Saturday, August 27, 2011

One must seek to become human and to love the fact of one's humanity

Inspired by NPR's recent list of top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, a coworker and I have been comparing notes on our respective SF educations, and trying to help each other other close up some gaps. So I was scanning my shelves the other night, looking for a copy of something or other, and was delighted to find a beat-up old paperback, which I immediately set about rereading.

The War Hound and World's Pain, by Michael Moorcock, is not on NPR's list (though, his Elric saga is). My copy was printed in 1982, and it's likely I acquired and read it that same year, or the year after. The pages are severely yellowed, the spine cracked, with whole sections of pages breaking free of their gluey bonds, and the book smells intensely of that used-book-shop smell, though it's only ever been used by me, and a friend or two (the books on either side of it don't smell at all). I wrote my name inside it; I recognize my highschool penmanship.

The language of the book, quite deliberately, is stilted and somewhat formal, to mimic the style of a journal as written in 1680. I am surprised that my 13-year-old self would've got on with it. But it must've been hard to resist the callout on the back cover:

WITHIN A WITHERED FOREST, IN A PALACE RICH AND DESOLATE, A MAN LOVED A WOMAN — AND MADE A PACT WITH SATAN!

Now, at 13, I'm sure I knew about the holy grail, King Arthur, Monty Python, and all that, but I think I thought of it more as a treasure quest — the "holy" part of it eluded me.

Yet, I connected with this book. (I've held on to it for almost 30 years, and think of it as a favourite, but haven't really examined why until now.) I read it at a time when I no longer believed in God (hadn't done so since I was 4), I was mystified by the hold organized religion had over so many, and it was increasingly difficult to come up with excuses to get out of church on Sunday mornings (without resorting to the actual truth and devastating my mother). At the same time, this book opened my eyes to the curiosities of religious mythology — I realized I could be interested in and educated about religion and religious culture without actually being religious, without taking sides. (And so began a lifelong fascination with the story of Lilith.)

So in retrospect, I think this novel helped me to consolidate my atheism, to begin to glory in my humanness, to be true to myself.

"All I have learned, lady, is to accept the world's attributes as they are. I have learned, I suppose, an acceptance of my own self, an acceptance of Man's ability to create not sensations and marvels but cities and farms which order the world, which bring us justice and sanity."

"Aha," she said. "Is that all you learned, then, young man? Is that all?"

"I think so," I said. "The marvellous is of necessity a lie, a distortion. At best it is a metaphor which leads to the truth. I think that I know what causes the World's Pain, lady. Or at least I think I know what contributes to that Pain."

"And what would that be, Ulrich von Bek?"

"By telling a single lie to oneself or to another, by denying a single fact of the world as it has been created, one adds to the World's Pain. And pain, lady, creates pain. And one must not seek to become saint or sinner, God of Devil. One must seek to become human and to love the fact of one's humanity."

I became embarrassed. "That is all I have learned, lady."

"It is all that Heaven demands," she said.

I still don't believe in heaven, but I am glad to be reminded of von Bek's lesson in humility and humanity.
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