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Earl Doherty

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Götterdämmerung
(
October 1, 2006)

    On Sunday, September 17, the Canadian Opera Company completed the first ever presentation in Canada, inaugurating their newly-built opera house in Toronto, of the complete "The Ring of the Nibelung" by Richard Wagner with a performance of the fourth and final opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung, The Twilight of the Gods. The title he gave to this concluding opera reveals the fundamental theme which Wagner envisioned in his monumental work, namely the passing of an old order making way for the flowering of a new one. He once wrote to someone that all life follows the same pattern: to be born, to grow, blossom and grow old, finally to die. Without the necessity of death, there can be no possibility of life. This, in fact, is the overarching pattern of evolution. Life is a process of renewal, and ongoing life is a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Static life, permanent life, is a contradiction; it would make development and progress impossible. Growth followed by decay followed by renewal is inherent in all things, organic and otherwise. And this process operates on many levels, small and large.

    In Wagner's Ring cycle, creatively fashioned by his particular genius largely out of Norse mythology, the world has been dominated by the gods—as imperfect as they might be. They direct the fate of all things, including various lower races of giants, dwarves (the Nibelungen) and men. Forces expressed through myth in magic aid the workings of this world. Change is wrought, as it is in most of the world's mythology, not simply through death, but death that constitutes sacrifice. This is perhaps the most deep-seated motif in the human psyche, which is why it finds expression in so much of our fantasizing, our story-telling, our myth-making, in which we try to explain ourselves to ourselves and to make sense of the life processes we see around us: the cycle of the seasons, the decay and renewal of agriculture, the passing from generation to generation, and the grief that accompanies death and the joy that comes with birth, growth and accomplishment. Since death is inevitable, and so difficult to come to terms with at the ground-level in which we live as individuals, we seek for ways to transfigure it, to redeem it, even though on the larger scale, being an integral part of the stream of life and progress, it needs no redemption.
    If there is an overarching development in plot and music from the beginning to the end of Wagner's tetralogy—16 hours of operatic splendor performed over four days, constituting one of the great artistic achievements of the human species—it is the gradual, and at first reluctant, process undergone by the chief of the gods, Wotan, his insight and acceptance that the gods must pass away in order to make room for something new. More than simply to make room, it requires their death to allow the promise of the new life to be realized. The gods are tired. They have borne too much responsibility, and they have been corrupted by it all. They have become the world's albatross, despite what may have begun with the best of intentions. Wagner seems to have been an atheist in his own personal philosophy (acknowledging no divinity except perhaps himself), but he was able to recognize the part that gods and religion had played in human development, and to realize that their time had now passed.  Had he lived at the beginning of the 21st century, he would undoubtedly have written music to illustrate that this passing was now long overdue and even imperative.

    The cycle of life, death and renewal operates on multiple levels. As individuals, we experience it on the small scale, in our own lives and the lives of those around us. In history we have seen it operating in the rise and fall of civilizations, in the growth and decay of cultures, in the migration of peoples and subsequent inundations in turn by other peoples. On the geological scale, the evolution of life has been punctuated by even larger cycles of growth and collapse, the passing away of old orders and the ascent of new ones. Sometimes the changeover is slow and gradual. At other times it may be catastrophic: a chance encounter with an asteroid, an exploding volcano that wipes out an island civilization overnight; the untimely death of a powerful individual whose passing creates a turning point. It may even be self-induced. An entire Incan culture was subjugated and eradicated by a handful of men with a few horses and a cannon, simply because the Incas initially regarded the little band of Conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro as supernatural, and put up no resistance when it would have mattered. The taking of a defenseless Rome after the battle of Cannae would have been a piece of cake, but Hannibal inexplicably failed to march on the city and thereby ensured his own eventual defeat and the destruction of his Carthaginian home. Arab failure in 1947 to accommodate even a modest Jewish homeland led to a state of
Israel which, in defending itself, became the superpower of the region and produced a bitter aftermath that has poisoned the life of both cultures and ruined the peace of the entire Middle East.
    The realists among us have come to recognize that the gods have become more than an albatross. They are now the greatest threat to our very progress and survival. They can no longer be accommodated, for the truth of the matter is that they have been commandeered by that element of human society which is most unenlightened, most irrational, most fanatical. Liberal religion has now been marginalized; it is a spent, largely irrelevant force. It has no control over the extremist expressions of the world's major faiths. The latter are now calling the shots. Fundamentalist Christianity, within the most powerful country in the world, is well on its way to achieving a stranglehold on domestic and foreign policy. It is to a great extent entrenched in the administrations of all levels of U.S. government. It foils important scientific research for the betterment of human health, it hamstrings efforts at controlling overpopulation around the globe, it threatens basic human rights. Within its own boundaries it is in the process of crippling education and creating a culture of ignorance and scientific regression. It has poisoned the mental health of vast swaths of the citizenry whose quality of life and views of reality have been corrupted by irrational ideas and lunatic expectations. Certain choices in foreign policy, even if unstated publicly, have unquestionably been determined in part by such things, to the world's peril.
    Fundamentalist Islam poses an even greater threat. It is dedicated, openly and with no holds barred, to the conversion or destruction of non-Islamic world society. The concept of dialogue is not in its vocabulary. Its adopted method is indiscriminate killing, to the fullest extent possible. In this, it envisions the full support of its Deity. It was recently revealed on CNN that a few years ago Osama bin Laden consulted with a Muslim cleric (a spiritual advisor to terrorists, one assumes) and received permission from him to kill up to 10 million infidels in his "holy war" against the West. (I guess it's comforting to know that religious moralists these days are receiving guidance from the ultimate divine authority, in contrast to us poor atheists who only have our weak and subjective human consciences to go on; we all know how submission to a higher power tends to guarantee superior moral behavior. But I digress.) Nor can fundamentalist Christians consider themselves any more enlightened or less sanguinary in their ambitions, for they expect an equally horrendous holy war and 'religious cleansing' in the near future, aided by heavenly forces revealed in parts of the New Testament.
    In
Iraq, groups of one Muslim sect haul members of another Muslim sect out of buses or off the street, torture them, shoot them in the head and drop their bodies at the side of the road. Individuals with visions of paradise strap on explosives, wander into a crowded marketplace filled with members of both sects—and both sexes, including people of all ages—and blow themselves up, praising the greatness of their God at the moment of destruction and indiscriminate murder. This, again, is very similar to the mutual executions and bombings between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland within recent memory, as well as in Hindu extremism on the Indian subcontinent. While in all such cases political dimensions have been involved, it has always been the religious dimension that enables the individual human to take part in and justify his inhumanity. Politics alone could never have recruited 19 suicide pilots to fly into buildings and kill thousands of innocents.
    In theocratic Iran (not to be confused with "democratic," despite the illusion of free elections in which true moderates, let alone liberals, are not allowed to run for office), where its president has declared the avowed extermination of a neighboring state in many of his speeches ['Israel esse delenda'], they are hard at work developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them, funding and equipping terrorists abroad who also subscribe to the holy war philosophy. (One wonders what an 'unholy war' would look like.)
    To borrow the title of Richard Dawkins' most recent book, "the God Delusion" has seized the mentality of a significant portion of the human race, a growing share of which has become deranged by it, and at a time when the technology and science and culture it ostensibly derides has enabled it to wreak unprecedented and catastrophic effects. The apocalyptic mentality is now in a position to create a veritable apocalypse.

    Religion in one form or another has been with us from time immemorial. For most of that period it may have served a purpose (evolutionary features which survive that long usually do), perhaps for community cohesion and even mental stability in the face of an inscrutable, frightening, death-ridden world. That is no longer the case. In much of recorded history, religion has created more death than life, more misery than hope, more stagnation than progress, more lunacy than sanity, and that imbalance is increasing. We now have other avenues, human-based ones, to understanding and enlightenment, to ethics, cooperation and good will. These are no longer achievable by competing and mutually exclusive convictions that one particular brand of unverifiable belief in fantastic otherworldly dimensions, in gods who are as prejudiced, divisive and irrational as we are capable of being, constitute eternal and inerrant truth.
    The so-called liberal believer has to realize that the traditional faith in any form has become rationally and pragmatically unsupportable, that belief in gods and the supernatural has mutated into a cancer that can kill the human organism. Neither Bible nor Koran will actually support the liberalized, moderating interpretations and 'spins' which the more rational of the faithful try to put on them. Unfortunately, the fundamentalists do have it right. The sacred writings of almost any faith declare that the unbeliever will perish eternally. They prescribe the fiercest of penalties for often outdated transgressions, death to infidels and heretics, conquest of Holy and Promised Lands. (In these regards, the Bible can be more bloodthirsty than the Koran.) Such writings have been used to justify the most objectionable behavior, from animal sacrifice to slavery to the worst of misogynist sexism. They stand in often direct opposition to modern science and our understanding of human nature; they contain contradictions and primitive ideas that cannot be rationalized or allegorized away. And they are a colossal distraction from the focus we ought to be placing on this world and its betterment. The liberal believer must realize that the cost of rescuing his holy book, and the tenets of faith that are based on it, comes at too great a cost.
    Before religious fundamentalism pulls the house down on us all, it needs to be challenged by as many as possible, including the moderates who in supporting a more humanized religion in their own lives are reluctant to speak out against what others are making of it. Too many politicians, fearful of their conservative colleagues and the voters who place them in office, also remain silent. Too many academics of all stripes are similarly afraid to rock the boat. In the Muslim world, speaking out is more difficult, since criticism of the faith can be seen as tantamount to apostasy and may result in persecution and even death. Yet what of Muslims in the "free world"? Why is there not more vocal outrage expressed over Islamic extremism, over the bloody sectarianism in
Iraq, Muslim murdering Muslim, or the cult of suicide bombing that kills indiscriminately? When terrorist plots are uncovered by Western security forces, why is denial and accusation of police (or Jewish) conspiracy the common reaction rather than condemnation of the exposed terrorists? In Afghanistan, the Taliban is attempting—and may possibly succeed—to make a comeback, a return of the country to its ultra-repressive rule, its murder of women, its sponsorship of international terrorism, all of which are nominally condemned by moderate Muslims and moderate Muslim governments. Why is it not the armies of Egypt, Turkey or Jordan, or Muslim volunteer soldiers from the West, who are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to prevent the restoration of this abomination which allegedly casts Islam in such a black and invalid light, instead of the armies of the United States, Canada and Britain? If self-professed moderates on both sides abhor the idea, let alone the inevitability, of a clash of civilizations—tantamount to a war of religions—engulfing much of the world, they need to grapple with it in an open and organized fashion. No illusions and no excuses. It needs to be done at the grass roots level, through enlightened politics, education and simply voicing objection to the fundamentalist mentality, whether across the street or around the world. (In the background plot of my Jesus Puzzle novel, published in Spanish and Korean and readable in English in its entirety on this website, a group of U.S. academics forms the nucleus of an “Age of Reason Foundation” to get the nation to engage in just that.)
    That means turning on our rational faculties. It means questioning, if not abandoning, gods and religion entirely. An impossible expectation? Maybe. But nothing less is likely to do the trick. Wagner had it right. It is time the gods passed away, to make room for a world society free of divisive and destructive superstition rooted in a primitive age and ignorance we are well on our way to dispelling and outgrowing. Preferably, the gods should pass into fossilized history through rational and civilized discourse and scientific investigation, rather than the fiery collapse at the end of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, which could engulf us all.


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Earl Doherty



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