Saturday, 19 June 2010

Lucifer: A Six Card Spread

No-one can accuse Mike Carey of not thinking big. After spending his three issue introductory mini-series considering humanity’s desires by comparing them with those of the Devil, the demons, and the mad formless Gods we created with our own birth-pangs, the first tale of Lucifer proper ponders two questions: does anyone have free will? And if not, do we have anyone to blame but ourselves?

The Morningstar, as we discussed last time, needs freedom on a fundamental level that is difficult to understand by a species generally more concerned about where the next breath is coming from. Remiel is good enough to remind us of this in the first three pages: “Freedom is his obsession.” That’s how he’s ended up clutching a letter of passage from creation itself in his cool, smooth hands. Because for all his power it turns out that being essentially the firstborn of Yahweh hasn’t offered him the opportunity to be free. Perhaps even less chance, actually, if you consider that being higher up the celestial food chain means God will take a greater interest in your actions and affairs. In that sense, freedom is the knowledge of God’s complete disinterest, which of course in Lucifer’s case is genuinely impossible. I’m not sure he entirely realises it at this point, but the wood is certainly there, lost between the trees:

Twice now, I’ve walked out on him. And then both times I’ve let him recast me... and every time I try to improvise I find my moves were right there in the script all along.
If Lucifer cannot secure God’s disinterest, he will have to settle for rendering that interest toothless:

His omniscience only works because there is no alternative. I see that now.
Lucifer may be closer to the truth than he realises. After all, how can one conspire to escape when every conceivable tool was forged by your captor? I always thought the melodramatic moustache-twirling necromancers so favoured in lowest-common-denominator fantasy were idiots; trying to force order on the world through the application of something so fundamentally chaotic as the kind of magic that will raise the dead is clearly never going to work. The tools are by definition useless – if not counter-productive – to the task at hand.

Obviously, I wouldn’t want to call Lucifer an idiot to his face or anything, and of course he himself is aware of the contradiction, but does that make his attempts to find a loophole any less futile?

Regardless, Lucifer’s current tool of choice is the Basanos, a spectacularly powerful tarot deck created by one of his fellow fallen angels, Meleos. Inspired and informed by the book maintained by Destiny of the Endless, the Basanos proves deeply problematic on several levels.

The first is the most obvious: the Basanos crave freedom as much as Lucifer does, and have some fairly unpleasant ideas regarding what to do when they get it. The second problem is more complex. The Basanos, by their very nature, are an attempt to read the future. Meleos does not quite describe them in those terms, admittedly - his obsession has always been the past, much to Lucifer’s irritation – but both their provenance and their form makes the truth clear. And if the future can be read, can it really be changed? More to the point, can you ever actually be free of it? Lastly, does knowing it make you less free?

Perhaps the answer to that is dependent upon how one understands the concept of the future in the first place, whether it is literally unpredictable, or only unpredictable for the perspective of our limited conception. Personally, I find the idea of free will hard to grasp because I tend to think of each slice of Planck time experienced by the universe is entirely determined by the slice that came before. As I understand it the jury is still out on whether there truly are certain subatomic processes that can be truly called random, and one could colour an argument which says, conditional on their existence, such processes might, like the apocryphal storm-calling butterfly, lead to genuinely unpredictable configurations. Over the course of a single human lifespan, though, it seems unlikely to me that we’re truly anything more than the sum of our genes and our past experiences, driving us in the only direction we ever could have travelled. That might not be “destiny”, per se, for me that word implies outside interference, or at least the ability to observe the paths that stretch out ahead of us. But – to channel my father for a second - it sure ain’t free will, either, pal.

Whether or not this is how the Basanos see it, I don’t know. Well, perhaps not entirely. When Jill is suffused with their power, she sees peoples lives:

Their past straight like a wire. The future branching into a million filaments.
Of course, the fact that those filaments exist, like thousands of cats inside thousands of boxes, doesn’t mean that one of them hasn’t already been chosen already. When the Oracle tells Neo – in one of the few decent scenes in The Matrix: Reloaded –that “You didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it”, this is what she’s talking about. Free will is supposedly about what we could do, but the point where we get into what we could do and out of what we will do is always some way down the track, assuming it exists at all.

In any case, if The Morningstar Option was about the Devil claiming he alone wanted for nothing (or at least nothing the Velliety could offer), A Six Card Spread sees him insisting (not explicitly, of course, this is Lucifer we’re talking about here) that he alone is not bound by his past.

This is relevant because if the overall message of the story is not that the future must be determined by the past, then it must be that the whilst the future can be divorced from history, humanity almost invariable conspires to prevent that happening. Why else would the events surrounding Lucifer’s arrival in Hamburg at the turn of the millennium bear such uncanny, dreadful similarity to the early stages of Nazi Germany? Hell, not even that; it’s uncanny, dreadful similarity to a film that replicated those events. If history repeats itself as farce, that doesn’t mean those farces can’t be dangerous. "There is no present, of future, only the past, happening over and over again, now”, Eugene O'Neill said, and he should know.

Meleos too is trapped by his past. Again, this is both literally true – his greatest mistake is buried beneath his library and whispering poison on a daily basis - and accurate on another level as well. Meleos is so concerned with chronicling humanity (“Are they not wonderful, these humans with their mayfly lives and mad dreams?”), so obsessed with recording our memories, that he fails to recognise or work against the agony those memories cause, or the vicious tendency for that pain to replicate itself in the lives of others. It’s only after his library is wiped clean by Lucifer that he is forced to watch humanity itself rather than simply studying its trail, and almost immediately it horrifies him. Cynically speaking, of course, that means he finally understands:

One more piece of brutality makes no difference, I know. But it seems so typical. It seems to sum up so much.
What else can two million years of violence lead to, except for the next act of violence, and the one after that?

The Basanos understand this completely. Their sick games of twisting fate – their “only imperative” -are entirely predicated upon it. Inevitably, they attempt to bring about that next act of violence. Not by speaking of violence, naturally, but by preaching of “justice” and “retribution”, as such monsters always do. Their aim is to reduce the flow of history to a drunkard running across a see-saw, trying endlessly to balance himself by constantly changing the direction in which he is charging pointlessly forward. They take the easiest, cruellest, and most solipsistic of decisions possible and present it as the right choice. As Innocence herself says, “Those who believe in free will make the best puppets of all.”

So where does this leave Lucifer, whilst Meleos awakes, and all of Hamburg slips into the endless cycle of "justice" humanity never seems able to escape? Well, Meleos once told him, whilst the war in Heaven was still raging and he was posing as a model for one of Meleos' Basanos cards, that:
The mind and soul trace the the line that the hand must follow. But the movements that the hand does not make matter just as much. The drawing must subsume all undrawn lines and all potential figures into a perfect stasis.
Simply put, we are not defined merely by what we've done, but by what we haven't done. Not just by what our past has led us to, but by what it has led us to avoid. Escaping God is no different from embracing God, insofar as both as their root are defined by God. One could argue that the former includes the possibility that one could eventually escape enough, but then that's what everyone tells themselves about everything, forever. One more act of escape, we tell ourselves. Then the next. And the next.

In truth, to the independent observer it appears that Lucifer seems to be attempting a pretty balancing act of his own. He demands the prophecies of the Basanos, but then mocks the ones he receives unasked for. In part, this may well be because he is smart enough not to trust the cards (though it's interesting that he complains only after the fact), but one wonders whether he is also unable to bring himself to accept there is any way to predict what his next actions can be. We are reminded early on that "A man gains his first measure of wisdom when he admits his ignorance", but as we've talked about before, wisdom and freedom have a funny habit of working against each other.

On the other hand, absolute ignorance won't get you very far either. If free will exists anywhere, and if it's to mean anything at all, the landscape of the future must not be entirely mapped, but nor can it be wholly unexplored. The past cannot be obsessed over or idolised, but nor can it be entirely rejected.
In the end, it may be poor old Meleos, forced now to remember the past rather than store it, who may have learned the right lessons. As he tells Carl, the desperate youth so determined to deny his own sexuality he’s joined a worthless neo-Nazi street gang:
Atonement is at best a journey of uncertain length to an uncertain destination. But so is revenge, of course. We both embrace our own destruction.
Perhaps he is speaking directly to Carl. More likely, his message is for Lucifer, or for us. The key lies not with securing your destination, but with choosing your direction. Letting your mind and soul draw the line, with the past neither your master nor your foe, but your guide.

As the story ends Lucifer stands in the gateway that leads out of creation, jammed open against the trickery of God (and whatever the long-term philosophical ramifications of seeking the aid of the Basanos, clearly it was undeniably a good idea to double-check the Word of God), and casually discussing the possibility of the apocalypse. In truth, it is enough to conclude, even at this early stage, that Lucifer has made his decision.

Whether he realises that, of course, remains to be seen…

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