Monday, December 3, 2012

Seer of Light: Ascend (Why Homestuck is a Gnostic Story)


Lately there's been a lot of buzz in the Homestuck fandom about this strange thing called Gnosticism. After all, more and more references to it are cropping up in the comic and people are, naturally, taking note. As far as I can find, though, no one has put Hussie's symbolic puzzle pieces together into a coherent thematic analysis of why the hints are there, and what he might be trying to tell us. So, I decided to quickly slap together an article on the subject before more competent people can give their takes on the whole garbled mess.

Now, Gnosticism itself is kind of a jumble, from what I've seen. It's really a collection of loosely interlinked myth traditions that take Abrahamic Monotheism as the starting line and then swerve wildly in a completely different direction. It's associated with early Christianity and most of the texts are related to the story of Jesus Christ's birth, death, and resurrection, but the creation myth that they're working with is a little odd. It goes like this:

In The Beginning there's a sort of primordial soup of Godness which emanates a series of male//female binary pairs of creative entities called Aeons. These are supposed to create together (they are called a "syzygy", which apparently means "yoked together." Great word, huh?), but one aeon, Sophia, goes off on her own and interacts with the shadowy primordial chaos outside of Godness, emanating a being without the help of her other half.

The result is a being known as the Demiurge, the Creator, Artisan or possibly the Will To Create.

His name is Yaltabaoth.

Yaltabaoth looks around the dark, formless void that he is birthed into and concludes that he and he alone is God. From chaos he forms the Earth, seven Heavens, and a whole series of shadow servants and angels called The Authorities. It is a flawed, cruel world cut off from the light of Godness, made by a being that should never have existed. It is, in short, a prison of matter. Sophia, when she realizes her error, descends into the world to give it the light of wisdom that is her aspect in the celestial hierarchy. And this descent sets into motion a series of conflicts that would, in time, allow humanity to Rise Up out of the prison that is the world.

See, although The Authorities eventually create Adam and Eve in mockery of Sophia, she and uh... a few other characters that are too confusing to really talk too much about here (gnostic creation mythology is kind of complicated, especially if you're reading the original texts) instill in them the same light that Sophia brought into the world in opposition to the primal darkness of Yaltabaoth. In time Eve eats the Fruit of Knowledge, which is the first step in humanity's process of self-actualization and ascent to a level rivaling the dark gods of the world. The story culminates with the entrance of Christ into the world in the form of Jesus, and he teaches humanity Gnosis, the knowledge, before eventually being sacrificed to make humanity's ascent possible.

We've already seen a number of references to this basic mythology in Homestuck. There's the presence of Yaltabaoth as an actual denizen. There's the recent update's mention of the "Lion's Mouth" (the Demiurge is sometimes described as a serpent with a lion's face, or even just "lion-like"). There's the chumhandles: "gardenGNOSTIC" and "TIMMAEUStestified" (Timmaeus was a Platonic dialogue that hypothesized the existence of a Demiurge). Seven Heavens correspond to Seven Gates, and players seem to be divided evenly between male and female players. There's all sorts of little clues along these lines.

And all of that adds up to...

What exactly?

This is where things get tricky. See, it's one thing to point out a bunch of symbols and argue that they point towards a particular mythic text that's being referenced... and it's another to actually say something worthwhile about that reference. Like, ok, it's obvious that The Sufferer is a Christ analogue. Great. That's an easy reference to make!


But... who cares?

The problem with saying that Everyone Is Jesus In Purgatory is NOT that critics and scholars and English teachers are "Reading Too Much Into Things." That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a Shitty Argument. It's an argument that refuses to discuss the merits of symbols and just dismisses them entirely because "The author couldn't have meant that!"

Which is stupid, because authors often do mean it, actually. If we're going to run with our Sufferer example, Andrew Hussie has straight up called him a Christ analogue. So... yeah, it's pretty stupid just on that level alone, even if we ignore the whole Death of the Author/Meaning is in the Text thing that critics have been arguing for the past century.

No, the problem with saying "The Sufferer is a Christ analogue" is that it just points out a similarity, not a meaning. This is also why "This story is an archetypal Hero's Journey tale!" style criticism is dull and pointless, actually--it doesn't tell us a damn thing about the story's emotional or philosophical point.

"Hey look, that painting is a rectangle!"

Thanks, Kenneth, but what does that mean?

Here's the better way of doing it. Because the Sufferer is a Christ analogue, we can take note of the fact that Kankri's death is not celebrated due to his rebirth but due to his last furious string of curse words. I mean, isn't that an interesting commentary on the difference between the two messianic sacrificial figures, that one dies in pain but rises in glory, and the other just... dies bitching out the universe so furiously that all his teachings are encoded in his string of cursewords? What a perfect summation of the black comedy that is Alternian culture--even their Christ is a prophet ultimately of exasperated fury at the sheer stupidity around him.

That's pretty perfunctory, but it's at least a decent working example of this sort of analysis--you have to dig beneath the similarities and discuss why they are present and what they imply about the story.

Anyway, this article is supposedly about Gnosticism so let's start actually digging into that, shall we?

The most obvious similarity, to my mind, is the nature of the Gnostic and Homestuck stories: they are essentially complex creation myths. They are creation myths of a particular kind, though: they are meditations on the nature of failed gods, and the nature of their failed creations. This is where the stories go way off the beaten path--you don't usually see creator figures that are fundamentally evil or, even worse, incompetent. And yet, in both narratives we see powerful beings that create completely new worlds, and in the process generally make everything worse. There's at least three separate creations that we get to watch, two Scratches and the birth of one completely new universe, and each time the result is degraded and broken in some way. Twice, this degradation occurs because of the machinations of devil figures (Doc Scratch and the Condesce, respectively).

However, we get to spend quite a bit of time with one Demiurge who differs dramatically from the demonic entity the Gnostics blame for our broken world:


Karkat.

Whether or not it's fair of Karkat to blame himself for the failures of the whole team and their inability to create a pure universe, I don't think we can deny that he occupies the same position as the Gnostic Demiurge. He's a flawed being that attempts to create an entire universe, but all his creations are fundamentally broken, and ultimately he becomes a wrathful, bitter god that rages at his own creation. I mean, he hates John so much initially--and John, as we'll see, is arguably a type of Adam--that he considers a caliginous relationship with the other player. That's some pretty intense wrath right there.

In a sense, Karkat gives us a window into the character of Yaltabaoth, a window not provided by the strictly dogmatic Gnostic scriptures. We see that our creator is tormented by his failure and his constant furious trolling is only an outward reflection of his own inner turmoil. It is written: "For they will come to be like volcanoes and consume one another until they perish at the hand of the prime parent [Yaltabaoth]. When he has destroyed them, he will turn against himself and destroy himself until he ceases to exist." Karkat turns his rage inward and drowns himself in futile flagellation, arguing with his past and future selves about why exactly everything went wrong. Whether he pulls himself out of this model or "destroys himself until he ceases to exist" remains to be seen. (Interestingly, that evocative quote could apply to a couple other characters as well, albeit in subtly different ways, and those characters could arguably stand in for Yaltabaoth given a slightly different interpretation. Hussie seems to be suggesting that creative and destructive (particularly self-destructive) impulses are wedded in their own kind of syzygic pair...)

Then there's the idea that Karkat finally hits upon, that he has failed so spectacularly that he has given an entire universe terminal cancer. Because he tried to cut corners, because he endorsed a half-baked creation, an entire universe is going to die horribly, betrayed by its own genetic code. In fact, this flawed, abortive creative process is central to Homestuck as a whole. The characters, not just Karkat but everyone involved in the game, fumble along, usually accomplishing things half by accident. And through it all there's the omnipresence of the Word, so central to Abrahamic myth, the power to will things into being with language itself.


And the Word was with God, and the Word was God, huh? There's an equivalence between language and object in Homestuck that initially derives from the computer metaphor but since then has taken on this quasi-religious air about it. Homestuck isn't exactly the first story to link the Word of Creation with the idea of genetic code, but I don't think I've seen a story where the metaphor is so profoundly resonant. Part of Hussie's brilliance comes from the balance between the pun on Karkat's zodiac sign with the profound terror of that hidden timebomb of an illness. (And look at the trappings of the Tumor--it literally is a ticking timebomb that starts at the birth of the universe. Oh, and the Tumor-like bomb that Meenah uses to blow up the Beforan trolls? It's another magic 8-ball, representing the bad luck of the genetic lottery.)

The interesting difference is that the repeated nested creation, where each predecessor must flee their own disintegrating universe into a new one of their own design, is engendered not through the malicious arrogance of Yaltabaoth, the aggrandizing Demiurge to Create... it's just a matter of a bunch of kids playing a game. Yaltabaoth commands the world and heavens to form, jumpstarting creation with the power of his voice alone. But the players issue their verbal commands in dreams, in sleep, in madness and in pain. They issue their commands not with authority but by possession and manipulation, and they are ignorant to their own role in the strange time loops that Paradox Space delights in until after the fact. Karkat is, for all his bluster, a deeply sympathetic protagonist who badgers his crew into staying together and does his best to make the game a success. if Karkat is our Demiurge, he doesn't show it much--he seems pretty bewildered and freaked out by the whole ectobiological cloning process that he is responsible for, and he doesn't seem particularly interested in what, to him, must seem a silly side game more analogous to breeding Chokobos than to getting the ultimate item needed to complete the game. He is a failed god less because of his aggrandizement and malice and more because he is distracted by the need to keep everyone from murdering each other.

In short, the gnostic Demiurge is an evil being who creates the world out of error and maliciously curses the inhabitants in order to elevate himself.

The kids who play SBURB and its variations in Paradox Space are simply trying desperately to survive.

Hussie's tale becomes not one of evil creators, then, but one of an evil system that traps creators and creation alike in a vicious cosmic double reacharound. For all the light and wonder of Skaia, Rose is right to describe it as having ensnared them with "malevolent tendrils." The kids aren't just trying to escape the prison of the world, they're trying to escape the prison that is SBURB's infinite recursivity.

But before that thought gets too developed, let's suddenly switch topics and talk a bit about that escape from the prison of the world! I promise I'll get back to that thought later, but we need to talk about the Adam and Eve thing that the characters have got going on.

Let's talk apples.

The Apple has been a subtly recurring symbol within the comic, showing up just seldom enough to be overlooked, but in places that suggest its fundamentality. Rose suggests as much during her drunken rant:


In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and THE WORD WAS GOD.

Information (light) and transcendent power together as one.

And how does the first kid enter the Medium?



Yeah.

The other kids aren't far removed from this sort of symbolism, either. Jade, too, deals with an implied apple in the form of a Bec-shaped fruit that she must shoot blindfolded, just as William Tell shoots an apple off of his son's head. Rose's item is a bottle--a reference both to Roxy's drinking habits and to her element, which is light or information, a metaphorical message in a bottle that she must retrieve. And Dave's is an egg, ancient symbol of rebirth, new beginnings, and perhaps, given the orange feathery asshole that watches over it, the Phoenix, an animal significant to the Gnostics (although I honestly doubt Hussie was thinking of them specifically when he created Dave's sprite and egg).

So, we've got one symbol of a new birth (associated with someone who can duplicate himself and evade death through time shenanigans), two parallel manifestations of the Apple, the modern symbol for the initially undefined "Fruit of Knowledge," and something we can read as a message in a bottle. Sounds to me like the kids are analogues for Adam and Eve, just as Rose suggests. They are cast out of their generally pretty idyllic life into one of strife and death as a curse for installing the game and taking a bite of the apple, so to speak.

But here again, we see the Gnostic pattern begin to assert itself. Think about it like this: the universe was always a broken entity fated for destruction. Karkat and the other trolls created it that way, as flawed Demiurges.

So, the kids always had to escape somehow, and although they have been cursed for their efforts by the vengeful creator gods (remember that initially the trolls blame the kids unfairly for Jack's presence in their session) their quest for knowledge--the desire to connect with Sophia, the Light of Wisdom--is the one thing that can ultimately help them escape the prison of the world. This is why the apple symbolism cannot simply be explained as a traditional Christian icon--here, instead of a Fall, or a Descent from Grace, we see the characters Rise Up through the intellectual hubris of taking the bite from the Irreducible Apple. And eventually they rise beyond the game's rules as well, once it becomes apparent that the system itself is against them.

"Then Eve, being a force, laughed at their decision."
This is the meaning of the rising and falling action of Homestuck's characters. Just as in the Gnostic myth cycle, characters both good and evil rise up from dark chaos to the heights of the Seven Heavens, or descend from light into darkness. From the first moment when the Seer of Light, Sophia, descends into the world to bring wisdom and is shrouded in darkness, the Gnostic action is one of movement between states and the subsequent ripples it sends through space, time, and the cast of characters.

So it is with Homestuck.

But that's not all. See, the Gnostic myth is one of self-actualization, where humanity is deceived by ignorance and their path blocked or disrupted by agents of darkness. They must learn to avoid deception and seize the knowledge needed to become Gods.

You can probably see by now where this line of thought is going.

When you get right down to it, Homestuck at its core is a coming of age story (or if you want to get really German about it, a Bildungsroman. Remember that for your SAT, kids!). They grow into their class and into their own beings, out of the shadow of their elders, as they travel the Medium. That's really the deeper point of the classes--attaining God Tier isn't a matter of getting flashy new powers, it's a matter of gaining a new understanding of yourself and your potential as a person. We can find parallels to that in the New Testament. Christ repeatedly tells people to keep quiet about his miracles; I suspect strongly that he recognizes the natural impulse to latch onto the flashy tangible details while missing the underlying growth into wisdom signified by those powers.

And we have ample evidence of the reality of that failure: the Beforan trolls all seem to have completely missed the point of their personal quests, and they've been stuck in developmental stasis since their deaths. I suppose you could argue that this is just a property of their status as, you know, dead people, but Vriska and Tavros seem to have grown and changed in ways that the Beforan trolls haven't. They are growing into their classes, as are the pre-Scratch kids. If you've been following any of the theories on Aspect Inversion from lildurandal or bladekindeyewear you already know how very possible it is to fail in that attempt at growth.

So, it seems to me that Gnosticism provides us a good lens through which to understand the goals of the game: ultimately the players must undergo a process of self actualization that allows them to transcend their previous universe, undergo a death and rebirth into glory (isn't that death and rebirth part of what makes [S] Cascade so powerful?), and become fully aware of their own nature and potential.

Except for two problems.

First, SBURB is recursive--it generates new universes in order to perpetuate the cycle of corrupted creation and inevitable destruction via the Reckoning. So, even if players escape into the new universe, that universe will still be subject to the same curse, the same fatal flaw, as before.

And second, they still have to deal with an entity that seems to embody inevitable doom:








Inescapability. The illusion of free will. The tyranny of the Alpha Timeline. The cruel, calculated bargain made by Paradox Space in order that it might continue to bring itself into being.

All of these concepts are embodied in Lord English.

Now, I'm not sure how much of this is coming from Gnosticism proper and how much is coming from Umberto Eco (his novels Baudolino and Foucault's Pendulum both touch on these ideas, and sometimes I garble together what I've learned from the prime texts and what I've picked up through the mouthpiece of Eco's characters) but I have heard it said that the primal light of Godness is a timeless entity. The Fourth Dimension comes into being with the birth of Yaltabaoth within darkness. He thus is a being that bestows Time upon the universe. I don't think it's a stretch to describe Yaltabaoth as a Lord Of Time. And his feminine aspect is, perhaps a bit more nebulously, a Muse of Space, a being of inspiring light that is present within all matter.

So, it's fitting that the final boss should be a type of Yaltabaoth--or a type of Samael, a blind god incapable of seeing truth or goodness. Caliborn isn't really much of a Demiurge, but he sure fits the Gnostic need for an inescapable force of suppression, deception, and blind spite.

And that suggests to me a more proper final endgame than simply the creation of a new universe; more proper even than the defeat of Lord English.

It's ultimately the system of SBURB's recursive inevitability, the malevolent tendrils of Skaia, the casually genocidal indifference of a reality where Lord English's existence is sanctioned by Paradox Space...

THIS is the prison from which the players must escape.

I suspect very strongly that Homestuck will end not with just the creation of a new universe, but with the creation of a universe free of the baleful influence of SBURB. A universe where the game is never created.

...Or, you know, the kids could end up creating the universe needed for Caliborn and Calliope's session. Hell, that might be just as likely given the recurring theme of failed creation. Guess we'll just have to wait and see.

But my money is on the idea that the gods of the new world will be establishing a paradise beyond the reach of Skaia's passive malevolence. And we may even speculate that the Dreaming Dead will have a rebirth in this new paradise.

Either way, I think we're going to see plenty more Gnostic nods in the text, and I think what we can take away from them is that SBURB is a game ultimately of transcendence and maturation.

Which is a pretty circuitous way of getting at something that you probably already knew.



You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

13 comments:

  1. that was glorious

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  2. You know, I never thought of Homestuck in such a deep manner. I think I have some more thinking to do now, actually.

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  3. very awesome, long but good

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  4. I wish I wasn't so dense as to notice these things without having them pointed out to me. :/

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  5. The bit about this I enjoy the very most is the idea that the Beforan trolls' horrific arrested development is part of a larger commentary on individuation, and not lazy parodic slapstick, which is how it initially felt to me.

    Caliborn's intermission and the stuff in it about masculine/feminine integration in Cherubs was like a sockful of Jung to the face and fits with the gnostic interpretation very neatly...

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  6. Dang, that was a really fascinating read!
    ((You might want to bring up Calliope's first in-comic conversation with Jane:
    UU: and while the emerald eye of this storm is fixed in the abyss forever
    UU: today yoU are poised to escape its scowl once and for all.
    UU: by skaias gUiding light, yoU may leave behind its tUrning arms of bright coloUrs and mayhem, and secUre peace for yoUr cosmic progeny for all dUration.))

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    1. ... also, it occurs to me that the Cherubs form an interesting parallel with the male-female paired Aeons. It looks like, from Andrew's in-comic conversation with Caliborn, that cherubs are meant to naturally form a more cooperative, symbiotic relationship with their siblings. But Caliborn, like Sophia, is the one who rejected that - he's the one who went off ON HIS OWN, without the compliment of Calliope to keep himself balanced.

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  7. This is very interesting. ^^ A thought about Karkat, though- I think there are two Gnostic characters he could embody. Someone who goes forward to create something, but does so lacking avery key component that would allow their creation to be complete and beneficial. Someone who later realizes their error and tries to help their creations as a form of repenting. While he could be a representation of the Demiurge, Karkat could also embody Sophia.
    Of course, he's about as good at being the Light of Wisdom as he is at being Yaltabaoth- that is to say, not very. He honestly is trying to give the kids knowledge and steer them away from a bad path, but he allows his own anger to keep him from thinking and thus ensures that they won't listen to him.

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  8. Just a small point of note, Jade wasn't shooting a Bec-shaped fruit, it was a pinata hanging from the tree. Other than that, really insightful article, and no doubt I'll be reading many more!

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  9. Gnosticism, particularly in its creation story, has a lot to do with Orphism and Platonism: the Demiurge comes from these two traditions. Basically, when Christianity spread into Greece it did so by allying/absorbing various Greek pagan traditions, much like it did in Central and Western Europe(for instance, Zeus Monotheism; it isn't an accident our idea of god looks like the Greek idea of Zeus). Gnosticism then is a mixture of Jewish and specifically Christian religious themes with certain of these Greek non-civic religious traditions. The same can be said of Mainline early Christianity too, of course.

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  10. I know this is completely far in the future, and you may have addressed this in the future, but here is something interesting:

    John Egbert has begun to escape the bonds of SBURB and the Alpha Timeline by placing his hand in a representation of SBURB.

    This seems somewhat relevant to this article.

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  11. I love this. I never got around to saying that when I first read this but damn, this is great.

    I don't think that I'll ever be content until I can check off "I have written a book that Sam Keeper talked about in one of these spectacular posts!" from my list now.

    "I suspect very strongly that Homestuck will end not with just the creation of a new universe, but with the creation of a universe free of the baleful influence of SBURB. A universe where the game is never created.

    "...Or, you know, the kids could end up creating the universe needed for Caliborn and Calliope's session. Hell, that might be just as likely given the recurring theme of failed creation. Guess we'll just have to wait and see.

    "But my money is on the idea that the gods of the new world will be establishing a paradise beyond the reach of Skaia's passive malevolence. And we may even speculate that the Dreaming Dead will have a rebirth in this new paradise.

    "Either way, I think we're going to see plenty more Gnostic nods in the text, and I think what we can take away from them is that SBURB is a game ultimately of transcendence and maturation."

    I wonder if this is just me going "Hello! I'm here and I exist and I have opinions too! Why is nobody looking at me?" but I wanted to say it anyway since the voice suggesting that is probably not the voice I should be listening to.

    Anyway...

    I find myself conflicted on what to expect here. On the one hand I can totally see the kids making a Sburb-less universe. That's... probably where it's going to go.

    But I'm only saying that because of what I know of the author and how he handles things. Part of me wants to reject that idea out of hand and say that the Fix, so to speak, will simply be destroying Lord English and that the universe they create will have Sburb in it. This is because the theme of growing up, especially with the footnote that the process requires that you confront your mortality, speaks very strongly to me. Also it speaks well to my Inner Existentialist for there to be a series of universes sacrificing worlds here and there within themselves in order to be producing more universes, a process that is ultimately just the universe's method for propagating itself but which, for its inhabitants, has incredible meaning (and yet a meaning that has been granted, not found to be inherent in the system).

    But more fundamentally my terminal value is complexity more than, say, the happiness of any given number of lives, so I don't see any conflict in the reduction of complexity that a world's destruction presents in return for the possibly incomparable net gain of complexity that is presented by the creation of a whole new universe (even if Sburb destroyed the entire universe, which seems to be a fluke tied to the flawed nature of the specific universes we see in Homestuck, you're still allowing for the perpetual existence of a series of universes rather than waiting for a single universe to die without a successor, and so my only desire there would be to trigger Sburb as close to heat death as possible).

    So something else I'd like to say, and maybe the only thing that makes this comment worthwhile, is: It's very weird to look at a narrative, see the twists and flavors of it, and know that even if you had started with the same characters in the same setting in the same (at least initial) circumstances, you would still have taken it in a different direction and not because you get your inspiration from a different muse so much as because your value system, heck, your whole stinking paradigm, is different from the author's.

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  12. An incredibly interesting article! I almost wish this could be revisited in light of more recent plot developments.
    One thing in particular that stuck out to me was when you pointed out that Caliborn wasn't much of a demiurge, just a destroyer. But since this was written, Caliborn began drawing an in-universe parody of Homestuck called Homosuck, and of course uses its characters to play out his own childish fantasies. This seems to be an almost perfect parallel to Yaltabaoth creating the physical world as a sort of subconscious imitation of the (if you delve into Platonism a bit) "perfect" model.
    (Note that this came from only a few minutes of very quick research, however, and I may have misinterpreted some of this.)

    Then there's John using his plot-hopping powers to actually enter Homosuck, which has...some big mythological significance, I'm sure. Not really an Adam metaphor, as John wasn't created by Caliborn, he's an outside being entering Caliborn's flawed universe, similar to Sophia going down into Yaldabaoth's material reality...

    Gah, I'm not smart enough to figure all this out.

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