Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Devil's Due

It is perhaps ironic, considering how much time I have spent in the last week reading Lucifer, but recently I have been presented with a revelation.

Much metaphorical ink has been metaphorically spilt upon this blog regarding my problem with characters. My esteemed flatmate remains convinced to this day that anything that could even be vaguely described as a "character piece" will cause me to shriek my lungs out of my throat out in violent paroxysms of frustrated boredom. It is not a theory that lacks for circumstantial evidence.

For a while now I've been arguing that my problem is not with characterisation per se - only the most unobservant of judges could find me guilty of adrenaline addiction - it is simply that I cannot enjoy the company of characters who I dislike, however cleverly they are assembled. Reading Lucifer, however, I realised that isn't the whole truth. Just as with plots, where those that are best are almost always concerned with something other than what they look like they're concerned with: the relevant issue is this: is the character actually about something?

Lucifer is about a great deal, and this is what, in whole or in part, makes him possibly the greatest comic book character going. What better way to celebrate my new interest in characterisation, then, than to discuss the gentleman in question?

Whilst reading Lucifer Volume 5 this weekend (for the first time, despite the comic reaching its conclusion in 2006), I was struck by something I had never realised before. I've known for a while, as an entirely banal conclusion and an entirely unoriginal idea, that Carey's comic restates the battle between Heaven and Hell, making it not Good versus Evil but Fate versus Free Will. It was only late on Sunday night that it occurred to me - and hopefully this is a somewhat less commonly considered point- that Lucifer is the world's most dangerous Buddhist.

Once this realisation dawned, there was really nothing to be done but return to the start and read the whole thing again. Sure enough, this angle springs up right at the very beginning, in Carey's three-part The Sandman Presents: Lucifer mini, referred to henceforth as the (slightly) less cumbersome The Morningstar Option. What follows is therefore a discussion of that story. The chances are good that I will discuss other Lucifer stories further down the line, but we'll start here, and see how we go.

Aaron Sorkin, without question my all-time favourite purveyor of liberal porn, once said the following on the subject of creating characters:
Stockard had done an episode of the show as the First Lady ... She took me out to lunch and said she really liked doing the show and wanted to do more and started asking me questions like, 'Who do you think this character is?' And those aren’t questions I can answer. [As a writer] I can only answer, what do they want?
I'm sure that works for him, but it's worth noting that the above approach wouldn't really get you anywhere with Lucifer. Much as the more fevered sections of my fanboy brain might squeal with ecstasy at the thought of the West Wing playing host to the The Prince of the East ("We have a job approval of 48% and Congress is one bad day away from burning this place to the ground, do we really want to be the first administration in history to show Satan round the Rose Garden?"), one assumes that Sorkin could have given nothing for Samael to say. Lucifer cannot be defined by what he wants. He doesn't want anything. The only thing that matters when considering Lucifer is this: what does he need?

To the best of my knowledge, pretty much everyone claims to want free will. Not everyone believes they have it, and there is a remarkable tendency amongst otherwise intelligent people to justify the mistakes they make and people they damage by claiming they never had any other choice (see Midnight Nation for a fairly long discussion of this point, particularly in issue #4, ironically - or perhaps perfectly - entitled The Devil You Know), but so far as I am aware, the number of people who believe they have a destiny is fairly small, and the number who believe they have a destiny they don't actually want is smaller still. The question these three issues asks us is whether, in fact, we do want free will, or do we actually need it on some primal level?

Historically, I think people have been fairly poor at telling the difference between want and need, or at least fairly poor at admitting the difference, to each other but especially to themselves. In The Morningstar Option, though, the difference becomes rather obvious once the Velleity starts granting wishes to all those who are silent or insane enough to ask.

Or at least, the difference should become rather obvious. The Velleity has shifted the question. We can discover the truth of the matter simply by studying what it is that the Voiceless Gods are prepared to offer.

Consider the origin of the Velleity. The Voiceless Gods, remember, were birthed by the very first humans, who lacked the words they needed to give form or structure to their desires. That very much implies they trade in the coin of need. Need is more basic, more fundamental than want. We need food, and water, and air to breathe. Our hearts desire, but requirement is in our bones. If the Voiceless were born out of our need to survive, perhaps then they have returned to us in order to perform the same function.

Immediately, though, this line of thinking raises a new question. Why have they returned, here and now? Those of the Dineh crawled from their jet-black realm millenia ago. Who or what can be blamed for re-conjuring them?

Surely, it must be want. When man first found his voice, he used it to list his desires. When that happened, he began to worship other Gods, those that would not give him what he needed, but what he wanted. A ripe harvest. A happy marriage. A life untroubled by war or pestilence or famine, and with death kept at bay for as long as possible. It is this world, in which we have developed a thousand or more ways to demand or beg for what we desire from the fabric of the universe that the Voiceless Ones have returned to; either because we're screaming our demands louder than ever before, or because there are simply so many voices in the selfish chorus. And since we found those voices, all those centuries ago, the Voiceless Ones can now have their own as well. They can think. They can reason. They can see how the game is played, in their own limited way. The fact that the world cannot withstand what they are offering in exchange for worship is irrelevant to them. They have no thought for what they need, only for what they want. We created them before, and we shape them now. One might hope they recognise the irony, but then that would presumably require people to see the irony themselves, which isn't something I'd be willing to put much money on.

So now the Voiceless Gods offer us what we want. In a sense, this is obvious almost from the first page. A man runs down the street, clutching a bag overflowing with money. A gift from the Velleity. Does he need it? The radio report we hear moments later suggests not. Perhaps it is reasonable to say money is something to be enjoyed, but it is certainly not to be depended on. It is not something we need, though of course it is in many ways the only way to get what we need, at least most of the time - maybe it should be framed as "We need money, we want wealth". And if there remained any doubt upon which side of the divide the Voiceless Gods rest, one need only consider Lucifer's quandary; how does one fight the pure expression of want when one wants absolutely nothing?

This is what sets Lucifer apart from everyone else in the story, and why fate and free will are so integral to everything that takes place within. Only a few pages after his introduction, Lucifer sums up his position on God impressively succinctly: "You'd think part of omniscience would be knowing when to stop." This dedication to self-determination is also why I label him a Buddhist. I do so with tongue firmly in cheek, of course. Lucifer might be on the same quest, but it's hard to put it mildly to reconcile him with the Buddha's teachings, even if I realised as I re-read these comics that he never actually kills anyone (he threatens, but in the grand old Satanic tradition he suggests it is other things that will do the deed: "my dropping you won't kill you; the fall will do that"). The point though is that Lucifer needs nothing except to be free to make his own choices. He needs free will. He does not want it, it is a basic requirement, the only one he has. The only reason he does anything but simply exist. It is the only motivation, though it acts as the root for any number of corollaries of action and attitude. Certainly, it is the only reason he takes up Yahweh's mission of destroying the Velleity. It will get him what he needs. Had he merely wanted it, he could have simply wished for it when he faced them in their blind forests. Instead, and this is absolutely fundamental, he realises the process of acquiring what one wants actually became a barrier to getting what is needed.

Hence: Buddhism. The removal of desire. The attempt to expunge every little voice in your head that claims you only need this or that to improve your life, and that all that stands between you and happiness is the distance from here to the latest bauble you've set your gaze upon. Lucifer understands, perhaps better than anyone else in God's Creation, that desire will trap you in the end (just ask Dream). This is reinforced by almost every other character in the story. Briadach and Mahu are so busy demanding their right to inherit the Earth that they can think of nothing else, other than their own pain. Their absolute obsession with a day that will never come precludes any possibility of choosing a better path, their stasis so unassailable that Briadach actually takes comfort in Mahu's breath-taking lack of curiosity, considering it a universal constant. As understandable and heartbreaking as his actions are, Mr Begai's refusal to believe his Rett syndrome-afflicted son will recover prevents him from accepting the situation for what it is - unchangeable, but not unbearable. Amenadiel might claim to be a willing servant of God, but every word he chokes out demonstrates his hatred of what he is doing. Ramiel is already overwhelmed by the stewardship of Hell - a stewardship, let us not forget, that made Lucifer cut off his wings rather than continue - and quickly finds he has no choice but to obey both God and Lucifer, whenever the whim of either takes them. Even the truck driver who brings Lucifer and Rachel to Mount Taylor has been forced into Pharamond's service because he owes the latter money.

If you define your life by what you want you won't be free until you get it, and the instant you do, you'll just choose the next thing you want to chain yourself to. That's to say nothing of the consequences that radiate outwards from each acquisition, or each failed chase, which conspire to bind you still further. As I say, people are very good at ignoring the consequences before they hit, and denying them (wishing them away) when they wash over us, or even threaten to drown us (note Lucifer pointing out to Rachel that whilst she believes she is drowning as they pass to the third world, she in fact is not), but they are always there, limiting your choices next time around. Mahu wants the Earth too much to live in it. The truck driver, subconsciously or otherwise, exchanged his freedom for whatever it was he used Pharamond's money to buy. The Velleity itself wants to be worshipped, even if the gifts if offers in exchange will destroy its worshippers, both actual and potential, and presumably by extension itself. I don't believe for a second that it's coincidence that only that Duma, Angel of the Silences, seems to have any leeway in how he deals with the situation; for he alone is as Voiceless as we were when we first clambered down from the trees and realised we could kill each other faster with a stone in each hand. If he wants anything, it is known only to himself.

All of this, by the way, is why Rachel is so important to his chances of success. Yes, she serves as a guide, her Navajo heritage getting him to the Fourth World, but there is more:
Rachel: Pharamond said we could come up here because I'm Navajo. Is that the only reason you brought me? Because you couldn't get in by yourself?

Lucifer: No. Not the only reason.
The vital truth about Rachel is that in her, alone amongst the characters in the story, what she wants and what she needs has become inextricably entwined. She wished herself free of her brother; his inability to walk or speak made him a stone around her neck, stopped her from being free. But, ironically and inevitably, her wish makes her less free still, for now she feels she needs to return him to life, to undo her acquisition of what she wanted. But does she want him back? Or does she need him back? Or is it neither; does she claim she needs him back, but in actuality simply needs to demonstrate that she tried. Does she need to attempt the quest but actually want to fail?

Perhaps only in such confusion can one wish for what one needs, when one is distracted enough to follow the fundamental principles of one's make-up. Only by being unable to voice what she wants, by not having the words she needs to formulate what that would be, can she end up asking for what she needs instead. And what she needs, like everyone else, turns out to be freedom.

It is perhaps for this reason that Lucifer tolerates her insolence as far as he does - the truck driver ends up permanently impotent for arguably far less disrespect. In Rachel, though, there is the tiniest spark of something he recognises; someone who isn't afraid to wander the dark places to get what they need. It is also why his betrayal is less vicious than it at first appears:
Rachel: So how do I get Paul back?

Lucifer: You don't. It's too late now.

Rachel: But you... you said...

Lucifer: I said I'd give you an opportunity. Not step-by-step instructions.
It is true that Lucifer could have told Rachel how to get her brother back. And yes, there are unquestionably selfish reasons as to why he didn't - though even chance to recover her brother is more than she would have had without The Morningstar - but there is more, here. Had Lucifer articulated her choice, Rachel would have been reduced to choosing what it was she wanted. The only way to avoid that choice is to not realise you are making it.

Before we go any further, let me state the obvious; I am not arguing it is better Rachel be free of the responsibility of accidentally killing her brother than she manage to return him to life. I am simply saying that it was what she needed, and it has left her free. The instant she has that freedom, however, she throws it away. She pledges her life to the task of first gaining the power to defeat Lucifer, and then using it. As he walks away, he chides her for submitting to the melodrama (actually, for no longer keeping her head above it, another reference to drowning or smothering) that had consumed everyone else in this affair, but he might as well be criticising her willingness to return to the blind, ugly cycle of scrabbling to find what we think we want, rather than allowing herself to remain free.

That brings us almost to the end of The Morningstar Option, but a lot of what's discussed above recurs throughout the first five volumes of Lucifer, in new and interesting combinations. As the story draws to a close, Amenadiel returns to Lucifer, giving him what he asked for: a letter of passage out of God's Domain. True freedom at last. What Lucifer does with that letter, and what he allows to happen as part of a larger plan, is something to be returned to another day.


Jamie said...

Jesus (or, more appropriately, Satan), that's a big post. I will read it, as long as I am assured that there are few spoilers?

But since the topic is brought up, one that has been a bone of contention between us for over a decade now, I am astounded therefore that you still dislike what you have read of Pratchett's work.

Pratchett's primary viewpoint characters and protagonists, particularly Vimes, Carrot, and Granny Weatherwax, are all intricately bound up with the deeper themes of their novels, the latter feeding massively into their motivations, their neuroses, with how far they will go to achieve their aims. If you decide not to keep their company because you don't like them much, fair enough, but this now sounds like you would dismiss them as all surface, no depth, which I would vehemently deny.

Of course, depth can only be revealed fully over time, but even in the earlier works that you did read, seeds were clearly sown.

I apologise for heading off on a tangent, but such a key difference between our respective appreciation of fiction has always been of interest to me, and I'd be intrigued if you had further thoughts in the directions I've indicated following your revelation!

SpaceSquid said...

Are you kidding? I spoil this thing to Hell (no pun intended). How else am I going to manage a detailed breakdown of what it contains?

Not that that should stop you, I'd argue. Lucifer lasted for 75 issues after this initial mini, none of which is discussed here, and frankly I think you'd do better to read this (or some other) article on the intial mini and thus actually gain some impetus to read the whole thing than you would to reach such spoilerphobic heights that you never get round to sampling the work in the first place. Everyone is entitled to their own spoiler policies, obviously, but I don't see what good it does to label everything as either "stuff I've experienced" and "stuff of which I must experience nothing". You just end up with an impossibly huge list of things you might one day conceivably tackle, with almost no way to choose between them.

I think a big problem with the Pratchett books I've read so far is simply that I didn't find what they had to say particularly interesting. The degree to which the characters are thematically appropriate is thus neither here nor there. It is also not the case that thematically appropriate is a sufficient condition for liking a character, just that you'll be doing well to make me care about a character who lacks that trait.