Feeble old superstition

Something you often hear from atheists, antitheists, or other people critical of Christianity is that the Bible is full of superstition. It has talking donkeys, angels, demons, water turning to wine, resurrections, talking serpents, magic fruit, man-eating fish, a virgin birth, walking on water – miracles out the wazoo, supernatural occurrences tossed out in every which direction.

It’s clear that the Bible is stuffed full of weird goings on, and so it’s only natural that people might ask what makes it any different from the wild stories of Greek, Egyptian, or any other pagan mythology. Why is Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt considered respectable, but Orpheus’ journey into the Underworld is not? Why is the idea of a Devil floating around tempting people perfectly alright, but the idea of Zeus impregnating mortal women absolute foolishness?

I think these are valid questions, but I think they also miss a fundamental difference between the worldviews of pagan mythology and the Hebrew/Christian Bible, and that difference lies in the way they view the supernatural.

In pagan myths, the entire world is magical. Sphinxes lie in wait for helpless travellers; golden apples lie protected by dragons, dwarves live underneath the earth toiling away forging magic rings. Even if the average Greek or Roman didn’t literally believe in a world teeming with chimaeras and dragons and witches, their myths still all stem from the fundamental assumption that there is no clear boundary between the natural and the supernatural. Odysseus’ men being turned into pigs is treated not as a shocking violation of the natural order, but as merely another aspect of the wide and wonderful world.

The Biblical perspective is world apart. There are no spirits guiding the stars, no gods or angels that live in water and cause rivers to flow, no Sphinxes or chimaeras travelling the roads of ancient Israel. Anything supernatural is clearly that; miracles are treated not as stemming from another, hidden layer of nature as we know it, but as an intrusion from the outside, a direct violation of what we view as the natural order. There is generally no mixing and mingling between the natural and the supernatural; miracles are exceptions to the rule, not the norm.

There are exceptions, of course – the presence of demons in the gospels, for example, seems closer to the pagan worldview of the natural and supernatural intermingled, but at the same time the origin and nature of demons is so shadowy and mysterious that it is difficult to tell. But even supposed exceptions generally turn out to conform to the rule; Adam and Eve bringing sin into the world by eating fruit, for example, may sound like magical thinking at its finest, but the fruit is generally seen as not a magic source of death and evil, but rather as a symbol of rebellion. Adam and Eve’s error wasn’t eating the fruit and magically cursing the world; it was defying God’s will in the act of eating the apple.

Of course, you might say that this is no better – that God Himself is the ultimate example of magical thinking – but at least with God any kind of supernatural occurrence is clearly identified as supernatural.

Perhaps this isn’t making any sense, so let me put it another way: the world of the pagan myths is a high fantasy novel, a place teeming with gods, spirits, magic, and monsters. The world of the Bible, on the other hand, is a novel set in an ordinary world that comes under regular intrusion from an outside force; angels, demons, and miracles all occur, and they may occur often, but they are not considered the norm.

Now, you might say that in this light, the Bible makes less sense than pagan mythology. Pagan mythology is at least consistent; the Bible, on the other hand, expects us to believe simultaneously in a world that follows consistent laws of nature, yet also in a world that is perpetually prone to divine interference. This is a fair point, but consider that the pagan one is also completely incompatible with what we know of the world around us.

We know there are no Sphinxes lurking on the road to Thebes. We know there are no enchantresses turning men into pigs. We know that we don’t live in a fantasy novel world, which is why we can with confidence dismiss pagan mythology as mere superstition.

The Biblical worldview, though, is harder to dismiss, because for the most part it lines up with what we know of the universe. The fact that we know there are no such things as Sphinxes severely undermines the credibility of pagan myths; on the other hand, the fact that we know the dead don’t come back to life does nothing to the credibility of the Bible, because the entire point of the Resurrection is that this is not normal.

Perhaps I’m still not making sense, but in a nutshell, pagan mythology presents the Supernatural as the Natural. The Bible presents the Supernatural as an intrusion into the Natural. It’s fair to dismiss pagan myths as mere stories because they depict a natural order of things starkly at odds with what we see and know of the world; the Bible, on the other hand, merely depicts another side to the world as we see it.

This is by no means a knock-down argument as to why the Bible is true, or anything of the sort; all I’m trying to say here is that it’s unfair to assume that, if pagan mythology is treated as superstition, why the Bible isn’t the same. All I can say is, I hope I’ve made some smidgeon of sense.

ADDENDUM: I should probably clarify; I emphasised the fact that Biblical miracles come across as an intrusion from outside the world to highlight the difference between the biblical and mythological perspectives, but this shouldn’t be applied to miracles in general…

From a Judeo-Christian view, God didn’t just create the world, leave it, and occasionally come back to tinker with the rules; he continually sustains it, supports it etc. So… I’m probably not making sense… but I don’t mean to imply that God’s miracles are some sort of arbitrary violation of the natural order; Nature is, in the end, just the main method by which God works in the world.

(that probably made no sense, forgive my ramblings.)

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Let’s Kill God!, or problems with Persona 5’s ending

Fingers crossed some of this actually makes sense…

Persona 5 is a pretty good game – probably one of the most enjoyable JRPGs storywise that I’ve played in a while. But while playing through the final arc of the game, the battle against Yaldabaoth, I couldn’t help but have this weird, niggling feeling that there was something deeply unsatisfying about it all.

See, I think throughout the game, there are two motives driving the Phantom Thieves as they rob the Palaces: the first is out of ideology or morality, and the second is out of necessity. At every point the protagonists have a solid reason why they have to break into the Palace and steal its Treasure, and yet it’s also their dedication to embrace freedom, to expose lies, to bring criminals to justice that drives them ever onwards.

The developers realise that it’s not enough to just have protagonists motivated by their ideals – there needs to be greater tension, higher stakes that force the Phantom Thieves not just to follow their ideals but to stick to them. Expulsion, blackmail, legal action – for every given Palace the Thieves cross a point of no return, after which they have no choice but to fulfil their mission.

But in the final Palace – the Depth of Mementos (and, later, Mementos fused with the real world) – and its ruler, Yaldabaoth, there’s something weird going on, and I think it’s that the story loses this sense of propulsion right at the story’s climax.

See, every other Palace gives a clear, firm reason for the Thieves’ involvement; not only does each Palace-owner have a crime they must expose, but each of them also poses a direct threat to the Thieves’ safety. The Thieves aren’t just self-serving opportunists changing people’s hearts to save their own skin, but neither are they mere goody-two-shoes changing people’s hearts to meet a grand ideal. Both threads give the story its momentum, its power.

Every arc gives the heroes a clear reason for getting involved. Some are more pressing than others, some more believable than others, but for every Palace right up to (and including Shido’s) there is never any doubt about why the Phantom Thieves are involved. True, the threat of a massive national data breach or of being arrested by police might be a ‘heavier’ motivation than, say, having to pose naked for some weird artist or getting kicked out of school, but regardless of the severity of the situation, every single Palace makes the heroes’ motivation clear.

Every single Palace, that is, except for Yaldabaoth’s. What makes the final Palace feel like a drop in quality storywise – at least, for me – is that what has been a clear thread of motivation is suddenly chucked right out the window.

The Thieves steal Shido’s heart, he confesses to his crimes live on TV, and turns himself in to the police. Fair enough. But then the public, who had up until now considered the Thieves Public Enemy #1, now forget all about them, treating the Thieves as if they’re a myth. Our heroes’ curiosity is piqued. Something weird is at work here, and to complicate matters, there’s nobody to corroborate Shido’s story…

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t make it entirely clear why this is an issue (it makes sense for the police to be careful about rooting out false confessions, but it’s not like there’s anyone else leaping out begging to take the blame for the shutdowns, and this is never explicitly stated.

But beside this, the game is still maintaining a relatively steady thread; something weird is going on, there’s clearly some weird force at work, and with public disbelief in the Phantom Thieves widespread, there’s a chance this may jeopardise the case against Shido. What’s more, a new area has opened up in Mementos, the place where the secret of Morgana’s past lies, so the heroes might as well take a look while they have nothing better to do.

At this stage, the do-or-die momentum of the story is starting to disappear – it’s notable that the game doesn’t even slap a deadline on you to ramp up tension, it just dumps you in Mementos and keeps you there till you progress the story – but the heroes’ actions, at least, have a reasonable, if not entirely obvious motivation. Weird shit’s going down, so it’s up to the Phantom Thieves to have a look. So far, so good.

But then it gets weird. They find out the Depths of Mementos is a prison, where the Shadow of every single human being is trapped. Ok, still makes sense. Represents how everyone’s trapped by societal norms, unwilling to fight back – and those who do try to break the mould are corrupted by power, those with distorted desires that drive them not to rescue others, but exploit them.

Then suddenly there’s this Holy Grail thing that turns out to be an ‘evil god’ that’s been pretending to be Igor all this time and made some elaborate wager involving Joker and Akechi about the true nature of humans? I’ll admit, I pretty much have no clue what happened there, and regardless of whether it actually makes some sense, it seems to have been conveyed pretty horribly.

Yaldabaoth is supposed to represent society, right? The will of the masses who don’t want life to change, to blindly accept security at the expense of morality? Fair enough. But the problem is, at this point of the game the stakes become both far too ideological and far too physical, and there’s no clear distinction between the two of them.

On the ideological, symbolic scale, Yaldabaoth must be defeated because he represents a corruption of society. He is the force that quells change, the force that keeps people clinging to a safe, familiar world even if it means allowing injustice and corruption to fester.

On a more practical scale, Yaldabaoth is also the ‘evil god’ filling Tokyo with weird-ass skeletons, Shadows, and other creepy stuff, as well as planning to destroy the world due to some kind of bet (?). But the problem is, neither of these is adequately explained, and they really don’t gel.

If Yaldabaoth is a manifestation of humanity’s desire for security and luxury at any cost, then why on earth does he want to destroy the world? How does that even work? Persona 5 may not be the most original work of fiction ever, but I think what makes it fresh is that it generally eschews typical JRPG clichés – most of the clichés and stereotypes in the game come more from anime than other video games. But suddenly this originality is tossed out the window for another world-ending apocalyptic final boss battle against God… which doesn’t really fit the rest of the game at all.

Surely considering what Yaldabaoth represents, the destruction of the world should be the exact opposite of whatever plan he wants to cook up. Destroying the world is an upheaval, a revolution, a complete 180 from life as we know it. Surely, it’d make more sense if Yaldabaoth’s plan was some Evangelion-type Assimilation Plot, or freezing humanity in a single moment of time, or trapping them all in a literal prison? But as far as I can tell, based off how much Igor and Lavenza ramble on about an ‘evil god’, it’s just a completely generic, completely unexplained ‘let’s blow up the world’ plot.

And this is why the final boss doesn’t work; because at this point the two sources of tension – ideology and physical consequences – which have run in unison throughout the entire story are completely derailed. The story treats Yaldabaoth as if he’s just some typical megalomaniac ‘evil god’, yet the characters act as if there’s some deep meaning to their struggle. To put it simply: we no longer have any idea why the Phantom Thieves are fighting. And considering we get literally 10 minutes of Joker going around and having a deep heart-to-heart with every single party member, that’s a pretty big problem.

It’s a common tactic for JRPGs to preface the final battle with a scene where the protagonists make heart-warming speeches about what they’ve learned along the way, about the power of friendship, about why the villain is wrong… But I just don’t think Persona 5 does it very well. One after the other, outside the Velvet Room, the party talks about how they’re going to fight for their justice – it’s all well and good explaining why they fight in general, but not why they’re fighting Yaldabaoth.

I don’t know, maybe I don’t make any sense, but it just feels like Yaldabaoth doesn’t work either as a physical villain or as a symbolic one. Even the whole ‘God’ theme he has going seems to strike against the game’s themes. Persona 5 is about people alienated by society, people who want to right the wrongs society turns a blind eye to. But it’s important to remember that it’s about Japanese society – that’s why the emphasis is on social corruption, rather than, say discrimination, as it would be in a more diverse nation like the US. So, it seems mildly odd, then, for Yaldabaoth to be themed after the Abrahamic god, a figure who has little influence in Japan.

An American Persona 5, I imagine, would fit this perfectly. It’d be about all the flaws and hypocrisies of society – about priests who rail against homosexuality but abuse children, politicians who proclaim Christianity but oppress the poor, about racism, sexism, homophobia, all sorts of discrimination. And religion – Christianity, which has had a huge impact on Western society for thousands of years – would in fact be highly relevant.

But in Persona 5 as we have it? Making Yaldabaoth God seems more a concession to the typical JRPG cliché of ‘Fighting God’ than something that makes sense within the game’s themes and symbolism.

Ehh, I dunno, I doubt any of that rambling makes sense. But it’s notable, I think, that the story quality seems to go up a heck of a lot after Yaldabaoth is defeated.

Sure, the ‘protagonist has to testify against Shido and go to prison’ thing doesn’t make much sense (why do they need people to testify against a man who’s already pleaded guilty?! Is this something the game pulled out of its bum or an actual quirk of the Japanese legal system?) but I think the improved quality of ending clearly drives home that it’s the characters that are the game’s strength.

It’s also interesting to note all the Palaces before Yaldabaoth’s have a clear character connection; each arc introduces a new party member whom we get to know and empathise with while fighting through the Palace.

The final arc has none of that. Yaldabaoth is something of an abstract figure, a high-and-mighty god who, let’s face it, has virtually no personal connection to our heroes at all. Why are they fighting? What’s at stake physically, emotionally, symbolically? We don’t know. And that’s why I think the entire Yaldabaoth arc just doesn’t work.

To Kill a Mockingbird, or, Racism for White People

Ask anyone what To Kill a Mockingbird is all about, and chances are the answer will be ‘racism’. Harper Lee’s magnum opus – well, let’s be fair, the only book she ever actually published – occupies an almost mystical position as The Great American Racism Novel, challenged only maaaaybe by Huckleberry Finn.

The Colour Purple? The Help? Popular enough books, well-regarded enough, but is it honestly put on the same pedestal as To Kill a Mockingbird? For decades – at least half a century – it’s been considered the be-all-and-end-all of novels on race relations, while its chief hero (though not its protagonist), Atticus Finch, has become venerated, deified, and worshiped as the pure-hearted, courageous god of Not Being Racist.

And so naturally, when the sequel Go Set A Watchman came crawling along – revealing Saint Atticus himself to have become a grumpy old racist who supports segregation – the public was horrified. How could this hero of diversity and justice turn out like this? What on earth was Lee thinking?!

Of course, not everybody was surprised – as Laura Marsh explains in her article for the New Republic, scholars who analyse the novel in detail have known for years that Atticus is a much less stellar figure than he appears. He criticises a corrupt, prejudiced system, yet doesn’t work to oppose it. He decries racism yet shows little incentive to try and change the terrible, hateful views of those around him. He promotes empathy and understanding – treating black people as human beings – yet the novel’s tragic Tom Robinson is treated more as a plot device than a solid character with thoughts and feelings.

And in this lies a huge, critical problem when it comes to the novel’s understanding of race: that, in a book that is allegedly all about the oppression, subjugation, and persecution of black people… our viewpoint characters, our protagonists, virtually anybody with an actual character worth connecting with, is white.

Tom Robinson is a cipher; a mere plot device shaped like a person. I dimly remember him having a couple lines in the actual novel, but considering how little we know of him, I wouldn’t surprised if he didn’t. I found Calpurnia a fairly cool character, but also frustratingly ill-developed. Beyond these two… who else is there? A reverend of some kind, who encourages the entire black community to rise reverently in honour of their lord and saviour Atticus Finch after he performs the rare, noble duty of doing his job as a defence lawyer.

For a couple years now certain educators America over have been calling for Mockingbird to be removed from school curriculums – and when you see it as The Racism Novel, a grand tapestry all woven together to reach the awe-inspiring, climactic conclusion that Racism Is Bad, it’s really no wonder that the novel would seem like an abject failure.

But the problem is that Racism isn’t what the novel is about.

Let’s face it, reducing books to mere ‘topics’ rarely works out. Most books aren’t written as one-to-one allegories, but as stories, from which themes, ideas, concepts arise organically. If you try to reduce Mockingbird to ‘that novel about racism’, then it becomes a caricature of the real deal, almost offensive in its narrow focus.

It’s not about Tom Robinson being sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s not about black people being treated as second-class citizens, being called worthless n*ggers and kept well away from respectable white people. It’s about Scout, Jem, and Atticus sitting round being horrified by all these things. In other words, Mockingbird is about white people and racism.

Make no mistake, I’m not saying that Mockingbird is racist – at the very least, not consciously so, which I think should be enough to give it a certain benefit of the doubt. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a book that touches on a white person’s view of Southern American racism. What is wrong is that this view is only a complementary angle to the topic as a whole; it is not the be-all-and-end-all of racism in the USA. To consider To Kill A Mockingbird The Great American Racism Novel is to miss out on a huge other side to the story.

What is Mockingbird, then? It’s not all about racism. It’s about prejudice – both racial, as in the case of Tom, and personal, as with Boo Radley. It’s about growing up and becoming aware of the hypocrisy of society. Racism is a part of that, an undeniably major element, but it’s not the point of the novel, and I think recognising that is the key to understanding and enjoying Mockingbird.

Race relations have changed since the 1960s – it would be very unfortunate if they hadn’t – and so it’s ridiculous to think that a book written back then, at the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, would still be 100% relevant in our current day and time. Racism, discrimination, and prejudice change – not in terms of what they are, but in how they’re expressed.

But the novel’s deeper themes – about courage, empathy, hypocrisy, growing up? Probably not.

(It’s interesting to contrast Mockingbird with Huck Finn, the other great American classic that deals with racism, because they take polar opposite approaches in how they deal with the topic.

Mockingbird is concerned with the ideal of equality, but not so much with individuals: Tom Robinson is the silent suffering victim, a symbol of injustice rather than a concrete, sympathetic character, indebted to Atticus for trying to save his life. Calpurnia is a maid, just doing her job. The reverend and his congregation show great respect for Atticus, but as a hero, not as a person – and all in all, we get the feeling that there’s no real connection.

Atticus may go on about how prejudice is evil, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but his devotion seems more to an abstract ideal than to actual individuals. The sympathetic white characters are kind and helpful towards the blacks, but there’s no real sense of community, of integration; they seem to exist in a state of friendly semi-segregation. Thus, Mockingbird, to our modern eyes, can’t help but give off a paternalistic, disconnected attitude towards race relations.

Huck Finn takes the opposite extreme. Slavery in general is not touched upon in great detail, and neither Huck nor even Jim come to a grand epiphany that all people are created equal, that slavery is a vile violation of human rights. Huck does decide to free Jim, yes, but not out of a belief in an abstract ideal of equality. He does it because he cares for an loves his friend.

In some ways, this actual human connection makes Huck Finn feel more ‘genuine’ than Mockingbird… but there’s also the frustrating feeling that Huck suffers from a bad case of tunnel vision. He wants Jim to be free, but this doesn’t extend to the rest of the slaves; he doesn’t realise that slavery is wrong, simply that Jim is his friend and he wants to save him alone.)

Theses on a Cruel Angel

Did Kaworu really love Shinji? It’s interesting that, despite arguably being the posterboy for weird gay bishounen in anime, the nature of Kaworu’s feelings for Shinji (and, for that matter, Shinji’s feelings for Kaworu) – like pretty much everything else in Evangelion – isn’t really that clear.

At first glance, it might seem obvious that Kaworu and Shinji are totally in love. They bathe together. Shinji blushes around him, and even lets him hold his hand – a rare show of trust from the boy who runs away from emotional connection for fear of being hurt. Kaworu talks about Shinji’s ‘heart of glass’ (the perfect pick-up line, I’m sure), tells him ‘I think I was born to meet you’, and even makes a confession of love. The news that Kaworu is an Angel comes as a cruel betrayal to Shinji, and when forced to kill his friend Shinji hesitates for almost a full minute before finally popping his head off. He even admits his love for Kaworu to Misato at the end of the episode.

Let’s face it, how much more obvious could this get? When it comes to tales of star-struck love, Kaworu and Shinji could give Romeo and Juliet a run for their money. But it’s not as simple as it seems…

What’s interesting about Evangelion is that nobody is outright ‘evil’. The entire show is based around the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, the idea that humans can’t help but hurt each other yet still yearn for each other’s company, and no matter how they might seem on the outside, everyone craves love and affirmation. Asuka acts like a typical tsundere. Gendo keeps away from his son for fear of hurting him. Shinji runs away from his fears. Rei, for the most part, remains cold and distant. Ritsuko grows progressively colder and more cynical as the series goes on, yet, like her mother, wants Gendo to truly love her. Even Hikari hides her feelings for Touji far beneath her guise as nosy class representative.

Every major player in Evangelion, deep down, needs other people – but almost every single one of them hides this need. They act strong, they act cold, they act cruel. They avoid others, unwilling to risk pain. In the case of Chairman Kiel and the Human Instrumentality Committee, they trigger a bizarre plot to transform mankind into a single consciousness just to escape the risk of being hurt by another, separate entity. Everyone in Evangelion wears a mask that hides their longing to both give and receive affection.

Everyone, that is, except Kaworu. Kaworu arrives at the lowest point of Shinji’s life so far. The mental strain of piloting the Eva is taking its toil. The horrors of fighting Angels have burnt into his brain. Touji’s in hospital, and Shinji’s to blame. Asuka’s been mind-raped by an Angel and put into a coma. Rei is cold and silent after sacrificing herself to save him. Kaji’s dead, and Misato’s grief Shinji; hearing her crying in her room, he finds himself paralysed by the fear of letting his guard down, unsure what to do for her, unsure how to help her. Gendo still treats him as nothing but a tool. Hikari and Kensuke have moved elsewhere, and, as far as Shinji knows, probably hate him for what he let happen to Touji. Ritsuko’s grown cold and bitter, locked up by NERV for blowing up the Reiquarium. Even Pen-Pen’s gone. At this moment in time, Shinji has nobody, nobody at all, and yet more than ever he finds himself craving contact, interaction, love.

And then along comes Kaworu. Kaworu shows interest in him. Kaworu shows kindness to him. Kaworu not only offers unconditional love, he offers it at the exact moment Shinji needs it most. Is it any wonder that Shinji might be a little bowled over, might find himself grappling with new, strong feelings for Kaworu? That’s not to say that it’s impossible Shinji could be in love with Kaworu, but considering the circumstances, it’s impossible to tell.

And yet, is Kaworu’s ‘love’ legit? Everyone else in Evangelion hides their desire for love underneath a mask, but Kaworu is the exception; he openly offers Shinji affection, but we have no real clue what’s happening inside his head.

Is Kaworu an ordinary teenage boy – albeit a weird one, due to having the soul of an ancient alien inside his body – finding himself head over heels for a boy he rarely knows?

Or is he SEELE’s pet project, kept locked up as a test subject for years and years, kept from real human contact? Perhaps he’s the counter-Rei; both have lived for so long without forming real connections, but whereas Rei doesn’t understand them and keeps away, Kaworu not only recognises their power but longs for them.

Or perhaps his weirdness just stems from the fact that he’s an Angel? Perhaps we’ve misunderstood Kaworu’s actions; for a normal human boy, Kaworu’s actions towards Shinji are drenched in homoeroticism, but can we really say the same of an Angel? Does Kaworu understand the implications of how he acts? Is his confession of love for Shinji romantic, platonic, or simply a general, all-encompassing love for the human species as a whole? We know from his whistling Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the beach that Kaworu has a fascination with the Lilim; could it be that Kaworu doesn’t love Shinji as a person, but rather loves Shinji because he’s a person?

Or could it be even crueller than that? Kaworu should know full well that his goal is to reunite with Adam and initiate Third Impact, and regardless of the details he’s well aware that Angels and humans cannot exist. Either Shinji must die, or he must die. Could it be that Kaworu’s a sadist? That he befriended Shinji because he knew he would betray him, because he wanted Shinji to suffer? Or, on a kinder alternative, could he have somehow hoped that forcing Shinji to kill him would somehow be good for Shinji’s wellbeing?

Or, maybe Kaworu, as an Angel, just doesn’t have a good understanding of human feelings? He knows love is important, that it carries great value, and so his confession of love to Shinji is less an affirmation of actual feelings and more an attempt to be human. Kaworu is fascinated with the Lilim, and so it’d be no surprise if he wanted to emulate them as much as possible.

And that’s without getting into the fact that Kaworu’s ‘love confession’ can also be translated as ‘I like you’, heightening the ambiguity…

As you can see, it’s not easy to understand Kaworu’s state of mind. He’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle – to be expected from a character who appeared in a single episode (and a couple of seconds of End of Evangelion) – and so it’s deeply difficult to tell how he truly felt towards Shinji.

Sure, there are other clues scattered around the place, but it’s hard to tell whether they’re reliable or not. Abandoned storyboards reveal Kaworu to have scars on his wrists – a hint, perhaps, that Kaworu’s cheerful talk of love and acceptance is a mask for his own desperate yearning for companionship – while original scripts for the episode allegedly featured a kiss between the two of them. But this just adds further frustration. Were these ideas abandoned because they were deemed bad, or simply because there was no space for them in the episode? Were they specifically rejected or simply ignored?

And let’s not even get into the manga, which had the interesting idea of turning Kaworu into a weird cat-killing, boundaries-crossing stalker – in other words, pretty much the exact opposite of Kaworu in the anime, whose entire point was that he was supposed to be the perfect friend for Shinji. And of course, there’s Rebuild Kaworu, who ramps the incorruptible Jesus-figure-ness up to obscene levels and ends up outright sacrificing himself to bear the punishment for Shinji’s sin.

But are Kaworu’s statements genuine? That’s difficult to answer. Is it all an act, another wall put up to protect himself, to hide from pain? Let’s not forget that the walls people form have a very physical form as AT Fields in Evangelion; as an Angel, Kaworu’s Field is much stronger than a human one, and yet is it significant that his is only deployed in the battle with Shinji?

It’s impossible to say, but let’s face it, mysteries like this – ranging from the grand (‘What the hell is going in End of Evangelion?’) to the interesting, if irrelevant (‘Who shot Ryouji Kaji?’) all the way down to the inane (‘Is Misato’s hair purple or black?’) – are the core of Evangelion. There’s no confirmed answer; the truth about Evangelion is what you make of it. In the wise words of Anno himself:

“Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know. Any person can see it and give his/her own answer. In other words, we’re offering viewers to think by themselves, so that each person can imagine his/her own world. We will never offer the answers, even in the theatrical version. As for many Evangelion viewers, they may expect us to provide the ‘all-about Eva’ manuals, but there is no such thing. Don’t expect to get answers by someone. Don’t expect to be catered to all the time. We all have to find our own answers.”

Or, in the even wiser words of a treasured meme:

i have no bloody clue meme.png

(from http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/543380-neon-genesis-evangelion)

The Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Warning: As with any kind of analysis/examination of classic literature, this entire post is full of garbage. Be wary.

There’s been a lot of things said about the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over the years. Ernest Hemingway called it “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Louisa May Alcott, on the other hand, was so struck by its vulgarity that she said that if the author ‘cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.’ T.S. Eliot called it ‘the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece’.

And yet in modern times – barring the occasional criticism of the book’s use of the n-word -it’s considered a masterpiece of English literature, the first great American novel, a stunning achievement in style and voice, a book grounded in moral force – feel free to insert your own stirring compliments wherever you please. High schools hand it out as assigned reading. Spark Notes provides page upon page on themes, characters, quotes.

So naturally, it sounds like the kind of book that nobody but English teachers would read nowadays – which is a shame, because, like most classic literature, when freed from the cold, vicelike grip of academia Huckleberry Finn is actually an entertaining book. It has its funny moments – Huck dressing up as a girl, the amusing discussion between Jim and Huck about kings and speaking French, Tom and his crew trying to figure out what holding someone for ransom actually means. It has its serious moments – Jim fleeing from slavery, Huck’s moral crisis, a pair of con artists scamming a bunch of orphans out of their inheritance. For most of the novel these are kept in check – there are moments of side-splitting hilarity and of depressing tragedy, of course, but ultimately the story is always treated seriously.

That’s not the same as saying the story itself is always serious. Rather, I mean that the novel, while full of zany and colourful characters, never allows the comedy to undermine the driving tension of the story. The story never loses sight of the fact that Jim is a fugitive from the law, but neither does it overshadow the wackier parts of the tale.

Without the humour, Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t exist, but without the solemnity of Jim’s predicament to lend backbone to the story, the entire novel would dissolve into a series of funny vignettes. Without it, Huckleberry Finn would just be Tom Sawyer all over again.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Tom Sawyer. It’s a good book, a fun book, and it would be wrong to say there’s nothing serious to it. There’s stolen gold, close shaves with death, and a savage murderer, after all – but there’s something about it that doesn’t quite feel the same. Tom Sawyer is a boys’ own adventure from start-to-finish, about a troublemaker with a heart of gold looking to amuse himself, and so the entire business with Injun Joe comes across less as a serious predicament and more so as just another adventure.

And the reason why, I think, lies in a key difference between the two books. Tom Sawyer is a boys’ own adventure told by a wry, distant narrator; we laugh at Tom tricking the other boys into painting the fence, gape at the audacity of he and Huck turning up to their own funerals, tremble with suspense as the two of them eavesdrop on Injun Joe in the haunted house. Everything is about action – not in the sense of fights or battles, but in the sense that we read just to see what crazy antics Tom will get himself into next chapter.

Huckleberry Finn is a different beast: it’s a coming-of-age story, and herein lies the gap. Tom may be an amusing character – smart and mischievous, with a heart of gold underneath all his troublemaking – but there’s no real sense that he grows or changes throughout the novel. Perhaps he grows a little more sympathetic to poor old Aunt Polly after faking his death, and perhaps his willingness to take Becky Thatcher’s punishment shows a newfound selfishness, but whatever character development Tom undergoes is a subplot, a side dish to the main course of getting lost in caves and finding lost gold and camping out on islands. Huck Finn, on the other hand, places a lot more emphasis not just on its protagonist’s thoughts and feelings (chiefly, through use of a direct first-person perspective instead of an invisible third-person narrator), but also on how he changes and grows throughout the novel.

It would be wrong to overstate just how much of a change that Huck’s adventure triggers in him – he doesn’t end the novel swearing a one-man crusade against slavery, nor does he become some kind of wise, all-knowing wanderer – but unlike Tom, there is a change.

See, on the surface, Tom seems like a rebel. He plays pranks, breaks the rules, and generally does his very best to give his poor aunt a heart attack. But deep down, Tom is just like the rest of society; happy, complacent, self-assured of his place. He may be an orphan, but he has an aunt who looks after him, cousins who care for him, friends who follow him. Tom, for better or for worse, is settled comfortable into society, and thus there’s no real indication that he’s going to change anytime soon.

Huck is different. Huck is an outsider from the start; independent, uneducated, an orphan in all but name. He doesn’t want to be civilised, he doesn’t want to be schooled, and while he doesn’t outright rebel against society, he’s content to live outside it. And I think this is the key reason why Huck changes so much as Tom stays the same.

How does Huck change? Unlike Tom, with his fanciful games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Huck, during his journey along the river, sees real injustice in the world around him. Sometimes in society – in the hypocrisy of a Christian country that believes in treating Jim as chattel, or in the foolish, bitter rivalry between two families wrought by rigid Southern codes of honour – and sometimes just in individuals – in the king, eager to scam defenceless girls out of their money, or in the thieves who attacked the steamboat.

And by seeing a little more of the world as it really is, Huck comes to realise that there are higher values than human law, that the right thing to do is not always what others tell you, that society is not always right. The world of Tom Sawyer may be one of stern, unimaginative adults, but it is fundamentally a good one; the threat to peace, to goodness comes not from some dark hypocrisy festering within society but from Injun Joe, a frightening, foreign outsider. The world of Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, is one where evil comes not always from beyond, but often from society itself.

Let’s not exaggerate here; Huckleberry Finn isn’t some anarchist handbook, calling for the destruction of a corrupt, venal civilization. Nor does it end with Huck becoming a crusader against injustice, rallying against slavery, crying for revolution, joining the Underground Revolution. From a modern perspective, there are certainly problems with elevating a book with a single key black character by a white, male author into the Great American Racism Novel, as some people do (a mistake also often made with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is an even worse fit for the title) – and so it would be a terrible mistake to over-emphasise Huck as some sort of brave opponent of slavery, a champion for equal rights, because he really isn’t.

But it would be just as wrong to say that Huck doesn’t change at all, because he does.

Huckleberry Finn is all about how Huck’s understanding of the world around him develops – how he learns something about human nature and society that no school would ever teach him – and so it’s a real shame that for the final few chapters of the novel, pretty much all of this goes out the window, because Tom’s arrival sends Huckleberry Finn spinning off helplessly into a ditch to be replaced by The Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

After an entire book built around Huck and Jim’s run from the law – narrow escapes and close brushes – good old Tom Sawyer comes along and transforms everything into a game. Jim’s freedom is no longer a matter of life or death, but something to play around with, a new and novel toy with which to play cowboys and Indians.

This is bad from a thematic point of view – but moreover, it’s bad even from a dramatic point of view. Stories need tension, a force that drives the story. It needs stakes, it needs a task of sorts that must be accomplished, whether it be an external threat or inner turmoil. For the bulk of Huckleberry Finn, that tension has been two-fold: both the struggle to bring Jim to freedom and Huck’s dilemma over whether or not he’s doing the right thing. Just before Tom’s arrival hijacks the book, Huck finally resolves the second tension, deciding that he’s going to help his friend, ‘the right thing’ be damned. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”

And so you’d expect the final few chapters to be a climax for Huck’s character – where he sticks to his convictions and tries his very best to save Jim; where he lets nothing, not man or creature, threats of heaven or hell, get in his way. When Tom turns up and suggests they turn this into a game – dig tunnels underneath Jim’s tent, cooking up ‘witch pies’, dressing up as servant girls – you might even expect a chance for Huck to finally shine.

He’s spent so long in Tom’s shadow, after all, going along with whatever crazy schemes he cooks up – but now (as far as Huck knows) Jim’s very freedom hangs in the balance. Huck has seen more of the world than Tom, he knows it’s not just a place for fun and games, he knows that Jim isn’t just a plaything. This is his chance to stick to his conviction. This is his chance to stand up to Tom. This is his chance to show just how much he’s changed.

Tom may fancy himself a troublemaker, but he’s ultimately no different to the rest of Southern society; he may mean no harm to Jim, and he may treat him as a full human being, but Jim is still an object to him – an adventure, a playmate, perhaps even a toy. Tom knows that Jim’s already been given his freedom, and instead of sharing this wonderful news, he leaves Jim and Huck to suffer for the sake of a game. He doesn’t mean any malice by it, but neither do many of the slave-owners. There could’ve been so much made of this…

And instead… it looks like Mark Twain didn’t know what to write and decided he’d be better off padding it out with the Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer – as T.S. Eliot states ‘In Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain wrote a much greater book than he could have known he was writing.’ Had he consciously tried to write a book of such magnitude, Twain would no doubt have failed; at the same time, with this lack of self-awareness there was little to stop Twain from slipping back into Tom Sawyer’s world, losing both tension and meaning.

It’s disappointing, because as it currently stands, the ending seems like an enormous missed opportunity… Opportunity for tension: to expand on the tension of Jim’s flight from slavery, to create tension between Huck, who has allowed compassion and love for another human being to take precedence over cold, ruthless law, and Tom, who remains blind and innocent. We probably can’t blame Twain for this – telling authors how they should’ve written their novels, particularly one as famous as this, is an exercise in hubris.

But still, it’s a shame… And I’m not alone in thinking that the ending could’ve been so much better. Let’s give the last word to Ernest Hemingway, who will hopefully lend a touch of literary class to what has essentially been me whining for 2000 words:

“If you must read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”

–  Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

(Final note: When I first wrote this, I was quite proud of myself for coming up with these ideas. Then while writing the 2nd draft I came across T.S. Eliot’s introduction to the novel, which basically says the exact same thing but with much more insight, depth, and clarity. Which is only to be expected, seeing as he was a great and famous poet and I’m… not. But anyway, if you like the book you should read the introduction, which can be found here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-introduction-to-huckleberry-finn-annotated)

Homura’s Rebellion (2): Selflessness

(Part 1 here)

Shortly before her Witch transformation completes, Homura tells Madoka about a frightening ‘dream’ she had – one where Madoka went far away, never to be seen again, forgotten by everyone except Homura…

Homura: I was so lonely and sad… But no one understood how I felt. I started to think all my memories of you were just things I’d made up… I thought I was going crazy…

Madoka: You’re right… That dream does sound awful. But it’s okay now, really! I’m not going anywhere, especially if it’s so far away I couldn’t see you again. I’d never do something like that.

– Rebellion

Madoka knows nothing of the truth here – she’s an amnesiac decoy, sent in to rescue Homura and undermine the Incubators’ plan – and so she answers honestly. She loves her friends, her family – she would never do something like this, because she doesn’t think she has the courage to leave everyone she loves behind, that it would hurt far too much.

And in this critical moment, everything comes undone for Homura. She fought to protect Madoka for so long across so many timelines, only to reluctantly accept her sacrifice out of love and devotion – and now… now she understands the full extent of Madoka’s sacrifice, and realises what a fool she’s been.

Madoka’s suffering is the ultimate evil for Homura, something she can never allow to happen… and her sacrifice to become the Law of Cycles – forgotten even by her own family, never seeing them ever again – is perhaps one of the cruellest fates she can imagine. And so, Homura decides that anything that causes Madoka pain is automatically her enemy – in other words, the greatest threat to Madoka’s wellbeing is Madoka herself.

And so, Homura sees herself as left with no choice. Madoka is her idol, is the thing she would give up anything to protect. If Madoka’s greatest enemy is Madoka – the goddess of this world – then Homura can do nothing but transform herself into the Devil.

And in this action lies a certain twisted selflessness. Consider what Devil-Homura says to Madoka in the film’s conclusion.

Homura: Well then, I suppose one day, you’ll also be my enemy. It’s fine, I don’t care. I’ll keep wishing for a world where you can be happy.

Rebellion

In these few lines lies the entirety of what Homura has done. Out of love for Madoka, she has turned herself into the Devil, a suitable foe to fight a Goddess. Out of love for Madoka, she has imprisoned the girl within a prison of illusions. Out of love for Madoka, she has essentially renounced Madoka’s love.

Homura’s willingness to make Madoka her enemy – her little pet bird singing sweetly in her garden of illusions – is, in a twisted sense, utterly selfless; Homura puts Madoka’s welfare first and foremost, even if it means Madoka will reject her, fight her, even, perhaps, hate her. In order to show her love for Madoka, Homura risks cutting herself off from ever being loved by Madoka in return.

When you love someone else, you naturally expect them to love you back – you want them to love you back, even if only in some minuscule way. But here is the paradox of Homura’s selfless, selfish love; she expects nothing of the sort. Madoka may not necessarily hate her – she seems too kind and loving for that – but by acknowledging that she and Madoka will eventually become bitter foes, Homura realises that she can expect no reward for her actions.

And yet she has decided to sacrifice herself for Madoka. Homura believes with all her heart that Madoka is suffering as a result of her wish, and so she decides to take that burden from her shoulders. She has the choice of taking Madoka’s hand and being with her forever in Magical Girl Valhalla… but as long as even the possibility of Madoka’s suffering exists, Homura will not accept it.

There is no reward for this selfless action – if anything, this will only drive Madoka further away – but Homura does it anyway because, despite her flaws, she truly cares for Madoka’s wellbeing. Her understanding is warped, her love twisted – she is, after all, essentially a Witch – but regardless Homura acts not out of desire for gain but out of pure altruism. In the end, Homura rejects Heaven and damns herself to Hell because she believes Madoka is suffering, deep down, and Madoka’s pain is more important than her own happiness.

Witches are born when magical girls make selfish wishes. Goddess are born when their wishes are pure and selfless.

It’s no surprise that a wish that contained both, a paradox fuelled by selfish desire and selfless love, would create the Devil herself.

Homura’s Rebellion (1)

(obviously huge spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, series and Rebellion. If you haven’t seen it then this is not only of absolutely no interest but incomprehensible, so you’d better leave…)

Kyubey: I don’t believe it. Your tainted Soul Gem should have disappeared with your soul, but it hasn’t! Why?

Homura: Because I remembered why I repeated time and suffered over and over again; my feelings for Madoka, they run so deep that even pain has become precious to me. And as for my Soul Gem? A curse isn’t what’s tainted it.

Kyubey: Then what is?

Homura: Something you can’t understand, Incubator. It is the pinnacle of all human emotion. More passion than hope, much deeper than despair. Love!

Rebellion

Did Homura do the right thing? Madoka fans should know what I’m talking about right, away, and I’m sure if you’re one of them you already know the answer deep down: Of course she did nothing wrong! She defied the laws of the universe through sheer force of will, fought off despair through the power of love, and became something more than a Witch all for the sake of saving Madoka and finally giving those bastard Incubators their just desserts… oh, wait…

Can’t you see? It’s obvious how badly she screwed up. She might not’ve been trying to be evil, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions: not only did tear Madoka apart against her own will, but she undid the entire delicate balance of despair and hope all to fulfil her own crazy fantasy – not to mention she torturing the Incubators into insanity with the weight of despair and wiping everyone’s memories… but then again, she did it all for a good cause, right? This new world she’s made might not be reality, in the strictest sense, but what is actually wrong with it? The Incubators suffer, but they had it coming. Homura suffers, but this is a sacrifice she is willing to make.

But it’s wrong to see Homura either as a pure villain or a selfless heroine, because ultimately her actions are absolutely selfless and utterly selfish – perhaps the same paradox that allows her to transcend the boundaries of magical girls and Witches and channel the power of ‘love’ to become the Devil.

Homura is selfish because she pursues her ideal of protecting Madoka without any concern for what she truly wants. She transforms into a Devil to rip Madoka away from ‘imprisonment’ – imprisonment she chose out of love and desire to save not just her friends but every magical girl ever. In doing so she outright rejects Madoka’s choice, still clinging to her cherished role as Madoka’s protector, and instead strips her of her powers to return her to mortal form.

This is not an abrupt change nor a sudden collapse into temptation on Homura’s part, but rather an integral part of how she views Madoka – as an idol, as something to protect, as a treasure so fragile it needs to be protected from itself. This is not a healthy relationship, because at practically every single point, it is marred by inequality.

For shy, unsure, lonely Homura, Madoka’s friendship is the first significant relationship she’s had in years, and she feels indebted to her, in awe of this warm, kind, beautiful girl who was willing to reach out to someone as weak and foolish as Homura. From the get-go, Madoka is Homura’s idol – and so when Madoka dies horrifically against Walpurgisnacht, Homura makes the decision to become a magical girl and turn back time to save her.

And yet… nothing works. Madoka dies time and time again, and Homura is forced to become colder and colder – and yet her devotion to Madoka never diminishes. In a cruel twist, as this abstract ‘love’ grows, her actual bond with Madoka fades away.

Homura takes it upon herself to become Madoka’s protector, interfering desperately in the final cycle to prevent her from making the fatal decision to become a magical girl and make her wish. Madoka never understands, never fully realises the pain that Homura’s been through, nor how much she means to her.

Homura wants Madoka more than anything – not necessarily as a friend, or a wife, or an object to be prized, but something to control, something to protect. For Madoka, on the other hand, Homura is a stranger, perhaps a friend – but nothing more. Even in the dream world created by Homura’s Witch barrier, Homura still grapples with her memories of reality, almost too afraid to accept the fact that Madoka is safe and sound lest it crumble just like that. Homura and Madoka exist on two parallel lines, constantly running side-by-side, growing closer at times but ultimately never meeting.

Never, that is, except for once: when Madoka makes her wish, and transforms into the transcendental, godlike Law of Cycles, at which point the tables are almost hopelessly reversed. Madoka understands Homura’s love and devotion… but she can never truly return it. Why?

Love is ultimately selfish, in a sense. We give our love to those whom we think are worthy of it – either to the people who will return it, or the people who amuse us, or those who, by dint of being our own flesh and blood, act almost as a mirror of sorts to ourselves. No human ever truly loves someone unconditionally – even a mother who unconditionally loves her traitorous, murderous son does so, on some level, out of instinct, out of a subconscious desire to see her genes spread, out of an inability to hate the life she herself has produced.

By that some token, human love cannot ever truly be selfless, because to do so it would have to embrace every single living being. Homura, by loving Madoka so intently, leaves no love for anybody else; Madoka is her be-all-and-end-all, the rest of the world be damned.

But when Madoka becomes the Law of Cycles, she rejects this. In making a truly selfless wish, she loses her very self; she becomes unable to love any single person more than the others. Her love is boundless, unconditional – and so, it is only when she finally understands the depth of Homura’s love for her that she becomes unable to return it.

Homura is Madoka’s dear friend. But Madoka is Homura’s raison d’etre.

Homura loves Madoka more than anything. Madoka loves all magical girls equally. There’s no indication that Madoka and Homura feel the same for each other, no indication of equality. And when a relationship lacks equality, it’s far too easy for illusions, ideals, and idols to form.

Homura, in her mind, transforms Madoka into the ultimate prize, into the damsel in distress, the purpose to which Homura’s entire life must be sacrificed, if necessary. Madoka’s opinion, her very feelings, are irrelevant; Homura can and must do anything to pursue her selfish dream of protecting her. Just before Madoka makes her wish to wipe out all Witches, they have this exchange:

Madoka: I finally figured it out what I wanna wish for. I know what I want now more than anything else. And I’m ready to trade my life for it with no regrets.

Homura: But you can’t! If you do then, everything I’ve fought for, it’s all for nothing!

– Episode 12: ‘My Very Best Friend’

 

From Homura’s perspective, she’s entirely right to try and stop Madoka from making the wish. She’s seen this happen too many times before, seen this kind, idealistic girl absolutely destroyed, seduced by the forbidden fruit Kyuubey offers. How is Homura to know that this is different – that this is the wish that will free countless magical girls from despair, from a cruel, indignified death? She doesn’t.

What Madoka offers here is hope – she offers hope that the future can be better, that she has a plan to undo all the evils worked by the relentless cycle of despair. Homura can take a leap of faith and trust in Madoka, trust in the girl she ‘loves’ so much – or she can reject this dangerous hope and continue to believe that she knows best. She does neither – instead, she stands by helplessly as Madoka makes a contract with the Incubator and becomes a magical girl.

And this is what’s wrong with their relationship. Regardless of how Homura feels for Madoka – platonically, romantically, sisterly (it’s not entirely clear, but the inequality of their relationship suggests it’s probably not that healthy) – to have a working, functional, loving relationship you need trust. Trust is a willingness to be vulnerable, to accept the possibility that the other person may hurt you in some way.

Homura, in her drive to protect Madoka, to constantly shield her from any possible misfortune, does none of this. She places no trust in Madoka because Madoka is less a person to be loved and more a saint to be revered.

In this light, Homura’s actions in Rebellion – ripping Madoka out of ‘heaven’, undoing her wish, transforming into the Devil and reshaping the universe by sheer force of will – are deeply, if not utterly selfish… And yet, perhaps, that’s not all there is to it…

(to be continued…)

(that makes this sound a lot more interesting than this actually is…)