Column: The Fire Is Here

Heathen Chinese —  November 29, 2015 — 49 Comments

Five people protesting the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, are shot and injured by a group of white men in Minneapolis. A candidate for the United States Presidency says that a database for all Muslims is “certainly something we should start thinking about.” When asked the difference between such an idea and Nazi Germany’s registration of Jews and other minorities, his only reply was, “You tell me, you tell me. Why don’t you tell me.” The same candidate’s white supporters physically attack a black heckler at a rally; the candidate states in an interview, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” In Greece, the neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn, which has no relation to the occult organization, became the third leading party in the country by winning 7% of the vote in the elections this September, approximately 500,000 votes.

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

What do Pagans and Polytheists see when they read the news; when they look at history? Do they see deviations from an inevitable progressive march from animism and polytheism to monotheism to atheism, from savagery to barbarism to civilization? Or do they see the snake of the ouroboros choking on its own tail time and time again? Do they see what Walter Benjamin described in 1940 — what the Angel of History sees? “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” Or as Rhyd Wildermuth wrote recently, “History doesn’t really ‘repeat itself,’ but it’s full of repeating forms.”

Benjamin, looking at the current events of his own time, wrote that those who viewed the rise of fascism as a regression from some sort of historically-ordained “progress” only hindered the struggle against it. He wrote, “The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

When the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains the demographics of his newly-appointed Cabinet by saying “Because it’s 2015,” he displays the same kind of historical blindness that Benjamin critiques. Have the Laws of History decreed that sexism, racism and fascism are not possible in 2015, that they are mere fossils from the past? Should we greet fascism’s continuity and its re-emergence with astonishment? Or with preparedness?

In a fragment from The Arcades Project, Benjamin suggested an alternate conception of history. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” Can you hear the reverberating echo of the final prophecy of The Morrígan at the Second Battle of Mag Tuired (section 167)? Do you hear the last gasps of the Race of Iron described by Hesiod in Works and Days, as Aidos (Shame) and Nemesis (Retribution) “forsake mankind” (lines 170-201)?

An anti-progressive conception of history requires radically different ideas about death and ancestry as well. Pagans and Polytheists tend to think about these ideas frequently anyway…and what’s more, to live them, to embody them, to experience them directly. These ideas are powerful and dangerous, as can be seen by the popularity of Evola among fascists. From an anti-racist and anti-fascist position, however, we can claim James Baldwin as an Ancestor and Prophet who spoke about these same ideas with refreshing clarity.

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

James Baldwin. [Photo Credit: Allan Warren / Wikipedia]

Tragedy

In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote that the veneer of politics is used by white Americans to conceal the inescapable fact of death:

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.

The word “tragic,” of course, traces its etymology back to worship of Dionysos in ancient Greece, to the views of fate and limited human agency put forth by ancient playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The philosopher Albert Camus defined the “tragic” condition as being characterized not just by death and absurdity, but by self-awareness of one’s situation: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

The awareness and acceptance of the inevitability of death can be seen in many different cultures, in many different traditions and texts. For example, in Homer’s Iliad:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
dies. (6.146-150, trans. Lattimore)

Or in Óðinn’s words in the Hávamál:

Cattle die,
kindred die,
we ourselves also die;
but I know one thing
that never dies,
judgement on each one dead (section 77, trans. Thorpe)

These themes of successive generations and enduring judgement shall return later in this essay. But first, we must look at the conclusions Baldwin draws from this basic fact. Far from despair, Baldwin exhorts his readers toward an ethic of celebration and passion and responsibility. His words read like the invocation of the Descendants that they are:

It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

Baldwin sees white Americans’ collective willful refusal to acknowledge and “earn” their deaths as the underlying fear that dominates race relations in America: “But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction.” In other words, he speaks of the need to acknowledge the mortality of an entire country or civilization, not just of the individuals within its power structure.

The concept of “race,” after all, is ultimately tied to a question of power, an attempt to guarantee a certain societal and cosmological order. The link between the fear of death and the desire for control can be seen in ancient texts as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the powerful king of Uruk searches for the plant of immortality, only to have it stolen by a serpent as he slept. Power, Baldwin reminds us, is in fact inherently unstable, even though many people think that it is a guarantor of stability:

It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal.

But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.

Walter Benjamin might say that the possibility of freedom has in fact been betrayed time and time again throughout the history of class-stratified societies, and that “progress” is yet another “chimera.” And in the 7th century BCE, Semonides of Argos wrote of the folly of clinging to false hopes, which are always projected into the uncertain future:

There is no mortal who does not believe that next year
he will arrive as a friend to Wealth and material goods.
But one man is first overtaken by hated old age
before he reaches his goal. Other men are destroyed
by wretched disease. Others, overcome by War,
Hades sends down under the black earth. (trans. Mastronarde)

Or as Medea said in Seneca’s version of her story, “Whoso has naught to hope, let him despair of naught.” (163)

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

Frederick Douglass. [Public Domain / Wikipedia]

Ancestors

Death, however, is constant. And so too are the dead, and the ancestors. In a 1971 conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Baldwin described the experience of drawing upon the strength and legacy of one’s ancestors, a feeling that is difficult to define but which can be recognized by anyone who has experienced it:

Baldwin: One’s ancestors have given one something, just the same. It is something difficult to get at. You know it when you are in trouble, in real trouble […] It is not exactly that you hear a voice. It’s just that you pull yourself together to confront whatever it is according to some principle which does not exactly exist in your memory but which has been given to you.
Mead: In the name of your ancestors.

Baldwin made clear that when he speaks of ancestors, he is speaking not only of those ancestors who are biologically related, “Let us say I can claim Frederick Douglass as one of my ancestors. I am very proud of him because I think he was a great man and in some way handed something down: his indignation was handed down; his clarity was handed down.” The key concept, then, is that he “handed something down,” something that future generations can draw upon.

Mead responded, “We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors. […] They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.” The concept is familiar to many Pagans and Polytheists, many of whom have their own terms for these types of ancestors as well: ancestors of spirit, ancestors of tradition, the Mighty Dead. And in ancient Greece, the war dead as well as certain cult heroes were honored by entire cities, not just by their immediate families. Tyrtaeus of Sparta wrote of the honors due to both warriors who died in battle and to their descendants:

This man they lament, young and old alike,
the whole city is affected with a painful longing
and his tomb and children are conspicuous for fame among men,
and his children’s children and race thereafter.
Never are his noble fame and his name forgotten,
but he is immortal, though lying under the earth. (trans. West)

This notion of fame—or infamy, or any other type of experience—being passed down a line of descent is important. This can particularly be seen when Baldwin discusses his relationship with Christianity.  He was a Christian preacher in his youth, but left the church after three and a half years. He framed his relationship to Christianity as one of personally “being there” or not in certain historical situations:

Baldwin: I wasn’t there among the early Christians in the Middle East.
Mead: That’s right.
Baldwin: But I was on those cattle boats which brought me here, brought me here in the name of Jesus Christ. […]
Mead: They did not bring you here in the name of Jesus Christ! That is a perversion.
Baldwin: One of the boats was called “The Good Ship Jesus.”

What did Baldwin mean when he said “he was there?” He didn’t mean reincarnation of an isolated individual soul. He seems to have meant a certain type of ancestral experience, a certain collapsing of time, an expanded definition of the self, and most importantly, the undeniable and ongoing impact of history on the present. “By the time I was five,” he said, he had been “handed down” his ancestors’ suffering not just by genetic descent but by his first-hand experience of that history continuing to play itself out:

Baldwin: I had to accept that I was on a slave boat once.
Mead: No.
Baldwin: But I was.
Mead: Wait, you were not. Look, you don’t believe in reincarnation?
Baldwin: But my whole life was defined by my history […] by the time I was five by the history written on my brow.

In his 1940 Dusk of Dawn, W.E.B. Du Bois similarly called skin color a “badge” of “a common history,” “a common disaster” and “one long memory.” (p. 33) Du Bois wrote that this badge symbolized an experience shared over time and space:

The physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.

Though his life was “defined” by it since he was five years old, Baldwin still spoke of having to “accept” that history. And what happens when people are unable or unwilling accept their histories? In the words of Walter Benjamin, “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

At the same time, however, Benjamin wrotes that “fine and spiritual” qualities are present in the class struggle “as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness,” and that “they will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.” Similarly, in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin described the black children who walked through hostile crowds to newly-integrated schools as “improbable aristocrats” possessed of true nobility of spirit. He wrote:

The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced. I say “this country” because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hewing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality.

Walter Benjamin. [Fair Use / Wikipedia]

Walter Benjamin. [Fair Use / Wikipedia]

Responsibility

Baldwin’s ideas about “accepting” his history are closely related to his ideas about responsibility. We have seen Baldwin’s call to be “responsible to life.” Now we see the idea of taking responsibility—which is often conflated with guilt, but is in fact a different concept—for history, and for the failures of the present moment. In his conversation with Mead, Baldwin not only identified himself with the slave on the boat, but with the Africans who sold other Africans to Europeans as well:

Baldwin: I’m not guiltless, either. I sold my brothers or my sisters—
Mead: When did you?
Baldwin: Oh, a thousand years ago, it doesn’t make any difference.

Ironically but tellingly, Baldwin begins The Fire Next Time with an epigraph from Rudyard Kipling, which was originally intended to be a “measured” encouragement of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. But subsequently it was used by Baldwin to call for a true reckoning, a true judgement:

Take up the White Man’s burden
Ye dare not stoop to less
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Taken as a justification for colonization, the “White Man’s burden” is a disgusting lie. Taken as a commentary on collective responsibility, however, it bears further thought. In his conversation with Mead, Baldwin asked, “How does a civilization distinguish from an individual? It’s a loaded question.”

Enlightenment thought has led to the glorification of the rational individual. In Benjamin and Baldwin, however, we find traces of older views of the relationship between the individual and society. Michael Löwy, for example, called Benjamin “a prophet; not like someone who tries to see the future, like a Greek oracle, but in the Old Testament sense: that is, one who calls the people’s attention to future dangers.” Baldwin willingly adopted the same term for himself:

Mead: You’re being an Old Testament person.
Baldwin: Prophet.
Mead: You’re taking an Old Testament position, that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children.
Baldwin: They are.

This position, though, is far from unique to the Old Testament. For example, the Athenian lawmaker Solon wrote in his hymn “To the Muses” that Zeus’s punishment for greed and injustice could be intergenerational as well:

Such is the vengeance of Zeus. […]
One man pays the price at once, another later on. For those who escape
In themselves, and gods’ approaching doom does not reach them,
It comes in any case thereafter. Innocents pay the price,
Either their children or their later descendants. (trans. West)

Similarly, Herodotus relates that when Gyges usurped the kingdom of Lydia, the Delphic Oracle of Apollon predicted “that the Heraclids would have their revenge on Gyges in the fifth generation: a prophecy to which neither the Lydians nor their kings paid any attention, until it was actually fulfilled,” in the reign of Croesus (1.13, trans. De Selincourt). And a Chinese prayer to Guan Di warns that those who “entice others to do evil, and do not even a bit of good” themselves will bring down consequences for their entire family: “Retribution will fall upon them, their sons, and their grandsons.”

Baldwin’s position, however, is more nuanced. He speaks of the way in which a crime committed once can be committed over and over again, by the act of forgetting, by the act of refusing to accept:

Mead: A crime that was committed a long time ago.
Baldwin: The crime that is committed until it is accepted that it was committed. If you don’t accept, if I don’t accept whatever it is I have done— […] I ‘m doomed to do it forever. If I don’t accept what I have done.

He points out the paradox of an entire system that denies personal responsibility: who is responsible for creating such a system—a system not just political or economic, but a “system of reality?” It can only be “all of us:”

We agreed this morning that guilt and responsibility were not the same thing. But we have to agree, too, that we both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in an any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time. [emphasis added]

And thus, he returns to the importance of a personal ethic, of personal honor:

What I am trying to get at is if any particular discipline—whether it be Christianity, Buddhism or LSD, God forbid—does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off. If it is not interiorized, as we would say these days, then it really is meaningless.

Joshua Tree National Park, June 2015. [Public Domain / NPS]

Joshua Tree National Park, June 2015. [Public Domain / NPS]

Vengeance and Salvation

If the “system of reality” we have constructed lies beyond the responsibility of any one person or organization, if history itself is “a way of avoiding responsibility,” what can cut through this Gordian Knot? In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin warns of “historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance.” A divine vengeance, an ancestral vengeance:

The intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable—a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.”

Baldwin had already written these words by the time he sat down with Margaret Mead. He had written, too, of the mistake of “clinging to chimeras.” And so, Baldwin sought to slay the “chimera” of American self-importance, shocking Mead greatly:

Baldwin: From my point of view, America does not matter so very much.
Mead: What does?
Baldwin: Mexico matters.
Mead: You think—
Baldwin: Vietnam matters.
Mead: You think that Mexico and Vietnam can save the world? I mean for the future?
Baldwin: I know that we will not.
Mead: Well, if we don’t save it—
Baldwin: We won’t.
Mead: Jimmy, if we don’t save it we will destroy it.
Baldwin: We won’t. My point precisely.
Mead: And Mexico and Vietnam will have nothing to do with it.
Baldwin: My point precisely.
Mead: All right. You are saying, then, the world is going to be destroyed; there is no use doing anything about it?
Baldwin: No. I don’t intend to be passive. But America will not save us.

Like Semonides of Argos, Baldwin accepts the reality of the present without delusion about the future: “The future doesn’t exist for me. […] I am not romantic. I am not at home here and never will be.”

Let us, too, take a clear look at the time we find ourselves in. The Fire Next Time is couched as a warning of an impending apocalypse, which could perhaps be averted if the “intransigence and ignorance of the white world” are abandoned. But this has not happened. And just as the crime is committed anew until it is accepted, so is the destruction of the world an ongoing process, not a “future” one.

Let us avoid the pitfall of the Christians who are eternally trying to predict the date of the Rapture, forced to forever re-calculate as the proclaimed date arrives and passes. Time is not linear progress, but cyclical, compressed and eternal. The fire is not coming “next time,” it is already here, and it has been here.

And as we began this article with reference to the police shooting of Jamar Clark, so we end it with a final quote from James Baldwin:

I don’t care how well the cops are educated. I know what their role is in my life, and I will not accept it.

What more needs to be said?

Selected Bibliography

  • Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.
  • Baldwin, James and Margaret Mead. A Rap On Race. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1971.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” 1940.

Heathen Chinese

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Heathen Chinese writes the TWH monthly column, "Tiger's Leap." He is the son of Chinese immigrants and is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s.