Book review: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec [5/5]

Everything in life is about metaphysics except metaphysics. Metaphysics is about power.

I.

“These ideals are not going to change in nature, even though they may change in representation.” -Sermon Eighteen

My favorite book right now is an ancient eastern religious legend. It’s full of striking imagery, engaging narrative, and complex metaphysics. Unwrapping its layered meanings requires several passes and an openness to associative—arguably even loose—judgment. Unsurprisingly, its full significance can only be understood with a context that is not contained entirely within the text, and I don’t have the background or time to make all of the connections that would have been more apparent to its original, intended audience. On each new read-through, however, I learn a little more. The story is divided into sermons collectively known as The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec, the eponymous character being the god whose legend lies at the center of the narrative thread and who allegedly passed the text down to his people, the Velothi.

Of all religious books, it’s hard to say why this one in particular has drawn me in. The translation I’ve been reading by Michael Kirkbride is mostly in prose, but T.S. Eliot’s aphorism that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” seems to still apply. The mystical style and overtly-contradictory content suggest a depth that, on closer inspection, rarely turns out to be specious. Even the few sermons that first appear straight-forward reveal themselves to be subversively didactic.

It’s also relevant that no one currently practices the religion, so it’s easier for me to read the text as literature or allegory rather than a collection of preposterous claims that actual people believe to be true. While trusting in the underlying truth of scripture motivates religious practitioners to hunt down and absorb the significance of canonical texts, as an atheist, knowing that no one else takes a particular doctrine seriously enables me to evaluate it on its own terms.

However, there are many other extinct religious mythologies, and I’ve never been so engaged by any of them. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, struck me as remarkably stale, with the same basic templates repeated ad boredom. The Lessons, on the other hand—whatever they might be—are never uncreative.

II.

“Vivec then reached out from the egg all his limbs and features, merging with the simulacrum of his mother, gilled and blended in all the arts of the star-wounded East, under water and in fire and in metal and in ash, six times the wise, and he became the union of male and female, the magic hermaphrodite, the martial axiom, the sex-death of language and unique in all the middle world.” -Sermon Eight

The basic outline of the story goes like this:

A farmer’s wife is abducted by gods and made to immaculately conceive Vivec in an underwater castle tended by a crab-like race. After being returned to the land, she’s visited by spirits, one of which blinds her, and she stumbles her way into a cave of dwarf people who cut her open to extract Vivec, who is still an egg at the time. The dwarf people become afraid that they’ll be discovered for stealing such a powerful object, so they create a homuncular replica of the farmer’s wife to carry the egg and take her place back on the surface.

Eventually, the homunculus breaks down. A caravan guard named Nerevar discovers it eighty days later and wants to take it to the Velothi queen so she can use it against their enemies in a coming war, but his captain refuses, preferring to sell it for the services of prostitutes. Nerevar deposes the captain and takes the broken-down homunculus to the palace. There, Vivec emerges from the egg and helps Nerevar lead the Velothi to martial victory.

The kingdom being safe for the moment, Vivec takes leave. While wandering through the land, he encounters the demon prince Molag Bal, known as the King of Rape, whom he seduces to learn its secret powers. A race of monsters is spawned from their union, and although Vivec slaughters most of his children immediately, eight escape.

Over the next several years, whenever he is not occupied counseling Nerevar, Vivec hunts down the remaining monsters. One is a sword whose wielder obtains self-knowledge; one hides itself among the wisdom of scholars; another is a rock that flees to heaven and presumes the right to dwell among the moon and stars. Some of the battles are so violent that they mark the landscape with canyons and seas like scars, and some of the monsters’ bones become the foundations for the great Velothi cities.

Meanwhile, Vivec takes Nerevar on a tour of the known world, stealing knowledge from enemies and would-be allies alike. This, and the defeat of the last monsters, prepares Nerevar for the long-anticipated war with the dwarf people, where the complete eradication of the dwarven race marks the beginning of the modern age of Velothi civilization.

…But it’s really much cooler than that. I left out the part where Vivec beheads himself so he can lie with Molag Bal and advise Nerevar simultaneously; and the part where he turns his spear into a “simple walking dwarf” so he can feed it magical words like some arcane garbage disposal until its stomach explodes; and also the part where Vivec marries the king of an island during his world tour with Nerevar and spawns another race of monsters that ends up sinking the entire island to the bottom of the ocean.

…But it’s really much cooler than that, too, because these descriptions fail to convey the beauty of the original text. Instead of trying to describe the language, I’ll just copy a few out-of-context excerpts:

Molag Bal rose up and extended six arms to show his worth. They were decorated in runes of seduction and its reverse. They were decorated in the annotated calendars of longer worlds. When he spoke, mating monsters fell out.

Each of the aspects of the ALMSIVI then rose up together, combining as one, and showed the world the sixth path. Ayem took from the star its fire, Seht took from it its mystery, and Vehk took from it its feet, which had been constructed before the gift of Molag Bal and destroyed in the manner of truth: by a great hammering. When the soul of the Dwemer could walk no more, they were removed from this world.

He saw the third pennant, which commanded a legion of inverted gorgons, great snakes whose scales were the faces of men.

Find me in the blackened paper, unarmored, in final scenery. Truth is like my husband: instructed to smash, filled with procedure and noise, hammering, weighty, heaviness made schematic, lessons learned only by a mace. Let those that hear me then be buffeted, and let some die in the ash from the striking. Let those that find him find him murdered by illumination, pummeled like a traitorous house, because, if an hour is golden, then immortal I am a secret code. I am the partaker of the Doom Drum, chosen of all those that dwell in the middle world to wear this crown, which reverberates with truth, and I am the mangling messiah.

The Pomegranate Banquet brought many spirits back from the dead so that the sons and daughters of the union had much to eat besides fruit.

Alike the egg-layered universe is this morbid possession of three-distant coverage, soul-wrecked and alive, like my name is alive. In this cloister you have discovered one walking path, hilled like a sword but more coarsened. So edged it is that it has to be whispered to keep the tongue from bleeding, where its signs evacuate their former meanings, like empires that tarry too long.

III.

“I have rebuilt myself.” -Sermon Twenty-Five

Summarizing the plot of the Lessons to say what they’re about is only as efficacious as explaining Christianity with Douglas Adams’ quip that “one man [was] nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.”

We shouldn’t ask “what is The Lessons about,” but instead, “what are the lessons about?” What is Vivec trying to teach us?

The answer is actually quite straightforward: The Lessons is just an instruction manual. Follow these thirty-six simple steps and become a god, or your considerable (incalculable) effort back.

The steps are, of course, impossible. You might even think that you already screwed up by not getting immaculately conceived. However, here it becomes necessary to know something more about the cultural context in which these sermons would have been received, because even within the Velothi mythological framework, the events described in the Lessons would not be considered historically accurate. Like all good scripture, The Lessons deals with how things should be rather than with how things are.

In the Velothi account, Vivec’s legend is a historical one of apotheosis. He was not born a god; he and the two other chief Velothi deities were in fact nothing more than Nerevar’s counselors before they took their transcendence from the same divine artifact that was responsible for eliminating the dwarf people from the world.

The revision found in The Lessons might just be propaganda—maybe Vivec’s divinity has greater authority if it’s inherent—but this reading strikes me as insufficient. Propaganda serves purposes ultimately orthogonal to truth, which Vivec aims to serve in his own way even while deceiving in so many others.

A more interesting possibility is that Vivec has literally changed history. According to Velothi belief, time is real, but emergent. The cosmogonical background needed to understand this is nothing out of the ordinary, as long as details are glossed over: from a chaotic void, two primordial gods emerge, representing stasis and change. They create additional gods and each new generation of beings contributes in its own way to the formation of the universe. One of these later generations includes Akatosh, the god of time; before he was created, time did not exist. (“Before” is obviously not the right word to use here, but I don’t know of a better English alternative. This might be regarded as analogous to the atemporal use of “then” in formal logic.)

Our modern perspective leads us to think of time as either illusory—with only the present moment truly existing while the past is regarded merely as a useful abstraction—or else we imagine time embodying objective truth that leaves the past fixed. By contrast, in a universe where time is inseparable from a sentient being, it is both substantive and subjective—which is to say, it is malleable. As a being that is itself subject to time, Akatosh can be changed, manipulated, and broken. Once Vivec attains divinity, nothing is to stop him from erasing his mortality even from the past.

This, too, seems an inadequate explanation for Vivec’s departure from historicity. He is arrogant, merciless, and self-important, but not vain. It is difficult to see how it does him good to rewrite his humble origins.

IV.

“If you are to be born a ruling king of the world you must confuse it with new words. Set me into pondering.” -Sermon Four

The Lessons reframes Vivec’s divinity in terms of royalty. He is a ruling king of the world, and like all monarchs, he will one day be succeeded by another.

The secret to royalty is knowledge of a syllable, CHIM, and was Vivec’s reward for seducing the demon prince Molag Bal. A complete discussion of CHIM would take us too far afield, and is in any case a task that I feel unqualified to assume. However, one element of CHIM that remains inextricably connected to royalty throughout the lessons is the motif of the dream. From the first lesson of ruling kings:

The ruling king is armored head to toe in brilliant flame. He is redeemed by each act he undertakes. His death is only a diagram back to the waking world. He sleeps the second way.

Presumably, the first way to sleep is the way the rest of us do it: to exist in the waking world—the world of the dreamer—but to mentally occupy a sleeping world—the world of the dreamed. The second way would be the inversion of this: to exist in a dream but to mentally occupy the world of the dreamer—which is the true, waking world. For one who has attained spiritual mastery, death is the evacuation from the physical, dreamed world to the mental world of the spirit or actual self.

The waking world is the amnesia of dream. All motifs can be mortally wounded. Once slain, themes turn into the structure of future nostalgia. Do not abuse your powers or they will lead you astray. They will leave you like rebellious daughters. They will lose their virtue. They will become lost and resentful and finally become pregnant with the seed of folly. Soon you will be the grandparent of a broken state. You will be mocked. It will fall apart like a stone that recalls that it is really water.

On first reading this leading sentence, I would have said that the waking world is a state in which we have forgotten a dream, but on reflection that seems exactly backwards. Instead, the waking world is what the dream has forgotten about. This is a strange brand of solipsism: the world we believe to be real is a dream, but there is in fact a real world somewhere else, where the mind of the dreamer inheres.

Recollection appears again at the end of this section, which warns of the precariousness of occupying a dream-like state and the accompanying fragility of the ruling king’s powers. The resulting instability is not entirely predictable; a dream world can either evaporate or be completely manipulated upon the dreamer’s realization of its nature.

Tentatively, we can conclude from this—and from additional evidence whose total admission would be too bloating for the present discussion—that the ruling king exists in a kind of lucid dreaming state. What we see around us is the dream of some divinity in the waking world. To know this is to recover the agency of the spirit and to break free from physical limitations. It is to gain control over the dream, which is to say, control over the entire known world and the divine dreaming mind.

Tentatively. I, for one, am still unconvinced. While I can say all of this, I don’t yet know it and therefore can’t break free from the dream.

This suggestion is much richer than the claim sometimes found in pop theology that anything is possible if you believe hard enough (because quantum mechanics!). For one thing, merely possessing the truth is no guarantee of power. What happens to the stone that recalls that it is really water could just as well happen to us when we recall that we are really a dream. Perhaps this is what happened to the dwarves that Vivec and Nerevar defeated: “when the soul of the Dwemer could walk no more, they were removed from this world.” To suddenly know that your life is not real is to risk waking up.

It is necessary to come into the truth gradually. One must hold on to the reality of one’s existence in spite of the knowledge that it is unreal. “The secret . . . is the shape of the only name of God, I.” Vivec doesn’t rely on the old cliché, “if I told you, I would have to kill you” to justify his obscurity about the secret to godhood. Instead, he warns: if I told you, you would spontaneously cease to exist. (To say nothing of the Sharmat yet.)

When an Old Bone of the earth—a sort of ancestral spirit—tells Vivec to set it into pondering, Vivec replies:

‘Very well . . . Let me talk to you of the world, which I share with mystery and love. Who is her capital? Have you taken the scenic route of her cameo? I have—lightly, in secret, missing candles because they’re on the untrue side, and run my hand along the edge of a shadow made from one hundred and three divisions of warmth, and left no proof.’

At this the Old Bone folded unto itself twenty times until it became akin to milk, which Vivec drank, becoming a ruling king of the world.

The route to divinity is scenic and secret. No proof is left of it and no shortcuts will suffice.

This is why Vivec preaches in paradoxes and falsehoods. When he joins with the spirit known as the Webspinner and takes its former secrets, he “[leaves] a few behind to keep the web of the world from disentangling.” When a beggar king makes of Vivec’s hair a map of adulthood and death, the map is incomplete.

V.

“Let this sermon be consolation to those who read it that are destined to die.” -Sermon Thirty-Four

The Lessons wouldn’t be of much use if it were only helpful to people destined for apotheosis. Vivec’s instruction is nominally addressed to Nerevar, who is expected to succeed Vivec upon reincarnation, but luckily for us Vivec merely uses Nerevar as a plot device for delivering his sermons. The smoking gun of this dynamic occurs when Vivec takes Nerevar on a tour of the world:

Nerevar wondered if there was anything to learn in the south but Vivec remained silent and only led them back to Red Mountain.

‘Here,’ Vivec said, ‘is the last of the last. Within it the Sharmat waits.’

The Sharmat is a figure who emerges in Velothi mythology following the disappearance of the dwarves—in other words, chronologically subsequent to the narrative of The Lessons. It just isn’t possible that Nerevar, during the entire time of his life, could actually have been brought before the Sharmat.

In this particular rewriting of history, however, the Sharmat seems to have always existed. He is promoted from a person of metaphysical significance to a metaphysical idea. That idea can be regarded as the opposite of, or more accurately the complement to, CHIM.

The ruling king possessing CHIM recognizes that the world around him is the dream of some divine power and, as part of that world, so is he—without doubting the subjective reality of his own self. He thereby attains self-knowledge and, in this ideal world (in the Berkeleyan rather than Leibnizian sense; that is, mental rather than perfect) self-knowledge is self-mastery. Finally, when the self is an inextricable part of the whole, self-mastery is total mastery. It is no wonder that “the ruling king who sees in another his equivalent rules nothing”; two discordant wills cannot have mutual mastery over each other.

The Sharmat also recognizes that the world is the dream of some divine power, but his interpretation of this insight is arguably less radical. Finding the world around him a dream and observing his ability to control it, he understands himself to be the dreamer.

The Sharmat sleeps at the center. He cannot bear to see it removed, the world of reference. This is the folly of the false dreamer. This is the amnesia of dream, or its power, or its circumvention.

Nerevar, who is “to be a ruling king of earth,” is the Sharmat’s “double” and is thus also relegated to be more an archetype than a person; “the Hortator” rather than Nerevar. When Vivec speaks of the Sharmat, it can only be to Nerevar in the abstract, not to Nerevar in the flesh.

Vivec is evidently unchallenged by leading a literal double life as “Vehk and Vehk.” There is Vehk the person and Vehk the archetype; Vehk the mortal, who “must have been born before,” and Vehk the god, born as “the image of an egg”; Vehk who doubts his continued relevance in the forbidden sermon and Vehk who will be known more than his sister and brother—indeed, Vehk who is “master evermore.”

Nerevar, however, struggles to integrate his dual roles throughout The Lessons. The following passage is representative:

The Hortator wandered through the Mourning Hold, wrestling with the lessons he had learned. They were slippery in his mind. He could not always keep the words straight and knew that this was a danger.

Anyone who has read the three lessons of ruling kings should have sympathy for Nerevar here. After all, before he found Vivec, he was just a caravan guard a little more brave and loyal to his queen than most. We can’t help but feel sorry for him when Vivec tells him to “reach heaven by violence” and he tries to comply by taking an axe and going to heaven to defeat the moon in battle. The poor guy is completely out of his depth.

He does manage some measure of self-possession eventually, in Sermon 34. Following the death of the last monster, Nerevar affirms to Vivec, “Now I am the mightiest of your children.” This, his last spoken line, marks the moment when he finally becomes suited to embrace his archetypal role. Perhaps it is also when he abandons his more personal identity.

Nerevar—or more appropriately, the Hortator—represents many things. He is a warrior, a statesman, a leader, a student, a ruling king. He is also the only named Velothi in all of The Lessons, and we may take him as a sort of stand-in or model for all Velothi citizens.

It is instructive once again to compare his narrative arc to the more allegedly historical perspective. Recall that Vivec is supposed to have been a counselor to Nerevar, who in turn was a great general born into high nobility who led the Velothi through an existential threat from foreign enemies. In The Lessons, this relationship is almost exactly inverted. As usual, we can view this as an instance of propaganda, but more interestingly, the inversion serves to place the rest of us within reach of Nerevar’s greatness.

Vivec’s regard for his people is best summarized with a line from The Scripture of the Sword:

I build for you a city of swords, by which I mean laws that cut the people who live there into better shapes.

It is no accident that this image is violent. We’re to take “the lessons as a punishment for being mortal. To be made of dirt is to be treated as such by your jailers.” The Velothi are “people of the exodus into the vital: pain.” That exodus, with its painful cutting punishment, is ultimately a means to ascension.

Vivec is the form the ruling king must acquire and Nerevar is to be the ruling king. Crucially, Nerevar does not become a god in any account. His mightiness stems from the resolve to take charge when necessary; the willingness to be cut into better, possibly unrecognizable shapes; and the courage to—did I mention this yet?—grab an axe off the nearest weapons rack and go to heaven to literally subdue the moon in one-on-one combat.

If Nerevar is the mightiest among the Velothi, then as Vivec tells it, it’s only through the influence of Vivec’s lessons. His mastery does not rely on a blessed birth or divine intervention; it is something almost mundane, which the rest of us can aspire to emulate.

VI.

“The ruling king is to stand against me and then before me.” -Sermon Thirteen

One final thing that makes The Lessons so special is the ability explore the Velothi region, talk to the members of both Vivec’s temple and dissident sects, take pilgrimages to holy sites, and even speak to Vivec himself.

Oh, I guess I forgot to mention something. The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec is from a video game. To be clear, it’s not a book based on a video game; the book is in the game. Lots of people seem to get confused about what that means, so here, look at a screenshot if you need to.

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In fact, The Lessons is only one of several hundred books, any of which you can go read in the game or online. Most are only a few pages, but some—like The Lessons—are serialized to comprise larger volumes. Books include histories, biographies, religious canon and commentaries, short stories, poems, and speculative research. Multiple accounts can often be found on the same subject, with disagreements ranging from civil academic discourse to polemical take-downs. Some of the more ancient history, especially, is so mythologized and distorted by time that one can find contradictory claims even about which nations fought on which sides of important wars.

The experience of finding yourself in a huge, strange world with unfamiliar people and customs, and finding a library of book after incomprehensible book is quite unique. It’s overwhelming, certainly. But you can put the books down and explore, get a feeling for the various local cultures, see the way people live, and come back to the libraries when you’re ready to make a few more connections. After a while, it will start to make sense, and you can even begin to take sides on the in-world debates. Was the Middle Dawn an event of fundamental metaphysical significance, or a transcription error in local records? Was the War of the First Council precipitated by theological differences or by the political and economic turmoil following the eruption of Red Mountain and Sun’s Death? Did the Dwemer ascend to a higher plane of existence or did they erase themselves with a premature vision of divinity—or did Azura simply kill them all for the hubris of building Numidium?

As in our world, we can’t just look up the right answers. You can always try asking the omniscient guy, but good luck getting a straight answer.

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We must also extend our analytic tools to deal with the peculiarities of this fictional world. I can dismiss the virgin birth of Jesus on the basis of its scientific implausibility, for example. In a world of magic, on the other hand, skepticism is not so easy. If I suspect that the virgin birth of Vivec is false, it is for much subtler reasons.

Each component of the world is enhanced by the vastness and unresolved complexity of the whole. Morrowind the game is without a doubt richer for The Lessons, but likewise The Lessons is richer for the context and setting developed in the game.

VII.

“We must go and misinterpret this.” -Sermon Three

Vivec tells us in The Scripture of the Word, “The first meaning is always hidden,” and I’m reminded of Sermon Eighteen, which disclaims, “This sermon is untrue.” Both statements seem to be gross misdirections. Is not every meaning hidden and every sermon untrue? Just try to find some unhidden meaning in the second lesson of ruling kings:

The magical cross is an integration of the worth of mortals at the expense of their spirits. Surround it with the triangle and you begin to see the Triune house. It becomes divided into corners, which are ruled by our brethren, the Four Corners: BAL DAGON MALAC SHEOG. Rotate the triangle and you pierce the heart of the Beginning Place, the foul lie, the testament of the irrefutable-for-a-span. Above them all is the horizon where only one stands, though no one stands there yet. It is proof of the new. It is the promise of the wise. Unfold the whole and what you have is a star, which is not my domain, but not entirely outside my judgment. The grand design takes flight; it is transformed not only into a star but a hornet. The center cannot hold. It becomes devoid of lines and points. It becomes devoid of anything and so becomes a receptacle. This is its usefulness at the end. This is its promise.

I have a special fondness for this passage because during one of my regular close readings of The Lessons with Starburst, we were trying to interpret these geometrical descriptions. Feeling some nascent insight coming into relief, I earnestly explained, “I mean, if I were trying to pierce the heart of the Beginning Place, I would rotate the triangle about an axis parallel to the plane of the cross. Does that make sense?” It wasn’t until Starburst repeated back to me what I’d just said that I realized maybe I was going a little off the deep end.

Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to pierce the heart of the Beginning Place, of course. There’s not even anything wrong with stretching the text to its interpretational extremes. While still an egg, Vivec is visited by the spirit At-Hatoor:

His garments were made from implications of meaning, and the egg looked at them three times. The first time Vivec said:

‘Ha, it means nothing!’

After looking a second time he said:

‘Hmm, there might be something there after all.’

Finally, giving At-Hatoor’s garments a sidelong glance, he said:

‘Amazing, the ability to infer significance in something devoid of detail!’

‘There is a proverb,’ At-Hatoor said, and then he left.

I take Vivec’s final remark as approving, and the whole parable as an example of Vivec’s maturation. Where meaning is only implicated, we must infer significance from whatever we can. But we must at the same time fight the temptation to firmly accept any single interpretation; “To be affixed to a symbol is too, too certain.” This is explicated further in an encounter between Vivec and another visiting spirit:

Finally the Chancellor of Exactitude appeared, and he was perfect to look upon from every angle. Vivec understood the challenge immediately and said:

‘Certitude is for the puzzle-box logicians and girls of white glamour who harbor it on their own time. I am a letter written in uncertainty.’

The Chancellor bowed his head and smiled fifty different and perfect ways all at once. He pulled the astrolabe of the universe from his robe and broke it in half, handing both halves to the egg-image of Vivec.

Vivec laughed and said, ‘Yes, I know. The slave labor of the senses is as selfish as polar ice, and worsens when energies are spent on a life others regard as fortunate. To be a ruling king I will have to suffer much that cannot be suffered, and to weigh matters that no astrolabe or compass can measure.’

Attempting to maintain a balance between inferred significance and the uncertainty of unmeasurable matters—more often than not, by indulging in extreme imbalances toward each direction in rapidly alternating succession—is one of the great pleasures of reading The Lessons. To have license to explore every idea while beholden to none is destabilizing, but also empowering.

If the ash ever clears, what emerges is less a knowledge of the truth than a collection of mutually incompatible models. Always an opportunist, Vivec would have us use whichever is most self-serving at any given time:

The third walking path explores hysteria without fear. The efforts of madmen are a society of itself, but only if they are written. The wise may substitute one law for another, even into incoherence, and still say he is working within a method.

And as for the truth?

The truth is this: (You must learn this elsewhere.)

Acknowledgments.

I’m very grateful to Starburst for his many enthusiastic hours reading and interpreting The Lessons with me. The Lessons can be read online hereUESP is a good resource for filling in gaps in the history and mythology, and this Reddit community has some interesting discussions (even if it is a terrifying place that makes me feel the way I did as a freshman when I occasionally tried to read contemporary specialized physics papers). I thoroughly enjoyed the essay series on Falling Awkwardly (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), with Part 3 being the most directly related to what I’ve covered here.

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