Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Welcome to Valhalla!

I ought to write politics there, metaphysics here, and oughtn't promise the seven sins and deliver this, but the thought beckoned, and I follow.

You know about Valhalla, I'm sure. Even if you know nothing about Norse mythology, you know about Valhalla. You probably know of it as Norse heaven. This is a misconception, though, because the Norse didn't really have a heaven. Valhalla you may know, then, as a more militarized place, a place of valor, where the Cheetos never stain one's quilted armor or where one may be ready for the "looter" hordes who will come to force you away from "going Galt." Indeed, you know about Valhalla the wrong way, whether you're a skinhead or a puffbeard, a maiden in paisley or a matron in leather.

(1896 German version of Valhalla, Max Bruckner)

I grew fascinated by the Norse. Their religion seemed all wrong to me. It's a death cult, for one thing. How, I wondered, could Germanic tribes hang onto and develop such a religion, and make it into a genuine religion too, for centuries? I say "genuine religion" because they prayed, hoped, and honored their gods and believed that natural forces were engaged in human life. In other words, they had made a leap from the childish, superstitious 'religion' of the Romans and Greeks to something closer to the passionate and personal religion of the east, although only just.

In Poetic Edda there is mystery religion, and one supposes that priests, if not regular folks, had some metaphysics. The problem is that the metaphysics were woven around a basic death cult. The Norse believed that evil would win and destroy the gods. Imagine that. They thought Ragnarok would result in the frost giants coming over the bridge, whooping the guardians, the serpent swallowing the king of the gods, the wolf swallowing the sun, and all going dark. Imagine that as the basis of a religion: "Worship the gods, because they're not powerful enough to protect the world, and they're going to lose, and everything's going to go into chaos and night."

Furthermore -- and I gather the recent movie Thor points this out -- the "enemy" isn't bad. The frost giants aren't evil. In fact, they're the same as the gods. They're just big people, and the gods do very bad things to them. So the gods are not moral, not all powerful, and not promising a heaven, either. Curious, isn't it? The afterlife of Valhalla is for warriors who die in battle, and they get plucked up from the battlefield and brought to Odin's hall, where their reward will be... getting drunk every day and then getting killed every night. Men are treated about the same as Thor's goats.

I never could figure this out. I still can't.

However, I have figured out that we are now in Valhalla, so we can say whether it's any good or not.

When men talk about military history, and military history fascinates the Y-chromosome, wars get categorized. Religious wars, resource wars, civil wars, defensive wars, wars of aggression, and the like have their devotees, and men will think up really interesting lessons to be learned about each, prophesies to make from every one. One way to speak of war is "offense outstripping defense" and "defense outstripping offense."

(George Grosz, "Republican Automatons" 1920)

For example, it is conventional to say that World War I was a time when defense was better than offense, and so it became a stagnant war without outcome. The argument is that people could, with machine guns and artillery and chemical weapons, make any charge impossible. The rifle and tactic had made maneuver impossible and charge suicidal, and so trenches became the war. On the other hand, they say that the early part of World War II was a time when offense outstripped defense, because air power and tanks were new and had no answer. Thus, the Germans could take Europe in a flash of "lightning." (I hear your necks squeaking as you nod agreement.)

There is another "who's winning." We have already noted that Americans don't die in battle anymore. They don't die when they're blown up, even. There has been a major advance in medicine, medical transport, and response, and so soldiers are surviving. This happened before, too. It happened in World War I. Surgeons saved lives, although the men whose lives were saved ended up displeased in many cases. The polite world discovered morphine addiction, thanks to battlefield medicine. More to the effect, though, the thousands of shattered and crippled came home as young men, men who should be in the prime of their work lives, broken and hideous, reminders in body and mind of war, and this irritant was hard for any society to swallow, winner or loser.

Here we are, though: Valhalla. Let them live, but only to fight again, our policy is. This is the kingdom of Hel, at least.

What effect is this having on us? What effect does it have on us to reabsorb our own, but now "saved?" I am not certain, but I surely hope we realize that better than saving lives is not putting them at risk for the sake of a job to do. Better than frenzies of "Idol Voice Can Dance with Talented Fifth Grader," we will face the discontent and malcontent this content causes.

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