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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

American Gods

The Important Idea Underlying Neil Gaiman's Novel


After so many looooong entries, I've decided to go easy on you.

A few weeks ago, I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I took a ton of notes...WAIT! WAIT! You'll be happy to know that after I took them, I lost them. I'm sure I'll find them some day, and when I do, I'll put them on a page of their own. [I never did!]

All I want to do today is tell you the interesting premise of the book, and then throw you a poem.

The book is essentially about a battle. The religious right in America has a tendency to see the battle as between God and secularism, belief and non-belief. But Jesus drew a clear line in the sand two millenia ago when he said in Matthew 6:24: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." Now, this saying has been widely misinterpreted. There was no god named Mammon. It was simply a word that meant "money." But notice that he describes money as a "master." So the misinterpretation is easily understood, and in fact, may point toward a greater truth...

And that is exactly what Gaiman puts forward in his book. The battle is not between old gods and new ideas; it is rather between old gods (the old gods: Odin, Kali, etc.) and new ones, with names like Media and Technology, the living personifications of the ideas that people hold most dear.

In other words, lurking under Jesus' assertion that money can be a master is the idea that anything that we put our trust in becomes personified, and becomes a god. (Like our egos?)

It's a great book, and I can't recommend it enough. The writing is clever, the plot moves right along, the characters are compelling, and the ending...well, you tell me what you think after you've read it.

And now, a poem. William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming" sets up the start of a new era in which a new god (who is an old god, just as Gaiman's Commerce is the mammon of Jesus) rises up and "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born":

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all around it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The falconer stands in the center of the falcon's exercise circle (the "gyre"), as God should occupy our center. As the people retreat from God, like the falcon, they can no longer hear his voice. And so they lose their center--literally. And thus, "mere anarchy," blood, and drowned innocence. Apathy replaces virtue, and passion propels vice.

This awakens a sleeping god, empowered by the negative energy generated by "the worst." Gaiman's old gods need sacrifice to keep them alive, and the struggle between the old and the new is a kind of sibling rivalry, the prize for which is attention. Gods die of neglect. And so this old/new one of Yeats is born through the people's attention/intention, and rises up to take the place of the babe in the rocking cradle who displaced him.

Joseph Campbell spoke often of the development of new myth; both Yeats and Gaiman seem to posit that the new myth will be a revival of some old myth in new clothing.

Are they right? Only time will tell.

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