I’m glad there are no demons. Driving home from Paranormal Activity, I felt this more strongly than any fear or pop-culture association. It was scary in the theater, but the thing didn’t lose me a minute of sleep. I’m so glad. Life’s so good. We’re so free.
On my list of books to finally read, The Brothers Karamarzov has cut ahead in line. That’s where the phrase comes from; "Without God, everything is permitted." I’ve been on a ten year trip from Jesus Kid to nerdy Catholic to Agnostic. For my own life, I’d put it differently.
Without god, anything is permitted.
The universe is skull-fuckingly large, and our place in it is laughable. This was even more obvious to people before we carved out a real habitat. When anything in the woods could kill us, and an infected chicken scratch could take an arm off. Trying to reason with this world seems like a futile, degrading, scary exercise. But we want to talk to it anyway. Beause that’s what we do.
But once fear has a face, we have to accord it manners. Social standing. Rules. And to honestly depict the demon, in order to explain its power over us, we always seem to give it authority. A realm to rule, tribute to expect. Moods and desires which, once we expect them, it seems like our fault we offend. Demonizing takes forces that are impersonal, and, you know, justifies them.
That’s a critical transition. It is hard enough to kill a tiger. Imagine your bow-stringing interrupted by thoughts that the tiger or jungle might be sacred. Might deserve to win. Might give your infant smallpox, in revenge. That whether this is true or not is not up to you. That when you take the shot, your aim and skill are literally pointless.
Someone read The Death of Hector on the radio last night, and that was perfect. In a haunted, intrusive world, even a duel between the two strongest men of all time turns into a puppet show. It’s poetic, but those poor guys are having their arms jerked around, their strength enhanced or snapped like voodoo dolls. In most of the old epics, the only action that matters is pleasing or tricking or begging the right gods.
Okay, now you’re just fucking with me.
We’ve been pushing back into the forests for a while now, and haven’t found satyr, or dragons, or angels. We translate the received words, and recognize the handwriting of scared, clever, imaginative people like ourselves. This work exposes us to the void. It also gives us a harder, quieter, more worthwhile choice than Salvation.
It asks for responsibility.
In a world where we’re not groveling toward the window, we can’t point at the sky and blame. If we get to roll our eyes at Jeremiads, we have to give up our Davidians. Sanity, logic and respect become crucial to our lives, and they are hard to maintain in the face of those indulgences.
From Ecclesiastes to Voltaire to our staff advisor, this road has been depicted as very hard. And we, as petty and nasty as advertised. The prognosis is most of us will kick the shit out of ourselves, and others. Or if we get anywhere, we’ll chase our fantasies in circles until we arrive, exhausted, at the desire to be honest.
The gun is in your hand … the gun is in … my hand.
None of this sounds as fun as animal sacrifice, or as dramatic as a faith healing. And it lacks the crucial satisfaction of putting other people in Hell. In the ghostless world, those fuckers all get away with it. As much as anyone gets away with it.
But in our world, nothing’s chasing you.
I mean, forget being forbidden to love unbelievers you love anyway, or commanded to convert others whose permission you need to get the permission you need from God to even live, or being an adolescent and dead sure you’re under orders to castrate yourself, and that you need to beg for forgiveness not just for that, but for being too much of a coward to do so. Forget holy wars.
The most insidious thing about gods, is you have to apologize to them for wishing they did not exist. For believing in them completely, and trying to please their whims, and rationally hating every minute of it. Because they can hear you speak and hear you think, and whimpering when they hurt you is a sign you don’t love them enough.
In the end, all gods are demons. And for the feeling of power, or certainty, or the great drama they give our lives, they will take those lives as payment.
None of this means monster stories are less awesome. They can warn us about sex and stepping under ladders, or go all the way to asking if we really want free will. Whether we can justify our cares in a universe that doesn’t. They can make us laugh at our own fantasies, which is always called for.
So I’ve come out of these hauntings optimistic. That if we can’t ride dragons, we can at least do something. Anything that reflects our own knowledge, or desires, or hopes. Anything that matters to us, each other, and a future we can only imagine. If this isn’t all a game in service to a demon, then to me, things actually matter.
Or maybe this is the pleasant delusion of someone who was no good at reverence. And when I die, the bastard(s) will get me in the end.
But until then, when the hooves are at my door, I will never apologize for saying what I think.
UPDATE: Here is the weirdest thing about this post. When I wrote it, I did not know that Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World, existed.
I question that. I remember a night friends and I riffed on this joke about a bodybuilder gone crazy. We sat in a circle and drank cheap wine and yelled BONESAW WILL GET YOU. BONESAW CARES NOT FOR SEX. BONESAW IS LITHUANIAN. Or something.
Late in the game, someone said "isn’t that the guy from Spiderman?"
We looked around and were embarrassed. We thought we had come up with it.
Human brains are complicated and random and meat. I wish I could know that I did not know about this touchstone book about athiesm before I ripped it off. But I don’t know that.
I got it on Kindle today. I’ll read it gratefully.