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Thursday, May 19, 2011

A tattoo, a book, and a ramble

Because I am me, I find it most utterly necessary to deconstruct my recent tattoo and its meanings for you, my fine bunch of reubens. I mentioned the new ink and included a picture in Sunday's post, but the tat is more than it appears. As is evident, it's a rendering of a portion of the autograph Neil Gaiman left in my copy of American Gods--but for me, it's more.

See, the tattoo is not EXACTLY what I would have wanted. While trying to decide on its placement and size, I realized that I thought the "Believe" looked better by itself, without the exclamation point. But as you can see, the exclamation point is there. I decided to include it in the tattoo as a reminder of a couple of things.

First, that although I really, really admire Gaiman as a person and I love his writing, he IS a person and not everything he produces is solid gold and rainbows. Some of it is imperfect. More on that in a moment.

Second, that my beliefs are always going to be changing and that I am probably going to be dissatisfied with them and with myself at various points in my life.

So that first note really needs expanding upon. By all accounts (these accounts being Twitter, blogs and LiveJournals, interviews, and the body of work Gaiman has produced and is producing), Gaiman is a pretty fantastic person: a good dad, a good husband, a good artist, a good activist for comic book creators and libraries and literacy initiatives. But I'm old enough now that I have to see the warts on my heroes, as much as I'd like to stay in the safe realm of ZOMGURAWESOME. One of these warts is a portion of American Gods--a segment which did not strike me odd the first time I read the book, but which now I find difficult to countenance. This passage is below:

'"Eh? Excuse me, miss?" This to their waitress.

She said, "You need another espresso?"

"No, my dear. I was just wondering if you could solve a little argument we were having over here. My friend and I were disagreeing over what the word "Easter" means. Would you happen to know?"

The girl stared at him as though green toads had begun to push their way between his lips. Then she said, "I don't know about any of that Christian stuff. I'm a pagan."

[...] "And tell me, as a pagan, who do you worship?"


"That's right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide-open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray at dawn and at dusk?"

Her lips described several shapes without saying anything before she said, 'The female principle. It's an empowerment thing. You know?"

"Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?"

"She's the goddess within us all," said the girl with the eyebrow ring, color rising to her cheek. "She doesn't need a name."

"Ah," said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, "so do you have mighty bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet candles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?"

"You're making fun of me," she said. "We don't do any of that stuff you were saying." She took a deep breath. Shadow suspected she was counting to ten. "Any more coffees here? Another mochaccino for you, ma'am?" Her smile was a lot like the one she had greeted them with when they had entered.

They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.

"There," said Wednesday, "is one who does not have the faith and will not have the fun,' Chesterton. Pagan indeed. [...]"'

Yeah. That passage hurts to read, now. My beliefs have changed enough over the past few years that I can no longer read it detachedly. In a book about gods in America, Gaiman's premise ignores the million-odd people in the country who worship an old god--whether the Lord and Lady of Wicca, the Aesir and Vanir of heathenism, the orishas of Vodou, the animikiig of Anishinaabe religion, any of the panoply of Greek, Irish, Indian, Gaulish, Egyptian, and Babylonian deities, or yes, the "feminine principle." And though many of these gods appear themselves in American Gods, the only inkling of modern pagan religion that the book shows is the above passage. Another of Gaiman's books, Anansi Boys, utilizes vodou and other African diaspora spiritualities, and most of his writing incorporates otherworldly characters and ideas, but American Gods--given its title--is notable for what it lacks.

It seems likely that Gaiman simply didn't have time or space to delve into modern American pagan paths. It also seems likely that Wednesday is not a mouthpiece for the author, since (SPOILERS) he's the villain, a villain who uses his words as weapons to goad, trick, deceive, coerce, and con: He is an extremely not-nice person. And the book as an organic whole is fully deserving of the moniker "masterpiece." It is my favorite of Gaiman's offerings, yes, I even like it better than Sandman (which has its own set of issues with old gods and modern worshippers), and the gaps as I perceive them do not detract--for me--from it being a very powerful, important book. There ARE "glitterwitches," as one of my friends calls them; there ARE people only interested with the trappings of Wicca or Thelema or whatever path they find interesting; there ARE people who, as Chesterton has it (hateful man), do not have the faith and will not have the fun. But there are also people who do hold mighty bacchanals, who do carry out magic rituals to their gods and ancestors, who do walk between the worlds, who do gather and dance under the moon.

Those people exist, too.

I have to assume Gaiman knows this and simply did not see fit to address it or include a modern pagan character in the story. The concept of American Gods is a fascinating one: that when immigrants came to the U.S., they brought their gods and demons, and generation by generation belief faded as offspring turned to the "new" gods of technology, fame, etc., leaving the gods and demons in a pale, shadowy state. It's a perfectly sound concept...that is weakened considerably by the fact that modern Americans DO worship a vast variety of foreign and native "old" gods. I suppose if you want to write a story like this one, factors such as that must by necessity be left out.

So yes. That is the over-long story of my new tattoo. I like it--I think it looks great, and it's a wonderful, personal symbol. Expect more ink and more ink-related musings in the hopefully-near future.

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