“Here Be Monsters…”

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“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

I once went on a date with a bat.

He was really nice, quite attractive, well-spoken. We had a few beers together, and I invited him over to my place as the bar closed. But it wasn’t until we were sitting on my bed, about to kiss, that he told me he was a bat.

You’ll perhaps forgive me for not noticing before. I mean, he looked human. He even spoke like a human, rather than the high-pitched and therefore inaudible chirps and clicks bats use for echolocation.

Maybe you’ll also forgive me for laughing when he told me. “Like role-playing? Okay, maybe that could be fun.”

“That’s insulting. It’s not role-playing, I am really a bat,” he said, making clear his disappointment.

That made me feel bad, so I apologized, and asked him to explain. He did. He had recently only discovered that he was a bat, so he could understand why it was hard for me. He had known something was different about him for a long time, and then one day someone online had told him “I see you are really a bat” and this had changed his life.

He explained to me that it wasn’t like being a furry, the subculture of people who dress up like animals to have sex. He didn’t need to “dress up” like a bat, because he actually was one. And most importantly of all, if we were to have sex, I needed to have sex with him as he truly is.

“What…what does that mean, exactly?”

“You will be having sex with a bat, not a human.”

This finally got a little too weird for me. “I don’t know how to have sex with a bat,” I said. I had that weird dizzy feeling in my head, the way you feel when you realize you’ve been talking to a conspiracy theorist, or a Seventh Day Adventist, or any other “true believer.” I don’t know exactly what that feeling is, but it’s like an internal alarm, or a mind shut-down, something telling you to get the fuck out of there.

“I can show you how to fuck a bat,” he said.

This was finally too much. “No, I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”

I got angry texts from the guy over the next few days about how he thought I wasn’t a bigoted speciest but now saw I was and how could I possibly even justify such prejudice?

I finally blocked his number, and mostly blocked it out of my memory (this was about 8 years ago) until a few weeks ago, when I initiated a social media discussion about “neo-pronouns.” What followed was (250+ comment thread) mass discussion about the matter, with a shocking amount of people taking the matter of using someone’s correct weather- or mythic-based pronouns seriously. “Cloudselves” and “faeselves” face significant oppression, it turns out, including one person reporting that “fascists” are currently targeting them online with their triggers (apparently listing your deepest triggers in a Twitter bio is a “thing”) in order to cause them psychological harm.

To be fair, I once played a lot of Dungeons&Dragons, and even spent a few fond years LARPing Whitewolf games on weekends. So this sort of mythic constellation isn’t foreign, but at some point you always had to return to “out-of-game” life, where you are no longer a changeling or lycanthrope or half-elf, “only” a human. But when I played all this, there wasn’t really much of an internet. Tumblr didn’t exist yet, Facebook was still just for university students, so if you were really dedicated to keeping the fantasies going outside the boundaries of your gaming group, your options were quite limited.

Oftentimes, some of my friends would joke about “the mundanes” (this was pre-Harry Potter, we didn’t yet know about “muggles”) and how they didn’t understand us or the world. But also I remember feeling a bit awkward, even offended, when one of them would try to suddenly have “in-game” conversations while we were at a bar or restaurant. It seemed wrong to let those things spill out into the rest of our lives. For me, what we did for fun didn’t define who we were, and letting it do so would drain its joy.

Maybe my own reticence about this was that there were things I believed and experienced that these fantasies referenced in ways that felt also a bit draining of meaning. By that point of my life I had begun to suspect there were probably gods and spirits or at least something outside of secular post-monotheist capitalism, so it always felt a little weird to role play talking to gods or doing magic or being mythical creatures. It felt like it was all a creative way to obscure some deeper desire for meaning, playing “make-believe” in order to kill off the desire to actually believe.

So eventually I abandoned all that. Not because I “grew up,” but rather because my actual life felt more enchanted and more meaningful. The trees in my actual world felt really alive, so I no longer needed to roll dice in order to have a talk with a treant. The animals outside my house had been actually speaking all along, so dressing up to talk to people pretending to be shapeshifters felt rather profane.

The world itself is much more magical than any of our fantasies about it tend to be, but that’s because those fantasies aren’t about the world at all. They are about us. We imagine ourselves as powerful mythic beings and so therefore fill out the scenery in order to make it more believable, yet ultimately it’s because we cannot believe we are powerful or mythic that we engage in these shadow plays.

Not only do we conjure a world as backdrop to sustain these fantasies, we must also create a mythic, powerful enemy against which we struggle. The evil lichlord, the spreading darkness, the mundane forces that wish to imprison us, steal our essence, or control reality itself. That, more than anywhere else, is where the in-game and out-of-game worlds lose their boundaries. Faceless, amorphous, undefinable yet all-powerful forces threaten our everyday lives; though we are the heroes in the timeless, epic struggle against them we are always losing.

We didn’t get that job or cannot pay our rent or our relationship ended because of the omnipotent gaze and high damage-reduction of the chimeric monster Oppression, and as well as all its summoned minions. Of course, in our everyday fantasies, those minions are everyone not in our party, the global majority of “non-player” characters with evil alignments who enact, uphold, and reproduce the will of Oppression in every social interaction. They can cast “micro-agression” at will and have the inherent feat “privilege” at character creation, which grants them an automatic advantage in all interactions. They can be of any class, but can easily be detected without recourse to magical means, only surface observation.

We are always the heroes, of course, which also means always the victims. We cannot ever truly win, but it’s not clear to me we ever really want to. We need the game to go on, because if it ever ends we might have to confront the terrifying existence of the world outside our minds.

That world cares nothing for what we think of it, nor for our human fantasies. The trees and birds exist for-themselves and of-themselves, communicating in languages completely foreign to our constellations of meaning. There are actual bats, it turns out, and actual clouds, and they aren’t human and don’t care what we call them.

Most terrifying of all, if they have an enemy it is us, the ridiculous destructive things we do to forests, to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to the soil, to all those places outside our social fantasies of progress, growth without limits, and life without suffering or pain.

The Real is terrifying, and ultimately never fully knowable. The one thing I’ve found common in both the wisest religious people and the wisest materialists in my life is an awe-inspiring humility about the world outside the human, that our wildest fantasies about how the world works are nothing compared to the deep mystery and wonder beyond our finite minds, and that suffering and pain cannot be eradicated, only sometimes lessened and learned from.

This ultimately transcends our false divisions of “left” and “right,” of class and race, gender and sexuality, all our fantasies about who we and others really are. These are mere orientations on increasingly inaccurate maps copied from older maps by cartographers who’d never seen the places their drawings depicted. “Here be monsters,” our maps read, held upside down and read in a mirror, while outside the closed windows of our minds breathes and sings an entire world we are afraid to ever visit.

I no longer suspect any politics can accommodate such a truth, let alone tolerate it. It’s all too monstrous, which is to say too inhuman, but this is because politics can only include the human. The word itself is from polis, the city, the reach of urban power. Outside of the polis’s reach was the zoe, the animal or “bare life,” a life ultimately barbarian and pagan, unconcerned with and ungovernable by the political.

“Everything is political” we cry now, and we act as if that’s something positive. Others who have not politicized their everyday lives, whose heads are not full of the suffocating neurosis of “woke” politicization are “showing their privilege” when they go about their lives without obsessing over questions of whom their daily activities might be harming.

How could they not be out in the streets every day? How can they just sit with their families at dinner talking about how their day went instead of the latest political oppression? How could they not know the stats and figures of the carceral state, or trans suicides, or unreported rapes? How could they possibly just live their lives without thinking about the oppressive gender binary, or unequal power relations, or decolonizing their relationships, or fighting cis-hetero-patriarchal-monogamy?

They must be privileged, which is to say they are the mundanes. They’re not playing the game, they don’t see the invisible world against which the true heroes constantly struggle.

And of course, they must probably benefit somehow. They were given one set of genitals rather than another and that didn’t even feel oppressive to them. They have less melanin in their skin and don’t recognize how this makes them inherently oppressive to others. Their minds can focus on one thing for more than a few minutes yet never admit the world favors them over others for such attention. They weren’t born as bats or fae or clouds in human bodies, but rather as humans in human bodies: they must have made some contract with the devil for this arrangement.

If it seems like I’m making light of all this, that I’m laughing at all this absurdity, you should know I am. But I am most of all laughing at myself, because I played this game too. Blaming unseen forces, -ism after -ism, for all that went poorly in my life, for all the happiness I never seemed to find. I, like so many others, wrote myself into an epic fantasy war, but also wrote myself out of my own life and my own agency.

I’m willing to bet I grew up poorer than almost anyone who will ever read this, and possibly attempted suicide as a teenager more often than most of my audience. I never talk about this out of fear of backlash, but for years of my life I thought I was born in the wrong body. I hated my maleness, wanted desperately to have been born a woman, thought seriously and always secretly of transitioning up until my mid-20’s. And I, like many, self-diagnosed as autistic and ADHD and whatever other explanation I could find on the internet to justify why my life just seemed to be shittier than everyone else’s, why my struggles were somehow different from those around me, and most of all why happiness was always an elusive, unreachable dream.

This all became my identity, my character class, my epic fated destiny that made me special and unique and heroic in a world of unseen monsters—all because I could not bear the intolerable indifference of the Real.

It’s ironic perhaps, but what broke this neurotic (and let’s be honest, narcissistic) mythic fantasy were encounters with the actual mythic, by which I also mean the Real. Walks in forests, days camping by oceans and glacial rivers, watching elk and ravens and millennia-old trees just exist for-themselves in quiet, unquestioned relation to others who are also existing just for-themselves. Mountains higher than the tallest imagining of humans can easily crush all our fantasies, seas vaster than all the wars humans have ever fought can deftly drown out our delusions of self-importance.

Ancients call those things gods, saw spirits in everything outside themselves, and did not pretend power over these monstrous, terrifying forces. The Real could not be restrained or confined, only appeased, worked along side with, understood but never comprehended. The pagan, animist mind did not need to cast humans in epic dramas against unseen monsters, because they watched with their own eyes a swollen river sweep away their village, a pack of animals drag children from mothers and rip them limb from limb. Storms flattened fields before the harvest, mountains choked out their lives with fiery stone and black ash, lightning set forests aflame. 1

When we understand the Real as epic, mythic, engodded, enspirited, then what matters more to us is whether we are in good relation to the world. We are obviously not: the ice caps melt, the seas swell and fill with poison, the wells run dry, people starve from famines, villages flood, forests incinerate, and new plagues have swept through all the cities of men. Our leaders fail us, even and especially as they affirm our pronouns2 and stand up for our gender expressions, promise an end to structural racism and reform of the carceral system, and all the time validate our beliefs in ourselves as the true center of the world.

Again, I do not think any politics, left or right, can accommodate the full terror and wonder of the epic Real. The left, with which I still 3 identify, seems now fully committed to validating every neurotic belief humans come up with, rather than pointing out we’re consuming our way towards extinction. Worse still, many of the very neuroses we coddle are the means by which such consumption is justified, 4 binding the left from ever proposing a de-growth, de-centralising political platform lest people get offended.

But that’s the thing, yeah? Politics will always be the logic of the polis, the city, the urbanized enclaves we humans huddle within to protect ourselves from the terror and wonder of the Real. Outside everything is monstrous, whereas inside our monsters are imaginary, and so are all our epic struggles against them.

Notable links in this essay:

New and Upcoming Writing

1. This all still happens, of course, but in our cities we watch the Real from the safety of screens, shake our heads, then thumbscroll down to another meme about a new oppression or disorder from which he had not yet realised we suffered.

2. It’s not for nothing that the Vice President of the United States discloses her pronouns on her social media profile. And even the CIA now affirms social justice identity struggle in their recruitment videos. Empire is truly intersectional.

3 For some fucking reason. I don’t know why.

4 I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard, “telling people to consume less is fat-shaming,” “ending industrial capitalism will harm disabled/trans/POC people,” and my favorite, “without the internet, many of us will die.”

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