Thursday, September 4, 2014

Godless Golems and Wonder Woman

So recently I wrote this and while trying to remember what golem thing +Scrap Princess was trying to remind me of on G+ I found this and I think these can be the same idea and without getting into it too much it's the difference between kung fu and super powers. Check out now if you're on a schedule because this never really goes anywhere.

Quick quote from one of those:

I also think about getting to that point. Watching yourself along the way. Some people never know they're super crazy. That's what crazy is. Some people wake up one day and realize just how crazy they've been, and for how long, and that's chilling. Some people feel it. Imagine you wrote a 500 page novel and the fan is on in the room. Mostly things are fine but you can see the air catching the page on top, flapping it around, finally moving it a little, then carrying it off elsewhere. And you see that and you want that not to happen, you don't know if you can ever get that page back, and it never stops....That's a feeling. I know it from experience. Fine now thanks.

I think about that because that kind of relentless momentum is the very thing that characterizes a golem's actions. The idea of something being so horrible that you have to be crazy to try, and feel yourself getting there, and hate yourself for it the whole time but can't stop it. You can't stop it and you get crazy until you can't stop yourself altogether, and so you create a desperate measure to do a desperate thing and this desperate thing you created cannot be stopped.

It doesn't take hubris, pride, ambition, arrogance, or even confidence to do that. It takes being broken down. It takes being beaten until you are soft. Like clay.
Golems aren't force and pride given form, at least that's not the only reading I take from them. Victor Frankenstein has hubris because he wishes to create life, a thinking creature like God (at least in a Marvel Comics fundamental-force-of-creation sense) did. That Creature of his is hubris made flesh, then, which we see because the Creature's own actions evidence that kind of hubris. He is like his creator in sucking as much as man is the TRUE monster, Bambi, and that is the really subversive message in that text from a period when everyone was lending again some credence to the idea that spirit and imagination and beauty have their own attraction for its sake: a very Herculean God. And of course hubris was the lifeblood of Greek campfires and temples, all those -eses and -uses going "NOBODY races naked women like GASTON!" and Aesoping themselves.

But the narratives which form our collective "Yeah I've heard of that" of the golem aren't just some rabbi going "Godding sounds neat!" and hitting up the Michael's. They are people at the end of their rope using ancient secrets to do things that one man cannot, or that one community cannot, for themselves. Golems then are need and desperation given form, and here's the key to me, devoid of optimism: Nobody knows what a golem is because of how those stories start, but because of how they end.

Victor Frankenstein may not believe in a soul. It's not behind the gall bladder, it's not under the pineal gland, no soul here. To believe in something like a golem, a divine animating force, requires you to believe in things like souls 100% to even be confident enough to try making one. To then go ahead with playing God risks damning the very eternal fundamental part of you you have to have utter faith in to even attempt. It's brutal and at the risk of offending a very Jewish thing, with fatalistic hints of Russian.

But suppose you don't believe in *a* soul. Suppose you have a dozen different afterlives and the soul is a composite creature, or comes from somewhere to make a man, or something. Suppose there aren't such things as stories of golems but you theorize such a Creature might be possible. Suppose you begin this cycle of ripping power from the waking planes of fire and divinity to see. Imagine the hubris of that. Imagine also the desperation, knowing that to save lives or right a wrong you would be performing a great sin against the creation of the whole rainbow of creation, cutting up beings and transforming them and now we're back to Frankenstein territory...Wouldn't that be as bad? Would that maybe be worse? And once that cycle was begun, would it ever stop? Knowledge doesn't go away forever, usually, and not when you can posit something such as an elemental plane of knowledge. Golems are of course unstoppable and perpetual, that is the point of them. How many do you save, and how many does this cycle hurt over the aeons?

There's a tragedy to this but also of course a heroism. One traditional view of the bodhisatva is of one living who foregos enlightenment and their eternal reward in order to help others attain enlightenment. I often think of San Te in 36th Chamber when I think of that. Kung fu as a discipline evolved as a way to free the mind through the rigorous mechanical exhaustion of the body, leaving one able to ponder higher things and reach an enlightenment, but San Te (believe though he does in the philosophy of the temple) can't be bothered with that: he has a people to save. Others within the temple agree actions needs taking but they basically fake an errand for San Te to do it instead, which doesn't fool anybody. They have dedication to their philosophy but for people moving beyond the self only one steps forth to be selfless.

He achieves his goals, too, setting people on the path to liberation, both terrestrially and in spirit by opening that titular chamber at Shaolin Temple.

Now kung fu is democratic, just as technology is democratic. Anybody can do it, in theory, with enough focus and dedication. Unfit people can and should do kung fu, dumb people can and should use scientific discoveries and fancy tools to make their lives easier. Both are tools to get to something other than their own end and both require only knowledge, and somewhere to get knowledge. In many games and in many views of traditional fantasy magic is a kind of technology. This is how the Magic User class was built....magic exists, and now that that knowledge alone is out there, it just takes a little dedication (enough that you'll never be as good a swordfighter as Larry because you spent all that time learning Ventriloquism) and knowing how to find it. It's a tool. It's technology. Magic is kung fu, fundamentally the same but understood and expressed differently, used differently, approached differently, according to the user's needs. A forest village and an urban metropolis have different ways of seeing a spell like Comprehend Languages.

In some views of traditional fantasy, though, magic is special. If you can do magic you are special. ONLY special people can do magic. It's your Draconic Bloodline. YOU'RE A WIZARD, HARRY. Magic is super powers, something you have automatically because of who you are, or which you get as a 1/1000000 chance and actually survive because of who you are. You're special. The guy at Starbucks in the background of a Spider-Man comic won't get Spider-Man powers from nuking a jumping spider. He can't rent them. They aren't a tool. They're part of Spider-Man's personal makeup. This is a fine approach but it's not particularly democratic. It's all of the power being located to a few, down to specifically one in particular, because they are inherently special. It's polarly antidemocratic, which I suppose...quick Google here to see if I can use...yep, fascist.

I say that without moral judgment in this context, obviously boring people. It's just that which view you take on magic in your game - is it distant, rare, alive, choosing you as much as you think you choose it, dangerous, or is it knowable, controlled, precise, something you can practice, a crowbar for the world? - is how golems and the cycle of cosmic violence created by the very idea of a golem would be represented. In the former, there is always a bit of sadness and desperation. In the latter, they are always ultimately hubris again. Neither represent hope or wonder.

Where this whole thing breaks down a little is Wonder Woman, a character literally special because of who she is and WHAT she is, dressed in nationalist symbolism because of the era which spawned her. Yet what is Wonder Woman? She's a speaker for peace who is willing to fight and, if needed, kill. She wants everyone to kumbaya but will dirty her hands to save us all...and this is not hypocrisy: Wonder Woman is willing to never be a part of the nirvana she preaches because she takes on the responsibility of fighting for us. Always apart. It's sacrifice. Again I ask: what is Wonder Woman? A clay figure brought to life through divinity. A being created in hope who engenders hope and will give up hope for HERSELF to make that happen....this is also the direct line to her being a kung fu spy in the 70s, by the way. She's got a reverse Frankenstein thing going, implying things about her creators, and is fairly unhubristic for a Greek-steeped heroine.

What's important to remember, though, is that hope is the door to hopelessness, and close cousin to desperation. Wonder Woman, for example, has a never ending battle. That's never ending sacrifice. To sacrifice yourself that much requires no hope at all for yourself. It's back to the Jewish golems now. Wonder Woman created the Good Fight out of need and pity, and it lumbers on with unchecked momentum.

There are statues that come to life and rock monsters. Those should be in your games. I hate it when people just start calling them golems though, because guys, that's just going to try to kill us. It's not terrible.