Sunday, 27 April 2014

In Defence of Heresy

I have for some time had an interest in heretics, as I suspect any readers I have might have noticed already. You may not have noticed that I nonetheless have little interest in heresy itself, at least not insofar as it is heresy. The position or condition of being a heretic is interesting irrespective of the heresy any given heretic believes—though of course a certain heresy might be more interesting than any given heretic who believes it, but that would vary from person to person and belief to belief. But this does not mean I am uninterested in heresy; it’s just that I would say that heresy is far more ubiquitous than heretics are, and so it is hardly worth spending many words on.

But I am here equivocating, because in order for heresy to be more ubiquitous than heretics, I would have to be understanding them rather differently. And, indeed, I observe two different meanings to the word heretic and to the word heresy; indeed, I think there are two entirely different dynamics caught by the heresy/orthodoxy dichotomy, however much they tend to be conflated. The purpose of this post is to outline these two different meanings.

1. We’re All Heretics Here

God, being unconditional, cannot be contained by any description or symbol. Thus no doctrine is accurate about the nature of God. Every statement of God’s nature, every symbol for God, and indeed any attempt to address God, is false. Each and every one of them is an idol of a reduced image of God. But they are all we have; the way of via negative is not going to work for most of us, and I think we should feel no shame about that fact. We must simply acknowledge that our attempts to understand God are always faulty and will ultimately be in need of correction.

Thus, in one meaningful sense, we are all heretics: we all believe things that are not true. Or, I should say, we all have the choice between heresy and agnosticism; those who choose heresy have a further choice between heresies. The second part is important, because there are better and worse heresies. But the first part is also important to consider, too. Most of us probably cannot sustain agnosticism, or at least cannot do it in enough areas for very long. (Indeed, no one can sustain agnosticism about moral or political beliefs without giving up on any moral or political action.) And those of us who do not choose agnosticism choose heresy. Many people do not know that they are choosing heresy, since they believe they are choosing truth. But what they believe is incomplete, and does not do justice to the whole of the world, and so it is heresy that they choose.

Now, before anyone accuses me of some radical relativism, I’m going to point out that David Deutsch agrees with me, at least as far as scientific matters are concerned. In The Beginning of Infinity Deutsch defines fallibalism as “The recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying knowledge as true or probable,” and argues that scientific theories are good or bad based on how well they explain phenomena, and how many phenomena they explain. The interesting consequence is that all scientific knowledge is at least a little bit wrong or potentially wrong. This does not end up in relativism simply because a positive statement can still be made that a given theory might be wrong, but it is the best we have. Similarly, I am not saying that all theological claims are equal; all theology might be heresy, but that does not let us off the hook of figuring out what might be the best heresy we have.

Why care about any of this? Well, that’s simple: whenever I want to write someone off as a heretic, I am best served if I remember that I am a heretic, too. We’re all heretics, here. If I want to say someone is doing something blame-worthy, I better look elsewhere.

2. The Outcast Who Wasn’t

The first definition of heresy is not what most interests me, though it is probably most relevant to my life. The heretics who interest me are the outcasts who refuse to be cast out.

Heresy, as generally used, does not refer so much to the fact that all beliefs contain error but, rather, to beliefs that contradict those endorsed by the community which is using the word heresy. Or, to put it more pointedly, a heresy is a belief which gives a community sufficient warrant to exclude anyone who happens to hold it. Of course the community frames the definition in terms of truth and error, but practically speaking heresy in this sense—the sense of excommunication—is not about truth but is instead about boundary-marking.

A heretic, then, is a person who holds such a belief. But a heretic is not an apostate. An apostate, because of differences of belief, repudiates the whole community. Heretics do not repudiate the community. Rather, heretics maintain that they are still part of the community even while the community gate-keepers deny that they are. Heretics insist (perhaps implicitly) that their own beliefs do not contradict those beliefs which define the community; they maybe argue that a different set of beliefs define the community than the gate-keepers think. Whichever it is, heretics have been shown the door, but refuse to leave.

I find the heretic’s faithfulness and commitment to be quite touching, rather than (just) their status as underdog or outcast. That commitment might strike the orthodox as tremendously annoying, but, hey, lots of people are annoyed when they try to severe a relationship with someone and that someone refuses to let the relationship end. Of course, many heretics have acknowledged have had to give up on the community, due to some threat or another. Eventually you cannot fulfill your commitment to the community except by stepping out of the door (or fleeing the country) and trying to build a new community in the name of the one from which you were driven. So it is in this sense that I am charmed by heretics. Whether or not the heretic is in error is not at all relevant to the description, and I think over history heretics have probably broken even on whether or not their beliefs were better or worse than those of the community with which they argued.

Of course there are some disagreements which would warrant exclusion; if a community is defined by belief, a total repudiation of all of those beliefs probably does warrant exclusion. My sympathies tend to be for those fringe cases, and of course for those whose expulsion is especially hostile or violent, or indeed whose expulsion from a certain name (ie. “Christian”) results in expulsion from a community and its events and spaces (ie. a church). Surely communities can manage to acknowledge that someone is no longer a member in one sense but allow them to be a member in another. At the very least the heretic is far more likely to become orthodox again if they are allowed to remain in the church!

Note: I am not signing off on everything in The Beginning of Infinity—of what I've read so far, I find Deutsch’s argument mixed, both in terms of his overall position and his presentation of it—but I do wholeheartedly agree with his fallibilism (though I disagree with his characterization of justificationism, which I don’t think is actually at odds with fallibilism if construed in a particular legitimate way).
Note: I am aware of Kathleen Mulhern’s “What Makes a Heretic?” (link), and this post was written with her post—and the whole series from which it comes—in the back of my mind.

(EDIT: Rachel Held Evans has an interview about heresy on her blog which discusses the overuse of the word. The distinctions between kinds of deviation from orthodoxy is probably more helpful than my discussion here, which is probably worth my thought.)

Friday, 25 April 2014

I Can Be An Angry Person

I often think of myself as someone who doesn’t get angry easily. And in many ways this is true: when in real-time face-to-face interactions, I do not get angry very much. Often, in a situation when I might get angry, I either just feel the hurt that most people would turn into anger, or I turn it into nervousness or anxiety instead. I have a delayed fuse for these situations; it is not until much after the fact that I get angry.

But I must not let this fool me into thinking that I am person who does not get angry easily after all. It’s just that I tend not to remember those contexts in which I get angry. They are, roughly, two.

1.      I get angry on behalf of others, usually those I perceive as powerless. If someone says something which I think threatens a population or individual of which I feel protective, I get very angry very quickly. I also seem to lose any capacity for hiding that anger or assessing whether my response was rational.

2. I get angry when dealing with people at a remove. This normally plays out as getting angry at people on the bus or getting angry at people online. I think people might say that we get angry at people in these situations because we don’t see them as full humans, but I don’t think that actually applies to me, or at least not always. I can think of a few cases in which I was angry in large part because I was aware that the other person was human. I get angry in large part because I’m not afraid of sacrificing a relationship with a person on the bus or online. Of course in the case of #1 I become more than willing to sacrifice relationships to the righteous Balrog inside of me, but if someone with whom I have a personal relationship insults me somehow or commits a personal affront, I usually just feel hurt and uncomfortable without the anger.

The occasion of this post is that I got irrationally angry a few hours ago. I returned to PEG’s new-ish blog after realizing I had not read it in a while and discovered a post which absolutely infuriated me. It was entirely an issue of pride—he made comments about Protestantism generally, and the Anglican church specifically, which were not just false and unfair but also petty and cruel—and I lost my composure. I am usually able to keep my composure (at any rate I don’t comment), but I still find these outbursts shocking, even when I have to admit that they aren’t infrequent.

I am shocked by my anger because it seems to entail a loss of self, or a loss of a certain sense of myself. Since I think of myself as a person who is not often angry, whenever I am angry my self-concept is threatened. I also make decisions, when I am angry, that are not in keeping with my values, my self-perception, or my usual patterns of behaviour. It’s like an alien being which periodically erupts. I am alienated from myself, in a small way; but since I know that this anger and the decisions I make while in its grip all come from me, I am reminded more viscerally than usual of Freud’s unconscious, which could handily explain how this alien force could be part of me while still being so alien.

Lately I have been getting angrier than usual. The suspects are things I do feel justified getting angry about: rising economic inequality, the continued resistance to same-sex marriage, the Canadian federal government’s slow but steady erosion of democracy. I can feel this rage in me, growing. To an extent I am comfortable with that anger, because I feel much like the prophets of Israel rebuking a corrupt leadership. Yet I worry that the anger is habit-forming, and that I will experience flash points more often in relation to things which do not justify my anger (like some blogger saying petty things on the Internet—Catholics say petty things about Protestants on the Internet all of the time, and I’m sure the reverse is also true, so I don’t know why I haven't built up callouses yet).

But I wonder, also, if the reason I manage my anger so poorly is because I do not often feel it in the context of existing relationships, where I must both express it and manage it. Normally I try to suppress it in those cases, so I have little practice doing anything but suppress it or release it. I have no idea how to feel anger and still be productive. I have no idea how to prevent a total loss of self in the face of anger, and I wonder if part of that is because I have not found a way to incorporate anger into myself—or my sense of myself—in a healthy and containable way. I don’t mean that I want to become The Avengers’s Hulk, who is angry all of the time, but that in order to deal with anger in a reasonable way I might need to find a way to accept that I am, sometimes, an angry person.

Bloom and Creativity

An Observation

I do not have much of a thesis for this post; I just want to record an observation I had some time ago but keeping forgetting.

Harold Bloom, a literary critic now notorious in lit departments for his Freudian misogyny (and as Bardolator-in-Chief), wrote that all creative endeavours—and he was writing primarily of authors—are in perpetual rebellion against their predecessors. This is the anxiety of influence, the fear that, in order to be remembered, they must compete with the very poets who inspired in them a love of poetry. Most authors never rise above mere imitation of their predecessors, and their poetry remains weak. But those few strong poets idiosyncratically misread their predecessors, so when they struggle against those predecessors they struggle against a predecessor that does not exist and thus produce something new in their poetry. Milton misread Shakespeare and Blake misread Milton, which is what made them great. This is the heart of creativity: idiosyncratic misreading.[1]

A lot of Bloom’s literary theory has been criticized. First, though he denies that he is a Freudian, his kill-the-father routine seem heavily indebted to Freud. (Besides, of course a Freudian would deny that he’s a Freudian. (That link has some language inappropriate for some contexts.)) Second, he can be quite sexist, and while this theory sounds gender-neutral, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar note in Madwoman in the Attic that woman authors tended not to have this competitive relationship with their predecessors; rather, woman authors, especially early ones, usually collaborated with predecessors, relying on pre-existing female poets and novelists to justify their own writing. Third, it seems a bit strange to suggest that the only way a person can be creative is through idiosyncratic misreading, even if you do posit the existence of an anxiety of influence.

But I want to notice that we can safely repudiate Bloom’s totalizing claims without losing the key insight that idiosyncratic misreading can be, or anyway lead to, a creative act. In an intellectual rather than artistic sphere, I know that I can sometimes have some of my better ideas by misunderstanding the theory I am reading. (Though it should be noted that such benefits are rare.) Moreover, I come up with good ideas for novels by reading content into existing works and then later discovering that I had been hallucinating a clever commentary that wasn’t there. As I said, I have no conclusion; I just want to observe that we can safely jettison most of Bloom’s framework while still retaining idiosyncratic misreading as one place where creativity is possible. In particular, if all work is derivative—which is almost certainly true—then idiosyncratic misreading might be a way of escaping the trap that all creativity is merely a new arrangement of old elements.

[1] Bloom would prefer “misprision” to “misreading.”
The photograph in this post was taken and is owned by Christian H of the Thinking Grounds. It is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0: Creative Commons License
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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Where Did All The Pictures Go?

I thought I might explain the sudden absence of most images on this blog.

Very briefly: knowing that the majority of them violated copyright law of some kind or another, I thought I should remove them. In particular, when I discovered Google had given me a Google+ account without my consent, and had further connected all of my until-then-disparate Google accounts into one, despite the fact that there are any number of privacy concerns which might be threatened by such a decision (I hope you are reading this, Google), I also discovered that I was able to delete all photographs associated with my Google+ account with one click. I elected to do so.

So if you see unsightly grey circles where photographs ought to be, now you know why they are there.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Every Day is Holy Saturday

In “Protestantism And A Human Understanding Of Time,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains why Catholics view the Mass as a sacrifice:

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is eternal. Because God experiences every moment of time simultaneously (or “simultaneously”), for God, there isn’t a moment “before” the Cross and a moment “after” the Cross. The sacrificial character of the Mass, then, is about us sharing in this divine sacrifice, which is made possible because (through the communion of the saints) Christ’s sacrifice exists for all eternity.

I have little to say about his discussion of Protestantism, because 1) I didn’t find it especially revealing or interesting (his post, really, is about Catholicism rather than Protestantism) and 2) I’m not sure there’s much point in talking about Protestantism at any length because, like “Africa” or “contemporary world literature,” “Protestantism” isn’t at a level of specificity which enables useful analysis.

What I do want to point out is Gobry’s implied claim that every day is Good Friday. Sure, he doesn’t say so in those words, but that’s the point of the paragraph. As Clara is scattered throughout the Doctor’s timeline in order to save him, so the crucifixion happens in every moment of history. Because every day is Good Friday, every Mass is a sacrifice. Every single day, Christ hangs on the cross.

But if every day is Good Friday, I suspect that every day must be Holy Saturday, too. Holy Saturday is that day, during the liturgical calendar, when God is dead and buried in the tomb. Holy Saturday is the day when there’s a God-shaped hole not in the human heart, but in the world. Every day Jesus dies on the cross, and every day Jesus rises from the dead, but every day, too, Jesus is dead and forsaken.

This is the world I feel like I live in: a world of perpetual Holy Saturday. I wonder if different people, at different times in their lives, live in worlds of a single perpetual liturgical day. Some live Good Friday every day; others live Pentacost every day; others live Christmas Eve every day. For me it is Holy Saturday. There is a hole that runs through the centre of the world and justice, compassion, and truth lay entombed. I recognize of course that I can’t say that every day is Holy Saturday without also admitting that every day is Easter Sunday, but I have such trouble seeing the Easter Sunday in each day. Maybe this is why the happiest liturgical season I can manage is Advent: I have trouble believing in a world in which Christ is risen (been born), but I can believe in a world in which he will rise. And that isn’t so bad.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Multiculturalism in the Monster Kingdom: Part II

Majesty 2’s Monsterculturalism

As I said in the first post, Majesty 2’s third and final expansion was called The Monster Kingdom, and this expansion let you play as the monsters rather than as the humans (and elves and dwarves). Not only did that excite me to no end, but I found the narrative even more compelling than I had anticipated.

Monster Kingdom begins with the Conclave of High Priests stealing the Crown of Ardania, using it to summon the legendary Spirit of Kings, and storming the palace. The Sovereign—that is, the player’s avatar—is smuggled out of the palace thanks to the quick thinking of the Adviser—the Sean Connery-esque narrative voice of the game—but the Conclave succeeds in installing the Spirit of Kings on the throne as their puppet. In order to find safety and muster an army to reclaim your throne, the Adviser forges an alliance with a tribe of goblins. Thus your quest to return to power begins by reconciling with your former enemies. As you reclaim territory and build up an army (and the infrastructure to sustain it), you must gain the trust of other goblin tribes and incorporate other creatures into your polity: liches, minotaurs, werewolves, koatls. Often you must undo actions you had completed in the previous games; in order to win the liches to your side, you must help resurrect an especially powerful lich that you had killed previously, and in order to recruit the minotaurs, you must destroy the ancient defense towers you helped Baron Pampa rebuild—towers which forced the minotaurs out of the area and prevented their access to ancestral territory.

What is interesting about this narrative is that all parties are changed by it. It is not only about how the humans' long dominance came to an end, but also how the monsters were brought together into a single polity—the eponymous Monster Kingdom. The goblins are now organized in a way more reminiscent of human than goblin culture, after all, since you run the kingdom the same way you ran your human one. Minotaurs now adventure with liches and ratmen. And the end of the game promises to involve integrating the human kingdom with your monster kingdom, once you get the Conclave under control. Grum-Gog’s shamans would have a place on that Conclave, and one of the liches’ demands before joining your cause was that you reserve for them three seats on the Council of Archmages. The minotaurs had their own demands, too, most of which involved a recognition of minotaur culture. Unfortunately, that is where the game ends; I assume we do not get to see what happens when humans and monsters are made to live in one kingdom. (I have not finished the game yet, so I cannot be sure.) But even prior to this it is clear that you are forging a new culture, a mix of human, gnome, goblin, ratman, lich, minotaur, koatl, and werewolf influences.

I am, alas, overstating the degree to which the game presents this cultural development. For one, there is little sense that the Sovereign and what remains of his human court really value anything the monsters offer except their military force: there is a running joke that the goblins’ pumpkin-based cuisine is unappetizing, and the way the game presents the minotaur demands suggest that they might be a joke about political correctness. (I actually think the things the minotaurs ask for are great: they want one of their holidays officially recognized, they want cultural centres and museums that attest to the fact that they have a civilization of their own, and, most interesting of all, they want a human legend re-written so that it no longer represents minotaurs are wild and bestial. I love that last one, because it actually demands that the other races change how they understand the minotaurs; however, it could also be a joke at the expense of feminist or anti-racist retellings of legends, fairy tales, and history.) And there isn’t much sense that the monsters change in response to one another, either. Ratmen seem to have little to no impact on the kingdom’s culture, despite being a part of it from the very beginning. Other than the fact that all of your heroes are equipped with goblin or human goods, there is little sense that they are learning new skills (or lifeways) from each other. Rather, they are living side-by-side in the same community, they have found a place for themselves within the goblin/human political and economic structure, and that structure has accommodated them, but they remain otherwise unaffected by their new-found proximity, even when you’ve assigned goblins and ratmen and werewolves all to the same party. Were is the minotaur who decided to become a shaman? Were is the gnome who decided he could be a hero rather than a labourer or guard? An why are the fire elementals, who show some signs of sentience, not volunteering to join the Monster Kingdom?

The only instance of one monster race adopting the lifestyle, values, or technologies of another race comes in the option to upgrade Ratman Robbers to Paladins to Grum-Gog. The story goes that the paladins of Daurus went underground as missionaries to the ratmen, but it seemed that their words fell on rocky soil. Some years later, however, humans began encountering the Paladins to Grum-Gog; it turns out that the ratmen had no interest in Dauros, but they were impressed by the idea of a paladin, and applied that idea to their own god, instead. Except it’s interesting to note that Grum-Gog is not, exactly, the ratmen's god; at least as established in the original Majesty, which Majesty 2 occasionally references as its own past, Grum-Gog is explicitly the goblins' god. Not only have the ratmen adopted a human type of religious specialist, but they have applied it to a goblin god. However, all of this occurs before the development of the Monster Kingdom. We do not get to see any of this syncretism or religious inculturation within the timespan of the game. Each race is for the most part content to live in the same community, but not in the same way, as the other monsters.

Of course this is a common way of thinking about multiculturalism, at least in Canada: there is one core or standard cultural framework, which is willing to accommodate other cultures, so long as those cultures are willing to fit within that framework. So, English or French culture makes the framework, and other cultures must fit into it. But the framework-cultures are also understood as flexible (after all, in its secularism it can accommodate the others) and evolving (it is the culture that drives technological development and social reform). The other cultures do not, in the multicultural imagination, evolve; they are time-bound, old-fashioned, traditional; they are relics. Members of those other cultures (other races, that is) are allowed to practice their time-bound cultures, we have allowed them to do that, but if they want to move forward, they had better adopt parts of the mainstream, dominant, evolving culture. The problem with this vision, of course, is that all cultures change and evolve, borrowing from one another and developing their own forms; no culture is locked in time, except and unless social governmental structures lock them in time. (I am drawing from Thobani’s argument in Exalted Subjects here.)

The way Wade Davis describes cultures in The Wayfinders seems relevant here: people have a finite amount of intellectual/creative resources (time, energy, material goods, and capital), and any use of these resources is a kind of investment. Different cultures have invested in different things, at first as a response to the physical environment and then in response to both the physical environment and the social environment that has developed. You wouldn’t go to the Polynesian wayfinders if you wanted brain surgery, he writes, but if you knew what you were doing you would go to the wayfinders before going to Westerners if you wanted to sail the ocean. Cultures are specialized, he is arguing, and they contain specialized knowledge that other cultures do not contain. When cultures come into contact, the people of those cultures would do well to learn from one another rather than engage in cultural conflict or, as in multiculturalism, build cultural siloes.

I’m not seeing, in Monster Kingdom, how the monsters are learning from one another, and I’m absolutely not seeing how the humans learn from the monsters. I think I know why this is: the game developers do not want to change the political and economic structure because they do not want players to have to learn to play a new game on top of familiarizing themselves with new units. RTSs with different kinds of units work best if those units fit in rigid, distinct niches; if they started learning from one another, these niches might start to erode. And more importantly, they need these units to be visually distinct, so it might be confusing if some of the archers you recruited were ratmen rather than goblins. While it would still be possible to make the game that I want without compromising on these practical necessities, I don’t think most players would care one way or another, so the developers have no incentive to make that game. But still, there is an interesting story about the formation of a new culture, maybe even a new kind of culture, and I would like to see that developed more. I would like to see the monsters learn from each other; I would like to see the humans learn from the monsters.

And before anyone else says it, yes, I know the answer to my problem is fan fiction.

Multiculturalism in the Monster Kingdom: Part I

Race, Religion, and Culture in Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Simulator

This two-part informal essay was written to be one post, but it wound up far too long, so I have  broken it into two parts. This first part will simply explain the mechanics of the computer games I will discuss, and why they appealed to me; if you are familiar with both Majesty and Majesty 2, I imagine you could skip right to Part II, though it might be good for you to read this one if you want to know how I am framing them for discussion.

Paradox Interactive’s Majesty 2 is the sequel to Cyberlore’s Majesty: the Fantasy Kingdom Simulator; the first Majesty was my favourite game for most of my life and still ranks in at least the top three. Both games are real-time strategy games (RTSs), putting you in the role of the Sovereign of a kingdom in a fantasy world called Ardania. You can order the construction of buildings and the research of improved technology. You can recruit heroes to defend your kingdom and enforce your decrees. You can set tax and building repair policies. You can commission spells from local temples and wizard’s guilds. As Sovereign, you attempt to complete quest, which usually involves building up a settlement, earning gold, and, invariably, trying to rout out the enemy monsters and defend your village against dragons, ratmen, goblin hordes, and the like.

What sets the Majesty games apart from other RTSs, however, is that you cannot directly control your heroes; instead, you can try to motivate their behaviour using reward flags (in the original, only Attack and Explore flags; the sequel adds Defend and Avoid flags), providing them with equipment, and constructing specific buildings which promote certain behaviours. You also carefully choose which heroes to recruit: Warriors tend to be stalwart and aggressive; Rogues are cowardly but highly motivated by gold, and also tend to steal from you; Rangers prefer to explore above all else and will; Paladins are stubborn and tend to take on foes well out of their league. (If you can’t tell, the franchise draws heavily from D&D.) These quirky, flawed, endearingly predictable, and frustratingly autonomous heroes are the heart of the game; the storylines leave much to be desired, but that’s usually fine given the minor dramatics your heroes will be getting into spontaneously.

In the original Majesty, there were three non-human races[1] you could recruit—elves, dwarves, and gnomes—but since elves and dwarves shared a mutual enmity, and neither of them cared for gnomes, you would have to choose only one. Which you chose would have an effect on your whole settlement, since if you chose dwarves, you could then defend your settlement with much superior defense towers; if you chose elves, your economy would grow but gambling halls and elven “lounges” (thinly veiled brothels) would pop up; and if you chose gnomes, slums would appear. In a subtle but important way, which non-human race you chose would influence your settlement’s culture, both cosmetically (lots of blue-tiled roofs if you choose elves) and mechanically (everything will be in good repair if you choose the handy gnomes).

And there was more: you could build temples to the assorted deities of Ardania, but these gods (and their followers) had a complex set of alliances and rivalries which meant that by building certain temples, you prevent yourself from building some of the others. For example, if you build a Temple to Dauros, god of law and commerce, or a Temple to Agrela, goddess of life, you can no longer build a Temple to Fervus, god of chaos and nature, or a Temple to Krypta, goddess of death. Again, your selections have subtle impacts on the culture of your settlement, both in flavour and mechanics. For instance, if you go with Krypta and Fervus, your settlement will likely be swarming with packs of charmed vargs (wolves) and rats thanks to Fervus’s cultists, and protected by mobs of skeletons thanks to Krypta’s priestesses.

Majesty 2 did not keep these mutual exclusions; instead, it limited the number of Temples you can build, in order to keep the need to choose between them, and it programed rivalry and hostility into the characters’ own decisions: paladins will attack a friendly priestess’s skeleton bodyguards, for instance. In addition, you can assign your heroes to adventuring parties, which stay together until you re-assign the heroes to new parties; there is an art to putting together a successful party, and part of the fun is pairing up mutually antagonistic characters together. I do not know how I feel about the change: on the one hand, you do still need to be deliberate about which temples you build, and it is fun to make dwarves and elves go a-Viking together; on the other hand, you settlement does not gain the same unique culture depending on your choice of temple. I miss the sense of custom-building local character depending on your navigation of these alliances and rivalries. (I suppose, in a way, what I liked about this RTS is that it had an element of an RPG to it: you could customize your kingdom by your choice of temples and non-humans much as you can customize your character in an RPG by whatever choices such a game offered. Majesty 2 loses some of that.)

Enter the Monster Kingdom expansion. This expansion was, in a lot of ways, exactly the game I had been day-dreaming of for years, for the simple reason that it lets you play as the monsters: your heroes are goblins, ratmen, minotaurs, and liches, not humans, dwarves, elves, and gnomes. (It wasn’t quite the game I dreamt of, only because the cosmetic change between Majesty and Majesty 2 meant the goblins I could play as were not quite the same goblins as in the original game, the ratmen weren’t quite the same ratmen as in the original, and so on. But close enough.) But in some ways it was more than I had been hoping for, in that the narrative frame holding the expansion together was far more interesting than what I would have written.

I will deal with that in a second post.

[1] I have a lot of trouble with this use of “race” in fantasy fiction and gaming, but I’m going to keep using it because Majesty uses it. If I had my druthers, the word we’d use would be “species.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Sky Does Not Speak

Warning: unapologetic religion, of the Christian existentialist variety. You have been warned.

In his short essay “Pascal’s Sphere,” Jorge Luis Borges traces the history of the sphere from Xenophanes’s declaration that God was an eternal sphere to Plato’s insistence that the sphere is the most perfect shape, from Bruno’s description of the Copernican universe as an infinite sphere—its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere—and finally to Pascal’s very modern despair in such a view:

In that dejected century, the absolute space that inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space that had been a liberation for Bruno was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He hated the universe and yearned to adore God, but God was less real to him than the hated universe. He lamented that the firmament did not speak; he compared our lives to the shipwrecked on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world; he felt confusion, fear, and solitude; and he expressed it in other words: “Nature is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
I do not know how accurate a description of Pascal this is; I do know that much of this description is fairly accurate when applied to me. I too yearn to adore God, but God is less real to me than the universe; I too consider our lives to be like those shipwrecked on a desert island; I too feel the incessant weight of the physical world, and respond with confusion, fear, and loneliness. I find myself alienated from that to which I declare allegiance, and I see this alienation—acknowledged or not—in all of us. A labyrinth and an abyss indeed.

But there is one way in which this description is inaccurate: I do not hate the world and I do not lament the silence of the firmament. Oh, there are many things about the world which I find deserving of hatred: the world is filled with limitless suffering, more than I can imagine or bear, and my scant incomplete knowledge of this unremitting suffering sits like a hole in my chest. But I cannot bring myself to hate the world, and its speechlessness in particular I find lovely. I look at the mountains piled above Vancouver, distant and stony; I look at the hummingbird flitting about my feeder, dependent on the sugarwater my neighbours and I provide but thoroughly indifferent to us; I look at the toiling ants on the pavement and the silverfish swimming across my bathroom floor, incapable of even perceiving me; and I am enchanted by them. Their indifference to me is the twin of my incomprehension of them, my inability to imagine myself in their place. They are wholly other to me, and in this they free me from my suffocating self-concern. In this they also remind me of the distance of other people, people with whom I am tempted to exaggerate my empathy and affinity. And they also remind me of God, the distance and self-sufficiency and ineffability of God. I am not sure why, but these reminders calm my soul. I bask in their otherness and at least feel connected, in this way, to the otherness of God. God may feel distant, but at least God's distance is near to me. The firmament does not speak, and for that I love it.

This is my reminder to myself: I can try to cross the silence of the sky, but I shall never truly know it; I can try to read the silence and the speech of friends and strangers, but I shall never fully understand them; I can reach out into the absence I perceive God to be, but I will never totally plumb those depths. And yet my failure to succeed perfectly does not encourage a failure to try. There is a beauty in trying.

The sky does not speak, and I shall listen.
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