Way back in the 70’s or 80’s, a couple of young geniuses at MIT invented an “interactive fiction” game called Zork. It was a kind of “choose your own adventure” game–no graphics, just textual clues the player was meant to decipher, and respond with commands such as “take the treasure”. The game lead the player into a rich imaginary world–the Great Underground Empire, once ruled by King Mimberthrax the Insignificant, a descendant of the Line of the 12 Flatheads, and most recently, before some unmentioned cataclysm, ruled by Lord Dimwit Flathead. The player was both adventurer and treasure hunter, solving problems, traveling the underworld with a brass lantern, some candles, or if you were very lucky an inextinguishable torch, while warding off underground trolls and various traps and Indiana Jones-like conundrums. The player, if he was wise and careful, would occasionally find a piece of great treasure in the deeps, such as a portrait of J. Pierpont Flathead–which was my personal favorite.
At one point in the game the player was required to light a candle (always precarious in the underground winds), read a portion of a book, and ring a bell. The order was critical, there was time pressure, and failure meant certain death. I learned much later in life that the “bell, book, and candle” routine were also a method of excommunication introduced by Pope Zachary, for “exceptionally grievous sin.” I’m not Catholic, and I don’t worry about being booted from the church, such as it is, but I find the ritual intriguing.
And of course we are all playing Zork these days, traveling a dark underworld and trying to keep our brass lanterns lit.
It occurred to me this morning, after I fed the horses and plundered some eggs from the henhouse, and while sipping tea at the breakfast table surrounded by a pile of newspaper headlines: Russia Advances on Ukraine Coast, Attacks Take High Civilian Toll, Evacuees Face Deadly Bombardment, Nuclear Plant’s Seizure Sparks Alarm, Refugees Exodus Tops One Million In First Week, Ukraine Special Forces Stymie Russia on Kyiv’s Front Lines, that the planet has seen all of this before, and that Putin has effectively ex-communicated himself in one of the more incalculable acts of hubris the world has ever seen.
Putin’s Eurasian obsession has triggered the bell, book, and candle routine, and if we listen closely the incantations are just beginning.
It’s also true that the markets are tanking, which markets often do, that President Biden is either unwilling or unable to comprehend the biggest strategic advantage at his disposal (both short and long term energy independence), and that Europe seems one miscalculation away from the kind of conflict that creates its own inescapable gravity.
It’s also true that there isn’t a single thing I can do about any of it. And so I declared it a fine morning anyway, and sat making notes in my notebook. I went from throwing hay to the horses to fond memories of playing Zork to an excellent cup of Earl Gray and then down through the ages to the Mongol invasion of these same corners of the world in the 13th century. I find it helpful to remember, to resist the accelerating friction of the daily news which in some quarters seems bent on ratcheting up the conflict, in others in dialing it down, in still others at widening the extant divisions in our own national brand, that “truth is always the first casualty of war” and that peasants always pay the highest price. In an odd way that’s comforting, and my purpose here is to embrace my fellow peasantry in a kind of Harry Nillson approach to apocalyptic counseling: “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you.”
Back in the Year of Our Lord 1246 a fine fellow named Giovanno de Plano Carpini found himself traveling through Kiev, dispatched by Pope Innocent IV to meet with Mongol leaders. At the time, the Mongol Empire stretched from the China Sea to the Caspian, which sounds familiar. The Pope wanted two things: converts, naturally, and also an alliance that would persuade the Mongols not to invade Christian Europe. So, at 60, Carpini made his way through a sacked Kiev and along the Volga to meet the Batu Khan. Before meeting the Khan he was made to walk through pillars of fire as a purification ceremony, which is something my wife and I have considered for some of our dinner guests. Carpini made on well with the lesser Khan and was eventually sent forward to meet the Great Khan in Mongolia, a trip of some 3,000 miles. To endure the rigors of travel, Carpini had his body tightly bound most of the way–which is more proof of history repeating itself as modern airlines have also seized on tightly binding their passengers in seats designed for four year olds.
I once flew from Portland to Reykjavic on Iceland Air in a seat so small, and so hard, and so opposed to comfort of any kind, that I feel a deep spiritual kinship with Friar Carpini.
None of that is important, but what is interesting is that Carpini took in a view of Kiev that looks identical to scenes we are seeing in the same region today, almost 800 years later:
“They (the Mongols) attacked Rus’, where they made great havoc, destroying cities and fortresses and slaughtering men; and they laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Rus’; after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death. When we were journeying through that land we came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground. Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing, for there are at the present time scarce two hundred houses there and the inhabitants are kept in complete slavery.”
–Giovanno de Plano Carpini, the Pope’s Envoy to the Great Khan, traveling through Kiev in the year 1246
Putin is, of course, a kind of Great Khan and the oligarchs he has both made and sustained will substitute nicely for the lesser Khans. What unites them through time isn’t just wealth or extravagance or absolute power, it is a world view, and Putin’s embrace of Eurasianism should have been heeded by successive American and European administrations but wasn’t. In Russian Eurasianism, An Ideology of Empire, Marléne Laruelle noted the basic tenants of a Eurasianist vision that underwrites Putin’s every move: “Seen through the historicist Western prism, Russia is a backward country; but the Eurasianists suggested that Russia should unlearn the West and perceive itself geographically: History, they argued, is the mode in which Europe expresses its identity; geography is Russia’s.” And so wars of conquest are always on the menu.
“Then at all the city gates there was a great throng of people fleeing behind the walls. They had left behind horses and animals, clothing and tools; not even waiting for their own sons, they ran for safer shelter, spurred on by the fear of death.”
–Thomas of Spalato, Historia pontificum, on refugees fleeing the Batu Khan, 1242
In Spain there is a festival, recently revived, known as Las Luminarias. It is said to be 500 years old. In the event, bonfires are lit in the streets and horses are ridden through the fires. The smoke is meant to purify the horses and protect them as a vital asset to the community. It’s exactly the kind of thing you might expect to stumble on in the underworld of Zork, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I would participate in if America had such a fine thing. But we aren’t allowed to have these kinds of things in America. Los Angeles County just tried to get rid of rodeo. Most of our rituals are just dead, or so thoroughly empty they are functionally meaningless. We don’t even have baseball anymore, not really, and Willie Nelson is turning 300 years old this year. If we had even a single Incan strand of DNA Willie would have a kind of Incan Trail stretching across West Texas with various stations, culminating in an eye-popping, soul-gripping kind of Pumpjack, Touring Bus, and Horsefarm Soundstage Macchu Piccu.
But I digress. The point is the world is well and truly on fire. What happens in Ukraine is important as a matter of principle, politics, and probably the long term health of the economy we all rely on. It’s just that we don’t have much sway in the outcome. That can, if we let it, burrow in like a parasite as we watch the Dimwit Flatheads we put in office struggle to do what they were hired to do. We can be forgiven for lacking confidence in their capabilities, and even their intentions, as they dangle Zelensky– who actually does inspire confidence– before the Mongol horde.
Historically, fire has always been seen as a purifier–because it is. One reason we love to sit around bonfires is because it is a kind of mostly unrecognized ritual purification. Fire is a purifier, but it is also a part of war, every bit as much as beans, bullets, and bandages. Our entire world was formed in fire, and may eventually be re-formed by it. Let us hope we can recapture it, and control it, and use it for its best purposes: for heat, and for light against the pressing darkness. Because the alternative is grim indeed.
“But when one day the Tatars (Mongols) suddenly arrived and my situation in the city was precarious, I did not want to go to the castle, but ran away into the forest and hid there as long as I could. They, however, suddenly took the city and burnt most of it and left nothing outside the walls of the castle. Having collected the booty, they killed men and women, commoners and nobles alike, on the streets houses, and fields. What more? They pardoned neither sex nor age. That done, they suddenly retreated, gathered up everything in the retreat, and settled at five miles away from the castle..Hearing this, my hair stood on end, my body shivered with fear, my tongue stuttered miserably, for I saw that the inevitable moment of dreadful death was menacing me. I already beheld my murderers in my mind’s eye; my body exuded the cold sweat of death. I also saw human beings, when earnestly expecting death, unable to grab weapons, raise their arms, move their steps to places of safety, or survey the land with their eyes. What more? I saw people half dead of fear…Therefore, I left the highway as if following the call of nature, and rushed towards the dense forest with my only servant and hid in the hollow of a creek, covering myself with leaves and branches. My servant hid farther away, so that the chance detection of the one should not cause the unhappy capture of the other. We lay thus for two full days, as in graves, not raising our heads and heard the terrible voices of those who, following the footprints of erring beasts, passed close by in the forest and often shouted after the prisoners who were in hiding. And when we could no more repress in the deep silence of our hearts the very just demands of hunger and the troubling desire for food in the closed silence of our hearts, we lifted our heads and began to crawl like snakes, using arms and legs.”
–Roger of Torre Maggiore, describing the Mongol invasion of 1241 in a letter to the Bishop of Palestrina.