George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

I'm with the consensus. Best yet.

I’m with the consensus. Best yet.

For whatever reason, A Song of Ice and Fire really has its hooks in me by this point. A number of people I know who’ve read the series thus far have told me that A Storm of Swords is their favorite, and thus far I have to agree. More than anything, the book is good because Martin maintains a general inventiveness in plot and depth in character.

To return to the running thread of the discussion, my concern with Martin has been the extent to which he revises Tolkein’s influence on the genre. Right now, my concern is that the genre, nearly without exception takes a European center to its fantastic settings. Middle Earth is Europe, and the Shire is rural England. We know this. Even a Moorcock, who so thoroughly revised Tolkein’s ethical framework, maintained this European focus. His principal non-Melibonean characters were either Europeans by another name or exoticized others, sympathetic or no. In Tolkein, Sauron enlists the forces of Islam, if one scratches below the surface.

There can be no doubt that Westeros is, for the greater part, Europe. You could argue about Dorne, but the rest is there. I make this point without judgement, but with some concern. Why? Because one of the reasons I engage with literature the way I do is because literature, particularly more lowbrow forms of it, those for “entertainment’s sake” shape the way we as people see our world and the other people in it. This, and the fact that when we imagine that something is “just entertainment” we are all the less likely to be conscious as people of how what we read (or otherwise consume) affects our thinking about our world. My concern is that the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the genre can leave a reader with the impression that Europe–or the settler colonies Europeans established–is the center of the world and its history. This can transfer easily, especially in one of the settler colonies like that in which I live, to people. White people become the center of the world’s action, and their phenotypes become the norm. This type of thing has concrete, destructive consequences.

So, Martin doesn’t change this aspect of the genre. The question then becomes, how does he handle Europe? Discussions about what Europe means are very important, just like though we know Marx didn’t deal in depth, in his major works, with the non-European world, what he had to say about Europe is of enduring importance.

The colonialist line on Europe is that it took a civilizing turn away from the rest of the world when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Where others had superstitions, Europeans had philosophy. This predicated the Roman and British Empires both, and is why the English-speaking peoples gave us heavy industry.

There is a second, less discussed, and much more accurate and useful take on Europe. Rather than a Europe that breaks from the rest of the world with the Greeks, we have a Europe that breaks in the modern period. Of interest here is Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which I’ve discussed before. In essence, what we see with Ginzburg’s work is the process of church orthodoxy rooting out–physically–localized, indigenous religious practices under the guise of a struggle against witchcraft. This happens both under the context of the new Reformation and the development of modern, global, colonialist capitalism. The point here is that Europe was, as it continues to be, split unto itself.

We imagine Europeans, and, it follows, their white descendants in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, as peoples entirely culturally–genetically, to the biological racists–distinct from the indigenous peoples they displaced in their colonialist primitive accumulation. However one deals with this, though, the arrival of those Europeans who settled other peoples’ lands was the end of another, European process as much as it was the beginning of another. What a Ginzburg points to is a Europe that was as much connected to its particular, local land as any indigenous culture could be. In this view, Europe split from the rest of the world when it cut off its own roots in its own land.

All this discussion, because Martin deals with this process, in his way. Jojen Reed is the best example, at least in Storm of Swords. Bran, too, but Jojen is the one who is conscious of the processes involved. Tolkein gave us happy Hobbits living in their English countryside, but Martin gets to something more real: indigenous peoples under seige by settlers. The settlers–think the kings of Westeros, with their ideologues, the maesters–imagine that what had been there before is now entirely gone, but they’re wrong. The land still functions through people like Jojen.

Why is this important? Because one of the sustaining fictions of white supremacy is the lie, cherished as fact by explicit racists and privileged white liberals both, that “the Indians are gone.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that precise sentence from people who considered themselves on the left. Indigenous people are not gone, though white settlers did their damnedest. And who were those white people? Not people who were at some basic essence different from those they displaced, but people whose bond to their land had been forcibly cut, who found themselves at some level unmoored, and, as such, capable of great social violence. I return to Chief Seattle, to whom I will continue to return, again and again:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

A-Clash-of-KingsBeset by illness, I plowed through the last 200 pages of A Clash of Kings much more quickly than I expected to. A part of me had thought I’d finish both it and the ensuing A Storm of Swords before the third season of the HBO series began, but that train’s left the station. 960 pages is long. Needless to say, the best part of being fairly sick was the time spent with this book. Generally I felt awful.

Substantively, A Clash of Kings improved on A Game of Thrones. We all miss Ned Stark, but what struck me, having seen the series, was how well-developed the characters are in this second book compared to the series. Arya Stark stands out. There’s a lot more going on with her in the book than the show. So too Davos, Stannis Baratheon’s “Onion Knight.” These are fantastic characters, and the show simply does not do them justice.

Any glance at any of the bits I’ve written on fantasy here will reveal that one of my hobby horses is to bemoan how thoroughly Eurocentric the genre as it exists is. I noted that while Martin certainly demolishes Tolkein’s almost entirely-male conceptual precedent, he does so in a world that is, basically, late Medieval Europe. In particular, I am concerned when indigenous people–in Martin’s world we have “the Children of the Forest” are “all gone” or at least presumed to be.

My point has nothing to do with fantasy lit per se but rather that I’ve had too many conversations with actually-existing white people (it’s white people that concern me most because I am one, and because they still hold, as a group, social sway in this country) who say things like, “gee, the Native Americans really had a good thing going. Too bad they’re all gone.” This, despite the very real presence of all kinds of Native people not only on reservations but living in your city, white man. This approach allows this country to not deal with the present results of past genocide, and it’s not good. So, when I see that trope play itself out in fantasy lit, I know that it soothes the white subconscious in a way that will not move us forward.

So, let me then say that it’s becoming clear that Martin’s approach to indigenous people is more nuanced than was clear, or at least clear to me, in A Game of Thrones. First, we meet Jojen, who has the ability of greensight. He is of a group of people who, while not children of the forest, “keep the old ways.” Those old ways, clearly, still work in this new world of Westeros, and that is leagues removed from the idea that “those nice people are all dead and gone now.” It puts the question of our full, human relationship to land and ancestry into the present, rather than the past. There are other examples as well: Bran Stark is a “warg,” inhabiting the body of his direwolf in dreams, and one gets the feeling that we will meet children of the forest in later volumes. Good for Martin.

I’m nearly 200 pages into the third book as I write this. I don’t feel like I’ll bother with the HBO series for some time, if at all. Good series, better books.

Vine Deloria, God is Red

Read immediately.

Read immediately.

For some reason I don’t understand–maybe I’m getting old, maybe getting content, maybe both–I’ve been rereading books lately, a number at a time, for the first time in my life. I was never one to go back to something a second time. Yet at the moment I not only reread Vine Deloria‘s essential God is Red, but I scored a copy of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories from the library. In any event, Deloria is always worth reading and this, of all the books of his I’ve read, is the one that has had the greatest continuing impact on how I imperfectly try to live.

No summaries here, but a description: Deloria compares actually-existing North American Christianity to Native American religious practice and finds the former, not unpredictably but quite profoundly, lacking. Christianity, born in Southwest Asia under the auspices of a Palestinian god, lost, in its movement across continents and most particularly across the Atlantic, any relationship it once bore to a specific people and, more importantly, a specific land. Native practice, on the contrary, is entirely predicated on the relationship of specific people to specific land.

The breaking, in Christianity, of that fundamental relationship, means that the religion, as it actually exists, cannot fulfil any of the functions a religion must: help people live better, be happy, not damage others or our world, etc. Look, he argues, at how Christians have behaved on this land in the last 500 years, to this day. Any argument to the contrary, it seems to me, must abstract itself from historical fact and retreat into abstractions about how the religion, ideally, ought to be. If Christianity worked, as a religion, Christ wouldn’t have come to Mexico on a cannonball.

It was in God is Red, on my first read some eight years ago, that I came across Chief Seattle‘s famous speech of 1854, which Deloria quotes at length:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret…(173)

I cannot overstate the impact these two sentences had on my thinking over the next years. Impact, in the most profound sense, because they produced in me an impulse to ask questions about what they mean for me as a person and as a presence on this land. More critically, they pointed the direction to me through which I might deal with the questions of whiteness and settler colonialism without on the one hand white guilt and on the other an imagined objectivity. White guilt is ultimately selfish emotion, and no participant in a process can observe a process objectively. Observation itself is subjective, however comforting it might be for the white thinker to imagine otherwise. Seattle’s words, though, suggested to me that it was by approaching my ancestors in their specificity that I might find a way forward.

I practice Buddhism, and, for those who aren’t practitioners, there is a whole discourse, in North America, dealing with the question of the practice migrating–very literally–from Asia to the Americas, and what that means for the practice and for us as practitioners. The discussion takes many forms, but by and large takes place among educated, well-off white practitioners and posits an “Asian Buddhism” in contrast to a “North American Buddhism.”

Lots of problems. One, any practitioner of Asian ancestry is assumed to fall into the first group and not the second, as if a third-generation Asian-American necessarily would approach the practice in precisely the same way as her or his peasant ancestors of a century ago. There’s also the problem that the “converts” (as opposed to “ancestral practitioners”) are on the one hand assumed to be white and, on the other, assumed to be “true spiritual seekers” in opposition to the “ancestral practitioners” who are simply following, unthinkingly, the superstitions handed to them, much like the most unthinking Christian you could imagine, only in a more inscrutable and exotic kind of way. Needless to say, the entire discussion reproduces societal racism in the microcosm of the community of practitioners.

Many of the efforts to define a “North American” or “Western” Buddhism, both theoretically and in a practical approach, involve mingling Buddhist practice with various aspects of “Western” culture or civilization. Some find in Buddhist practice a complement to psychotherapy. Some, building on the popularity of martial arts or yoga, create a polyglot practice, drawing on a variety of–am I coining a term?–Asianisms, giving the practitioner a feeling of authenticity without challenging the, at best, rudimentary understanding of Asian societies we in the United States tend to have.

To Deloria: reading God is Red some years ago, and much more clearly this time around, it became clear to me that, yes, there will be and must be a particularly North American Buddhism. But, no, it will not be a Buddhism that comes from a facile mingling of disparate or even contradictory cultural practices, nor from picking and choosing elements from the “Western canon” that seem to fit the ideas one finds in the Sutras or other classic Buddhist texts. Here, think Meister Eckhart, William Blake, or Heidegger. These are all interesting writers worth reading (never put the effort into Heidegger myself, though) but a scholastic effort like this will not produce the type of results that Buddhist practice promises, and in any event, we’re talking about European, not North American writers. The sustenance of a settler colony as such is not the goal of any Buddhism I want a part of.

I could go on…

What my read of Deloria suggested to me is that the North American Buddhism we practitioners often bandy about would likely come from building a real, reciprocal relationship to the actual land upon which we practice. Land, in this understanding, isn’t inanimate. It includes all the life we find here. That means, it includes this land’s people. I do not suggest that white Buddhists should start performing sweat lodges. Anecdotally, I stayed a bit at a monastery and overheard some white practitioner talking to a much younger, fairly attractive woman about how he performed “sweat lodges,” and I had an overwhelming urge to go punch him and tell the girl to run. I should have, seriously.

Rather, I suggest that the process of coming to know the land as practitioners involves two things. First, we need to immediately stop harming the land, and that means its people, too. First, do no harm. It’s no good buying a Prius with twice the mileage of your last car if you drive the thing three times as much because you imagine it’s so green. Second, we need to come to know the land. A comment in Deloria, actually from the “The Red and the Black” chapter of Custer Died for Your Sins, suggested that Black people ought indeed to fight for their own land in North America because then they could take “two or three hundred years” to come to know it and form a relationship to it as a people. It seems to me that it will take that long, so we have no time to lose.

Next time you do your walking meditation, do it outdoors, in bare feet.