23 June 2011

If there's a shortcut, I'd have found it, but there's no easy way around it

Light of the world, shine on me.

One thing that's very interesting in the Abrahamic religious tradition is this idea of the tragedy of prophecy. The idea that when Universe Central taps you on the shoulder and says "oi! pass on this message!", you are not in for a good time. Prophets are always getting stoned to death, crucified, shot with arrows, betrayed by their nearest and dearest, cursed and slandered, etc, and Universe Central doesn't do anything to help. Even the religious experience itself is portrayed in disturbing terms. The Holy Spirit, in the Christian tradition, is said to descend "like a dove". Have you ever had a pigeon land on your head? It's nothing but feathers and shit. And in this case it's DIVINE feathers and shit.

That's why these modern "You Are The Chosen One" myths fail somewhat because they don't point out that being the hero in the World-As-Is - to be technically accurate, making a commitment to act from somewhere else than your own immediately perceived selfish interests - is not going to end up with you being King and getting the Girl (or whatever gender). Actually, the best modern account of the tragedy of prophecy is Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, which gets it just right despite the fact that Pterry was an atheist until he got sick. And as for our secular prophets of revolution - MLK and Malcolm X were shot, Karl Marx died in poverty and 11 people came to his funeral, Ché Guevara ended up dead in a jungle. Fighting the good fight is not a pleasant lifestyle choice.


The more I think about it, the more I think that perhaps my real "religion" (in Sufi terms, my shari`a as opposed to my tariqah) is still the Church of the SubGenius. Yeah. I am sure that Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley would be kind of shocked to know that people are reading this who really, truly are Discordians - but I think Ivan Stang kind of accepts that there are people who really, truly are SubGenii (as long as they keep buying swag). And - let's face it, people - J. R. "Bob" Dobbs is a pretty damn good folk-hero for the lumpen intelligensia and the petty-creatives. Congratulations, Stang, you and Philo created something that works.

A hundred years ago, the freed slaves and children of freed African-American slaves sat around on the porch and told hilarious lies about John the Conqueror, which is pretty much what SubGenii do today WRT "Bob". Big John wouldn't pick cotton, he wouldn't bale hay, he wouldn't take a licking and he wouldn't run away; whereas every time "Bob" screws up, he makes a million dollars. (The Polynesian people's stories of Maui fulfill a similar social function.) Every era and culture and subculture creates its own mythology, its own way of being, its own gods and demigods and folk heroes, its own working religion - practical code of ethics, plus rituals to make sense of the world we live in.

You see, that's the problem for those of us out on the edge - we want to change the world we live in, change the community we came from, but we're not individuals, we live our lives in the matrix of community. But the problem comes when we turn the organisations we build to try to change our world into new communities - that's the basis of sectarianism, a turning away from the Real World of Horrible Jobs into an exciting "pocket universe" where we get to be Big Cheeses and heroes of our own narratives of Great Revolutionary Heroes. (I'm always impressed by how thoroughly the Spartacists and offshoots manage this - obsessively taping all their internal meetings, memorising the history of every ridiculous faction fight in their tradition, and in all other ways behaving as if what happened inside their group was the important thing. But it's common in pretty much all radical groups.)

That's where "small group psychosis" comes from - voluntarily withdrawing into a tiny universe that we created ourselves, and forgetting that it's all just something we made up and that it doesn't really mean a damn thing in real terms. In contrast, a real revolutionary or saint lives in the real communities where they are at and then brings Love In Action to bear in that community. ("Love in Action" is here identical to what Crowley would have called "True Will".)

I think perhaps the Sufi distinction between shari`a and tariqah is useful here. Shari`a, in our own sense, is "how we live our real day-to-day lives in the Real World of Horrible Jobs, how we take care of our needs, have fun, deal with other beings and the real physical world - our Rules for Living". Tariqah would then be "the discipline we accept in order to bring about change in ourselves and in the Real World of Horrible Jobs". The two are orthogonal to one another - they function by incompatible rules. Which is why Hazrat-e-Pir, Dr Nurbakhsh, was fond of saying "the master's faith is the disciple's infidelity" - what you have to do to bring Light or Revolution or whatever into the World-As-Is is completely a separate matter to the rules we follow for surviving and thriving in the World-As-Is.

God or "Bob" or whoever doesn't need you to do rituals - you need you to do rituals, preferably within the matrix of community, otherwise you will never have a solid and healthy basis to work from when "Bob" or God or whoever lands on your head like a big smelly pigeon and asks you to do something impossible. I don't think it matters what rituals you do in your community, as long as your community's practice is for Love and Quality and against braindeath. And I think you also need to have "escapism" - little private worlds where you do get to play pretend and tell stories where you are a hero, like sci-fi fandom or following a football team or whatever. Just as long as you don't start mistaking them for real life, for your tariqah.

As for practical ethics, Frank Zappa never joined the Church of the SubGenius, but he did approve of them, and I think his moral code works well:

Do what you want, do what you will,
Just don't mess up your neighbour's thrill
And when you pay the bill, kindly leave a little tip
To help the next poor sucker on his one-way trip.

And a quote from Grant Morrison, whose work is proving suprisingly helpful to me at the moment: "The Solid World is the only place where an ugly caterpillar can become a beautiful butterfly." Things change into other things. That is the central secret of life in this world - the materialist dialectic, but also the essential spiritual insight of Heraclitus, Gautama Buddha, and virtually every mystic who was worth a shit. All that exists only exists in one time and in one place; only in the depths of consciousness is there anything pure and eternal (or foul and sinful). The question is whether we can overcome the contradiction between the shari`a of daily survival and the tariqah of becoming something more than heredity and environment programmed us for, so we can eventually end up at the haqiqah of... I dunno.