American Gods Part Two: Gaiman, Pratchett, and the Nature of Belief; Or, Where in America is Jesus?

So, I fell a little behind the eight-ball with the blogging this week, but I have been writing up a storm since yesterday. Today’s post is a little like closing the barn door, as we finished up American Gods this past Thursday, and start Zone One next week … but as I said to my students, a course like this is cumulative; which is to say, it takes a couple of weeks to start getting some traction, but once there’s a few texts under our belt, and our understanding of the key themes and ideas gets more thorough, there will be more meat on the course bones. All that is by way of saying, I have little doubt we’ll have more to say about American Gods going forward.

Which is good, because I have at least one more post on Gaiman to put up before the weekend is out.

Revenge of the Genres

americangodsOne of the novel’s mantras, an observation made numerous times, is that America “is not a good land for gods”—compared to elsewhere in the world, it is infertile, difficult for the seed of true belief (that which creates gods and gives them power) to take root. Why this is the case, and what the novel means by “true belief,” was a question we tossed back and forth in class this week. One of the things the novel makes fairly clear is the connection between faith and sacrifice, that the “old gods” primarily derived their power from blood rites, which were a devotion literally made flesh: the killing of animals or other humans.

Gaiman is canny about this: he never explicitly or exhaustively explains the logical apparatus of his mythology, which is probably one of the reasons American Gods is such a good novel. An overabundance of exposition is a trap too many fantasy narratives fall into. But there is the distinct suggestion that the gods, both the new and the old, specifically require sacrifice, for something to be given up. In this respect, the new gods—of technology, highways, media, internet, credit cards, and so forth—have a significant advantage, for while people don’t necessarily focus their worship in the same way as when we personify divinity, they nevertheless sacrifice part of themselves: their money, their time, their attention, or in the case of cars and highways, sometimes their lives. As a class, we agreed that the quality of such worship was inferior to what the old gods received in their day (as it was unfocused and inadvertent), the sheer volume of it more than made up for that.

While some of this sort of speculation falls into the same realm as speculating on how many children Lady Macbeth had—which is to say, sweating speculative details that are ultimately unknowable, and anyway far less significant than the broader themes of the story—it is still useful in helping divine some of the thematic and allegorical nuances. Why is America a bad land for gods? One reason might lie with the unfocused and self-centered nature of the worship of the new gods, i.e. that this is not a nation given to physical or substantive sacrifice in the name of faith. When Wednesday explains to Shadow about “places of power,” he says that in other places of the world, people would be drawn to them and “they would build temples, or cathedrals, or erect stone circles.” In America, people would be similarly drawn to such places but would

respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

When Shadow protests that “there are churches all across the States,” Wednesday agrees, tellingly, adding that that made them “about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices.”

small-godsWednesday’s almost offhand dismissal of Christianity’s ubiquity speaks to a question I raised in class: if gods exist by way of people’s worship, then where—in a nation in which 70% of people identify as Christian, and over a third of them as Evangelical—where, I asked, is Jesus and the Christian God in Gaiman’s American pantheon? When first I read American Gods, I thought this a big plot hole and something of a cheat: since having an appropriately powerful Jesus would throw the story somewhat askew, I assumed Gaiman just conveniently ignored the question. But on subsequent readings, I’ve amended that opinion, and would now argue that the novel offers a subtle critique on the nature of professed belief, one consonant with Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. The Discworld novels have the same inversion of humanity and divinity we see in American Gods; in Small Gods, Pratchett’s analogue of fundamentalist Christianity, Omnianism (which worships the great god Om, declares him to be the one and only god in the Discworld firmament, is rooted in the theocratic nation of Omnia, and further holds as an article of dogma that the world is round in opposition to the heretical view that it is a flat plate on the backs of four elephants standing on a space turtle), has become such a monstrous bureaucratic labyrinth in which functionaries are preoccupied with the thousands of pages of commentaries, annotations, and catechism, rather than the original holy scriptures, that the god Om has dwindled in power to the point that he lives trapped in the body of a tortoise.

discworld

Silly Omnians. Everyone knows it’s turtles all the way down.

Jesus isn’t completely ignored in American Gods, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s not a player in the U.S. landscape. Why? Well, I would suggest that, as in Om’s predicament, actual belief has become incidental to the performance of belief: the ubiquitous churches pervading the American landscape, Wednesday would seem to suggest, lack affect. One is tempted to speculate that the megachurches, with their music and laser shows and evangelical pyrotechnics, do more to feed the maw of the new gods of technology and media. One is further tempted to speculate that, in an updated version of Gaiman’s mythology, Jesus and God have been subsumed into the new god of Partisanship, specifically the Red Avatar.

In all seriousness, however, I have come around to a reading of American Gods in which it comprises a fairly pointed critique of American religiosity along these lines. Which is not to disparage the many, many people of sincere faith who work hard to hew to the directives of the Gospels to be charitable, generous, and to comfort the afflicted; it is rather to observe that this critique is directed at those whose mantle of Christianity is worn hypocritically, in direct contradiction of the values just enumerated.

But I digress.

A key thematic moment, which I quoted in my first American Gods post, comes when Wednesday takes Shadow to San Francisco. Shadow, who has been spending a frozen idyll in the Wisconsin town of Lakeside, looks around at San Francisco’s colourful houses, its steep hills, and mild weather, and remarks, “It’s almost hard to believe this is the same country as Lakeside.” To which Wednesday irritably replies,

“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.”

Wednesday’s irate little speech, as stated above, is one of the novel’s thematic lynchpins, and, I would argue, key to understanding America’s “infertility” as regards the gods. The country is too large, too heterodox to support a national identity that is itself anything more than myth or fiction. That is, indeed, enshrined among the nation’s founding documents in John Adams’ assertion that the U.S. have “a government of laws, and not of men.” One of the most basic tenets underpinning the doctrine of American Exceptionalism is the historical and geographical serendipity that allowed it to benefit from the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the Enlightenment without suffering from the centuries of tribal and religious strife that preceded them, while putting a wide ocean between itself and the Old World’s scars. Wednesday’s rejection of a unitary “America” as an identifiable place is, on one hand, just an acknowledgement of the nation’s deliberately factious architecture: the Jeffersonian dream of disparate, quasi-autonomous states.

On the other hand, we can also read in Wednesday’s irritation (beyond the fact that he was simply being stroppy with Shadow at this point in the novel) a deeper and longer-standing disaffection with America. The formulation of “laws and not men” establishes the need to have a stable intellectual and ideological architecture that can survive the erratic and irrational tendencies of the flawed human beings who have a bed tendency toward oppression and capricious violence when allowed to rule by fiat.

However, as suggested above, “true belief” of the kind that creates and feeds the gods is clearly established in American Gods as something that requires bodies. John Adams’ formulation removes individual, corporeal people from the figuration of national identity, specifically as a bulwark against tribal, ethnic, or racial determining factors in what determines an “American.”

(Which isn’t to say that the actual America as envisioned by John Adams et al has ever completely, or even mostly, succeeded in hewing strictly to the “laws not men” dictum—not least because the language of that crucial distinction elides half the population, or that America’s authors tacitly endorsed the institution of slavery. These fissures are ever more obvious today: as I said in class, it is an odd experience to reread American Gods and think through it in these terms while at the same time bearing witness to an election cycle that has given voice to the ugliest manifestations of American nativism and hatred. My comment above about the God of Partisanship was only slightly ironic).

The kind of belief that creates and sustains Gaiman’s gods is anathema to a large, broad, and diverse population, given its roots in tribalism and superstition. A key moment speaking to this principle comes toward the end of the novel, when Richard Hinzelmann, the eccentric but charming old man who basically acts as Shadow’s host in Lakeside, reveals himself as a Teutonic tribal god:

Where Hinzelmann had been standing stood a male child, no more than five years old. His hair was dark brown, and long. He was perfectly naked, save for a worn leather band around his neck. He was pierced with two swords, one of them going through his chest, the other entering at his shoulder, with the point coming out beneath the ribcage. Blood flowed through the wounds without stopping and ran down the child’s body to pool and puddle on the floor. The swords looked unimaginably old.

In that moment, Shadow instinctively knows Hinzelmann’s story, and sees in his mind’s eye the blood ritual that would sacrifice a child to create a tribal god. “Shadow wondered which of the people who had come to northern Wisconsin a hundred and fifty years ago, a woodcutter, perhaps, or a mapmaker, had crossed the Atlantic with Hinzelmann living in his head.” And Hinzelmann, incarnation of whatever vestigial god had made that trip, founded Lakeside and cultivated it and loved it, and protected it as a perfect and unchanging space through the same means that created him: the sacrifice of youth.

Shadow’s return to Lakeside functions as a coda to the novel. He comes back because he has figured out the connection between the yearly disappearance of preteens or teens, and the betting pool the town has in which people guess what day and time a clunker pushed out on the frozen lake breaks through the melting ice in spring. The murdered children, Shadow realizes, are in the trunks: the sacrifice Hinzelmann chooses to make in exchange for keeping his town safe and protected.

On one hand, one can read American Gods as a critique of modernity’s erasure of cultural idiosyncrasies. One of the other reasons America is a bad land for gods is its very ahistorical qualities, the assimilation of “authenticity” into a culture industry that flattens and denudes cultural specificities into Taco Bell or the Olive Garden. In this respect, the novel allegorizes the immigrant experience, in which successive generations grow increasingly distant from the myths and narratives of their origins, and discard the old gods to wander the margins of America. On the other, one can read Wednesday et al as anachronisms best forgotten, if the cost of “true belief” is that dear.

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1 Comment

Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

One response to “American Gods Part Two: Gaiman, Pratchett, and the Nature of Belief; Or, Where in America is Jesus?

  1. Tigger J

    Completely irrelevant to your post, but when I read the word “bulwark” I heard it in the voice of Ian Brooks as Richmond. After all this time, that experience still has a wonderfully deep hold on me.

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