Monday, 2 April 2018

In Search of the Miraculous #15: Atlantis and the Brexit Fantasy Novel

This post is also Atlantis (Popular) Rising #5.

Been a while since the Atlantis research has been a thing I've felt like writing about. I have a stack of material and a whole lot of other things to write about too, but every so often something comes up. Still, Atlantis is in my head, in my mind. It's the central myth of my life, the touchstone. So.

I came across Peter Valentine Timlett’s 1974 novel The Seedbearers quite recently, and picked up a cheap paperback copy because I thought it might be fun. It's the first in a trilogy, heavily influenced by old friends like Dion Fortune and the Inner Light group, and others who I'm aware of but less immediately familiar with like Daphne Vigers, the writer of Atlantis Rising, which is a key text in the “Stonehenge was built by people from Atlantis” tradition. Murry Hope’s writing comes from that same branch of the Atlantean family tree.

The Seedbearers is about what happens when the last remnants of the Atlantean landmass, Ruta and Daiteya [sic], as per the Theosophical version of Atlantis, sink beneath the sea, and who escapes, and how; the Seedbearers of the title are the surviving members of the priesthood, tasked with carrying the ancient wisdom of Atlantis to a new home, and planting that seed among other peoples, so it might grow and survive.

I mean it sounds so exciting.
The problem with the novel, The Seedbearers, and by no means the only one, but the structural one, the fundamental one, is that the author doesn't give us a whole lot to make us find the Seedbearers themselves all that interesting, and doesn't make a whole lot of effort to make us care about them. And what's interesting about this is why, I think, Timlett ends up doing this, which is tied up with the esoteric, but not in the most obvious way.

But the fact is that few of the characters really stand out; and even a couple of days after I finished it, I had trouble remembering the names of many of the significant actors in the action, and that’s generally not a signifier of compelling characterisation.

The character with depth, the only one, is Vardek.

A small man by any standards, barely five and a half feet, smaller even than Naida the seeress. But though short in height, his girth was immense, like an old tree, and his skin was dark and gnarled like bark. Naked, he stood glaring at them, not a stitch of cloth or cloak or belt, and his entire body was covered in thick coarse hair like matted fur. Great knotted muscles stood out on his huge chest and shoulders, and his hands hung low to his knees. A great hooked nose dominated his face, and his brow was low and terminated in craggy eye ridges that jutted out like cliffs from the jungle of his face, and beneath those cliffs his small black eyes glared out cruelly and savagely.

Some said he was born out of season, that he was an ancestor long dead from the times when man was more animal than man, and some said that his mother had lain with the great jungle gorilla, but none ever repeated these things in Vardek’s hearing. But savage and repulsive though he was, yet he was a Toltec with all the courage and vitality of that race, and all its arrogance and savagery as well.
So this is important, because this is the longest and most complete character portrait in the whole book. Vardek is the mover of the plot, the one character who can be said to have agency. And he is a black hearted villain. Vardek is the only character about whom secrets are revealed later in the novel. At the start of the novel, he's about to return from Amaria (South America) where he's led a brutal, genocidal campaign of conquest and plunder, which, given it was supposed to be a trade mission, is a problem.
Never trust a book with maps.
The action starts with the bloody aftermath of this massacre the on the mainland. We meet the Toltecs, Scott-Elliot’s Toltecs, and then the contingent of Rmoahal slave soldiers, black giants signified as savages who all have cod-African names like Dracombi, And then we meet the tall, blonde Akkadians, who are, if they're soldiers, gay (but only get to be gay if they're married to women too, like Spartans) and who are sort of apart from the carnage, but not really. Atlantis nerds (I have the horrible feeling that this is possibly a category that only includes me, actually) will notice that several of the Atlantean subraces that the Theosophists came up with get skipped, so out of the seven in Scott-Elliot, we get nos. 1 (Rmoahals), 3 (Toltecs) and 6 (Akkadians), and this is a little weird. In the introduction, Timlett, after saying the usual stuff about how Socrates was an initiate, says
…this book is the basic legend plus a great deal of imagery of my own. Also, I have omitted a great many “facts” about Atlantis because they were not germane to the plot. This book is not a treatise on Atlantis, but a novel, and as such its primary function is to entertain. The legend of Atlantis has always spoken to the very depths of my soul, and I wish to share with others the excitement and pleasure that I have derived from it.
And you know me, that last sentence is basically me, and this is my exact rationale for writing Chariot, but the more I read The Seedbearers, the more I found this statement disingenuous, since, OK, yes, he does leave out bits from Scott-Elliot and Vigers and Fortune and the like, but the plot, such as it is, is the dog wagged by a very esoteric tail.

That last sentence sounded better in my head. But we'll return to that. The plot, not the dog.

What's undeniably Timlett, I think, is the trajectory of Vardek, who returns home to embark on a campaign of murder, abetted by his son Baldek, a corrupt priest; by Pirani, a captured Amarian priestess of noble birth and depraved morals; and Zesta, the lustful and self interested high priestess of the Temple of the Sun.

But we're already back into the esoteric stuff, which is frankly why I'm here, so let's talk about those priests, since, once Vardek makes it home, the action revolves around the temples, which is the main part Timlett gets from

The Temple of the Sun is the state religion. It's fallen on hard times, and is apparently prone to this, since its priests deal with worldly affairs. The Temple of the Sea is the other temple, the one that deals with more esoteric affairs, the one with all the seers and psychics. They keep themselves to themselves, and they're called the Withdrawn Temple, and they're more senior than the Temple of the Sun, supposedly.
Seriously, more maps?
The priests and priestesses of the Withdrawn Temple, as represented by High Priest Kumara, assistant Melchadek, and High Seeress Marah, seem to spend their time talking about how Ruta and Daiteya are going to sink, and imminently; they're planning a small-scale evacuation, led by some good priests, who will be the Seedbearers, carrying the ancient wisdom of Atlantis to the nations of the world and, you know, building Stonehenge and stuff.

The good priests they've chosen are a young and idealistic mid-level priest called Helios and a seeress, Netzachos. They're in love, and Timlett tells us that this is a deep spiritual connection, and they're not like the other priests, who are greedy, selfish, corrupt and don't have a healthy sexuality.

But then, no one in The Seedbearers has a healthy sexuality. Possibly the Akkadians maybe, with their gay esprit de corps, but that's just mentioned in passing and the Toltecs are weird about it. Going back to that first scene of the whole book – and remember the first chapter of a novel is the most important chapter – the very first page has an implicitly approving officer witness the aftermath of the fifty-man gang rape of a child, and the girl's brutal dispatch. Within a few more pages we’ve met the Rmoahals, and they're in the midst of performing brutal, humiliating, sexualised and fatal rituals involving prisoners. And this goes on, and on.

Women get abused, constantly. They're raped, murdered, discarded, treated as chattels. With the exception of Marah, who doesn’t actually leave the temple, every single woman in the book is abused in some way. And worse, every single woman in The Seedbearers is manipulable, shallow and stupid. Meet Naida, the seeress who is manipulated easily, since the thing she wants most in the world is some rough sex. Or Pirani the Amarian priestess, who's an exoticised, othered sex object. Pirani happily assists Vardek in killing the king, the high priest and a bunch of other incidental victims, without it occurring to her that she’s going to be set up for the crimes and executed by a leering, grinning Vardek. Or Zesta, who plays the part of a classic femme fatale, gets what she wants with really great sex, and who, when she finally gets kicked out of her job, goes to Vardek (like Pirani, she’s having sex with him) and gets killed immediately, since she is, we are told, of no use to the villain. Even virginal Netzachos gets belittled and bullied by Helios, and she doesn’t once question that he’s right to do this, or cease to be madly in love with him.

And Helios, as the representative of the good guys, is a sign of another problem in the book, in that he’s the nearest thing to a hero the book is supposed to have, and the only times he exerts his agency, he’s either wrong or a massive jerk. For example, he’s supposed to take part in a public sex rite along with a bunch of other priests and priestesses, only the high priest says he’s got to bang Naida, who we have established more than once by this point is “gagging for it”, and no, that’s not the language Timlett uses, but that’s the exact sentiment, wrapped up in nice language or not. Helios doesn't wants to do the deed with Naida, he wants to do it with Netzachos, so he insists on wearing a big wooden dildo rather than use his own penis, and this scene, where he’s arguing with his chief priest Khamadek about why he wants to use a big wooden dildo (I mean it's a sacred dildo, but still) rather than do it au naturel goes on forever, pages and pages, and I found myself exclaiming out loud at the page, oh, just have the ritual sex already. And then the whole scene plays out where everyone sees Helios sporting a big wooden strap-on. It's insane.

Helios gets told what to do, gets rescued and led around and has no real stake. We don't care about him. We don't care about any of the goodies, really.

But then the goodies are the Withdrawn Temple, and they're not especially good.

We are told that the central circle of the Withdrawn Temple are possessed of a core of transcendent goodness, but what do they do? They warn the moribund and complacent High Priest of the Sun, Khamadek, to turn back to the light, but he ignores it and then gets assassinated off-camera shortly afterwards. And they plan the evacuation.

That evacuation bothers me. They know Atlantis is falling. But they don't tell people. Which means either they only worked it out too late, and their powers of prediction aren't all that, or they're keeping it secret. And I think it's the latter: when they organise the evacuation it's 300 chosen men, women and children, led by a few chosen priests, and they don't tell anyone else, even to the extent that Helios doesn't even tell the other priests in the Sun Temple they were judged unworthy to survive  because it would upset them (and never mind how upset they're going to feel when they all die in a sudden catastrophic collapse of the land). Now partly that's because Vardek is in charge of the nation by the end, and he doesn't believe anything the priests say, and he murders anyone who disagrees with him on the spot, but it's partly because they've made the call as to who deserves to live or die.

And here's the esoteric problem. This is the same impulse that has Dion Fortune describing the death of a boy with Downs Syndrome as an acceptable sacrifice for a temple build because it was all he was good for anyway. It's the ingrained assumption that some people inherently deserve to live or die more than others.

It's the same sort of mindset that gives us Jacob Rees-Mogg saying food banks are heart-warming. And this is why that statement in the introduction is so disingenuous: the esoteric assumption, a conservative, old school esoteric assumption, is that some people deserve to live and some people just don't. And this is tied up with the idea of root races, and occult evolution. It's the reason why (for example) Steiner schools get flak sometimes for weird counterintuitive racism, the idea (on its own not so bad) that people ascend and evolve, but which carries the corollary that the unevolved people, they're going to have to either evolve before they can be respected, or be left behind to die in the coming age of fire and gravel.

In Britain, the esoteric tradition has always been chauvinistic, tied up with empire. The expectation that people of unenlightened genders or social classes or ethnic origins deserve to die first just by being born into that station is part of our grand social tradition. Our occult realm carries it just as much as our social realm. It waits in the realm of the hidden wholly as much as it does in the everyday.

And this isn't fascism, but it's the sort of mindset that makes space for fascists, who are frankly just a lot more honest about owning the sins of our culture and claiming them as virtues (as opposed to not owning them at all).

The Seedbearers is from a cultural context that would be horrified, even outraged to consider that you can draw a line connecting its assumptions and that of the fascist. And look, The Seedbearers isn’t a fascist book, not even close. There’s no conscious, directed racism or even conscious, directed sexism here, just an assumption that the blacks are savage and women are stupid and exist to have sex with men, without it being interrogated. It's reflexive racism and sexism. Assumed. An assumption of the right of the enlightened to decide who is in or out, who leaves or stays, who lives or dies. And if it’s not fascist, it’s just a bit, well, Brexit.

And just in terms of The Seedbearers as a novel, this does brutal damage to the plot. Because if you don't carry this assumption, the whole story has a gaping hole in it. Without the assumption that some people deserve to die and some people have the right, by virtue of birth or a higher spiritual calling, to make that call, The Seedbearers has no sympathetic characters. You either buy into the evolutionary right of ascended masters to throw most of the human race under the bus, or you find every character in the novel, as I do, utterly despicable, even the ones you're supposed to be rooting for, perhaps especially the ones you're supposed to be rooting for, since the ascended ones with all the wisdom do literally nothing else to signify that they’re the goodies.

Without the assumption that enlightened people are inherently worth more than the unenlightened, it becomes hard to see what it is about Atlantis is worth saving. Atlantis falls at the end of The Seedbearers, and the eponymous Seedbearers get away, but I find myself wondering what seed they have, based on what we've seen in this book, that is worth planting elsewhere, and why it shouldn't just go extinct.

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