perceive an infinitesimal fraction (growing and expanding we hope) of all existence, though perhaps subliminal impressions convey much more than we’re aware we’re aware of. What’s certain is that whatever doesn’t impress on the psyche and our senses, however real it might be, isn’t real for us; which means that each creature, of whatever size or conscious powers, lives in a world at least slightly different from any other. What it doesn’t mean I’m afraid is that projections from the psyche into the world at large, born from the shrieking pain of a wound deeply and casually inflicted, brutally and imperfectly cauterized, are any less potent and dangerous than literal demons would be. Mythically, archetypally, religiously inflected expression is no doubt inadequate to describe existence in anything approaching its totality (assuming it’s ever possible to discover what that totality is); but this is equally true of reason, logic and mathematics. These haven’t always been divided faculties the way they very frequently are in present time; and both function better allied in counterpoint and harmony than facing each other with swords drawn, knives clenched in their glistening teeth.

I’m conscious that what I’ve written far from exhausts the subject I proposed at the beginning, but since this was never my intention, I see no reason, short of a book of er sweetened with a very large advance, for spinning it out any further. I’d need a very large advance because it would be a chore, especially if I had to keep packing every sentence with as much significance as I have all these babies. (You think there was nothing up my sleeve. Little do you know! Little do I know!) Besides the longer I made this, the more risk I’d run of being accused of writing something comprehensive and important. What kind of serious writer wants that? People start paying all the wrong kind of attention.

Martin Heavisides-2009

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