Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Romance of Incarnation--Religion in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Today's guest post comes from Linn Marie Tonstad, assistant professor of Christian theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Since its publication in 2010, N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has received numerous well-deserved plaudits. Dealing with issues of power, race, social organization, gender and sexuality, nature and freedom, the text weaves together these themes with a consideration of religion: there’s a sense in which the book is an extended meditation on the Christian theme that human beings are created in the image of God. Jemisin herself suggests that one of the generative ideas for the book was the inversion of that basic principle, a creation of gods who are fundamentally humans writ large. She also traces her creation of a triad of gods to elements taken from Hinduism (see the interview in the back of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), where she specifically cites the balance between “a Creator, a Destroyer, and a Preserver” (p. 418). [Plot spoilers ahead]

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, we encounter a world ruled by inflexible devotion to a single god, the Skyfather, Lord Itempas, the god of order, whose followers mercilessly execute anyone suspected of heresy. This god has been imposed on a variety of races and nations by the Arameri, who have suppressed any devotion to the Nightlord, Nahadoth, the god of chaos who first emerged from the Maelstrom, or to the fallen sister of both gods, Enefah, the god of creation and balance. The children of the gods, gods themselves (except for the demons, who emerge from human-god relations), also play a role in the narrative, particularly the trickster god, Sieh, the child, reminiscent of figures ranging from Norse mythology (Loki) to the coyote god of many Native American religions. The main character, Yeine, from the matriarchal, dark-skinned northern nation of Darre, must make her way in classic fashion through the twisted structures of power at the very top of the Arameri nation of her mother. The Arameri’s power comes from their devotion to Itempas, who has subdued and imprisoned the other gods in flesh, rendering them servants – slaves, weapons – of the Arameri.

On the surface, this account serves as a critique of Christianity, whose devotion to God the Father, imposed on colonized nations, drove underground the many other gods to which subjugated cultures once were devoted. Christianity is also associated with hatred of sex and the body, with forcible imposition of heteronormativity, and with separation between humans and nature that threatens the integrity of the natural world, all themes that are explored in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. At the same time, Jemisin’s book resonates in surprising ways with themes taken from Christianity, serving both to explore such ideas and to critique them in challenging ways. As a scholar of Christianity, I cannot but be fascinated by these unexpected places of interaction and engagement.

Fundamentally, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a romance of incarnation. The book explores the meeting, sexually and emotionally, between quasi-transcendent beings and mortals, allowing each to transform the other in expansive ways. Christianity is often associated with rejection of finitude (human limitation) through the assertion of faith in a God who is utterly transcendent (beyond all limitations) and who is characterized by a series of “omni”-attributes: omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and so on. Yet Christianity itself is potentially a romance of incarnation. Philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams argues that the fundamental drive of God’s creation of finite creatures is a desire for union with matter: “God must love material creation with a love that dual-drives toward assimilation and union. … God’s passion for material creation expresses itself in a Divine desire to unite with it” (Christ and Horrors, p. 39). What’s more, the intention of this drive toward union is to make material creation, human beings, as godlike as possible through the most intimate possible form of union (called a hypostatic union in Christian theology): the incarnation, in a single human being, of God’s own self. This incarnation takes place in the body of the young woman Mary, whose experience in becoming the mother of God has variously been figured in Christian theology as unrestricted consent to God or obedience to God, and as rape. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, we repeatedly encounter persons who have both human and divine attributes: Yeine herself is the unknowing location of Enefah’s soul, and Nahadoth has a human, daytime form in which he is trapped. Christian theologians have spent much time discussing the relation between the human and divine minds of Christ, since supposedly he is and has both. Does the divine mind ultimately overwhelm the human? Does the human know the God within (know himself as God)? Or does the divine limit itself so as not to overwhelm the human, leaving the human at least a minimal integrity of its own?

In Jemisin’s book, too, the dance of consent and obedience in human-divine powergames takes different forms. The sexual and material domination that the villain Scimina exercises on the trapped god Nahadoth, particularly in his merely human daytime form, is contrasted with the heroine Yeine’s willing, consensual submission to Nahadoth when she finally says to him, in (unintentional?) echo of Mary, “Do with me as you please,” (p. 320) and finds herself filled with a gloriously divine phallus. The gods’ passion for mortals takes both destructive and fulfilling forms, pushing the mortal human to the utmost limits of endurance and pleasure, threatening the loss of the self, a theme that we find in the works of many Christian mystics and monks from the medieval period, who represented passion for God in sometimes shockingly erotic and gender-bending ways. The Song of Songs was a particularly favored location for these meditations. Alan of Lille, for instance, says that in consenting to the incarnation, the “Virgin Mary” asks that God kiss her with the kisses of his mouth, a kiss that he interprets in tri-partite form as referring to the incarnation itself as the union between human and divine, to the Holy Spirit as the homoerotic (not his word!) kiss between Father and Son in the Trinity, and to the teaching of Christ with which “the Father kisses the Son, or the Bridegroom the Bride, or the Lord his handmaiden, the son the mother, the pupil the teacher.” (Alan of Lille, Elucidatio, in Denys Tuner, Eros and Allegory, pp. 295-296). Lille ultimately sees the pleasures of Christ’s teaching as transcending and surpassing any merely fleshly pleasures in a way that might seem to reestablish divine-human games of desire as the mere priority of word over body.

Yet again, we find surprising resonances between Jemisin’s depiction of the romance between the three gods of Nahadoth, Itempas, the dead and quasi-resurrected Enefah and her replacement Yeine. Nahadoth and Itempas come first, with Enefah/Yeine as the feminine addition providing the balance between Nahadoth’s chaos and Itempas’s exaggerated love of order. Ultimately, the passion between Nahadoth and Itempas takes priority, with Enefah/Yeine as the unstable site of representation, the location of death, and the place of the inclusion of the human into the divine. Just so does Christian theology represent the relation between Father, Son, and Spirit in the Trinity. As feminist theologian and philosopher Mary Daly famously asserted, the response to women’s concerns about representing the divine as masculine in Christianity has historically been, “You’re included under the Holy Spirit. He’s feminine” (Gyn/Ecology, 38). The very instability of the representation of Spirit/femininity cannot but, as feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray never tires of pointing out, repeat cultural tropes of femininity as the location of death and as the formless unknowability of otherness. There is a danger in placing balance, birth/death, in the feminine rather than in the articulated masculine principles of chaos and order (although the different moments of Nahadoth’s omni-sexuality and bi-gendered nature both establish and challenge aspects of these differences). This danger is heightened by Jemisin’s repeated use of heterosexual and male homosexual passions while at no point representing desire between women. Even her exciting matriarchal society in Darre inverts patriarchy rather than suggesting alternative forms of social organization.

Which brings us to the last theme we’ll have space to treat in this short piece. (It would be fascinating to think about the metaphysics of possibility and reality that Jemisin sketches in her account of the birth of the gods and the formation of the world, but we’ll leave that for another day.) As we have seen, Jemisin wants to invert the basic Christian principle that human beings are created in the image of God by creating gods in humanity’s image. The German philosopher-theologian Ludwig Feuerbach argues in his influential book The Essence of Christianity that this is exactly what Christianity does. For Feuerbach, Christianity is a fundamental misrecognition. When human beings assign goodness, knowledge, and power to God, they are representing God as containing the attributes and characteristics that actually belong to humanity, taken as a whole. In so doing, human beings deprive themselves of self-understanding by projecting onto God their own characteristics and saying that God possesses those attributes in ways that contrast with humanity and deny to humanity the goodness that belongs to human beings. This depiction of Christianity as projection has had massive influence both inside Christianity and as a critique of Christianity itself. Jemisin’s book can serve both as a depiction of the power of such projection and as a challenging exploration of the dynamic shapes that such projection can and must take on to have imaginative resonance, reminding us once more that fantastic literature is one of the sites in which we work out what it means to be human and in which we enact the fears and hopes that belong to our own mortality.

Works cited in this essay:
Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989/1841).
N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Book One of the Inheritance Trilogy (New York: Orbit, 2010).
Denys Tuner, Eros & Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995).