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The final destiny of the gods

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Thoth.jpg
My favorite story from Jorge Luis Borges' collection, The Maker (1960), is "Ragnarök."  In it, Borges describes a dream he had, in which he is at the College of Philosophy and Letters with other scholars.  Their discourse is interrupted by the sudden appearance of ancient gods (Thoth, Janus, etc.), who emerge from the Underworld and storm the dais. 

At first, people applaud and weep.  But then, one of the gods emits an animal scream of triumph, and "[f]rom that point on, things changed."

It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld's gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.
Feeling that the gods are "aged predators," "playing their last trump," the scholars draw their revolvers and "exultantly" kill the gods.

The story dramatizes the modern human fear of interaction with an other that cannot communicate on human terms (e.g., gods who have degenerated to animals).  At first, the return of the gods is an event of transcendent wonder; but if the gods cannot "talk," the elating feeling of "we are not alone" is transformed into the terrifying feeling of "we are with a threat."  Humans will no longer submit to the domination of animals. 

(In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, humans are made in the image of God.  Perhaps the most overlooked innovation of Judeo-Christianity is not monotheism, but the elimination of animal forms from the holy.  As for communication, if the Judeo-Christian God is not currently talking, it's because He chooses not to - or we choose not to listen.)

I noticed a similar kind of privileging of human communication in Kenya.  Before I lived in Kenya, I did not believe that animals had consciousness equivalent with human consciousness.  But even a short time passed in the relatively distant proximity of wild animals in Kenya convinced me (intuitively, not scientifically) that I'd been wrong.  Animals seem to me to have consciousness, but they lack a ready means of communication with humans.

That humans tend to equate consciousness with the ability to communicate on human terms is a terrible error.  It causes us not merely to fail to dwell in ignorance when we could learn from animals, but also to prefer human needs to those of animals because animals cannot persuade us that their needs deserve equal or greater weight.  The consequence - whether from destruction of animal habitats for human development, or from harvesting animals for human consumption - is the steady elimination of animals from the planet.

Borges begins "Ragnarök" with a citation to Coleridge:  "The images in dreams . . . figure forth the impression that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel."  Borges doesn't elucidate what his dream explains for him, but for me, "Ragnarök," explains the horror of humanity's profoundly disfigured relations with animals: not merely the defamation and violence against these "others" incapable of speaking, but the exultant joy in destroying them.

If we mourn ourselves as a godless and abandoned species, this is why. 

(Image of the god Thoth from BBC)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Ragnarök category.

Parable of the Palace is the previous category.

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