Everything in life is about metaphysics except metaphysics. Metaphysics is about power.
“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. Continue reading