Why American Gods?
Every first post I do on a new course text, I’ll ask this question. Why are we studying this? How does it fit into the course? I’d like to think that most, if not all, of my selections are more of less self-explanatory; still, some are more self-explanatory than others, and I’ve always subscribed to the teaching philosophy that self-reflection on the logic underlying a course is a good thing.
So: why American Gods? We may well ask this question more pointedly than with other texts for the simple reason that this course is (technically) “American Literature after 1945,” and Neil Gaiman is British. Given however that much of this course will be given over to the dissolution of such boundaries as highbrow lowbrow, literature and genre, to say nothing of the boundaries and distinctions between and within genres, it makes a certain amount of sense to begin the course thinking about the ways in which we divvy up the field of literary study into national literatures, ethnic or cultural literatures, historical periods, and the usefulness of such distinctions. Considering that American Gods is about the tension between mythologies of worship and mythologies of nation, it similarly gives us a set of useful insights into the ways in which genre functions as its own form of myth.
There’s also just the fact of Neil Gaiman himself, a prolific and brilliant author who cut his teeth first as a journalist, and then as an acclaimed writer of comic books. I first read Neil Gaiman in high school when my best friend, himself a comics enthusiast, turned me on to The Sandman—the story of Dream, one of the seven Endless, the embodiments of mortal qualities and behaviours (Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and the prodigal Destruction). I have never been much of a comics reader—really, the one enclave of nerdiness that I never cared for—but I was amazed by the dark genius of the stories and the intelligence of the writing. (Also, it didn’t hurt that the titular character looked an awful lot like Robert Smith of the Cure, long one of my favourite bands).
Gaiman’s career has been a gleefully promiscuous mixing, matching, and crossing of genres: comics, children’s books, television writing (Doctor Who, Babylon 5), radio plays, screenplays, novels, YA fiction, live performance—and while most or all of that would once upon a time have been dismissed as the provenance of a hack, not an artist, you would be hard-pressed to find voices in the American or British literati who don’t have at least a grudging respect for his work.
Mythology is a tricky term, because it comes freighted with a variety of meanings and connotations, not all of which are necessarily consonant with one another. For our purposes, there are three uses I’ll be discussing:
- Its association with religion, worship, and the divine—both in the sense of what J.R.R. Tolkien called mythopoeia (more on that below), and in its etiological function of providing a narrative explanation for creation and existence—in creating a pantheon of gods and their interactions with humanity.
- Roland Barthes’ designation as “a form of speech”; a metalanguage that emerges when, to quote Barthes, we “confuse history for nature.” That is to say, we create mythologies when we start to see the products of human thought, invention, and discourse as naturally occurring and innate; the assumption that concepts like “justice” or “perversity” are transcendent categories as opposed a cultural consensus.
- Finally, the more colloquial use of the term to describe the backstory and history of a given alternate reality. As best as I can divine, this use of the term came into popular use to describe those episodes of The X-Files that expanded upon the show’s conspiratorial prehistory. It has now become common to employ “mythology” in this respect, especially with television franchises like Supernatural or the Whedonverse.
I should hope it goes without saying that American Gods deploys the first two definitions in a host of interesting ways; the third definition is less relevant to us here at first, but worth establishing because we will be talking about it again.
American Gods and Fantasy
Neil Gaiman is one of a handful of fantasists whom I’ve been working on for about two years now, looking at the ways in which they’ve (re)deployed the genre of fantasy (loosely defined) to articulate a secular, humanist world-view (others include Lev Grossman, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, N.K. Jemisin, J.K. Rowling, and Joss Whedon). Fantasy—both in terms of such defining works as The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia chronicles, and in its proto-forms in late Victorian faery-stories and medieval romance—tends to be deeply religious in structure. By this I mean it is often imbued with Christian allegory, such as in C.S. Lewis, but more so that it is predicated on an extrinsic understanding of power as divine and transcendent. Fate and destiny are key watchwords, dictating rigid limits for narrative and character. What is more, as Farah Mendlesohn points out in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, there is a powerful tendency to treat history as absolute and as transcendent as the powers that be: fantasy, especially portal-quest fantasies, more often than not begin with a “download of legend,” delivered to the protagonist by an authoritative voice—the “story until now,” as it were, whose truth value is unquestioned (think Mr. Tumnus, the faun whom Lucy Pevensie meets in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or for that matter Gandalf telling Frodo the history of the Ring in “The Shadow of the Past”; or, briefer but still working within this custom, Rupert Giles’ portentous narration in early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, laying out Buffy’s divinely ordained role: “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer”).
I will return to this topic in a future post on American Gods; for now what is important is to distinguish between the traditional strictures of fantasy and what Tolkien called “mythopoeia,” and what Gaiman does in his novel. “Mythopoeia” is the title of a poem that Tolkien wrote in 1931 and dedicated to C.S. Lewis back in Lewis’ militant atheist days, when Lewis dismissed myth and mythology as “mere lies.” They might be beautiful lies, he told Tolkien, “breathed through silver,” but they were lies nonetheless; and thus, from a strictly Platonic perspective, had no place in intellectual inquiry or discourse.
Tolkien—devoutly Catholic and by this point in his life already knees-deep in the myth-building that would one day resolve itself in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (to say nothing of the twenty-odd books edited by Christopher Tolkien of his father’s apparently infinite notes)—predictably took issue with Lewis’ dismissive comments, and wrote a poem that celebrates the inventiveness of the mythic imagination compared to the poverty of materialism.
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath and ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
He goes on to declare that “I will not walk with your progressive apes / erect and sapient” (a line that always makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s famous mantra, “I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel”). Tolkien’s poem echoes a certain Romantic sentiment, such as expressed in Keats’ “Lamia” when he laments that “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine— / Unweave a rainbow …” Or in other words, materialism’s drive for empirical knowledge might show us the natural world’s inner workings, but will in the process “unweave” its beauty. “We murder to dissect,” was William Wordsworth’s comparable assertion in “The Tables Turned,” in which he begs a friend to leave his books and go outside to see the glory of nature. And of course, there is William Blake’s notorious, mocking rendering of Isaac Newton as a small-minded man absorbed by his compasses and equations, his back turned to the wonders of the world without.
As grandiose as some of Gaiman’s visions have been in his work—the landscape of Dream’s kingdom and the rendering of Hell in Sandman both gesture to a Miltonic sensibility—even when in the company of the Endless, his stories are preoccupied with quotidian human qualities. Dream (or Morpheus, or the Sandman, or Oneiros—he has many names) is a meticulous and conscientious craftsman, often irked by his sister Death’s pert glibness, or the venal machinations of Desire, at once deadly serious and humourless in carrying out his duties, but also given to depression and brooding.
American Gods is consonant in a host of ways with the “mythology” (there’s definition #3 for you) of Sandman, though it brings the figures of various pantheons—some of whom, like Odin and Loki, Bast, and Ishtar, show up in Sandman—out of the realms of myth and into the grubby, unexotic, and utterly unglamourous life of everyday people scrabbling a living in Middle America. These gods have been brought to America and forgotten, left to find what meager worship they can eke out by being grifters, con men, whores, or (in the case of Czernobog and the Three Sisters) simple pensioners. As Wednesday says to Shadow,
We have, let us face it and admit it, little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods. (123)
Gaiman’s brilliant inversion is one he shared with Terry Pratchett: both authors depicted worlds in which human existence is not a function of the gods, but vice versa. Gods come into being based on our worship of and sacrifice for them; their power rises and falls based on the volume and intensity of that worship. In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the great god Om has become ancillary to his people’s theocracy, lost in the midst of bureaucracy and dogma, reduced to the point where he is trapped in the body of a tortoise and sustained solely by the guileless belief of a single, vapid parishioner.
So too are Gaiman’s American gods lost to the fickle vicissitudes of humanity’s memory. I want to make an observation here, which I’ll pick up on in a later post: Gaiman and Pratchett’s inversion of humanity and divinity is a profoundly humanist gesture. Pratchett’s mantra about Rising Ape > Falling Angel is of a piece with both the Discworld novels and American Gods, and a repudiation of Tolkien’s mythopoeiac argument: as he says in this wonderful interview with The Guardian, he finds the story of evolution “far more remarkable than any in the Bible.” It teaches us that stars are uninteresting compared to streetlamps, as, so far as we know, there are only a few million of the latter in the universe. “And they were built by monkeys!” There is more wonder to be found, Pratchett maintains, in the fact that we stopped hurling feces at each other long enough to build civilization, than in the prospect that we may be of divine creation and descent—which would itself imply that we have been in steady decline since the days when we first communed with gods, as opposed to slowly, imperfectly, but steadily improving ourselves as a species.
But again, more on that in a later post.
Gaiman’s mythologies in American Gods are twofold: the mythologies of various forgotten pantheons, and the mythologies of America. A key premise of the novel, which I’ll come back to in later posts, is that America “is not a land for gods.” Why that might be the case is an interesting point of discussion, which, again, I will return to later. It is a land ripe for myth, however; one of the key ideas I raise when I teach my second year course on 20thC American fiction is “the idea of America”—how the United States isn’t an innate thing, but a set of often conflicting myths, narratives, and beliefs. This does not differentiate it in kind from any other nation in the world—the very concept of “nation” is necessarily an arbitrary set of consensual delusions—but the U.S. amplifies its fictional nature by dint of its lack of a unitary ethnic sense of self, its relatively short history, and the longstanding philosophy of American Exceptionalism. At the heart of American Gods is the recognition that any nation as large as the U.S. is necessarily a collection of interesting fragments only loosely sutured. Traveling with Mr. Wednesday from the small Michigan town of Lakeside to San Francisco, Shadow looks around at the city and remarks, “It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside.”
Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”
“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.
“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” (270)
The kind of fault lines implicit in Wednesday’s irritable speech are only too visible at the present moment: if the 2016 election has been about anything, it has been about increasingly recalcitrant American mythologies, and what identifies it as a nation. The New Gods in Gaiman’s legendarium comprise something of a cultural cohesion—tech, internet, media, highways, etc.—but it’s interesting (if deeply disheartening) to see how they’re also serving as the agents of fissure and fracture.
OK, I’ve once again managed to ramble longer than planned. So much for ending on a rhetorical flourish. Watch this space for the third installment of my “gentrification” maundering mid-week.