Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Poison Tree

A recent article by David Futrelle (of We Hunted the Mammoth fame) contains this long-known fact: “There are good reasons why MRA activism has served for so many as a gateway drug to the alt-right.” Major props to Mr. Futrelle for his long-standing public stance, though many had said this before him. But, of course, he is in the right demographic groups to be instantly heeded and signal-boosted.

Gamergaters, MRAs, Tarzanist evopsychos, White supremacists, coercive fundies — and even minor knobs like Google’s Damore — are fruits of a single poison tree. They’re all part of a single mindset configuration: the urge to dominate, the concept of automatic entitlement, the unhesitating use of corrosive dicta as untouchable “truths”. Just about all of humanity’s tragedies stem from this.  As one character in Brendan Muldowney’s ferocious Pilgrimage says, “Peace needs to be grown, cared for, nurtured. This is beyond the reach of most men.”

Damore’s “manifesto” (a whiny, stale recycling of disproved masculinist platitudes) has been thoroughly debunked by many experts, including evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin PhD who has written several justly famous essays about the species-unique problems of human pregnancy and menstruation. But I want to discuss Pilgrimage a bit more, because it gives a pared-down glimpse of the poison tree.

At first glance, Pilgrimage is a perilous mission in hostile territory, equal parts Secret of Kells and Wages of Fear with a Fellowship of the Ring soupçon. Its portrayal of ambition, delusion and obsession passing for piety and loyalty makes it sibling to Marie Jakober’s riveting Black Chalice that also takes place during the cusp between paganism and full-bore monotheism. Pilgrimage unfolds in 13th century Ireland just after the Fourth Crusade, whose most prominent achievement was the destruction of Byzantium. The nucleus is a group of monks who are ordered to transport their monastery’s holiest relic to Rome.

Like all relics of this type, theirs is a combination of bizarre and gruesome: it’s said to be the rock that delivered the killing blow during the stoning of the apostle chosen to replace Judas. And, as is gradually revealed, it’s also “metal from heaven” – highly conducting meteoritic iron, which endows it with the ability to deliver shocks. Somehow, it found its way to an isolated Irish monastic community. The Pope has caught wind of it and plans to use it to separate the “worthy faithful” from the rest of the herd. As his domini canus he has sent a Cistercian who has bartered his soul to the father god by denouncing his own father as tolerant of heretics (this was an era of significant “cleansings”).

But there are others who want the rock for reasons essentially identical to the Pope’s (once the pious veneer is stripped from the orotund proclamations). Among them are Irish clans fallen into savagery after they’ve been deprived of their land and social structures; and Norman petty-noble mercenaries who have been laying waste to Eire ever since they were invited to help settle one of the perennial wars between Irish kings – an invasion authorized and blessed by the Pope, as was the sacking of Constantinople: both Irish and Greek Christianity were competitors to be annihilated.

Several recognizable character types inhabit Pilgrimage: the naïve innocent (shades of Adso from The Name of the Rose), the wise humane mentor, the atoning sinner with an unbreakable geas…and embodiments of two seemingly different kinds of ruthlessness, secular and religious, that are in fact just different ways of vying for the same trophy: the might that makes everything right.

The film boasts stunning scenery as well as gut-churning violence, and builds verisimilitude by showing seaweed harvesting, beehive cells and Culdee tonsures; and by using Gaelic and French when it should. Several reviewers called it cynical (though the correct term would have been nihilistic) because it refuses to make concessions to sentimentality: it denies any glimpse of hope or real redemption – signaled in part by a body count rivaling a Jacobean play, but even more so by the total absence of women.

The film has reduced the depiction of the poison tree to its primal colors: the will to power, the urge (and perceived right) to destroy whatever stands in the “correct” way. Whether one screams “Deus le Vult” or “Allahu Akbar”, whether one invokes sacred heritage or divine laws to justify cruelty – it’s the same poison tree that bears this strange fruit, that keeps sprouting like a toxic weed, like dragons’ teeth, in even carefully tended gardens. Only vigilant, determined decency will keep it from strangling all around it.

In-Depth Review of Pilgrimage at Paste Magazine 

Related Essays

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

Ashes from Burning Libraries

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Top, original cover of Marie Jakober’s Black Chalice; bottom, beehive cells on Skellig island

3 Responses to “The Poison Tree”

  1. Brett Davidson says:

    Have you heard the term “broflake”? It covers types like Damore well.

  2. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > . . .fruits of a single poison tree. . . part of a single
    > mindset configuration: the urge to dominate, the concept
    > of automatic entitlement, the unhesitating use of corrosive dicta
    > as untouchable “truths”. Just about all of humanity’s tragedies
    > stem from this.

    They used to call it “pride”. These days, there’s a lot of
    talk about “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. It seems to be
    a character type much admired in the U.S. Steve Jobs as Ayn Rand’s
    “ideal man”. (But what would even Rand have made of Donald Trump?)

    But how dare I presume to judge my betters?
    I’m just an Omega male, wallowing in ressentiment. ;->

    “The sick are the greatest danger for the well. The weaker,
    not the stronger, are the strong’s undoing. . .
    Those born wrong, the miscarried, the broken —
    they it is, the **weakest**, who are undermining the vitality
    of the race, poisoning our trust in life, and putting
    humanity in question. Every look of them is a sigh —
    ‘Would I were something other! I am sick and tired of
    what I am.’ In this swamp-soil of self-contempt, every
    poisonous weed flourishes, and all so small, so secret,
    so dishonest, and so sweetly rotten. Here swarm the
    worms of sensitiveness and resentment; here the air smells
    odious with secrecy, with what is not to be acknowledged;
    here is woven endlessly the net of the meanest of
    conspiracies, the conspiracy of those who suffer against
    those who succeed and are victorious; here the very
    aspect of the victorious is hated — as if health,
    success, strength, pride, and the sense of power were
    in themselves things vicious, for which one ought eventually
    to make bitter expiation. Oh, how these people would
    themselves like to inflict the expiation, how they thirst
    to be the hangmen! And all the while their duplicity
    never confesses their hatred to be hatred.”

    –Nietzsche, _Zur Genealogie der Moral_

    “There is a passion in the human heart which is called aspiration.
    It flares with a noble flame, and by its light Man has traveled
    from the caves of darkness to the darkness of outer space. But
    when this passion becomes lust, when its flame is fanned by greed
    and private hunger, then aspiration becomes ambition –
    by which sin the angels fell.”

    — opening narration of the old _Outer Limits_ episode
    “The Bellero Shield”, which I saw when I was eleven.
    (And Martin Landau died just this year. 🙁 ).

    > . . .ambition, delusion and obsession. . .
    > the will to power, the urge (and perceived right) to
    > destroy whatever stands in the “correct” way. . .

    Speaking of which, this is rather amusing:
    August 26, 2017
    The Sleep of the Silicon Princes
    A short play about little boys…
    by Lyta Gold

    (via )

  3. Athena says:

    I think Rand would have argued that this is what comes from allowing everyone (and not just the aristoi) to vote. And Nietzche wasn’t a shining physical specimen himself.

    Gold’s micro-play would be funny if it weren’t too uncomfortably close to reality (just as Trump and Palin cannot be parodied — what they say is prime-time-ready material for venues like SNL).