Swords Against Nerdery: A Khaldunian Theory of the Sword and Sorcery Genre

swords against wizardry

I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.

What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.

What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.

The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.

kull

S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay.  Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.

It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.

And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.

It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.

Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).

Tulsi Mandy Style Dungeon

But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.

 

 

Seven Types of Atheism: A Book Review

chuckyjacksoff

Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.

The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.

If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).

I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.

Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.

The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).

The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate.  We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.

Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.

Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:

‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’